Words: Tom Usher
They are heartless bastards whose sole intention is to hurt you as much as possible. No, I’m not talking about the current Conservative government, I’m talking about prison officers. Just look at Percy Wetmore from The Green Mile, Byron Hadley from Shawshank Redemption or Brad Bellick from Prison Break. Yep, this profession hasn’t acquired a great rep in popular culture.
In reality though, these men and women aren’t sadistic two-dimensional antagonists, just normal people doing a job that could very well rank as one of the most stressful of them all. Exemplified by a spate of riots in UK prisons in recent months, violence is on the rise, staff numbers are falling rapidly, and overcrowding is widespread.
To give us an insight into this angst on a day-to-day basis, I spoke to a former prison officer – who must remain anonymous due to the official secrets act – to see what prison life is really like for those trying to keep law and order inside.
So how did you get into being a prison officer?
“I had always had a view of going into a career in either rehabilitation or working at a secure hospital for the criminally insane. I had worked the doors of pubs and clubs while at uni, so when a job came up at a local prison I jumped at the chance. The traditional image of the role appealed to me greatly and I saw it as the perfect starting block from which to forge a career working with offenders.”
What skills do you need?
“It’s pretty much sink or swim. They cannot prepare you in a classroom for the situations you will encounter on the job. You either have the stuff or you don't. And those who don't get quickly found out on the wings, so the majority of the training was covering the legalities of our role and responsibilities, all small print really, the kind of stuff that looks great on paper but all goes out the window once you’re on the job.
“The physical part of training, however, was indispensable. I have to say, even if I learnt nothing else, the hands-on training was crucial. Control & Restraint training used in British prisons is a sequence of techniques which have been developed over the years to be perfectly fit for purpose whilst remaining absolutely within the law.
“Don't get me wrong, if you can handle yourself to begin with, that's a big help. You never know what's going to happen in there and sometimes you've just got to fight tooth and nail. But in the main, we work together, stick to the textbook, and use the tried and tested methods in well-rehearsed synchronisation with each other to deal effectively with violent individuals. It works.”
What was your first day like?
“All I can compare it to is the same feeling before a fight starts. If you've ever had an argument in a pub, for instance, and you know you've got a punch-up on your hands now, your mind starts trying to tell you it's a bad idea, but turning round and running out the door never seems to cross your mind as an option. Self-preservation seems to step aside for your pride and you just accept the inevitable and get on with it.
“It's a strange phenomenon, but the exact same feeling as going into my first day on the wings. It is a feeling of immense vulnerability and realisation that you are entering a world you simply do not want to be in, yet there was no inch of doubt in my mind, no wavering or hesitation. All the apprehension gets pushed aside and hidden far from sight. I was aware I couldn't show weakness. And for me, the show must always go on. So in I went, head first, and not looking back.”
What was the worst thing you ever saw on the job?
“I’ve witnessed some really brutal assaults but was never particularly shocked, horrible as it was. But, as desensitised as you may be, the suicide attempts always give you a bit of a chill. I dealt with lots of self-harm, attending bloodbaths where a fella had slit his wrists and bled out in the cell but always managed to get there in time to give necessary first aid. But looking back, it was all attention seeking really, just an outward expression of mental pain and a cry for help.
“They would rarely cut deep enough or in the right place to do fatal damage and we'd often find that they'd thinned the blood out with water and spread it about to appear worse than it was. You had the guys with mental health issues who, for whatever reason, would self-mutilate. We had a lad who buried items into his own abdomen and every time he returned from hospital, would open the stitches up and force objects in there again. After a while, none of it surprises you any more.
The place is just a hate factory, a big boiling pot of anger.
“During my time we did have two inmates who managed to hang themselves and finish the job. It leaves a very eerie atmosphere hanging over the place, even when you haven't witnessed it. I did have a close call once though. A guy had somehow wound bed sheets round his neck so tightly he'd passed out.
“I hit the alarm and dragged him out of bed. His head had turned a horrible greyish purple colour. It took me a while just to wrench off the ligature. To this day I am still baffled as to how he managed to get it so tight. He was completely unresponsive, honestly I thought he was dead, and just as I was about to start CPR his chest started moving and his breathing started again.”
Did dealing with those incidents ever affect you outside of work?
“Yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, the job did get to me. The place is just a hate factory, a big boiling pot of anger. And it rubs off on you. Sometimes you go home stewing over it and drive into work the next day, still itching with rage.
“Needless to say, you have to be very careful how you behave in between. Alcohol was a problem. When you're surrounded by violence all day, you can guarantee it will rear its ugly head again as soon as you let it off the leash. So heavy drinking was always a risky business.”
So what was the relationship like between you and the inmates?
“Everybody's different. You have blokes in there who are nice as pie. Then there are some real nasty characters too. But it's very hard for anyone to remain hostile 24 hours a day. Even the worst individuals have to let their guard down sometimes. But my own rule was to never make enemies and never make friends. But above all, trust no one.
“So long as you stood firm on your word, I always felt it important not to be antagonistic. I found there were officers who bred contempt among inmates by being overly authoritarian when it wasn't necessary. Effectively they burnt their own bridges and made it even harder for themselves.
“It's all about respect in there and using good reasoning with people to help them see from your angle. Once you can honestly say you've tried asking nicely and they still wouldn't listen, that's when we're justified in using force to make an inmate comply with a lawful order. But sometimes, a quiet word is all it takes.”
What have you taken away personally from the job. Has it made you look at society differently, or maybe the prison system differently?
“My enthusiasm for rehabilitation faded more and more every day. I had high hopes when I first started. I thought I could really make a change. But it truly is a thankless job. It is without a doubt, one of the hardest professions in the world. And yet nobody is grateful for prison officers in the same way as the military or emergency services.
“’Screws’, as we're called, aren't generally liked by anyone. Prison is the last stop on the line. It's where the dregs of society are swept away to fester among their own kind. ‘Lock 'em up and throw away the key’ as they say. But unfortunately somebody has to supervise the party. We're locked in with them. Yes, it makes you cynical. But then, if most of the social commentators had seen what I've seen, lived it every day, I think they'd lose their enthusiasm too. I can't see any solution.”
When was the most scared you've ever felt on the job?
“It’s when you lose control of the situation that it gets scary. Now that was bad enough when you're dealing with one or two individuals, but when you've got the whole wing going off, it's a different story. Usually you'll get a quiet word in your ear from one of the inmmates, but before it happens you can usually sense it. You can almost taste the tension in the air. And when it goes, you know about it.
“The general advice among prison staff is that if you know they're going to take the wing then leave and lock the door behind you. 30 to one aren't good odds! But I remember one particular occasion, the officers took a chance, raised the alarm and stayed put, and when we ran on the wing it had erupted. Everything that wasn't fixed down was being launched off the top landing.
“At that moment, your worst fears to rush through your mind, but it's all or nothing. So you just start wading through, dropping everyone who stands in your way. We were fortunate that day. Once you've lost control that's the most frightening situation for an officer, locked in and outnumbered. And it's a very messy business trying to take it back.”
So is prison really as violent and dangerous as it looks on telly?
“Sexual assault seems to be an American jail phenomenon. That's not to say it doesn't happen here, but it is by no means commonplace. Violence, on the other hand, is rife. Aside from the obvious nature of the environment and the individuals within it, gangs are a huge problem. And we're not talking prison gangs, or race wars so much as street gangs.
“As I understand, this is a problem associated particularly with London jails. Effectively a vast proportion of the city's prison population nowadays are affiliated with street gangs. And there are hundreds recognised by the authorities. It is essentially a postcode war which applies in prison as much as it does on the streets.
“To avoid clashes, each inmate is questioned on their gang affiliations when entering the prison, and are housed accordingly. But during periods of movement off-wing, the opportunity for reprisals is always present. On a daily basis rival gang members would cross paths somewhere on the prison estate despite vigorous precautions. You were pretty much guaranteed to see fireworks. And the methods used really are as brutal as you see in the movies. Prisoners are surprisingly resourceful when creating their tools of the trade.”
How hard would it be to break out of a prison these days?
“There's always a way. But it really comes down to how badly they want to escape, because evading capture these days is almost impossible and usually the consequences of being caught far outweigh the challenge of breaking out.
“Helicopters and tunnels are the most expensive and most difficult to pull off, but also the most effective as famous examples have shown. The special forces have been tasked with testing prison defences in the past, and opted for the cherry-picker over the wall method. But all these options rely on an extremely effective crew on the outside to orchestrate the entire breakout whether over or under.
“The only way for a prisoner to escape by their own means is straight through the front gates. Hospital escorts are a key flashpoint which several have taken advantage of. But the most concerning is the visits hall switch – they can be packed with people. A noisy environment, very distracting for prison staff. Add to that the fact that many prisoners are now allowed to wear their own civilian clothes; the only distinguishing feature is a fluorescent sash placed over their shoulder. It has been known for prisoners to switch this sash with their visitor and join the queue to leave at the end of the visit. And, so I understand, some have even made it out this way.”
What are the drugs like in prison? Are inmates really getting high inside?
“'Spice' (synthetic cannabis substitute) is a frightening thing. It brings out in many what can only be compared to "roid rage". I have no idea what goes into the stuff, or the effects it is advertised as having. But what comes out is pure carnage. As if the violence wasn't bad enough already, throw 'Spice' into the mix and you've got a dangerous situation.
“We saw numerous lads get high on the stuff and go on a violent rampage, only to wake up hours later in the segregation unit having no recollection of what had happened. In fact, one individual was ghosted to us from another jail overnight where he had instigated a full-scale riot on his wing. When we woke him in the morning he had no idea where he was, how he'd got there or what he'd done, all down to 'Spice’.”
Finally, what advice would you give to people who might want to be prison officers?
“Think very carefully before applying. It is undoubtedly one of the most demanding jobs imaginable, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. But if you've got the stuff, then it is unlike anything else you will experience. The strength of character forged by the job will stand you in good stead for all of life's challenges.
“Unfortunately however, the salary is shameful [a typical HM Prison Service Prison Officer salary is £27,197, while starters can expect to earn 19,376]. How they can justify paying prison officers what they do is beyond me. I would've liked to have progressed to governor grade one day, but that means a very long time on a very low wage. My first job after leaving the prison was as a humble security guard. I had swapped wrestling with hardened criminals on the landings, to meeting and greeting office workers at a reception desk. My yearly salary went up by a third. You do the maths.”