Behind These Doors: humanising the people behind the headlines

Behind These Doors: humanising the people behind the headlines

I became a prison officer at 22. As a young woman starting my first proper job, I found those first few months tough. Intense, intimidating, even misogynistic at times. But I also found courage and hope. My nerves turned into confidence, and those months turned into years.

"Prison officers are not turnkeys, they are not mere uniforms. They are men and women with the kind of emotional intelligence that can talk you out of almost any situation."
ALEX SOUTH (CF 2017) Download 'Alex South jpg'

Over the decade that followed, I learned a lot about prison life and the expectations we place on the people inside. The challenges I encountered were often not the prisoners themselves, but the conditions we placed them in. Rats, crumbling brickwork, smashed windows. A place of ‘Dickensian squalor’, as the Prison Reform Trust described the jail I worked at in 2016.

Things were different at my first prison, a high security establishment housing some of the most violent men in the country. These were the same men who glared at you through mugshots in the papers. But here they sat hunched over desks studying for Open University degrees, buffing the walls in carpentry workshops, or learning the piano in the music room. My experiences there taught me a lot about how prison should be. How we should provide people with the opportunity to make something of themselves, and the infrastructure to do so. And it showed me what it feels like to find meaning and purpose in the work that you do.

My promotion to a Senior Officer role at HMP Wormwood Scrubs coincided with budget cuts and a wholly counterproductive benchmarking scheme. As the cuts took hold of the system, staffing was reduced to the point that prisoners were allowed out of their cells for only one hour a day. A 2015 inspection by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons found that only 13% of prisoners at Scrubs left their cells to attend an activity. How I wish all the statistics in that report had been so low. Half of the prisoners surveyed said that they felt unsafe. The number of assaults on prisoners and staff was double that at similar prisons.

The impact was predictable. The prisoners fought. They fought each other, with fists and homemade weapons, pool balls and sharpened chicken bones and real flick knives delivered by drones. And they fought with themselves. Self-harm and suicide soared. Inevitably, the staff running to those incidents suffered too.

My 2017 Fellowship looked at the impact of prison on the officers. I wanted to know more about how officers make sense of the work we do, how we experience this unique environment, and ultimately how to survive it. I had seen my colleagues struggling to come into work. I had heard their harrowing stories of sitting frozen in their cars, and I was starting to experience my own. Prison officers are not turnkeys, they are not mere uniforms. They are men and women with the kind of emotional intelligence that can talk you out of almost any situation. Most are brave and empathetic and extraordinary people, and I met them in every prison I worked at.

My Churchill Fellowship allowed me to experience this kind of expertise internationally as well. I travelled to Canada, Australia and the USA meeting with correctional staff and experts in workplace trauma. I saw firsthand the resources in place to support staff. Because unsupported staff lead to unsupported prisoners. And unsupported prisoners lead to the very challenges we see on our streets. I returned home convinced of the urgent need for change. Not just because of the practical benefits in reducing sickness rates and poor retention, but as the former police chief of Calgary said to me, ‘because it is the right thing to do’.

That was in 2017. It was the right thing to do then, and it most certainly is now. A recent cross-party parliamentary report found that half of the prison officers in England and Wales do not feel safe in the prisons they work in. Another report has found that the number of prison officers in England and Wales who took sick days for mental health reasons has nearly doubled over five years.

Report after report after report. Statistics, percentages, jagged lines on graphs that keep rising. And all of them, representing real people. Real lives impacted by the trauma etched into the brickwork of our prisons, the very places we hope to inspire change, positivity, opportunity. We’ve heard so many of these statistics that I wonder if they have begun to lose their meaning. In the opening pages of my Fellowship report, I wrote that I had approached the project in a qualitative way. In part, this was because I wanted to reflect these elements of a prison officer’s role. The significance of human interaction, social connection and lived experience.

In my book, Behind These Doors, I hope to humanise the people behind the headlines. The ones in the mugshots and the ones holding the keys. I have seen that people are capable of real change, and that you can find hope in the darkest of places. But I have also learned that we must do more. That the way things are is not good enough.

What is it that we want from people? When we lock them up for 23 hours a day, what is it that we expect when the doors finally swing open?

In a 1910 speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill talked about "a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate…an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure in the heart of every person."

He described these as "the symbols which measure the strength of a nation, and are proof of the living virtue in it."

Well, we have our proof. Reports and statistics have given us that in stark clarity.

What we do next is our virtue.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


Newsletter Sign Up