One of the most enduring tropes of TV crime shows is that police officers who end up in prison have an absolutely terrible time. Take BBC2's Line of Duty, in which corrupt copper Lindsay Denton finds herself behind bars, where she’s tricked into eating human excrement and beaten up by inmates in the gym. At one point, a pair of prison officers pretend to make her a cup of tea, and then pour scalding hot water over her hands.
But this is a crime drama. The reality surely can’t be that bad?
“Prison is a lot less violent than people generally think it is,” says Carl Cattermole, author of Prison: A Survival Guide, a practical guidebook based on his own time behind bars. “But that’s probably not the case if you’re a police officer,” he admits. “There’s kind of a criminal ethic today that is basically, ‘Anything goes, except paedophiles get killed, and cops get maimed.’ That’s the really basic and quite boring moral code of criminals.”
It’s reasonable, then, to expect that a former police officer would not receive a glowing welcome on a typical prison wing. But what the more fanciful depictions of prison violence get wrong is that it’s unlikely that ex-police would be put on a normal wing in the first place. There’s a better chance they’d be placed on a separate wing, according to Neil “Sam” Samworth, a former guard and author of Strangeways: A Prisoner Officer’s Story, a memoir about his time working in one of England’s most notorious prisons.
“At the reception interview, prisoners are asked about the offence they committed and what their occupation was,” Sam explains. “So unless someone lies, it will be flagged up that someone is an ex-police officer straight away. Normally, they would be put on protection, which means they wouldn't go to a normal wing.”
“If I was a police officer,” says Carl, “I’d be trying to get out of harm’s way, and the best way to do that is to get put in with the sex offenders. People generally request to do that.”
Being house among sex offenders wouldn’t be many people’s first choice, but does come with the benefit of not getting your head kicked in. “You don't tend to get as many assaults,” says Sam.
If police officers didn’t want to be put in with sex offenders, there is another option: the healthcare wing, which is essentially a hospital within the prison. “One copper we had at Strangeways was offered a job as a cleaner on the healthcare wing,” says Sam. “That’s an orderly job where you're out during the day, cleaning the showers and doing laundry, things like that.” This policeman remained on the healthcare wing for the full three years he served, despite being in robust health. “It’s quite a safe environment,” says Sam. “There aren’t many prisoners, it’s very small, and a lot of people there are ill.”
However, according to Sam, some former police officers turn down the offer of protection and choose to take their chances on a normal wing instead.
Ex-police might be moved to a prison in a different region, where there’s less chance of them being spotted by someone who knows them – or, worse, someone they’ve arrested. Sometimes, they’re placed in such a large wing, and do a good enough job of keeping their heads down, that no one ever finds out who they are. “Today, the first thing to tell any prisoner is, ‘Don't talk about offences with other inmates,’” says Sam. “You don't go into a cell with somebody and say, ‘What are you in for?’ You could be opening up a whole can of worms.”
That said, there are presumably other ways that people could find out. “There’s loads of ways it can come out,” says Carl. “People will google other inmates. People have phones everywhere in jail, so you have to have stories that check out. You can keep yourself to yourself and no one’s ever gonna check who you are, but, if you have a made-up story then you’re always a risk.”
You might have to specifically piss someone off before they’d take the trouble to google you, but there are other ways your identity can slip out. “Some people just don't have a story that's convincing,” says Sam. “We’ve also had people caught out from photos in newspapers.”
What about the idea, propagated by so many prison dramas, that people would tamper with your food? As with all these nightmarish tropes, in real prisons measures have been taken to prevent this kind of thing from happening – precisely because at one point they did.
“At Strangeways, the kitchens are located quite a long way from the wings,” says Sam. “So when the food trolleys come over, the prisoners who work in the kitchens don’t actually know where they’re going. Prior to this, if they knew a food trolley was going to the Vulnerable Persons wing, then they might well interfere with that food.”
Despite the damage that some inmates might like to inflict on police officers, Carl stresses that prisons generally aren’t as violent as people think. “Jail isn’t a tenth as violent as it’s made out to be,” he says. “People think it’s all brutality, murder, heroin, Fred West. But people in there are there for non-violent crime. I met people in for really stupid shit, like stealing a packet of bacon to feed their kids, or not paying a fine.”
So: former police in prison clearly aren’t going to have a fantastic time, but they’re also unlikely to experience the kind of horrendous violence imagined in films and TV.