Prison Officers from the 1970s Through to Now Discuss Their Time Inside

What the decline of Britain's prisons looks like from behind the gates.

by Sophie Brown
10 May 2017, 8:00am

A prisoner in a cell at HMP Chelmsford (Photo: Andrew Parsons/PA Archive/PA Images)

Prisons in the UK have reached crisis point. The inmate population has risen by 93 percent since 1993, and last year we saw the worst prison riot in over 25 years unfold over a 12-hour period at HMP Birmingham. If that wasn't enough, suicide rates have reached an all-time high – with 113 self-inflicted deaths in the year up to March of 2017 – and the formerly legal high Spice is wreaking havoc in prisons up and down the country.

How did we get here? And what have the changes looked like from the inside? I spoke to prison officers who've worked through various decades since the 1970s about how UK prisons have changed over the past 50 years.

1970s – Chris, 70

Proper discipline – that's what they need in prisons nowadays. When I started working in the prison service in 1972, the death penalty had only been abolished a few years before, so it was a time when inmates were genuinely afraid of the system, and I don't think that was a bad thing.

We had a lot more power than these young kids do now, but then again we didn't have to sit at computers faffing around with all these reports and that malarky – we were just expected to go in and keep the inmates under control. We had to make sure they were all fed and watered, exercised, clean and tidy, and if there were any problems we just dealt with them – without having to fill in 100 forms to say why we did it.

Of course it was hard at times, but nothing like what it's like now, with legal highs and Spice and all that bloody hallucinogenic stuff. You had your drug addicts, but it was mainly heroin. They'd take in their cells at night to help them get out of their heads a bit, so they were no bother.

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1980s – John, 57

I joined the prison service before Fresh Start was implemented, in 1987. It was a new initiative set up by the government to get more people into the prison service. It meant that prison officers went from earning £9,000 a year to around £15,000. But prison officers were already earning £22,000 on overtime because there wasn't enough staff, so there was a lot of money to be earned.

Then the government said, "Hang on a minute, let's pull the purse strings a bit here," and they recruited more people but refused to pay any more overtime. A lot of officers, especially those earning the big bucks, got their backs up because they were no longer eligible. More staff, no overtime. It caused a lot of animosity, but it made prisons a good place to work because you had the numbers to look out for people. There were about 11 officers for every block of 70 prisoners.

I worked in Glen Parva, a young offenders prison. When I saw a lad that was down in the dumps because he'd had a bad visit or he'd got a "Dear John" letter, I'd be able to have the time to sit with them and reassure them. But now there's just not the staff – the number of prison officers in each jail was slashed – and the management are young, frisky little monkeys who micromanage everything; as long as their boxes are ticked they don't care about anything else.

How do you say to a lad, "Don't worry, I'll see you in three days time"? The human element was removed from the job, and that is not what I signed up for.

1990s – Ant, 52

I started working in Gartree in the late-80s, when it was a Cat A prison. I got there just in time for the helicopter escape.

It was a few years after that that private prisons started to come in. When the first new prison was built, the prison service lost the bidding and a private company got it. Because it was a brand new prison it was all electronic and you only had two officers to 150 prisoners.

Then, when the private sector did it, the government followed suit. There was no way the prison service could compete. We had auditors coming into prisons to benchmark and say, "You don't need this task any more, so this officer can go."

We had to downscale. We kept the same number of prisoners, but the prison officers just weren't needed any more, because the prison service claimed it could be a done a lot cheaper.

The problem was that a lot of the units – psychiatry, probation, drugs awareness and the like – were slashed. The good work that was carried out previously was in decline. You only had a handful of prisoners who actually got what they needed to change their lives.

"It's the best and the worst job in the world – it's hard always wishing you could do more."

2000s – Sara, 35

I work in a sex offenders prison, where serious self-harm is particularly prevalent, and the lack of support available to prisoners is astonishing. There are mental health nurses on site who they can have appointments with if they need to talk, but there can be a three month wait for a first appointment, and even then they only have half hour sessions once a week, which isn't going to do much to improve the life of a suicidal manic depressive.

I joined the prison service to change the lives of people society has discarded, but we're so short-staffed with ever-increasing workloads, and the time I have to talk to prisoners who need me most is dwindling year on year.

I love working in the prison service, but I'm not paid enough to have urine thrown at me, or be exposed to hepatitis-infected blood, or be punched in the face. These issues are just exasperated by the discontentment of inmates.

Now – Lauren, 26

Spice is one of the biggest problems we have to deal with. It's the worst because you can't smell it, so it's really hard to detect. If you're patrolling a wing and smell cannabis, you can pretty much sniff it out and find the cell, whereas Spice is completely odourless and it looks just like tobacco, which prisoners are allowed.

I've seen inmates on Spice naked on all-fours, going round in circles in their cell and barking like a dog, then the next day they'll have no recollection of it. I've seen inmates try to run through a metal cell door.

It's the best and the worst job in the world. You're often dealing with people with severe mental health problems who should be in a hospital, but they're in your wing. You don't have the time to help inmates doing simple things like reading or writing, or filling in a form, or getting ready for court. It's hard always wishing you could do more.


More on VICE:

We Asked Prisoners About Sex in Prison

The Story of Spice, the Street Drug That's Not Going Away

What It's Like to Be On the Run from the Police