My Life in the Forgotten Service – A career in Her Majesty’s Prison Service

I retired from the Her Majesty’s Prison Service on Thursday 17th April 2014 having served thirty-three years.

My career started on Wednesday 21st October 1981.  I was fresh out of school. It was my first proper full-time job. I was seventeen years old. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Ronald Reagan was President of the USA. It was the same year that the first London Marathon took place with 75000 runners.

HMP Holme House, HMYOI Aylesbury, HMP Garth, HMP Bedford

During my career I have served at HMP Bedford, HMP Garth, HMP Holme House, and HMYOI Aylesbury. It has been a long and illustrious career during which I have worked in different establishments in different roles, in both administration and as an officer, and witness many changes in the service.

Prison Officer Graduation, 1995

I have witnessed a massive increase in prison population, a major prison building program, major changes to staff organisation, the introduction of information technology, many new work processes and systems, the introduction of private prisons, and I have been involved in and witnessed many incidents. During these years’ violence, disruption, drug use, and self-harm have been on an increase. Regretfully, in my opinion, discipline and control have not kept pace with the alarming rise of violence. This reflects society outside the walls.

There have been good times, happy times, sad times, and some truly dreadful times. There are times that I have very fond memories, and times that I wish I could forget. There are many events that are fixed in my memories. There have been reprimands by senior managers, a Deputy Governor, Principle Officers, and Senior Officers. There have been commendations on several occasions. There have been thanks from prisoners for my time and help. There have been immeasurable number of occasions when colleagues support, assist, and help each other in various incidents and events. I have had the unfortunate event of discovering a death in custody and being the first person on the scene. There are numerous occasions when I have sat with a prisoner providing help, advice, and just to listen.

My experiences in a public service may be boring to some, but I hope to others they are interesting, and perhaps give some hope. What I can say is that I have an immense pride with my career and the colleagues who I have shared my time in custody with.

Time to have a moan (get it of my chest) –

I am very aware that the prison service as it is today is not the same as it was during the majority of time in my career. It has been decimated by political ideology and with the priority to save money. It is no longer a “public service” that people once had pride with. It is a business driven by the objective of saving money at the top of the agenda. Cut costs is the message from the very top. This has been going on for many years. As soon as you create a business and drive for continual savings on the budget you lose sight of the real reason why the organisation exists. The priorities change. Everything is driven by budgets and the delivery of rehabilitation, care in custody, and even security become secondary. Money becomes the first and main consideration.

This has blinkered the view of many managers. I was a victim of this attitude a decade ago when I was managing a young prisoner who was suicidal and actively self-harming and who required constant supervision. When requesting permission to place the prisoner on constant supervision from the duty governor (this is prison service protocol) the duty governor asked, “How much is this going to cost and who’s going to pay for it?” This took me by surprise, and I admit I was somewhat dumb founded and angry that a governor would be asking such a question. It was then that I realised that the priority for some is money – not providing the service and to deliver the care that we are employed to provide. I appreciate that the public services do not have an unlimited budget, but to be asked “How much?” when you are putting in place procedures to preserve life comes as a kick in the teeth. I felt let down and unsupported. It was disappointing, and to some extent upsetting, that a governor should ask such a question in a time of high stress and anxiety.

When you are working with a young man and putting procedures in place to help and protect him (from himself), who is clearly distressed, violent, threatening, is actively cutting himself and threatening to take his own life (and I add he had a long history of attempted suicide and self-harm), the last thing on any persons mind should be “how much is this going to cost and who’s going to pay for it?”

This I have struggled with for so long. Many managers have forgotten what the prison service is for. From the very top many managers strive to meet their targets and score points, which in turn leads to a bonus for some. Thus, their objectives are different to what the prison service is here for. The statement of purpose is clear – Her Majesty’s Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release. I firmly believe that some in the echelons of prison service management, both on a local and national level, have forgotten this, and this is clearly having a big impact on the service.

That is it – moan over.

My blog is not going to be a critique of the prison service nor is it going to be an opportunity for me to rant and rave how bad things have become within those walls. The paragraphs above will be my one and only censure and condemnation of the service.

This blog will be about my career, the roles and tasks I undertook, some of the obstacles I have had to deal with, some of the events and incidents that I have been involved in, and the adventure which lasted for thirty-three years. An adventure in which I have immense pride.

In the Beginning –

HMP Bedford. Where it all started.

This all started back in 1981 when I was seventeen, at school, and with my application for a job as a clerical assistant in the DHSS (Department of Health and Social Security) in Bedford.

To be continued….

8 thoughts on “My Life in the Forgotten Service – A career in Her Majesty’s Prison Service

    1. Thanks. Without the camaraderie and support from the staff on the front line the service would have failed decades ago. It is the ability of colleagues to “muck in” together, no matter what the circumstances that makes the prison service function. It is this that I have such great pride with. I owe a lot to the few.

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  1. Enjoyed reading this Steve with a mixture of admiration and sadness. Public service personnel like you – and me – used to be highly respected by society. Certainly, in my case as a teacher I felt hugely proud. But education, like prisons, health, social work, probation etc, have been devalued by the bean counters.

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    1. Thank you. I find it incredibly sad and disgraceful that the public services have become institutions focused on “targets” and “budget cuts”. I do not want to get on my soap box but it makes a mockery of the service when the Director of the Prison Service receives financial bonuses for meeting his targets with “delivering cuts in the budget” despite there being a massive increase in violence, disruption, staff sickness (caused by the violence), and prisons being slated in inspections. Staff moral is at an incredible low but the top managers still get their rewards. In my opinion it is an absolute disgrace.

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  2. Very interesting comments. Some of them certainly chimed with me. I remember slopping our at Risley as men rushed to get ready for court, and more than 100 discharges in reception starting at 6 am And a sausage or a boiled egg for ‘breakfast’ we have certainly moved on. Not always for the best though, finance has become a higher priority.

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  3. A really interesting read, Steve. As an ex teacher, and as Ian says, we can truly empathise with your views and experience as a result of austerity measures in which cost cutting is key and humanity is somewhat forgotten. Look forward to reading more of your blogs. Xx

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