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

In the Beginning – 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.

It was my ambition to be a police officer, but I was still seventeen years old and too young to apply. My exam results from school were not particularly good, although I had achieved three “O Levels” including English. A job search took place throughout the summer when I applied for a clerical assistant job in the DHSS in Bedford.

I was invited to an interview. This took me by surprise as I had had very little luck with other applications. On the morning of the interview I was obviously feeling nervous. After a good wash and brush up, attired in a three-piece pinstriped suit, and carrying a copy of the Daily Telegraph, I arrived at the DHSS building. After signing in I was shown where to wait. I was not alone. There were numerous other candidates sitting and waiting for their interviews. As you do, I sat there eyeing up the competition. Male, female, all generally of the same age and all dressed smartly. I sat there waiting, feeling nervous and apprehensive, and glanced through the front and back pages headlines of The Telegraph. Eventually my name was called.

From what I can remember the interview passed without any major incident. I was directed to a chair in front of a table behind which sat three interviewers. The usual questions of Why had I applied? What did I have to offer? What are my ambitions? What was my background? What are my interests? were asked. I think I answered and performed well. I felt confident. Finally, I was dismissed, and I came home. As it was September and I had no employment I returned to school for another year in the sixth form to re take my failed exams.

One day on returning home from school I was told by my mother that someone from HM Prison Bedford had telephoned and wanted me to go for an interview for a job in the prison. It had been explained that I had been picked out of the DHSS interviews for this task. I was shocked and dumb founded. Why would the prison want me? It was totally unexpected and I had never thought of working within a prison. Never the less another interview was pending, and I had to report to the main gate at HMP Bedford. This was very daunting.

The Old Main Gate at HMP Bedford

Another wash and brush up and on goes the three-piece pin striped suit again. I arrived at the prison and knocked on the gate as instructed. An officer opened the small door in the old large wood gate and after giving my name and showing my identification and the reason for attending I was allowed in and was instructed to report in the gate office. I gave my name and identification again and I was signed in and told to wait.

It was like stepping back in time. HMP Bedford is an old Victorian prison and it felt that it had not change much since it had been built in 1801. The gate was busy. Officers and vehicles were coming in and out. There was a lot of noise as the gates were opened and closed. It was dark and dingy in the gate area. The clanking of locks, bolts, and the jingling of keys was quite deafening. On top of this staff were shouting instructions at each other. The waiting area was a dark small room within the gate. My nerves were playing up. I remember my hands were shaking. What was I doing here?

HMP Bedford. The Discipline Office located in the Administration Building (the three windows behind the Gate building)

After a while I was escorted to an office in the main building. This was where the Head of Administration worked. Introductions were made and I was offered a seat. He was accompanied by a mature lady. I was introduced to her as the office manager (Executive Officer) and pleasantries were exchanged. It felt relaxed and a little informal. I found this a little odd as I expected another formal interview board like the one in the DHSS. He explained why I had been invited and said that I had impressed the board on the initial interview. He provided a brief outline of the job involved – it was still a clerical assistant role (filing, photocopying, post clerk, general office duties) and the conversation went on for quite a while. I started to feel a little reassured, although it was still daunting thinking about working in a prison. He took me for a quick look up to the office where I would be working and there were some brief introductions to the staff present. The office was titled “Discipline Office”.

We went back to the Head of Administration office where he offered me the job, which I accepted. There was some form filling to carry out and I was informed a formal offer will be sent in the post. Next was to arrange a start date. This took me by surprise. It was to be in a couple of weeks – Wednesday 21st October 1981. I agreed.

The next two weeks were pretty much uneventful other than attending school and boasting about my new job in the prison. I finished school on Tuesday 20th October 1981 ready to start my new job. Little did I know then that I would still be in the service thirty-three years later.

Day One – I was nervous, and I was anxious. I was seventeen, literally just finished school, and was about to start work in a prison. I arrived at my new workplace at nine o’clock in my pin striped suit and went through a few checks and presenting identification and walking through the gate again. I was met by one of the staff from the office and escorted up to the Discipline Office where I would be based. The first day memory is a blur. So much information and form filling (including the Official Secrets Act). Keeping in mind all the time to be polite, respectful, ask questions if in doubt, and try to remember what I have been told. I was introduced to my mentor – Helena – and was informed that she will be showing me everything I need to know about my job. It was a busy office. All the prisoner records were kept there along with mountains of other documentation. Diaries for court appearance, worksheets to calculate sentences and date of release, numerous forms for requesting and obtaining information. I had a brief introduction to the Chief Officers Clerk, a prison officer who liaised between the office and the operational side of the prison (the Chief Officer, reception, residential wings, et al). There was a very brief explanation of the processes involved with prisoners arriving in reception and going out to courts and release. It became clear to me that this “Discipline Office” was the hub of prisoner information. I found out about nominal index cards, warrants for custody from the court, F2050 (prisoner record), and numerous other forms including a Form 46 to request prisoners’ previous convictions from the police. There was so much to take on board, but it was only day one and I was reassured that I was not expected to remember everything. The other staff in the office were a very pleasant and friendly

I came home feeling somewhat worn out. There had been a lot of information to take on board but there was a feeling of excitement in me. This was my first proper job and I was looking forward to returning to work the following day.

Sat at my desk in the Discipline Office

The office was busy, so much going on all the time. There were escorted tours of the rest of the prison and getting to meet other staff including the officers. I was introduced to Governors, Chief Officer, Principal Officers, and many others ranks and grades. It soon became apparent how friendly everyone seemed to be. Everyone appeared to work well together, no matter where they worked in the prison. There was a friendly and welcoming, and at times a jovial environment. Even the few prisoners I met seemed good natured.

There was a Red Band (trustee) prisoner who used to provide hot drinks for the staff. This I found strange, but it was how the things worked at the time. We would order sandwiches from the staff mess and these would be delivered to the office.

In the early days my favourite sandwich was known as a “Space Special”. Sausage, fried egg, brown sauce, on brown bread. I had one of these almost daily mid mornings. After time I earned the name “Spacey” as my lunchtimes involved visiting the local pub, having a pie and a pint, and playing on the space invader games. This was to become a regular occurrence. The name “Space Special” was generated by my colleagues and it was a regular request from the staff mess.

After some time, I found my feet and started to get to know my tasks and the expectations of my job. It was generally routine with filing, retrieving documents and files, form filling, sorting and franking the outgoing post. The office was lively and good natured. Everything seemed to be going well until one day when I was summoned to the Head of Administration office………

To be continued……..

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….

Write a blog they said….

I have had it said to me that I should write a blog. This makes me wonder why and what should I write about? I am a keen runner, I have a fascination for steam engines, and I have spent my working life in the public sector within custodial institutions. What could I possibly write about?

Perhaps a little background scenario may help.

Running in the local parkrun with my lovely wife.

Running – My running adventures started just over three years ago. I reluctantly joined a local running club after some encouragement from my lovely wife. My interest and enthusiasm for running had been non existent prior to this. At first it was a battle to put the training shoes on and join in with the running activities but, surprisingly, I soon got to enjoy the running. We both joined in with a beginners group for running with the local running club. Within a couple of weeks I was hooked. Three and half years later and after numerous events, including marathons and half marathons, I love running and have become a run lead and have had the privilege and honour to be a mentor for other runners. I am now in training for another marathon. It is my plan to blog about my adventure to complete this event, giving some hints and tips along the way.

60009 Union Of South Africa

Steam Engines – I have had a fascination with steam engines from my earliest memories. The looks, motion, sound, and smells have always intrigued me. There is something amazing in their design and engineering and when the engines are in motion belching out clouds of steam and smoke for me it is an amazing experience and sight to see. It is in my blood. Older generations of the family worked on the railways in steam days, some of my earliest memories are seeing steam trains, my life has been full with railways. It is fair to say that I am a steam train enthusiast and love to visit heritage railways. I have been known to stand by a main railway line waiting for a steam special to pass by. Steam trains will chuff into my blog on occasions.

In uniform

Public Sector Work – My working life has been inside custodial institutions. My career in Her Majestys Prison Service commenced in 1981, directly after leaving school, and ended in 2014, when I retired. A total of thirty three years in custody. It has been a long and illustrious career during which I have worked in different establishments in different roles and witnessed many changes in the prison service. There have been good times, happy times, sad times, and some truly dreadful times. My experiences in a public service may be boring to some, but I hope to others they are interesting, and perhaps give some hope and insight into what it is like to work in a prison.

So, in answer to my initial question, it looks like the blog is going to be about running, steam engines, and reflecting on my life in the prison service.

This could be interesting……..