Working Inside

Today I’m talking to Gary Clarke, who gives us a peek at what it’s like to work in the UK Prison Service.

Can you give us a quick overview of your career in the prison servie so we can understand your background? (Happy to use this or if you’d like to expand on it, please do)

I retired from the Prison Service in 2018 after 29 years service. During my service I worked at HMP Pentonville, HMP Whitemoor, Prison Service Training College and HMP Peterborough. I had jobs such as Training Manager, Head of Female Residence, Security Manager, Safer Custody Manager dealing with all self-harm and deaths in custody.

You’ve worked training other prison officers, so what sort of courses did that entail?

I worked at Prison Service Training College Newbold Revel delivering Operational Training delivering courses to established staff of all ranks from across the prison estate. I delivered course such as, Dedicated Search Team Training, Covert Human Intelligence Sources, Working With Information and X-Ray Course. These courses involved all ranks of staff from across the estate. When I moved to work in the Private Prison estate at HMP/YOI Peterborough I delivered all the Suicide and Self-Harm awareness training to new and established staff.

Was there anything that regularly turned up in training to be particularly easy, or especially difficult for the candidates to come to grips with?

The course that probably caused the most discussion and difficulties was the Suicide and Self-Harm Awareness course. This was for a number of reasons: the stigmas that surround the topic, peoples prejudice against those who have either self-harmed or attempted suicide and the biggest issue was always around staff that are affected directly or indirectly by self-harm or suicide. There was always a fine balance to be had between getting the real message across and not upsetting course members to much.

You mention being a Safer Custody Manager, it’s well known that mental health can be a big problem for those inside. Can you share any insights on that area of the prison service and how it had evolved in your experience?

This is a huge problem area for prisons, and I firmly believe that although progress has been made and services offered to prisoners has improved greatly over my career it is still an area that they need to take more seriously. I will try and explain this statement: whilst working at HMP/YOI Peterborough I was the Safer Custody Manager, when I first took over the role, I was responsible for the female side of the prison only, I had a Prison Custody Officer and full-time admin support whilst responsible for approximately 350 female prisoners. This was very soon to change when I was given the responsibility for the male prisoners and then lost admin support completely meaning that just myself and my PCO had responsibility for approximately 1200 prisoners, not sure much more needs to be said.

I have felt over the years that much of what the service does around mental health has been a tick box exercise, when you consider that 80% of female prisoners have a diagnosed mental illness, this is something I still believe they need to take more seriously.

As a Security Manager, what was your area of focus?  And where did you have to focus most efforts on?

I was the Security Manager at HMP/YOI Peterborough during start up and for the first four years that the prison was open. This had very different challenges from setting up processes and procedures across the prison as well as everyday issues that prisoners, staff and visitors.

One of the major areas of concern was the trafficking of drugs and mobile phones, the biggest problems that a prison faces. There are many ways that these items enter the prison, through the post, visitors and corrupt staff. Mobile phones are a major problem for all prisons as they can’t be monitored meaning that prisoners can continue their criminal behaviour behind bars. There is the technology about to block mobile signals but legislation makes it very difficult to do it, something that needs to be addressed urgently otherwise these problems will never be solved.

Recent developments in technology have provided a surge of drone ownership and operations. This gives opportunity for things to be flown in/dropped in over the prison walls. Has this been a security issue you’ve had to deal with, and if so, how did you deal with it?

I have not personally dealt with any issues involving drones although they are a problem across the prison estate and again as with mobile phones the technology is available to address this, but the legislation needs addressing first.

The prison population of the UK tends to be only 5% female, and we don’t hear much of life in women’s prisons. Working in HMP Peterborough means that you worked in the only prison in the UK which has wings for male and female inmates. How did that differ from your work in other all male prisons? Were there any obvious differences between how the genders behave inside?

The difference between male and female prisoners is immense. Apart from the obvious differences, there are those around primary carers, mental health and physical health, dietary needs and everyday care needs.

It was generally easier to work with female prisoners as 90% of them caused no issues at all, however the complexity of the other 10% was immense and time consuming. For me it was a different kind of busy and stress when dealing with the different genders.

Were officers assigned to work with either male or female wings or did they work across both?

Although they were generally allocated to one side off the prison or the other they would be expected to work where detailed on any given day.

My thanks to Gary for giving his time to this, hope it gives a different insight into the other side of prison life.

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