Over the past 15 years or so our prison system has been sliding deeper and deeper into crisis. Indeed, according to the recently published annual report by the chief inspector of prisons, violence, suicide and self-harm have reached a level that no advanced civilised society should tolerate. Squalor, drug abuse, poor access to education and work skills, and a failure to maintain the fabric of our jails, have led to the “worst prison conditions ever seen”. So how have we come to this?
Many clues can be found in this book by former prison officer Neil Samworth. As a serving life prisoner, I met hundreds of officers like Samworth (who spent 11 years as an officer, mainly in Strangeways, before being forced to leave because of PTSD) – men and women who should never have been put in charge of people in captivity. Not because they are cruel (most are fundamentally decent), but because they are ill-equipped to deal with the work – the educational entry level required to be a prison officer was, and still is, derisory, and the eight-week-long training is hardly comprehensive.
According to Samworth, the only challenges to overcome before you can walk the landings is a basic medical and “a physical that most folks piss, a bit of role play and English and maths tests – that’s the lot. Pass and you’re in.” He tells us that he knows someone currently working in the training centre who confirms that “things haven’t much changed between 2005 and now”.Samworth can write, though he is heavy on cliche and stereotypes. But so much of this book made me wonder how I ever survived 20 years of prison life and managed to succeed as a contributor to society afterwards. Currently there are around two self-inflicted jail deaths a week. During my two decades inside, from 1984 to 2004, 1,247 of my fellow prisoners took their own lives.
Samworth’s account of discovering one such death makes for grotesque reading – the deceased prisoner having wrapped a cord through his cell bars and leaned into the loop “like a ski jumper on Ski Sunday”.
What really galls is that, though Samworth admits to being shocked, and to feeling “a bit fragile”, he never expresses compassion for the dead prisoner or his family. Prisoners, he writes, are “fuckers, twats, scum, scrotes, lowlifes… gargoyles and gangsters and legions of other dodgy bastards”.
Incredibly, during the whole of his career, he says, he has only ever witnessed one racist incident, when a female officer racially insulted a prisoner serving food. Samworth says he “lip-read” her insult and she was never sanctioned. “How could she be? Nobody but the con had heard a word.”
He admits that he never chose to work with prisoners as “part of some social crusade” – he just needed a job, “preferably with a pension attached”. Strangeways works best, then, as a first-hand account of everything that has led to the dreadful prison system we have today. Why is the experience so dehumanising, debilitating, corrosive and infantilising? Why are the reoffending figures so high? Why is there so much self-harm, violence, drug abuse and death?
Samworth provides many of the answers in a book that should be required reading for prison policy makers who, as a matter of urgency, should seriously consider a complete overhaul of the prison officer training programme. It should also be essential reading for new recruits as a masterclass in how not to be an officer.
Erwin James is a Guardian contributor. He served 20 years of a life sentence before his release in August 2004.
• Strangeways: A Prison Officer’s Story by Neil Samworth is published by Sidgwick & Jackson (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99