X Factor star Sam Bailey: ‘Being a prison officer is tough. But I miss it every day’ | Erwin James

My former colleagues do extraordinary work under extreme pressure, says the X Factor winner and former guard. They deserve our recognition – and respect

Before Sam Bailey won the 2013 X Factor final, she had been patrolling the landings and corridors of HMP Gartree, a life-sentence prison in Leicestershire, for three years. “I didn’t really do a lot of singing at work – though I did sing down the corridors sometimes as the acoustics were great. When all the prisoners were locked up I used to sing as I patrolled the corridors. I loved it. But then obviously I needed some time off for the audition. I ended up owing hours which I had to pay back. When I won the X Factor I had a letter from the prison saying I owed them money.”

As she progressed in the competition, despite the support of colleagues and the governor, she was told that it would be in the best interests of the prison and her family not to go back to work as there had been so much about her personal life, and about where she lived, on the show.

After winning the contest, Bailey had a Christmas No 1 and her debut album went to the top of the charts. She is currently starring in Fat Friends – the Musical at the Grand Theatre in Leeds.

Although life as a professional performer couldn’t be more different than that of a serving prison officer, Bailey says it hasn’t changed her. She still lives in the same house and is still in contact with most of her ex-colleagues, for whom she has nothing but admiration. And she wants to use her public profile to raise awareness of her former profession. “I take my hat off to anyone who works as a prison officer right now. It’s not an easy time. I want to let the public know that what these men and women do is phenomenal. People rarely get to hear about the value of the officers: it’s all about what the prisoners do, the problems, the drugs and riots. But it’s one of the best public services and I think the officers deserve recognition for what they do.

“The stigma attached to being a prison officer is unfair. A lot of people think of prison officers as big stocky guys swinging a set of keys and looking all hard. They’re not. They come in all shapes and sizes and they are there to help people in their care – and to facilitate rehabilitation.”

Since she left the service, the rates of violence, self-harm and suicide across the prison system have escalated to record levels. Spice and black mamba drugs have flooded the wings and landings and introduced a new level of unpredictability for all those who live and work in prisons. And many of the most experienced officers have left, leaving prisons dangerously short of staff able to maintain effective control. “The service has lost a lot of the more experienced officers who knew how to talk to prisoners and build rapport. I’ve seen the skill it takes for an officer to talk someone up when they’re at their lowest ebb. That skill deserves huge respect,” says Bailey.

Sam Bailey performs in the X Factor final, December 2013.
Sam Bailey performs in the X Factor final, December 2013. Photograph: Tom Dymond/Thames/REX

These evident problems are spelled out in a joint report by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the trade union Community, published this week, which calls for “urgent action” to save the service. It points out that many new officers arrive with no real understanding of what the job of a prison officer entails and soon leave when reality kicks in, putting “enormous strain on longer-serving officers”.

“I am in touch with a lot of my former colleagues, via Facebook and so on, and I do get told that there are some really good new officers coming through,” says Bailey. “But you know, we are asking these young people to go into some really difficult environments – and they’re not on a particularly good wage. I think it’s unfair that they are paid so poorly, especially when there are things going on that make their job really quite risky. A lot don’t stay long because they’re thinking, ‘Why should I put myself in harm’s way for such a low amount of money?’”

How did prisoners react to her X Factor win? As a former prisoner myself I could imagine the interest of prisoners serving in Bailey’s prison.“I had messages from colleagues on different wings, saying so and so on H Wing sends his best and is really proud,” she says. “I had a lot of nice messages from people I’d been in charge of which was really sweet. On the night that I won, the whole prison was banging on their cell doors. They only usually do that for football finals and at midnight on the last day of the year. That’s around 700 prisoners all banging at once for me. Can you imagine that?”

Was she ever concerned about working in such close proximity to men who have committed some of the most serious violent crimes? “We’re not there to judge anyone. But we have to teach the importance of respect and boundaries,” she says, reverting to prison officer speak. “You have to have a rapport with prisoners – we’re not their friends, but we have to try to support the changes they want to make. It’s about building relationships that allow the prisoner to see the mistakes they’ve made – and then helping them to put things right. Few people outside have any idea how hard the job of a prison officer is. But when you see a prisoner beginning to change because of something you’ve said or the support you have given, it’s incredibly rewarding. The job is not and never has been just about locking people up and talking down to them. It’s not that at all. It’s frustrating when you never hear anyone say just what the job of a prison officer entails.”

Sam Bailey (front centre) with the prison staff winners of this year’s Prisoner Learning Alliance awards.
Sam Bailey (front centre) with the prison staff winners of this year’s Prisoner Learning Alliance awards. Photograph: PLA Awards

It almost sounds like Bailey misses the job. Does she? “Yes, every day,” she replies. “I miss the camaraderie of the officers and the banter: when you work in a prison, that’s what keeps you going some days. I was only a prison officer for three years. I have to say, I wasn’t the best – but I loved it.”

She still supports the work of the prison system when she has the opportunity. This year she presented the Prisoners’ Education Trust’s annual Prisoner Learning Alliance awardswhere she told the audience “working in a prison is a tough gig, and one that since my time has only become harder. one thing stays the same though: outstanding people can make that harsh environment better”.

The most challenging part of her old job, she says, was not taking work home. “It’s so hard; you might be wondering if that person’s going to be alive the next day.” The best and most satisfying part? “When you see a prisoner start to change. You see the lightbulb switch on and you see them trying to make a real effort. You see them become better people – and you know something good is going to come from the sentence.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 40.

Lives: Leicester.

Family: Married, three children.

Education: St Mary and St Joseph’s secondary school and Cleeve Park secondary school (both Sidcup); Miskin Theatre, Bexley arts college, Dartford (Level three qualified play worker).

Career: 2013 to present: singer/performer (after winning X Factor 2013); 2010-2013: prison officer, HMP Gartree, Leicestershire; 2001-2010: singer, Tony Carnegie Band; 1999-2000: singer, Thompson Cruises; 1997-1999: Blue Coat, Pontins; played professional football for Millwall Lionesses, West Ham, Crystal Palace, London Women and Leicester City Ladies.

Public life: Ambassador for Cure Leukaemia, St Giles Trust, and NSPCC Stay Safe campaign; patron, Rainbow Children’s Hospice.

Interests: Spending time with her children.


Erwin James

The GuardianTramp

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