G2 special: 42 people talk about one day last week in prison

The prison system is in crisis. Our jails are bursting with convicts and crumbling with age. At least, that's what the headlines tell us. But what is daily life like for the 80,000 people locked up - and for the 25,000-plus who work with them? For this G2 special we talked to 42 people about one day last week - from Category A prisoners whose escape would endanger the public to Category Ds trusted with their own keys; from a money-launderer jailed with her baby to a teenager who caused death by dangerous driving; from the head of the prison service to a father whose son died in custody
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Friday March 16 2007
Wakefield high-security prison is in West Yorkshire, not North Yorkshire, as was mistakenly stated in the case studies below. This has now been amended.

Mark Drew, 39
Reception officer, HMP Wandsworth, London

I was on the early shift today, which starts at 6.30am and goes on until lunchtime. The first thing we do is go up on the wings to collect prisoners due in court that day. They're moved to holding cells before passing through reception where they'll have a full strip search for any concealed items - drugs, mobile phones, tobacco. They also have all their property searched, x-rayed and logged. They will probably change into their own clothes, before going through to another holding area where they wait to be picked up by police vans.

We often have about 100 people passing through reception in one day, including remand and convicted prisoners; each person spends about 15 minutes going through reception. Experience tells you who will need more help to be put at their ease. For those few moments, you sometimes feel like a father figure - many prisoners come from broken backgrounds and have no fixed abode.

Around 8.30am, prisoners who need to go out to police stations are brought down by wing staff and because London jails are so overcrowded we also have a fair number due for transfer to prisons across the country. From 11.30 there's a chance to catch up on paperwork before prisoners return from court and police stations at midday. The reception process is repeated before inmates re-enter the prison. The late shift take over from 1pm and work until 9pm. The prison service doesn't get the credit it deserves; people think it is just a case of opening and locking doors but our role is to rehabilitate and we're a professional, hard-working organisation.

David Ramsbotham, 72
Chief inspector of prisons 1995-2001, now a campaigner on prison issues

I spent the day at Buckingham Palace for the Butler Trust awards for prison staff and probation staff who have done particularly good or innovative work. One of the members of the awarding panel told me that the seven days he spent judging were the most inspiring of the last year. That's the upside. The downside is that the parts are better than the whole. The prison service consistently fails to turn the good practice for which these awards are given into common practice. How many of the good things that are done in a prison are still being done three years later? It depends on the governor. If he or she goes, the good things too often go with them. I also talked at length to a number of senior probation officers. I'm alarmed at the implications for them of the offender management bill [the controversial plan to part-privatise the probation service]. The bill is riddled with nonsense. If it's about setting targets rather than allowing people to deal with people then you are doomed to fail. It reminds me of when John Reid went to Wormwood Scrubs and criticised probation officers in front of prisoners. That was the worst example I have ever seen of poor leadership.

Prisoner Y, 40
Serving life under the two-strikes law for rape, kidnap and eight robberies, Wakefield high-security prison, West Yorkshire

I woke up at 7.30, had a wash, tidied myself up and pottered about in my cell. Unlock is around eight. I don't bother with breakfast, I just get a carton of milk. Prison food is horrible. I cook my own stuff with four inmates - we all put in money and share a "food boat". Around 8.30 I go to work as a cleaner. I've done cleaning jobs in a lot of jails so I'd say I was pretty good. You do not get security-cleared to clean on the wings with minimal staffing if you're an idiot. I get paid pounds 18 a week, and spend pounds 12 of this on food - mostly tinned stuff and fresh veg. I've met prisoners who are brilliant cooks. You learn off the Asian guys how to do the curries and an Albanian taught me how to do pizza.

I've been in prison most of my life. Most of my offences are drugs-related, and for a long time I had issues with addressing my behaviour. This place has been good for me. Before, prison was just an occupational hazard. When I left jail after a stint, I'd say, "You'll never see me again", but I'd be back in six months. Now I've done courses, had risk-reducing therapy and am about to do a course for sex offenders so that I have a chance when I get out. At seven we are locked up for the night. I write letters, watch TV, read and go to bed at 11-12. For me, it's easy to be occupied. If you can't read or write, and you're not into TV or music, you're in trouble. You'll get depressed and wound up.

The prison service has changed massively over the years. Gone are the days when you sat locked up for 23 hours a day. Even the abuse has gone over the past five years. The government or whoever has realised that the only way to stop people coming back is to concentrate on offending behaviour. There's a lot of psychology in the prison now.

I wouldn't say I was having a good time, but you've got to make the most of it. My next parole opportunity is later this year, but realistically it's going to be another three or four years before I get out. I'll have done 11 years then - double my tarrif. As well as the drugs, a huge issue for me was anger. But it's not a problem these days. Part of it is down to the courses, and part of it is just growing up. I'm more mature now.

Janet Rand
English studies coordinator in HMP Wormwood Scrubs, London

My job is a mix of teaching, organising projects and running the prison magazine. I spent much of the morning working on a new facility called "storybook dads". Prisoners with children read a book, which is uploaded onto a computer, put onto a CD and sent to their child. The idea is to try to keep families together - the loss of family plays a large part in reoffending.

I teach an English studies class in the afternoon. The literacy curriculum is boring and banal, so I tend to adapt it. We have a high number of second-language students because Heathrow is in our catchment area. The most important element of prison teaching is related to self-esteem. When people come to prison, the majority are at rock bottom, so when they come into your class they expose parts of themselves that they don't when they are outside. On the whole you see the best of them - they may well not be like that outside, but here they are discovering a side of themselves and being respected for that.

It's a very stressful environment, but not from the way people might think it is. Sometimes things happen that make you aware that you are in a dangerous place, but I don't ever feel threatened in the education department or on the wings. Most of the men are very respectful and in a dangerous situation most would want to protect you.

Richard Vince, 37
Governor, HMP Preston

I arrived at 7.30 and got a debrief - first in the security department, then from the orderly officer who would be running the jail for the day. We are a busy local prison with 750 inmates, and have to get a lot of prisoners to and from courts, so my first job is to make sure that's running smoothly. I then had a meeting with my deputy governor to assess the new regimes we've just introduced. We are starting more educational activities and lengthening the "core" day to allow staff to spend more time with prisoners. At 9.15, I and a dozen or so managers held our main operational meeting to discuss events over the weekend. We talked about a young man who had been transferred here from another prison because of behavioural problems. We also discussed releases for this week - I need to make sure all public protection issues have been dealt with. My staff reported on prisoners deemed to be at risk of self-harm or potential suicide - 14 today - and we will give them special attention and support. Between 9.30 and 11.30 I did the daily "governor's rounds" with the orderly officer, visiting different parts of the prison. It's important to be visible, to make sure prisoners and staff have access to me, and to listen to complaints and suggestions. After a sandwich lunch, I met two of my senior managers to discuss turning the old kitchen into a new activity centre that will allow us to expand our educational facilities. You have to treat prisoners as human beings. Our central aim is to reduce the risk of them reoffending.

Attiq Mohammed, 34
Prisoner on day release, serving eight years for possession with intent to supply, HMP Kirklevington Grange, Cleveland

My alarm goes off at 5.45am as I have to be out to work by seven after signing my licence. It's a dream at Kirklevington compared to the other prisons I've been in - Doncaster and Armley (Leeds). I have my own room with en-suite shower, basin and loo. We all have a colour TV, which costs us pounds 1 a week in electricity. No one wants to throw these privileges away, especially as most of us only have a short time before our release. I might be out by June.

Everyone here - about 230 prisoners - is working on the outside. I work at a timber merchants as a retail sales assistant. I do a 40-hour week earning the minimum wage. I had my own shop so I know what to do. I now have my own car to drive to work. I have to be back by 6pm, but if there's traffic the wardens are usually pretty understanding if I ring on my mobile and tell them what's happening.

Once back I have to put my phone in a locker, then I go to the gym until 7. We have tea from 7-7.30 and at 8 we have a roll check. By 9 I'm usually asleep. The wardens come round about every hour to check everything's OK, but I've even got my own key to my cell now.

Barry Smith, 42
Discipline officer, induction wing, Castington young offender institution, Northumberland

Every day is different on the induction wing. It is the most important wing in any prison. Every trainee who comes in goes into the induction wing so they can get settled and know what the prison's all about. It's also a good time for us, as officers, to keep an eye on them, and make sure they're coping. As soon as they come in they're given a phone call to friends or family to say that they're OK and we lay down detailed rules and regulations. The last thing I always say to them is that if they respect the officers, we will respect them. You hope it sinks in. This morning I came in to teach the juveniles, which I do part-time. Most of these kids would truant when they were at school, so getting them to sit in a classroom environment is hard to begin with.

I like to try to work my lessons around things that they're interested in - fast cars, football and prisons, would you believe - so a lot of the time I'll show them documentaries about prisons, which seems to keep their attention.

Today I taught a few lessons of English. We talked about them putting themselves in their victims' shoes, getting them to discuss what empathising is. Then we did a bit of role-play, where I put them into a situation where they're a parole board. We're trying to get them to stand up and challenge their offending behaviour. It went well today; it always goes well.

Deborah Coles, 44
Co-director of Inquest, which helps investigate deaths in custody

Early start, to attend the ongoing inquest for Gareth Myatt, a 15-year-old who died while being restrained by three officers in a secure training centre. I met Gareth's mother - I have been helping her and her lawyers with the case since his death three years ago. Late and incomplete disclosure of documents is an ongoing problem. The day's evidence exposes the high levels of restraint regularly being used on children to gain compliance, a purpose the Home Office/Youth Justice Board monitor accepts would be unlawful; that personal items are being removed from their bedrooms to wind them up ("provoking" children is also unlawful); and that children's complaints are being internally "investigated" without anyone bothering to speak to the children.

It was all deeply upsetting for Gareth's mum, so I spent time talking through her anxieties. I went back to the hotel at the end of the day. After a brief call to my children, I spent the evening working on the case with the lawyers, restaurant table piled with files. Ran into a family I worked with 10 years ago after their 19-year-old relative died after 23 hours in Feltham young offenders institution.

Tony Barr, 51
Head of offender management dept, in charge of resettlement, HMP Blantyre House, Kent

My job is about resettling offenders, preparing the way to their release. The main thing today was to have been a parole hearing for three lifers, but it was cancelled as no judge was available. The prisoners were distressed so I spent a bit of time talking to them.

It's tough trying to make sure things go well for prisoners after release. They've all got chaotic backgrounds and you know the odds are stacked against them. The main thing you have to think about is whether they will be a danger to the public. And the truth is that you do all you can to assess them, but the test comes when they are actually out. That's the aspect that weighs heavily in my job. Ex-prisoners need support, but that's often difficult. The main person they can turn to is their probation officer, but as that person has the power to return them to prison, they may not always feel they can reveal everything.

Marilyn Welsh, 53
Head of safeguarding, HMP Werrington, north Staffordshire

The prisoners here are men aged 15-18. Most have spent most of their lives in care; the average reading age is 7 1/2 years. In many ways, being here is more an opportunity than a punishment; society has let them down, and this is a chance to get them back on their feet.

My job is about prisoner safety. I started today as I always do, with a meeting with other staff to discuss individual cases. We talked about a lad of 16 who is going to become a dad. He has just been released and is desperate not to reoffend, but like so many others there are big problems. He was especially worried about being reunited with his mother, who he has not seen since the age of seven. We decided to arrange for him to be seen by the community psychologist so he has got some back-up for what's going to be an emotional and challenging time.

Later I talked to an officer about a prisoner we're worried about. Being locked up is terrifying for a young teenage boy, especially when he first arrives. I've got four sons. If they'd been up against what these kids have been up against, would they have turned out any differently? The odds have been stacked against them; they've known deprivation and disadvantage. If we're perceived as people who just turn keys and forget, I can tell you that the reality here is very different.

Mandy Ogunmokun, 47
In-reach drugs worker, HMP Holloway, London I walked to work and got in about 7.15am and my first meeting is at 7.30 where we find out what has happened over the weekend and what the day holds. I came back to the office and checked my messages. Heroin, crack and alcohol are the biggest problems and we see the same problems, and often the same faces, year after year. We see small improvements in the clients, just little things about attitude or behaviour, but addiction takes time to change.

At 8.30 we have a full team meeting which looks at all the issues for the week and I get a list of clients. I spend a lot of time with clients. They are often devastated when they come back in but I am always pleased to see them as it means they are alive and I tell them that means there is still hope. At lunchtime I popped out to grab a sandwich in Holloway. We had another meeting from 1pm. About 70% of the women who come here are drug addicts so we are central to what happens.

Peter Allen, 52
Serving two-and-a-half-year sentence for arson, HMP Elmley, Kent

I wake up at about 7.30 and get washed up and have breakfast in my cell. We're all unlocked at eight and we can get hot water for cups of tea. Then we go to our jobs. I had a few problems when I first got here. They found out that I've got diabetes. And also I tried to commit suicide - there was a lot on my mind. But I've been seeing a psychiatrist and a nurse who helps me control the diabetes and things are better now. At the moment I'm working as an orderly down in the segregation unit - that's the punishment block where prisoners go when they misbehave. I do the cleaning, and I get on pretty well with the officers. I keep my head down and I've got a clean sheet. I enjoy being an orderly actually, and I might think about going on doing it when I get out.

Before I came inside, I was a manager and I had a two-hour memory loss. That's when the arson happened. I can only vaguely remember it, but I did warn everybody to get out, and nobody got hurt. Now they think that the diabetes might have had something to do with it. I might be eligible for tagging soon. My wife lives in Somerset, and she's hoping I get my tagging - she's not very well herself, she suffers with depression. At five it's tea, then association and then we're locked up at 7.45. It's quite easy getting off to sleep, I work hard all day and with my diabetes . . . its another day done and that's it. Another day off your sentence.

Steve Campion, 23
Serving nine years for false imprisonment, Wayland Prison, Norfolk

I'm a race equality liaison rep, and my day started with an induction for a new prisoner. You've got to explain that we don't tolerate racial discrimination, but you've also got to explain that there are a lot of differences and misunderstandings in here.

I'm like most prisoners - I'm young and black and from London. Most of the officers are white men in their 40s and 50s; they've never known black guys, and there are a lot of cultural misunderstandings. The other day, some prisoners were playing dominoes and they got really rowdy. The officers thought there was going to be trouble, but the truth is that's just how Afro-Caribbeans play dominoes! You have to explain things like that. This afternoon I had a hospital appointment. I was cuffed to an officer and taken there by cab. It's humiliating: you go through the hospital and everyone is looking at you and you see mums with young kids looking frightened. It's horrible, really humiliating.

Seeing the doctor was difficult too. I've got a problem that would be embarrassing enough if I had some privacy, but when you're handcuffed to another person you feel really self-conscious. During my examination the officer put a long chain on me, but it's hard getting your clothes off and the whole thing is demeaning. I can understand why they have to follow procedures, but I think they could take your circumstances into account. I've no history of violence since I've been in prison, which was April 2005.

Becky Newton, 36
Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact) visit centre manager and first night worker, HMP Exeter

Before Pact existed, if you wanted to visit the prison you just had to queue up outside the gates and wait in the rain for them to be opened. Now everyone who wants to make a social visit has to come and book in via the Pact visitor centre. Monday was quiet - just 20 visits. We can have up to 36. My job as manager is to liaise between prisoners and their families, and put visitors at ease by answering any questions they have. Yesterday I helped one woman whose husband is coming out on a tag at the end of March and going to a probation hostel. She wanted to know if she could meet him at the gate. Another man was coming to visit his mentally ill son who was on remand, and he was concerned after the visit that his son wasn't very well. I was able to make a few phone calls and found out that his barrister was applying to a judge in chambers today for bail, so could tell him that he might be out by 10.30 the next day.

Moulana Sikander Pathan
Muslim chaplain, HMP & YOI Feltham

My normal day is from about 9am until 6pm, but I have been known to be here until about 9pm, running out before the gates get locked on me. We have three shared offices, two primarily for chaplaincy staff. The other is the Roman Catholic vestry/community chaplaincy office. I have four sessional chaplains (who are also imams from the community) who come and help with our work. We see about a dozen boys per day. There has been an increase in the number of Muslim prisoners, though I prefer to call them boys, not prisoners. Nationally, it used to be about 7% but now it's nearer 11%. I am one of very few full-time Muslim chaplains in the prison service. The day is taken up with four basic chaplaincy duties: receptions (seeing the new boys who have come in the night before), dealing with applications, daily visits to the segregation and the healthcare units. There are two types of visit: one is purely pastoral for your own faith community, the second is a generic visit, and we encourage both. When the boys come to prison and are going through a low patch (feeling suicidal, etc) quite often they open themselves up to a chaplain who is then able to provide the adequate support. I've been here for five years and it's nothing like the media says. About five years ago the government employed the first Muslim adviser at prison headquarters, and thatís when the changes really started. Occasionally we get a boy who has come in for a heinous crime. Two or three months after coming to service this boy will stand up and apologise just because heís been coming to worship and an understanding of right and wrong. The difficulty is to continue this when they leave, so we have started a Feltham Community Chaplaincy Trust, which links the offender to volunteers/mentors in the community that theyíre returning to.

Prisoner Z
Serving 10 years for rape, HMP Albany

The first spyhole check was at 7am. At 7.35am I staggered to the washroom, stepping over a rainwater puddle on the landing. I emptied my toilet bucket, washed, then returned to my 7ft x 7ft cell. The hot water machine was broken again. At least Radio 3 sustains me. At 8.20am "Down for labour!" resonates up the hallway: since the intercom broke down three years ago E wing has developed a shouting culture. While others go to workshops, I study for my OU degree. Did my bowls course at 9am - that's something else I've learned in my four years here. Unfortunately this time it was spoiled by barracking and silly arguments: half the old codgers are deaf, the other half can't count. At 11.55am I collected lunch and my Guardian, and at 12 I was banged up. Listened to Donald Macleod on Radio 3, who helps me understand why I don't like Wagner. Lovely letter from my wife, the 995th. We talked at 6pm, exchanged stories of our days. Banged up at 6.45pm - listened to Mozart. Iím grateful I'm in a "four-star" prison, otherwise I'd go mad. But what else could a psychotherapist convicted of rape expect?

Pia Sinha, 34
Head of safer prisons, HMP Wandsworth, London

I worked in Wandsworth prison as a chartered psychologist before I took on the safer prisons role. Wandsworth is unusual in having a psychologist in this position. We always have meetings scheduled, but a lot of your work gets diverted into whatever the crisis might be that day. The highest-risk group for suicide and self-harm are first-timers in custody and those who are detoxing. People are very frightened when they first come to Wandsworth because of its reputation. We try to see the individual not just as someone who is coming to prison because they have committed a crime but as someone who is dealing with the impact of incarceration. It's a distressing time for them. Today we had a learning and development programme, where high-risk prisoners get intensive therapy. One of the prisoners was very anxious because he's got court on Monday. He is someone who historically would be very worrying for us because he's an impulsive character. He finds it very difficult not to react when he gets news. This time he was able to convey to officers that he was very anxious and he'd like to move to a safe cell at the weekend so he cannot harm himself.

June Marriott, 43
Head of education, Wormwood Scrubs

I managed to get a seat on the Central Line and grabbed some breakfast when I got in, so all in all not bad. Then the first lot of students started arriving and I had to help find them the right rooms - there were a couple who were lost. I also had to make sure all the teachers had turned up and were in the classrooms before anyone was allowed in. There were a couple of queries from students, one about funding and another who was doing the wrong level course. Then I had 30 minutes to go through 69 emails - you may have a plan for A to B here but you nearly always end up going via X, Y and Z. The first lot of students left and I had a couple of hours to catch up on other things. Today I interviewed new teachers and I have a new deputy starting, so I was helping him settle in. I even had time for a sandwich at my desk, which was an unbelievable luxury. In the afternoon we have a similar routine of students and classes. As far I am concerned the education service is the crux of the whole prison service. We are trying to ensure that what's available on the outside is also available on the inside. We are trying to offer these men a seamless transition when they leave.

Emma Ginn
North-west coordinator for the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns

At 8.45am I went to the inquest of a prisoner found hanged at Harmondsworth Removal Centre, where I spoke to a journalist who asked, "What's the hook?" After that I talked to "Pierre", feeling awkward asking what implements Congolese guards had used to torture him and if he'd been raped. He is destitute, homeless and disbelieved. He asks how any immigration judge could say that his "ill-treatment in detention" did not "amount to torture", considering the Home Office describe Congolese prison conditions as "life-threatening", synonymous with disease, hunger, abuse, torture and death. At lunchtime I bought soap for "Jane", who can't understand why she has been detained for months even though her asylum claim hasn't been refused. In the afternoon I took a call from a mother with a screaming baby - totally desperate and inconsolable about her husband's deportation tomorrow. Then I talked to a doctor about "Hassan", a teenager who arrived as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, and the hunger strike Hassan said he'd started. Then I tried to call a detainee but the detention centre phone rang off the hook six times. Later that evening I emailed my MP asking why my tax money is spent detaining men, women and children who are not accused of any crime at an average cost of £1,230 a week when 47% of them are later released.

Alphonsus Uche Okaf-Mefor
Nigerian asylum-seeker, Tinsley House removal centre, near Gatwick

I was allowed out of bed at 6am after another sleepless night. We are restricted to our rooms between 11pm and 6am. I watched TV to take my mind away from my problems. Breakfast at seven, but how can I eat when I could be dead soon? Watched the news about the British kidnapped in Ethiopia; thought about the Africans who, like me, were kidnapped in Britain. Asked about my medication - they are still not providing it. Later I heard from my solicitor. The Home Office has rejected a new appeal and the nightmares start again. He will apply for bail and a judicial review. Why do they reject my claim when we have provided photographic evidence of my Massob [Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra] activities in Britain and the Home Office's own policy is to grant asylum to members of Massob? Phone call from a supporter in the afternoon. Am so thankful that there are people fighting for refugees. All I wanted was to show people human rights abuses in Biafra/Nigeria. Now I will be returned to become one of the abuses. Spoke to solicitor. He seems to be doing his best. Nothing for me to do but hope and pray. Watched more television in the evening, but the guards turn off the power at 11 o'clock. I complained that this leaves me nothing to do. They replied: "You've only been here for a day and you're already causing trouble." I try to sleep.

· Because of security and victim issues, some names could not be used.

The GuardianTramp

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