The UK prison estate is becoming increasingly volatile. Suicides, drug use and violence are soaring while staff numbers, resources and morale have nosedived.
With government plans for more probation staff to be based in prisons, we speak to three women members about what it’s really like working on the inside.
Chris Winters – Napo co-chair – is one of the 123 women members working in a prison.
For 10 of her 27 years in the probation service; the clanking of gates, jangling of keys and the air teeming with testosterone is something she has become accustomed to.
“It’s not for everyone,” she admits, but says: “I love it. There’s a real sense of family, and just like any family, it has its good and bad points. But overall it can be really supportive.”
Chris is currently based in an all-female probation team in HMP Humber and says: “I think I would probably struggle more being the only woman probation officer in a male team than being a woman probation officer in a male prison.”
When Chris did her first five-year stint in a prison almost 15 years ago the culture was very different. “There would be sexually explicit material on the walls and assumptions about women and their availability made by other male prison staff,” she explains.
Things have come on a long way since all those years ago, but Chris still warns: “I think as a woman probation officer you have to be fairly thick-skinned about it and choose the battles you fight. There are battles you stand your ground on in terms of how you are being treated, but you don’t always have the energy to fight every single battle so you pick the big ones,” she says.
Media and HMI prisons reports have revealed the unpredictable environment prison staff are currently working in, raising concerns for the safety of staff – particularly for women who might be based in them.
Despite this there is no training specifically tailored for women. “We get the same training – as much or as little – as any other member of staff,” Chris confirms adding: “It took me four years to get break away training, and this only happened because there was an incident with a teacher being taken hostage.”
Women probation officers are instead expected to rely on their experience, which may not always be adequate – especially since some newly qualified staff are placed straight into prisons.
Chris notes that some of the risks faced by female staff could be down a lack of systems being in place.
“I think one of the problems in my prison is the way cases are allocated. We have clients marked as being a risk to women being given to female staff, and that is not really thought about until someone picks it up and challenges it. That’s because allocation is done by junior clerical staff and not by managers,” she says.
Although there may be some perceived physical weaknesses women may have working prisons, there are some strengths that make them suited for working with male inmates.
“I think as women we bring a lack of testosterone to an environment which is already full of testosterone,” Chris points out. “This can be useful for breaking people bad news or letting them know the outcome of a parole board hearing.”
With over 70% of staff working in the probation service being women, plans for more probation staff working in custody will overwhelmingly affect women.
Chris points out that most prisons are based in rural areas making it difficult for women with childcare responsibilities.
“My advice to people considering working in a prison: it’s not for all probation staff particularly some women.
“Try and arrange some time in one and see if it feels right because it’s that instinctive. If you walk in and feel like you can’t cope with the catcalls, the noise and the gates, it’s probably not for you.”
“When you walk through the gate in the morning, it can feel like stepping into a different world. You leave your phone at the gate and take on your prison self,” says Amanda.
After doing a placement in a prison a few years ago as part of her PQF, Amanda made it her first choice when she qualified as a probation officer.
“Friends and family are shocked when I tell them I work in a prison. There appears to be a general view that prison work is masculine or male orientated. I personally feel that this just gives me more reason to work here and strive to do positive work with the people I supervise,” she says.
“I work in a Cat B local and remand, so we are very limited as to what we can do with our cases. We do not have any accredited programmes and often don’t have an office where you can work with someone. You certainly learn to adapt and think on your feet very quickly,” explains Amanda.
Attitudes that condone domestic violence are apparently more prevalent in custody. “Being a woman in a male prison makes this harder to challenge in some respect as you are vastly outnumbered and have to choose when to challenge and when to roll with resistance,” she says, at the same time acknowledging it can help when assessing risk.
“Being able to view an individual when he is associating with his peers or friends in custody can give me an insight into some of his views or attitudes he may not be as open to discussing with me in supervision. Whilst we need to be careful not to judge someone solely on how they behave on a wing, it does give us an interesting insight into behaviour we might not get to witness when we’re in a community team,” she explains.
While derogatory remarks, catcalls and sexual comments may be expected from the inmates, Amanda confirms some of the inappropriate behaviour she has experienced has come from colleagues.
“When I had my first oral hearing as an offender supervisor, I dug out my trusted old skirt suit that I used to wear when I was a court duty officer. As I walked through the prison and into the office, I was met with comments from the male members of staff!”
Their comments about her outfit and the way she looked made her feel so uncomfortable she says: “Whilst this was all challenged at the time, I always wear a trouser suit for oral hearings now.”
Amanda loves her job and enjoys working in a prison but agrees that the loud, chaotic, bureaucratic environment wouldn’t be for everyone – male or female.
“I was lucky enough to have a placement before taking a full- time position and this allowed me to get a sense of whether or not this would be the right role for me.
“I would suggest that anyone thinking about coming in should contact their local OMU department and arrange to go in for a day or even try and get a placement.
“Each prison works very differently depending on the category; if it’s a training prison or a sex offender estate for example.
“We are all still probation officers at the end of the day though, so give us a call, we would be happy to discuss what the job entails,” says Amanda.
After working in a women’s prison for a number of years, Elaine made the move to a male prison and immediately noticed the differences. Some of which echo the headlines seen in the press. “Male prisons feel much more volatile, dangerous and unpredictable with many more instances of prisoners having mobile phones, weapons and drugs – especially spice,” she says, also pointing out a higher potential for radicalisation.
Women inmates by contrast are much more likely to confide in the prison officers, self-harm when distressed or angry, and have openly close and sometimes intimate relationships with each other.
Working a four day week and holding a caseload of 40 inmates (many of who are serving life or an imprisonment for public protection sentence), Elaine also attends monthly Pathfinder meetings. Here she will discuss inmates who may be involved in radicalising others or who have extremist and terrorist offences.
Like Chris, Elaine thinks that having other women in the team can improve the experience of working in a prison. “In my current probation team there are four probation officers; three of them are female including the manager.
“I am in a room with mostly male staff including prison offender supervisors and I would feel more comfortable if there were other women in my room,” says Elaine admitting: “I do feel isolated at times and seek out the other female probation officers and female prison officers to talk to.”
Elaine thinks that being a woman means you sometimes need to be more assertive and “stick to your grounds” in order to get your point made. “I have noticed now that I am working part-time, I get a few remarks made about this from male prison colleagues and that can make you feel defensive about why you don’t work more days.
“The probation officers here have an upper caseload limit, which is lower than the caseloads that the prison offender supervisors hold due to the more serious nature of our cases. This can lead to friction with the male prison offender supervisors,” Elaine reveals.
“I used to really like working in the prison environment when I was in a female estate and I would recommend other women working there too. However, I do not like working in a male prison in the current climate. Due to the serious cuts to prison staff budgets, there is more violence, and more attacks on staff.
“I am concerned that there are plans to put more probation staff in prisons, including those who do not wish to work in this environment – including newly qualified officers. I think this is inappropriate, and with the current crisis in prisons, would be dangerous,” says Elaine.
*Name has been changed at the request of the member