The turn of the screws

Professional, personable and caring. That's what prison officers think of themselves. Got a problem with that?

The "screw" occupies a special place in popular culture. In prison slang, there are at least 30 words for a prison officer, from rhyming slang (Scooby[doo], Dr Who, four-be-two, kanga[roo]) to direct abuse. Television gives us Porridge's Mackay and Cell Block H's Freak, and news coverage focuses on negative aspects such as the recent alleged brutality at Wormwood Scrubs. But last night's BBC documentary Jailbirds challenged this view, and in May, a new ITV drama series (also called Jailbirds but set in a fictional women's prison) looks set to continue the debate.

The BBC series was filmed at HMP New Hall, a prison in Yorkshire which holds 400 women. The director, Chris Terrill (HMS Brilliant, Soho Stories, The Cruise), was given eight months' unprecedented access to this closed world. He admits that initially he shared the public view of prison officers: "I thought they'd be rough, tough and unsympathetic, with no humanity about them. The reality, I found, is very different. The modern prison officer is professional and caring."

Last night's programme, "Through the Gates", began with a group of women being delivered by van to the jail and taken through the reception process by officer Debbie Martin, a 31-year-old who joked her way through the indignities of the mugshot and the strip-search. An older officer spent hours on the phone trying to sort out family problems for newcomer Toni, 28, a heroin addict. A darker side of prison reality began to seep through when Toni attempted suicide and six officers manhandled her along the corridor into a segregation cell. The series explores some challenging issues: in the programme to be screened on Easter Wednesday, the Governor, Mike Goodwin, confronts a self-mutilating prisoner in a manner that viewers may find shocking.

I asked six women ex-prisoners and six prison officers what they thought of last night's programme. All the prisoners strongly disapproved of Governor Goodwin. Kay is in her sixties and has served time in Holloway and HMP Bullwood Hall in Essex. "The male officers resort to sarcasm because most of them are either embarrassed or frightened of women prisoners."

Marie, 42, did seven months in Holloway and Bullwood Hall in Essex for cannabis offences. "The reception officer, Debbie, talked to that new prisoner like a kid even though the woman was older than her," she said. "Comments like that are typical and they're just what you don't need when you get to prison.

"Most of the screws aren't sensitive to your problems because they just don't have the imagination to put themselves in your position and consider what you might be feeling like. They regard you as different, criminal, not proper human beings. They gossip about what you're in for, but they're not interested in the problems that got you into trouble in the first place."

At HMP Cookham Wood in Kent, the Governor, Colette Kershaw, disagrees: "My officers would have no knowledge of a prisoner's offence, unless they'd been assigned to a woman as her personal officer."

Kershaw feels that although Jailbirds gives a fair picture of prison life, viewers may miss the underlying tensions: "Officers find certain parts of their work, like the strip-search, just as distasteful as the prisoners do. You can do it in a cold, clinical, professional way, but a lot of officers feel it helps to make a bit of a joke to avoid embarrassment on both sides and relieve the tension."

"It's all about forming relationships," says a male officer, "but that's done later, not at the reception process when a lot of the women are in too much shock to talk. Once they've settled in, they'll be given a personal officer with whom you hope they will form a trusting relationship. I've been in the Prison Service 23 years and the work now is far more interesting because you get more involved with the prisoners."

Anne, a younger officer, says it's important to define the officer's exact role: "Of course there'll always be a divide, but you can still establish a rapport. I say to the women: `I didn't put you in here. The judge and jury did that. It's my job to look after you in here.'"

So what makes a good prison officer? Governor Kershaw and her staff were unanimous: common sense, a sense of humour and good communications skills. As Officer Anne put it: "You've got to be caring and sensitive to prisoners' needs. But then there's the other side, like locking people up and using restraint techniques to take them to the segregation unit. That side of it has to be done with absolute professionalism following the set rules. But you can still personalise it.

"A third of our prisoners here are foreign nationals and we're encouraged to say good morning to each woman in her own language."

"And we do try to influence policy," adds Governor Kershaw. "For instance, most of us think it's terrible that foreign drugs mules can't be held in open prisons. I've made that view known to the Prison Service."

The prisoners agree that personal relationships are what count: "What you want is someone with a bit of experience of life. You want kind-hearted older men and women who can sympathise with your situation and bend the rules now and then."

The women were acutely aware of officers' language and tone of voice; they resented the way the New Hall staff bawled out women's surnames. Language is a powerful indicator of an establishment's culture: the actors in ITV's Jailbirds were shocked when they were taken to HMP Winchester's women's unit to get a taste of prison life. "We turned up at lunchtime and were told the women were `feeding'!" says Debra Stephenson, who plays a lifer.

Jack Ellis played DI Muddiman in Prime Suspect but he is finding his role as a prison officer much more challenging: "We had a prison officer on set to advise us and I was shocked when she showed me how to jangle my keys in front of prisoners to wind them up. I also had to learn a swaggering walk - because you're authority, you're power. You can feel that power and it's destructive. I shout, `Shut it!' on set and all the noise stops. It feels wonderful."

Chris Tchaikovsky and her staff at Women in Prison have been advising the ITV scriptwriters on language and storylines, and she is delighted that so much TV coverage will bring the issue of women's imprisonment into everyone's living room. "Now viewers will see the reality of prison life," she says. "Five hours of TV could achieve more than all our 15 years of campaigning. The institution of prison is brutalising, but it's easy for us to criticise the staff. Control and care just don't go together very well and any amount of training won't help if an officer has to turn the key on a woman who's just learnt that something awful has happened to her child."

The officers agreed that the prison officer's job has moved a long way from the old turnkey's and is far more demanding. But entry qualifications are still low. A 20-year-old with five GCSE passes can be earning up to pounds 17,000 a year after just 11 weeks of training, while a graduate entrant on the fast-track promotion scheme could be deputy governor of a prison, earning up to pounds 31,000, within five years of leaving university.

At the Prison Service Conference in Harrogate last month, the outgoing director-general, Richard Tilt, launched the new Vision mission statement, setting out guidelines for officers to fulfil the Service's twin aims - to protect the public and to deliver constructive regimes - while dealing fairly, openly and humanely with prisoners. But will these lofty aims prove robust enough to turn the screws and make real changes to prison life? Only 10 days ago 22-year-old Theresa Lohinski was found hanging in her cell at New Hall.

Chris Terrill accepts that it will take time to break down the "nick culture". "I've done a lot of police films and you do find policemen who've joined up because they think they're going to get good fights. Of course you're still going to get those people joining the prison service, but the counter-error is only to look at the thugs. There are plenty of prison officers who are going against the grain to try and change things."

`Invisible Women: What's wrong with Women's Prisons', and `Going Straight: After Crime and Punishment', by Angela Devlin, are published by Waterside Press, Winchester

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor