Christine Ellis was the first woman to reach the grade of governor at Strangeways prison, Manchester - not an achievement to be underplayed by the media, who embellished their descriptions of her with such descriptions as 'petite' and 'brunette'. 'I get sick of people saying: 'But you don't look like a prison governor'. The preconception was that I must be a 19ft Amazonian who shaves three times a day and wears tweeds and brogues.'

Ms Ellis, 47, joined the prison service when she was 32, attracted by a leaflet announcing that recruits were welcome up to the age of 42 1/2 . 'I'd applied to the police, who would not take anyone over 30. I thought, what a very civilised organisation to take people into their forties. They deserve me.'

She worked her way through the officer ranks up to the level of governor - the grade from which the top prison bosses are drawn - and is now second-in-command at Elmley, a new men's prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, which will hold more than 600 inmates.

How difficult is it to do a job that involves working with hundreds of men deprived of normal contact with women?

'There will always be men fantasising about women, and I mean officers as well as inmates. I do occasionally get a note thrust under my door telling me in no uncertain terms what someone would like to do to me. It's all to do with power, as any doctor, teacher or nurse will tell you. If you think that working with hundreds of men isn't going to inspire a bit of lustfulness you shouldn't work in an all-male prison. It certainly doesn't upset or annoy me.'

Women have not always worked in men's prisons. Holloway, in north London, was having such difficulty in recruiting staff in 1987, that senior male officers were sent in as an emergency measure - against strong resistance. But once men were in at Holloway, the service could not refuse women jobs in male prisons.

'It worked tremendously well,' says Ms Ellis. 'Initially the men thought they would spend all their time protecting women officers from attack, rape and kidnapping by inmates, but it didn't happen.'

She says the move has led to vast improvements in prisons and a slow but sure eradication of the macho element that all-male prisons foster.

'We are all conditioned not to behave badly in front of the opposite sex. It starts with parents who say 'Wait until your father gets home' and 'Don't you talk to your mother like that'.

'I have seen the page 3 calendars come down, the language improve - even the younger ones say 'Don't say that in front of Ms so-and-so'. I would far rather inmates and officers removed porno pictures because they felt it was inappropriate than because I had imposed a restriction on them.'

There are also, she says, fewer confrontations on the landings when women officers are on duty. 'A man will often feel obliged to confront a male officer to retain his dignity but will want to impress a woman officer, not fight with her.'

Ms Ellis concedes that inmates and male officers come to her with personal problems because of her sex, but she does not believe that the traditional female characteristics of being caring and understanding help women in the

service.

'I don't think it is a gender issue. The rank structure of the service means that everyone goes through several training levels and officers are officers whether they wear a skirt or trousers.' A female officer is just as capable of handling a difficult prisoner as her male counterpart.

Officers, she says, have to be strong rather than powerful and 'have enough sense of their own self to be able to go into situations that are highly unpleasant: a fight, cutting down a suicide, counselling someone who is in very deep distress. I wouldn't pretend for one second that all prison officers are caring, cuddly share-bears. A training programme sometimes focuses on the development of harder elements - and I for one did not realise initially how tough you had to be.'

Ms Ellis has been sexually harassed in prison and regards it as an occupational hazard. 'Believe me, it is far worse being harassed by senior governors, which I have, than inmates who you know are locked up for most of the time.'

Male officers suffer worse abuse at the hands of female inmates, according to Ms Ellis, who talks fondly of her youth in the North of England, where women ruled in the factories and a male apprentice electrician would have his ego shredded on a daily basis.

'Women are appallingly rude in terms of making suggestive remarks and observations about the male anatomy. Most males will tell you that they wouldn't go into a female establishment if their life depended on it.

'That's why we couldn't recruit at Holloway - because men are intimidated to hell by women who, it seems, have a desperate need to strip males of their power by removing their dignity when they are oppressed. They do this in groups very effectively.'

Although there are more women in the prison service these days, Ms Ellis feels that too many remain in the lower ranks. She attributes this to the problem - still acute - of having to move around the country to chase promotion.

Ms Ellis lives with a writer who can work anywhere and still deliver his Coronation Street scripts to the producers on time, but she says: 'It is extremely hard to find someone who will understand, put up with appalling hours, moves, and disappearances from the domestic scene for days if an incident breaks.'

She hopes her career will allow her to continue working in male prisons. 'I believe that men adjust more easily to prison life than women because of their social conditioning, and that makes it easier to work with them.

'Men, in the main, still go to out to work more than women and the majority of their decisions are made for them by other people - their employers, girlfriends, wives, mothers. That doesn't apply to women, particularly those who have had their own homes and families.'

Institutions, by their very nature, make decisions for people, and women find this deeply distressing, says Ms Ellis.

She estimates that the male prison population splits into 40 per cent who are inadequate and manipulative and 60 per cent who just want to 'do their bird' and get out, whereas female prisons have double the number of 'inadequates' and 'manipulatives'.

'A lot of that is a reflection of the types of crime committed and the way the judiciary treat men and women differently,' she says.

'But you can't win with the public. One half of the population think I am running a holiday village and that I ought to flog prisoners three times daily, and the other half think I do that already.'

(Photograph omitted)

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