‘I’ve seen people fall apart’: inside the nightmarish world of English and Welsh prisons | Prisons and probation

His week began by pulling a man from a homemade ligature and performing CPR to keep him alive. A few days later, Alex South rescued another inmate who was found hanging in his cell. And the work week ended with the prison guard rescuing a third prisoner who had tied a noose around his neck.

In between, deep within the towering red brick walls of Wormwood Scrubs, she had to deal with several serious incidents of self-harm each day.

“At the moment, you really don’t feel anything. You know it’s a weird thing to deal with, but the frequency it happens means your goal is to save lives,” she says.

South had entered the prison service in her early twenties hoping to make a difference, believing that an effective penal system could change lives.

Yet deep within the 148-year-old prison, South found herself locked in a fierce battle to save those who had concluded there was no point leaving the Victorian building alive.

The men frequently cut their wrists on the broken windows of the decrepit cells. Overcrowding meant that even those known to be prolific self-harmers were locked up in such dangerous environments.

“You’ve got to try to disconnect or you’ll never go to work,” said South, who recently left the prison service, disappointed by rising violence, staff shortages and self-harm. Since he left, things haven’t improved.

A few days ago, the Department of Justice revealed that in the first quarter of 2023 it had recorded 16,543 incidents of self-harm, an increase of 12% from the previous three months – or one every eight minutes . In women’s prisons, incidents of self-harm are at record highs, 11 times higher than in men’s prisons.

Alex South, former prison guard and author.
Alex South, former prison guard and author. Photography: Suzie Howell

And one Observer Today’s survey reveals a sharply deteriorating picture of the prison system as a whole, with three-quarters of prisons in England and Wales now having unsatisfactory standards in at least one respect. More than a third were deemed insufficiently safe.

South often thinks of the beleaguered colleagues she left behind, saying the conditions under which officers are required to work would stun the public.

“I’ve worked with people with the most acute emotional intelligence, the ability to read a room, to detect really subtle changes in mood,” she says. But the daily grind of violence and trauma could corrode even the most optimistic.

“Anyone who goes into that environment will struggle. I have seen people collapse.

A survey of 6,582 prison staff by the House Justice Committee, published last month, found that half of all prison officers in England and Wales do not feel safe in their prison.

New government data confirms these concerns and shows that attacks on staff are increasing sharply. Nearly 8,000 have been attacked in the year to March 2022.

“Can you imagine going to work every day and not feeling safe? People can’t care for others if they don’t feel safe themselves,” said South, now 33. increased violence as prisoners grew more frustrated, which, in turn, prompted more officers to leave.

“Austerity has made the job very difficult to do. Nobody joins the prison service because they just want to lock and unlock the doors.

The justice committee is currently investigating pressures on prison labor at a time when the prison population is growing faster than capacity.

Concern over the rise in inmate numbers last week prompted Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor to take the unusual step of posting an article online warning that the problem has “consequences for all of us “.

Special measures under an emergency program called Operation Safeguard – where prisoners are held in police cells because there are no free prison cells – were now common in some parts of the country, said Taylor said.

At the same time, entire wings of the prison, he added, were closed because there were too few officers to “run a regime safely”. In short, the service had gone from dysfunctional to failing.

South’s first posting – before austerity started to bite – was Cambridgeshire’s maximum-security prison, Whitemoor, where she encountered a functional and well-resourced facility.

Although Whitemoor held a large number of dangerous inmates, South only witnessed three violent incidents during his time there. By the time she arrived at Wormwood Scrubs in 2016, the impact of reduced resources was evident. There, she witnessed hundreds of such acts. Violence had become “normalized”. Dysfunction permeated every aspect of prison life.

South clung to the hope that, for some at least, prison would prove to be a turning point. Yet she encountered individuals desperate to escape a life of crime, but who would be denied a fresh start.

She remembers a violent London gang member who was a gifted writer. South asked him to write replies to letters in the Guardian – and would be amazed by its articulation.

But as her release date approached, he began to dread her. “He was released in the exact same area, where he had been harmed and where he had harmed other people.”

“Somebody can have this real internal motivation to change and you can have a lot of long talks with them if you have the time, but if you just release them in the same area, nothing changes.”

He’s back inside, convicted of participating in a high-profile shooting.

Yet despite the growing problems facing prisons, South remained hopeful that the system could be improved. In 2017 South received a Churchill Fellowship and began a world tour of prisons, mental health and criminology settings to find out how UK prisons could improve.

She traveled to Canada, the United States and Australia, and on her return sought to meet the then prisons minister – whom she does not want to name – to share her suggestions, which included more officer training and annual mental health check-ups. The minister dismissed South’s solution as “fluffy things to keep prison officers happy”. She left “feeling very deflated and a bit stupid”.

But she was also struck by the contrast between her Justice Department office and her own squalid and menacing workplace.

“It was very modern with a view of the city, an incredible skyline. I came from a place where there are rats and cockroaches everywhere, where the windows are broken.

“At the time, we were getting emails asking senior staff to bring a spare uniform as they didn’t have enough to supply the new staff. It underlined that we were living in different worlds.

South, whose recent book behind these doors recounts her experiences, says she speaks out because people still have no idea how terrible prisons are and how, instead of being rehabilitated, many inmates come out broken. “You’re seeing a real decline in people’s mental health as well as a real spike in violence or drug use.”

It remains haunted by vulnerable people who had been exploited by criminals on the outside, only to face new exploitation on the inside.

Men who first arrived for relatively minor offenses returned as murderers. Others would be released on a Friday to return on Monday. Nearly 40% of ex-convicts re-offend within the first 12 months, according to the data.

Has she ever wondered what families would think if they could see the conditions endured by their loved ones? After a long pause, she said, “It’s heartbreaking.”

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