Confessions Of A…Women's Prison Officer

Photo: Jason Farrar/EyeEm.
Until recently, very little attention was paid to the women embroiled in the UK's criminal justice system. Men make up the vast majority of the country's prison inmates (95%) and there are currently just 12 women-only prisons in England and one in Scotland, which may explain why so many of us know very little about them and what goes on inside their walls.
As tempting as it may be to infer things from film and TV, we shouldn't base our understanding on Orange Is The New Black or our memories of watching ITV's Bad Girls. The reality is mightily different – apparently there's nowhere near as much violence – as one women's prison officer revealed to Refinery29.
Michelle Leary, 34, is a senior officer at HMP Downview women’s prison in Surrey. She has been in the role for over a decade and also has experience in men's prisons. Day to day, it's her job to create a safe, secure prison environment that supports and encourages prisoner rehabilitation, empowering women to fend for themselves once they leave prison. She currently supervises a wing that holds just over 200 women and manages between 10 and 15 staff on any given day. When she's not at work, Leary is a single mum to three daughters. Here, she talks candidly about the realities of working in a women's prison.
I make sure that the whole regime runs smoothly – that all the staff are in the right place and are doing the right thing, and making sure all the prisoners are well cared for. I'm basically in charge of the daily running of what happens in my unit. In my prison, I take every single crime you can imagine, from petty thieves and shoplifters to murderers, and everything that goes in between. I speak to the prisoners every day. Sometimes it can be incredibly hard because there's only one of me and 205 of them, and the vast majority of them feel like they need to talk to me because if they need something like emergency phone credit, I'm the only person who's allowed to sign it off.

A lot of people ask me if 'Orange Is The New Black' is anything like my job and no, it's not that exciting

Our staff are a higher percentage female, which is how it's supposed to be within a female estate, but issues with recruitment have meant it hasn't always been easy to recruit women into the job. I think that's probably because of the bad press, because all people seem to know about prisons is that they seem to be violent places, but luckily there's very little violence where I work.
I watched the first two series of Orange Is The New Black. I don't think it made any difference to how much interest people showed in my job. Our prison had really bad staffing issues when the show first aired and it's only because of pay increases and similar policies that things have changed. It wasn't as if Orange Is The New Black came on Netflix and everybody was like, 'I want a job doing that,' because they didn't. A lot of people ask me if Orange Is The New Black is anything like my job and no, it's not that exciting.

The biggest challenge is that women don't like the word 'no'

The difference between men and women's prisons is that women like to talk while male prisoners tend to be more physical. Women like to moan and they like you to hear about it, so they will be extremely vocal rather than want to fight with you. Something like the kitchen getting somebody's food wrong by accident can create issues among women. When you go to prison, particularly for women, the things you get given and what you're entitled to are very important to you, and if I or another member of staff accidentally makes a mistake or forgets to do something, that can create a big issue. They get pissed off with each other – as anyone would if they had to live in a house with 200 other women they'd never met before. There's always going to be at least one person who irritates you.
The biggest challenge is that women don't like the word 'no'. That starts a lot of arguments. I'm a very fair person and very black and white, so if you're not allowed something you're not going to get it. It doesn't matter how many times you stand at my office door asking me the same question, I'm not going to change my mind. Sometimes that can be really hard work and very frustrating.
The other hard thing is dealing with people who self-harm, because it's sad and upsetting. I've done this job for nearly 14 years, so I know what's professional and what's not professional. I have a duty of care towards them; it's my responsibility that they're well cared for and it can be incredibly hard to deal with some of the things they say. I'm responsible for dealing with anybody who might have suicidal thoughts and I have to listen to things like that. A lot of women in my care have been through some horrific experiences and it's not stuff you really want to hear every day, but in the time I've worked in the prison I've developed a calm mindset.
I found it quite hard going from a female prison to a male prison because I talk a lot. With every woman on my unit I can guarantee that when I see them in the morning or outside they'll say 'Good morning miss, how are you?' There will be a little bit of conversation, whereas men don't do things like that. I remember on my first day working at High Down [a men's prison in Sutton], opening the cell doors and just being like 'Morning!' and the looks on their faces were of, 'Why are you saying good morning to me? Go away'. I also had a few wolf whistles while working there. Would I call that sexist behaviour? Maybe a little bit, but would I pay any attention to it? No. I'd just tell them it wasn't appropriate. If anything, I'd say male prisoners are more respectful of female prison officers then they are of male prison officers.
One of the best things about the job is seeing a prisoner get parole after working with them for so long. It's a great sense of achievement when you finally get somebody in the right place and rehabilitate them, putting them back out in the community so they can be a decent person. Some of them stay in touch with me once they leave; I've had lots of thank you letters. I set up an industrial cleaning course at the prison which gives prisoners proper qualifications and set some of the women up with that.

If you're thinking about doing this job, you need to be tough, be confident within yourself, have integrity, and you can't be intimidated by people

The vast majority of women are going to go out into the community and see jobs available at places like Tesco, but that doesn't always work for people. With the industrial cleaning course we wanted to give them the opportunity to set up their own business and be their own boss – we've managed to get some contracts together, to get them into hospitals. Three of the women still have their own businesses which they run very successfully.
I'd recommend the prison service as an employer of women. I don't think people realise how family-friendly they are. I manage to fit my job around my childcare needs and the prison service understands this. If you're thinking about doing this job, you need to be tough, be confident within yourself, have integrity, and you can't be intimidated by people. It also has a caring side to it and you need to be able to empathise with people who may have come from a completely different walk of life. It's a very safe, stable job in our current economy – there are always going to be people who commit a crime.

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