With prison riots on the rise and the highest amount of women working in prisons ever, Grace Brewer explores what it’s like to be a female prison officer.
2016 saw staff members held hostage at HMP Exeter, 2 prisoners escape from Pentonville, £1m worth of damage caused in the Bedford riot and 240 men were moved from HMP Birmingham following one of the worst prison riots in 25 years.
Not for Girls?
In July, assaults on staff hit a record high with 15 attacks on officers happening every day in UK prisons. But, the National Offender Management Service released figures showing a different rise all together.
The number of women in the job reached its highest ever, with 46.8% of staff, female. A huge 10.07% increase since 2013. It seems despite the budget cuts and staffing shortages, more women than ever before are working in male prisons. And with this high-testosterone environment becoming increasingly more violent, is this a job for girls?
Senior Officer Lois unlocks and re-locks an array of bolted iron doors inside HMP Lewes. She enters the A-category prisoners’ residence. The men are on their ‘association’ period, their cells are unlocked for 2-3 hours a day when prisoners can socialise with other prisoners.
A group of men wolf whistle as Lois enters the room. She awkwardly ignores their cat calls and makes her way to the small office protected by metal bars.
“I had 2 separate prisoners in about 5 minutes call me a slag, right in my face.”
At 28 and 5ft 5, Lois describes how some inmates see her age and gender as a weakness. “Obviously there are different ways male prisoners can abuse you.” She looks up at the men now playing pool. “There are threats of sexual violence. Being called a slag and a slut is not something that a male officer will deal with.”
She sees herself as lucky to not have experienced much of this abuse. “I did have one incident where I was running visits a few months ago, I had 2 separate prisoners in about 5 minutes call me a slag, right in my face.” In a room filled with tables of prisoners and their visitors waiting just outside, two men becoming angry can swiftly turn to aggression.
In 2006 Madeline Petrillo researched the gender issues female Probation Officers face when working with high risk men. Madeline talked about the ways in which male prisoners can “charm female officers or intimidate them to take control of situations.”
She found that officers who became mothers had a much harder time working with sexual offenders or men who had committed abuse against women or children. Knowing men that they see daily, had hurt a child or raped a woman became “harder for them to detach their work from what they were experiencing emotionally.”
An Inside Opinion
One of the prisoners is given permission to offer his opinion on female officers. Leigh Bridle is serving life imprisonment for wounding with intent. Approaching 9 years into his sentence, Bridle is housed on a C-category wing at the prison.
“If I’m angry about something, I prefer having a male prison officer. But if they’re female, they know we’re not going to clobber them.” As he waits for an officer on duty to fill the shelves with toilet roll, he explains how most inmates treat women with respect and those who don’t are often targeted by other prisoners behind closed doors.
Expert, Madeline sees the effect women have on prison environment as powerful, she suggests more women are being employed in male prisons as a technique to de-escalate conflict with inmates.
So dealing with cat calls, manipulation from prisoners and a complete loss of innocence is all in a day’s work for a female officer, making the role extremely different for men and women. And by treating all staff equally, gender specific training isn’t on offer for women. People ask “is it a job for girls?” Lois thinks so: “I’ve built great working relationships with people, it can be difficult but every so often, you manage to help someone and it’s rewarding.”
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