If you want an honest, shocking insight into what it’s like to be a prison officer, look no further than this memoir by a former ‘screw’ at HMP Manchester, the Category A men’s prison better known as Strangeways.
Working in an under-resourced high-security prison, dealing with violent and unpredictable offenders, witnessing terrible events and sometimes being injured, it’s no wonder that Samworth’s sense of humour gets him through each day. As with many other jobs, building supportive friendships with colleagues is essential and this keeps him going. Some of his workmates become his best friends, particularly those on the healthcare wing (arguably the most challenging area). Others, however, he does not get on with at all. There are bullies and schemers, there is incompetency and corruption. Samworth has a forceful personality – he’s big, he’s from Yorkshire, and he accepts no nonsense. He has a sense of fairness and he follows his instinct, even if it means reporting a fellow officer’s abuse of prisoners and being shunned as a ‘grass’ as a result. You find yourself rooting for him all the way, joining in with his horror at the incidents he witnesses, his compassion for victims, his admiration for the smart ways prisoners have of getting what they want, and his frustration with the management of the prison.
The stress of his job and the truly nasty things he witnessed meant that Samworth’s mental health really suffered. He ended up with PTSD, which is not all surprising, and eventually left for a new career in reflexology. Towards the end of the book he paints a very bleak picture of today’s prisons, which suffer from overcrowding, understaffing, radicalisation and an epidemic of zombie drugs. He’s not at all hopeful about the future, but he gives his opinions on what could be done to save the UK’s prison service in case the people in charge are in the mood to listen.
Strangeways (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2018) is an important book and a page-turner, but it’s not perfect. Although Samworth explains prison slang and procedures, there were still moments when I had no idea what he meant. Some of the sentences didn’t seem to make sense. I also felt that when he was starting to talk about a particularly notorious or otherwise interesting criminal, he sounded like he was going to talk about them in detail or reveal something shocking, but it often didn’t lead anywhere and he’d start a new paragraph about something else.
Overall I’d recommend this book – providing you can cope with the gruesome descriptions, which are all the more shocking because they actually happened and are happening now.