What life’s really like within these walls

There has been a prison complex on the Isle of Wight for nearly 200 years, and during that time it has housed some of Britain’s most vicious and sadistic criminals, as well as, perhaps surprisingly, scores of young innocents.

There has been a prison complex on the Isle of Wight for nearly 200 years, and during that time it has housed some of Britain’s most vicious and sadistic criminals, as well as, perhaps surprisingly, scores of young innocents.

The mere name ‘Parkhurst’ has been synonymous with prison life in Britain throughout many decades, and even when it merged with its two sister prisons, Albany and Camp Hill, in 2009 to form Her Majesty’s Prison, Isle of Wight, it still retained its name as one of the wings of HMP IW, along with the other two.

When the Camp Hill site closed its doors for the last time in March 2013 as part of overall Prison Service reorganisation, the prison population on the Island was reduced from 1,700 to 1,100, virtually all with long term sentences and around a quarter of them serving life or indeterminate sentences. But it is a fact that a ‘life sentence’ rarely means staying in prison for the rest of one’s life. Albany and Parkhurst now hold mainly sex offenders, looked after by an overall staff of more than 550, including around 230 prison officers and 70 more senior prison officers.

But contrary to popular belief, none of the inmates incarcerated at HMP IW is ever allowed to be released on the Island and become part of the community. Dougie Graham, acting Governor of HMP IW, made that eminently clear in this exclusive interview for the Beacon.

Dougie said: “It is complete myth that prisoners who originally came from the mainland are released here. Most of them are serving their sentences in what is a long-term Category B prison here on the Island. But before anyone is released they progress to a Category C prison on the mainland to serve part of the sentence, and then maybe to a Category D open prison, to prepare for release.

“Most prisoners serve much of their sentence here, progressing to lower category prisons before they are let out. It would be very unusual for someone to be released from this prison. In a way I can understand why people living on the Isle of Wight think prisoners are released into the community here, but that is simply not the case.

“The only Isle of Wight prisoners kept in prison here are those on remand. If they are either found not guilty, or not given a custodial sentence, then they go back into the community. But if found guilty and given a custodial sentence, they are normally sent to Winchester prison before being allocated to another prison on the mainland.”

Although HMP IW now holds hundreds of men who have committed very serious sex offences, including one household name who lost his glitter following his despicable acts, some of the country’s other most notorious villains have also been locked up here over the years. They included the Kray twins, the Richardson brothers, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and Moors murderer Ian Brady. Because of its location Parkhurst, then a high security Category A prison, was generally reckoned to be not only one of the toughest jails in Britain, but one that was virtually impossible to escape from.

That all changed on January 3rd, 1995 when three prisoners – two murderers and a blackmailer – broke out to enjoy four days of freedom before being recaptured. Those four days changed Parkhurst’s status, seemingly forever. Following a major enquiry, it was downgraded to a Category B prison, as it still remains.

Parkhurst actually opened back in 1778 as a military hospital and children’s asylum, and over the following 60 years it became a prison for children, many of whom were despatched to Australia and New Zealand. They were referred to as ‘apprentices’ rather than ‘convicts’, but whatever their description, they were in fact merely outcasts.

Around 1,500 boys between the ages of 12 and 18 years made the journey to the other side of the world and as a result Parkhurst came under fierce criticism from all quarters, especially those campaigning against the use of imprisonment for children, most notably Mary Carpenter, an English educational and social reformer.
It was not until 1863 that Parkhurst held young male prisoners as opposed to minors. Camp Hill became the Island’s second prison in 1912, and in the mid-1960s that Albany opened its imposing doors. The merger took place nine years ago, before the three wings became two in 2013.

As one would expect, it’s not an easy life ‘inside’ even though the emphasis is very much on reforming and re-educating inmates for possible release. They are expected to work around six hours a day from Monday to Friday, with wages varying from £5 to £20 a week, just enough to buy phone credit to call home or buy toiletries and confectionery. But prisoners are no longer able to smoke, this was banned at the prison in January last year. They are locked in their cells from 6.15 in the evening until 8.15 the following morning, and if they refuse to work, then sanctions are taken against them. But there are also incentives that can be rewarded with such items as a TV in the cell. Some are even allowed games consoles, but there is no internet access.

Within the massive complex of HMP IW there are excellent work shop facilities, including a wood mill and textiles factory, and most of the furniture for the huge new HMP Berwyn, near Wrexham, has been made within the Island’s prison walls. Curtains and furnishings have been made for another mainland prison, while produce from the gardens of HMP IW often finds its way into the site’s kitchens.

“A wide range of work activity is undertaken as part of helping prisoners gain qualifications, so that as they go through the system and come out the other side, they have something they can do purposefully with their lives,” explained Dougie Graham, a family man, who has been acting Governor of HMP IW just over 12 months.
Dougie first moved here nine years ago as Deputy Governor of Parkhurst, shortly after a very bad Chief Inspector’s report into the prison. He became Deputy Governor of HMP IW following the amalgamation, and prior to coming to the Island he worked in several high security prisons on the mainland.

He said: “We have gone beyond the days when, in 2008 inspectorate reports largely reported the prisons as ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ in areas such as safety, respect, and purposeful activity. That was difficult for staff and for those in custody. Since then, we have seen a steady improvement in performance. In the last inspection in 2015 these improved, being reported as ‘reasonably good’ or ‘good’. That doesn’t mean we are not suffering the challenges that other establishments have felt, but we have managed to weather those difficulties better than some places.

Although there have been improvements, there is still a complex range of issues to be addressed, and being a prison officer is a complex task. They have to use authority with discretion; know inspectorate reports largely reported the prisons as ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ in areas such as safety, respect, and purposeful activity. That was difficult for staff and for those in custody. Since then, we have seen a steady improvement in performance. In the last inspection in 2015 these improved, being reported as ‘reasonably good’ or ‘good’. That doesn’t mean we are not suffering the challenges that other establishments have felt, but we have managed to weather those difficulties better than some places.

“It is not our job to punish people while they are in prison, but to educate them and prepare them for release. There are many different demands prison officers may have to deal with on any one day, and the complexity of the role is often underrated.”

HMP IW now falls under the new directorate of Long Term and High Security Estate, which means it is managed alongside high security or long term prisons where men are serving very long sentences. As part of the recent change, along with some of the investment that is coming back into prisons, ‘key workers’ are to be introduced. They will be prison officers in charge of six to eight men, working around such issues as support and rehabilitation.

There will be additional resources to fund that, and a recruitment drive for new prison officers is now taking place for HMP IW. Over the next year around 60 new prison officers will be required to take on the new responsibilities and compensate for retirements and other departures.

For details, or to apply to become a prison officer, visit www.prisonandprobationjobs.gov.uk

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