Each day, thousands of people drive past HMP Parkhurst thankful they will never go through the daunting prison gates.
The imposing building has, over the years, been ‘home’ to some of Britain’s most notorious criminals including The Kray twins, Moors Murderer Ian Brady, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and The Richardson brothers.
But there is a group of people who enter on a daily basis, whose job it is to listen, help, encourage, nurse and protect – the Prison Officers themselves. To the outsider, they are the custodians who lock up the prisoners and ensure they behave, but that could not be further from the truth.
The IW Observer was given exclusive access to interview three officers who have all had varying degrees of service.
Julia Moise, 31, only joined in March having previously been a Healthcare Assistant. She said: “I actually wanted to join a long time ago as I was looking for more of a challenge. I want to make a difference to people and help to facilitate them and make them more confident.
“People on the outside, looking in, have no idea of what is involved. We become everything inside. A doctor, nurse, psychologist – all of these jobs. We work directly with prisoners and rehabilitate them for the future. We change people’s lives, which is the most challenging part of the job. We want to give them the confidence to go back into society and not return to prison.
“Being a people person is a great help and rewarding in every aspect of your life. It’s important that the prisoners have someone who will listen to them and encourage them to maintain contact with their families.”
Julia was put through an intense 12-week course before starting full-time. She added: “We are taught how to get a rapport with prisoners, so they open up. But if something goes wrong, and there is an incident, we are all together as a team to support each other.
“I really enjoy it and have met some incredible people. I work with fellow officers who have great experience and who will back me up if something was to happen. We are like a family; it’s amazing.
“When I first joined, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but I can see I am making a difference. You don’t have to be big or strong to work in the prison; we are taught different techniques to deal with a variety of situations. It’s about being able to communicate with people, which is essential, and to show care and understanding.
“I would say to anyone thinking about joining – just take the risk; it’s worth it.”
The Isle of Wight Prison covers two sites, Parkhurst and Albany. The two Category B prisons merged with Camp Hill in 2009 and there are around 1,000 men housed there in a mixture of single and double rooms.
Two years ago, Jim Burton, 37, who has lived most of his life on the Island, decided to change his career. He was previously with a logistics firm dealing with haulage but a life in the Prison Service beckoned.
Jim was based at Albany, following a 10-week training course in Suffolk. He said: “The course was in-depth and you learn everything you need to know before you enter a prison. The job is a challenge; it’s not about locking up doors. No day is the same; it’s about rehabilitating the prisoners so they can move forwards.
“It’s a job anyone can do if they have the communication skills and drive. When you enter a prison, you are part of a team of officers with vast experience and they will guide and mentor you. Your life experience and personal skills will guide you on the right path. I love the job and I have never had a day when I have woken up and not wanted to go to work.
“You deal with any situations which is thrown at you. It’s about building relationships with prisoners. As part of a key worker scheme you are responsible, and work with a small group of prisoners. You encourage them with their recovery and help them to maintain family ties. You pick up how to communicate with them, dealing with them on a daily basis and getting to know them personally.
“It’s a real career and, depending on your aspirations, promotion is within your grasp if you work towards it. I love it and would advise anyone to give it a go. If I didn’t join when I did, I would never have joined. If you are willing to apply yourself, it’s a great career and there is a great camaraderie throughout the service.”
Mick Groombridge, 61, is the most experienced officer we spoke to, having worked in the service for 32 years. Although he lived on the Island at the time, he wanted to work in London and his first prison was the Category A, Brixton.
Mick had previously worked in the meat trade, where he was self-employed but wanted a job with a steady income.
He explained how he was first attracted to a life in the Prison Service. He said: “I witnessed a Prison Officer out in the community dealing with a really tricky situation and I just thought: ‘Wow, that was impressive’. I also read a book by Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and that struck a chord with me.
“My initial training was two weeks at Camp Hill and I was then sent to Wakefield for a training course where I was taught the basics and given a grounding.
“I wanted to work at a prison in London and asked for Brixton. I had six years there. It was very interesting and lively and could be quite a challenge and very risky. I had to deal with some serious incidents there. It was a challenge but worthwhile: it’s all about how you deal with it. As a new officer, when you first go into a prison establishment there are individuals in the immediate vicinity who are very good at what they do and you have to look at them and learn from them. They will show you how to deal with the tricky situations.
“It’s not just about Prison Officers behind the walls. Inside there is full staff bringing a wide range of skills to help the prisoners. There are nurses, teachers, an education department, catering, prison chaplains and more who all work successfully together to make everyone feel safe.”
After his time at Brixton, Mick returned to the Island when he worked at Parkhurst, again a Category A in those days. But the biggest change he found on his return was the travelling times. He said: “It was really strange that I could get to work inside 30 minutes and park for free outside. I was living outside London when I was at Brixton travelling 100 miles a day and there was nowhere to park!”
Another big change he has found over the years was the amount of local people working there. He said: “In those days, there was hardly any local recruitment; nowadays there are lots of Island people working here which, I believe, is a massive plus. If you are good with people and help them with their problems it’s the job for you.”
After five years at Parkhurst, Mick spent several years at Camp Hill before it closed. He had a brief spell at High Point in Suffolk before returning to Albany.
Mick said: “Camp Hill closing was a great shame. I think the work we did there was very underrated. We would get a lot of young Island lads on remand. People who were in and out of prison all their lives; people who had done something stupid once and got into trouble and people who were vulnerable.”
Having guarded Category A prisoners – murders, armed robbers, rapists and paedophiles – he isn’t able to, and wouldn’t, discuss specific prisoners. But prison life can clearly take a toll on those inside who attempt suicide and this, in turn, heaps even more pressure on the officers themselves. He added: “I have been in a situation on several occasions where I have helped to save a life. It’s unique and worth it, but everyone dreads being put in that position. Afterwards you don’t know how you are going to cope or how you are going to feel.
“During the day we try and pick up a sense of how prisoners are feeling, whether they are having negative thoughts or are being withdrawn. I work with people who are not in a good place mentally and we have to help them. If you are locked up for a long time without any help, then when you are released you can be a very angry person. We are here to point them in a different direction. I’ve never thought of us a key workers but we are now recognised as such. Things have changed over the years, for the better, and it’s also great to see more female officers. It’s a tremendous step forward and important for the future.”
Anyone interested in a career in the Prison Service should visit :