A jaw-dropping account of life as a prison officer in one of the country’s most notorious jails.
Neil ‘Sam’ Samworth spent 11 years working as a prison officer in HMP Manchester, aka Strangeways. A tough Yorkshireman with a soft heart, Sam had to deal with it all – gangsters and gangbangers, terrorists and psychopaths, addicts and the mentally ill. Men who should not be locked up and men who should never be let out.
Strangeways is a shocking and at times darkly funny account of life in a high-security prison. Sam tackles cell fires and self-harmers and goes head to head with some of the most dangerous men in the country. He averts a Christmas Day riot after turkey is taken off the menu and replaced by fish curry and stands up to officers who abuse their position. He describes being attacked by prisoners and reveals the problems caused by radicalisation and the drugs flooding our prisons.
As staffing cuts saw Britain’s prison system descend into crisis, the stress of the job – the suicides, the inhumanity of the system and one assault too many – left Sam suffering from PTSD. This raw, searingly honest memoir is a testament to the men and women of the prison service and the incredibly difficult job we ask them to do.
When I was in the final year of my law degree, I wrote a dissertation for my Criminology module on the treatment of prisoners with mental health issues by the criminal justice system. To help in my research, my boyfriend’s father (eventually to become my father-in-law), who was then Governor of HMP Lincoln, took me to the prison so I could interview their resident medical professionals and access material in the prison service library. He also gave me a tour. I never expected it to look like the set of Porridge, but it did, except a lot less fun. I have never been in such an intimidating place in my life, before or since, and the impressions it left on me are still with me 25+ years later.
I now have a couple of other friends and family members who work within the prison service, and hearing stories of their working lives brings back those impressions, and this audiobook did the same thing. Anyone who thinks that prison life is cushy, for either inmates or staff, needs to read or listen to this book, and their illusions will immediately be shattered.
Neil Samworth is a man after my own heart, a no nonsense Yorkshireman the like of whom anyone who spends any time in our beautiful county will have come across, and his writing is presented in the same fashion. The narrative is blunt and honest and pulls no punches and I found it absolutely fascinating, horrifying and upsetting in equal measure. He starts with some background into his life and career before he enters the prison service (which made me think our paths may have crossed during my visits to Hanrahan’s in Sheffield during my youth!) which is a useful grounding to get to know him and understand his perspective when he begins to talk about Strangeways.
Everyone has heard of this prison, it is notorious, particularly for the riots which occurred before the author’s time there. It is an old prison, one of those we imagine how prison is, if and when we ever think about it. Lincoln prison was the same, not one of the new, recently purpose built facilities and I think this is important, as it reflects the way they are run and the way the prisoners are managed and behave, and Samworth touches on this in his book. He is extremely honest about the conditions, the prisoners, the officers and management, and the Government management and funding of prisons over the years. I found his bluntness about every aspect of the service, criticisms of all sides where due, refreshing and believable. If you really want an insight into the Prison Service, here it is. It certainly chimed with everything I had already seen and heard from people I know who worked inside.
There are parts of this book that will break your heart, particularly for the people who have to work in this difficult environment, with some truly awful people and in terrible circumstances day after day. They, on the whole, deserve our attention, care, respect and thanks for what they do. You need to listen to books like this, and then ask yourself if you would be prepared to do this job, to deal with the things they have to deal with day after day and what it would cost to entice you to do it. Then ask if these people are suitably cared for and rewarded. You may well be surprised at how you feel afterwards.
The book isn’t a story as such, the narrative is a little disjointed and it is sometimes hard to see why it was ordered the way it was, but if you can get past that, it is definitely worthy of your attention. I have to warn you, there is quite a lot of slang and swearing in the book, violence, drug use and some extremely unpleasant episodes. That is the truth of life behind bars for everyone involved, unfortunately. I listened to this as an audiobook and the narrator was absolutely perfect for the text, I would highly recommend the audio version.
Strangeways is out now in all formats and you can buy it here.
About the Author
Neil Samworth worked as a prison officer in Strangeways, now HM Prison Manchester, for eleven years between 2005 and 2016, before an unprovoked attack by a prisoner left him physically injured and suffering from PTSD. His book Strangeways: My Life as a Prison Officer consists of his diary from this period.
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