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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 10:23 GMT
Working behind bars
Jamie Barker
The new recruits represent a new generation of prison officers
The dubious honour of housing some of the most violent and well-known prisoners in Britain, makes HMP Belmarsh one of most famous jails in the country.

The south-east London prison holds 921 inmates including Soham murderer Ian Huntley and train robber Ronnie Biggs.

It is also known as the prison where terror suspects are held.

But few people know what really happens in one of Britain's top security prisons.

For the first time prison bosses have allowed cameras into the jail for a new BBC documentary to find out what it takes to handle some of the most dangerous convicts in the country.

It takes nine weeks to train newly-recruited prison officers.

Candidates are not interviewed, the only requirement being a clean criminal record.

Nearly a third of all prisoners are from ethnic minorities, but less than 5% of prison officers are, something the Prison Service is attempting to address.

Moroccan bus driver Mustapha Bouker, Hindu civil servant Jaya Karir, 21-year-old Jamie Barker and a young Jamaican mother Sharifa Wade, represent a new generation of prison officers at Belmarsh.

They (prison officers) are in more danger than we are, they can end up in more trouble than we can
Inmate Ricky McDonald
Inmate Ricky McDonald, who has spent half of his adult life behind bars, likens the new generation of officers to "care bears" and said he longed for the old days when you "knew where you were".

"They'll learn but at the moment it's 'are you alright?, Do you want to see a doctor? Do you want to see a nurse?'

"But after about 18 months they'll be like 'get in your cell'. They'll become cold."

Officers are fast-tracked onto the prison wings after intensive training in handling convicts who are suicide risks and restraining violent inmates.

The control and restraint training is only one part of the course.

'Big trouble'

After their training the new recruits have to face guarding inmates without the help of their mentor.

A night shift for a prison officer at Belmarsh can often mean monitoring hundreds of prisoners single-handed.

Former civil servant Ms Karir, who at just over 5ft tall struggles to see into the prison door hatch, has to use a night light to check on an inmate who has been put on suicide watch.

Belmarsh opened in 1991
In 1991 there were between 150 and 200 prisoners being held
There are now 921 inmates
In May 2003 there were 240 foreign nationals being held at Belmarsh
"Sometimes I can't see anything," she said.

"I have to turn on the night light and that really agitated one cell mate and he threatened to kill himself, so I then had to use the night light to check on him every half an hour."

But the height issue does not phase the 47-year-old mother-of-four who pledged before her training: "I will be big trouble for anybody who gives me trouble."

Britain's jails are reaching bursting point and have the highest prison population in western Europe

The pressure is on prison officers to guard more inmates, with the added stress of rising prisoner suicides and complaints from inmates against them also on the rise.

Trainer Gill Lewis tells the new recruits that even a pat on the back can be construed as assault and officers must only communicate with their hands when a prisoner becomes violent.

Inmate McDonald said: "They [prison officers] are in more danger than we are, they can end up in more trouble than we can.

"There are too many grey areas in the system now, I personally don't like it."

Officers wearing protective clothing
Officers spend five days learning how to deal with violent prisoners
Trainer Rob Joseph said the average life expectancy for a prison officer after he or she has retired was between 18 months and two years.

"It's do with stress, the fear, constantly thinking, 'Am I going to get a slap today? Is he gonna do me?'."

Trusted prisoners are sometimes called on to protect officers from potentially violent inmates.

"There has been occasions when officers have come to me and said ''I'm going to leave your cell open while I deal with a drug addict'," said one "trusted" prisoner.

Recruitment targets

"It's very dangerous for them sometimes."

Mr Joseph said the Prison Service placed too much emphasis on trying to meet recruitment targets.

The Prison Service says all recruits are chosen on merit and go through a "robust assessment process".

But Mr Joseph said: "We've opened the flood gates by setting targets, and in reaching the targets we're not looking at who can do the job properly.

"We used to have a height restriction but that was considered 'height-ist'.

"We can't hire or fire them [prison officers]. We can only make recommendations - it's up to the hierarchy."

Screws - Inside Belmarsh, will be broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday 11 November at 2100 GMT.

'Friends' picked for Huntley
16 Jan 04 |  Cambridgeshire
Mobiles in top security prison
07 Oct 03 |  London
Biggs back behind bars
07 May 01 |  UK News

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