As 22-year-old Alex South inched through security to enter HMP Whitemoor – X-ray machine, handheld metal detector, sniffer dogs, cameras, ID checks – she felt petrified, and completely out of her depth.
Her first day as a prison officer [PO] would also be the first time she’d ever been on a prison wing. She had no idea what to expect.
‘I thought I’d see people who were “not like us” and I was thinking about the potential for violence,’ she says.
‘There’s that inverse logic – it’s human nature to run from danger but if an alarm went off in here, I’d be expected to run towards it. I’m not a fighter. What if I froze? I just remember feeling really small and very scared.’
HMP Whitemoor, a high-security men’s prison in Cambridgeshire, was close to South’s family home, hidden between fields and behind walls eight metres high.
As 22-year-old Alex South inched through security to enter HMP Whitemoor – X-ray machine, handheld metal detector, sniffer dogs, cameras, ID checks – she felt petrified, and completely out of her depth
‘Growing up, I’d never known it was there,’ she says. ‘I think that added to the mystery of it.’
Inside were 400 inmates, most serving life sentences. They included terrorists and gangland killers. There was even a man nicknamed ‘Henry VIII’ because he was known for killing his wives.
South had arrived via a circuitous route. After dropping out of university, she’d worked in bars where she’d learnt to read the room, manage a crowd and talk down a customer spoiling for a fight.
She’d also volunteered as a mentor for a young offender and loved it. ‘It sounds idealistic, but I thought working as a PO was a chance to do some real-world good.’
She is 33 now, and her new book Behind These Doors is a riveting account of prison life from a woman’s perspective.
It starts with her early years on the job, finding her way, building relationships with prisoners and learning ‘jail craft’ (a PO’s sixth sense that something is wrong). By the end, though, it’s a full-on horror show.
South is running towards ‘Code Red’ alarms (heavy blood loss) and ‘Code Blues’ (someone struggling to breathe). She’s knocked unconscious in a mass brawl and cuts down three suicide attempts in one week. It’s not surprising when she finally walks away. You can only admire her for staying so long.
It sounds idealistic, but I thought working as a PO was a chance to do some real-world good
The prison population in England and Wales is almost 86,000, with men accounting for 96 per cent. In 2021/22 the average cost per prison place was £46,696 a year and the reoffending rate after release is about 30 per cent.
It isn’t hard to access facts and stats like these, but for most of us, day-to-day life behind bars is unknown and unimaginable.
South’s book details everything from the smell of the cells (toothpaste, cheap deodorant, stale smoke and unwashed bedding) to the most popular reading material (self-improvement books, especially the manifestation bestseller The Secret).
She reveals the TV programmes prisoners gathered to watch – number one is Crimewatch – and the most coveted DVD doing the rounds – Insanity, the fitness workout series.
HMP Whitemoor (pictured), a high-security men’s prison in Cambridgeshire, was close to South’s family home, hidden between fields and behind walls eight metres high
In all prisons, inmates heavily outnumber staff, so order and stability depend on good relationships.
This is what South loved about being a PO. Many prisoners have no reliable relationships or mentors in their lives. One told her that he was 12 when his dad took him on his first armed robbery. So a good PO could be that first positive role model.
Fascinating new worlds also opened to her – South learned about drug dens, gang rivalries, gun caches and criminal codes of honour. ‘If I was expecting monster figures, it wasn’t in the people I saw sitting in the canteen, playing table tennis, making phone calls, going to the gym.’
A few acted inappropriately – during night shifts, one sex offender would wait until the other prisoners were asleep, then devise excuses to call her to the cell and hold her in conversation, self-harming when she tried to leave.
But these incidents were usually stamped out by the other prisoners. ‘There were older men who had daughters themselves. They did not allow it.’
It helped that Whitemoor operated in a strict environment. Most staff had decades of experience. Every corner was searched, checked then triple checked. Each day was scheduled to the minute, and men spent much of it in education, workshops or communal spaces.
She was there until 2015, when she moved to Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London.
He batted me off like I was nothing and, like a superhero, I got up and tried again. He knocked me against a wall, and I passed out
Scrubs was very different from Whitemoor. ‘It had three times more men,’ she says. ‘It’s Victorian, dark, rat-infested. There was not a single day I worked there when I did not see a rat – inside, outside, running over your boots. They’re everywhere.’
It was also chaotic. While Whitemoor was high security, Wormwood Scrubs is a busy local prison, serving the courts. The security South had known at Whitemoor was stripped right back.
Phones, flick knives and other weapons were rife, smuggled in by visitors or delivered direct to cell windows by drones. Because Scrubs is bordered by a public park, packages were often thrown over the prison walls to inmates.
Some of the parcels were well disguised; pigeons or rats that had been killed, disembowelled, stuffed with drugs and then sewn back up.
Other contraband was less serious. In her book South recalls seeing a drone deliver an illegal package to a prisoner’s window.
She ran to the cell and shoved open the door. Inside, the two prisoners were sitting at a table with the smuggled goods: ‘a couple of Big Macs, a side of fries and some chicken nuggets.’
She moved to Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London. Pictured: .A two-man cell at Wormwood scrubs
At Scrubs, budget cuts reduced staff to a minimum, which meant that they operated on an ‘emergency regime’, with prisoners locked inside their shared cells for 23 hours each day.
‘They got out for one hour,’ South says. ‘One hour to settle scores, to make phone calls with only eight phones on a wing, to have a shower when there weren’t many showers. There was no time for conversation, to form friendships. Anything could be a flashpoint for a fight.’
Bored, desperate prisoners set bedsheets on fire just to get staff to unlock the doors, and even those who hadn’t taken drugs before did now.
The prison ‘drug of choice’ is spice, a cannabinoid that comes laced with almost anything. Its effect on prisoners was devastating.
‘Some just got high, some became violent, some went into psychosis. One thought he was a lemon and tried to peel his skin off.’ Most heartbreaking for South was a prisoner she called Hashem.
‘He was so full of life, this ball of energy, and in 72 hours, spice made him unrecognisable.’ Hashem hollowed out his mattress and slept inside it.
In the day, he wore it as a sandwich board. He cried, yelled and ate his own faeces. She doesn’t know if Hashem ever recovered.
Equally terrifying was the violence. After six months working at Whitemoor, South witnessed her first major incident – a prisoner running amok with a shard of Pyrex from a broken dish.
The prison ‘drug of choice’ is spice, a cannabinoid that comes laced with almost anything. Its effect on prisoners was devastating (stock image)
At Scrubs, inmates had real weapons, not homemade ones, which they turned on themselves and each other every day. Of the three attempted suicides she cut down in a week, only one died. ‘Another prisoner, when he was saved, just said, “Let me die.” That replayed in my head a lot.’
The fighting was constant. At one massive prison brawl, South launched herself at one of the prisoners. ‘I’ve no idea why I went for the big one – I don’t know what I was expecting to achieve! He batted me off like I was nothing and, like a superhero, I got up and tried again. He knocked me against a wall, and I passed out.’
When she came round, another prisoner was crouched beside her, protecting her.
What kept her going? ‘There are lots of really resilient POs and I wanted to be one of them,’ she says.
‘In my first years, I loved the job so much and part of me was scared to admit that I didn’t any more. The most scary times weren’t even frightening when they were happening. You’ve got your adrenaline and you just have to deal with it. Afterwards, I’d begin to feel it.’
Outside work, South became hypervigilant, alert to everything. It was impossible to switch off. Loud noises, Tannoy announcements or raised voices would trigger panic.
‘I found it physically difficult to speak after work,’ she says. ‘I’d used all the energy I had, so when I left prison I had nothing left. I lived in a shared house near Scrubs and I knew my flatmates must have thought I was rude. I’d get home and give one-word answers.
‘I couldn’t talk about art and culture and gossip when people were killing themselves just down the road! I wanted to get to my room and have no noise at all. I just needed silence.’
In 2017, South moved to another high-security prison – HMP Belmarsh in South London, where prisoners were also spending 23 hours a day in their cells. The violence there was worse than it had been at Scrubs.
In her book she recalls finding a prisoner, Simpson, splashing cold water over himself, the skin on his shoulders red and peeling. His cellmate had boiled a kettle and poured it over him; in prison they call it being ‘kettled’.
Simpson was taken to hospital and South interviewed his cellmate, a first-time prisoner named Knowles. He admitted to everything immediately.
It transpired that Simpson had robbed Knowles’s cousin on the outside. He was terrified; Knowles knew that if he didn’t do something vengeful to Simpson
‘it would get back to people’. Even though he was the perpetrator, South felt slightly sorry for the man.
‘Not just because he was scared but because I suspected he didn’t quite realise what was to come. No one had ever done anything like that to Simpson before. No one would have dared.
‘Simpson was so taken aback by the suddenness of it all that he didn’t retaliate at the time. But he would.’
There was corruption among the staff at Belmarsh, too. One of South’s colleagues, an 18-year-old woman, smuggled in wraps of class A drugs for a prisoner she had fallen in love with.
When South spoke to the inmate – a man in his 30s with a track record of grooming staff – he said he didn’t feel bad for what happened: ‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world in here, Miss South. If you see an opportunity, you take it.’
In 2021, South left Belmarsh. ‘I’d joined for the talking, the listening, and that was no longer possible,’ she says. ‘In prison, you have all these people, many of whom want to do better and it could be such a huge opportunity.
‘I’d joined because I wanted to make a difference but I reached the point where I didn’t feel I could any more.’
Plus, she had begun a relationship and given birth to her first child. ‘The two worlds were not compatible,’ she says. ‘How could I go from Peppa Pig to running towards alarm bells?’
Now she is at home with a two-year-old and a baby, and her book is a plea on behalf of prisoners and prison staff – for investment and to be given a chance.
‘Being a PO was a huge part of my identity and a really big part of how I saw myself,’ she says.
‘Writing the book was a way of remembering who I was and all the things I did.’
She believes the job made her kinder, braver, more compassionate, but also paranoid and more on edge. She has never known stress like it, and yet she misses it.
‘I miss the prisoners, the staff, the chance to do good,’ she says. ‘Ultimately though, self-preservation comes first.’
- Behind These Doors by Alex South is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99*
- *TO ORDER A COPY FOR £14.44 UNTIL 6 AUGUST, GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £25.