04:44, February 18 327 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-18 04:44:09
public servant: my letter to the public  
 Mental health issues are rife in prison, but I'm not trained to deal with them

I am one of the new breed of prison guard, the cannon fodder sent in when Chris Grayling was justice secretary. In 2010 he decided to benchmark public sector prisons against the private sector – and every day I see the damage this has caused.

I work in a public prison and my journey has been eye-opening. There are several things that have shocked me in the couple of years I have been on the landings.

The most challenging thing about my job is dealing with prisoners with mental health problems. We are not trained for this. I have stood in cells with prisoners who have self-harmed and watched nurses patch them up and slowly become de-sensitised. I sat with a young man who had repeatedly sliced his tongue open, to stop him from hurting himself any more.

Following a futile attempt to talk to him about it I simply handed him a cup so that he could spit the blood in there rather than on the floor. We are not helping these young men. If anything the cells often exacerbate issues that they already have.

I wish I didn’t have to tell you that on many occasions I have opened cell doors and found people rocking on their beds. Been called unspeakable things by prisoners unable to cope with their surroundings, in need of a qualified mental health professional rather than a well-meaning but ultimately unprepared prison officer.

Benchmarking removed around 7,000 prison officers from the prison service. But more important was the experience they took with them.

Officers with 20 years of experience of the prison system and dealing with challenging individuals were replaced with recent graduates and young people with limited life experience. The fact that this has caused significant problems is not surprising.

Prison is meant to be rehabilitative. I hoped to be a part of that. The punishment is the removal of their liberty. We are not there to punish them further. The reality is that we are warehousing people that society doesn’t know where else to put.

There have been lots of reports that novel psychoactive substances (NPS) – known as legal highs before they were banned – have brought the prison system to its knees. This, unfortunately, is true. Having fewer staff on the landing is a problem because we are a deterrent; twice the amount of staff means double the chance of being caught.

When there are several landings not only are they difficult to man but it also leaves staff isolated and vulnerable. Challenging a large group of prisoners by yourself is something that staff have to do regularly and when you add the unpredictability that can result from drug taking it can be very intimidating.

The NPS problem is widely reported – but what you don’t hear is that every day prison officers save the lives of those who take these drugs.

I recently watched a colleague perform CPR on a prisoner who had “gone under” – a term we use for those who have overdosed. Overdoses happen with NPSs more often than other drugs because they are completely untested and every batch is different. It can be 200 times more potent than cannabis.

As a colleague continued to perform CPR under the supervision of a nurse the paramedics arrived. It doesn’t inspire confidence when you tell them what has happened and their faces drain of colour. We got him to hospital and he made a full recovery even discharging himself that same day. He had been clinically dead.

Liz Truss has a lot to do and is looking to bring in more officers. It will not be as many as we have lost and that experience is gone forever. I will continue to work hard with my colleagues and while I only have a couple of years in the job I am starting to make some headway.

Experience has given me more confidence. Only last week I was confronted by an irate prisoner who was completely nonplussed by my calm approach to his screaming at me. After a few minutes of shouting he seemed to run out of steam and at that point I walked him back to his cell. Adrenaline was flowing through me and it can be hard to remain calm but it is this kind of judgment call that I could not have made as a new starter.

But while I am still a prison officer many of those I started with have now moved on. Until that can be addressed the problems will persist.

This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact kirstie.brewer@theguardian.com

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