‘Everybody gets a second chance’ - HMP Wayland prison officer describes rewarding work of rehabilitating offenders
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018
The rewarding work of rehabilitating some of the most dangerous men in our county is what kept prison officer Michael Best in his job for nearly three decades.
Mr Best joined Category C men's prison HMP Wayland, in Griston near Thetford, when he was just 24-years-old after spending around four years at HMP Leeds.
He has been a prison officer all his working life.
'I'm quite a people person,' he said. 'When I was looking at jobs, which was quite a long time ago, I just liked being around people and was quite a good communicator, which are important skills for this job.'
In 28 years, he has seen the ever-changing dynamic of prison life, dealing with prisoners that have been banged up for crimes which did not even exist when he first pulled on his uniform and tackling challenges that come with drug smuggling and prison safety.
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But the 51-year-old said more often than not, the demanding role can be rewarding, with there being a real drive to turn the lives of offenders around.
One memorable example, he said, was working as a life sentence prison officer sometime in the mid 90s, when he was responsible for a 14-year-old inmate convicted of murder.
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'It was very early in my career, I was fairly young myself,' he added. 'He was involved in a fight and a weapon was involved, he ended up stabbing the other fellow.
'He got to Wayland and he still looked very young.'
At the time, there was a scheme at Wayland Prison which enabled prisoners some time out in the community. Mr Best said he took his teenage inmate out regularly on the bus, sometimes to go shopping.
Two years after he was released, Mr Best said, the prison governor handed him a letter written by the ex-convict.
'He now runs his own building firm. And that was a guy who was on the top end of the offence scale,' he added.
Mr Best estimated around 30pc of inmates come into Wayland with no literacy or numeracy skills. As part of their role, prison officers would encourage them to join educational workshops which go up to degree level with Open University courses.
Inmates are also equipped with tablets in their cells where they can schedule meals and visitation, giving them some responsibilty and introducing routine back into their lives.
There are also around 19 workshops for prisoners to gain a range of skills in industrial trades to help them find employment on the outside, from motor mechanics to bricklaying.
Working alongside Jobcentre Plus, prisoners who are trusted to serve their sentence in open conditions can set up work with local businesses, who visit the prison on a monthly basis to a create a link with the community.
'We have got absolutely amazing facilities at the prison,' Mr Best said. 'Rehabilitating offenders is a big part of a prison officer's job.
'You get asked 'can you rehabilitate them?' and my opinion is, and I say to all staff, if you can get a man out of bed and get them to a workshop they are on the rehabilitation path.
'Everybody gets a second chance.'
But Mr Best's job does not come without its setbacks. Although never feeling fearful for his own life, there have been reports across the country of prison officers close to staging a mass walkout over jail conditions, including overcrowding and inmate violence.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice found that in July there were 863 spaces for 910 prisoners, with staffing levels at the beginning of 2017 at 139, below the 187 required, according to the Independent Monitoring Board.
But Mr Best said generally most staff felt safe in the prison, adding: 'We have body worn cameras and cameras throughout the prison which is really good, the more the better. It makes it a safer place, we can't be everywhere all the time.'
But he admitted drugs were a constant issue in many prisons, stating: 'Prison officers are working constantly to deal with drugs and the effects of them, it's quite a demanding part of the job.'
With vast experience under his belt, Mr Best has assumed the role of prison officer entry level trainee mentor, where he has spent the past 18 months priming new recruits.
'Two weeks ago, a guy came in doubting his ability, I gave him extra training and advice and personal support,' he said.
'He'd been in one morning, came to see me and explained he did the same to a problematic offender and managed to get him to do a whole week of [the] education [workshop], which doesn't sound like a lot but all his life he has not attended school.
'He got his mojo back. For me that's one of the best parts of this job, watching officers grow and becoming more confident.'