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An interview with Phil O’Brien by John O’Brien
Phil O’Brien started his prison officer training in January 1970. His first posting, at HMDC Kirklevington, in April 1970. In a forty-year career, he also served at HMP Brixton, HMP Wakefield, HMYOI Castington, HMP Full Sutton, HMRC Low Newton and HMP Frankland. He moved through the ranks and finished his public sector career as Head of Operations at Frankland. In 2006, he moved into the private sector, where he worked for two years at HMP Forest Bank before taking up consultancy roles at Harmondsworth IRC, HMP Addiewell and HMP Bronzefield, where he carried out investigations and advised on training issues. Phil retired in 2011. In September 2018, he published Can I Have a Word, Boss?, a memoir of his time in the prison service.
John O’Brien holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Leeds, where he specialised in autobiography studies.
You deal in the first two chapters of the book with training. How do you reflect upon your training now, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in the service?
I believe that the training I received set me up for any success I might have had. I never forgot the basics I was taught on that initial course. On one level, we’re talking about practical things like conducting searches, monitoring visits, keeping keys out of the sight of prisoners. On another level, we’re talking about the development of more subtle skills like observing patterns of behaviour and developing an intimate knowledge of the prisoners in your charge, that is, getting to know them so well that you can predict what they are going to do before they do it. Put simply, we were taught how best to protect the public, which includes both prisoners and staff. Those basics were a constant for me.
Tell me about the importance of the provision of education and training for prisoners. Your book seems to suggest that Low Newton was particularly successful in this regard.
Many prisoners lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. For anyone leaving the prison system, reading and writing are crucial in terms of functioning effectively in society, even if it’s only in order to access the benefits available on release.
At Low Newton, a largely juvenile population, the education side of the regime was championed by two governing governors, Mitch Egan and Mike Kirby. In addition, we had a well-resourced and extremely committed set of teachers. I was Head of Inmate Activities at Low Newton and therefore had direct responsibility for education.
The importance of education and training is twofold:
Firstly, it gives people skills and better fits them for release.
Secondly, a regime that fully engages prisoners leaves less time for the nonsense often associated with jails: bullying, drug-dealing, escaping.
To what extent do you believe that the requirements of security, control and justice can be kept in balance?
Security, control, and justice are crucial to the health of any prison. If you keep these factors in balance, afford them equal attention and respect, you can’t be accused of bias one way or the other.
Security refers to your duty to have measures in place that prevent escapes – your duty to protect the public.
Control refers to your duty to create and maintain a safe environment for all.
Justice is about treating people with respect and providing them with the opportunities to address their offending behaviour. You can keep them in balance. It’s one of the fundamentals of the job. But you have to maintain an objective and informed view of how these factors interact and overlap. It comes with experience.
What changed most about the prison service in your time?
One of the major changes was Fresh Start in 1987/88, which got rid of overtime and the Chief Officer rank. Fresh Start made prison governors more budget aware and responsible. It was implemented more effectively at some places than others, so it wasn’t without its wrinkles.
Another was the Woolf report, which looked at the causes of the Strangeways riot. The Woolf report concentrated on refurbishment, decent living and working conditions, and full regimes for prisoners with all activities starting and ending on time. It also sought to enlarge the Cat D estate, which would allow prisoners to work in outside industry prior to release. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t yet come to pass sufficiently. It’s an opportunity missed.
What about in terms of security?
When drugs replaced snout and hooch as currency in the 1980s, my security priorities changed in order to meet the new threat. I had to develop ways of disrupting drug networks, both inside and outside prison, and to find ways to mitigate targeted subversion of staff by drug gangs.
In my later years, in the high security estate, there was a real fear and expectation of organised criminals breaking into jails to affect someone’s escape, so we had to organise anti-helicopter defences.
The twenty-first century also brought a changed, and probably increased, threat of terrorism, which itself introduced new security challenges.
You worked in prisons of different categories. What differences and similarities did you find in terms of management in these different environments?
Right from becoming a senior officer, a first line manager at Wakefield, I adopted a modus operandi I never changed. I called it ‘managing by walking about’. It was about talking and listening, making sure I was there for staff when things got difficult. It’s crucial for a manager to be visible to prisoners and staff on a daily basis. It shows intent and respect.
I distinctly remember Phil Copple, when he was governor at Frankland, saying one day: “How do you find time to get around your areas of responsibility every day when other managers seem tied to their chairs?” I found that if I talked to all the staff, I was responsible for every day, it would prevent problems coming to my office later when I might be pushed for time. Really, it was a means of saving time.
The job is the same wherever you are. Whichever category of prison you are working in, you must get the basics right, be fair and face the task head on.
The concept of intelligence features prominently in the book. Can you talk a bit about intelligence, both in terms of security and management?
Successful intelligence has always depended on the collection of information.
The four stages in the intelligence cycle are: collation, analysis, dissemination and action. If you talk to people in the right way, they respond. I discovered this as soon as I joined the service, and it was particularly noticeable at Brixton.
Prisoners expect to be treated fairly, to get what they’re entitled to and to be included in the conversation. When this happens, they have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It’s easy to forget that prisoners are also members of the community, and they have the same problems as everyone else. That is, thinking about kids, schools, marriages, finances. Many are loyal and conservative. The majority don’t like seeing other people being treated unfairly, and this includes prisoner on prisoner interaction, bullying etc. If you tap into this facet of their character, they’ll often help you right the wrongs. That was my experience.
Intelligence used properly can be a lifesaver.
You refer to Kirklevington as an example of how prisons should work. What was so positive about their regime at the time?
It had vision and purpose and it delivered.
It was one of the few jails where I worked that consistently delivered what it was contracted to deliver. Every prisoner was given paid work opportunities prior to release, ensuring he could compete on equal terms when he got out. The regime had in place effective monitoring, robust assessments of risk, regular testing for substance abuse and sentence-planning meetings that included input from family and home probation officers.
Once passed out to work, each prisoner completed a period of unpaid work for the benefit of the local community – painting, decorating, gardening etc.
There was excellent communication.
The system just worked.
The right processes were in place.
To what extent do you feel you were good at your job because you understood the prisoners? That you were, in some way, the same?
I come from Ripleyville, in Bradford, a slum cleared in the 1950s. Though the majority of people were honest and hardworking, the area had its minority of ne’er-do-wells. I never pretended that I was any better than anyone else coming from this background.
Whilst a prisoner officer under training at Leeds, I came across a prisoner I’d known from childhood on my first day. When I went to Brixton, a prisoner from Bradford came up to me and said he recognised me and introduced himself. I’d only been there a couple of weeks. I don’t know if it was because of my background, but I took an interest in individual prisoners, trying to understand what made them tick, as soon as I joined the job.
I found that if I was fair and communicated with them, the vast majority would come half way and meet me on those terms. Obviously, my working in so many different kinds of establishments undoubtedly helped. It gave me a wide experience of different regimes and how prisoners react in those regimes.
How important was humour in the job? And, therefore, in the book?
Humour is crucial. Often black humour. If you note, a number of my ex-colleagues who have reviewed the book mention the importance of humour. It helps calm situations. Both staff and prisoners appreciate it. It can help normalise situations – potentially tense situations. Of course, if you use it, you’ve got to be able to take it, too.
What are the challenges, as you see them, for graduate management staff in prisons?
Credibility, possibly, at least at the beginning of their career. This was definitely a feature of my earlier years, where those in the junior governor ranks were seen as nobodies. The junior governors were usually attached to a wing with a PO, and the staff tended to look towards the PO for guidance. The department took steps to address this with the introduction of the accelerated promotion scheme, which saw graduate entrants spending time on the landing in junior uniform ranks before being fast-tracked to PO. They would be really tested in that rank.
There will always be criticism of management by uniform staff – it goes with the territory. A small minority of graduate staff failed to make sufficient progress at this stage and remained in the uniform ranks. This tended to cement the system’s credibility in the eyes of uniform staff.
Were there any other differences between graduate governors and governors who had come through the ranks?
The accelerated promotion grades tended to have a clearer career path and were closely mentored by a governor grade at HQ and by governing governors at their home establishments and had regular training. However, I lost count of the number of phone calls I received from people who were struggling with being newly promoted from the ranks to the governor grades. They often felt that they hadn’t been properly trained for their new role, particularly in relation to paperwork, which is a staple of governor grade jobs.
From the point of view of the early 21stC, what were the main differences between prisons in the public and private sectors?
There’s little difference now between public and private sector prisons. Initially, the public sector had a massive advantage in terms of the experience of staff across the ranks. Now, retention of staff seems to be a problem in both sectors. The conditions of service were better in the public sector in my time, but this advantage has been eroded. Wages are similar, retirement age is similar. The retirement age has risen substantially since I finished.
In my experience, private sector managers were better at managing budgets. As regards staff, basic grade staff in both sectors were equally keen and willing to learn. All that staff in either sector really needed was purpose, a coherent vision and support.
A couple of times towards the end of your book, you hint at the idea that your time might have passed. Does your approach belong to a particular historical moment?
I felt that all careers have to come to an end at some point and I could see that increasing administrative control would deprive my work of some of its pleasures. It was time to go before bitterness set in. Having said that, when I came back, I still found that the same old-fashioned skills were needed to deal with what I had been contracted to do. So, maybe I was a bit premature.
My approaches and methods were developed historically, over the entire period of my forty-year career. Everywhere I went, I tried to refine the basics that I had learned on that initial training course.
Thank you to John O’Brien for enabling Phil to share his experiences.
A conversation with: Barry Thacker, Deputy Chief of Police, The Falklands, South Georgia, and South Sandwich Islands
It’s May 1982, holidaying in Somerset, where new friendships in the making were overshadowed by the Falklands War. Faith, Pam, Mark, Sally, Denise and Barry …
Each day we bought and read together the Times newspaper, the broadsheet format detailing the horrors of war, the loss, the gains, the heartbreak of lives sacrificed, the images of destruction. The Falklands War will forever be etched in my memory. We all kept in touch for a few years, but then we all went our separate ways.
Fast forward almost 40 years.
I’m sat at my computer engaging in a zoom conversation with Barry Thacker, Deputy Chief of Police of the Falkland Islands. Reminiscing about that holiday back in 1982. Barry was 18, I was 17 with our lives ahead of us. Never knowing that all these years later our paths would cross again.
Tell me a little about your family background.
I am from a small mining village on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border. My dad, a miner all his life, died prematurely at 69 with pneumoconiosis. My mum is still going well at 90. I am the youngest of 4 and had a comprehensive education. Life was a little tough during 1984 and the UK miners’ strike but as a family we got through it. My wages kept us and some friends afloat.
When you left school what was your first job?
Fruit and veg assistant at a local wholesaler. It was where I met Ivan Bamford, my supervisor, who was a special constable. After a few weeks, an opportunity arose on a government YTS (Youth Training Scheme) at the police station, I felt it would give me experience into a career I really wanted to pursue. It wasn’t long into the YTS that I was taken on full time as an admin clerk and when I hit 18 there was no recruitment so I joined the Derbyshire Special Constabulary working for Ivan again.
Why were you unsuccessful in joining the Police Cadets, did you ever think of giving up and choosing a different path?
I know it is a cliché, but I always wanted to be a cop after receiving a police pedal car for Christmas one year. When I left school there were still paid police cadets, so when I was in the 5th year (Y11 now) as Nottinghamshire police were recruiting cadets, I applied and was successful with the entrance exam. However, I wasn’t successful in my ‘O’ level (GCSE) English so was told to wait until I was 18 and try straight for the regular police.
You eventually started working for the police by finding another route. Do you think that part of your character is to not give up but find alternatives to situations?
I am a big believer in things happening for a reason and although not knowing at the time as you reflect on your life things become evident. Whatever setbacks we have in life I always try to see the good and by entering the police at the bottom, so to speak, I can appreciate the frustrations of all ranks. It is that emotional intelligence which I like to think has got me to where I am today looking after the policing for 3 overseas territories, The Falklands, South Georgia, and South Sandwich Islands.
You were presented with a silver baton, explain what that was for.
I attended my initial 14-week training at Ryton on Dunsmore police college. As it had taken me many setbacks to get where I wanted to be I was determined to prove myself, I focused my efforts and became class leader and never scored less than 90% on my weekly and course exams. At pass out I was awarded the Commandant’s baton for top student on the course.
My initial posting as a regular PC was the East of Derby City, a multicultural deprived area of the city.
Being brought up in a small Derbyshire town was a far cry from working in Derby. What were some of the challenges you faced?
The innocence and trust I was used to in a small village was a far cry from inner city Derby. I wasn’t averse to deprivation and need but the support of a village wasn’t always there in an often faceless city.
It was my first time away from home, living in a small council owned flat. Initially I had litter, food and other unmentionables posted through my letter box, everyone knew it was a police flat. The anti-social behaviour towards me was short lived, I became established in the estate, I think like life in general it’s very much how you interact and deal with people that gets you results; yes, I was a cop, but I was their cop and they often sought my advice ‘off the record’ but with the understanding I was still a cop and on occasions had to take action on what they told/asked me.
Over your 32-year career with Derbyshire Constabulary, you received 8 commendations for your work. Can you expand on a few?
As a young cop I was sent to a boy/girl friend splitting up and when I arrived the young man had poured petrol over the girl’s car and was going to set it alight. Following a struggle which resulted in us both getting covered in petrol from the can he had used I had, for the first and only time in my career, struck someone with my truncheon – proportionate force – to make him release the lighter he was trying to use to set us and the car alight.
A businessman was kidnapped as he left his factory in Leicester and driven to Birmingham with a demand for £1.5m from his family for his safe release. I was appointed negotiator coordinator for the 5 counties of the East Midlands and had to staff this incident through mutual aid between all the forces, as well as maintain trained negotiators to respond to others calls for negotiator input. At one stage I was managing the kidnap in Leicester and 2 suicide interventions in Nottinghamshire and Northampton. This was I think one of the most stressful yet rewarding parts of my career, saving all lives. The 3 offenders from the kidnap received a total of 90 years imprisonment.
You received a Certificate in Counter Terrorism from St Andrews in 2007, what led you to study?
As part of my role as County Partnership Inspector, part of my portfolio was that of the prevent part of the government’s Contest anti-terrorism agenda, the other parts being prepare, pursue, and protect. I had to coordinate police and partner agency resources to prevent the threat of terrorism within the county. So, to increase my knowledge and support my role as a Home Office terrorism trainer, I did the course.
Serving 32 years with the Derbyshire Constabulary is quite a commitment
Yes, I had some good times with amazing people and some truly inspiring leaders. The police service isn’t just a job but a calling, a family atmosphere of mutual respect and willingness to help and support each other; there are some terrible incidents officers witness. I’ve had numerous ones. For example, I’ve been handed a severed head in a carrier bag, you need that support to get you through. There is a lot of media negativity and society kick back to the police, but we are the ones who are there to always give that help and support to others putting our own feelings aside until the job is done.
You took retirement around your 50th birthday. Did you plan it that way?
That is the way the police pension works; you pay in 14% of you pay throughout your 30-year career to retire at this age. I did the extra 2 years to establish a project I started of a multi-agency web-based information sharing system.
From having active roles in the community for so long how did it feel for that chapter in your life to close?
It was difficult and takes time to get over the fact you have no powers, handing over my warrant card after so long was a big thing. But the constabulary try to prepare you and, as I have said previously, the support of family and network of friends gets you through it.
How important has it been for you during your police career to be authentic?
I owe a lot to my humble beginnings and how my parents raised me and the standards and morals they instilled in me. My faith has been tested at times but I have always come through and grown through life lessons; at times it was the only thing keeping me going.
Retirement did not last long as you “missed the buzz of the Police” So, you applied for a very unusual position, far away from friends and family and initially became Senior Constable with the Royal Falklands Police on a 2-year placement. So, what changed as you are still there?
I saw the advert on LinkedIn and fancied an adventure and the experience of a Southern Hemisphere life. I also thought of the experience I could bring to the role and so an enriched service to the community. I thought what an opportunity to forget about budgets, staffing, politics, policies, etc and returned to the role of Constable where I started many years ago.
The Falkland Islands is a truly awesome location. The scenery, wildlife, sunrises and sunsets, and amazing stars at night together with a lovely community. So a 2-year contract was signed. After just 9 months I was promoted to deputy Chief of Police and a further 2 year contract was signed, so I’m currently in my 3rd year here finishing at the end of 2022. Then let’s see what the next chapter of my life has in store.
I have had the privilege of meeting the Chiefs of the other Overseas Territories and I feel blessed to be looking after the ones I do, but who knows? Maybe somewhere a tad warmer next?
How different is policing on the Falkland Islands?
I have policed deprived areas, I’ve policed affluent areas, and everywhere in between. Each area is unique and there is good everywhere, sometimes a tad more difficult to find but it will always be there. The Falkland Islands has a population of around 3,000 (by comparison Derbyshire Constabulary had more staff working for them) is very much a community that people reminisce of; the community is great and most people know each other.
There is very little aquisitive crime and people are honest and genuinely care about their lifestyle, each other, and the environment they share with the wildlife. There is also a military camp and I have developed an exceptional working relationship with them, something I couldn’t have done in the UK and the experiences I would never have been exposed to in the UK.
Being personal friends with His Excellency The Governor and his wife are, again, the sort of opportunities I couldn’t even dream about in the UK. However, with the island being so law abiding, any breaches of the law are magnified in ways which they never would be in the UK.
I am very much aware of the privileged position I hold and the additional restrictions that puts on my social life in addition to those of a regular police officer.
You once wrote “I am passionate about community work especially giving a voice to the most vulnerable and believe in the encouragement and mentoring of young people helping them to achieve their full potential” how are you able to put this into practice where you are now?
I continue to believe in community which I hope I have demonstrated throughout this conversation. During my time as Senior Constable here I took on the role of school liaison. I have been able to be there for these young people, helping them continue their studies in the UK and have enjoyed watching some of them grow into independent adults.
If I can help guide and break down any barriers between young people and the police then that must be a good job – as with the rest of the community – to be appreciative of their lives, to take an interest but be firm and fair; enforcing the law without fear or favour, malice, or ill will.
To summarise I have had a fulfilled career as a UK officer and still doing the job I love helping and supporting people in need.
We all carry hang ups, problems and insecurities and not everyone knows how to deal with their own issues and interactions with others. Someone once told me people will forget what you say to them but not how you make them feel.
Compassion and understanding go a long way to endear us to each other.
All photographs used with the kind permission of Barry Thacker
Sat drinking my Earl Grey tea at the train station on my way to a London prison, I was approached by a young man. He was dressed in grey jogging bottoms, a hooded jacket and a union Jack bobble hat, carrying a small bag and a small blanket tied to the straps.
He asked me for any loose change and I asked him what he needed it for. In a hushed voice he said it was for a bed for tonight yet it was only 11:15 am. He explained the hostel would cost £12 for 5 nights. I asked him if they provided food he said yes. I apologised for not having any change with me but said I hoped he would manage to get the money together and told him to take care.
There are many like this young man; you could see the hopelessness in his eyes and his manner.
We live in such a rich country yet there are so many who struggle financially for various reasons.
It wasn’t really the poverty of that young man that struck me, but the way other people in their fine clothes completely ignored him.
Even if we are not in a position to help we can still show kindness. We are all capable of prejudices, even when we don’t see the full picture. I think we need to stop living our lives with our heads in the sand!
This is an article that I wrote last year with my good friend David Scott concerning a suffragette extraordinaire!
Constance Lytton: Living for a Cause
David Scott and Faith Spear
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
In Prisons and Prisoners: Some personal experiences by Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, published 100 years ago this month in March 1914, Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton presented one of the most significant challenges to 20th Century anti-suffrage politics. In so doing she put herself forward as a “champion of women” (Lytton, 1914) in the hope that one day women would attain political equality with men.Prisons and Prisoners is a comprehensive and at times a harrowing personal account of her four prison sentences as a militant suffragette. The book is a compelling insight into the mind of a young woman consumed by a cause which would prove to be instrumental in prison reform and votes for women,as well as tragically being a contributory factor to her death.
Desperate to find some way of empathising with the other suffragettes, Constance Lytton had a desire to stand beside those who were fighting. She was with them not as a ‘spare part’ but as a comrade. Most famously, to avoid receiving special treatment and privileges as a result of her family connections, she took on the guise of ‘Jane Warton’ and in so doing personally experienced the horrors of prison, including force-feeding. Although her health suffered, her story is one which shows courage, determination and an undeniable dedication to equality and justice (Lytton, 1914).
Concentrating attention on political injustice and votes for women, Constance Lytton brought notice toclass and gender disparities in punishment and the struggles for the rights of women, always maintaining that the suffragette’s militant actions were political rather than criminal. This all from a woman that described herself as having an exaggerated dislike of society and of publicity in any form and yet remarkably was at the same time a militant suffragette who took part indeputations to Parliament and prolonged periods of penal incarceration (Lytton, 1914; Haslam, 2008).
Lady Constance Lytton is not the only woman from a privileged background who has written about her prison experiences. The famous Irish rebel, Countess Constance Georgine Markievicz (1927/1973), most well known for her participation in the 1916 Easter rising, wrote extensively about her time in prison. Indeed, her prison letters were published to huge acclaim and are still considered today to be of great political significance. In more recent times – October 2013 – Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the UK’s government economic service,published her account of her three and a half days incarcerated in HMP Holloway (12th-15th March 2013)and eight weeks inHMP East Sutton Park Open Prison (15th March – 12th May 2013). Her book, Prisonomics, which ultimately seeks to predicate penal change on an economic rationale rather than on humanitarian concerns, has not been so well received. The reaction is partly because it cannot be considered as representative of the lived realities of most women in prison,partly because of the privileged status she was accorded insideprison and thevast economic resources at her disposal,and partly because of the support she was given in writing the book and her failure to identify closely with the painful realities of other prisoners.Yet perhaps the most damning indictment comes when the book is compared to the prison writings of people like Countess Constance Markievicz or Lady Constance Lytton,for then it becomes evident just what is missing from Prisonomics.
Lytton’s experiences of imprisonment
After being arrested for being part of a deputation marching to Downing Street on 24th February 1909, Constance Lytton was sentenced to four weeks’ imprisonment in HMP Holloway. In Prisons and Prisoners,she provides extraordinarily rich descriptions of prisonconditions, daily routine, fellow prisoners and prison wardresses in Holloway prison at that time. Although initially held in the hospital wing because of her poor health, following acts of resistance which in effect amounted to self-harm,she was allowed to join other prisoners on ‘the other side’ in the main wings (Lytton, 1914). She had a brilliant eye for detail and provides a number of clear and vivid accounts of sometimes overlooked aspects of prison life. For example, she describes how her prison clothes, with broad arrows stamped over them, were often ill-fitting, stained, unironed and looking unwashed even after they had been to the laundry. Further, the poor design and cut of her prison shirt was not just uncomfortable but so bad it “looked like the production of a maniac” whilst her prison shoes were too small and painful to walk in (Lytton, 1914). The prison cells were small, bitterly cold and poorly ventilated, making it hard for prisoners to breathe, never mind stay warm. Beds were uncomfortable whilst pillows were “stuffed with thunder”, making sleep and rest difficult under the best of circumstances and, when compounded by noise, impossible (Lytton, 1914).
In Prisons and PrisonersConstance Lytton draws the reader’s attention to the lack of privacy, including the ironies of being in so many ways alone in prison yet at the same time not having the opportunity to retreat to a private space of one’s own. She recounts the monotony of prison daily routine where days collapse into each other and the general dragging of time engendering feelings of wastefulness. She complains about the rigid enforcement of petty rules and the judgemental opinions of wardresses which make prisoners feel like they belong to “a race apart” (Lytton, 1914). Insightfully, Constance Lytton also recognised the difficulties wardresses had in understanding how the pains of imprisonment shape prisoners’ experiences, for such things the prison official can only “witnesswithout sharing them”(Ibid). She rightly concludes that this results in a general failure on the part of prison officials to correctly read the feelings, meanings and actions of those they detain.
Constance Lytton acknowledged that her prison experience was mitigated somewhat by who she was. Despite the poor conditions she encountered, some improvements had been made on her arrival, including the supply of knives and forks which had not been available to prisoners in Holloway before her time there.As perhaps only an aristocrat would, she yearned for an authentic prison experience, and noted how other women prisoners seemed dejected, lifeless, listless, detached from each other and haunted by their own suffering, anxiety and bitterness (Lytton, 1914). On a number of occasions in her reflections on her time in Holloway prison,she uses her pen to poetically describe the abnormality, pain, sadness and venomous nature of penal incarceration, leaving the reader in no doubt of her repugnance of the penal machinery and its inevitably destructive results.
The prison from here looks like a great hive of human creeping things impelled to their joyless labours and unwilling seclusion by some hidden force, the very reversal of the natural, and which has in it no element of organic life, cohesion, or self-sufficing reason. A hive of hideous purposes from which flows back day by day into the surrounding stream of evil honey, blackened in the making and poisonous in result. The high central tower seemed to me a jam pot, indicative of the foul preserve that seethed within this factory for potting human souls (Lytton, 1914).
Despite all the bleakness of the prison experience, Constance Lytton emphasised above all else those moments when humanity and the human spirit were able to overcome the brutal indifference characterising daily prison routines. She writes about the kindness and compassion of other women prisoners (especially other suffragettes) and the brief glimpses of humanity that she saw hiding behind the “masks” worn by wardresses when performing their duties (Lytton, 1914). Indeed, for her such “rare occasions of gladness outweigh from their importance the much more numerous experiences of gloom, anxiety, anger and physical suffering” (Ibid). Yet she never became blinded by these brief moments of “gladness”, keeping her sights firmly upon carefully describing the “nightmare of horror” of HMP Holloway and a dehumanising system which trapped both prisoners and wardresses (Ibid).
Shortly after her release from Holloway prison, Constance Lytton was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment for a second time, on this occasion on Saturday 9th October, 1909 for throwing a stone at the car of Sir Walter Runciman in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Once imprisoned, she immediately went on hunger strike at HMP Newcastle. Although refusing medical examination, her health condition was still officiously checked and, afterabstaining to eat foodfor three of the days into her one month sentence (Monday 11th – Wednesday 13th October, 1909), she was released. Her release was ordered – according to Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone –because of concerns regarding her heart condition. Unlike working class women suffragettes on hunger strike in prisons, the aristocrat Constance Lytton had not been force-fed. The belief that her class background had shaped her treatment in prison led to a fundamental change in hertactics.
‘Jane Warton, Spinster’ and Walton Prison
The writings of Lady Constance Lytton on Holloway and Newcastle prisons are undoubtedly worthy of commemoration in their own right, but what she did next was truly remarkable, making Prisons and Prisoners one of the most unique prisoner autobiographies ever written. After hearing about the force feeding of a working class suffragette of her acquaintance, Miss Selina Martin, and another named Miss Leslie Hall, while on remand at Walton Prison in Liverpool, Constance Lytton hatched a plan that would entail,if necessary, “sharing the fate of these women” (Lytton, 1914). Her intention was to transcend her class background in an attempt to understand the lived experiences of working class women prisoners.In so doing, she hoped to express political solidarity with the suffering of less fortunate others and to use her own frail body as the central way of achieving this.
Whilst visiting Manchester in early January 1910, she disguised herself with a most ridiculous hair-cut, cheap glasses and even cheaper clothes and then rejoined the WSPU[Women’s Social and Political Union] as ‘Jane Warton, Spinster’ (Lytton, 1914). She had chosen her new name carefully:the first name was taken from Jeanne of Arc (Jeanne is translated as either Joan or Jane)whilst the surname was derived from her relatives the ‘Warburtons’ but shortened to ‘Warton’ to appear more ordinary.She hoped the real meaning of her name ‘Jane Warton’ would give her strength in what she anticipated would be difficult times ahead (Ibid).
‘Jane Warton’ was subsequently arrested on Friday 14th January 1910 after participating in a protest march about the force feeding of working class women suffragetteslike Selina Martin in Walton prison. ‘Jane Warton’ started her hunger strike in the police cells that Friday evening, a couple of days before she was to begin her sentence at Walton Prison. Just as she had done so under her real name, when in prison ‘Jane Warton’ refused medical examinations. There was, however, to be no further investigation into the health of working class suffragette ‘Jane Warton’ and 89 hours into her hunger strike, force-feeding began. Between Tuesday 18th and Saturday 22nd January 1910, ‘Jane Warton’ was to have liquidised food poured into a tube forced into her stomach through her mouth on eight separate occasions.
At 6.00pm, Tuesday 18th January1910 her first force feeding started. The medical officer and five wardresses entered her cell with the “feeding apparatus” (Lytton, 1914). There was no attempt to medically examine ‘Jane Warton’ and the half-hearted made attempts by the medical officer to induce her to eat unsurprisingly failed.
I offered no resistance to being placed in position, but lay down voluntarily on the plank bed. Two of the wardresses took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth… The sense of being overpowered by more force than I could possibly resist was complete, but I resisted nothing except with my mouth… He seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he plied my teeth with the steel implement… He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would feed me through the nose.The pain of it was intense and at last I must have give way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet in length.The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had gone down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back by back and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out (Lytton, 1914).
When the force-feeding was over the doctor slapped ‘Jane Warton’ on the cheek and left her cell (Ibid).
I could not move, and remained there in what, under different conditions, would have been an intolerable mess. I had been sick over my hair, which, though short, hung on either side of my face, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with it, but the wardresses told me they could not get me a change that night as it was too late, the office was shut. I lay quite motionless, it seemed paradise to be without the suffocating tube, without the liquid food going in and out of my body and without the gag in my teeth… Before long I heard the sounds of forced feeding in the cell next to mine. It was almost more than I could bare (Ibid).
‘Jane Warton’ continued to vomit following being force-fed on further occasions (Ibid). Her physical frailty was noted by the medical officer but remarkably when her heart was checked by a junior doctor,he exclaimed “Oh ripping, splendid heart! You can go on with her” (Ibid). From her fourth to eighth feedings the doctor and wardresses were more gentle, for they had realised that ‘Jane Warton’ was someone else in disguise, even though they remained unsure of her true identity. Her physical and emotional strength was virtually broken and at her feeding on Friday 21st she was “convulsed with sobs” (Ibid). Following outside intervention from her family,she was released from HMP Walton on the morning of Sunday 23rd January 1910.
Writing, reception and legacy of ‘Prisons and Prisoners’
When Constance Lytton (‘Jane Warton’) was finally released from Walton prison on 23rd January,a major political scandal followed immediately. The then Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, claimed that ‘Lady Constance Lytton’ had been released from Newcastle prison when she went on hunger strike because she had heart disease, yet in her guise as ‘Jane Warton’ had been subjected to force feeding and was released due to “loss of weight and general physical weakness”(Lytton, 1914; Haslam, 2008). Before Constance Lytton, some 35 other women suffragettes had been force-fed whilst on hunger strike, but none of these suffragettes were members of the ruling elite and their sufferings during force feedings had largely been ignored. Lady Constance Lytton’s treatment as ‘Jane Warton’ by contrast was a major political embarrassment, although the extent of the fall-out from her revelations and the concerted petitioning of her brother and sisters remain unclear. Although Herbert Gladstone ended his tenure as Home Secretary shortly after the release of ‘Jane Warton’, it is debatable whether the two events were linked.The personal consequences for Constance Lytton of her ‘force feeding’, sadly, are undoubted. Following herrelease, she was confined to her bed for six weeks because her heart was so weak, and in the autumn of 1910 a heart seizure temporarily paralysed her. Her health never fully recovered and although the initial paralysis eased,two more years of suffering from heart seizures followed (Lytton, 1914).
Remarkably, Constance Lytton somehow found the passion and energy to continue as by this time she had personal insight complete with understanding, but most of all a strategy, and yet again she was arrested and sent to Holloway between 21st – 28th November 1911. Although the sentence was for a month, members of her family paid the requisite sum for her release and so she served one week only. Tragedy was to strike her on 5th May 1912, when Constance Lytton suffered a stroke. In Prisons and Prisoners she wrote:
… had a stroke and my right arm was paralysed; also, slightly my right foot and leg. I was taken from my flat to my sister’s house … from that day I have been incapacitated from working for the Women’s Social and Political Union, but I am with them still with my whole soul (Lytton, 1914).
This remarkable and courageous woman wrote her book Prisons and Prisoners with her left hand as a result of the paralysis. She spent the final years of her life (1912-1923) an invalid at Knebworth, cared for by her mother and hired nurses, one of which she closely befriended. As the Letters of Constance Lytton, selected and arranged by Betty Balfour (Lytton, 1925) published posthumously in 1925 indicate, Constance Lytton was a prolific letter writer prior to her stroke in 1912, but following this was able to write only very few personal letters, showing us just how much of a struggle it must have been to write Prisons and Prisoners with her left hand. Christabel Pankhurst on 20th March 1914 wrote “Prisons and Prisoners is in itself a triumph of will – a great conquest of the spirit over bodily infirmity”. Indeed it was.
The story of Constance Lytton as detailed by her own hand, and that of others, caught the imagination of both her peers and fellow suffragettes. Her story was first to come out in a fictionalised form, as a thinly disguised character in the classic Gertrude Colmore (1911) novel Suffragette Sally. Her struggle also had a far reaching effect on legislation. This can be illustrated by the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge of Ill Health) Act, which became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. It was rushed through parliament in 1913 to allow the discharge of hunger-striking suffragettes from prisons as a response to growing public disquiet about the use of forcible feeding. This Act allowed for the early release of prisoners who were so weakened by hunger striking that they were at risk of death. However, they were to be recalled to prison once their health was recovered, where the process would begin again.Though hardly a victory, political pressure continued to mount and finally,in Constance Lytton’s lifetime, propertied women aged over 30 got the vote1918.
As a consequence of her actions ‘for this cause’ (Houston, 2001), Constance Lytton had many that were grateful for the sacrifice she gave. Below are some of the many testimonies:
The Outlook (28th January 1910) “Whenever the annals of the human race are preserved, this deed of hers will be treasured up as a priceless possession”
Emmeline Pethick Lawrence (28th January 1910)
“[her act] will be written in letters of gold upon the tables of human history”
MrsCoombe Tennant, (visiting justice, 1925, cited in Balfour, 1925)
“prisons today are different from what they would have been had she not gone down into hell.”
Constance Lytton died at the age of 54. At her funeral Emmeline Pethick Lawrence placed a palm leaf on the casket, with the statement:
Dearest Comrade – You live always in the hearts of those who love you and live forever in the future race which inherits the new freedom you gave your life to win (cited in Miles and Williams, 1999).
When looking back at Prisons and Prisoners 100 years on, it is clear that the book is not only an important historical artefact in terms of publicisingthe struggle for women’s equality but also as aremarkable testimony of one women’s experience of imprisonment. Prisons and Prisoners provides insights neglected by some penological narratives of that time and directly contradicts official reports and documents–most famously those of then Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone (see Haslam, 2008). Undoubtedly, Prisons and Prisoners continues to humanise prison studies and to enrich understandings of prison life, both past and present.
It also provides an antidote for those drawn to the publicity-craving celebrity autobiographies of the political elite imprisoned for their own corruption. When contrasting Constance Lytton’s Prisons and Prisoners with the more recent Prisonomics by Vicky Pryce (2013)it seems the two books provide almost a mirror image of each other. Prisons and Prisoners is a personally courageous attempt to uncover the terrible truth regarding the experiences of both ordinary prisoners and suffragettes. Rooted in radical and emancipatory politics, it questions imprisonment because it is a dehumanising environment creating unnecessary human suffering. In comparison Prisonomics central focus is upon the economic, rather than human, costs of penal incarceration. But what distinguishes the two books more than anything else is the political commitments of the authors to their given cause. Whereas a strong political commitment is evident in nearly every act undertaken by Constance Lytton as described in her autobiography it is noticeable in the main through its absence in the writings of Vicky Pryce. As such it is difficult to imagine commemorating the publication of Prisonomics in the next century.
Nonetheless Prisons and Prisoners, and what it attempted to achieve, isalso not without difficulties. Despite her best efforts, it was always an impossible ambition for Constance Lytton to entirely transcend class boundaries and gain an experience that could reflect the lived realities of ordinary women prisoners. Even as ‘Jane Warton’ she could never experience the restricted choices and power-differentials shaping pre- and post -incarceration for working class women offenders. Her understanding of working class women in prison was always informed by a pastoral and maternal ideology rather than by an ideology of political emancipation and resulted in a tone which in the main sought to foster sympathy for prisoners through their ‘victimhood’ rather than actualising change motivated by an understanding of prisoners as free-willed autonomous agents. Consequently, whereas suffragette women prisoners (Constance Lytton included) are presented as engaging in acts of resistance, working class criminal women prisoners are constructed as passive and unable to fight back against penal oppression (Lytton, 1914).
Furthermore, Constance Lytton made little progress in providing a platform from which the actual voices of either working class women suffragettes or ‘ordinary’ prisoners could be heard, although her stroke and subsequent paralysis in 1912 may have made such endeavours physically impossible. Nevertheless, in Prisons and Prisoners and in the wider writings of Constance Lytton (Lytton, 1909, 1910a, 1910b), we only ever hear her privileged voiceand significant though this is, it can only provide us with a partial narrative of that historical moment. Despite these concerns, the courage, bravery and commitment of Constance Lytton to expose the brutal treatment of working class women in prison, whatever the cost to her fragile health, must be recognised for the heroism it undoubtedly was. It represents a victory of the human spirit overwhat appear to be insurmountable odds and,100 years on, is a story that can inspire those working against dehumanisation and for human equality in all of its rich and wonderful diversity.
Balfour, B (1925) “Introduction” in Lytton, C. (1925) Letters of Constance Lytton, selected and arranged by Betty Balfour London: Heinemann
Gertrude Colmore (1911) Suffragette Sally Toronto: Broadview Press
Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Houston, B. (2001) For this Cause: Finding the meaning of life and living a life of meaning. Castle Hill: Maximised Leadership Inc.
Lee, A. (2008) Suffragette Sally by Gertrude Colmore Toronto: Broadview Press
Lytton, C. (1909) No votes for Women”: A reply to some recent Anti-Suffrage Publications. London: A. C. Fiefield
Lytton, C. (1910a) “A Speech by Lady Constance Lytton, Delivered at Queen’s Hall, 31st January 1910” pp 326-332 in Lee, A. (2008) Suffragette Sally by Gertrude Colmore Toronto: Broadview Press
Lytton, C. (1910b) “The prison experience of Lady Constance Lytton” in Votes for Women28th January 1910 pp 301-305 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Lytton, C. (1914) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Spinster London: William Heinemann
Lytton, C. (1925) Letters of Constance Lyttonarranged by Betty Balfour London: Heinemann
Markievicz, C. (1927 / 1973)Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz London: Virago Press
Miles, P. And Williams, J. (1999) An Uncommon Criminal: The Life of Lady Constance Lytton, Militant Suffragette 1869-1923.Knebworth: Knebworth House Education and Preservation Trust
Pankhurst, C. (1914)“A Prisoner’s Book” inThe Suffragette, 20th March 1914, pp 323-326 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Pethick Lawrence, E. (1910)“Lady Constance Lytton” in Votes For Women28th January, 1910, pp 314-315 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Pryce, V. (2013)Prisonomics London: Biteback
Scott, D. & Spear, F. (2014) “Constance Lytton/ Jane Warton Prisons and Prisoners: 100 years on” in Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, September 2014
The Outlook (1910) editorial of Votes For Women, 28th January, 1910 pp 311-314 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
David Scott teaches at Liverpool John Moores University. He is a former coordinator of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control and an associate editor of the Howard Journal. He is currently completing a book for Palgrave entitled The Caretakers of Punishment: Power, Legitimacy and the Prison Officer.
Faith Spear is an independent Criminologist and is a member of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group and Vice-chair of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB YOI/HMP Hollesley Bay).
For further details, see Lytton (1909).
HMP East Sutton Park is a Grade II listed 16th Century building
Criticism includes the limited time she spent inside and her social background before and after prison.
 Undoubtedly relationships were distorted as both fellow prisoners and prison officers knew who she was and that she writing a book. She also brought more than £1490 in cash into prison. This level of economic resource can be contrasted to that of ordinary prisoners whose weekly wage is around £10-£15.
Four researchers were paid to collect data for part two of the book; much of the book refers to lifeoutside the prison; and whilst she writes about ‘lovely’ people, things and places (i.e. pages 49, 68, 74, 79, 98)and ‘kindnesses’ (i.e. pages 18, 42, 84), she distances herself from acknowledgingpainful prison realities.
For discussion on this see Haslam (2008).
 For further details on this classic text see Lee (2008).
The struggle for the vote for working class women continued until 1928, after Constance Lytton had died.
Algorithms have been used by the police identify crime hot spots in Memphis, Tennessee since 2005. Under the code name of Operation Blue Crush, from 2005 to 2011 crime has dropped by 24%.
Crush represents “Criminal Reduction Utilising Statistical History” or predictive policing as police officers are guided by algorithms. Criminologists and data scientists at the University of Memphis compiled crime statistics from across the city over time and overlaid it with other statistics such as social housing maps, outside temperatures etc. They then instructed algorithms to search for correlations in the data to identify crime “hot spots” which led the police to flood the crime hot spot areas with targeted patrols.
According to the Guardian, Dr Ian Brown, the associate director of Oxford University’s Cyber Security Centre, raises concerns over the use of algorithms to aid policing, as seen in Memphis where Crush’s algorithms have reportedly linked some racial groups to particular crimes: “If you have a group that is disproportionately stopped by the police, such tactics could just magnify the perception they have of being targeted.”
Can this system work here? As the Home Secretary, Theresa May stated yesterday in Parliament:
Out of one million stop and search only 9% resulted in an arrest. So should Police Authorities use this or similar systems to target areas and predict crime or does it have the potential to create so-called crime “hot spots” with possible out of date data? There are then issues to take into account such as fairness and community confidence and the wasting of police time.
Theresa May July, 2nd 2013 http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=13391&player=smooth
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, also warns against humans seeing causation when an algorithm identifies a correlation in vast swaths of data.
“This transformation presents an entirely new menace: penalties based on propensities, that are the possibility of using big-data predictions about people to judge and punish them even before they’ve acted. Doing this negates ideas of fairness, justice and free will.”
“In addition to privacy and propensity, there is a third danger. We risk falling victim to a dictatorship of data, whereby we fetishise the information, the output of our analyses, and end up misusing it. Handled responsibly, big data is a useful tool of rational decision-making. Wielded unwisely, it can become an instrument of the powerful, who may turn it into a source of repression, either by simply frustrating customers and employees or, worse, by harming citizens.”