‘It’s like the Manchester United of the prison service’ - inside the life of an officer at one of Britain’s top prisons
- Credit: Archant
Alwyn Roberts is seen as a well-known and humorous character at HMP Whitemoor, but in his view, he would not want it any other way.
“We’ve got a big television screen, and when people walk in, there’s a picture of me that says ‘welcome to Whitemoor’, and it cheers people up,” he said.
Alwyn has built a reputation for keeping upbeat during his time at Whitemoor in March, where he has worked for the majority of his 33-year career.
It is a career he never thought would be achievable since he laid eyes on a newspaper advert during a trip home from work, aged 18.
“It was one trip coming home when I saw an old Evening Standard laying there. I didn’t see a future in the catering world, so I thought I’d go for a change,” Alwyn said.
“I didn’t think I’d get it, but there was something about that advert that drew me in.”
A trainee chef at Boodle’s Gentlemen’s Club in London, the 53-year-old was keen to make a difference in an industry where he said “about one in a hundred got in” after an 18-month wait.
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Having grown up in the capital’s East End, Alwyn has always been determined to find a way out of tricky situations, which he thinks has helped him during his time in the prison service.
“I used to wonder if someone on my shoulder was protecting me at the time, because I was getting myself out of tricky situations, especially in the prison,” he said.
“I was diffusing things. It was something within me that was able to deal with these situations and get positive results.
“You had to learn the skills to deal with residents (prisoners) because if you didn’t, they would quickly pick up on your weaknesses.”
Alwyn started at the young offenders’ institution at HMP Feltham, followed by spells at the former HMP Camp Hill site on the Isle of Wight and at HMP Highpoint in Suffolk, places that have become important learning curves.
“The first year I can remember really struggling and I think it’s the same with any prison officer. The pressure is enormous,” Alwyn said.
Alwyn has suffered hardships while working in different capacities in prison, but these are experiences he has had to quickly learn from.
“It’s a matter of controlling your emotion,” he said.
“When you walk into that prison gate, it’s like being on stage and snapping into a character that survives within those walls.”
Alwyn leads an in-house counselling service at HMP Whitemoor for staff who want to talk about their feelings, something he never got the chance to do earlier in his career.
“Prison officers face regular challenges in their career, including their mental health,” he admitted.
“It’s like being on a rollercoaster; you go through good and bad patches, you’re up and down all the time.
“When I started, there was no such thing as mental health. You were told to man up and not be such an idiot, go have a few drinks and get yourself back tomorrow.
“I don’t mind listening to the staff because it makes them feel better and makes me feel better.”
It’s been a challenge for prison staff, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, a challenge they’ve all had to adapt to.
However, Alwyn believes they have coped well with juggling both a visible and invisible threat.
“We were blind as to what we were doing in the early days,” he said.
“The day-to-day life of being a prison officer is tough, and I think that’s the part the community don’t really know. The work we all do behind those walls is amazing.
“It’s a wonderful thing that more people locally also work at the prison.”
Many people from the local community, including the Fenland area, have been recruited to Whitemoor prison, whereas beforehand, many officers came from other prisons.
It may not be everyone’s favourite place to work, but Alwyn thinks informing the public about exactly what they do can build a stronger relationship with Fenland folk.
“It’s got a reputation of being a top prison in the country,” he said.
“It’s like the Manchester United of the prison service. The relationship between us and the residents is good.”
Working in the prison service is a job Alwyn Roberts looks forward to every day, even if he does think it’s like “the most difficult school, or the most difficult council estate.”
On the other hand, it’s a career he was quick to recommend.
“If people can have half the experience I had, that’s fantastic. It’s my second family,” he said. “It’s a challenging job, but if you want to make a difference, it’s the job for you.”