My hell guarding gangsters, murderers and psychos
Former Strangeways prison officer Neil Samworth tells of his daily battle going head to head with Britain’s most dangerous criminals and how the job almost cost him his sanity
THE first time Neil Samworth walked on to the notorious K Wing of Manchester’s Strangeways Prison, he confesses to feeling intimidated. Then 43, already an experienced prison officer and by his own admission a “big lad” used to handling himself, he was nonetheless seriously out of his comfort zone.
“It’s an extremely intimidating place,” he says. “K Wing is the biggest wing in north-west England, it holds 200 prisoners over three landings. And when all 200 are out, there would be just six officers watching them, two on each landing.
“It’s a Victorian jail and has this grim, dark atmosphere and as you can imagine, when you’ve got 200 gangsters, murderers and violent offenders all milling about, it’s quite tense.
“There’s some extremely bad lads in there. A lot are very tough, they know how to fight, there’s a fair amount of mental health issues and many have been brought up in rough environments. They’re used to it… but to the general public you would be terrified. It could be a pretty terrifying place.”
Neil went on to spend 11 years at Strangeways before being retired with post traumatic stress disorder and has now written about his experiences in a new book, Strangeways: A Prison Officer’s Story. If it is a fascinating insight into the workings of a prison and the effects that staffing cuts have had on those trying to maintain order, it is also a frequently shocking read.
During his time at the prison, whose former inmates include “Doctor Death” Harold Shipman, Moors murderer Ian Brady and one-eyed cop killer Dale Cregan, Neil dealt with some of the most dangerous men in Britain, including 10 months guarding Mark Bridger, who in May 2013 was found guilty of the abduction and murder of five-year-old April Jones in Wales.
MENTION Bridger now and Neil almost visibly shudders. “I’ve always been comfortable around people – I could talk to the worst prisoners in there,” he says. “But he was something different.
“To describe how he affected you… I could spend all day trying to put it in words. It was like an evil cloud of fog that just envelops you and follows you around.
“Every interaction he had with staff, with prisoners, psychologists… I couldn’t pinpoint what it was about him that affected people so much.
“I always stayed professional but there was something about him, you wanted to punch him in the face. He gave everyone the creeps. He was evil and when you were near him it was like you’re touching evil. I hated him, I’m still affected by him now.”
But if Bridger was the worst prisoner Neil was charged with guarding, he was by no means the only “bad lad” under his watch.
“The thing is, you couldn’t just focus on him,” he says. “You’re also managing a load of other potentially violent, dangerous individuals. There was another in there at the same time, a guy
‘Staff cuts kicked in and we began to see a lot more drugs’
called Jonathan who had killed a nurse and we were warned about him before he arrived.
“He was a bodybuilder, a narcissist… you’re just surrounded by these people.
“If you look at K Wing, at one time we had about 36 prisoners who were from the two main Manchester gangs, we had about 20 to 30 murderers, and another 60 to 70 lads who were in for violent crimes. And no one’s shocked.
“The only people that don’t mix in with everyone else are the rapists and paedophiles. They’re kept away from the rest for their own safety.”
Despite the constant undercurrent of violence and the pressures that came from mixing with the worst society has to offer every day, Neil says that in the beginning he enjoyed his job. The officers were a close-knit team, the prisoners were by and large orderly and away from work he and partner Amy had had a daughter, Billie, now 11.
He says that at that time his job was “mostly people watching”, keeping an eye on the prisoners’ welfare as much as making sure they behaved, and that his policy of always treating them without prejudice – despite their crimes – meant that by and large the inmates respected him too.
Speaking now he pinpoints the exact date that all changed.
“March 1, 2015,” he says firmly.
CRUEL: Police killer Dale Cregan