40 Days in Mayfield Women’s Prison; Chapter 1 Teacher Diary: the interview

Since moving to London from Devon a year or so ago I had had several jobs, none of which were permanent.  I mostly got these jobs through agencies, with the best one in my experience being Barnes Agency in Ovalham, southwest London.  I had completed my previous assignment, a fairly routine office job, and was hoping to pick up another one soon.  I heard from my contact Stephanie at Barnes that she had put me forward for a teaching role at Mayfield women’s prison in Oakford. This was good news, but I also learned that because of the nature of the work I have to register for a CRB, a criminal record disclosure.  As that can take some time, such is the nature of UK bureaucracy, I needed to start on this as soon as possible.  So I set about making the application online in the evening.

I started the whole, and rather tedious, application process at 7:15 PM and didn’t get finished until 10:15 PM. I was getting a bit stressed by the whole thing, especially since I kept getting messages in red when I tried to submit the registration form. I also had to miss the second part of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a TV series on BBC 4 I had been watching. However, the next day I heard from Stephanie that I had an interview at Mayfield prison next Monday for the role of adult literacy tutor. My CV, which I had revised recently, must have impressed them.  My wife Liz had helped me with the CV revision and I think the improvements made a difference. I ordered a book from WH Smith on adult literacy to read at the weekend. Adult literacy wasn’t my usual subject, though I did have some experience of it.  Over the next few days I did some preparatory work for the interview. 

The day of my interview at Mayfield women’s prison. I got up at 7:30 AM and got ready. I was feeling quite nervous and it didn’t help when I got a call from Stephanie from Barnes asking me not to leave the house until I heard from her, as Mayfield had not cleared my security yet. So I had to wait for confirmation that I would be able to get into the prison.  I did eventually get a phone call from Stephanie and I confirmed that I would be able to be at the prison by 9:30 AM. I got the bus to Ovalham station and just managed to catch the train to Oakford. When I got off the train I asked a man the way to the prison, which is not very far from the station.  After a short walk I came to the prison, which wasn’t hard to recognise. The prison was larger than I had expected. I was now very nervous and could feel myself on the verge of losing my bottle, so I give myself a good talking to.  I went into reception and introduced myself. I had to hand in my passport, which I had brought as my ID, and my mobile phone. I then had my fingerprints taken electronically. When that was done I went into another area to have my briefcase searched by a female prison officer. I then went through to a waiting area, where I waited for Jasmin, my contact in the prison’s education department. I tried to dampen down the feelings of anxiety caused by the unfamiliar environment, but I believe the wait helped me as I managed to get a grip of myself. 

At 9:30 AM Jasmin and a colleague came down the corridor to meet me. Jasmin is a woman in her late 30s perhaps, and I would guess is of Asian, probably Indian, origin. I was taken into a kind of courtyard which had a secure area fenced off as if it was basketball court. Jasmin told me I would not be allowed in this area if there was a prisoner in there. As we spoke, a female prison officer was escorting a very rough looking young woman from one side of this area to another. This seems to be an area where prisoners are transferred from one part of the prison to another. More than that I didn’t know. I was then brought into what was the main education or activity area. There were many prisoners and prison officers milling around, and it was quite an intimidating atmosphere for someone such as myself who was not used to it. Jasmin took me into her office and I took my seat for the interview.  

It was in the end not a very demanding interview, as it was soon revealed that I was the only candidate for the post.  This piece of information should have been welcoming but was somehow disquieting. It was soon clear that Jasmin assumed that I would be starting soon. I later learned that the education department was keen to have a full roster of teachers because Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons was beginning an inspection next week. These inspections took place once every one or two years and were carried out at short notice. There was one thing that was unusual about the interview: I learned more about the interviewer than she learned about me. Jasmin told me that she had worked in a male prison for two years before coming to Mayfield. She then told me that she had found certain aspects of working at Mayfield difficult to deal with. Specifically, as a parent herself Jasmin had found it difficult to come to terms with working with women who had committed crimes against children, including sex crimes. Jasmin said that she had come to the conclusion that society had already judged these prisoners, so why should she judge them again? She made this point twice at separate times, perhaps protesting too much. I suspected that this is something that Jasmin was still struggling with. Jasmin also raised the issue of self-harm and asked me how I would feel about working with women who self-harmed. I said that I had previous experience of working with people who self-harmed, which was when I worked for a community care organisation in the north of England. I said working with women who self-harmed didn’t particularly bother me, nor would working with people who have committed serious crimes. Both these answers were the truth, and this was something that my later experiences did not change my mind about. 

Jasmin also told me about some of the protocols they have in place and some essentials of prison etiquette. The prisoners are referred to by their first names, or if you don’t know their name you call them Miss out of respect. The prisoners are in general referred to as women and not as prisoners. Jasmin asked me if I had any reservations about the job. I was honest with her and said that I was feeling a bit intimidated by the whole thing. I said that I would have to go away and think about whether I would take the job. There were several times when I felt like just walking away. However, I tried to control my mind using the teachings of the Stoa. I think I must be making some baby step progress on the path to spiritual enlightenment because I managed to hold it together. The next stage of the interview process was to sit in on a class. We went down a corridor and went into a classroom.  Here I met Maria, a woman in her forties, who is a teaching assistant.  The prison trains long term prisoners as teaching assistants and Maria had been trained as part of this programme. I also met Gemma, a younger woman who is also a teaching assistant. Finally, I met the teacher I was to observe: Megan, a Welsh woman who I guessed was about 45 years old. I sat in one corner of the classroom and observed the class. This turned out to be a very interesting experience.

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