When I first heard about Veronica’s Bird I was immediately intrigued and I wondered what would it be like to be one of the only women working in a men’s prison. So that is what I asked Veronica Bird to write about. I hope that you find it as interesting as I did.
‘Being a woman among male prisoners’
Veronica came to male prisons following several years in female jails – some would say she was taking on a far harder job, solely because the cells were filled with men. But, one should understand that running a female prison is just as difficult, and certainly as dangerous. One female inmate managed to put all six of her nurses in hospital with broken limbs, and described by the doctors as: ‘capable of attacking with murderous severity.’ As she was escorted to a prison van she required six prison officers to attend to her.
Men may be physically more powerful, but one can die from a well-placed shard of glass, as a squeeze to the throat. It is, perhaps, the sheer bulk of some of these men, the silent ones especially, who are the most intimidating, but staff are well-trained to understand each prisoner’s characteristics and react accordingly.
Veronica’s time with men began when she took over at a male young offender’s prison where they stood deferentially when she entered a room. Packed with testosterone they often got up to high jinks, but it was just that, and she began to earn their full respect. This was never more clear than the time she arranged for Frank Bruno, the heavyweight boxer at the height of his fame, to spend a day in the prison, flying in by helicopter to be met by almost hero worship. Frank spent the day talking with the inmates, exhorting them to stay on the straight and narrow. His visit must have been worth a hundred visits by official visitors’ groups and when he left at the end of the day at least one prisoner was heard to say to Veronica: ‘…that was the best day of my life, Miss.’
In Veronica’s experience over thirty-five years, she found men would respect a Governor if she was to keep her word on pledges made. Fairness as well as strict attention to the rules to both staff and prisoners, allowed prisoners to see where she was heading and they, along with her. In all of her time as a serving Prison Officer, she was never assaulted, though, naturally she has never down-played the inherent danger of her job. She had two mantras: never to find out what they were in for, and always to honour a promise to help a prisoner with a particular problem in life. Her plan was to get the inmate through his term with as little disturbance to the life of the prison as was possible.
Some prisoners show a curious mixture of gentlemanly behaviour, being polite and co-operative and at other times they could ‘lose it’, making restraint a task for half a dozen burly officers. Charles Bronson was one of these, a man who Veronica looked after for a month, to give Wakefield Prison respite from the day to day stress which arose from his conduct. Bronson, now renamed Salvador, after his hero artist, is one of the best-known prisoners in the country with a documentary film to his name, his paintings sell all over the world. He has written books with proceeds from sales going to charities of his choosing. Reputed to carry out two thousand press-ups a day and built like a bull, this same man who would politely discuss the time of the day with Veronica through an open cell door, could also wreak havoc when ‘…the demons take hold of me.’ She was never allowed to come too close to him, but Charlie was always a gentleman and never swore.
To be a woman in a male only prison means understanding each and every one of one’s charges, getting to know their foibles, fears and faults in equal measure but refusing to allow them to overstep the mark. There is a red line which, from time to time, they may lap against, but Veronica never permitted them to cross to the other side. It is probably not surprising, therefore, to find that, given a ‘basket case’ of a prison to take over, with no extra money, she turned it around in a year making it into a model against which all others would be judged.
Male or female, they both have their own demands, their own strengths whether it is physical or mental; both have to be watched just as carefully as the other, for unpredictability is the watchword.
Veronica’s Bird – Copyright © Richard Newman 2018. Authors Veronica Bird and Richard Newman. Publisher Clink Street Publications January 23rd 2018.
Veronica Bird was one of nine children living in a tiny house in Barnsley with a brutal coal miner for a father. Life was a despairing time in the Fifties as Veronica sought desperately to keep away from his cruelty. However, a glimmer of hope revealed itself as she, astonishingly to her and her mother, won a scholarship to Ackworth Boarding School where she began to shine above her class-mates.
A champion in all sports, Veronica at last found some happiness. That was until her brother-in-law came into her life. It was as if she had stepped from the frying pan into the fire.
He soon began to take control over her life removing her from the school she adored, two terms before she was due to take her GCEs, so he could put her to work as cheap labour on his market stall. Abused for many years by these two men, Veronica eventually ran away from him and applied to the Prison Service, intuiting that it was the only safe place she could trust.
Accepted into the Prison Service at a time when there were few women working in the industry, Veronica applied herself every day to learning her new craft even training in Holloway Prison where Myra Hindley was an inmate. With no wish to go outside the prison, Veronica remained inside on-duty. While her colleagues went out to the pub, the theatre or to dine she didn’t feel able to join them.
Her dedication was recognised and she rose rapidly in the Service moving from looking after dangerous women prisoners on long-term sentences to violent men and coming up against such infamous names as The Price sisters, Mary Bell and Charles Bronson. The threat of riots was always very close and escapes had to be dealt with quickly.
After becoming a Governor, Veronica was tasked with what was known within the Service as a ‘basket case’ of a prison. However, with her diligence and enthusiasm Veronica managed to turn it around whereupon it became a model example to the country and she was recognised with an honour from the Queen. With this recognition the EU invited her to lead a team to Russia and her time in Ivanovo Prison, north east of Moscow, provides an illuminating and humorous insight into a different prison culture.
Through a series of interviews with Richard Newman —author of the bestselling A Nun’s Story— Veronica’s Bird reveals a deeply poignant story of eventual triumph, is filled with humour and compassion for those inside and will fascinate anyone interested in unique true life stories, social affairs and the prison system.
About the Authors:
After thirty-five years working for the Prison Service, Veronica Bird is now retired and living in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. She is still an active proponent of the justice system and continues to lecture across the country and is a supporter of Butler Trust, which acknowledges excellence within the prison system.
A qualified architect and Swiss-trained hotelier, Richard Newman enjoyed a forty-year career designing and managing hotels worldwide before retiring in 2001. Since then he has gone on to publish a number of novels: The Crown of Martyrdom, The Horse that Screamed, The Potato Eaters, The Green Hill, Brief Encounters and most recently The Sunday Times bestseller, A Nun’s Story. He is currently working on a new novel about retirement and an autobiography of his time in the Middle East. He lives happily with his wife in Wetherby, West Yorkshire where he enjoys being close to his family.