Published: 06:00, 17 September 2020
One of Kent’s prisons has been nicknamed Stab City in the past and, last year, a story hit the headlines about a ‘knife factory’ being uncovered inside the jail.
But the governor of Swaleside Prison on Sheppey has spoken about what really happened and allowed us to see what life is like behind bars during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mark Icke took over the top job at the Category B jail about two-and-a-half years ago.
“I didn’t want to come here,” he said. “It had a mad reputation. It was known as Stab City at one point.
“But, when you come in and you see it, you take a big sigh of relief. It just feels like a nice working environment, people like working here.”
That is one of the reasons, Mr Icke said, why he was so concerned a story had been leaked to the national press about a knife factory being discovered inside Swaleside in November.
The newspapers reported a “weapons machine-room” was found in the prison’s engineering workshop. It said inmates had “used prison equipment to churn out a range of lethal weapons including 12-inch knives”.
Mr Icke said: “The first we knew about it was when we saw the national stories, we all panicked quite frankly.
“We wanted to understand what the story was breaking and how bad it was.
“We shut the prison down for three days, which took an awful lot of co-ordination, lots of planning. We had to shut it and mobilise everyone, quickly.
“There were no visitors, no one coming in or out, the men stayed in their cells and we searched the prison.
“We searched all the wings, all the cells and then moved over to the engineering and joinery workshops. There was nothing in the workshops at all.”
He added: “We found very few weapons in the prison, they were more home-made ones - like the clip of a pen being sharpened - in total there were 124 ‘finds’.
“There was certainly no evidence of a ‘weapons factory’ as it was described.
“It bothered me so much, we’ve been working so hard to improve Swaleside’s reputation and it wasn’t nice for the staff to read, or their families.”
Last month, an article in the Sheerness Times Guardian and Sittingbourne News reported there had been 486 separate incidents where drugs had been found, and 373 where weapons had been discovered at the Eastchurch jail.
According to government data, these were found between April 2019 and March 2020.
Mr Icke said: “To somebody who doesn’t know about prisons, it sounds like that was all found inside the prison. But, actually, it shows my teams are working hard to stop that stuff coming into the prison. They’ve found the contraband and stopped it from coming in and causing harm so, for me, it’s a good news story that we have taken that contraband out.”
The jail has 1,066 prisoners – mainly lifers – and employs just under 500 members of staff.
Among them is a dedicated search team of 10.
“We increased our front-end security to stop drugs and weapons coming into the prison,” Mr Icke said. “We also have two dog handlers and four dogs.”
The team was praised in the latest report by the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for 2019/20, which added: “There has been significant progress towards a safe prison, with a decline in all violence measures, for the second year running.”
The board also found assaults by inmates on staff had reduced by 15% when compared to the previous year, and prisoner-on-prisoner attacks had fallen by 6%.
Mr Icke said: “There’s no one magic fix. It’s a whole prison approach and it’s all about creating hope for the men, providing a genuine, working environment where they can get real jobs and real qualifications.
“Giving the men a focus is really important, I don’t want to see them back when they leave.
“When you put all that together, with my dedicated search team, and provide hope and stability, you get a community spirit. That’s when you start to see violence reduce.”
Mr Icke, who has been working within the prison service since 1998, started off as a prison officer at Rochester and has worked his way up to the governor role.
He has a mantra of ‘safety, decency and hope’.
“When I came here, it was dark and gloomy, and it was dirty in places," he said. “There was a build up of rubbish and old stuff. We got loads of skips in, cleared the prison out and have kept on top of it since – a decent environment is at the heart of what we do and cleanliness is huge for me.
“If you live in an environment that’s clean and decent, you’re more likely to respect it.”
As of Thursday – when the visit took place – there had been no confirmed coronavirus cases for staff or prisoners at Swaleside.
“I am very proud of that,” Mr Icke said. “Covid has been an immense worry. This is not just a job, it’s like a big extended family for me.
“I sadly lost my best friend, Malcolm, to Covid, so I became Covid-concerned, if you like, because I knew what devastation it could cause on a family and watching a friend die of it was awful. I didn’t want any of the men or my staff to go through that.
“I shut the prison down in March. We worked out what was important, what was essential, and slowly worked our way up from there really.”
Mr Icke said he was pleased certain aspects of prison life was starting to get back to some sort of normality.
“Some of the men are back working in the workshops, in bubbles, we’ve started letting visitors back in after about 16-18 weeks.
“But no-under 18s are allowed to visit, at the moment, unfortunately. We also have virtual meetings running, so we have about 20 visits a day – 10 virtual and 10 face-to-face.”
He added: “I think we’ve learned a lot about each other during Covid, both the staff and the men.
“We’ve all got a common enemy and it’s brought us all closer together in a fight to work against it.”
“Since Covid, and the men being in their cells for longer hours, we’ve also seen a decrease in violence. When they are out, they’re all getting on so much better. They all seem to have a better understanding for others.”
Mr Icke said Swaleside was “not perfect” and it still had issues, but felt more settled than it did a few years back.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without my staff. They are the ones who deal with the men each day and keep the prison ticking day in, day out. I just give them the opportunity to do it,” he said.
“There’s not a ‘them’ and ‘us’ between the men and staff. We’re a community, and that’s the key.”
When asked if he liked his job, Mr Icke said: “It’s the best job in the world. I absolutely love it and I never regret joining for one minute. I love walking through that gate every day.”
Dean Hider, supervising officer of H Wing concurs that cleanliness is vital on the inside and not just because of the pandemic.
He said: “It’s all about community and stability.
“Everyone has to reside in the one area. Keeping it clean and tidy spreads hope which, in turn, we can channel that energy to make positive changes.”
Mr Hider, who opened the wing 10 years ago, added: “Since Covid, my working day has changed quite severely. There are 174 men on this wing, nine bubbles – it’s turned into a logistical challenge.
“Each man has got to get out of their cell for fresh air, food, showers, exercise and washing their laundry every day. Trying to do that in bubbles is hard.”
Before Covid, the prisoners would be out of their cells for between six and 10 hours a day.
Now only a third of the men are out for about four hours a day. The rest are out of their cells for 90 minutes.
Visitors must have their temperature taken and hands must be sanitised before they go in.