Book of the Month: Behind These Doors by Alex South
We're thrilled to announce our July Book of the Month as Alex South's Behind These Doors
An empathetic, eye-opening, and important story of life in prison in the UK
See our previous Book of the Month winners here
"Women shouldn't be police officers," a colleague told Alex South mid-shift. South's gender is a central feature of her new book Behind These Doors, which tells of her 10 years working as a prison officer in HM Prison Service. But despite her size making her diminutive in comparison to many of the extremely dangerous men she spent her time looking after, she also discovered her being a woman afforded her unique chances to connect with inmates and intervene in situations that could easily escalate, if left to the devices of hyper-masculine etiquette, and rigid notions of honour and respect.
Plus, she trained as a riot commander and hostage negotiator. So that probably helped.
Written in a straightforward and sobering style, you easily come to trust South's account of her time working across some of the most high-security prisons in the UK, including HMP Whitemoor, HMP Belmarsh and HMP Wormwood Scrubs. She started aged just 22. You are alongside her as she wrestles with the extremes of the people in her care, as well as her own feelings and duties towards them. We see the humour and humanity, we also see the violence and reality of what many of these inmates have done, and the harm they have caused to others.
South was stuck in a hard place – cutting off from your feelings will eventually destroy you; allowing your feelings will destroy you too. Gruelling shifts, exposure to incredibly violent acts, both between inmates and in the form of self-harm and suicide, South displayed incredible resilience. But her career coincided with severe cuts to the prison services, meaning fewer staff and resources.
This means inmates spend longer locked up in their cells, without the necessary supervision available to allow them to exercise outside or attend classes, or socialise. More time in the cells, rather than keeping things under control, ironically means more dramatic incidents, either in the form of self-harm and suicide attempts, or in those snatched moments where inmates are allowed out, after having been stuck alone, ruminating on perceived slights.
Vitally, it means less time for the staff and inmates to form relationships, and thus everything becomes more heightened. Because what really keeps a prison under control are the relationships being stable and positive, between inmates, and between them and the staff. And this is really at the centre of South's book – the importance of people being able to talk, share and connect. In a piece for The Guardian, South describes an environment, with naturally few other distractions, where "we talked. I talked with the prisoners about justice, education, loyalty. We debated, agreed, and of course, argued. But these were men in for the long haul, serving sentences often exceeding 30 years, and they had plenty of time to chat. I learned the power of that, too. The power of proper unfiltered conversation, of awkward silences, of laughter and sadness and everything in between. Real life. Being fully present in a place that demanded nothing less."
South is concerned with what happens when we are denied that kind of relating and connection, both within prison, but also in the structures and systems that lead to many of these men ending up where they are.
South makes the point frequently that prison is a microcosm, a reflection, of society outside. Many of the inmates would have already had mental health challenges, difficult upbringings, immense trauma, and a lot of this is just compounded inside. Prisons can be places of hope, sometimes – South is sure of this. But only if they are properly resourced and the staff are taken care of, too. South is honest about the psychological toll the work took on her, struggling with recurrent nightmares of men hanging themselves, unable to connect with people outside of work, isolated by the nature of a job that would be simply incomprehensible to most people. Despite the obvious daily hardships of the role, it was what psychologists would call 'moral injury' that eventually led South to quit – the gap between what she felt was right and what she was actually able to do in the circumstances had become too big, for too long.
We chose Behind These Doors as our Book of the Month because of its compassion, its strong focus on relationships and the healing potential of talking, and also because of its important task in revealing a world that is mostly hidden from view. South has spoken about writing the book being a cathartic and helpful experience. By shining a light so brightly on a clear problem in our society, South is making what has been her problem to bear all of our problem, and rightly so.
Behind These Doors by Alex South is available here