Life behind bars, a prison officer’s tale

Prison officer Tim Cousins
Prison officer Tim Cousins

From gangster Reggie Kray to Moors murderer Ian Brady, Harborough’s Tim Cousins worked with some of Britain’s most notorious criminals during a 28-year career as a prison officer at HMP Gartree.

Following his recent retirement from the service, the 67-year-old spoke to the Mail’s senior reporter Ian O’Pray about life behind bars:

In the 1980s HMP Gartree Prison was considered one of Britain’s toughest prisons.

A dispersal prison, it housed some of the nation’s worst offenders – child killers, paedophiles and even necrophilists among them.

It was into this environment Tim Cousins was sent in 1984 after qualifying as a prison officer.

Mr Cousins, who was born and raised in Harborough, had worked for the previous 14 years at the town’s Tungstone Batteries factory but was persuaded to give his new career a try by a friend of the family.

“My first reaction on entering the prison was this must be hell,” said Mr Cousins.

“Gartree had a name then for being Britain’s toughest prison and it was well-deserved.

“There were some really crazy types in there at that time, the dregs of society.”

Among them was Moors murderer Ian Brady, convicted with Myra Hindley in 1966 of killing five children.

“He was on the hospital wing,” said Mr Cousins.

“He used to sit with a blanket over his shoulders.

“I heard a bit of a commotion one night and looked through his spy hole. He was creeping around his cell saying ‘they’re only kids, I don’t know what the fuss is about’.

“It was chilling.”

Also under Mr Cousin’s charge were London gangsters Harry Roberts, who shot dead two police officers in 1966, and the notorious Reggie Kray.

Mr Cousins said: “He was alright. He used to get a lot of the younger men doing a lot of running about for him but he was never a problem while we had him.”

Gartree also housed IRA prisoners at the time including Paddy Hill – one of the ‘Birmingham Six’, convicted of bombing a pub in the city.

The very worst inmates were housed in what was called the Regional 43 Unit – a prison within a prison.

“These were prisoners who would have been assaulted in the wider prison system.

“There were paedophiles, child killers, even necrophilists.

“There was an inmate in there who had killed a baby by swinging it against a wall.

“He was scared of spiders and a member of staff used to collect them to put in his cell.

“Small things like that used to break the monotony.

“It was tough but there was great camaraderie among the staff.”

Perhaps the most famous incident at Gartree was the infamous helicopter escape in 1987, when two prisoners were sprung from the exercise yard in a hijacked chopper.

“It was my day off,” said Mr Cousins, smiling.

“There were a few things happening around that time, protests and such.

“The man behind the Strangeways prison riot had tried the same thing at Gartree. He hit a member of staff with a broom handle but he was restrained and taken to the segregation area.”

In 1992, Gartree was re-classified and given Category B status and has since 1997 has housed mainly prisoners on life sentences.

“I found working in a lifer prison far easier.

“Most of them are ordinary people who have killed someone – usually a wife or girlfriend during an argument.

“When it was a dispersal prison it was very much us and them, but with the lifers we’re encouraged to talk more and join in with darts or snooker matches. Having that sort of relationship with the inmates keeps things calm.

“A lot of people say prison is like a holiday camp but it’s not.

“Gartree has well-equipped gyms and people say prisoners shouldn’t have those sort of privileges but you should see a prisoner after a gym session– all the anger has gone out of them.”

Mr Cousins moved to Barrow Upon Soar 23 years ago with his partner Margaret Goodridge, who bred champion racehorses until injury forced her to quit.

He received the Prison Service’s Good Conduct medal on his retirement earlier this year.

“I enjoyed my job right up until the day I left,” said Mr Cousins. “I always tried to give my best and I think the medal shows the governors believe I achieved that.

“I think growing up on The Broadway in Harborough I was quite streetwise so I could speak to the prisoners on a level.

“They respected me and I showed them respect and that was the easiest way of doing it.”