Working at Latchmere House – Memories by RP

I think it’s purely something that you have to accept for yourself, the people that lived in Ham, the majority of them that I knew that lived in the vicinity of the prison were quite happy about it.  I think that as it went on I don’t think the people in Ham had any problems with the prison being there, in fact I think they thought it was quite secure living around there.  For instance, when we went out we never ever locked our doors because we knew that the environment all around there people just wouldn’t break into houses there.

Did anybody ever escape fro Latchmere House? Nobody escaped, no, we did have a couple jump over the wire, they tried to escape but the only way they could do that was by jumping from a rooftop over the fence which had razor wire on top so you had not only did they have to jump over they had to jump up and then over because the building was lower than the fence but we did have two people who did that, one unfortunately got mangled up in the razor wire and had severe injuries to his legs and the other ones did get over but he fell through the wooden fence that was behind the razor wire.

When I first went there it was a Junior Remand Centre which was for lads up to age of I believe, 16, and they were juveniles so a lot of their time was spent in education and we had proper trained education officers to take them for classes so they basically went to school the same as normal children at that age from nine o’clock to four o’clock and then when they came back in the evening they had their chores to do to keep their room tidy just as they would at home because they obviously haven’t got Mum there to do it so they have to keep their cells and that tidy.  We weren’t allowed to call them cells in those days they were rooms, but they were cells.  Evenings they had to read, they had homework to do and they were allowed to watch television, if memory serves me correctly it was from six o’clock to eight o’clock, they sat in the communal room and watched television and it was, there was nothing shown or they weren’t allowed to watch anything that was violent, no violent films or anything like that and it was controlled by the prison staff they didn’t have control of it at all.

That was when it became an adult resettlement prison, not youngsters, that was later on in my career that it changed for whatever year it was, I think it was 1994 I believe it changed to a senior adult resettlement prison and they were the ones that had to find their own way there not the juveniles.

From 1972 it was a juvenile remand center?  Yes, up to the age of 16 and when they reached the age of 17 they were moved to Ashford Remand Centre which was a senior remand centre because you weren’t allowed to mix juveniles with seniors.

So when you say juvenile, how young were they?  I can remember a lad just turned 15 came in and I can remember that, obviously I can’t say who he was or what he did but he was one of the youngest that I ever knew.

As I say the first job they had to do, they get released from, for instance, a London prison and they’d be assigned to Latchmere House and they’d be given a bus pass and instructions how to get to Latchmere House say for instance they were being released from Wormwood Scrubs they would have travel documents telling them how to get there what transport to use and they’d be released at say nine o’clock and they had to be at Latchmere House by four o’clock which is ample time to get there and it was down to them they had to get there by four o’clock and they used to stand at the gate and ring the bell and they used to come in and then they would stay in Latchmere for approximately three weeks while a lot of things were found out about them, where did they live, have they got any problems because they’d have done an excess of six years say in Wormwood Scrubs and then to be let out is quite a feat for them because things have changed even in six years, and then after the reception period was over they would then be given instructions to go to the local Job Centre in Kingston where they could apply for whatever jobs they would like to do, whether it be painting and decorating, driving and whatever and a lot of them used to work for what it was then, London Transport and worked at Kingston and Norbiton bus garages.  A lot of them did that and were very successful at it.  They would get a wage which was paid to them and out of that they had to give the prison so much money for their board and lodgings, it escapes how much it was, I think it was about £10 or £11, something like that and then they had to save half of what was left which was put into a savings account because things have shown that you don’t achieve anything by turfing people out of prison at the end of their sentence without any money because all they would do would go thieving again to get money.  So by making them save half of their wages they had that when they were released and the other was their pocket money which they could use obviously to go home because they were allowed to go home at weekends which was Friday after work, they went straight home and then on Monday morning they would leave home and go straight to work so they would only actually be in prison, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night.  Then the rest of the time they were at home.

They were in the class on their own with, maybe ten maybe twelve, but it was in a school which was a square building and there was four classrooms and there was an officer sat downstairs, it was a double building but if there was any problems you can always know if something was going to happen because you would hear all the chairs being scuffed along the floor but the teachers were always next to the door so if say a fight started she would just come out and shout downstairs, you know, can somebody come up there’s a fight or something like that and then the officer would summon assistance and then they would sort it out but the teacher then would be gone out of the way.

If I can go back to when I joined you always wore your tunic and your cap, you never even took your cap off when you were working on the wings, it was a disciplined service in those days, we even used to get checked when you went through the gate, we used to have what was called a stick and whistle parade.  As you went through the gate in the morning the chief officer used to stand there with his peaked cap slashed and he used to ask you for your stick, which was like a wooden truncheon that you carried down your trouser leg if you were lucky – a lot of them used to leave them in their lockers – and then they used to say “right where is your whistle?” and your whistle was always worn on your tunic, your stick was always in your pocket and they used to say “let’s have a look at your nails” and you went like this, they might say they look a bit grubby, go and wash those before you go on to the wing.  So we had a different discipline to what they have now and you had respect for your senior offices and invariably they used to catch a lot of us out because we used to…..the stick in your pocket was the nuisance because you weren’t allowed to use it anyway and if you bent down, if you had somebody who’d got out of hand and he was on the floor it used to rip your trousers down the seams, so the majority of people used to put their sticks in their locker, but because you never knew when the chief was going to do it, it was always how he caught you out by not having your stick in your pocket.

They will never tell you, they never told us at training school what it was for but you’re not allowed to hit somebody over the head with it, most of us used to use it to crack walnuts at Christmas!

I think it was, I mean when it shut, it shut twenty odd years after I left, but I think it was doing, when I left I think it was doing a good job and by what I can remember seeing it, it was still carrying on and doing a good job and I personally think yes it should still be there and doing the same thing, yes.

Latchmere House became an immigration holding centre, these were the people that were going to be deportees, these were the people that were in the country illegally and we did have one incident where approximately 200 people detainees were on the parade ground as we used to call it, but it was a square, and they sat down one afternoon and refused to move and because we didn’t have enough staff, staff were called in from other establishments to move them back to their cells, and officers arrived from most of the London prisons with prison dogs, etc, etc, and what they did was put a ring round the whole lot of them, there was a prison officer and then a prison officer with a dog, then there was a prison officer and then a prison officer with a dog, and then all the officers at a given time just walked in towards them and when the dogs were getting a bit too close to the detainees or immigrants, they decided enough was enough and they went to their cells under their own accord, no force was used at any one time but it caused a lot of media coverage and it was quite sad to see that some of the reporters were climbing over peoples’ gardens to get pictures of the goings on which was happening inside but none of them got any pictures because it was all over within a matter of ten minutes.