The prison service has a close association with the military – many members of staff are ex-forces. It is a tradition which goes as far back as when Brixton opened in 1819, when it was the soldiers of the Napoleonic wars who were typically employed as turnkeys.
One person who is well aware of this is John Aston. Until his retirement in April, he was the longest serving member of staff at Brixton. He had started his working life as a carpenter in Southampton but, because he was about to get married, wanted a better job. He saw an advert for the prison service in the Daily Sketch and in November 1970 was given his first – and only – post at Brixton. He didn’t leave for another 43 years.
“It was a pretty fearful thing to come through the prison gate”, he told me. “They [the other officers] didn’t seem very friendly, frankly, because you were just a young sprog and hadn’t been in the services.”
John continued his carpentry trade in the prison and was allocated prisoners to help him.
“To march prisoners was a great experience. So you had perhaps two prisoners with you, and you had to march them around to the jobs. “ By the left march!” and you’d walk them. And when you approached anyone of a senior rank, you had to shout “Halt!” and the prisoners had to stop. You had to salute very smartly and say: “Two, all correct, sir.” [He’d reply]: “Thank you officer, carry on”, and off you would march again.
“This was the military-type theme the prison had. But I guess most of the officers at the time were obviously older than me and had come out of the services after the second world war, and I suppose there was still that thought of militarisation, of order, of discipline. And it really happened here at Brixton. But we wore a very smart uniform in those days, that I was frankly really proud to wear. You really felt you were working for the Queen and the government.”
John kindly lent me the photograph above, in which he appears.