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Wakefield Prison

Prison walls

Image: A prison wall with barbed wire

Chubb had the contract for the exterior wall alarm system, this consisted of large steel bracket plates bolted to the top of the secure side of the outer stone wall at intervals of approximately 30 meters, each bracket had two arms, these were approximately 1.5 meters long and were angled, the top arm at 45 degrees up from horizontal and the bottom arm the reverse at 45 degrees below the horizontal line. 

These brackets with their upper and lower arms formed a perimeter encircling the whole prison. The installation of these brackets had been assisted by the inmates, selected for their reliability, but still included murderers and other serious offenders.

Each arm had six pot insulators for strain wire attachment so there were twelve wires running around the perimeter of the prison, each copper wire was tightened to a specific tension and had a weak point in the centre which would break should a force of thirty pounds be applied to the wire.

Climbing over the wall without breaking these wires was deemed to be impossible.

The wall was divided into approximately ninety circuits which were displayed in a large free standing panel in the prison CCTV control room, the control room comprised three racks of approximately twenty five CCTV monitors, one for cameras outside the wall, one for inside and one for strategic locations, i.e. main entrance etc. There were three operators twenty-four hours per day monitoring the three banks, with one supervisor who had reel to reel two-inch videotape recording capability, any camera could be switched to the controller and recorded. 

The work was very tedious, so the CCTV operators had their own gymnasium equipment they could use whilst still watching the banks of monitors, a rowing machine, two spin bikes and several weights lifting systems were available. Of course, being human, the control room had its own points scoring system for incidents recorded on CCTV, ten points for a drunk peeing on the wall or a prisoner being pinned down, twenty for a very short skirt either the public or a visitor, thirty for dogs bonking, fifty for a couple making out in a parked car etc. The scores were taped up and tallied by months with the winner getting a free beer. 

On one visit I noted that the outside wall team had scored over six hundred points that month, I asked and yes there had been a special award of five hundred points for the capture of an incident on the new pelican crossing, a car had run over an elderly lady and even though this all happened very quickly, they managed to record the incident. 

The old lady was just shaken up not injured, the points were awarded for capturing the incident using the technology of the day.

The wires all had a strain joint in the centre, this was covered in a bubble of plastic with a gel inside to prevent water and corrosion getting to the thin break point of the strain gauge, however, over time with heat and cold the gel would dry out and eventually the wire would either break, or go high resistance causing an alert which would be immediately looked at using the CCTV system. 

By 1977 the wall required maintenance three times a week just to keep the system working. My first visit to the prison was with a service engineer, I had never experienced anything like this call, first we had to gain access to the prison itself, so full check of our ID, a pat down, a check of the tools we were carrying to complete the work and an assigned prison officer who would remain with us throughout the visit. 

Then up to the control room to determine which sections were most in need of repair, once established, our guard took us to the stores where we collected several new wires, tools for straining the wires and a set of ladders. 

After radioing ahead, we followed the guard to the wall and with a few more radio calls were given permission to put the ladder up and start work. Starting at one point, the engineer climbed the ladder and cut all twelve wires, attached new wires and we moved to the next bracket and did the same again. 

After about an hour, all twelve new wires for a stretch between three wall brackets had been changed. We then moved to two more sections of the wall, and under radio control from our guard were again permitted to climb the ladder and replace two obviously broken wires. We had now exceeded the time window for such work, so had to stop at that point and return the ladders etc. to the stores. 

Visiting the control room again to check the work revealed that five of the warning lights had now been extinguished, however there were still three lit. I was intrigued as to what could now be done to clear these indicators, as we were no longer permitted access to the wall area. 

The engineer opened the huge freestanding panel, approx. eight feet tall and two and a half feet wide. Inside the cables for the system were neatly loomed together and each pair connected to terminals in the panel, each terminal had a fuse, so on one of the pairs showing a fault, the engineer dropped out both fuses thereby disconnecting the wall wire circuit loop from the panel. A quick test with a meter showed that the circuit was high resistance, rather than broken. 

At this point all health and safety personnel should stop reading as what happened next would have had no place in the modern working environment. 

The engineer picked up a two core 0.75mm flex which was inside the panel, it had bare wires on one end and a thirteen-amp square pin plug on the other. There was a socket outlet inside the panel, presumably to plug in a meter, inspection lamp or maybe a soldering iron, however, the engineer plugged in the cable. 

Taking some care to ensure the bare ends were not touching anything, he switched on the socket and the cable was now live. He then touched the cable across the terminals of the wall circuit which sent 240 volts through the cables and through the connected external wires around that section of the wall. After a few brief touches, the spark on contact became much greater, the engineer then went on to do the same for all the circuits that had shown high resistance. Unplugging the cable and rolling it up, he stowed it back in the panel then replaced the fuses, the circuit indicators all went out and we had done for the day. 

The procedure had welded the bad connections in the dried-out strain gauges all around that section of the wall, which was only a temporary fix, but completed with a procedure I had not previously encountered. The procedure was referred to among the engineers as ‘frying a few birds’ as it was claimed birds would fly off the wires when the voltage was applied.

I visited the prison several times to work on the wall and there were a few stories which came out of the maintenance team worthy of a mention. On one occasion, a twenty foot stretch at one corner of the wall collapsed whilst the engineer was up the ladder, turns out that under one corner of the prison, an ancient spring had been built over which had eroded the foundations of the wall hundreds of years.

On another occasion, Peter was halfway up the ladder when the guards radio blurted out, line routing prisoner, line routing prisoner, get that ladder on the ground now. But it was too late, the prisoner being line routed rounded the corner of the building just twenty-five meters from the ladder, he was accompanied by three guards and a dog handler complete with German Shepherd dog so must have been a serious offender for this level of security. 

The guard told Peter, just stop where you are. The prisoner saw Peter halfway up the ladder and stopped, the guards all started to get jumpy when the prisoner shouted to Peter, “Oi you”, Peter and the guards were now all very twitchy when the prisoner shouted, “need a hand”, at which point the guards ushered him away and rounded another corner out of sight.

In the late 1970’s Wakefield prison started a major project to completely replace the outside wall whilst continuing to operate as normal. Not an easy thing to undertake. The wire inner fence was reinforced with a second section wider than the section of wall to be demolished and replaced, a second temporary wall was constructed outside the prison, again wider than the section to be replaced. 

Chubb had to go in and disconnect the wires and that section would be then be demolished and a new section erected. 

This went on until the entire wall had been replaced around the prison. On one occasion, I climbed the ladder to cut away the wires. After lunch I realised, I had left my wire cutters on the top of the old wall. Upon my return to the control room, I could see my cutters on one of the CCTV screens, the guards gave me a ticking off for losing them in the prison, however they were never to be seen again as the wall was demolished that afternoon.

The home office was rightly proud of the work done at Wakefield, the new wall was state of the art and featured a fibreglass top section which was round on the outside of the wall but had an angled downward sloping peak on the inside of the wall, supposedly it would be impossible to get over the wall from the inside of the prison. 

There was a large press presence, the local mayor and councillors had turned out and the home office had arranged a demonstration of just how good the new wall was. Two SAS soldiers had been issued with a few basic things that prisoners had access to, a dozen bed sheets etc. 

Against the clock, the soldiers were challenged to climb over the wall, in a few seconds they tied the bed sheets together, soaked them in water and threw them over the wall leaving a wet ‘rope’ of sheets dangling from the top, the weight of the water in the sheets along with the friction of the wet sheets on the fibreglass top meant they could scale the wall and drop down the other side. 

Time taken was just over half a minute. Somewhat embarrassing for a wall which it had been claimed could not be scaled.