Running a prison doesn’t mean a woman has to be an honorary man, finds Roz Whistance, on meeting governor Vicky Baker.

“I can honestly say in my nearly 17 years in the service I haven’t had a single day when I haven’t laughed about something,” says Vicky Baker. “Because that’s what human beings do for you.”

Having a laugh is not something you readily associate with the cheerless institutions where people are forcibly detained. But then Vicky Baker, governor at the Immigration Removal Centre at Haslar, near Gosport and previously deputy governor at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, is not exactly what you expect of a prison governor. She is a woman, for a start. Although, as she says, there are more and more women coming through the system, she is one of the few so far to have reached the top slot.

Indeed, meeting Vicky means throwing away a whole host of preconceptions about prison officers. Ok, so she is a neat person, carefully dressed with practical short hair.  That much goes with the territory. But where you might expect the female equivalent of Officer McKay, Fletcher’s scourge in TV’s Porridge, Vicky Baker has a quiet manor and gentle warmth, and that essential sense of humour.

“One of the first jobs in the day is accounting for prisoners or accounting for detainees. Because if you can’t account for them, you don’t know where they are, and they might have escaped! And that’s always a bit of a worry!”

Vicky is giving a flavour of life as a prison officer. Aged 49, she has worked in a number of institutions, but came into the prison service after being in the army for six years. The disciplined hierarchy in both institutions appealed to her, she says: “I like the way staff report though the line and also the way you’re required to conduct yourself. Part of your job when working with prisoners is to be a role model.”  She adds, thoughtfully. “I also think that Public Service is very underrated in our society and I am very proud of being a public servant and working with difficult and isolated groups of people to help make a difference.”

Not for her the distant governor figure holed up in her office. Vicky is constantly accessible to prisoners and staff alike. “One of the mantras is that you manage by walking about,” she says. “I spend as much time as possible out and about talking to staff and prisoners, and in my current role talking to detainees.”

Of course Mr McKay was always walking about – but his haughty gait, and that combative twitch were only about watching out for one of Fletcher’s mates pulling a fast one. Vicky, on the other hand, talks about empathising with the detainees. “I think one of the most important skills a prison officer can have is that of empathy. That’s distinct from, though not opposed to, sympathy.”

Part of this is about understanding that detainees are not, of course, the same as prisoners. They are not held under criminal law, or imprisoned under the Prisons Act, and this carries its own complications.

“If a detainee decides he’s not going to comply with the rules, there are very few things we can do to make them comply other than locking them up, which isn’t a good outcome for anybody. So we have to encourage compliance by building good relationships.”

People can be detained in Immigration Removal Centres for anything from 24 hours to 12 months, and there is lots of coming and going,  to, say, interviews with the immigration authorities: what is known as ‘churn’. So establishing relationships is not as straightforward as it is in prisons. “You have to be able to hook into them straightaway. I’m enormously proud of my staff for their ability to deal with people who are there in the short term: reassuring them about their status, making sure they have everything they need.”

The mix of nationalities at Haslar IRC– up to forty – means up to 15 different languages are being spoken, and a number of disparate religions practiced. So the staff are tasked with smoothing the mix to enable the inmates to live alongside each other in a well ordered way. Thanks to a team of chaplains, who answer to the Church of England chaplain, there isn’t the religious-based conflict that you might expect.

“Incredibly, they rub along very well,” she says, explaining that because the Muslim population is 50 per cent there is a separate mosque and multi-faith rooms. She puts the tolerance down to the fact that all detainees face uncertain futures. For while they are at Haslar the immigration service will be making decisions about whether or not to allow them to be admitted to the country on a temporary basis, to make asylum claims. “They’re respectful of the fact this applies to all detainees, and they don’t let religion become an issue for them.”

So religious celebrations of all types are encouraged and diversity celebrated. “Lots of art and music is involved. It makes for a very positive atmosphere.”

Some of her detainees will be fleeing hostile regimes, others will have been trafficked by gang masters, and while Vicky can’t allow herself an opinion about what their fate when they leave Haslar, she can put herself in their shoes. That means being aware that, while some inmates can hardly write in their own language, others are qualified doctors in their home countries. Providing the necessary stimulation in the form of education is therefore vital.

“The detainees don’t want to be there. So, while we ensure they have what they need and we empathise because we understand where they’re coming from – we’re actually operating dynamic security. Because if we understand these things, we can watch them for changes. That is vitally important. Because if you walk into a dormitory one day and a detainee greets you, and yet is totally different the next day, you think : What’s going on here?”

The change she and her staff sense could arise from someone being bullied: perhaps they are being radicalised to religious insurgency, or maybe they have insider information about violence being planned. By being attuned to behavioural changes Vicky and her 150 staff can be on their guard.

You can’t help wondering whether being a woman enables that intuitive side to the job. Vicky Baker readily concurs, adding; “The skills women bring to bear are about inclusivity and team building. If you build a good team at senior level, and ensure your staff are properly trained and know exactly what your expectations are, then you’re well on your way to having a very good establishment.” She herself worked under Carole Draper during her time as deputy governor at Parkhurst, and she says the lessons she learnt there were invaluable.

“I learned from watching Carole that promoting inclusivity works, and promoting trust works. I learnt from prisoners every day. People are sent to prison for more reasons than you could count if you sat for a month of Sundays. They have different life histories, different stories, different pressures, different triggers to their behaviour.  You can’t be around that range of humanity and not learn. Unless you’re particularly blind or thick,” she adds with a grin.

There will be some people reading this who may be thinking: Just what you’d expect from a woman. Governing by the soft option. But Vicky is emphatic that this is not the case: “It’s hardly a soft option to say ‘OK now I’ve got these people in prison, what am I going to do to change their attitudes and behaviour?’ If we lock prisoners up and do nothing with them, they won’t have changed a single bit when they get out. Just as, if your car goes on the blink and you lock it in the garage for 18 months, you wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still not working when you get it out.”

So the care and attention received by a prisoner or a detainee is not soft at all, but about changing them so they don’t reoffend. That way she’s fulfilling her brief to the tax payer.

She is quick to correct any impression that under a woman’s leadership the atmosphere is anodyne and humourless. “We’re not overly politically correct,” she smiles. “You need to be able to have a laugh at your situation. And you need emotional as well as physical stamina.”

Given how much she gives in her role at the top of this multimillion pound institution, it comes as a bit of a surprise that she finds time for a fulfilling life outside prison.“My husband and I love the Isle of Wight. We walk a lot, and visit the theatre as often as we can.”

Where her daughter, who is now 22 and emphatically didn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps, “grew up around what was happening on B-wing that day!”, Vicky now separates her job from life outside. But she stresses how immensely fulfilling it is to work in the prison service. “For anyone interested, the prison service is a fascinating career. You find yourself in as many and varied places and issues, dealing with a whole range of different groups:  male adults, female adults, juveniles, long termers and lifers, sex offenders. And the service is a very good employer.”

Recruitment ad over, she returns to the basic core necessity of her job: respect. “If I don’t have a respectful attitude, that could lead to massive problems. Because if I’ve got a set of keys to lock you up – well, that’s ultimate power.”