Veronica’s Bird: Thirty-five years inside as a female prison officer
Veronica Bird was one of nine children living in a tiny house in Barnsley with a brutal coal miner for a father. Life was a despairing time in the 1950s, as Veronica sought desperately to keep away from his cruelty. Astonishingly, to her and her mother, she won a scholarship to Ackworth Boarding School where she began to shine above her class-mates. A champion in all sports, Veronica at last found some happiness until her brother-in-law came into her life. It was as if she had stepped from the frying pan into the re: he took over control of her life removing her from the school she adored, two terms before she was due to take her GCSEs, so he could put her to work as a cheap option on his market stall. Abused for many years by these two men, Veronica eventually ran away and applied to the Prison Service, knowing it was the only safe place she could trust. This is the astonishing, and true story of Veronica Bird who rose to become a Governor of Armley prison. Given a ‘basket case’ in another prison, contrary to all expectations, she turned it around within a year, to become an example for others to match. During her life inside, her ‘bird’, she met many Home Secretaries, was honoured by the Queen and was asked to help improve conditions in Russian Prisons. A deeply poignant story of eventual triumph against a staggeringly high series of setbacks, her story is filled with humour and compassion for those inside.
Retired perhaps, after spending thirty-five years behind bars, but as active today as she has ever been, Veronica Bird can look back on the extraordinary changes she has endured. Endured is, maybe, the wrong word, for she has never regretted her time, or her choice, to enter Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Encountered possibly might fit better, meeting some of the lowest and most dangerous criminals in her day to day routine. Enjoyed? Yes: the complete satisfaction of seeing a youth finding a job, and holding it, after being released…and not coming back to say goodbye. It was enough to see his cell remain empty.
Throughout this book, one can feel Veronica’s early life dictating her thoughts and reasons for the actions she took. The mind-numbing harshness of existence in Barnsley came within a whisker of throwing her on a heap labelled ‘forgotten’; only a good neighbour telling her one day she was ‘just a little slave,’ jolted her out of her terror and caused her to turn to the only place on earth she felt she could be safe. A prison.
It is an irony that her name is ‘Bird’, the very label which prisoners place upon their time in jail: ‘doing bird’ was as much for herself as the inmates of the prison in which she was working. But, once in the system she began to focus on being the best, in a world of men, as she started her career. At Head Office, the powers that be, began to recognise they had something special in this diminutive woman, only five feet six inches in her socks. How, they asked, was she able to turn around a ‘basket case’ of a prison in just a year when the entire organisation had failed to do so? And she did it without additional funds or help. Just hard work and rolling her sleeves up alongside her staff.
Something good in what she was doing must have been recognised for she was asked to go with a team to Russia to help sort out Putin’s prisons. What she saw there made her own prison operations seem like a vicar’s tea party, to coin a cliché, and put one member of her team, a hardened prison officer, in tears at what he witnessed.
The story of the two men in her life who never left her alone, as if she was their private chattel, stitches in and out of her career – she could choose either the nightmare blackened face with the red staring eyes or the greedy immorality of the other – take your choice Veronica. Some choice.
In the month Veronica retired, Myra Hindley died: they had entered prison on the same day. One remained incarcerated for the entire period, thirty-five years. The prison Governor flowered into a highly skilled yet compassionate jailor. It is curious, is it not, how two people can take up such diverse paths in their lives yet, be flung together whether they wanted it or not?
There is a happy ending to this story. These days, Veronica shakes hands with A Prime Minister, A Royal Princess and Her Majesty the Queen. She walks through the corridors of Buckingham Palace as if she knows its layout well and bestrides the dais of a hundred speaking engagements…and makes peace with her long dysfunctional family.
As I say, it is a happy ending.
Veronica’s Bird Copyright © Richard Newman 2018 Authors Veronica Bird and Richard Newman. Published by Clink Street Publications 23rd January 2018