Colin Ring has encountered some of Britain’s most notorious criminals and witnessed many significant changes during a long career in the prison service.
It has certainly not been a regular 9-to-5 working life, but it’s one he looks back on with great pride and affection as he prepares to hang up his prison keys for the final time.
Colin retires from his position as Deputy Governor at the Isle of Man prison today (Thursday 29 August) after working in several institutions throughout the British Isles, including two separate spells in the Island.
‘I remember my father saying I’d never stick it out because the prison service was a tough way of life back in the 70s,’ Colin says. ‘But I enjoyed the job from day one and here I am 39 years later.’
Born in Birkenhead, the youngest of three brothers, Colin did try his hand at more conventional employment on leaving school at the age of 15. He was an apprentice engraver for a short time and also worked at the Lever Brothers soap factory in Port Sunlight.
Indeed, it was one of his early jobs that first brought Colin to the Isle of Man – as manager of the Singer sewing machine shop in Castle Street, Douglas, in 1973.
The move to the Island also proved to be life-changing, as he met and later married Manx girl Janice Callow. The couple will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next year.
The opportunity for Colin to pursue a career in the prison service saw a return to Liverpool in 1975. He joined the ranks as a new recruit and spent 8 weeks training in Bristol before securing his first official posting – at Stoke Heath Borstal in Market Drayton.
That was the start of a largely nomadic working life as Colin’s career took him to various parts of the United Kingdom.
He said: ‘If you wanted a promotion in those days you had to be prepared to move around to broaden your knowledge and gain experience of different types of prisons. We also lived in staff quarters, so it was a very close-knit community and a total commitment to the job. I am extremely fortunate to have enjoyed the support of my wife and family down the years.’
A promotion to the rank of Prison Hospital Officer in 1977 took Colin to Wormwood Scrubs.
‘I had to lock up a number of infamous characters on my particular landing,’ he said, adding: ‘UK prisons were also overcrowded back then, often with three men to a cell, and slopping out in the mornings is not a sight I’ll ever forget!’
The Ring family moved to the Isle of Man in December 1978 when Colin became the first Hospital Prison Officer at Victoria Road, working under Governor Tom Reilly.
While life was good in the Island, Victoria Road had fewer than 20 inmates and a small staff at the time, so opportunities for career advancement were fairly limited. That led to a return to Liverpool prison in 1986, where he later gained promotion to Senior Officer rank.
He then transferred to HMP Whitemoor, a newly constructed top security facility in Cambridgeshire. Colin helped to prepare for the opening of the prison and recalls: ‘The two years I spent at Whitemoor were probably the toughest of my career. A lot of the most serious offenders from around the UK were transferred to that prison.’
A further promotion to Principal Officer saw Colin and his family move to Leeds, before they settled back in the Isle of Man in 1994 – and familiar territory at Victoria Road working for Governor Rosie Crosby.
He went on to become a Deputy Governor at the prison and also spent four months as Acting Governor, covering duties until Alison Gomme arrived in the Island in 2008 to take over at the helm.
Colin has witnessed many changes in the prison service over the past four decades, including some major milestones in the Isle of Man.
‘The introduction of the smoking ban at the prison was contentious, but we firmly believed it was the right decision to make. I remember not being able to see from one end of the visitors’ room to the other at Victoria Road because of all the cigarette smoke. It’s a much healthier environment now, for staff and prisoners,’ he said.
The biggest transition has been the move from Victoria Road to Jurby, which took place over a single day in August 2009. Colin was the last officer to leave the old prison in Douglas, locking the big gatehouse doors behind him for one final time.
He said: ‘The prison move was a massive undertaking and the planning and preparations were meticulous. Transferring an entire prison population just doesn’t happen anywhere else. If a new jail opens in the UK it will usually accommodate prisoners from a variety of other facilities. We had to move our entire operation in one day and remain fully functional. I’m pleased to say everything went very smoothly thanks to the dedication of the officers.’
Colin, a father of two, says that running a prison in a small community such as the Isle of Man presents a unique challenge – but one that staff rise to on a daily basis.
‘You might lock somebody up every night for a couple of years and then come face-to-face with him in the local supermarket a few days after he’s been released. It’s a potentially difficult situation, but staff at the prison are very professional and the relationship between officers and prisoners has been recognised by HM Prison Inspectorate as one of our greatest strengths.’
Colin, whose position as Deputy Governor included the role of Head of Security and Operations, also refutes the suggestion that prisoners now have an easy life.
‘I’ve heard the prison referred to as the “Jurby Hilton”, but that’s simply not the case,’ he says. ‘Victoria Road was no longer fit for purpose and conditions now are cleaner and more humane. There’s also more of a focus on rehabilitation, but prisoners are still locked up in a small cell every night away from their loved ones. I don’t think many people would wish to swap places.’
As he looks towards the future, Colin says he will miss the camaraderie of the prison service most of all.
‘I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people during my career. I’ll miss the banter with the staff and prisoners. You need a good sense of humour in this line of work and it’s a really tight-knit community. I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every minute.’
But he insists his time ahead won’t be filled with some of the more traditional retirement pursuits.
‘I’m not a fan of DIY, I hate gardening and I don’t play golf.
‘But I’ve got a few options under consideration to ensure I don’t get under my wife’s feet,’ he says.