Veronica’s Bird by Veronica Bird & Richard Newman
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 GCEs, 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 lled with humour and compassion for those inside.
This extract is taken from Veronica’s Bird during the time she was asked to join a team to help the Russian authorities try and solve the many issues in their prisons.
Veronica and her team have arrived in Ivanovo at the Women’s prison on the first day of their visit.
Now, read on:
The Governor then walked us into the grounds of the prison and I pointed with a finger at the low wall.
‘Governor, what about escapes-?
‘We do not have escapes in Russia, Mees Ver-on-ikah,’ he replied firmly. He indicated a thin wire which ran around the perimeter inside of the wall. He leaned down upon it. Within seconds, his entire staff erupted from their buildings as a siren went off. They were in full uniform with Kalashnikovs’ slung around their necks. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact the female staff were not entitled to free boots, so shoes had been purchased individually. As they paraded for us we were met with a long line of pink, green and blue shoes of sling-back, high heel and slip-on varieties. Their faces were also plastered with make-up, a strange mixture of feminism and butch reality. I asked the Governor, by now I was able to call him Sergei, the reason.
‘Sergei, why such an interest in make-up?’
‘They have nothing else to spend their money on Ver-on-ikah’
I noticed the women constantly checking the state of their make-up in tiny hand mirrors. There was a chasm between the rulebook and the reality of everyday commitment to the job. Our countries were so far apart it was hard to conjure up a single point where we could agree on even one action.
Back inside, we found the inmates living in huge dormitories, about one hundred and thirty per room in two-tier bunks, each with a locker, nothing else. It was spotlessly clean and very military in its way. Very cramped but neat. There was no-one in the room but that was conceivably because they were all in the workshops. Women could attend church if they wished and there was a facility offered to very stressed inmates called a relaxation course which, I was told, helped a great deal, but I was never able to pin down if this was just propaganda, or if such ideas had ever been put into practice. I say this now with wisdom, for it wasn’t long after this the interpreter said to me, ‘Do you believe everything you are told Ver-on-ikah?’ He did not embellish his comment, but he didn’t have to. He knew only too well an act was being put on for his British guests.
The dining room was awful. A large tureen was placed at the head of each table. Prisoners could help themselves with as much as they wanted which, today was potato soup with a helping of grease on the top. A piece of bread, the size of the palm of your hand was also available. When finished, anything left in the bowls was poured back into the tureen. No waste! This was the main meal of the day.
The women were not wearing uniforms. My first agreeable sight for they were allowed to wear their own clothes. Curiously, countering this avant garde idea, they had to wear a headscarf at all times. Failure to do so might mean a punishment of some form. As to other meals, I never did find out what they had for breakfast but assumed there might have been some processed peas available!
We moved on to the workshops, which were enormous, a factory no less, making uniforms for prison staff, the armed forces and the police for national distribution. They were beautifully made. All the various stages of making a suit were here from the cloth cutting machines, sewing, checkers and packers. This work must save the State a lot of money. I learned that other women were deployed in the kitchen and some had been detailed to grow fresh vegetables outside to supplement their diet and I could see flowers brightening the rows of cabbages. I never understood why the growing of vegetables in Britain for the Service was stopped for it seemed such a good idea. I would have thought prisoners would have welcomed any chance of being outside in the fresh air and sun. Gardening could reduce boredom, the ever-present fuse to the powder kegs of the more anxious and restless inmates.
Veronica’s Bird – Copyright © Richard Newman 2018. Authors Veronica Bird and Richard Newman. Published by Clink Street Publications 23rd January 2018
About the authors:
After thirty-five years working for the Prison Service, Veronica Bird is now retired and living in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. She is still an active proponent of the justice system and continues to lecture across the country and is a supporter of Butler Trust, which acknowledges excellence within the prison system. A qualified architect and Swiss-trained hotelier, Richard Newman enjoyed a forty-year career designing and managing hotels worldwide before retiring in 2001. Since
then he has gone on to publish a number of novels: The Crown of Martyrdom, The Horse that Screamed, The Potato Eaters, The Green Hill, Brief Encounters and most recently The Sunday Times bestseller, A Nun’s Story. He is currently working on a new novel about retirement and an autobiography of his time in the Middle East. He lives happily with his wife in Wetherby, West Yorkshire where he enjoys being close to his family.
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