'I watched inmates slash themselves, I saw one hurl himself off a balcony': Ex-prisoner reveals horror of Britain's jails

Cody Lachey, who has served time in two Manchester prisons, says some of the scene he witnessed will stay with him forever: Cody Lachey
Cody Lachey, who has served time in two Manchester prisons, says some of the scene he witnessed will stay with him forever: Cody Lachey

“His cell door opened and he jumped straight onto the railings. The prison officer tried to grab him, but he fell head-first. A 10-foot fall. I heard the crack of his neck. Blood coming from his ears and his head. He was in a bad way.”

Cody Lachey got used to witnessing disturbing scenes in prison. During his two years behind bars, he found himself cleaning up after an inmate had “slashed” themselves in their cell, running to the aid of another who had thrown themselves off a balcony and watching countless prisoners suffer mental breakdowns.

The 33-year-old served time in two Manchester prisons – HMP Strangeways and Forest Bank – for charges of witness intimidation, an assault on police and threats to kill. He was released five months ago and has been clear of the crime world since, describing himself as a “changed man”.

But the “agony” he witnessed inside, he said, will stay with him forever.

New data revealed on Thursday that the past year has seen an all-time high in prisoner assaults and self-harm, prompting claims the Government has “turned prisons into powder kegs”. Almost a quarter of prisoners were being held in conditions officially classified as “crowded” and the number of positive random drug tests reached 9.3 per cent.

Released on 10 February, Mr Lachey provides testimony from beyond the headlines and behind prison bars. During his time in Strangeways, where he spent three months, he was locked up for 23 hours a day. At Forest Bank, he became quickly trusted by senior officers, and was offered a job as a cleaner on the wing.

“Being a cleaner meant I wasn’t confined to my cell and I saw what went on,” he told The Independent. “They try their best to stop stories getting out, but the statistics today speak for themselves. The Ministry of Justice is failing prisoners, prisoner officer and prison families alike. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

While working on the wings, Mr Lachey watched a man attempt suicide – and fail with agonising consequences.

“It was a normal day, mid-afternoon. The lads were locked up, which was standard procedure,” he said. “It was a guy known to be a vulnerable prisoner – he was a rapist or a sex offender. They’re normally housed on their own wing, but because of the overspill, they often end up on general population.

“Other prisoners had got wind that he was a sex offender. They had been terrorising him from behind his door, shouting threats, some would try to throw urine through his hatch.

“A prison officer opened the door for a visit, and as he opened his cell, the prisoner jumped straight onto the high railings, which are about 10 feet from the ground floor. The prison officer went to grab him by his waist, but he ended up hanging, just dangling from on the railing.

“The officer had him by the legs. But as the gravity took hold, the prisoner slipped out of his trousers. He fell – head first. You heard it; the sickening impact. I ran down. He landed just next to the pool table. He was in a bad way. His skull was indented. Blood coming from his ears and his head.”

The man was taken to the hospital on a spinal board with fractures to his skull, and Mr Lachey never saw him again. But he was informed by officers that he returned to the same prison several months later, this time in the separate ward – where he should have been placed initially.

Self-harm in prisons reached a new record high of 40,414 incidents in the year to March, up by more than 5,700, while 113 prisoners took their own lives in the 12 months to March 2017 – one every three days.

Mr Lachey said he saw many cases of inmates harming themselves, describing one case in which a young man had been left in his cell with “thick blood spraying out of his wrists”.

“This lad was locked up and he wanted to get out of his cell. He had mental health issues. I heard his buzzer was going off but no one had come. I went to look through the hatch on his door,” he recalled.

“His artery was bleeding. It was spraying out from his wrist. It wasn’t trickling out, it was thick, and you could see that the colour was drained from his face.

“The scars on his arms from previous self-harm incidents were meaty. His arm had thick, meaty scars. He had smashed his cell up, smashed up his TV. And he was standing there, with his buzzer going. Because of how often these alarms get pressed, prison officers ignore them. He was saying ‘my heads all over the place, I need a nurse, I need meds’.”

Mr Lachey went down to senior officer and told them. Nurses attended the scene and the young man was taken to hospital.

He said the man had come into the prison as a “high-risk” inmate, but there hadn’t been enough cells designated for high risk prisoners due to over-crowding, so he wasn’t placed in one.

“This kid was a paranoid schizophrenic, had a personality disorder and he was bipolar,” he said. “Prison is a scary place as it is. They’re very volatile and violent places, and if you lock somebody up in that environment, where they’ve lost all control and they’re not getting properly medicated, then these things are going to happen.

“If the officers would’ve listened to the alarm, he might’ve been okay. It’s just lucky I was able to look through his flap at that point.”

“Prison is counterproductive. It doesn’t work. Rehabilitation and reform doesn’t take place,” Mr Lachey said. “When I was made a cleaner I thought, because I’m in a position of trust; I’ll get skills and training to use in the outside world. It didn’t happen. I worked seven days a week for £11.25 a week, and got no training.”

Last week, the UK prison watchdog’s annual report revealed that the dramatic rise in violence, self-harm and drug use in jails over the past year had been coupled with a decline in activities designed to encourage rehabilitation – with education and employment classes in youth jails hitting a seven-year low.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned that any hope for prison reform would be “in vain” unless the issues were addressed as a “matter of urgency” with fundamental shifts in the way local and training prisons are run.

Mr Lachey added: “I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, but prison for anyone – seeing what you see – can make you feel physically sick.

“The things I’ve seen inside will stay with me. I’ve lived a hard life anyway, but if I said prison hadn’t affected me massively, I’d be lying. I’ve seen so many people get worse once they’re inside. Things need to change.”