'I help killers and rapists with life admin at infamous London prison - I've had death threat and been hit on'

Janet Bassey poses for photos in West London in in Britain 15 May 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
-Credit: (Image: Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon)

To face death threats and unwarranted advances from serious offenders including murderers and rapists would probably constitute most people's worst day at work ever. For Janet Bassey, it's a constant risk.

No, she isn't a prison officer, or a custody suite manager for the police - she provides advice on housing, benefits and help with general life admin. But she does it at one of London, and Britain's, most infamous prisons, Wormwood Scrubs, and has done for almost 20 years.

The 62-year-old joined Citizens Advice's Wormwood Scrubs programme in 2005 and has since provided countless prisoners with advice on housing and finance. Janet got involved with Citizens Advice, which provides free advice to people about their rights, after almost being kicked out of her flat nearly 20 years ago because of rent arrears she accrued after paying into the wrong account.

The advice bureau informed her landlord of the issue and helped her stay in her flat. She said: "That alone made me say 'wow! This is an organisation that can really assist people like me'. I didn't have any knowledge of housing at all. And those were the things that really made me be like, 'I really want to be a part of this'."

READ MORE: The London estate where bills skyrocketing by £60k leave leaseholders scared flats are unsellable

The Victorian front gates of one of London's most notorious prisons, Wormwood Scrubs
The Victorian front gates of one of London's most notorious prisons, Wormwood Scrubs -Credit:Getty

Janet volunteered in Southwark for a year before landing a job with Citizens Advice in Kensington and Chelsea. She was eventually referred onto the prison programme by the chapter's chief executive.

'We are all human'

Janet said the work can be intense. Wormwood Scrubs is a closed prison in White City which has 12,000 prisoners and Janet helps a lot of them, she said.

Her mornings start with sorting through her mail and prioritising her caseload for the day. Inmates will pop in or she'll visit their cells and provide advice on accessing housing benefits and how to keep hold of a rental property while they're in prison.

Janet said this is to avoid inmates falling into 'intentional homelessness' when they're released because they've either failed to inform local authorities of their incarceration or aren't aware of their rights to benefits and debt relief. She'll help inmates cancel direct debits, credit cards, bills as well as personal loans and, depending on how long they're in prison, write off personal debts.

She said: "We're all human. They're all human. They have responsibilities before coming in and that is where we come in and notify creditors to let them know where they are."

Janet said her role isn't just about filing countless applications and punching numbers into a database, it's about enabling inmates. She has encouraged them to get an education and to find their passions.

Janet recalls one inmate who now runs his own decorating businesses and travels the world. Another, who was once jailed 14 years for sex trafficking, is now a lecturer at the Open University.

She has helped inmates reconcile with their children and consoled others out of taking their lives. She said: "They do appreciate the service and what I do… They're paying the price for what they did. I am there to assist them, to make things a bit more comfortable."

That doesn't mean the job has no personal risks. Janet wears an alarm around her neck and bars inmates who flirt with her. She deals with murderers and paedophiles and once had a released prisoner send her a plane ticket to the US to visit him. Janet refused.

She is also threatened by inmates and recalls one prisoner threatening to kill her. She said: "It was years ago, he wanted me to contact his ex, which is why he was [in jail], because she had all his money.

"I said, 'unfortunately, I won't be able to do that'… I told him, 'if you know your ex's address, write to her'. He turned around and said, 'I'm going to kill you'. I said 'you can't kill me. You don't have the ability to kill me'."

He would later go on to apologise. Despite the torrent of abuse Janet has faced over the years, she approaches her job with equanimity, grace and deep principle.

She said: "People ask me, how [do you do it]? I say 'I don't see the difference between you and them because no one is unbeatable. I can slap you and you pass out and then the police press charges against me. Some of the cases, their actions are against the rules and laws of the land and they're paying the price. So, it's not my place [to judge]."

Janet (bottom left with black glasses on) with 13 people to receive an award for her service to the community in Kensington and Chelsea
Janet (bottom left with black glasses on) was one of 13 people to receive an award for her service to the community in Kensington and Chelsea -Credit:© 2024 Justin Thomas

'This project is so peculiar to me'

In April, Janet received an award from Kensington and Chelsea Council's mayor Preety Hudd for her work with inmates and service to the local community. The council's website said Janet's presence within the prison had been a constant reassurance for inmates and she had gone 'above and beyond' when she provided advice during the Covid-19 pandemic without pay.

The website read: "Janet's work is described as truly transformational. Working in this environment and working towards these goals is complex and technical work, but Janet has performed these duties with passion and positivity to go above and beyond in supporting this client group."

Janet still has trouble believing she was recognised in this way. She said: "When I saw the email, I had a client in front of me and I said: 'What? What is going on?' I didn't know nothing. I just saw the email and I said 'what is this?' So I started reading and I said 'wow!'

"For me, it's a privilege, you know. I don't see myself as anything, but the work that I do is my joy. I'm happy." Janet said working through the pandemic was tough, and not only because she wasn't paid for six months because funding dried up.

Janet Bassey poses for photos in West London in in Britain 15 May 2024. Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon
Janet Bassey has been helping prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs prison in Hammersmith and Fulham for almost 20 years -Credit:Facundo Arrizabalaga/MyLondon

She missed the face to face contact with inmates after in-person interviews were replaced with phone calls in cells. She said important details about the inmates were being missed and she found them to be mentally unstable.

She said: "I wanted to walk away but the prison project is so peculiar to me, to be honest with you. I feel fulfilled and satisfied to see the joy, you know, that tiny little thing that I do gives - and it's the same principle that applies to the outside, because I also work in the Chelsea office as well. It was tough but I survived."

Janet said budget cuts have taken their toll. When she first started, she had two other colleagues. Now she's on her own. As funding looks set to dry up yet again, Janet is faced with a predicament. Will she stay and work pro-bono until funding comes in, or will she walk away?

Janet isn't too sure. She doesn't know if she can go without pay again. But one thing that's for certain is her commitment to working for Citizens Advice until she retires. "It's part of me," she said.

James Cairns, deputy chief executive for Citizens Advice in Kensington and Chelsea, said Janet has embodied the organisation's mission during her nearly 20-year contribution. He said: "We are delighted that she has been recognised with the Mayor's Award for her hard work and dedication. There should be no doubt that Janet's work has enabled so many inmates to understand their rights while in prison and to rebuild their lives upon release."

Want more from MyLondon? Sign up to our daily newsletters for all the latest and greatest from across London here.