Grandma goes to jail every month

Trudy Barres in Strangeways

Trudy Barres in Strangeways

Getting in and out of one of the UK's highest security prisons is not easy, even for the innocent. But regular fingerprinting, photographing and a body, shoe and belongings search do not faze 76-year-old Trudy Barres, the last remaining League of Jewish Women volunteer working at HMP Manchester.

"I never imagined a nice Jewish woman working in a prison," said Mrs Barres, from Prestwich, north Manchester. "When we originally got requests for volunteers from the League, I thought, why not? My granddaughters' young friends say, 'oh my God' with wide-open eyes. I tell them they've got my fingerprints, and you get searched up and down when you go in. It certainly changes the way people think of a Jewish grandma."

The JC was given access to follow Mrs Barres on one of her three-hour shifts at the prison, better known by its more infamous name - Strangeways. Every fourth Wednesday she runs the snack bar inside the prison's main visiting hall.

The League's long association with Strangeways is at risk. It began in the 1970s when 12 Jewish volunteers ran visitor services, including a crèche and library. This work preceded the notorious 1990 riot, the worst in British penal history. Mrs Barres returned with LJW volunteers to continue the service in 1995. Now toughened security has meant that League volunteers have dwindled, and there is a shortage.

Mrs Barres, who remains locked inside a kind of steel cage with a serving hatch throughout her shift, works in no ordinary snack bar. She cannot sell Mars Bars because visitors might push drug packets into their squishy centres. Milkshakes and non-transparent bottles and liquids are also off the menu.

The snack bar is inside a large hall overseen by rows of CCTV cameras. Ten guards patrol. It is where the prison's 1250 inmates meet their loved ones. One wall displays drawings by children, messages to the fathers they rarely see.

Mrs Barres reported: "I've been here when they caught a women trying to pass drugs. She was carted off, and she was shaking. Sometimes visitors will hide drugs in a baby's nappy and then pass the child to the prisoner."

There is currently only one Jewish prisoner at Strangeways. There have been others, although relatively few, according to Rev Michael Binstock, director of the Jewish prison chaplaincy. Some years ago he struggled just to gain kosher food for two Strangeways prisoners. But now prisoners can request kosher frozen meals, prison rules allow time for prayers and wearing tefillin, while observant inmates who work in prison workshops finish 30 minutes before Shabbat or festivals.

Mr Binstock said: "The situation is much better now. But one of the biggest problems is confirming if requests are genuine. Some just want to use the kosher food for something to trade with other prisoners. Sometimes Jewish prisoners reject kosher food and non-Jewish prisoners try to request it."

Mrs Barres added: "There have been Jewish prisoners who give you an extra smile for the work you are doing. At one time a man from very Orthodox circles was a prisoner. There are also Jewish visitors.

"Sometimes a prisoner is sitting there and no visitor arrives and you see the look of desolation on their faces. I don't know what they've done , and I won't judge people. But you just give prisoners a smile. You are really doing a service."

The League's north west chairman, Sally Bass, said LJW was looking for younger women to save its prison prison service. "We do have some hairy moments," warned Mrs Barres. "A few weeks ago a prisoner went missing on the roll call, and we had a lockdown. They did find him eventually."

But, she said, in 16 years she had never had trouble. Highly visible in her bright blue League of Jewish Women overall and magen David necklace, she declared: "You certainly see life here" .

    Last updated: 2:46pm, July 21 2011