Inside UK’s biggest women’s prison – with sex favours for drugs and daily fights

A prison sentence was never in Sophie Campbell’s life plan, but an altercation with a police officer sent her behind bars.

Here, in her own words, she reveals some of the things she witnessed at HMP Bronzefield and how she restarted her life after her release.

I walked down from my cell to the prison food servery unit and joined the single-file queue for lunch.

There were two guards on duty – not that it meant much, the guards were never there to watch our back.

Reaching for my sandwich and crisps, my stomach lurched as I heard a fight break out behind me.

A woman was being wrestled to the ground by another prisoner.

They were screaming and shouting, and punches were being thrown just metres away from me. No one flinched. No one ever did. This was now my normal life.

Up until I was arrested for two accounts of GBH of a police officer in August 2017 and sentenced to nearly two years at HM Prison Bronzefield in Middlesex, I lived a decent life. My lifestyle wasn’t chaotic, although I no longer had contact with my family.

I had a professional, full-time job as an invoicing analyst, which I started after university.

I’d also got a scholarship to go to a private boarding school as an adolescent. Life was good. I never thought I was someone who would end up in prison. I mean, who does?

Like me, a lot of the women I interacted with in prison didn’t conform to the prisoner stereotype of being either homeless or drug addicts or sex workers.

But in reality, these types only form a small proportion of female prisoners. I came across women from privileged backgrounds.

It was a huge shock to the system when I started my term at HMP Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in the UK.

I couldn’t believe how offenders were treated by the officers. You wonder how they got away with a lot of it – neglecting inmates in their cells, depriving them of their meals, not giving them much-needed medical attention, or being too rough during searches.

The corruption incensed me and spurred me to write down everything I experienced at Bronzefield (which I later turned into my memoir).

Now I understand why they make women sign a non-disclosure agreement on arrival – not that it’s legally valid.

During my first week behind bars, I felt nervous rather than scared. When you witness a woman having boiling hot water thrown over their face, it rattles you.

You know it could be you – say the wrong thing, or look at the wrong person and you could be burned and blistered and never offered medical treatment.

In men’s prisons, it’s known they mix the boiling water with sugar, so it blinds the victim. In a women’s prison, you’re mixing with a majority who have been admitted for non-violent offences, so the risk of an attack shouldn’t really be at the forefront of your mind – but it is.

Violence is everywhere. It puts you on edge. You have to be alert as a situation can escalate rapidly. That’s why you learn to adopt a new code of conduct inside.

How I managed new friendships changed, as well as how I stuck up for myself and the tone I used when I spoke.

I began to do things I never thought myself capable of. I was once asked to hide crack cocaine in my cell by an inmate. I couldn’t believe it. I told her ‘no’. Firmly. She knew if she asked me again, things would get heated.

I was quite fierce at times when I was pushed – I flooded my own cell once in order to be heard. I surprise myself when I look back. There are things I’d rather forget, but using anti-social behaviour was the only way you could get heard or gain respect. The more aggressive you were, the more you got what you wanted.

As well as same-sex relationships thriving in Bronzefield, some female prisoners were engaging in sexual favours with the officers to get drugs or food, and that was a real shock for me. It’s so horrible how normalised it is, often gossiped and giggled about.

It’s a slippery slope once you cross that line. But if you’re constantly being told your life is over on the outside and no one is ever going to employ you, prostitution feels like the only way to earn a living.

The serious sexual attacks or rape often go unreported – most women don’t even bother attempting to report an incident.

There are so many hurdles you have to jump to report to a police officer, so incidents remain hidden. Thankfully I was never a victim of a sexual attack, but I was sexually harassed by one male prison officer.

I informed the prison, the outside judge, the chaplaincy and Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), but received no assistance, like most women who were sexually assaulted.

I’d witness assaults all the time – like seeing four officers pinning down a young girl in her cell. It was horrible, but it wouldn’t make me break down in tears.

I never really spent days crying in my cell. You need to find your way of coping. For me, it was reading. I’d focus on my future on the outside. I was fortunate to have the strength to visualise my future.

My mental health didn’t suffer too badly while I was inside. Although I once self-harmed, it was a cry for attention rather than a reflection of my mental state. But a lot of women self-harmed regularly.

You can get a lenient sentence if you show signs of a mental illness (like self harming), so there were some women doing it for that reason.

I never really had visitors. To be honest, I didn’t like friends coming. They found the experience unpleasant.

There are a lot of mad episodes I’d rather forget. Especially the day before I was released when I had to smash up my TV in my cell – but if I hadn’t behaved like that, I wouldn’t have got the attention to approve my licence conditions for life outside, and would have ended up as another statistic.

Around 79% of offenders who are released homeless are recalled to prison within a year.

When I left prison in my 20s, I was homeless, but lucky to find temporary accommodation and work after three weeks. I was in the library writing my CV and sending job applications the day after I was released.

I’ve since gone back to university. I can’t imagine how tough it is for women being released during lockdown who need to find employment, or even a home.

Obviously I changed my behaviour when I came out and got an admin job. You can’t be hurtling staplers across the office to get your colleague’s attention.

Strangely, I find there’s more racial prejudice on the outside than in prison.

My skin colour was not an issue for me in Bronzefield, even though being black, I was in the minority. Racism wasn’t tolerated among the women.

Leaving prison wasn’t enough of a success story for me. If the government was able to provide more support and education to female prisoners – from creating CVs to helping find accommodation – I am positive we would have a lower rate of women returning to prison.

Otherwise, inmates get conditioned that life is never going to get better and prison is as good as it gets. I was lucky, I always knew it was a life I didn’t want to live. And now my passion is to help others.

Women in prison: The facts

  • A study on women’s health in prison interviewed 2,250 woman one month after they’d been taken into custody – 25 said they had had sex with another woman. Another 18 said they’d had sex with a man during this period, but only one confirmed that a condom had been used.
  • Female prisoners are 69 times more likely to die in the week following their release from prison, compared to women in the general population.
  • Only 9% of children belonging to women in prison are cared for by their fathers in the mother’s absence, with only 5% staying in their own home.
  • From 2014-2020, recall numbers (losing their licence to live in the community) for women rose by 131% compared to the 22% recall rate among men.
  • Half of women on remand receive no visits in prison.

Sophie’s memoir, Breakfast At Bronzefield, is available at Foyles and Waterstones for £8.99. It is also available as an e-book for £3.99