Obituary: Alfred Smith, prison governor and inspector

A painting of Alfred Smith. Picture: Contributed
A painting of Alfred Smith. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 29 November, 1930, in Edinburgh. Died: 26 June, 2013, in Peterhead, aged 82

It says much of the man that even years after he retired as governor of Scotland’s toughest jail he still received the odd phone call from former inmates asking for his help. Invariably he pointed them in the direction of someone better equipped to assist but the contact spoke volumes about the respect each had for the other.

On other occasions during his service a letter of appreciation would arrive: one, suspected to be from a notorious jailbreaker, remarked that it had been good to be under his control; another, from the grateful mother of one of the country’s most feared convicted murderers, thanked him for organising a visit despite it apparently being initially vetoed by the Scottish Office.

Smith, a former food canning factory labourer, ran Peterhead Prison during some of its darkest hours and, though the place was a powderkeg, he understood the hard men. He also knew the rules inside out. He knew exactly how far he could go legally and when to step back. “There’s only one rule,” he used to say. “Obey all the rules.”

A great leader, ably assisted by a strong staff whom he respected and supported, he led by example, tackling head-on the many challenges and incidents he encountered in his career.

Once, much to his chagrin, he found himself overruled – by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Just as he believed a violent rooftop siege was reaching its conclusion she wielded her power and sent in the SAS to snuff out the protest. Although disappointed to no longer have control of the situation he realised that, within the rules, intervention by government or armed forces was a possibility.

A few months later he became HM Deputy Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland – the most senior non-civilian position within the service – based in Edinburgh and far removed from the muck and bullets operation he had previously enjoyed.

Born in Edinburgh, the roots of his interest in the prison service stemmed from his father, a stonemason who had also been foreman of works at jails in Edinburgh, Greenock and Peterhead. But he did not initially follow in his footsteps.

After an education at the capital’s St Cuthbert’s Primary School and Holy Cross Academy, he joined the RAF Police and served at Dyce in Aberdeen. His next job was at Crosse and Blackwell in Peterhead, a large factory producing tinned goods, where he worked for a few years.

Eventually, encouraged by his father, he took the prison service entrance exams and began his career as a prison officer at Greenock in the early 1960s.

Determined to rise through the ranks, he applied for a governor’s course and spent some time training at Leeds and Wakefield. He became an assistant governor, then deputy and finally governor, serving at jails including Greenock, Perth, Barlinnie and at borstals and young offenders’ institutions at Polmont, Noranside and Glenochil. In addition, he served three terms at Peterhead, the grim Victorian jail on the north-east coast that housed dozens of Scotland’s most dangerous men.

He had a great affinity with Peterhead – not only the prison but the town, its people, industries and local football team – and he married a local “quine”, as girls are known in the area’s Doric dialect. Unlike some governors, who were reluctant to consider Peterhead as a preferred career destination due to its constant troubles, he relished the prospect and signed up whenever the opportunity arose.

Among the inmates he encountered were Jimmy Boyle, infamous then as a convicted murderer and man of terrifying violence but now totally reformed and a renowned sculptor; Thomas “TC” Campbell and Joe Steele, two men convicted but later cleared of the notorious Glasgow Ice Cream war murders which claimed the lives of a family of six; and Australian-born armed robber William Varey, responsible for the first break-out in 13 years. He was recaptured while quietly enjoying a pint in the bar of a nearby village hotel.

During the 1980s the jail was plagued by prisoner unrest, riots and rooftop sieges, hunger strikes and dirty protests. Sieges could go on for days. However, on occasion, Smith was able to deploy humour to defuse incendiary situations and had been known to entice inmates down from the roof by making them tea, coffee and bacon and eggs, with the aromas wafting up to the rooftops. He would say: “Gentlemen, we’ve made all this for you – all you have to do is come down and get it.”

Where he could, he built up relationships with the men, vowing to rehabilitate them as best he could and taking a keen interest in their state of mind, sometimes keeping his own private notes from meetings. At times he was able to get inside their heads and accurately predict their next moves. With some there was a mutual respect, others he regarded as predators.

One of the worst outbreaks of violence came in October 1987 when prison officer Jackie Stuart was taken hostage, beaten and chained on the roof.

Smith was in constant liaison with the rioters when, after several days and nights and on the eve of the Tory Party conference, an exasperated Margaret Thatcher called in the SAS. Smith feared the hostage could have been killed by inmates during the operation but by good fortune he was released. With a few flash-bangs the crack squad took command of the situation and rescued Mr Stuart, who was greeted by his boss with typical gallows humour: “You’ll do anything for overtime, Jackie.”

The following March, Smith was about to take up his post with HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland when, as outgoing governor, he addressed the annual prison officers’ conference, outlining his philosophy. “The biggest favour we can do for any ordinary inmate and the way in which we can best improve his quality of life,” he said, “is to separate him from the predators who live beside him.

“Only by removing the pressures applied by grossly anti-social and evilly disposed inmates and by removing the intimidation which is their stock in trade, can ordinary inmates be allowed to serve their sentences in peace.”

He said almost every improvement had been abused by some inmates, stressing that “you cannot buy good behaviour nor can you appease predators by giving in to their demands” and maintaining that privileges, concessions and improvements should only go to those who deserve and have earned them.

He spent the next two or three years with the inspectorate (as high office as he could achieve) before retiring to Peterhead in the early 1990s. There he cared for his wife Anna, who developed motor neurone disease, and was devastated by her death in 2003.

He is survived by their three sons, Alfie, Gerald and Paul, and their extended family, who were by his bedside when he passed away following a deterioration of his health over several months.