Sunday, 6 July 2014

Collecting Prison T-Shirts

I realise that this is a strange title for a Blog entry, but I'm sure prisoners, former prisoners and prison officers will know exactly what this means. Since there just aren't enough prison staff to do everything that needs to be done around a prison, pretty much every prison recruits inmates to do a variety of voluntary jobs around the establishment. A few roles may involve paid work, but most are done by volunteers.

Typical jobs include Insiders (experienced prisoners who act as advisors, particularly for new arrivals and prisoners who have day-to-day problems); Listeners (inmates trained by the Samaritans who provide a non-judgemental 24-hour listening service for prisoners in distress); Buddies or Carers (those who provide help to elderly or disabled prisoners); Diversity and Equality Reps (tasked with helping ensure that equality is promoted and discrimination flagged up); Wing Reps (supposedly the prisoners who represent the interests of all prisoners on the wing, but they are rarely elected and are more often appointed by staff). There are also Toe by Toe mentors who help other inmates learn to read, supported by the Shannon Trust charity.

Shannon Trust t-shirt
Almost all these roles are distinguished by a different colour t-shirt or polo shirt. This varies from prison to prison, but often Listeners have green tops, while Insiders have red ones. The Shannon Trust provides distinctive t-shirts for its mentors, usually red or grey, although I've also been issued with black ones. Some prisoners aim to collect as many voluntary roles (and t-shirts) as possible. For one thing, they provide a welcome alternative to the plain prison-issue t-shirts or sweat-tops and they also save your own personal clothing from getting grubby during the working day or association periods.

Of course, taking on such roles has always been the sign of a 'good' prisoner, one who is compliant with the regime and these activities can also contribute to 'positive write-ups' in the individual's p-NOMIS (Prison National Offender Management Information System) file. Positive entries help when the time comes for re-catergorisation reviews (ie from B-cat to C-cat or from C-cat to D-cat). They also get flagged up to the Parole Board in the cases of those inmates who are serving a sentence with a parole eligibility. In short, they are 'Brownie points' on your record.

However, since the introduction of the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system on 1 November 2013, any Enhanced level prisoner who comes up for a review of his or her IEP status now has to demonstrate that they have made a positive contribution during their sentence in order to keep their Enhanced status (and all that goes with it, including being permitted to buy a cheap DVD player or a Playstation 2). Given that there are now around 85,000 prisoners in the system, it is certain that there aren't a similar number of voluntary roles available. I would estimate that on a wing of 120 inmates, there might be 20-25 of these jobs up for grabs and some prisoners can't resist collecting t-shirts (hence the title of this Blog entry).

A Listener's badge
I remember one prisoner at a B-cat who had managed to amass quite an impressive collection of roles. In addition to his paid job as Education Orderly, he also managed to bag one of the two Insider posts on the wing. Then he added the Wing Rep's job, as well as the Diversity Rep's post and finally he also became wing coordinator for the Toe by Toe literacy scheme. The only reason he didn't train as a Listener is that Insiders aren't supposed to become Listeners because the Insider role is all about giving advice to other inmates, while Listeners - following the Samaritan code - are not supposed to be directive. So this one prisoner, admittedly able and a good communicator, was filling five different roles. Very good for his p-NOMIS entries, no doubt, but leaving very few vacancies for other inmates.

My own view is that it is going to be an uphill struggle for many prisoners to retain their Enhanced status, regardless of how good their general behaviour may be. The revised IEP scheme appears designed to reduce the overall number of inmates on the top level of privileges, with the vast majority looking set to end up on Standard level. My best guess is that this is ideologically motivated, as it will enable the Ministry of Justice to tell Daily Mail readers that Playstation consoles and DVD players have been confiscated from hundreds, or even thousands, of prisoners who have lost their Enhanced level status during 2013-2014.

This means that there is likely to be fierce competition for those coloured t-shirts across the prison estate. It also means that some of the prisoners who volunteer may just be those who shout loudest or who are 'in with' the wing screws. Will this make the culture of volunteering inside prison any healthier? I doubt it personally. However, it might put paid to the t-shirt collecting by just two or three inmates on each wing. I'm not sure that having five jobs - and one of the few DVD players or Playstation 2s left on the wing - will make any con Mr Popular in prison!


  1. A con should not have more than one t-shirt at a time

    1. Thanks for your comment. In theory, I would agree with you, but that doesn't stop the prison authorities appointing the same people to multiple jobs! Maybe with the current overcrowding, this might change, but I'm not convinced.