Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Prison Myths: Guitar-String Garrottes

One of the more bizarre justifications for the recent move to ban steel-stringed guitars in UK prisons was the risk that inmates might use the strings to fashion an improvised garrotte. Presumably this would then be used to inflict harm on either other prisoners or members of staff.

Offensive weapon?
You might think that this type of knee-jerk reaction by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) would follow on from just such an incident. Maybe prison security departments across the nation have been inundated with garrottings… landings running with blood and severed heads bouncing down the wings. 

So how many incidents have there been? The actual answer is, of course, zero. No-one has been garrotted with a steel guitar string in a UK prison – or if they have it’s never been documented. The same goes for 'drugs smuggled inside books' which was another big whopper from Team Grayling (made up on the hoof after the event to justify banning the posting in of books and clean underwear to cons).

Let’s get back to basics. If a prisoner is planning to inflict violence, the preferred tools of choice are either a shank (a plastic prison-issue tooth-brush or plastic cutlery handle into which one or more prison-issue razor blades are melted) or a 'jugging' with an in-cell travel kettle filled with boiling water, sugar and sometimes bleach. The contents can be thrown in a victim's face. Very nasty, but also very rare. I only saw one such incident in over two years.

A lethal weapon
Occasionally, a wooden table leg can be detached and used as a club. Also rather unpleasant. However, all these items are easily available on every prison wing (I'm not sure about travel kettles in the high security estate). There's no ban on razor blades, toothbrushes or tables. The guitar steel string story is a typical red herring, made up to justify banning the items from the new National Facilities List introduced in the Prison Service Instruction (PSI 30/2013) on Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP).

The ban on steel strings for guitars (which affected the majority of instruments currently held in possession by cons) had already impacted on musical activities in prisons, although to what extent governors had actually ordered the confiscation of existing guitars isn’t clear. I suspect that there was a great deal of local discretion being used, at least in C-cats (medium security) and D-cats (open prisons).

Not as innocent as it looks
Now, following a high profile campaign led by musician Bill Bragg, with the support of various stars including Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, Radiohead’s Ed O'Brien and The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the MOJ appears to have seen sense and has agreed to rescind the total ban.

Credit also goes to Kevin Brennan, the Labour MP for Cardiff West, who has pushed the campaign in Parliament and with ministers. You can find his press release on the issue here.

Could it also be an early indication that new part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous has been given the task of trying to improve the negative media coverage the MOJ has been getting under Chris Grayling? It’s probably too early to say, but it is the first sign that a bit of common sense may be creeping back into the political discourse on prisons.

I’m not sure that this sensible concession (which will probably see steel-stringed guitars available only to trusted, risk-assessed prisoners on the Enhanced level of privileges) will exactly have the jailhouses rocking, but it is a positive start. Whether the other absurdities of the revised IEP system will be moderated in the near future remains to be seen. I’m not holding my breath on it.



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