Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Prison Psychology (1): The Importance of Small Victories

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the importance of winning small victories when you’re in prison. I wrote the following piece when I had not long been moved from the Block (segregation unit) back onto normal location in a B-cat establishment. It was written almost two years before the revision to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system came into effect on 1 November 2013, but I’m posting it because I think it provides an insight into the vital importance of maintaining contact with loved ones and friends on the outside, as well as why the new IEP rules undermine efforts to maintain family ties.

Prison is all about accepting small victories and enjoying little successes. When you are a prisoner there is much truth in the old, cynical twist on the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” Of course, in reality, prisoners are always hoping for something, even the most hardened or depressed inmate. Hope really does spring eternal, even in the Block, no matter how many knockbacks (setbacks or refusals) a prisoner experiences during his or her sentence.

Fragile hopes... broken dreams
Hope or expectation can consist of waiting for a positive letter from home, or a good friend, or a lover. In those prisons where private property is permitted to be sent in by post [note: this was prior to 1 November 2013], Reception Day – sometimes once a week, but more often two or three times a month – is a time of high hopes, but also disappointment and broken dreams.

The longer a con has been incarcerated, the more he or she comes to rely on the smallest of pleasures: the receipt of a book or DVD from friends or family; a magazine or even a packet of three pairs of new boxer shorts or socks. Anything that enables the prisoner to touch – however briefly – a tangible link with the outside world beyond the walls, bars and gates of a prison.

Part of the pleasure is in the anticipation of the Reception Day deliveries when the screws come to each wing to get prop cards (property records) signed and items handed out ‘in possession’. Only such articles, along with purchases from the canteen sheet, are considered authorised. Anything not on an individual’s prop card is liable to be considered contraband.
Pants: the IEP system

I remember one amazing Reception Day at my first prison when I received a pair of brand new towels from home, along with a hardback annual diary and a pair of good quality nail-clippers bought for me at Boots. I felt as elated as I used to when I was a young kid at Christmas. I actually used one of the towels to cover my hard prison pillow for about a week. Sleeping with my head on something that I owned, and which didn’t smell of prison, was strangely comforting – a link with my family and with the real world.

Conversely, a negative phone conversation with a loved one, a letter from home with bad or sad news, an item sent in from home that is confiscated by security rather than handed out on Reception Day… any of these can seriously undermine a prisoner’s morale. Often it is the feeling of complete powerlessness that overwhelms you. You can put in an app (application) to have the item issued, or for a compassionate phone call home from the office, but there’s always a high chance that this will be refused, plunging you into even deeper depression.

Getting any personal property released from Reception – whether it is clean clothing, books, electronic goods bought from the Argos catalogue or any item other than simple letters – is a notoriously tortuous process, particularly after being transferred from another prison. On occasion, cons arrive without their prop and then it can take days, or even weeks, before Reception will locate the prop bag, search it, list the contents and then decide what, if anything, conforms to the local Facilities List (the document that lists in great detail what articles are permitted or prohibited, even what colour certain items can be and what IEP level a prisoner needs to have achieved before he or she can have the item issued to them).

Something that was held quite legally in possession in one establishment can suddenly become contraband in another, even when the prison is of the same – or a lower – security category. Sometimes prisoners can wait weeks before essential items, such as prescription glasses, will be issued in possession.

One of the first – and most important – lessons that any prisoner needs to learn is the virtue of patience. Nothing inside happens quickly - at least nothing good or positive. Waiting and hoping are everyday occurrences. On the other hand, disasters and knockbacks occur much more quickly and far more often, as any prisoner or ex-prisoner will confirm.

[Since this piece was written, PSI 30/2013 has revised the IEP system and introduced a new, rigid National Facilities List applicable to all prisons in England and Wales. It effectively prohibits the sending in of any items, including books, magazines and clothing. Prisoners can still purchase certain items via Amazon, M&M, Very or Argos but only using the small amounts of money permitted in their spends accounts from prison work or a weekly amount transferred from their private cash account, if any money is available. A cheque can take up to three months to clear; a Postal Order is much quicker. Delivery of items ordered, security checks and Reception issuing procedures can now take weeks or even months.]

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