Sunday, 20 July 2014

'Prison Rich'

It’s only when you’ve served some time in prison that you come to realise just how much rubbish passes as commonly accepted fact on the outside. Fuelled by the media, there seems to be a general consensus that prisoners have far too cushy a life inside and that every cell is actually a ‘man cave’ in which idle cons get to spend all day lying on their bunks watching Sky Sports and daytime TV – when they’re not pumping iron in the gym, of course.

Well, just to set the record straight, I’ve never been in any prison that had Sky subscription services in any form. It’s a nasty, dishonest myth peddled by certain sections of the media and - more amazingly - believed by many politicians, including some who should know better.

Perhaps when Andrew Selous - MP for South West Bedfordshire and the newly appointed Prisons Minister - makes his first visit to a prison he could get one of the rented in-cell TVs switched on and work his way through the nine Freeview channels on offer (BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV, C4, C5 as standard and four others, usually ITV3, E4, Film 4 and VIVA). That’s your lot and you pay £1.00 per week for the privilege (50p in a shared cell). This would at least provide him with first-hand knowledge of the actual situation and he would be in a position to set the record straight in Parliament and in the media when the old lie about Sky channels is wheeled out yet again.

Of course, some private sector prisons do provide a wider range of Freeview channels – or at least they did. Whether the new IEP system set out in PSI 30/2013 has put a stop to that, I don’t yet know and none of the lads that I’m still in contact with is in a private nick at the moment. However, it always seemed crazy to me that public sector prisons ban most of the more educational channels such as BBC 4… access to which could expand cons’ knowledge and horizons in a way that VIVA and its music videos can’t. But that’s just a personal view.

Prison rich?
While we’re on the subject of ‘man caves’, one of the stranger terms I came around in the nick was 'prison rich'. I heard it a couple of times in closed conditions, but it was in the D-cat (open prison) that it came into its own. Basically, 'prison rich' means having the maximum amount of personal property allowed in possession. By definition this is limited to inmates who are on the Enhanced level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system.

So what does being ‘prison rich’ really consist of in practice? Well, if an inmate has purchased a DVD player from the Argos catalogue or a Playstation 2 games system (the most recent model permitted as it doesn’t have internet capability), a radio/CD player (no SW), a 4 x 6 foot floor rug (also Argos), his own duvet and bedding and a vacuum flask for hot water then he counts as being ‘prison rich’.  Hardly “riches beyond the dreams of avarice,” as Dr Johnson once observed.

Now, it should be remembered that none of the above items has been handed out free of charge or supplied by the taxpayer. The prisoner has saved up his prison ‘wages’ (usually ranging from £8.00 to £16.00 a week) and, if he has a bit of cash in his private spends account, then as an Enhanced level inmate he can also spend his own money to the tune of £25.50 a week (the Standard level weekly allowance is £15.50, Entry level is £10.00 and Basic level is £4.00). None of this cash comes from public funds… it’s either the prisoner’s own money from outside or sent in by his family or friends.

Your own duvet and bedding
So, picture your ‘man cave’… It has a metal-framed bed or bunk, a sink, a toilet (usually in the same room, often right by the end of your bed), a wooden locker, a small wooden table and a metal-framed chair. It you’re in a shared cell that was originally designed for one prisoner then there won’t be room for two chairs. When you eat your meals, one pad-mate will need to sit on his bed or on the toilet with the lid closed (assuming it still has one). I did this daily for six months in one B-cat nick.

Of course, if you happen to be ‘prison rich’ then you can personalise your space. Your own duvet and bedding will brighten the place up, as will the floor rug. Most nicks now provide thin curtains, but if you’re on Enhanced level you can buy your own from the Argos catalogue. Complete the effect with your DVD player or games console and that’s about it. You can also paste up a few family photos and a calendar on your pinboard (by ‘paste up’, I mean literally using toothpaste, because drawing pins, blu-tack and sellotape are contraband).

When I first entered prison I used to regard these little personalised touches in a pad (cell) as being the sign of an institutionalised long-termer. Why else would anyone want to make a locked concrete box with a thick steel door look homely? I deliberately didn’t want to feel ‘at home’ in such an alien environment. However, as the months rolled on into years, I came to realise that my fellow cons were just trying to humanise their own living space… to soften the harsh edges of rigid institutional life.

No frills... life on Basic regime
Remember, you can be 'prison rich' and then lose it all at the stroke of a pen these days. Enhanced level is reviewed regularly and unless an inmate can demonstrate that he is 'making a contribution' by doing some voluntary work (Insider, literacy mentor, Listener, wing rep etc) then it can all be taken away. Lose your Enhanced status and screws will come along with property bags and confiscate the lot. It will then be placed in your stored prop until either you regain your Enhanced (very unlikely) or you are discharged. I predict that there will be a lot of stored prop mounting up at the moment as more and more cons get downgraded to Standard or even Basic level.

By the time I was transferred to an open nick, I had acquired most of the above items (except the Playstation 2), even a cheap floor rug. I had a china plate, bowl and mug (now seemingly banned outside of D-cats), so I ate my food off something that belonged to me, not the Prison Service. Maybe it even tasted different on a china plate, or at least we convinced ourselves that it did. So I had become ‘prison rich’ myself and when new receptions transferred from closed nicks called round to my room (no cells, bars or lock up in D-cats) they looked round enviously at my fully equipped ‘man cave’.

When I was released, I took great pleasure in passing on all of the above items to friends who were less ‘prison rich’ than I was. Sure, it was against the rules, but at least in open nicks there is less of an obsession with rigid prop card checks. As I walked though the main gate on the way to the railway station, I took very little with me in my holdall except for a few items of clothing, some books, some letters, my diaries and photos and a large bundle of prison writings. Looking back now – a few months on - I like to think that my legacy has been to make a few decent lads feel ‘prison rich’.

1 comment:

  1. My most valued item, even more than having my own footwear, was a little rechargeable beard trimmer that did service for hair clippers. mains clippers were forbidden. This freed me from having to wait in a queue to have my hair cropped with the blunt, dirty clippers that had to serve the entire prison.