One of the strangest things about being in prison is just how quickly you realise that you are almost completely disconnected from the outside world, particularly if you have been using computers and the Internet for many years. At times, it’s not entirely a disagreeable sensation. However, prisoners who are released after having served a long sentence are likely to find reintegrating into our highly networked society that much more of a challenge.
|Slave to the ring-tone|
Before I ended up in prison, like most Brits I was using many of the current communications systems, both for my work and to maintain social contact. The Internet, e-mail, social media, smart phones, a laptop, tablet, desktop computer… each had a pretty central role in my life. Even during my trial I kept in touch with family, friends and well-wishers by iPhone during the adjournments.
Then – silence. As soon as I was sent down to the holding area under the Crown Court, I was effectively disconnected from the outside world. My mobile phone was the first thing that was seized from my pocket, to be bagged and inventoried with the rest of my property. I did get the chance, via my solicitor, to pass on a few messages to my family, but that was pretty much it. It would be years, rather than months, before I got to use a mobile or the Internet again.
Perhaps people are right when they warn about getting too dependent on networked communications. I was rather abruptly disconnected – effectively ‘unnetworked’ (yes, the term does exist, apparently) – from pretty much every modern system for staying in touch. And I did start to experience what I can only describe as ‘withdrawal symptoms’.
My situation was made worse by the fact that I started my sentence down in the Block (segregation unit). This is fairly unusual, particularly for people who haven’t been convicted of violent offences, however there were special circumstances in my case owing to my professional background and the unfortunate fact that I had previously taught what is called ‘Escape and Evasion’ during my time in the military. I’d actually appeared on television in a documentary demonstrating techniques from what is called Resistance to Interrogation (R2I), so my reputation went before me and until I could convince a board of security governors that I wasn’t about to tunnel my way under the wall with a plastic spoon or snap a screw’s neck with my bare hands and nick his keys, I was locked down very firmly in what can only be described as a latter-day dungeon.
|Prison payphones: not high-tech|
During this period I was denied access even to the prison payphone system. On arrival at the nick I’d been permitted to have a couple of minutes on the Reception officer’s landline to let my family know which prison I was at and that I wasn’t planning to top myself anytime soon, but after that a complete communications blackout was imposed. I wasn’t even permitted to have a pen to write with in case I turned it into some kind of improvised offensive weapon. However, in accordance with the rules I was given a blank sheet of prison letter paper that was useless without anything with which to write. Prison logic: you soon get used to it in the nick.
And that was how my enforced ‘detox’ from the networked society began. No telephone access, no means of getting in touch with anyone – not even a rented TV set down in the Block. I admit that it did come as quite a shock to the system. At one point I even thought how it would be good to have a photo of the Block cell to send to my friends… then I quickly returned to reality. I had no smart phone. I would just have to commit everything to memory.
In prison you come to realise the extent to which communications technology has come to dominate our everyday lives in the UK. When I was working, my mobile never seemed to stop ringing or buzzing with message alerts, while my e-mail inbox was usually overflowing with ‘urgent’ issues with which I needed to deal immediately.
|A potential holiday wrecker|
Even when I went on holiday with my family, I used to take an iPad with a wireless keyboard so I could continue to monitor and manage what was happening back in the office. I well remember how one particularly serious crisis thousands of miles away came close to wrecking our trip to Canada, and just how much tension that caused between me and the other half. I really understand what some critics have dubbed the ‘tyranny of technology’. In a high-pressure work environment it can mean being on stand-by – mentally, at least – 24/7.
For someone of my generation, who can still remember a black and white TV being the standard household appliance, I sometimes reflect on just how far networked communications have come in the last 30 years. In prison, however, cons are effectively back in the 1970s: small, rented in-cell TVs, hand-written letters and wing payphones. It’s not so long ago since prisoners could still buy BT phone-cards to use in prison phones. Remember those? Naturally, they quickly became a unit of prison currency as an alternative to burn (rolling tobacco), bars of chocolate and tins of tuna.
Inmates do not have access to the Internet, except for those who are released on temporary licence (ROTL) from D-cats (open prisons). Even then there are strict licence conditions prohibiting cons from accessing Facebook or other social media sites. Transgress and you can easily find yourself shipped back to a B-cat on Basic IEP status for the rest of your sentence.
In fact, most prisons severely restrict even staff access to the ‘Net through firewalls and other means. Members of staff aren’t even permitted to bring their own mobile phones or USB devices past the locker room in the main gatehouse, so even they can experience the sense of being caught up in a 1970s time warp when they are at work. It must feel a bit like being Gary Sparrow in the 1990s TV time travel comedy Goodnight Sweetheart: walk down that alleyway and you find yourself back in 1940.
|Very naughty - but available|
Of course, for most cons serving short sentences, being disconnected from their smart phones and Facebook is no more than a temporary inconvenience. Quite a few make use of smuggled mobiles and SIM cards – with which most prison wings are awash – to keep in touch with their family and friends, as well as sorting out various types of ‘business’ transactions – mainly drug-related.
The really dim ones don’t seem to realise that posting selfies of themselves in their cells – like the prat who recently put snaps on Facebook of his birthday party behind bars, complete with an iced cake, candles and a kebab – will incur the wrath of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) which is very sensitive to this sort of embarrassing security breach. Since he is a lifer on a 24-year minimum tariff, the con in question will probably have received some very unpleasant belated birthday ‘gifts’ from the security screws and I wouldn’t fancy being in his shoes at the moment, or on every birthday to come for the next 20-odd years.
|An extremely daft photo to post|
However, for prisoners who are serving very long sentences, the wonders of modern communications technology will often have passed them by. Although most education departments do offer basic IT courses, none of these involve online connections to the Internet. As an Insider (a peer mentor to other prisoners) one of my roles when I was in a D-cat was to accompany fellow cons who were being allowed to go out to town on ROTL for the first time without a screw as an escort.
We would usually make time to go to a local library or an internet café so they could spend an hour experiencing navigating the ‘Net for the first time. I’ve helped quite a few set up their first e-mail accounts, send their first e-mails and get to grips with their first mobile phones. It can be a steep learning curve for some cons.
Strange as it may seem, D-cat prisoners on ROTL are strongly encouraged to own pay-as-you-go mobiles (usually without Internet capability). In an emergency, they can be recalled to prison by phone or they can keep in touch with the jail if anything goes wrong. It also effectively allows their movements to be checked, although not yet in real time, apparently.
Inmates purchase these mobiles via the prison – which activates the tracker system before issuing the handset – and they then keep the phone in a locker at the gatehouse. This avoids breaking the prison rule that no mobile can be brought into a jail – even the Number One governor isn’t exempt – since the locker room is outside the security perimeter.
|Mobiles: not past this point|
I understand that there have been internal discussions within the Prison Service about allowing some prisoners supervised access to the Internet while they are actually in prison, rather than just when they are outside on ROTL. Obviously this would have to be closely monitored and filtered to prevent surfing for porn, the harassment of victims or online criminal activities.
Such a development would enable those inmates who haven’t yet had any experience of what has become an essential communication tool for everyday life to start the process of gradually acclimatising to the 21st century as part of their resettlement preparations prior to release. This could include getting themselves on local authority housing lists, registering for benefits on release, uploading CVs and starting to search for voluntary or paid work. All of this would be productive use of the Internet and e-mail. However, in view of the current hard-line policies of the MOJ under Chris Grayling, I can’t see it happening any time soon. You can imagine the tabloids’ mock outrage: cons on computers, whatever next?
To be honest, I did experience some real benefits of not being a slave to my iPhone and e-mail accounts while I was inside prison. I had the opportunity to read much more than I had for years (this was when we could still have books sent in from outside), I became a prolific letter writer again – and really improved my handwriting following years of only using computers and e-mails. Also, I’ve come to realise just how much time I do spend each day using my computer and my mobile devices – including posting on this blog!