Monday, 4 August 2014

Censorship Behind Bars

At the moment prisons, prisoners and prison rules seem to be hot topics. Whether it’s Chris Grayling’s attempts to appear ‘tough’ on criminals by banning the sending in of parcels, or riots (sorry, ‘disturbances’) at HMP Ranby, or reports of more suicides and rising violence between inmates and against staff, you can find it all in the news. Practically every day there’s some new prison-related horror story doing the rounds of the national newsrooms.

So why do we hear so little from members of Britain’s actual prison population in the mainstream media? Occasionally there will be a news feature in one of the better broadsheets – The Guardian or The Independent usually – but anyone with direct experience as a con who is quoted is likely to have been released for quite a while; some were freed years ago. 

Mightier than the pen?
That’s not meant as a criticism of these commentators – far from it. We’re lucky to have a handful of highly literate ex-prisoners like Eric Allison, The Guardian’s prisons correspondent, who are willing to contribute to the debate. However, we currently have a prison population of well over 85,700. Where are all the articulate inmates whose accounts of their personal experiences would really improve public understanding of what actually goes on inside the nick?  

It is true that many prisoners find it difficult to communicate their prison experiences to others. In part it may be because such a significant proportion of inmates have literacy problems. According to official government figures, 48 percent of prisoners have reading skills at or below Level 1 (what would be expected of an eleven year old child), while 75 percent have writing skills below that level. On the other hand, there must be thousands of prisoners who do have good communications skills and can write exceptionally well.

When I was inside, I used to read the two monthly publications aimed at inmates and the prison sector: Inside Time and Converse. These newspapers, in a tabloid format, are available free of charge in most establishments and they do get widely read by cons and screws alike. Moreover, when you read the pages of contributions and letters written by current and former prisoners, you realise just how much talent and passion there is out there. Why does that not get reflected in the mainstream national media, or even online?

I think that one possible reason is the perception of prison censorship. The rules are set down in a Prison Service Instruction (PSI 49/2011) entitled Prisoner Communication Services. These regulations also cover telephone calls made by prisoners. A separate PSI - 37/2010 - strictly controls prisoners' access to the media. In most cases, inmates can write to media representatives, but the content will be closely monitored. Telephone contact or face-to-face interviews with journalists are only approved by governors in very rare circumstances.

In theory, prisons are supposed to monitor a proportion of all letters sent out by inmates. Some cons, mainly those convicted of terrorism, sexual offences or harassment, have all their correspondence checked by internal security or public protection staff to ensure that nothing inappropriate or illegal is being communicated and that victims are protected. Even when prisoners don’t come in those categories, I think that there is still a great deal of self-censorship.

Listening on the line
Many cons are afraid that comments they may make in letters or calls to outside correspondents will be recorded and used against them, either in internal Security Information Reports (SIRs) or by the prison’s internal intelligence system. I have known of specific cases where negative observations concerning psychology staff or other sensitive issues extracted from letters or phone conversations have appeared in prisoners’ dossiers ahead of parole hearings or re-categorisation reviews. Only an inmate’s official correspondence with legal advisors, MPs and officials such as the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman is supposedly exempt from being opened and read by prison censors.

All of this makes the courage of the dozens of inmates who voice criticism of the prison system each month in the letters pages of Inside Time and Converse both worthy of admiration and deserving of attention by the wider community. However, there seems to be little interest from the mainstream media in representing the views of serving prisoners in a fair or balanced manner.

You might think that in this digital age of instant communication and citizen journalists, prisoners would be able to reach a wider audience via social media. In fact, all serving cons are banned from accessing Facebook and other social networking sites, or even asking family and friends to do so on their behalf. 

These rules were introduced by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) in 2012 after a spate of posts by prisoners in closed establishments. Selfies of cons laughing in their cells, apparently having fun, and taken on illicit mobile phones were seized upon by tabloids – especially The Sun and the Daily Mail – as ‘proof’ that prison was far too cushy for lags and that prison security was very lax. The MOJ felt obliged to launch a crackdown.

Writing behind bars
Moreover, inmates serving prison sentences are very rarely, if ever, permitted any direct access to the internet. One exception is for D-cat prisoners at open establishments who are usually allowed to go online at local libraries or internet cafes when they are granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL), either for a few hours or when they are allowed to go on home leave for up to four days. Even then, it is a general licence condition that cons on ROTL cannot use social media, particularly Facebook, and this does get monitored by prison security departments. 

However, it should still be possible for serving prisoners to send out hand-written material to be posted online by family or friends, as long as the content isn’t threatening or offensive. Despite this, there is to my knowledge only one prison blogger currently behind bars in the UK: Adam Mac who is at HMP Wakefield. A couple of other ex-prisoners do contribute to debates about incarceration and its effects, notably John (Ben) Gunn, whose blog started back in 2009 when he was still a serving lifer, and Erwin James who has written a column for The Guardian and a couple of excellent books about his 20 years in jail. But these are still the exceptions. 

As readers of this blog may be aware, I’m very interested in how the experience of prison changes people. My own observations suggest that it rarely rehabilitates or reforms. At best, it warehouses people – some of who are already very damaged and dangerous – in bearable conditions. At worst, incarceration seems to make mental illness much worse and also makes some individuals even more negative towards society - and even more dangerous. That’s why I believe more accurate and honest information about imprisonment - and its effects and failures - needs to be in the public domain.

Britton's banned book
I recall reading an interview with the British writer and cartoonist David Britton who served 28 days at Manchester’s Strangeways prison back in 1982. Britton was jailed after being prosecuted for producing a graphic horror novel – Lord Horror – that was judged to be grossly offensive by the authorities. The book itself was also banned under the Obscene Publications Act (1857), probably the last UK publication to be prohibited under that legislation.

Britton later recalled that he always suspected his work would get him banged up: “Lord Horror was so unique and radical, I expected to go to prison for it. I always thought that if you wrote a truly dangerous book – something dangerous would happen to you. Which is one reason there are so few really dangerous books around.”

I suspect that this is also one of the reasons why so few serving prisoners are willing to put their heads above the parapet to comment on conditions inside the nick: it can be dangerous. They prefer to keep their heads down and do their bird, which is a mindset I find very understandable in the current climate where inmates can be immediately downgraded to the Basic regime and put into solitary confinement at the stroke of a wing manager’s pen. Only the very brave or foolhardy seem willing to take a chance by speaking out, which is why I have so much admiration for those cons who are regular contributors to Inside Times and Converse regardless of the personal risks involved or any retribution they may face from the prison authorities.

Risking your IEP status?
Unfortunately, the current MOJ crackdown on prisoners via the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system acts as a strong disincentive for inmates to raise important issues, so they retreat into self-censorship. This won’t improve public understanding of why incarceration produces such poor outcomes in terms of reducing re-offending or achieving successful rehabilitation. Prisoners’ voices need to be heard in this debate, yet there is little evidence to suggest that the mainstream media is willing to take them seriously.

I’ll leave the final word in this post to David Britton. In the interview mentioned above, he gave his verdict on the time he spent banged up as a con in Strangeways: “Prison didn’t cure me. It just made me more bitter and determined to retaliate.”


  1. I've read a few letters by cons at Cat A/B in "Inside Time", I guess there is double censorship by the Prison and the Publication to prevent anything rude or insensitive going public.
    I reckon the Metro checks "Inside Time" for news as Ive seen articles about the guitar string ban and cons complaining about a lack of food at mealtimes.

    1. Thanks for your comments. In general, only a random sample of cons' correspondence is actually checked by the censor's office (unless there are special measures in force - ie child protection or anti-harrassment orders). I'm pretty sure that in high security prisons (A-cats) everything will get checked on security grounds.

      In my experience, cons do 'self-censor' in case anything they write gets logged against them in their files. I know of one case where a lifer wrote to his family, mentioning foreign holidays and this was used against him as 'evidence' he might be a flight risk if he was granted parole! Also, it is prohibited to mention the names of prison staff in correspondence, although nothing to stop these names being mentioned during social visits.

      I'm sure Metro, the Daily Mail, the Sun and various other tabloids do monitor Inside Time and Converse in order to rake up 'shock horror' stories aimed at smearing prisoners. They also take snippets out of context from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Prison Ombudsman reports to make cons look as bad as possible!