Monday, 11 August 2014

Keeping Up Morale: Fun in the Nick

Why do prison dramas, films and memoirs continue to sell so well? Being a closed environment, prisons are another of those classic British institutions that both scare and fascinate outsiders in equal measure, rather like the Freemasons or Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. Everyone has his or her own personal idea of what prison would be like, but it’s not until you get banged up that you really find out what is true and what is fiction.

Another sort of closed society
Since my main aim in writing this blog is to demystify as many aspects of prison life as possible, I don’t want to give the impression that every day is a miserable struggle for existence, although for many cons, particular those living with mental illness - it probably is. While I do want to highlight some of the worst examples of abuse, neglect and institutional failure, I also feel that there needs to be a sense of balance. It is possible to have fun in prison and to enjoy spending time (albeit on an involuntary basis) with some of the very decent people that you can meet on the wings.

Just because someone is the slammer for fiddling their VAT returns, motoring offences or, for that matter, much more serious offences involving violence or murder, it doesn’t mean that they cease automatically to have the same personality that they had on the outside. A miserable git on the out will probably always remain a miserable git inside, but a likeable, funny bloke doesn’t suddenly check in his sense of humour in Reception. Some of us have been lucky enough to find amusing and interesting folk inside who have had a positive impact on our lives. Having a small group of decent lads around you can make 'doing your bird' (serving your sentence) much more bearable, and yes - even fun.

I accept that that ‘fun’ and ‘prison’ aren’t terms that naturally go together, certainly inside the Ministry of Justice. Chris Grayling’s guiding vision is of tens of thousands of broken-spirited men dressed in dirty, badly-fitting uniforms doing hard manual labour (or packing widgets as slave labour for private sector companies), fed on bad food, denied any kind of creature comforts and locked behind their cell doors for as many hours a day as possible. 

On the look out for contraband fun or unauthorised laughter
The revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system was introduced on 1 November 2013 with the aim of reducing privileges across the prison estate, particularly getting as many prisoners as possible off Enhanced level (so cheap DVD players, Playstation 2s and guitars that some cons have saved months or even years for and bought themselves can be confiscated), with a very large number of inmates dropping down to Basic level, so they can really be punished in a way the Daily Mail will applaud: kept in solitary confinement until some eventually give up hope and commit suicide, or at least try to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a grim view shared by a substantial number of prison staff. I well remember the comment made by one of the more witty wing screws who quipped: “Show me where the word ‘fun’ appears in the Facilities List and you can have some!” Needless to say, you’d search in vain for any mention of such a concept.

Even if having fun isn’t authorised by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), like a wide range of other contraband items, it can be found throughout the nick. Generally speaking, cons have to create it for themselves but, with the right mix of good lads, it can be possible to make the prison experience a whole lot less miserable and depressing. It’s all about making the best of a bad situation and there is a long British tradition of doing just that.

Not noted for its fun factor
I have a personal confession to make. I actually think I laughed a lot more inside prison than I had in previous years when I had a very demanding and stressful job, with very little time for other people. My ‘life/work balance’ was seriously out of kilter and I didn’t have time for friends, recreation or relaxation. I scarcely had time to read for pleasure, beyond snatching a couple of hours here and there during regular international travel. Although the salary and benefits were incredibly good – and I’d be lying if I claimed that I don’t miss this aspect of my former life – I really wasn’t having much fun at all, apart from very occasional holidays with family and friends. 

My time in prison gave me a chance to completely re-evaluate my priorities. I started to realise that I’d become much less interested in other people – unless they were directly involved in my working life, and that isn‘t a nice way to relate to others. When you’re in the nick, other people can make the experience pleasantly memorable, or hellish. Sometimes, it can be a curious mixture of the two.

Jack Hill's vlog on YouTube
I was reminded of this recently when I came across a series of vlogs (video blogs) on YouTube that has been posted by Jack Hill. He is also an ex-con who has a lot of common sense things to say about the prison system, prisoners and screws. As I have worked my way through his regular posts, I have found myself nodding in agreement and even laughing out loud at some of his very accurate observations.

Jack and I were in prison during part of the same period, although we have never met (except online recently) and weren’t serving our sentences in the same establishments. However, I can vouch for the truth of what he relates based on my own experiences. 

What I particularly like about his approach is his honesty – sometimes it can be pretty devastating. Like me, he also found that it is possible to find humour in prison, as well as identifying rewarding things to do inside, whether that is creating a prison band (as he did), or finding interesting people with whom to spend time. Rather than wallow in self-pity or try to pretend that he isn’t an ex-con, Jack is turning a potentially negative experience into a positive one and he has the generosity of spirit to share that with a mass audience via YouTube: Jack Hill.

I’m sure that, in our own ways, Jack and I are everything that Mr Grayling and his minions in the MOJ hate and fear. Through our respective endeavours – his vlog and my blog – we, together with the handful of other ex-cons who are active in speaking, blogging and publishing, are breaking down at least some of the ignorance and myth that combines to make the threat of prison so terrifying to the average citizen who has never darkened the doors of a nick. 

Politicians, pressure groups and media pundits use prison and prisoners to promote their own agendas, fuelled by ignorance and misconceptions. It’s only when prisoners and ex-prisoners manage to get their voices heard that the wider public can start to judge for themselves where the truth lies.

Behind the wire
Prisoners – by and large, although there are some exceptions – are not monsters or evil, violent people. They mirror society outside the prison walls. Some are funny and witty; others are clever, cold and calculating. A large number live with mental health problems; others with ill health; many with addictions or the legacy of childhood abuse – some with all of the above. 

Most prisoners have made serious, even terrible, mistakes in their lives and a very large proportion have caused misery, hurt and suffering to others. A comparatively small group have killed, while a significant minority are completely innocent of any crime and shouldn’t be in prison at all. But cons all share one common characteristic: they are human beings.

In my opinion it is not only possible to survive prison, but to thrive in what can sometimes be a hostile and lonely environment. A sense of humour, being conscious of your own humanity – as well as that of others – and a refusal to wallow in self-pity can be vital survival skills when you’re in the nick. 

Bill Bryson: good advice
I once heard Bill Bryson, the best-selling US author, give some advice that has stayed with me for years, particularly when I was locked down the Block (segregation unit) for 23 and a half hours a day. He observed: “If you can’t be happy, at least don’t whinge. It’s awful and doesn’t become you. Indeed, it doesn’t get you anywhere. No-one will ever thank you or admire you more deeply or say ‘Let’s invite Simon and Emma to the party, they’re fantastic whingers.’ So stop moaning, it’s a waste of oxygen.” How very true.

That’s what I really like about young Jack Hill (he’s probably around 20 years my junior) and his prison vlogs. He doesn’t whinge and he refutes so many of the popular stereotypes about prisons and prisoners. And he has kept his sense of humour throughout. Why not have a look at his work for yourself and make up your own mind? You can find his YouTube vlogs here.


  1. I've been in Prison several times and admit to developing quite a dark sense of humour which I still carry to this day. One question that does vex me though, am I an offender or ex offender (last offence was 20+ years ago) as I now consider myself a respectful businessman.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that no matter how grim almost any situation can be, a good sense of humour can help you cope and prison is no exception.

      On this issue of offender/ex-offender, my view is that one becomes an ex-offender the moment the actual offence has been admitted and judged. The punishment - whether prison, a community penalty or a fine - is the consequence. If you have a look at my post last month about the terms used for prisoners - 'offender', 'convict', 'inmate' etc, I tried to explain that I think the mistake of HMPS is to use the term 'offender' for people in prison after they have already stopped committing offences.

      I think a much more important issue is whether an ex-offender will become a re-offender and that is the problem with the prison system. As presently operated it doesn't really reduce re-offending, but is usually just an expensive way of warehousing people, some of whom should not really be in prison (ie people with serious mental health problems).

  2. Sadly the "system" considers anybody that has offended to be an offender. That's not necessarily someone who actually has offended, rather one who has been convicted.

    A good friend of mine resented being referred to as an offender as he maintained his innocence of the crime he was convicted for. He considered himself a convict.

    The MoJ do like to refer to all inmates/criminals/ex-offenders or whatever as offenders but there does seem to be no past tense in their descriptions. It's damaging - once a con, always a con. It's not right/true/fair.

    1. Thanks for comment. Yes, all very true in my opinion.

      I personally have no problem with "convict" as it is a factual statement. "Prisoner" is also fine and I don't have objections to inmate (despite the MOJ's position that this is an inappropriate term). "Offender", however, I think implies that the person concerned is in a constant state of committing an offence, rather than moving forward. It also effectively defines people by an offence (alleged or admitted), rather than by their current status at that particular time, which could be a serving prisoner or an ex-prisoner. I suppose that prisoners in custody could be defined as "ex-offenders".

    2. I guess prisoners in custody are uncons

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  5. I remember my time on one wing in a prison with something approaching nostalgia. Of course you forget the boredom that made hours crawl by at a snails pace, but there were moments of humour. Having all your decisions made for you, you become a child again in many ways. Lingering in the shower or toilet in order to be the last locked up then switching all the night lights on, for the juvenile pleasure of hearing the cursing when people decided to switch their main light off, or smearing cell door handles with honey to give the night cloggy sticky fingers, would enliven the long hours of bang up. When I worked in the library, we sent out notices that fines for overdue books would be imposed and deducted from spending allowances brought in prisoners, and books, in droves. The funniest part was hearing how a few had gone to wing staff to protest.