Sunday, 10 August 2014

Prison Debt or the Bank of the Con Next Door

We live in an era of controversy over credit. Hardly a day goes by when the national media isn’t running horror stories about ‘unscrupulous’ lenders who advance cash loans at astronomical interest rates to people who don’t really have a cat in hell's chance of making repayment. Inevitably these predatory practices are aimed at the most risky end of the credit market: the poor and those already in deep financial doo-doo.

Big Dave doesn't need to advertise
Perhaps it’s worth sparing a thought for those prisoners who have made the – occasionally fatal – mistake of borrowing from the even less forgiving Bank of the Con Next Door. If you think an APR of around 2,000 percent is a rip-off rate of interest being charged by some payday lenders on the outside, try analysing the true cost of borrowing from ‘Big Dave’ on the 3s (second floor of a prison wing). Payday lenders might cause defaulters serious grief, but most of them at least aren’t going to break someone’s fingers by slamming a cell door on them!

Prison debt is a massive problem that often goes unnoticed and under the radar of the authorities until something really nasty happens on a wing. The root of it all, as Dickens’ famous creation Mr Micawber so memorably put it in the novel David Copperfield, is expenditure exceeding income: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.” How very true. And actually, given how low prison wages are, the figures he quoted aren’t so very far wrong, even in 2014.

For the benefit of readers who haven’t spent time as a guest of Her Majesty, a prisoner’s expenditure falls into two basic categories: official spends via either the weekly canteen sheet or purchases from approved catalogues and unofficial financial deals between cons. The latter is where the problems arise.
Always check the interest rate first

The Prison Rules (1999) are very clear that any form of selling, trading, lending or borrowing between prisoners (or between prisoners and staff, for that matter) is strictly prohibited and a disciplinary infraction that can end up in a 'nicking' (charge). However, as I pointed out in a recent blog entitled Basic Economics for Prisoners, a significant number of inmates supplement their meagre prison pay by running little businesses on the side: barbers, repairmen, tailors, gym trainers and artists can be found on most prison wings, as can drug dealers and hooch brewers. And so can the dodgy loan sharks and tobacco barons who underpin the whole covert prison economy.

Some prisoners really are on their uppers. Those who have absolutely no kind of financial support from family or friends outside face a pretty miserable existence, particularly in those establishments that seem to have stopped handing out basic toiletries and hygiene items, such as toothpaste or even toilet paper. Genuine hunger can also be a factor in an era of plummeting catering budgets, particularly for young prisoners – some still teenagers – who have big appetites, as any parent knows. I regret to say that I have seen some inmates ‘bin diving’ in wing rubbish bins to find discarded food to eat because they are so hungry. Shocking, but true. 

As eaten by hungry cons
That’s why many cons who can afford to do so supplement their prison meals with canteen purchases: instant noodles, tinned fish, cereals, biscuits and confectionary. Anything to get a carb or protein hit and stave off the hunger pangs when you’re banged up in a concrete box and can’t pop down to the corner shop or phone up for a pizza. Incidentally, it never ceases to amaze me how many inmates torture themselves by watching endless cooking shows on television. Nevertheless, satisfying your craving for food also costs money and there are no special deals or multi-buys on offer on the canteen sheets. It's full price up front or nothing.

The situation can be even worse for cons who are in prisons where there is significant overcrowding and little or no paid work available. There is a widespread misconception – peddled energetically by the likes of The Sun and The Daily Mail – that most prisoners are lazy scumbags who don’t want to work. Of course, as with many popular stereotypes, you can always find a minority of idle lumps in every prison. However, they tend to be the lads who either have plenty of cash available in their prison accounts, or those who boost their income by wheeling and dealing among their fellow cons. Your average prisoner really does need to work in the nick, even if the pay is often pitifully low – with an average range of around £8.00 to £10.00 per week. Occasionally a nick's Prisoner Monies department will mess up the weekly accounts and people won't get paid at all, thus fuelling the spiral of debt across the wings.

Especially if you get into debt with Big Dave
For most cons, the weekly tobacco purchase from the canteen sheet is the main expenditure. An estimated 80 percent of adult male inmates smoke, so ‘burn’ (rolling tobacco) is a must-have. Of course, if you run out midweek, then it can be several agonisingly slow days until the next canteen delivery, since most public sector prisons only have one weekly canteen day, although some private nicks are reported to have two.

So what’s the alternative? Well, that nice bloke ‘Big Dave’ up on the 3s is always willing to ‘tick out a bit of burn’. Like any payday lender he’s delighted to have a new customer. The key question is: what will his interest rate be?

Readers who have been in prison, or those who are familiar with prison memoirs and diaries, will no doubt recognise the term ‘bubble’. It means interest in prison slang. A borrower can be offered terms of ‘bubble and a half’ – meaning the return of the item loaned, plus 50 percent – or ‘double bubble’ – which is, as the name suggests, the original loan plus the same again on top. Repayment is strictly scheduled to coincide with canteen delivery day.

So borrow a half ounce (12.5g) of baccy on ‘double bubble’ and come the next canteen delivery you’ll be owing the original debt (£4.15 or so), plus another half ounce of burn, meaning the lender has just doubled his investment within a few days. It might not sound a lot, but believe me when your entire income is £8.00 per week, that’s a massive hit to take.

Sky-high interest rates soon mount up
So what happens when repayment is not forthcoming? Well, the usual pattern is that the debtor pays off the initial loan on the due date but asks for the interest to be deferred until next canteen day. Most loan sharks are, in fact, delighted with this turn of events because they already have their outlay covered. They’ve lost nothing in real terms, but needless to say the extended credit terms might be another ‘half bubble’ – so the debtor will need to find another quarter ounce in addition to the original interest payment. Sometimes it can be another ‘double bubble’ so they now owe double the amount of interest, and so it goes on. 

Eventually, the debt can spiral out of control and the debtor is royally screwed. So what are the options? Well, Big Dave has a wide range of possible courses open to him. The first is to give the lad owing money a really good battering – a ‘serving’ as it is sometimes known in prison circles. Maybe the defaulting con will have a heavy steel cell door slammed shut on his fingers, breaking his hand. This doesn’t cancel the debt, but sends a clear message to all other debtors that they had better pay up on time. From time to time I’ve seen lads walking round wings looking like they’ve been in a car crash… black eyes, missing teeth, stitches. "Very slippery that shower floor, Guv...!"

A 'joey' for a 'joey' to hide
Another option is to turn the debtor into a sort of slave: a ‘joey’. Any dirty work the loan shark doesn’t want to do himself, including dishing out good hidings or running errands can be delegated to his joey. This term can also mean a small package of illicit drugs and the enslaved ‘joey’ can also end up carrying several little 'joeys’ in his anus or hiding them in his cell until his master requires them. Joeys can also be forced to act as mules to smuggle incoming drugs during visits from their families or friends. It's a sad fact that debt in prisons can impact on whole families who may get dragged into couriering drugs to save their loved one from a beating or worse.

Very occasionally, interest on a debt can be paid off through the provision of sexual services. I’ve heard of one young heterosexual tobacco baron discussing with his mates whether they thought he should accept the offer of a blow job from a debtor in order to pay off what was owed. As the active participant in such a deal, he wouldn’t be seen as gay, just a horny young bloke collecting on a debt. Some cons can be surprisingly broad-minded.

Alternatively, the debtor will have to beg family or friends to help him get out from under the mountain of debt he has incurred. This happens particularly regularly when the supply of drugs is involved. Many debtors are still trying to service their habits, even when they are already on the prison’s methadone programme. The value of hard drugs inside the nick is substantially higher than on the street outside. Very good money can be made by dealers whose connections can ensure a reliable supply of contraband narcotics or even so-called ‘legal highs’. Sometimes these transactions can be settled by cash payments outside that never come anywhere near the prison. It's just another demand-driven, highly profitable business.

When a debtor finally reaches the end of the road and his credit is exhausted, he can throw himself on the mercy of the screws and confess he is so deeply in debt that his safety is at risk. That can mean a temporary move to the Block (segregation unit) where he’ll be held in solitary confinement until he can be transferred to another nick. 

Alternatively he might be moved to another wing or possibly even to a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU) which holds sex offenders (‘nonces’ or ‘bacons’), grasses (prison informers) and other washed-up debtors. This is called ‘going on the Numbers’ (taking its name from Prison Rule 45 – historically it was Rule 43 – Removal from Association). It’s a move of last resort, but can be a serious debtor’s only option if he is to avoid being on the receiving end of serious violence or being forced to work as an unpaid drugs mule.

Toothbrush 'shank'
However, even after taking these extreme measures a debtor’s reputation is likely to follow him and, prisons being prisons, he will eventually run into an associate of his creditor who will mete out the required punishment, often the slashing of his face with razor blades that have been fixed into a plastic toothbrush or cutlery handle, known as a 'shank'. This is done deliberately to ensure the wounds are very difficult to stitch without leaving visible scars that will serve as a permanent ‘brand’ that other cons seeing will well understand.

So when you next see criticism of predatory payday lenders in the media, spare a thought for those prisoners who are trapped in a vicious circle of debt in the nick. At least ‘Donga’ or ‘Quick Buck’ [not to be confused with existing lenders of last resort with similar names] won’t come round to your pad and slash your face or make you shove a packet of drugs up where the sun doesn’t shine.


  1. Another good write up, have you tried to find a newspaper or magazine to publish - this sort of stuff needs to be better understood?

    As a former prison worker, the details of the deals are usually only to be surmised, because if they become officially known to staff they are expected (rightly) to take action - so staff are kept in ignorance as much as possible. Staff are nowadays evenmore likely to be ignorant, as there are many less of them (up to a third less than a few years ago) and also many long serving prison officers have been replaced by new minimally trained and often very young recruits, who are only doing the job because they cannot get anything that pays better and do not want to risk being stuck on Benefits.

    Then there is the issue of 'grasses' (informers)

    I remember a man who admitted many armed robberies and was in a deal with police and prosecutors to disclose about others for a better result in court than he would otherwise have gotten. As it was he got a ten year sentence.

    I recall, in the eighties visiting him in a, then newly modernised, official visits block, where the design ensured maximum visibility (all glass), - less of a need for staff patrolling.

    He was already in a prison out of the region, where he had been sentenced, news travels along way quickly on the prisoner grapevine, but he was so distracted, by being so visible, he was not able to concentrate on our conversation. I was a visiting probation officer, who had submitted a pre sentence report to the sentencing court and maintained contact, with a view to eventual parole by which time I had left - as eventually did he! Last I heard - he absconded - very late on in his sentence - when release was near and he had been allowed temporary release, as part of the parole preparation process.

    He was the only long term absconder from prison, I recall being involved with as an 'outside' probation officer - in a 30 year career, and he was not part of my 'case-load' (as it is termed) at the time of the absconsion.

    1. Thanks again for your comments, Andrew. They are always much appreciated.

      This blog drew out of comments I started to post on Guardian threads about criminal justice and prisons. I wanted to reach a larger audience and encourage more informed debate on the issues.

      I do have a couple of 'relationships' with other media outlets that are flagging up specific posts. Recently the Guido Fawkes Order-Order parliamentary website noted my review of Denis MacShane's Prison Diary and that got the blog over 2,700 hits in a single day. I do get a few requests from journalists for comments and I've given interviews to The Guardian and the Independent in the last couple of months. I'm also helping some academics with their research into prison issues at the moment, when I'm not doing my real job which is writing a book!

      The issue of 'grasses' in prison is fascinating and will be the subject of a forthcoming post! Watch this space...

  2. The time I am reading shows your last post as at 09.59 - I received it at 17.59 in an email - I cannot see it being connected with my settings for Google,

    I do not read Guido Fawkes regularly but suspect they are more interested in a possible spat about McShane than a serious consideration of policy.

    So much of what is written is about political spats rather developing and understanding policy.

  3. No, it's me not having worked out how to reconfigure the settings to UK time. I think the blog is still on Pacific Time! I'll try and sort it out today. Thanks for the heads up.

  4. Could anyone answer a few questions for me please.

    1. If prisoners are locked up for 23 hours a day, where do they get their drinking water ? A man needs 3-4 litres per day minimum. Is there drinking water available inside the cells ?

    2.If 3 men are assigned to a 2 man cell, where does the 3rd man sleep ? or do they time share a bunk.

    3.Is there any way of coping mentally with staring at the same 4 walls day after day for 23 hours. Even reading, sleeping, watching TV, playing chess etc can only go so far. Surely it would drive you mad. Or do you just get used to it.

    Any comments are appreciated. Thank you.