If you ask prisoners to identify who the ‘lowest of the low’ are in prison, the top answers are likely to be, in the following order: “grasses, nonces and screws”. Translated into everyday English that means “informers, sex offenders and prison officers”.
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While that may come as something of a surprise to readers who have no personal experience of prisons it does make perfect sense. In most nicks, sex offenders are pretty much invisible. Held on Vulnerable Prisoner Units (VPUs) or a separate wing sex offenders rarely, if ever, have any contact with cons who are on ordinary location – ‘the mains’ as it is sometimes called. They tend to be despised and hated in the abstract.
Many establishments don’t accept people convicted of sexual offences at all. A few D-cats (open prisons) are ‘mixed’, in that they will accept prisoners sentenced for all types of offence, but other than that, the nearest most cons will get to seeing a genuine ‘nonce’ will probably be in the pages of the daily papers or on TV.
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Grasses – prison informers – are a wholly different type of problem. Every wing in the prison system has them and that is why they are so hated and feared. An alternative, if less polite, name for them is ‘shite-house rats’.
Now, the common perception of a ‘grass’ is probably a weasely sort of bloke who sidles up to a screw and whispers in his ear that so-and-so on the 4s (third floor landing) is brewing hooch in the cleaning cupboard. Of course, no doubt that sort of casual informing happens all the time, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The top priority in any prison, whether it be an A-cat (high security) establishment right down to a D-cat, is security. It’s all about maintaining good order and discipline inside the prison and protecting the public outside. In order to achieve those objectives, the prison system needs to gather intelligence about who is doing what and when. This also extends to the activities of prison staff who are kept under close surveillance by prison security departments.
Back in 2006, the leaking of an embarrassing official Prison Service report revealed that at least 1,000 prison officers of out the 45,000 then employed by HMPS were suspected of being involved in differing types of corruption, mainly smuggling mobile phones and drugs into prisons, while a further 500 were believed to be involved in ‘inappropriate relationships’ with cons or members of prisoners’ families. Even one dodgy screw can seriously impact on an entire establishment, so security department staff are tasked with keeping tabs on their colleagues as well as the cons.
|Guarding the guards|
In fact, a special unit exists within the Metropolitan Police that focuses entirely on the activities of suspected bent screws. According to official figures released in 2011, as of that date, 92 prison officers had been sacked from the service, while 78 had been prosecuted and convicted of criminal offences related to their work. This trend has continued with regular media coverage of prosecutions of corrupt prison staff who have been sent down for a taste of their own medicine in the slammer.
Against this background it’s hardly surprising that the Prison Service has its own internal security and intelligence structures. In fact, there is an entire management system for informants. A specific Prison Service Instruction – PSI 23/2012: Intelligence – Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Covert Human Intelligence Sources – deals with the management of so-called ‘CHIS’, as grasses are known in official circles.
So why do some prisoners grass on other cons, or on screws, for that matter? Usually there is an ulterior motive. If an inmate wants something out of the ordinary, for example a transfer to a prison nearer home, then it helps to have some leverage. Grassing up a few fellow cons for breaking the rules might just get him that transfer.
Another motive could be to get a desirable job in a position of trust. For example, a well-paid orderly’s post down in the stores – which in itself may provide lucrative opportunities for a bit of wheeling and dealing – might be the reward for some useful tips offs passed on to security staff. Putting a rival drug dealer or tobacco baron out of business can also provide an incentive for a bit of targeted grassing.
|Dropping a name in the box|
Of course, not all informing is done face-to-face. Anonymous tip offs – what cons often refer to as ‘dropping a name in the box’ – can be a weapon of choice for personal revenge. In this type of activity, an unsigned note containing incriminating information about another prisoner can be posted into the wing applications post-box.
The more formalised type of informing, however, is where an individual prisoner is specifically recruited by the prison’s security department as a covert intelligence source. In such cases, he or she will be assigned a ‘handler’ from within the ranks of the security team and will be instructed in how to provide regular reports (either written or verbal). In the most structured of these arrangements, CHIS can be paid via anonymous credits which appear in their prison cash accounts or, more often, on their payphone credits. This is effectively untraceable, particularly by other cons.
Recruiting an informant is, in itself, a fascinating and little understood area of prison intelligence work. What little I've gathered about this subject I’ve learned from speaking to a disgraced former screw I got to know at a D-cat prison. He had been sent down for a stretch after he was caught supplying mobile phones and SIM cards to cons for cash. Although he kept his head very low inside prison – to avoid being given a hard time by both other inmates and his former colleagues alike – I found him to be a very useful source of information about prison issues from an officer’s perspective.
There is said to be a secret internal security manual that deals with the recruitment process for prison informants and how they should be handled and rewarded. Recruiters are advised to focus on popular, well-connected cons who would normally be above suspicion of grassing on fellow prisoners. These are the inmates who have access to reliable intelligence about weapons, drugs and bent screws. In contrast, the snivelling wing weasel might be handy for dropping the occasional name in the post-box, but the security department is really after much bigger fish.
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Needless to say, the consequences of being exposed as a grass, real or suspected, can be very serious. I’ve sometimes heard fellow cons express the opinion that it’s “better to be a nonce than a grass”.
In order to avoid coming under suspicion, most prisoners don’t like to be seen hanging round the wing screws. Even being observed having a friendly chat in passing on the landing can be misinterpreted, particularly by those cons who have the most to hide: the drug dealers and tobacco barons whose ‘joeys’ (dogsbodies) are always watching what’s going on in order to report back to their bosses.
In one nick we operated the so-called “one minute or two cons” rule when entering the wing office to speak to an officer. This meant that you either made sure there was another prisoner with you while you were in the office or you didn’t remain in there for more than a minute, either picking up toilet roll, a prison razor or checking whether you had post or returned apps (application forms) to pick up. To break this unofficial rule was to risk adverse attention from fellow cons who might conclude that you’d been talking to the screws.
When a prisoner comes under suspicion that he could be an informant, there is likely to be an unofficial investigation by other prisoners. He might be brought in for questioning and not too gentle ‘interrogation’ in a cell with lookouts posted at the door. I've never myself been present during one of these sessions, but I have seen the rather painful injuries that can result.
|Jugging: one bag or two?|
If a con can’t convince his associates of his innocence or his story doesn’t add up, he is likely to be in very serious danger of a severe beating, which can also involve having his face slashed with razor blades. Or he might end up getting ‘jugged’, which involves having a kettle or jug full of boiling water mixed with sugar, and sometimes bleach, thrown into his face. This mixture burns like napalm, causing terrible injuries and permanent scarring.
Occasionally, when an informant got ‘bubbled’ – his cover blown – security staff would be forced to get him off the wing immediately and down into the Block (segregation unit) until he could be moved to another prison for his own safety. Alternatively, he might – like the deadbeat debtor – find himself a reluctant inhabitant of a VPU rubbing shoulders with rapists and child killers. The stakes can be high in the world of the CHIS and losers can find themselves in very serious danger, even facing risks to their lives that can continue after they have been released. Some cons have very long memories when they feel they’ve been grassed up. It’s a fundamental violation of the convict code and for that reason transgressions are severely punished.
Although prisons are full of gossip and tittle-tattle, my advice to anyone facing a prison sentence would be to steer clear of the internal wing politics and illegal rackets as much as possible. Avoid asking too many questions about drugs, hooch or mobile phones, because, as one lifer put it so memorably: “The less you know, the less the governor knows.”