Saturday, 30 August 2014

Prisoners: the Unnetworked

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!   


  1. I think that the lack of tech would be one of the hardest things for me if I was ever banged up.

    No Internet, mobile phone or Kindle (especially my Kindle) would be a cruel & unusual punishment for me.

    I'm not sure (for security reasons) that prisoners should have Internet access generally but for the last 3-6 months supervised filtered access should be allowed to help with housing, employment and other areas that would help with successful reintegration in to society.

    1. I agree, I would be lost without the book apps on my phone.

    2. Thanks for both your comments. I think it just shows how dependent most of us have become on mobile communication devices, even just over the past decade or so. It certainly took me weeks to get over the initial impact of being completely isolated from the outside world. Yet it did prove a welcome 'detox'. It's just a pity it was for years, rather than a couple of weeks!

      I also feel that effectively cutting prisoners off from the outside world, particularly those who aren't violent or a threat to others, does little to prepare them for release and reintegration back into society. I remember the complete bewilderment of one lifer when I accompanied him to a local JobCentre Plus to start the process of registering for his imminent release on parole after many years in prison.

      He just couldn't get over the fact that the old 'Labour Exchanges', with their long queues to see someone on the other side of the counter, are long gone. Now it's all touch screens and IT advisors. He was utterly out of his depth and I can imagine the problems that he'd probably have had in registering for work had he not had support. Those ex-cons who are also illiterate face even more of an uphill battle to get resettled successfully.

  2. As a techie - always using my computer to communicate with everybody - I was bizarrely amazed at how little ink there is in a biro. I'd had pens for years, used them occasionally, they never ran out of ink, I usually lost them before they ran out. My biro in prison was mostly the only way to contact my loved ones. At 40p or so on the canteen sheet they were kind of precious. I was getting through one a week.

    Emails are free and easy. My handwriting improved during my time inside, I even had cramps in my hand through writing with a pen because I hadn't done it for so long.

    I really didn't miss not having social media to catch up on or having to deal with the latest cute cat picture on Facebook. What really surprised me is how you just can't pick up the phone whenever you want to and say "Hello Mum"

    1. Sorry, my last sentence should be "what really distressed me" rather than "what really surprised me".

    2. Thanks for your comments. I remember those Bic biros - I can't recall if they were 30p or 40p. I wish I'd kept a canteen sheet from my last nick, but I chucked them when I was released.

      One con in a B-cat told me that when he got his first canteen sheet he had less than a quid on it, so he just bought his own biro. That was the only piece of prop he had at that stage! I also wrote a hell of a lot of letters, as well as keeping a daily diary - which has proved very useful when writing posts for this blog.

      At one B-cat nick we were allowed to use internal e-mail within the Education Department to submit typed coursework, so I did send a few to keep my hand in. Funnily enough we couldn't do that in either C-cats or the D-cat as they didn't have intranet facilities.

      A mate of mine is currently at a Serco-run nick. He has a pinphone in his pad, so he can call out anytime as long as he has credit on his account. When I think of the long queues on the wings to use two or three phones, I think he's pretty lucky. Obviously, Serco is raking in the profits on these calls, so they want cons to call family and friends all the time... that's the real reason for having in-cell payphones!

  3. "My mobile phone was the first thing that was seized from my pocket, to be bagged and inventoried with the rest of my property."

    Hello there and thanks for all the useful and helpful information in your blog along with links to relevant sources elsewhere. I have come to reading it as the partner of a first time offender I think may have been sent down 3 days ago. I have heard nothing from him since the evening before he was due in Court having been arrested, charged then bailed with a Court date by the Police all within the last week while we've been apart due to Xmas. I don't even know which Court he was in & have limited means of finding out (his family are the problem here & have caused this so I can hardly ask them) so I am literally just waiting for news.

    My worry is that my contact number, address etc. will be on his mobile along with that of others he's going to need (mates etc) and he has ADD so it's not info he's just going to be able to produce from his memory; I know his number off by heart for example. How are prisoners who arrive at Court without numbers etc. written down (if he has been remanded/denied bail or whatever he was certainly not expecting it as he'd said he was going to sort Court then come home here afterwards) able to access/produce them? Will he get help or advice about that during his reception phase? I am also hugely concerned that he probably wouldn't have had much cash on him which won't help.

    I do know he will get word to me the minute he can as he knows I'll be worried. I am not so much after info about initial contact procedures (although that too would be helpful), more so how he can make a phone call to a number he won't have memorised but which is in his confiscated phone. Same deal for writing to this address (the info is all on a card he keeps in his phone case under his phone) and potentially doing any of it without money when he arrived.


    1. Thanks for your contribution and your questions. I'm sorry to hear about your partner's situation and I can appreciate your concerns at this time. You might be able to find out what happened at court by searching for his name online as the daily lists are published.

      You can also apply via the Prisoner Location Service to find out where your partner is being held in custody. All the details can be found online at: Before any information can be released, your partner will need to agree to his number and location can be passed on to you. Once you have those details you can write to him and also send him money by postal order should you wish to do so.

      It can take a few days or longer for the prison service to sort out a new prisoner's payphone PIN number. He should have been asked at initial reception whether he needs to notify anyone about his location. Some reception officers will arrange for family to be notified, but this cannot be taken for granted.

      As far as his mobile phone is concerned, he should have been asked in reception whether he needs to get any numbers from his phone address book before it is bagged up and put in his valuable property box. They can then allow a new prisoner to write down the key numbers he needs. If he has your address on a card, he should have been permitted to keep that.

      However, even then the prisoner will need to submit a list of names, addresses and phone numbers he will want to have included on his approved PIN list. Prisoners are only permitted to telephone pre-approved numbers from the wing payphones and before approval will be given the PIN phone clerk will need to call each person at home and get their agreement to be included on the prisoner's list. It is bureaucratic and can take anything from days to weeks, particularly if staffing is a problem at whichever prison your partner is in.

      In certain cases, either the governor or senior staff can make arrangements for a monitored compassionate call to be put through to family members via the office or the chaplaincy. However, they would need to have the relevant numbers to facilitate that process.

      All of this information should be made available to your partner during the induction phase after he arrived at the prison. This can take anything from a couple of days to a week. He should also have been given a free reception letter and envelope so he could write and notify you of his whereabouts.

      Although this will obviously be a stressful time for you (and your partner), my advice is not to panic. Take things steadily and start the process of getting information from the Prisoner Location Service referred to above. If you have any contact details for your partner's solicitor, then they should also know the court where his case was being dealt with and can also try to find out his location.

      Please don't hesitate to ask any follow-up questions. I, or other readers, should be able to give you some advice if we can.

    2. Thank you so much for your help and for replying to my questions so promptly. I am pleased to be able say that my/our situation has resolved itself today but your advice, particularly about him being able to get contact numbers etc. from his phone (albeit that they would then have to be prison approved) and being able to keep my address card would really have put my mind at rest if I was still waiting for news of him so hopefully it will be of comfort to anybody else in a similar position who might read this.

      Thank you once again and a Happy New Year to you.

    3. Thanks for your update. It's good to hear that the situation is resolved, but I can well understand how stressful it can be when it seems that a 'wall of silence' suddenly descends when a loved one is caught up in the criminal justice system. Maintaining contact, at least in the first few days or even weeks, can be confusing and complex, so I'm pleased that your own issues have been sorted out so quickly. I'm also glad that the blog post proved informative. Happy New Year and I hope all goes well for you and your partner. Alex

  4. What an interesting story. I suppose we see this dilemma unfold on tv shows and in movies but the majority of the public do not really have a clear picture of what is going on inside a prison as far as electronics and forms of communication go. I also feel that this changes from prison to prison and by country.

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR's Bail Bonds