There is a widespread belief that prisons are full of violent, dangerous criminals, the sort who would cut your throat for a wrong look or an unwise comment. In my experience, that is partially true. I have met some very unpleasant men inside who I would definitely not want living next door to me – or my family.
|Man in distress|
However, I’m also grateful that my time in prison gave me plenty of opportunity to look behind the outward bravado of some of the most damaged ‘hard men’ I encountered. Behind most inmates there is a backstory that involves their evolution from being a frightened, abused or neglected child to the disturbed and, often dangerous, adult men that they have become. This in no way excuses the crimes that they have committed, but it does go some way to explaining how and why they have learned to behave in ways that society finds so unacceptable that they need to be warehoused behind high walls, razor wire and thick steel doors.
I read recently a rather flippant online comment under an article in The Guardian about the current prison crisis over violence and overcrowding. Part of this rant – which I’m still not quite sure wasn’t a pretty feeble attempt to be amusingly ironic – goes as follows: “Bearing in mind how difficult it is to get these politically correct judges (boo hoo, Mummy didn't love me, so I bashed a granny etc) to actually send someone down these days, I imagine the 'people' incarcerated within must be the very worst that our benighted society has succoured via our bloated benefits & NHS system.”
Hmmm… There's enough material there for an entire conference, as one of the psychiatrists remarked of Basil in an episode of Fawlty Towers. Nevertheless, it does reveal a particular viewpoint as to why some prisoners may end up in the nick. Perhaps if those who share these views actually had to listen to some of the appalling life histories of just a few of the lads I’ve done time with, they might not be quite so quick to rush to judgement.
|Shadows of the past|
As an Insider – one of the more trusted inmates who is recruited by prisons to provide peer support to other cons – I’ve probably heard more horror stories than most. What struck me most is just how vulnerable many of these so-called ‘hard men’ really are once you get past the protective shield of menace and potential violence that they build around themselves.
I remember feeling slightly embarrassed when a seemingly tough, skinhead drug dealer in his early 30s broke down in tears during a numeracy class in the prison education department. He’d just completed a Level 2 test paper and had passed with flying colours. I had been working with him on a one to one basis for several weeks and had discovered that he had something of a natural talent for maths – particularly percentages and fractions, which I had uncharitably put down to his previous experience of dealing on the street.
As I congratulated him on his performance, I simply said: “I always had confidence that you’d do well in this. You’re a bright bloke.”
At this, he suddenly said: “You’re the first person who’s ever believed I could achieve anything.” He then burst into tears. It was an awkward situation, but I understood exactly what he meant.
Eventually, as I got to know him better, we’d sit on the hard asphalt of the exercise yard in the early spring sunshine and he shared some information about his background. He found it a relief to talk to someone he was starting to trust.
|A legacy of abuse in the home|
His was an all too familiar story of neglect, abuse and cruelty. He’d never known his own father, but as a young boy he got to know the various men his mother brought into the house only too well. Some – the ‘better’ ones – merely beat him, humiliated him and told him he was lower than shit. The really nasty ones raped him too. A couple of his temporary ‘step-dads’ forced him to share the drugs that they and his mother brought into the house and he began smoking dope when he was six or seven years old. “It helped with the pain.”
And so began a life of involvement in various types of crime: theft, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, violence. In his later teens he graduated onto burglary and petty drug dealing, starting out as a runner for an established local pusher. He amassed a lengthy criminal record and, by his early 30s was serving his fourth sentence in an adult prison. This time round he was inside for robbing a fellow drug dealer with considerable violence, using a knife.
He was an angry young man who, in many ways, had never grown up. His role models were the abusive and neglectful adults who came into his life, briefly, and then moved on. He was also intelligent, although the education system had failed him as badly as social services and child protection had. He’d left school at 13 – ‘excluded’ for his disruptive behaviour – and spent a couple of years running wild, stealing and dealing drugs while supposedly in local authority ‘care’. He was also a prolific consumer of his own ‘product’, which he acknowledged was fuelling his paranoia.
|Methadone... the 'green lady'|
Inside prison, he was fairly near the top of the wing hierarchy, mainly because of his contacts and his ability to source both illegal drugs and a range of misdirected prescribed medication, which he bought – or bullied – from other inmates. He was a regular user of the pain-killer tramadol, as well as being on the prison’s methadone programme through which registered addicts are provided with steadily reducing doses of the synthetic opioid. Often, however, methadone is merely used to stabilise those with dependencies while they are in custody. He would also use Subutex – another prescribed opioid substitute – if he could get hold of it.
One of the main problems was that he steadfastly refused to discuss his history of abuse with ‘professionals’, as he despised and mistrusted anyone who was in authority, particularly within the prison system. Yet he was clearly suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which caused him to wake up screaming in terror night after night. He admitted that he had terrible nightmares during which he believed himself to be a young boy again. I can only imagine what horrors had left him so profoundly traumatised. Eventually, the wing screws moved him to a single cell because other cons wouldn’t share with him owing to the nightly disturbances.
All I could offer him was a non-judgemental willingness to listen while he talked about his life. I suppose he opened up to me because we had established a rapport and, although he considered me to be well educated, I wasn’t a screw or a ‘psycho’ (a psychologist or mental health worker). Whether just by listening I helped him at all, I’m not sure. At least I don’t believe I did any harm or made his situation worse.
Could this man be helped through professional support and counselling? I’m really not in a position to judge. Unlike some inmates, he didn’t lack self-awareness and appeared capable of analysing the root causes of his personal fears, anxieties and dependencies. He was also willing to disclose some of the most painful details of his early life, so perhaps that suggests he could eventually start to address, and maybe even resolve, some of the legacy of harm that these traumatic episodes have left. However, I am sure that prison will not be the place where he is able to get any help.