Thursday, 28 August 2014

Things I Missed while I was in Prison

I was talking on the phone yesterday to a friend I first met in prison. We’re both on the out now, but – as many ex-prisoners like to do – we were chatting about our shared experiences inside the slammer. One of our topics of conversation was the different things we had both missed while we were inside. The most obvious things we missed were our families, but beyond that we discussed how we’d experienced other senses of loss.

When I first went into prison, I spent time in the Block (segregation unit) so down there I pretty missed everything, including being able to take a shower without being watched by staff through a locked washroom door. I gather this is to prevent cons who are being held in solitary confinement ‘slashing up’ (self-harming) with the single-bladed prison razors. 

The Block: segregation cell
Being held in the Block generally means having no personal possessions of any kind. I was lucky because I had been permitted to hold onto my cheap watch, my gold wedding ring and a single paperback book. At least I had something to read and my watch ensured that I didn’t lose track of time, which is extremely easy to do when you’re in solitary bang-up with no contact of any kind with the outside world.

When I was on the wings, however, I suppose I missed peace and quiet, as well as any sense of ever really being alone. My second pad-mate was a Catholic so when he went off to Mass on a Sunday morning for 60 minutes I was left locked up in our cell on my own, with my own thoughts. I generally used the time to catch up on writing my daily diary. That’s also when you have time to reflect on what you are missing.

Officially, we are told that the punishment element of incarceration is the loss of liberty. Actually, I think it is much more to do with deprivation of contact with family and friends, as well as the experience of total helplessness and dependence on the whims and moods of total strangers who have power over you: the wing screws and managers. 
A telling off

Imagine being back in primary school and having to ask permission of a potentially hostile adult to do pretty much anything. Well that’s a bit like being in prison. Sometimes when you make what you feel is a perfectly reasonable request, you get told in no uncertain terms that the answer is “no”. It hurts – rather like a hard punch in the stomach. It makes you feel resentful, no matter how you try to laugh it off or ignore it.

I recall one incident on my first full day in my second B-cat prison – a miserable, Victorian-era dump that is totally unfit for purpose (a view shared by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, incidentally). I was moved to a pad (cell) that lacked one of the small six-inch square acrylic mirror tiles that cons stick to the wall above the sink with prison-issue toothpaste, since Sellotape and Blu-tack are considered contraband items. I volunteered to go and find the ‘cleaning officer’ – the duty screw – and ask him if he could issue one from the wing stores, a five-minute job.

I eventually located the cleaning officer, a Mr D_______. He was a tall, thin, greying chap who looked at the cons around him as if he had just stepped in something nasty and was considering how to get it off his shoe with the least amount of effort. I found him standing in the middle of the ground floor, next to the ancient pool table. He was doing nothing in particular, just staring malevolently across the wing. Perhaps he’d had a bad day or a row with his wife earlier that morning or had indigestion. I don’t know. Anyway, our ‘conversation’ went as follows, word for word. 

The offending item: mirror tiles
“Excuse me, Mr D_________, is there any chance of getting a mirror for the pad as it doesn’t have one?”

“Fuck off out of my face, you fucking cunt!” 

I duly obliged. God knows how he’d have reacted if I hadn’t been so polite to start with. Perhaps he’d have accused me of having tried to grab his keys from his belt and battered me into a pulp on the floor. 

Believe me, that isn’t being too far fetched. At the same jail I later witnessed a similar attack on a young prisoner who lost his front teeth after he dropped a food tray and splashed the trouser legs of a very aggressive young screw up on the 4s (third floor landing). The lad was beaten black and blue, ‘twisted up’ (put in a painful restraint lock) and then chucked down in the Block on a completely bogus charge of “attempting to escape”. When a few brave cons who were standing on the landings watching the incident started to slow clap the screw dealing out the beating, they were all nicked too, as a general discouragement to any show of solidarity.

How prison can make you feel
These incidents make you feel powerless and infantilised, like a small child again. The psychology of imprisonment is essentially about disempowering adult men and women because they have been ‘naughty’ or ‘disobedient’. I suppose you could describe jail as being one enormous ‘naughty step’ where some people have to sit for decades.

That doesn’t mean that a great many of the cons in the nick don’t deserve to be there. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, a fair number of the people I’ve met inside are not nice blokes. Many of them have committed truly awful offences and hurt or even killed people and I’d not want them living next door to me or my family. That’s why they are being warehoused in very secure storage facilities at considerable expense to the taxpayer. However, I’m not convinced that infantilising them for years is going to promote positive change or help them to make better decisions in the future.

Prison isn’t just about being deprived of the freedom to pop down the pub or go shopping. It isn’t only being forced to wear stained and dirty clothing, including underwear, that hundreds of other cons have previously worn before you. And it isn’t just about being locked up behind a heavy steel door in a small concrete box, often with a total stranger. It is all about total powerlessness in the face of institutional control. 

Of course, if you feel you’ve been badly treated, you can always write out an ‘app’ (application) or fill in a Comp1 (complaint form), but the answer – assuming that you ever get one – will almost always be to support the original decision to say no, usually without further explanation. And if a prisoner can’t write - as a significant number can’t - then the matter will almost certainly go no further anyway. Many cons regard the complaints system as a complete waste of time and effort.

So did I miss anything else while I was in prison? Well, a good cup of fresh coffee - like the one I'm drinking as I type this post.


  1. The concept of imprisonment as a punishment / deterrent / source of rehabilitation is a tricky issue.

    Some need to be locked up to protect the public whilst others are no threat at all, some of the public refrain from crime as the fear of imprisonment is great whilst others may see the risk as the price of doing business and yet others will have acted in a manner that the possible negatives were totally unconsciously disregarded.

    Every single incident is unique and prison is simply society's best attempt at dealing with those who break the law, just as the 'naughty step' may be a parents.

    1. Thanks for your interesting contribution. I agree that imprisonment is a very tricky issue.

      As I make clear in quite a few of my blog posts, I have met quite a few very dangerous people in prison from whom the public definitely need protecting. I really wouldn't want them as my next door neighbours!

      On the other hand, I am very conscious that all but around 56 prisoners who are serving 'whole life tariffs' will be released at some point, even if on life licence. If prison has failed to make any positive impact on those who will be released, or has actually made them worse or less mentally stable, then society as a whole is being badly served.

      In the end the Prison Service we have in the UK has official aims and objectives which include rehabilitation. If it consistently fails to achieve these then it is an expensive fraud on the taxpayer. I would be less critical if the declared aim of HMPS was simply human warehousing, because this is essentially all that is achieved - in my humble opinion, based on personal experience.

  2. Sadly I think that the Prison Service, just like every other government department is run in a way that makes ordinary folk scratch their heads in wonder.

    For example, the annual £35K+ it costs per prisoner seems a ridiculous sum that as someone who has been involved in the hospitality industry I can not reconcile with outside 'maths'.

    For that sort of money there should be more staff, more classes, better health care, more mental health services and better end of sentence planning.

    1. Thanks for your contribution. Like many public services, HMPS is top heavy with bureaucrats, HR advisors, policy wonks and 'senior managers', yet it desperately requires frontline staff to operate prisons on a day-to-day basis. The culling of experienced operational staff is just one of the reasons for the current crisis in UK prisons - despite Mr Grayling's repeated denials. If the Prison Service was a commercial operation it would have gone bust years ago.

      As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, the vast scale of the failure to address drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, as well as inmates' mental health, during prison sentences leaves thousands of 'ticking time bombs' waiting to go off on release. This doesn't help to reduce reoffending and does nothing to protect the public from further crime.

      As far as positive activities in prison are concerned, the sad fact is that there are plenty of voluntary organisations that would be willing to come into prisons on a regular basis in order to make a difference to prisoners' lives and aspirations. However, the prison system seems to make this as difficult as possible owing to "security" concerns, even though many individual wing officers are supportive of such activities.

      I remember that even in an open prison, life was made so difficult for the local voluntary welfare officer from the Royal British Legion - a retired serviceman - whenever he came to visit veterans in custody that he eventually threw in the towel and declined to visit. This deprived ex-servicemen and their families of much needed assistance with planning for resettlement, including accessing training, advice and small loans that could be used to set up new businesses. Entirely counter-productive.

  3. Very interesting post.

  4. The way you describe imprisonment similar to a naughty child falls under the negative reinforcement, where people get punished so that they won’t commit the same mistakes again. Though there are some who take things to extremes, which leads to two common reactions by the inmates: to feel helpless, or to lash back. And as you have said, such extreme measures not only limit positive change, but can also prove detrimental in the long run. Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the matter, Alex.

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR’s Bail Bonds

  5. On a less serious note, though more closely related to the original topic; aside from the obvious things like my girlfriend and going to the pub, I really felt the absence of something that is normally taken for granted. Cold drinks, ice cubes, condensation on the glass or can. Everything was lukewarm, especially in the summer. it's only when you don't have them that little things mean so much.