Thursday, 7 August 2014

Under the Radar: Prisoners Helping Each Other

One of the things that I found most fascinating about being in prison is just how much prisoners do to help each other on a daily basis. I think it speaks volumes about how some human beings can work together even in the most difficult of circumstances. It also indicates just how little support and assistance is available through official prison channels.

Prison tailor
Elsewhere on this blog I’ve written about how prisoners with specific skills can set up their own – illicit, but often tolerated – small businesses offering services as barbers, craftsmen, repair men for electronic items, tailors and personal gym trainers. Of course then there are the totally illegal rackets of the ‘pharmacists’ (dealing in misdirected medication), drug dealers and brewers of hooch (prison alcohol). These are all essentially commercial activities, used by inmates to supplement their meagre official prison pay. Most of the time there is an agreed price to be paid either via canteen goods (tobacco, tinned tuna, chocolate, toiletries) or money sent from family on the outside to the supplier’s private cash account at the prison.

Beyond these purely commercial services, however, there is a wide range of other activities that take place across on prison wings across the UK, most completely under the radar of the prison authorities. Some I’ve been involved in myself, others I’ve observed with interest.

Toe by Toe workbook
I’ve previously blogged on my involvement as an Insider (a peer mentor) in helping other cons with literacy problems with their personal correspondence, as well as working with prisoners to improve their reading skills using the Toe-by-Toe adult literacy course. Both of these roles, of course, involved officially endorsed activities. Insiders get appointed by wing managers to take on many of the daily support activities every prison needs. They also usually play a key role during the induction process for new arrivals, as well as supplying other prisoners with information and peer support.

However, I and fellow cons also ran different types of self-help and counselling groups. These filled the many gaps in provision of support services across the prison estate. For example, at two prisons we set up and ran an ‘invisible’ group for prisoners who were maintaining innocence, whether they had current appeals against conviction running or not. 

There is no official support available to any inmates who claim to be victims of miscarriages of justice. The Prison Service position is that it has to treat all convicted prisoners as being guilty until, and unless, their convictions are quashed by the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court. In most cases, the only concession is that prisoners with a ‘live’ appeal, evidenced by a Court of Appeal case reference number, are not supposed to be pressured into participating in offending behaviour courses. 

In reality, many people who are on appeal do come under pressure from offender supervisors (internal probation) to either drop their appeals and admit guilt or lose Enhanced level status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. I’m sure NOMS representatives would deny that this ever happens, but I can assure readers that it really does. I’ve seen it for myself and even helped other inmates with their IEP review appeals. 

Prisons are entirely geared to dealing with convicted prisoners. I’ve written a previous blog post about the plight of remands, who are routinely neglected by the prison authorities. However, there is also absolutely no support of any kind for cons who maintain that they have been victims of a miscarriage of justice. That’s where our group filled the gap. 

CCRC application form
We helped prisoners with their paperwork, including applications to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). We identified firms of helpful solicitors willing to review potential wrongful conviction cases – and drafted letters with case summaries and chronologies in order to highlight the key issues on which an appeal might be launched. 

It never ceases to amaze me just how many firms of solicitors suddenly drop their clients as soon as the latter have been found guilty by a jury. Of course, I accept that some of these general criminal law firms don’t specialise in Court of Appeal work, but there is often no interest in even passing over case files to other firms that do. Quite a lot of our group’s work was devoted to chasing up trial solicitors who wouldn’t play ball with their ex-clients or even with other lawyers who were willing to review convictions before an appeal is launched. 

Pretty much all of this work had to be done discreetly since the prison authorities in the UK do not like inmate ‘advocates’. This is one of the major differences between the systems in the UK and the USA, since most US prisons seem to have well-stocked law libraries with relatively easy access and a host of inmate paralegals willing to take on all sorts of cases, from internal disciplinary hearings right through to Supreme Court appeals.

In my own case, my situation wasn’t helped by one fellow prisoner who – as a good humoured joke – wrote my name above my cell door and added the initials ‘LLP” (which he believed meant 'Licensed Law Practice'). Someone else wrote on my cell card (the cardboard slip outside each prisoner’s cell) under the heading Activities: “Changing the world one case at a time.” These were jokes that went down very badly with wing staff who already resented my assistance to other prisoners as a McKenzie Friend (a lay advisor) during governors’ ‘nickings’ (internal adjudications) for disciplinary offences. 

Our support groups did more than just assist with preparing appeals and writing letters to solicitors. We also acted as an information forum and offered counselling for inmates who were desperate to talk to others in similar situations. Being a trained counsellor – I qualified years before I went to prison – came in very handy, as I was able to use those skills, as well as developing new ones.

Biscuits for coffee club
There were other groups running on the wings. There was an unofficial guitar club that provided free lessons for inmates – quite separate from the officially sanctioned sessions held in the prison chapel. At one prison we also created a Sunday morning coffee club for prisoners interested in discussing topics that ranged from the criminal justice system right through to world current affairs. We assembled every Sunday morning in an association room on the 3s (second floor landing), leaving the ground floor recreation room for the lads who wanted to play cards. The only requirement for membership of the club was to bring your own cup of tea or coffee and we took it in turns to bring up a packet of biscuits to share. 

There was also an informal writers’ circle where people could read their own short stories or poetry to like-minded cons, followed by some constructive discussion and advice. This group rotated between cells and numbers had to be kept low for that reason.

Thanks... but no thanks!
None of the above groups was organised officially. They were entirely set up and run by prisoners, without any form of staff involvement or support. In part, I think that this was a reflection of the massive divide that exists between the prison authorities and inmates. They had their world and we had ours, effectively ‘under the radar’. In fact, I believe that had wing screws or managers become involved, these activities would have soon have lost prisoners’ support and would probably have died out very quickly.  

In my view what we actually created was a parallel inner world where we reverted to being ordinary people bound together by common interests or the need for support, rather than being defined as ‘prisoners’ or ‘offenders’ (a label many of us rejected in any case on account of our appeals and our maintaining innocence). Far from spending our free time lying on our bunks watching weekend daytime television – as the tabloids would claim most prisoners do all day – we developed our own autonomy and created coping and peer support mechanisms that were designed to mitigate the worst effects of incarceration within a system that provided little or no care or encouragement. I’m still proud of what our groups achieved and I take some satisfaction from the fact that we did it for ourselves – and for each other.

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