Our prisons are full of life’s casualties. Much of this misery is self-inflicted, but when you get to hear prisoners’ histories you do get the impression that some lads have really never had a chance.
|Leaning on the landing|
In the UK, prisons tend to be used as warehousing for deeply damaged people, some of whom represent a real danger to themselves and others. It’s also a general rule of imprisonment that no matter how bad your own situation may be, there are always plenty of fellow cons who are much worse off.
You can find them on every prison landing when cells have been unlocked, leaning on the railings just staring into space. They are the ‘dead souls’ and ‘burned-out cases’. Some of them have fried their own brains and wrecked their bodies with hard drugs or years of drinking. Others have sustained brain damage from fighting.
I’ve met lads in their early 20s who look like wizened old men… emaciated, toothless and covered in scars from street fights or from sleeping rough. Some are living with HIV as a consequence of sharing dirty needles with fellow addicts.
Then there are other kinds of casualties: those for whom imprisonment has proved too much to cope with mentally. You can see it in their eyes. They often seem like they have souls that have died long before their bodies. It can be hard work talking to them about their futures, mainly because they can’t imagine anything beyond the next day.
|Architect of IPP "injustice"|
Some of these cons have often served long stretches, sometimes many years longer than the minimum tariffs handed down in court when they have been given one of the infamous Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) – now mercifully scrapped – which even its architect, former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, now accepts was “an injustice”. However, the change in the law hasn’t benefitted the several thousand inmates still serving these open-ended IPPs who have no idea when, or even if, they will ever be released. In my personal view this has become a form of mental torture and when some of these prisoners are eventually set free, a number of them may prove to be ticking time-bombs for the future.
Trying to understand why certain people turn out like this can be an uphill struggle. It’s easier when you find out that they have come from a dysfunctional background: broken home, absent parent(s), time spent in local authority ‘care’, victims of abuse, early offending, youth custody… the rest seems to write itself.
|One of life's casualties?|
Would early intervention produce better results? This is a difficult question, simply because each individual, and his or her circumstances, is so different. Being taken into ‘care’ by the authorities certainly doesn’t seem to solve some of these people’s problems, especially in those cases when the ‘care’ they received included horrendous physical, sexual or emotional abuse from those who were supposed to be caring for them, or from other very damaged young people they came into contact with in these institutions.
If we look at the statistics, they are pretty grim. Around 23 percent of the adult prison population has been in ‘care’, while almost 40 percent of young prisoners aged under 21 were taken into ‘care’ as children. This remains a complex area for both criminologists and sociologists, but given that only two percent of the UK population end up in prison, the conclusion could be drawn that people who were in ‘care’ as kids are grossly overrepresented in the adult justice system. For those interested in reading more about this issue, the Prison Reform Trust study: Care - a Stepping Stone to Custody? (2011), is a good starting point.
When hearing some of these horror stories from fellow cons while working as a prison Insider (peer mentor), I was often reminded of Philip Larkin’s famous poem: This Be The Verse, especially the line in which he observes: “Man hands on misery to man”. How true that is.
|Larkin: "Don't have any kids yourself"|
The troubling thing is that many of these deeply damaged blokes, some not long out of their teens themselves, have already had kids of their own – sometimes several each, often by different women – and already some of these young children are involved in the criminal justice system or have been taken into ‘care’. It’s a pity that these lads haven’t taken Larkin’s final piece of advice: “And don’t have any kids yourself.”
However, when some of your fellow inmates come from respectable families, who are often as mystified as everyone else why their offspring have turned to crime, the stories can be much more puzzling. Every nick I’ve been in has a significant proportion of former university students or ex-professionals who have fallen from grace. Many are very intelligent, although some have particular character weaknesses. Sometimes it’s the temptation of easy money – often linked to drugs – or else embezzlement or fraud, or nicking cash or valuables from family and friends.
The situation of a fair number of younger lads in the slammer could be summed up very briefly as follows: got pissed and hit someone. At times they don’t even really remember what led up to a drunken criminal act that may have changed (or even ended) another person’s life and often that of the victim’s family, as well as having had a devastating impact on their own future.
|Some men do need to cry|
One of the regular discussions I’ve had with friends and pad-mates in the nick is just where they think things started to go wrong. Don’t think that cons don’t talk about this sort of thing in their cells with each other. They do… quite a lot of the time and they can be much more honest with each other than they ever are with probation officers or addiction counsellors.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve sat for hours with some of these lads, quite a few of whom have ended up in tears of guilt and regret for what they’ve done to others, as well as to their own families. And, on occasion, I’ve put my arm around them as they’ve sobbed their hearts out, trying to offer some reassurance that it’s OK and big boys can cry.
Getting in with a bad crowd in their teens is often one of the key factors, along with alcohol and the use of recreational drugs. I’ve met guys whose criminal records for violence are almost exclusively linked to excessive consumption of booze. Once they’ve had a skinfull, they lose all self-control and end up giving someone – often a person they’ve never met before – a slap outside a pub. Then things then get out of control until there has been a serious injury or even a death. Yet when you get to know them sober, they can be perfectly normal, decent lads. The main challenge is to keep off the pop when they are released.
It’s only when you get to actually spend time with some of these blokes in the nick that you come to realise just how ordinary they really are. Sometimes they’ve just been incredibly daft, immature or else easily led. I certainly don’t want to minimise the harms they’ve caused to their victims, or to make excuses for their criminal behaviour, but the fact of the matter is that most crime is committed by very ordinary people, not monsters.
Other people end up in prison because of their reactions to various circumstances that are sometimes out of their control. They are basically normal people who have behaved in a criminal way in abnormal situations. In our society some get prosecuted, but others don’t. Those inside are just the ones who got caught and as the poet A.E. Housman rightly observed:
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.
|Armed robbery: not glamorous|
A couple of my close friends have been armed robbers (although their crimes are much less glamorous than movies such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels would have us believe). In certain circumstances, armed robbery can involve just picking up a iron bar during a tussle over disputed money, so forget the idea of blaggers in balaclavas toting a pair of sawn-off shotguns outside the local branch of Barclays. Most of the lads I’ve known who are in the nick for robbery got caught up in a series of incredibly stupid events and have ended up with sentences ranging from six to eight years – and that’s without a single firearm being involved.
Most of my mates, who understand where they went wrong, will rebuild their lives once they’ve been released from prison. In many cases their families are standing by them and they will have a home to go to when they walk out of the main gate with their black prison holdall and their £46 resettlement grant. As long as they keep their noses clean during their licence period – which is usually half of their entire sentence – then I doubt that the majority will ever go back to jail. At least I really hope not.
It’s the much more difficult cases – those who will leave prison with nothing and no-one to go to – who will be the challenge to resettle back into the community. As a society, we just don’t have sufficient support mechanisms in place to address their complex needs, including starting to deal with childhood abuse and all the emotional damage, including self-hatred, that it can cause. Some of these blokes are just so alienated from society that reintegration is probably the last thing on their minds as they step out onto the pavement outside the prison gates.
And then there are the casualties of our ‘care’ system and our prisons: the ‘dead souls’ and ‘burned-out cases’ who stare into space on every wing landing. I don’t pretend to know where to start with them… but then, it seems, neither does anyone else.