Most of my recent blog posts have been about the grimmer aspects of prison life: suicide, self-harm, unhealthy food, poor prison management, boot-licking screw-boys and sly pad thieves. With the sun shining and the weekend coming up I’ve decided to write about some of the more positive experiences to come out of my involuntary incarceration as a guest of Her Majesty.
|Harvey and Rabbit: best friends|
For me, one of the redeeming features of the time I spent in prison was the chance to meet some very decent loyal lads who are still my close friends. Most of us are now out of jail, although we also stay in touch with those who are still behind bars. We speak on the phone or exchange letters with the guys inside, while between those of us on the outside we telephone, text, e-mail and Skype each other. Needless to say we are all leading law-abiding lives.
Prison friendships are important. It reminds me of that background jingle on the now famous ‘Harvey and Rabbit’ TV ad which aims to demonstrate the power of television advertising:
F-R-I-E-N-D-S do you really need them: Yes.
If you haven’t got a friend, then you’re just you.
There’s half as many things that you can do.
Who’s going to tell you that you’re not a brat, if not your best friend?
Do you recall when we did that? Yes.
Sharing – the brilliant jokes we’ve had throughout the years (good times together)
It’s not the same when you’re not there.
I couldn’t have put it better myself! When you are inside, deprived of almost all contact with your family and friends in the real world, prison can be an immensely lonely, dark and depressing place. Having a small circle of good mates who you know you can trust and rely on can be a vital mechanism for healthy emotional living.
|Best not to post it on Facebook, lads|
Being a social anthropologist, I have more than a passing interest in how human societies and communities function, particularly those in highly artificial environments, such as the armed forces and prisons. Spending a few years banged up myself has given me an unrivalled opportunity to see how groups of confined men organise themselves, coexist and cooperate, as well as how they deal with conflict, sadness, grief and relationships.
For many people who have never been in prison, there is the fear of the unknown, heightened by misperceptions planted firmly in the psyche by films such as The Shawshank Redemption. I was discussing this very subject last night with another ex-con and we agreed that the greatest fear almost all men have when they first face the prospect of going to prison is homosexual rape, usually in the showers.
I have blogged previously about the sensitive subject of sexual assault and rape in British prisons. It does happen, but is certainly not a common occurrence. It is more the stuff nightmares are made of than an ever-present risk to most adult male cons.
|The ultimate 'bromance' prison movie?|
However, the other side of The Shawshank Redemption story is the close friendship that develops between lead characters Andy Dufresne and Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding. Initially based on Red’s ability to supply contraband items, their commercial relationship becomes one of close inter-dependence and eventually deep mutual respect and friendship.
When Andy escapes through his tunnel and Red finally gets paroled it is their eventual reunion on a beach in Mexico that gives the story its closure. I suppose you could describe it as the ultimate ‘bromance’ movie. Women don’t get much of a look in.
Being in prison today bears little resemblance to the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary. The inmates depicted in the film enjoyed freedoms and privileges unimaginable under Chris Grayling’s mean and spiteful Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) regime. However, one aspect of life that is still of central importance is having your prison mates around you.
Now, for the avoidance of any confusion, homosocial relationships (a term coined by sociologists) don’t usually involve any sexual activity. The concept covers friendships, mentoring and general social interactions between men in a wholly, or predominantly, male environment. In prisons, men turn to other men for mutual support, advice, companionship and generally to have a laugh together.
|Making a prison for yourself|
I’ve observed that those cons who are able to develop these social friendships are often the best equipped to serve a prison sentence and emerge at the other end with minimal psychological damage. Men who have a natural talent for making friends and maintaining those relationships will usually do better on the wings than loners and prisoners who are regarded as ‘weirdos’ or misfits – many of whom are struggling with mental illness, addictions or serious personality disorders.
There is also a significant amount of informal mentoring going on between cons, particularly older men who ‘adopt’ younger lads. A high proportion of these young men have lacked older male role models in their lives, so they sometimes find them inside the nick. Not all these relationships are predatory or sinister. Some prisoners miss their own kids desperately and genuinely feel the need to do something positive with their time inside. Mentoring a younger inmate can be mutually beneficial for both sides.
|Having a mentor can make a difference|
As one older bloke who was serving a long stretch once remarked to me: “I have a son who is a similar age to some of these young kids on this wing. I’d hope that if my lad ever ended up inside the nick, an older con would keep an eye out for him and show him the ropes. So I’m doing the same for them.”
Of course, on the other hand some blokes just can’t resist the temptation to party inside. Forget the cell doors and bars on the windows and you can have the makings of one long lads’ night in, particularly in D-cats (open prisons). Occasionally add in some jail hooch (cell brewed alcohol) and maybe some drugs and that’s how quite a few younger lads – and a fair number of long-termers – will get through their ‘bird’ (sentence).
I’ve heard it called “getting your head out of the window” (ie forgetting for a while that you are inside a prison cell). Those who get caught can end up on a charge down the Block (segregation unit), but that’s seen as an occupational hazard by many cons and a price worth paying for a boozy session in a pad (cell).
I have known a few homosocial relationships go a bit further than most cons would feel comfortable admitting, even among themselves. A small number do develop into romances, rather than platonic bromances, even among prisoners who would never identify as being gay or bisexual in the outside world. In fact, these guys usually have female partners and families waiting for them.
One of the surprises of the recent jail film Starred Up is that the father of the main character reveals himself to be what is often called ‘prison gay’ – that is, he has developed a sexual relationship with a younger prisoner with whom he shares a cell. I think the term ‘situational bisexuality’ is probably a more accurate description for what is being depicted.
I never felt the urge to go down the same path while I was in prison, but I can empathise with the need of those cons who are serving long sentences – including lifers – to seek a bit of love and affection in their lives. Although some of these liaisons may be motivated mainly by sexual tension among men who are deprived of physical contact with females, I think that there is also a strong element of desire for emotional intimacy with another human being, even a member of one’s own gender.
On the other hand, many non-sexual homosocial relationships in prison do involve a considerable degree of physical interaction. Younger lads ‘play fight’ with their mates, cons partner up in the gym (often with other lads who look very similar to themselves), body-builders gravitate to other body-builders and there is a fair amount of shoulder patting, matey back-slapping and even hugging going on. Some men cut and style each other’s hair, which can also be an expression of physical intimacy that is publicly acceptable. After gym shoulder massages are very popular.
|Safe, bruv, safe!|
Whenever I was transferred between nicks, often with very little notice, there was much hugging with my close mates and exchanging of contact details. When I was suddenly released from my D-cat prison without any notice, I managed to go for a last lunch in the dining hall and then walked down the long line of cons queuing for their meal. As I was explaining my very unexpected departure, I must have had 30 or 40 fellow cons hugging me and even ruffling my hair, as well as many more conventional handshakes or fist bumps (a practice imported from the US prisons, I gather).
As I walked down to Reception and the main gate, carrying my prison holdall and accompanied by a few of my closest mates, I really started to feel a genuine sense of loss, even though I was obviously overjoyed to be a free man again. For nearly a year at that prison I had been part of a community, some of whom had become as close as family to me. Now I was leaving and it would be some time before I’d see any of these guys again. Like other men who have bonded and supported each other during times of adversity, we have become a band of brothers. I feel proud and privileged to count them as my friends.