UK prisons are very tribal societies. There are the most obvious divisions between prisoners (‘cons’ or offenders) and everyone else who works in the prison system: “them and us”. However, there are also many other sub-groups, including the uniformed officers (‘screws’ or ‘kangas’), suited governors, chaplains, backroom office staff, civilian instructors, maintenance contractors, educators, medics and psychologists. Some fit neatly within the traditional prison hierarchy, others don’t.
|A 'kanga' or 'screw'|
When I was in prison, I became a keen observer of every aspect of how our jails actually function in practice – which is often very different from the theory. I had a pretty unique opportunity to become a small part of a very interesting experiment in participatory anthropology, as readers of my previous blog posts will probably already be aware.
As a social anthropologist I’m primarily interested in social structures within human societies, including tribes, families, hierarchies, sources of authority, laws, rules, customs and conflict resolution systems. Prisons present a fascinating, although very neglected, area for any researcher. Of course, most academics never get to see right inside our penal system with all its rich variety.
A few postgraduates and university research staff are given privileged access by the National Offender Manager Service (NOMS) to conduct research into approved topics, but they are usually restricted to interviewing a handful of volunteers, whether staff members or serving cons. Getting down and dirty on the actual residential wings is extremely rare.
|Interviewing a con|
Another key barrier is that the vast majority of prisoners are very reticent about talking freely with outsiders. Building up trust is a slow, often painstaking process and few researchers will ever really have the time or the extended access that would be required to persuade cons to open up and discuss their experiences and perceptions of prison life. As an insider myself, who didn’t face those barriers, I count myself as very fortunate that I’ve been able to make what could have been an extremely negative experience into something positive and to be able to share this information with the wider world.
For an outsider, getting any sense out of the other most visible tribe inside our prisons – the uniformed staff (‘screws’) – is likely to prove even more challenging. Frontline officers are set apart in various ways. They wear black and white uniforms (clothing colours that are specifically prohibited for inmates) and have prominent key chains attached to their belts.
|NOMS: crisis management?|
They represent power and authority on prison wings, even if that power has become more limited as NOMS rules and regulations have got ever more complicated. Human rights legislation and Prison Service Instructions (PSIs), not to mention health and safety rules, have all converged to disempower your average screw. One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from wing staff is that governors are now so afraid of legal action or negative publicity that they have become ‘soft’ on cons, but are too tough on uniformed officers.
‘Screwology’ – the study of prison officers – is equally as fascinating as criminology. Perhaps even more so. One of the common questions that cons pose about wing staff is why would anyone in their right minds sign up for a job that involves locking and unlocking doors for people who live in small concrete boxes, particularly if there is always the chance that you might get injured by an angry or aggressive prisoner? There is also a general myth among prisoners that the vast majority of screws are the sort of people who couldn’t hold down a decent job in the real world.
My experience is that members of the uniformed prison staff have as wide a range of motives for choosing their occupation as pretty much any other public sector workers. Some consider it to be a steady job with the prospect of a pension; others sign up because a job at their local nick means they can stay in their home area with other members of their extended families, especially if the opportunities for other types of work are limited.
I’ve met whole families where two or even three generations work in the Prison Service. Sometimes one will be on a wing, another in a backroom office, yet another in the education department. It can represent a way of life.
|From the Army to HMPS?|
I think that there has also been a major shift in the way the Prison Service recruits. Traditionally, most uniformed officers (and quite a few governor grades) came to HMPS following service in the armed forces. For many years, the grade system mirrored Army ranks. Former commissioned officers tended to become governors, while ex-NCOs and career soldiers became unformed wing staff.
The old Chief Officer grade (now long gone, but once upon a time the nearest thing to God inside prisons, other than God himself) was often held by former Regimental Sergeant Majors. I’m told that they often had the presence to terrify cons and lesser screws alike.
|Mr Mackay: old school|
There was a time when many older screws still wore peaked caps and medal ribbons on their uniforms. Even today you can still see Veterans Badges pinned to ties and fleece collars, since probably about a third of all wing staff I met during my time in prison had an armed services background of some kind.
Of course, just like in any other line of work, you can meet decent screws and absolute bastards. I met all sorts in prison. Short fat screws and thin tall ones; creepy weirdoes, as well as kind, compassionate people and a fair number of evilly sadistic ones; hard-workers and bone-idle lumps. It’s impossible to generalise.
Occasionally you do have to question an individual’s motives for opting for this type of work. For example, at one C-cat nick I started to get complaints from very embarrassed young cons about a particular male officer who was often on searching duty after visits.
|A normal pat-down search|
It was alleged that he was regularly subjecting younger prisoners to extremely humiliating intimate inspections during post-visit strip searches – practices which certainly weren’t in the official rules (PSI 67/2011 on Searching of the Person) – and even making lewd comments about their genitals, much to the apparent amusement of the second screw who always accompanied him in the searching area. These young cons felt very humiliated and embarrassed even talking about what they’d experienced. A few even started cancelling visits from their families out of fear that they might be targeted again by him.
Eventually, there were so many similar accounts from young lads on different wings that I believed the complaints were definitely true. No-one dared to complain to staff because they were afraid of possible reprisals. I gather that word of this situation eventually reached the ears of the governors – probably from fellow officers – and the screw in question disappeared from that particular nick, although whether he was merely ‘given words of advice’ and transferred elsewhere or actually sacked quietly, none of us ever found out.
|Not just needed by cons...?|
A small number of the uniformed wing staff have quite serious problems with basic literacy. I’ve met a couple of older screws who really couldn’t cope with the more complex reading exercises towards the end of the Toe by Toe adult literacy coursebook. How they managed to write wing reports is a mystery. Perhaps other officers helped them out or they just didn’t bother with that aspect of the job.
At one B-cat nick, a particularly unfunny and rather sinister screw used to be responsible for checking prisoners who were deemed at risk of suicide or self-harm via the Assessment and Care in Custody Teamwork (ACCT) system. Basically, this means that cons considered to be at risk should be monitored regularly by wing staff at intervals that are determined by the seriousness of the risk to ensure their well-being.
He thought it was a great joke to look into a cell where prisoners were on the ACCT book and say: “Well I see no-one’s hanged themselves yet! Try not to do it on my shift... too much paperwork!” It was perhaps hardly surprising the suicide and self-harm rate was very high at that particularly establishment – so much so that HM Inspectorate of Prisons delivered a shockingly damning report.
In addition to the inevitable weirdoes, misfits and numpties, it is also fair to say that I’ve met a fair number of decent screws. Some have senses of humour that are familiar to anyone who’s been in the armed forces. One of the best female officers I ever got to know was an out lesbian – “I’m a dyke and proud of it, mate!” was one of her catchphrases.
She didn’t just care about prisoners as individuals, but she also knew exactly how to get almost any con to comply with her instructions without complaint. Most prisoners were putty in her hands. She could also calm down and defuse almost any conflict or mini-crisis on the wing.
Managing adult male prisoners effectively requires an innate combination of man-management skills and a good grasp of male psychology. There are occasions when a female officer can succeed in achieving peaceful conflict resolution where her more macho male colleagues might not do so well. Of course, being a female screw in these environments can require a lot of bottle and I have to confess to a sneaking admiration for some of those I’ve met.
|A game of strategy and cunning|
At times, being in prison can resemble a giant game that involves a sense of strategy, low cunning and calculation of risk. If given the chance, many cons will try to play screws at their own game. Remember that there are quite a few prisoners who are serving time for clever, highly complex frauds or other crimes that have involved considerable amounts of skill and intelligence. If given the chance, some of them will manipulate screws and other non-uniformed staff, as well as fellow cons.
At times insecure, gullible, less experienced or greedy screws can fall into their traps – and then find themselves getting blackmailed into turning a blind eye to certain activities on prison wings or even into acting as ‘mules’ to smuggle in drugs (both illegal and so-called ‘legal’ highs’), mobile phones, SIM cards and alcohol. They became what are sometimes called “cons with keys” - until they get caught, as many do.
Pretty much every Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU) or open nick in the UK has at least one former screw in it serving a sentence for misconduct in public office (maximum penalty – life) or some other offence that has involved smuggling contraband into jails. That’s why prison Security Departments watch staff just as closely as they scrutinise cons. And once they end up on the wrong side of the cell door, they quickly find that no-one, officer or con, really likes a bent screw. It’s a pretty wretched and terrifying existence, often made more so by former colleagues who want to make a point.
On a day-to-day basis, however, pretty much all prisons – or at least those outside the high security dispersal system – can only run with a degree of cooperation between wing screws and cons. Obviously, we could never be friends across the great divide – neither tribe would stand for it – but relations on wings can be polite, cordial and at times even humorous. Some screws can be extremely witty and humour sometimes has the power to defuse tense standoffs.
|How many screws feel|
It seems that now is not a great time to be working in the Prison Service. Government cuts and resulting staff shortages are just two of the current problems. The recent round of Specification, Benchmarking and Costing (based on the 2007 Carter Review of prisons) is giving rise to individual performance appraisals. Significant reductions in the number of staff across the prison estate – around 30 percent over three years from 27,650 officer grade staff in September 2010 to 19,325 in September 2013 – have also increased the pressure of work. I think it’s fair to say that morale among prison staff members has just about hit rock-bottom.
When I was working inside prisons as an Insider (peer mentor for other prisoners) I sometimes found that I often had access to more information about upcoming policy changes and new NOMS initiatives than rank and file staff on the wings did. Questions to uniformed staff often met the response: “Well, you know more than we do!” I got the impression that some wing screws were so disillusioned that they were planning to move on or take early retirement just as quickly as they could.
I well recall a little flash of resistance by staff at one nick when they dared to pin up a printed photograph of growing mushrooms on the outside of a main wing office door. The unspoken message was clear: “Kept in the dark and fed on shit”. It was an attempt at humour, as well as a mute protest. An eagle-eyed governor soon spotted it and the sign duly disappeared.