I’ve written in a previous blog post about bent prison officers being called ‘cons with keys’. Since the title of this blog is “an Insider’s View” of the UK prison system, I thought I should respond to a recent reader’s request and share some thoughts about Insiders and why some cons consider them to be ‘screws without keys’.
Among the most trusted categories of prisoner you can find Insiders, Listeners and orderlies. All three roles are technically carried out by ‘red bands’ (trusted cons who are the equivalent of trustees in the US prison system). As I’ve explained in my earlier post about Screw Boys, red bands can be distrusted by other cons because they are perceived to be privileged and often far too close for comfort to the wing screws and even to managers and governors.
|Listeners support other prisoners|
Just to recap on what I’ve written previously, orderlies are red bands who are trusted to work in special or privileged positions. They are recruited from the ranks of the well-behaved and responsible cons and often get placed to work in prison offices, the staff mess, the stores, reception and so on. They sometimes get better rates of pay than ordinary inmates and can develop friendly relationships with those members of staff they work with on a daily basis.
In contrast, Listeners are unpaid prisoners who have volunteered to be specially trained by the Samaritans as non-judgemental peer support. Set up in 1991, the system operates across most prisons in the UK. According to the official mission statement “the objectives of the scheme are to assist in reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths, reducing self-harm and helping to alleviate the feelings of those in distress.” The service is supposed to be available to any prisoner 24/7. You can find out more about the Listeners and the support they offer here.
The Samaritans estimate that there are around 1,200 trained Listeners working across the prison estate at any one time. As their name suggests, they are supposed to listen to prisoners talking about their problems, but not to give specific advice or start solving other people's problems for them.
Insiders, on the other hand, play a very different role and one that seems to be expanding as the numbers of uniformed wing staff are reduced. Insiders are peer mentors and ‘fixers’ who are supposed to be available on wings to help their fellow cons. They are appointed by wing governors, on the recommendation of wing staff, and can be called upon to do all manner of jobs that there just aren’t enough uniformed staff to do. At times, cons prefer to talk things over with other prisoners, rather than screws.
One of the major roles of an Insider is to welcome new arrivals when they hit the wing and to make sure that they have essentials such as prison bedding, unless this has already been issued during the reception process. They answer basic questions about timetables, regimes and explain how to submit requests (applications or ‘apps’) to the prison staff.
In some closed prisons, the Insiders largely run the induction process for newly arrived cons. They organise talks in a classroom on various aspects of prison life and give advice on specific problems as they arise. In some nicks they even get to oversee education tests (literacy and numeracy) and help new cons fill in forms, an important role when a fair proportion of adult prisoners has problems reading and writing. Every prison is slightly different, so even new arrivals from other nicks can require assistance.
The Insider role tends to be more crucial in B-cat local prisons because this is where remands and newly convicted cons first arrive in the system. Many will never have been inside a nick before and most are, to put it mildly, crapping themselves with fear of the unknown, particularly of experiencing violence or even rape within the first 24 hours. Of course, the reality is very different, but try telling that to a new reception who has seen films like the Shawshank Redemption or Scum on TV… There can be a lot of tears sometimes.
In these situations, the Insider will sit down with the new arrival and basically reassure him that he will honestly be OK as long as he keeps his head down and doesn’t get into debt on the wings. You help them fill in their first pre-order menu sheet so they don’t end up on what is called ‘discrep’ (sometimes dubbed ‘dis crap’) – basically whatever surplus meal may be left over from the day before. Believe me, discrep is not something you really want to end up on during your first week in the slammer.
|Room service left much to be desired|
If disillusioned screws sometimes complain that cons these days demand ‘room service’, the Insiders often end up being the ones who deliver it to the cell door. Need to borrow a pen to fill in an app, a menu order or a canteen sheet? Of course, the Insider will have a pen – that will rarely be seen again. Having a bad day and feeling the need of a compassionate phone call home from the office phone? Get the Insider to go and sort it out with the nasty-looking screw who is scowling in the wing office. The list of little jobs is endless.
Because the Insider – there is usually one on each wing, sometimes two in a very large B-cat local nick – is often the only fellow con who is perceived to enjoy any sort of influence with the senior management, he will be the one selected to go and raise any grievances during wing meetings with governors, whether that’s because there’s been no hot water in the showers for the whole week or because the weekly library visit has just been cancelled for the third week running owing to ‘operational issues’ (ie not enough uniformed screws available for duty).
Whereas Listeners aren’t supposed to give advice to other cons, Insiders are tasked with doing just that. They are supposed to learn all the Prison Rules, local regulations, regimes and timetables, relevant Prison Service Instructions (PSIs), Safer Custody procedures and more policies than the average screw. When I was working as an Insider, I used to get Senior Officers (SOs) asking discreetly for advice on PSIs they’d never bothered to read.
|Prison blanket: not wool|
Some of the jobs you get as an Insider can be bizarre. I was once tasked by a governor grade in the Equalities Team at one C-cat nick to find out whether the standard-issue orange bedding blanket (one per con unless you are over 65 or have a medical problem and an appropriate certificate from Healthcare!) was suitable for vegans to use.
This particularly odyssey started because a particularly vocal vegan – who enjoyed causing problems – claimed that the blankets contained a polyester and wool mixture and was therefore threatening to bring legal action against the nick. Was there a label on these bastards? No, of course not. That would have been far too easy.
Eventually I had to trek down to the prison laundry and get a signed chit from the chief laundry wonk that all prison-issue blankets were entirely synthetic and no animals had been involved in the manufacture thereof. The governor almost danced for joy when I handed him the paperwork.
Then we had the saga of transsexual pyjamas. Really. One of the prison wings accommodated a pre-op transsexual. Now, in this age of equality and diversity there are specific rules on the treatment of transsexuals in custody – quite rightly, in my view. There is even a special section in the PSIs about this very issue.
Post-op, these cons are considered like any other female prisoner and are allocated to a women’s nick. However, if they are still awaiting gender reassignment surgery, but have had the psychological evaluations and commenced hormone treatment, then they are still considered to be male, even if they are allowed to use a female name and appropriate clothing inside a male prison. As you can imagine, this can cause certain complications, though more because of the jail bureaucracy, rather than other cons, who can be remarkably broadminded and liberal.
In this particular case, the con was happy enough wearing prison jeans and a sweatshirt on the wing, but had requested being permitted to purchase female nightwear from the mail-order catalogue to wear in her cell after bang-up. A female principal officer had refused the request, regardless of what was written in the PSI on Equality. Eventually we got it sorted out, permission was granted by a more senior governor and the prisoner ordered her female clothing. Everyone was happy again.
In this era where 23-hour a day bang-up is becoming far more common in closed prisons, Insiders often get much more time out of their cells than other inmates. Increasingly, they are being used to cover staff shortages where tasks aren’t related to security, for example handing out menu and canteen sheets, helping fellow cons fill in official forms, delivering messages for staff, organising meetings for equality and diversity, or for older prisoners or just sorting out numerous everyday problems on wings that a few years ago might have been done by uniformed screws.
|Listeners: on call 24/7|
Similar problems are being experienced by Listeners in some nicks. They can find themselves ‘baby-sitting’ potentially suicidal cons who should really be on suicide watch supervised by wing staff. Although this is officially against both prison regulations and the Samaritans’ own rules, it definitely goes on because there simply aren’t sufficient frontline members of staff in some prisons to cover these roles.
At one D-cat (open prison), a senior manager once told me in private that he wished he could employ the Insiders to do much more, simply because they were often better educated than many of his wing staff. Although I’ve never been an inmate in a private sector prison, I gather from fellow cons who have that some wings are virtually run by red bands because the staff who are recruited on private sector contracts as operational grades are so young and inexperienced that the older cons know far more about how to run a prison properly.
As I’ve mentioned before in these blog posts, most prisons in the UK have to run on the basis of an unwritten deal between the screws and a majority of the cons. Even in a B-cat local, two or three wing screws can never hope to control 170 prisoners if they refuse to be managed. For this reason, most inmates take the view that a quiet nick is a good gaff in which to do your ‘bird’ (sentence).
|Mr Bridger: no riots|
Moreover, the traffickers and tobacco barons inside prisons who are much more interested in making huge profits, definitely don’t want a rumble or a riot if they can keep a lid on things because disturbances usually disrupt the flow of contraband, while serious violence can lead the shipping out of other cons who may be owing them money. For that reason, riots are almost always bad for business.
Without the compliant cons – Insiders, Listeners, orderlies, tobacco barons, screw-boys and grasses – the only kind of prison model that could work would be a US-style supermax where the entire inmate population is on 23-hour lockdown. This would be ruinously expensive for the UK taxpayer and unnecessary overkill for the majority of cons who aren’t violent or who pose little or no threat to the public, as well as storing up a potential mental health crisis when these prisoners are eventually released back into society, having basically been driven insane by endless solitary confinement.
We may not yet have reached quite the level of collaboration between cons and screws that was portrayed in the Shawshank Redemption. As far as I’m aware no Andy Dufresne characters are really cooking the books for bent governors or doing screws’ tax returns in HM prisons. However, without the peer mentors – Insiders and Listeners – I think prisons would be increasingly difficult to keep running, not to mention that the rate of suicide and self-harm might well be rising even more steeply than it is at present. Not a bad return for around £16 a week for each Insider.