Sunday, 7 September 2014

Prison Pests (2): The Screw-Boy

There are many different ways of getting through a prison sentence. Some prisoners rebel against the system through various acts of disobedience, while the majority keep their heads down and try to do their ‘bird’ (time) quietly. A sizeable minority decide that the best survival technique is to suck up to the staff and they become what are contemptuously known as the ‘screw-boys’. 

It could be argued that this is part of a normal human response to threats where an individual has no control over his or her situation. Perhaps it has parallels with the famous Stockholm Syndrome in which hostages or victims of kidnappings start to identify with the individuals who are holding them. It is sometimes also known as ‘capture-bonding’ or ‘trauma-bonding’.

Patty Hearst
In extreme cases, hostages can themselves become so indoctrinated or radicalised to the point that they come to support the aims of those who hold them captive. The case of US heiress Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 and later went on to rob a bank with the group, is probably one of the best-known examples of this defence mechanism in action. Research studies indicate that about 8 percent of hostages show some signs of this condition.

In prisons, screw-boys are a common feature of almost any wing. They are the cons who rush to volunteer noisily whenever a dirty job needs to be done. They miss no opportunity to curry favour with the staff and are the ones who always laugh loudest when a screw makes a joke or witticism – even if it’s not really funny. If they see a senior officer or a governor on the wing, they will be there like a shot, hovering around, smiling and trying to engage the target of their interest in conversation, no matter how inappropriate that may be, despite the disapproval of other inmates (and many officers).

Whereas the pad thief is actively detested by other prisoners, the screw-boy is more of an irritating pest who is often held in contempt by so-called ‘staunch’ cons who stand up for themselves and aren’t afraid to challenge the system. The addition of the term ‘boy’ also implies that these inmates are childish and somewhat less than ‘real’ men. However, they can also be deeply resented if they are perceived to have benefitted from their fawning behaviour, for example by being given a cushy or lucrative prison job where the rate of daily pay is higher.

A red band
In B and C-cat (closed) prisons there is usually a special category of con called ‘red bands’ (some nicks also have ‘green bands’ too – a lower rank, with less responsibility). A ‘red band’ is a trusted prisoner – similar to a trustee in the US prison system – who is permitted to work unsupervised or in areas of the establishment where rank and file inmates aren’t allowed to go – such as close to the perimeter wall – in order to clear rubbish or clean up.

They may actually get to wear a distinctive red cloth band or red rubber ring on their sleeve or on the ankle over their green cleaners’ trousers to distinguish them from other prisoners. This both separates them from fellow cons and can be seen as either a badge of pride or shame, depending on your perspective.

Every screw-boy probably dreams of getting ‘red band’ status as it is a concrete sign that the system has come to trust them. That’s why they are usually considered by other cons to be jobsworths who would never dream of bending the prison rules.

Fancy a cuppa, Guv?
Office orderlies who clean up in areas where staff work or socialise, sometimes making tea for their ‘boss’ or running little errands, tend to be recruited from the ranks of the screw-boys. They are seen as enjoying privileged access to screws and governors, as well as enjoying various perks of the job. The screws they work with often call them by their first names (or nicknames) and probably get to know them far better than they do the rest of the inmate population. 

The staff mess or canteen is another honey-pot for screw-boys. They work as cooks or waiters and get to associate with both uniformed and civilian staff members throughout the day and, like the office orderlies, they are perceived to get preferential treatment, including access to much better food than ‘ordinary’ cons. This gets reinforced institutionally in those nicks where certain orderly roles carry significant perks – such as being given a single cell or being unlocked most of the day when other cons are banged-up behind their doors.

Reception and stores are two other prison departments that attract screw-boys, in part because the work involves such close contact with staff, sometimes out of normal working hours. To a certain extent, the development of cordial relations when working with screws or governors is an inevitable part of human relationships. Even a screw who is generally hostile to cons as a body can be civil and pleasant to specific prisoners he or she works with on a daily basis. Otherwise the working environment would be a pretty grim place.

A nice little number in the mess
It shouldn’t be automatically assumed that a screw-boy is a grass (informer). Of course, some probably are, but if cons really believed that every licker of the screws’ boots was also grassing them up, the number of screw-boys would decline very rapidly. In reality, there’s been no sign of that happening in any nick I’ve been at. Believe me, the screw-boy is definitely not an endangered species. 

Some screw-boys tend to be individuals who are socially inept or inadequate. They don’t really have many mates from the wider inmate community, so they turn to members of staff for signs of approval or acceptance. On the other hand, ‘red bands’ sometimes group together for mutual protection and support, seeing themselves as members of an inmate elite, and look down on ordinary cons.

The odd thing is that many wing screws don’t have much time for screw-boys in general. I suspect that they find the constant fawning and eagerness to please as irritating as the rest of us. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they won’t make use of these wannabe wing weasels; they do. Association room needs to be tidied? Deploy a willing screw-boy to sort it out. Blocked toilet in the washrooms? A screw-boy will enthusiastically roll up his sleeves and get stuck in with gloves and a bog brush.

I have seen exceptions. One female wing officer in a B-cat ‘adopted’ a pet screw-boy, much in the same way that she might have taken on a stray dog she found wandering the streets. 

I’ll call him Ozzie, although that’s obviously not his real name. He was a nice enough lad, but he had a serious drug dependency. His inept attempts to support his drug habit in his home town had led to the break up of his family and all his kids were in ‘care’ as a result. The ravages of years of drug abuse were evident on his body. When he smiled, his teeth were a disaster area  – a common problem among addicts.

Who's a good boy then?
However, he attached himself to this particular officer and whenever she was on duty Ozzie would be there, trotting along at her heels. Less kind cons eventually started to mock him by making doggy noises and panting with their tongues out as this odd duo passed by on the wing landings. “Where’s your collar, Ozzie?”  I think many prisoners pitied him a bit, because it was all so pathetic.

Eventually, she started sitting up on the top landing of the wing, on a chair borrowed from a nearby pad, drinking coffee he’d made for her while he – quite literally – sat on the floor at her feet like a dog. All that was missing was for her to be stroking his head as if he were her puppy.

The rest of us were completely bemused by all this. Were they having some secret affair, as many cons speculated? In this particular case, I don’t think so. Perhaps they both felt the need for some form of affection, a friendly face in what was a dark and depressing environment. However, the whole set up was deeply disturbing and a bit creepy. 

Eventually Ozzie was shipped out to another B-cat nick. I think the bizarre relationship had been noted by other wing screws who feared it could pose a security risk, so they dobbed their female colleague into Security. She remained on duty on the wing, but never again adopted a stray screw-boy as a pet. I expect some ‘words of advice’ had been given behind closed office doors.

So that, in a nutshell, is the strange prison species: the screw-boy. They are more of a pest than a danger. It’s a role that can bring certain benefits and perks, even a single pad or higher wages, but there is always a price to be paid. And as the old proverb goes: “he who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” 


  1. Do cons keep budgies as pets? I have read about cons keeping flies, woodlice and snails in matchboxes.

    1. Thanks for your question. To the best of my knowledge a few prisons - mainly establishments that accommodate a lot of lifers - do still permit prisoners to buy and look after small caged birds. These prisons have budgie seed and grit on the canteen sheets.

      There is a specific regulation in the Prison Service Instructions that states a prisoner needs to have attained Enhanced level in the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system before he or she can buy a bird. However, even if they subsequently lose that status they get to keep it until the creature (the bird, not the con) dies.

      I remember that there was a massive scandal some years ago when a prisoner had a sick budgie and the governor wouldn't let it be taken to a vet for treatment on the grounds of costs. The con claims he was told to break the bird's neck. This made it into the national media and the proverbial hit the fan with complaints about animal cruelty etc. It was a PR disaster for the Prison Service, so I think a lot of nicks decided to phase out bird ownership as those already on wings gradually died of natural causes.

      Other prisoners do occasionally 'adopt' strange pets. At one nick I was at they had a group of ducks and cons would feed them. It was funny to see hard-face security screws solemnly opening internal gates around the prison grounds to allow mother ducks with their troops of baby ducklings to walk through.

      Generally speaking, the prison authorities discourage feeding the wildlife around cell blocks because breadcrumbs and other food waste does encourage rats and mice. Cockcroaches are another major problem in the nick. Lots of older prisons are infested with them, particularly the lower floors at HMP Pentonville in London, or so I'm told by other cons who've been there.

  2. If someone is going to 'lower' themselves to 'screwboy' level to get a single pad then why wouldn't they ask to be put on Rule 45?

    Talking of which, you mentioned ex-screws & police etc end up on Rule 45, do you think 'time' on the rules go easier or harder for a prisoner, in other words, is their punishment easier or harder?

    1. Thanks for your questions. Screw-boys exist in every single prison and on every wing, otherwise there would be no orderlies or red bands. Not all get a single pad automatically. Being perceived as a screw-boy in itself would not be a reason to apply to go on the Numbers, unless he was suspected of grassing, of course. Once on Rule 45 (or a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit) they would be useless as red bands or orderlies as they need to be able to circulate around an establishment and VPU residents can't do those sort of jobs in most nicks because of their status.

      Not all ex-screws and bent coppers end up on the Numbers, although I gather most do. As I understand it, these decisions aren't usually taken by the con himself, but by the security department, based on perceived risk. In part, it also depends on how much publicity there has been over the case.

      It's difficult for me to judge whether Rules 45 status massively impacts on how they serve their sentence, but I guess that there is less chance they will be targeted. The ex-screws and cops in D-cats are in with all other prisoners anyway, but just tend to keep a very low profile and don't mix much. What I have seen is how the screws seem to give them a harder time, particularly if they are ex-screws who have crossed the line by smuggling drugs or mobiles into prisons.

      I do recall a case of an ex-copper in a D-cat being given a really hard time by one of the governor grades who told him to his face that he was "a disgrace" and should spent the rest of his life reflecting on how he'd had shamed his family and thrown away his career. The bloke had only put in an application for Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to go down to town!

    2. I spent some of my time inside with a disgraced former PCSO. When he first arrived on the wing I felt a natural instinct to be hostile to him simply because he was involved with the police service.

      It turned out that he was a really personable chap and we got on really well. A copper in prison is not going to make friends easily! He did get lots of hateful comments from fellow cons and a particularly nasty screw told him he'd brought shame on his profession. That's nothing untrue but something you really don't want to hear just after conviction and a very unprofessional thing for any screw to say.

      I've also known former screws inside. I would've expected some sort of allegiance but it was quite the opposite. Serving screws made their lives hell - maybe to bolster their own status - maybe simply to denounce their failings. It was horrible. There is no honour between a fallen screw and his former "mates"

    3. Thanks for your comments and observations. I do get the impression that ex-screws get a much worse time in the nick than bent coppers, probably because their former colleagues fear that if they are perceived as being friendly towards a con who had once been a screw they might get 'contaminated' in some way - or maybe suspected of similar activities, so they often come down really hard.

      Also, ex-screws can't really stand up for themselves even though they know all the rules and security procedures. For this reason they are considered to be a potential threat to good order and discipline.

      Another factor is that they are very unlikely to be sent to a jail near their home area because they probably knew most of the screws from those nicks. Obviously, they can't be sent to a jail where they ever worked either. As I mentioned in my previous post, no-one likes a bent screw!