I’ve been asked by several readers to give my impressions of everyday prison life – what is often called ‘the regime’. Inevitably, when recalling some of the memorable events from my time in the nick, most blog posts tend to focus on things that I’ve found fascinating, troubling, puzzling or funny, or else on behaviour – whether by screws, governors or cons – that has made me feel inspired, amused, angry or sad. It’s human nature, I suppose.
|Heavily edited diaries|
I’m sure most private diaries, even of celebrities and the famous (or infamous), if published unedited, would make for very tedious, dull reading. That’s the obvious reason that almost all diaries, including those by witty or waspish writers – such as the late Conservative politician Alan Clark – have been heavily edited prior to publication.
We only get to read the really juicy, funny or scandalous bits about the diarist or other people whose names we might recognise. Otherwise, we’d all soon fall asleep or lose the will to live. Even writers like Samuel Pepys, Jeffrey Archer and Alan Clark must have had days of mind-numbing boredom. We just don’t get to read these entries.
So, imagine an existence where the very fact of getting to take a shower or actually being given the chance to visit a library were considered worthy of a written mention in your journal. Unfortunately, most days during a prison sentence are exactly that: incredibly mundane and boring. I know, because as I’m sitting here typing this post, I have a small pile of my prison diaries on my desk next to me. They have proved incredibly useful in my writing for this blog, but also serve as a stark reminder that often nothing much of note happens inside a nick.
Some entries are very brief. For example, 27 September 2012: “Laundry in morning. Worked. Lunch. Worked. Tea.” And that folks, as they say, is that!
Of course, there are other days when things got much more dramatic. Exactly two years ago today – 25 September 2012 – evening association was disrupted by one particular con cutting his wrists while he was supposed to be on suicide watch in what is sometimes called a ‘safe cell’. That is a cell which has a barred gate rather than a solid steel door.
|Cells for inmates at risk of suicide|
A wing screw has to sit on a chair outside the cell in order to observe every move made by the prisoner inside. It is an enormously costly means of monitoring one con because it involves several officers being on duty throughout a single 24-hour period. Governors and wing managers hate the practice, because it consumes scarce resources.
On this occasion, I’m not sure whether the screw had been distracted or dozed off or what, but this con – who was severely disturbed – had managed to cut his wrists with a prison razor blade. There was blood on the floor outside the cell as he’d done it right at the open bars of the gate and it was spurting all over the show.
The alarm went off, screws rushed onto the wing, we were all ordered back behind our doors, and a nurse from healthcare was summoned. The con then attacked the nurse in his cell and we could all hear the screaming and shouting. Eventually he was put under restraint and carted off for sedation, stitching up and eventual sectioning under the Mental Health Act.
However, by and large, most days in prison are eminently forgettable. I’m very glad that I kept a diary throughout my sentence because many of the incidents – even dramatic ones like that I’ve just described above – could easily have been forgotten. Even so, I’m actually quite shocked to read just how many hundreds of entries consist of just a few words that reveal how dull and uneventful life in the slammer can be, even when, like me, you have had some quite interesting jobs or things to do.
|Deserted wing: cons behind their doors|
It is quite a challenge to get over to readers who have never been inside the nick (as a con, that is) just how each day stretches into the next. In those prisons that currently have 23-hour bang-up because of frontline staff shortages, I’m sure that every single day is pretty much the same. This will also go for anyone who is retired, disabled or unemployed, even in those nicks where there isn’t an effective daily lockdown.
I entitled this post ‘the Long Littleness of Prison Life’, borrowing the phrase from the 20th century poet Frances Cornford. She used the term “unprepared for the long littleness of life” of her fellow poet Rupert Brooke to imply that he was a heroic ‘golden boy’ who was simply not equipped to deal with the uneventfulness of everyday existence. Well, a life lived in prison is definitely all about the ‘long littleness’ that those of us who have been behind bars experience.
|Empty association room: no cons|
Prison regimes – at least in closed nicks – are all about set routines. What time you are expected to be out of bed, what time cells will be unlocked, what time food will be served. There will be precise times for handing in dirty kit or putting clothes out for the laundry. If you are lucky, there might be an hour or so when you can associate with fellow prisoners, although my mates who are still inside report that this is getting rarer and rarer at the moment.
Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a prison job or to get on an education course then your weekdays might be a little more varied. You are certainly likely to get more time out of your cell during what is called the ‘core day’.
Governors like cons to be unlocked for what are called ‘activities’ – work, education, courses – because evidence of the average number of hours prisoners spend engaged in what is euphemistically called ‘purposeful activity’ is one of the statistics used by HM Inspectorate of Prisons when assessing an establishment against its so-called ‘healthy prison’ tests. These are:
• Safety: prisoners, even the most vulnerable, are held safely
• Respect: prisoners are treated with respect for their human dignity
• Purposeful activity: prisoners are able, and expected, to engage in activity that is likely to benefit them
• Resettlement: prisoners are prepared for release into the community, and helped to reduce the likelihood of reoffending
|Lockdown: more and more common|
Since safety, respect and resettlement all appear to be pretty low down the Ministry of Justice’s list of priorities these days, a bit of ‘purposeful activity’ of out cell is probably the best that can be hoped for in these days of overcrowding and understaffing. Even then, with so few opportunities to do anything meaningful in many nicks, a significant number of cons probably spend most of their days lying in their pits sleeping, reading (assuming they can get access to books) or watching daytime TV.
When stripped of any real pretence of rehabilitation, imprisonment simply becomes very expensive human warehousing in which those who are ‘stored’ can deteriorate mentally and physically. That really can be the long-lasting impact of the long littleness of prison life for many inmates.
Opportunities to take vocational courses, to make up for lost time through education or to learn new skills are being reduced or undermined by petty, vindictive and short-sighted government policies – such as restrictions on having books sent to prisoners and the removal of any education qualifications beyond level 2 (GCSE). Even when these ‘purposeful activities’ still exist, access to work, libraries and classrooms is being undermined by staff shortages that limit or prevent prisoners’ movement within jails. You can provide the best stocked libraries or education departments in the penal system, but they are all useless if cons are confined on wings because there are no staff available to escort them there, as HM Inspectorate of Prisons has been highlighting in recent reports.
I read recently a comment on prison that seemed very insightful. The writer observed that in our modern penal system, we have replaced physical punishments that were once inflicted on the bodies of criminals with the psychological punishment of the mind. It’s positively Orwellian. Forget Room 101, if you want a vision of real retribution in action in our prisons, then imagine a con watching endless repeats of the Jeremy Kyle Show – forever.