Prison

Prison

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Friend… Prison Friend!

Anyone who has seen the British TV comedy The Inbetweeners will no doubt recall the scene in which the other lads tease Jay over his newly introduced friend from West Ham Football Club: “Oh friend… Football friend!” Predictably, the joke doesn’t end well and eventually Jay loses it completely, trashing his football friend’s parked car. Ouch!

Jay: "Friend... Football Friend!"
I was reminded of this comedy gold when I read a recent blog post by serving prisoner Adam Mac entitled Pen Pals. Now when I first saw the title of his post I imagined that he would be writing about people who write to cons, a topic I’ve also blogged on (see here). However, the subject on Adam’s Blogging Behind Bars post about was actually much more to do with the odd social relationships that often develop in prison between prisoners.

The term ‘pen pal’ – which I’ve not heard used in jails in this context before reading Adam’s post – is said to come from the US prison system and is actually slang for ‘penitentiary pal’. Like much of what passes as inmate culture in British nicks – including saggy jogging bottoms that show way too much underwear – this seems to have been adopted by cons over here, at least in some prisons.

Adam Mac's excellent blog
I’ll let Adam explain for himself the precise meaning:

‘Pen Pals’ are those people who, in prison, you consider to be good mates, but who, if you’re honest, you wouldn’t associate with at all on the outside. Not necessarily because you think bad of them at all, but just because you are from different worlds altogether.

How right he is – as usual. I think Adam is a keen and acute observer of prison life and the fact that he continues to blog from inside the high security estate offers a rare and important window into his world.

The subject of ‘pen pals’ – or prison friends – is one on which I’ve touched before in my previous blog post entitled Homosociality: Why Prison Mates Matter. However, although I’ve referred occasionally to staying in touch with a few people I’d met inside, I’ve not really explored the issue of the social mixing that goes on every day in our prisons and it is an important topic when you are banged up on a wing with hundreds of other blokes, all of whom are usually complete strangers.

You can meet people from all walks of life in the slammer and, as Adam points out, a fair proportion of those aren’t likely to be from the sort of circles of mates with whom you’d normally associate back in the community. That isn’t only about value judgements on the type of people they are or their lifestyles, but because in our everyday lives we tend to have fairly narrow friendship groups which are either based on extended family relationships or people we’ve met through the years in our education system, at work or through shared interests such as sport or hobbies.

Adult male friendships: well defined
By the time we reach mature adulthood, our social circles are often pretty well-defined and it can be hard to introduce a new face into well-established groups (no matter what Facebook and other social media would have us believe). Of course, it can and does happen, but it’s probably rarer than most people would think.

One of the most important things about both family relationships and well-established social friendships is shared history. Relationships are built over time and involve common experiences and memories – good and bad – and these provide topics for the often mundane conversations that are the glue that hold these social relationship together. That’s why it can be so challenging for a newcomer to break into long-established friendship groups. Maybe that’s why the “football friend” scene in the Inbetweeners hit the target so precisely.

In contrast, prison is all about disrupting family relationships and social ties. There is the enforced separation, the high walls, the barriers to communication (travel costs for visits, expensive wing payphones, no internet access, having to buy stamps etc) and this can lead to the long loneliness of life inside the nick. Even when you are surrounded by fellow cons on the wing landing, you can feel completely isolated and alone in an alien environment.

Prison: an alien environment
People cope with being in prison in different ways. Some retreat into themselves and become – as far as they can – distant from other inmates, often banging themselves up in their cells and not speaking much or associating on the wings. Others do mix, but remain very wary and defensive, seeing the other men around them as potentially hostile and threatening (which some may well be). However, in my experience it is possible to make good, solid friendships with other cons – even those you’d never think of associating with on the out.

To be honest, my social and professional circle prior to getting sent down did not include – to my knowledge – any armed robbers, drug smugglers or murderers. If it did then they haven’t yet been caught! I suppose my ‘known criminal associates’ were limited to one mate who got done for drunk and disorderly on a London bridge and received a fine, and another friend who was caught embezzling over a million quid from his employers some years ago and who ended up with a fairly lengthy stretch, mostly spent playing chess at HMP Ford, an open nick. I did actually write to him occasionally while he was inside and we’re still in touch now, 15 years on.

Of course, I’m sure plenty of my casual acquaintances or work colleagues are concealing motoring offences or youthful indiscretions – usually involving recreational drugs or alcohol in some form – but I think you get the general picture. Prior to prison, I really didn’t know any real villains (although I did once get to meet the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in a professional capacity, but that’s a story for another time).

Armed robbery
Now, a couple of my mates are former armed robbers. I also correspond with the occasional murderer or retired drug smuggler and I know the odd struck-off solicitor, sticky-fingered accountant or ex-bank manager. They are a part of my social circle and I genuinely like them. Having served time together we have shared history and a wide network of acquaintances in common, all related to our time in the nick. However, I can state pretty certainly that had I not been sent down, I would never have met any of these blokes, not least because we are all from different towns or cities.

Our relationships obviously aren’t as close as – say – people I’ve known since school or university, but then those friendships have already stood the test of time over decades. Would I have them round to my house? Yes, even the ex-armed blaggers or one or two of the killers I’ve met and got to know and like. Naturally. It helps that we are all pretty well-educated and articulate. I suppose we are also ‘people people’ if that makes sense. We enjoy good company and lively discussion, which is probably why we were drawn to spend time with each other in jail.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from my time in prison is that snap judgements about others can often be wide of the mark. People commit crimes for a wide range of often very complex reasons. Some have made terrible decisions, others awful mistakes – often leading to horrendous consequences for others, as well as for their own families. That, in itself, does not make them inherently evil, although it must be stated that prisons are full of some extremely dangerous and disturbed individuals. I doubt I’d really want to invite some of them back home.

So, it is true. I do have some ‘prison friends’ and their friendship remains important to me even though I’ve been out for some months. A few are still inside serving life or other indeterminate sentences or else very long stretches. Whether we’ll still be in touch ten years down the road is impossible to say, but I hope so. In their own ways, each of them played an important part in me getting through my years in the slammer relatively unscathed, both mentally and physically. Thank you, lads – you know who are are!

19 comments:

  1. Yugoslav? You are showing your age, Alex haha

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    1. I know. Mind you, Milosevic was president of Yugoslavia at the time. Later he became president of Serbia when it all went pear-shaped!

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    2. Great post, as usual Alex. Personally I would have drawn the line at Milosevic.

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    3. Thanks for your kind comment, Matthew. To be honest, he was one of the most dull people I've ever met. A real Communist-era apparatchik - he was a state banker by profession - and totally without charm or charisma. His wife, Mira, was another story. She was as crazy as a box of frogs.

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    4. Did you ever stand in the same room as Radovan Karodzic?

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    5. Thanks for your question. No, I'm glad to say that I never had the 'pleasure' of meeting Dr Karadžić, although I'm told by some of those who have that he is better company than Mr Milosevic was.

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    6. I wondered whether you would refer to him as a Doctor...of Psychiatry - you did!

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    7. I think that Dr Karadžić confirmed the prejudices of many concerning psychiatry as one of the black arts!

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    8. Regarding Mira Milocevic, i'd be as crazy as a box of frogs if my father had betrayed me to the Gestapo!

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    9. Mira Marković (she never used her husband's name - it's not common in the Balkans to do so) is definitely an odd person. Both she and Mr Milosevic came from very dysfunctional family backgrounds, so perhaps you are right about the impact that might have had on her ideology and behaviour.

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    10. Good, well spotted!

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  2. I guess you concentrate on the person and not the crime in Prison.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that you obviously have to be cautious when dealing with people in prison, mainly because some of them can be very unpredictable. I once shared a cell with a very intelligent former college lecturer who responded to stress or disappointment by smashing up the pad! Very stressful for everyone else.

      On the other hand, many guys inside are perfectly normal other than having broken the law in the past. I very much doubt that these men will reoffend once released, so I tended to take them as I found them.

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  3. Alex what did u do before prison. I know it's top secret n that vas

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    1. Thanks for your question, Vas. Immediately before I was sent down I worked in the security sector, but prior to that I'd been an academic and author - which is what I'm doing again now, only I've added blogging to my CV!

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  4. Prison friends may be in a different age group to your real life friends, that is why you wouldnt associate with them in the real world.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. That is probably a factor, although since the average age of cons is going up, I did find that the majority of my mates in prison were around my own age +/-5 years or so. Maybe it's different for much younger lads.

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  5. Excellent post!!! I have learnt many things form here. I have also website where you can ivsit and pass your leasure time. In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit. To get more information, visit here……………
    friend

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    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you found the post interesting and informative.

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