|Jay: "Friend... Football Friend!"|
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|
‘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|
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|
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).
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!