Prison

Prison

Friday, 10 October 2014

Prison Myths: the Showers

Whether it is in prison-themed films, or TV dramas set in the nick, at least some of the action – usually violent – will involve the showers. In fact, prison showers and assaults, whether physical or sexual, seem to have become almost synonymous in the popular imagination. 

Leslie Nielsen in the prison showers
There are the all-too predictable scenes in classics such as The Shawshank Redemption and Midnight Express, as well as in comedies such as Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult where comedian Leslie Nielsen appears in the jail showers wearing a massive steel chastity belt. No episode of the late 1990s US prison drama Oz was complete without the obligatory shots of cons in the showers. 

Little has changed. The most recent British offering can be seen in the brutal prison film Starred Up (2013), where the lead character, a young con played by Jack O’Connell, almost gets strangled in a revenge attack while he’s naked in the showers. No wonder jail ablutions have such a bad reputation.

In fact, despite all the usual ‘don’t drop the soap’ jokes, you are much more likely to catch a nasty foot infection in the average nick showers than to be the victim of an assault. Generally speaking, prison washing facilities are pretty filthy places and not areas that you’d really want to hang around too long. 

Dropping the soap: a tired old joke
As I highlighted in my recent blog post about what to pack if you’re facing a stretch inside, plastic shower flip flops are an absolute must, not least because in those facilities that actually have curtains, the cubicles can be used by those inmates who share cells and feel the need for – let’s put this politely – some personal time alone, if you catch my drift. Unfortunately, cleaning up afterwards is not always a priority.

A surprisingly large number of younger lads are also habitual body-shavers, for reasons I don’t fully understand myself, although I suspect it’s something to do with male vanity and the cult of body-building in the gym. It’s not uncommon to see cons shaving themselves, including their unmentionables, in the sinks or shower stalls without cleaning up afterwards. Not wishing to wade through their furry detritus, I much preferred to wear flip flops while under the shower.

A friend of mine who is still in a Cat-B recently got a coveted wing job cleaning the showers for the princely sum of £10 a week. Although he is over the moon to have actually managed to get paid work – no easy feat in some nicks these days – he gives me regular updates during his phone calls. 

Grubby showers: a common problem
As he points out, the state of the wing showers sometimes has to be seen to be believed. Even though rubbish bins are provided in the blocks, some cons seem to feel that it’s perfectly normal to leave used razors, empty shower gel containers or other litter lying about in the shower trays. I’ll spare readers his vivid descriptions of having to unblock the plugholes after a busy evening on the wing. 

I’ve experienced the showers in six different nicks, as well as on various wings and in the Block (segregation unit). They range from the very basic – a large wet-room with four shower pipes and absolutely no privacy of any kind (not even a curtain) to new-fangled stainless steel stalls which would put most local rugby clubs to shame.

A few nicks still have the old traditional-style baths, often in cubicles with half-doors (or no door at all), although some of these have been disconnected in order to save money on the water rates – and no doubt to cut back on the need to pay wing cleaners to scrub off the inevitable tide marks. A few prisons do provide proper baths for older prisoners or those with medical conditions, but these tend to be kept locked when not in use.

Prison showers also lack taps and operate on timed push-buttons. This means that, assuming there is a strong flow of warm water, the average shower will necessitate the pressing of the button every minute or so. When I was on home leave from my Cat-D (open prison) and I had my first shower at home after several years away, I kept thinking that the water would suddenly stop until I’d pushed the button again. You just get programmed to keep pressing without giving it much thought.

Definitely not clean
Sometimes cons can behave like disturbed kids. Others are living with serious mental health problems, so the showers and WCs can occasionally have human waste daubed on the walls, especially if the cleaner isn’t too popular. 

In fact, since cleaning up contaminated areas has to be done by specially trained ‘hazardous waste’ cleaners, this chore can attract an attractive cash bonus in some nicks. As a mate of mine who is what is called a qualified ‘industrial cleaner’ once remarked with a big grin: “The ‘phantom shower-shitters’ can do it every day if they like, because I get paid a tenner a time!” Bearing in mind that £10 is a good weekly wage in most nicks, I took his point.

Of course, prison showers – especially the completely open plan variety – can be pretty traumatic for people who’ve not been away from home before, or who feel very self-conscious about their bodies. For those of my generation who are more accustomed to school showers and bathing communally in all-male environments such as the armed services or local sports clubs, prison showers are really no big deal. In fact, I quite enjoyed going in there with a couple of mates in the evenings or after a heavy session in the gym and just chatting as we stood under the showers. 

Old-style football club: prison is better
If I remember rightly, I felt far more exposed to begin with at my London rugby club, which back in the 1990s boasted an ancient concrete wet-room and a massive tiled bath dating back 50 years, than I even did in the nick. But that’s just me, and probably most of the other Army lads, so I do appreciate the problems and anxieties that prison showers can cause for others.

As I’ve mentioned before in my responses to readers’ comments, I recall one really timid young lad aged about 18 – but looking more like he was 16 – who was on remand at my first Cat-B jail. Having no doubt seen prison films and dramas on TV he was too scared (and embarrassed) to even take a shower at all because he was terrified he’d be raped in what was a big wet-room with no dividers or stalls. After a week or more of shower dodging he really stank. You could even smell him as he wandered down the wing.

Rather than let him get punished by the wing staff – failure to keep yourself clean can be a disciplinary offence under the Prison Rules – two of us who were working as peer mentors marched him down the wing to the washroom when the room was empty and stood guard at the door like bouncers while he took his first prison shower. Eventually he started accompanying one or other of us when we took showers and this broke the ice. Once he realised he was actually safe from physical assaults and had got over his bashfulness at showering communally with other blokes, most of whom were a lot bigger and hairier than he was, the problem disappeared.

Shower caps strictly optional
Nevertheless, it has to be noted that some very nasty physical assaults do take place in what old-school cons tend to call the ‘recess’ (from the days of ‘slopping out’ (emptying) cell chamber pots and buckets in the era before in-cell WCs). The washrooms are sometimes chosen as venues for grudge fights between cons –  ‘settlers’ as they are often called. This is mainly because the wing screws are usually too busy elsewhere to be able to monitor what is going on in every recess on a larger wing, particularly in view of the current staffing crisis across the prison estate. Showers and washrooms are among the few places where inmates can get some privacy during association periods.

There can also be some bullying and the showers can be the place that debtors or suspected grasses get taken to receive their punishment, which is usually a good beating with or without a bit of optional ‘water-boarding’ during which an offending con’s head can be plunged into what is likely to be an unflushed bog. Prison can be a bit like a school from hell on occasions, just populated by bigger and nastier bullies.

Prison showers with half-doors
On the whole, however, I’ve never really experienced any problems in prison showers myself, although I have witnessed a fair few nasty incidents, including a defaulting drug debtor who was taking a shower being dragged out of the stall naked by three aggrieved fellow cons wearing heavy work boots who proceeded to give him a very good kicking on the shower-room floor as a not-so-gentle warning to sort his debts out. A fourth prisoner was keeping watch outside the door in case an inquisitive screw should wander by. 

At least the wing cleaner was well chuffed by these events. I seem to recall that he got paid £20 for mopping up the blood from the floor.

33 comments:

  1. I know a few Muslim men who shave their underarms and unmentionables for religious reasons, they trim their beard and leave their chest and leg hair to flourish

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Sure, that is indeed a Muslim tradition and two of the 'acts of fitrah' (customs of nature). However, in my experience Muslim men are extremely modest in their behaviour and don't expose themselves when carrying out these traditional acts.

      On the other hand, many of the British and other non-Muslim lads in prison are pretty shameless when it comes to 'manscaping' even their private parts! A few prison shower blocks even have notices warning about cleaning up after a big shaving session... which a fair few seem to believe mistakenly is part of the wing cleaners' duties, rather than their own obligation to fellow cons.

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    2. I agree, Muslim men are modest.

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  2. Is the wing cleaner's job for a fixed length of time, or for as long as he is doing a good job?

    Peter.

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    1. Thanks for your question, Peter. Many prison jobs - especially those that will get a prisoner out of the cell during the day - are highly sought after. The popular misconception is that most cons are lazy and would prefer to lie on their bunks all day. However, in reality earning even a small prison wage is essential for most inmates, so getting a good job - cleaner, wing painter, laundry orderly etc - is prized.

      If any worker is doing a good job, then the chances are he'll get to keep it while he's in that prison. Unfortunately, if he is transferred to another nick, then he is likely to start again from the bottom, unless he knows staff or other cons at the new prison who can pull a few strings.

      Cleaners are expected to get qualifications from the British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICSc) and those who have the certificates, especially those for industrial cleaning - kitchens, deep cleaning of carpets, blood spills, dealing with contaminated or hazardous waste - can usually get a job much quicker. Some nicks have a team of industrial cleaners who work at night to completely clean the kitchens while they are closed. This sort of work - sometimes overnight - can be quite well paid, so any con with the right qualifications and experience will be competing and jobs can be very scarce inside prison at the moment.

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  3. Is there a shower block near the gym or do you need to return to your wing for a shower?

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    1. Thanks for your question. Every prison gym I've used always had a shower block attached to the changing room. However, in some nicks prisoners preferred to use their own wing showers so they could pick up toiletries and their own towels, dressing gowns etc from their cells.

      Of course, much also depends of the timing of the gym sessions. If these clash with wing association in the afternoons or evenings then you'd have to shower in the gym because there wouldn't be time when you were escorted back onto the wing just before bang-up.

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  4. You mentioned you had experience of six prisons. Why so many?

    Peter.

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    1. Thanks for your question, Peter. A combination of 'overcrowding drafts' - where prisoners are moved around for 'operational reasons' (ie vacancies in other nicks of the same security category or higher), getting 'ghosted' - transferred without notice as revenge for helping fellow cons with their internal adjudications - and three changes of my security category from B-cat to C-cat and then to D-cat!

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  5. The prison service needs ti change. We need education and work inside or I predict riots. But cons got no loyalty to each other. Something needs ti be done. But how. Vas

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Vas. Sure, I agree with you (obviously!) I think that the Prison Service needs to get a lot more professional, but that will only come when working conditions are improved and there are enough staff to keep nicks running.

      At the moment, it's mainly the shortage of wing screws that is undermining opportunities for work and education. If cons can't get unlocked or escorted, then it's basically a 23-hour lockdown and that is why tensions are running high. Look at HMP Swaleside.

      You are also right about the lack of loyalty among cons these days. Very few people want to put their heads above the parapet because they are scared. Lifers and IPPs who demonstrate any independence of mind or comment negatively about the system are at risk of being banged up years beyond their tariffs.

      The movement for prison reform needs to be a coalition between prisoners, ex-cons, progressive HMPS staff and concerned professionals and members of the public. A broad base is essential to raise the debate in the media and to give reasoned arguments about why our current prison system is failing and doesn't reduce reoffending, or support rehabilitation.

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  6. What really annoys me about the "prison shower soap" comments is the undertones that it's acceptable for prisoners to be sexually assaulted/raped that go along with them.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Ally. It is a very tired, old 'joke'... but still very popular among cons, I have to confess.

      In fact, in my experience it's not the prison showers that people need to be worried about, it's the almost complete lack of official interest and concern when sexual assaults, including rape, do occur. These are not everyday events, but they do happen and the Prison Service often fails the victim by kicking the incident into the long grass in the hope that it will just go away. Sometimes this approach can have tragic results, like those men who've committed suicide after they've been assaulted.

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    2. Does the "soap joke" apply to the armed forces too?

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    3. Thanks for your question. I've not heard it in the same way, but the Army is full of similar sorts of humour, or at least it was back in the day. No idea now in this age of political correctness.

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  7. I reckon Pistorius will go to jail and remain in the VPU for his own safety.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I think South African jails are very different to our own, not least because of the prevalence of infectious diseases, such as HIV and TB. It's going to be interesting to see what happens when he's sentenced. In my opinion, he certainly wouldn't stand a chance of getting anything other than a custodial sentence in the UK. I read in the media today that if he does go down then he'll probably serve his sentence on a prison hospital wing.

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    2. I read his prosthetic legs will be removed in jail/hospital wing

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    3. I've no idea what the South African prison system does in these cases. I do know a lad who was in an English nick and he definitely kept his prosthetic leg throughout his sentence. He just slept on the bottom bunk.

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    4. I was correct about Pistorius going to jail - well done me!

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    5. Let's see whether there will be an appeal. If his trial had taken place in Italy (for example) an appeal process can take years before the convicted person gets anywhere near the slammer!

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    6. His uncle said he will not appeal, he probably will serve less than 10 months tho.

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  8. Hi Alex,

    Another question from me is the wearing of boxer shorts in the "open bay" type showers (i.e. without any screening)

    Is this common?

    I've been reading as many prison blogs as I can, and one such blog does mention it as a common occurrence http://disgracedbanker.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/a-new-day/#comments

    As a Jewish man it goes against my religious faith and I don't use my own communal showers at the council-run gym for the same reason.

    However, in prison I realise I might not have a choice so have already mentally prepared myself to shower naked with other men, should I have to but would be interested to hear your views on this.

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    1. Hi Tommy, thanks for your question. A fair number of Muslim lads do this, so I can't see that it would be any problem for a Jewish lad to do the same on religious grounds. I'll ask my Jewish mate from the nick, Dan, how he coped with it and get back to you. He's not very religious, though so it may not have bothered him.

      On the other hand, the open 'wet-room' style of showers tended to only be in the gym changing rooms. I was only in one Cat-B nick that had these on the wing as well. Three prisons I was in had proper cubicles (two of those with shower curtains as well), one had a stainless steel half-door arrangement, so you may find that things aren't too bad, depending on which nicks you end up in (assuming you do get sent down).

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  9. Interesting blog. When my son went to prison I was torn between terror about him using the showers and him being filthy and stinking. He couldn't use it anyway as he had one leg broken and in a cast. I didn't like to ask him what the showers were like but when I plucked up the courage he said it was ok and had cubicles.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Sandra and for sharing your son's experience. It does very much depend on the individual prison. Some have decent, modern facilities, others are truly horrendous. Apparently, in a few prisons the Enhanced wings have in-cell facilities, en-suite including a shower. Unfortunately, I never managed to get to one of these, although the washrooms at my Cat-D (open prison) weren't bad at all. In the end, you can get used to pretty much anything after a while.

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  10. Thank you for the reply Alex. I must admit the end of your post freaked me out a bit when I first read it this morning. Then I did some gardening, always helps, and realised a beating like you saw could just as easily happen in a pub toilet. All this is scary stuff for relatives - I suppose because it's the stuff we can't see.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Sandra. To be honest, there really isn't that much completely random violence in our prisons. You are quite right about the risk of being attacked in a pub or just walking down the road.

      Some years ago I went to court to support a close friend (a young solicitor) who had been out for a social night with his friends in Clapham and who had been the victim of a horrendous attack by three random, drunk thugs who slashed his face and neck with a broken bottle because they claimed he "looked at them" disrespectfully on the pavement outside a nightclub. He nearly died and required reconstructive surgery, leaving terrible scars. The attack was entirely random and unforeseen - which made it so much more terrifying.

      At least in prison, violence is almost always revenge or a 'punishment' for something specific: drugs, debt, stealing, informing on someone. As I always advise anyone facing a prison sentence, if they steer clear of drugs and debt (and grassing), then the chances of being attacked are much lower than it is late on a Saturday night in many city centres.

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  11. Interesting subject. When showering are you left alone or do the wing staff supervise?

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    1. Generally speaking, unless you are on suicide watch, shower rooms aren't closely supervised by staff. That's why fights and attacks take place there, where staff won't be watching.

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  12. Aren't prisoners supposed to do jobs? like laundry or maybe, i don't know, clean showers?

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    1. In theory, yes. Convicted prisoners are supposed to work or do education course if available. However, many prisons are now so overcrowded that there simply aren't enough jobs or classroom places to go round. Another problem is staff shortages. Some prisons are so short of staff that even cleaners only get to clean wings or showers occasionally. There is also often a lack of cleaning materials, disinfectant etc. Dire, but true.

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  13. Hi what is the best way to avoid bullying inside?

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