Sunday, 16 November 2014

Beautiful People… in Prison

A post with this sort of title might seem strange, particularly over a weekend during which the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has promised to introduce tougher penalties for prisoners who assault staff. Of course, as anyone who knows anything about prisons will be aware, this belated attempt to deal with the rising number of violent incidents inside our crisis-ridden jails is nothing more than a bit of window-dressing by embattled Justice Secretary Chris Grayling who is so completely out of his depth it is now a national source of embarrassment. 

Does he really give two hoots?
The latest move won’t convince anybody – screw or con – that Mr Grayling really gives a damn about what is going on in our nicks while he is in charge. However, it does seem that the rising tsunami of public criticism – from just about every direction, including the Daily Telegraph – is goading him to act tough at a time when tensions inside our prisons are reaching boiling point, mainly as a direct consequence of his mismanagement. 

To be honest, prisons are full of people who tend to make bad choices (and not only the cons, for that matter). They also accommodate a fair number of men who have serious anger management problems. When current chronic frontline staff shortages result in such people being locked behind their doors for up to 23 hours a day, the result of cancelled work, education, gym sessions and even healthcare appointments, then it is unsurprising that volatile blokes kick off. I’m actually amazed it doesn’t happen more often.

Being fair, working as a screw isn’t a job I’d choose personally. It sometimes mystifies me why some of the decent officers I’ve got to know well have made what is a very strange career decision to spend their own working lives behind bars – often serving more time in the slammer than your average murderer. Of course, they do get to go home at the end of their shifts, but it’s still a pretty grim environment, especially at the moment when everyone’s morale is at rock bottom.

Working behind bars
I wouldn’t fancy telling some very large bloke with a very short fuse that he isn’t getting out of his pad (cell) because of staff shortages, or that his medical appointment has been cancelled at the last minute… or even – and this is the killer – that family visits have been called off. That’s usually when you hear the baying for blood and the sound of breaking glass on wings.

Funnily enough, some years ago when I was a university student one of my fellow ‘inmates’ was none other than our own Mike Spurr, currently the head of the dysfunctional National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which is supposed to be running our prison service. As the current crisis gathers pace, I sometimes wonder whether he ever regrets his choice of career.

Back then, when he still had a serious acne problem and a very unfashionable haircut, Mike and I used to play darts together in our tiny college bar and, over a few pints of 80/- real ale at 50p a pop, I did my best to convince him that going into prison management as a graduate trainee wasn’t the brightest thing he could do with his life. Of course, he didn’t listen and look where he is now... sitting on top of the NOMS volcano.

Mike: regretting his career choice?
Since I gather that Mike does follow this blog from time to time, it would be interesting to know if he remembers our little chats in that smoky, pokey little bar in the basement just before we embarked on our respective career paths. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into one another at some conference on penal reform and laugh about how things have turned out, although I doubt it.

Having painted such a grim picture… of prisons, rather than college bars… it may come as a surprise to read that in my experience there are some very decent people serving time in our jails. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I believe that some of these blokes are innocent and have been wrongly convicted, while plenty of others are guilty as charged but have genuine remorse about the impact upon others of the crimes they have committed and want to change for the better.

I chose this title for my blog post after having had time to do some reading during this period following my father’s death, but before his funeral. The famous American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – best known for her analysis of the various stages of grief following a bereavement – once made some observations that I find both interesting and thought-provoking. 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
She wrote: "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have know defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."

Funnily enough, I was immediately reminded of some of the people I’ve met in prison who fall into that category of Kübler-Ross’ ‘beautiful people’. There are men who have lost everything that they could conceivably lose – family, home, careers, good name, reputation – and yet they still manage to find time to listen to the problems of others. Some volunteer to work as Listeners (Samaritan-trained peer support), others as Insiders (peer mentors), while some don’t take on formal roles, but are just there when you need them.

When you are a prisoner – no matter what the offence or sentence – sometimes you really need a kind word, a friendly smile or a good mate in whom you can confide without fearing that your particular problem or anxiety will be all over the wing before tea-time. In my experience, every prison wing has at least a few of these folk. Without them, prison truly would be a much darker and more dismal place.

Comforting others
The prison experience can affect people in different ways. Some are completely broken and destroyed by the impact of incarceration, but others seem to find themselves in a way that might mystify outsiders. They grow as human beings and turn their own experiences of loss and rejection into an inner strength that not only enables them to survive a spell in the slammer with their own humanity intact, but they can also find sufficient inner reserves to offer support to others who are less able to cope. 

I well recall an incident at a Cat-D (open) nick when a female member of staff was attacked from behind in the dark in a car park within the perimeter. She was quite badly injured, but it was a con who saw what had happened and chased off the attacker, before protecting her, while another raised the alarm and got medical help. Her status as a member of staff was irrelevant to those prisoners. They acted instinctively to help someone who was terrified and had been injured – with humanity.

I genuinely believe that this sense of concern for humanity is one of the reasons that daily life in our prisons during the current crisis is able to continue without a degeneration into widespread violence and an explosion of frustration. Of course, I can’t predict how long the present situation can endure before individual establishments reach breaking point and control is lost, but at a time when resources inside prisons are very scarce, it’s often the unseen support that prisoners offer each other that is preventing the rising rates of suicide and self-harm from rocketing much higher.

When you have a few decent, level-headed cons on a wing, the atmosphere can be more positive. Experienced screws know this and a fair few do appreciate the invisible support and counselling networks that develop among the prisoners, not least because these can go some way to reducing the number of violent incidents, including self-harm. Although levels of violence inside the nick are getting worse, fuelled by tensions caused shortages of staff, believe me the situation could easily be far more volatile if it weren’t for those influential cons who are doing their best to keep a lid on the boiling pressure cooker.

So when you next read in the media that there has been some terrible act of violence in one or other of our prisons – whether against staff or fellow inmates – it might be well to reflect on the fact that the overwhelming majority of cons weren’t involved. The Daily Mail and its ilk love to portray all prisoners as evil, worthless, violent monsters. They never mention those who are called on to use their humanity and skills to pick up the pieces in Chris Grayling’s increasingly dysfunctional prison nightmare, often showing much greater humanity and real concern for others than he ever could.   


  1. St Chad's College, Durham University!

    1. Busted! Yes, indeed. What an irony for both Mike and me.

  2. Thanks, Alex, you've brought into focus one of the things I have always appreciated about working in prisons: despite all the grimness, you still see quite a lot of the good things the human race has to offer.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ben. I think that sometimes people who have no direct experience of prison life always imagine that it is a terrible experience to be locked up. However, as with life in general, it depends largely upon the people around you. I've personally witnessed amazing acts of altruism and kindness by men inside jails and it's these that tend to stay in the mind.

      Human beings can be very resilient and the aim should be to do more than survive. I am a devoted admirer of Primo Levi and his books about his experience of surviving the Holocaust and he makes similar observations about how heroic some people can be even in the most terrible situations. In my opinion, being capable of caring about others is the key to overcoming almost any adversity.

    2. I agree entirely. Not that I want to make light of what can be a dysfunctional, weird, damaging system, but I've often thought of working in prison as a privilege, for the dignified way I see people doing positive things with their lives even in those straitened circumstances. A group of men I talked to in one of the A cats we work in looked surprised when I said that to them a few weeks ago, but there it is. If only the rest of 'us' on the outside were able to feel rather more open-minded about the possibility of change.

      I love Primo Levi too. You might also enjoy Viktor Frankl's writings about his experiences as a survivor, too.

    3. It's interesting that you use the word 'privilege' because I used it myself when I was still in prison and corresponding with one of the UK's best known criminologists. As a social anthropologist, I found myself with very privileged access to prisons and experienced everything - even the segregation unit - in a way that was participatory, rather than observational. For an anthropologist whose research interests include parallel social structures, going to prison has opened up fresh fields for investigation! A number of my colleagues in academia understand exactly what I mean by privileged access... especially when NOMS and the MOJ block their access to prisons when they are working on prison issues.

      Thanks for the recommendation for Viktor Frankl. I think I have a book by him somewhere at home. I must look it out.

  3. Fantastic piece and I couldn't agree more! My mum is serving a long determinate sentence, my best friend is a lifer and My dad is IPP prisoner at HMP Frankland, and they all comment on how bad things are getting but all three have an amazing amount of positivity and optimism almost to the point of lunacy at times. My dad in particular is a peer mentor, the actual teacher sits at the back of the class and gets on with paperwork, within a couple of weeks of him teaching a group of lads literacy, he's had other officers from the various wings where these lads live, come up and thank him for his hard work during his classes as they have noticed a positive change in some of the lads. The teaching body who supports education within Prisons (Manchester College or Uni I think) have even decided to incorporate some of my dads own teaching methods within their framework. Its amazing what can happen when someone invests time in others and the good it can bring out in them esp in such grey places like prisons. There are more beautiful people in prison than out of prison I know that for sure!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments. I'm delighted to hear that your dad is making productive use of his time to help others. It sounds as if your dad is doing a similar job to the one I did in the prison education departments at two prisons. At one Cat-B two of us ran the classes, while the civilian tutor sat at the back after he had taken the attendance register. He often used to read his newspaper or even doze off!

      Because we were so short of resources at one Cat-C I wrote four short reading books with exercises to help lads improve their literacy. These were all about prison issues, so they were more relevant to their actual experience and I gather these books are still in use within the education department.

      It is amazing how much can be achieved, even with limited resources, when you have a few people - prisoners or staff - with a bit of commitment and energy. Many inmates are looking for positive role models, so it sounds like your dad is doing a great job.

    2. My dad is Cat A and also currently classed as H.S. The lessons have just been cut down to mornings only, which my dad was quite upset and annoyed at as he felt he was really getting somewhere with the lads, I think he gets just as much out of teaching the lessons as the lads do. The thought of how much worse things could get is scary!
      I'm due to attend the Longford lecture later this month, the lecture will be given by Nils Öberg, director of Sweden's prison service and how Sweden is closing prisons and reducing the prison population and I'm most definitely looking forward to it. Being an ex Longford Trust Scholar I have a huge amount of time for them and the whole Longford Team, I always find their lectures enjoyable but I just wished they would have someone giving an insight on the British system in some way, shape or form, esp in such tough times all thanks to the delightful Mr Grayling.
      yep my dad often reports of the teacher reading his newspaper, one that really got me though, was this particular teacher a couple months ago was put forward for some teacher of the year award!
      Looking forward to reading more of your articles! :-)

    3. Thanks for your comments. I'm always pleased to get contributions from prisoners' families and friends. As we always said when we were inside, it's the family outside who also serves the sentence.

      Thanks for flagging up the Longford Lecture. I'll try to find the text once it's been delivered. I'm very interested in the Scandinavian system and why it seems to be much more effective when it comes to reducing reoffending. All too often, Britain lectures the rest of the world on human rights issues, but fails to put its own house in order!

  4. i have to agree with so much you say in this post, esp on the support some prisoners offer to others on the wings, at the least it gets people by, but frquently the support tackles issues of confidence and I am sure reduces self harm and tension levels.

    one point adding to tensions you dont mention is the number of prisoners convicted who due to lock outs end up many miles from home, this results in less visits esp where young children are concerned, and it is proving very difficult to get prisoners back to jails nearer home. i regularlry see prisoners form out of area, and they can be very isolated when on a wing where they have no mates.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I do think that the 'invisible' support networks that exist on most wings are often underestimated compared to the more visible Listeners and Insiders, although many wing staff do recognise the positive benefits.

      I definitely agree with the issue of placing prisoners far from their families, especially when there are young children or elderly or very ill family members involved. This does create hardship for families (even those who can apply for help under the Assisted Visits Scheme), as well as driving up stress levels and tensions among prisoners. Sadly, with the current overcrowding and recent prison closures, I don't see any evidence that this situation will improve anytime soon.

  5. Inspiring words as ever, Alex. It has struck me when reading a couple of prison diaries, how easy it would have been for ex prisoners to just walk away, and get on with their lives. So many people working hard on the outside to raise awareness of prison problems now it has been a real comfort to me. Personally, as a prisoner mum, I have drawn some surprising and positive lessons about the good in people. Eg, when I visited my son it was his new friend, an ex prisoner, who helped with my transport, tissues, and looked after my handbag and phone while I went in.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Sandra. I think that those of us who have the ability to communicate about prison issues to the wider community do have a responsibility to support those who are still inside. I agree that sometimes it would be easier just to move on, but if those years we have spent inside aren't to be wasted, then I believe that working towards positive change - both in prison conditions and for real and effective rehabilitation - is a worthy aim.

      Whether we like it or not, having been a prisoner - or being a close family member or friend of a person who has served a prison sentence - does leave an indelible 'mark' on us. We are all changed in some way, sometimes obviously, at other times subtly. Turning that into a positive thing is, for me, the best way of dealing with the situation we all find ourselves in. And kindness is very rarely completely without some impact on others, as well as on ourselves.