Monday, 15 December 2014

Did Prison Make Me a Better Person?

In addition to posting on this blog, I also maintain a Twitter account as many readers will be aware. I tweet and retweet about prison issues, the criminal justice system and human rights.

Occasionally, I get asked questions via Twitter that are really difficult to answer, especially in 140 characters or less. It seems that not that many people know anyone who has been a prisoner, so they are keen to take an opportunity to find out more about the prison system and the effects incarceration can have on inmates. Even some of those who work in the criminal justice system sometimes ask me for my opinions on subjects that concern them. On occasion, it’s about getting a view from ‘the other side of the cell door’ and I do my best to give honest answers.

Recently I was asked – for the first time – whether I felt that having been in prison had made me a better person. Now that was a very difficult one. I’ll admit that I really had to take some time to think it through before I gave my answer, which was “yes” – although not for the reasons that might have been expected.

In my own case, there are several reasons that I believe prison did make me a better person. The first of those is that I had a chance to re-evaluate my entire life and the direction that my career had been going. I did a fair amount of re-evaluation while I was sitting in a high security cell down the Block (segregation unit), but it that was just the start of a process that has continued for several years. 

Prison toothbrush
I quickly realised that I actually didn’t need all the trappings that a successful career can bring. When the entire range of possessions at your disposal in the Block consists of a cheap wristwatch, a pair of reading glasses, a paperback book and a prison toothbrush, you can suddenly see all the rest in its proper perspective. Strange as it may sound, I am grateful for the opportunity I had to reflect following what amounted to a very radical de-cluttering. Possessions can be nice to have, but very few of them are actually essential.

Another key issue for me is that I rediscovered the skill of listening to other people. I came to realise that this was something I had forgotten during what had been a very intensive period spent getting to the top in my chosen career. Back then I rarely listened to colleagues or to others on my staff. I had become opinionated and was often impatient with other people. I had so little free time that I suppose I’d come to resent spending any of it dealing with other peoples’ concerns and problems.

Relearning the ability to listen
In prison, however, I found that listening to others is not only a very valuable skill, but it can quite literally be a life-saving service for vulnerable fellow cons who are in deep distress. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about that side of the job when I applied to be an Insider (peer mentor). However, having trained as a counsellor early on in my career, I suddenly found that prisoners wanted to speak to me about their problems and actually valued my advice and support. That, in itself, helped me to regain a sense of balance while I was serving my own prison sentence.

I also had to confront the fact that I hadn’t been a very nice person during the previous few years. Arrogance is never an attractive character trait and learning some real humility – the hard way – in prison certainly didn’t do me any harm. The experience has made me a different person and, I hope, a nicer one.

Being arrogant when you are in the slammer can be a very risky business. Screws hate arrogant cons and some will actively seek ways to put them in their place, whether by ‘nicking’ (charging) them for disciplinary offences, by giving them negative write-ups – putting critical comments on a con’s individual file – or by blocking requests and applications.

Arrogance is dangerous
Being arrogant to fellow cons can be even more dangerous. A perceived insult or slight – often referred to as ‘mugging’ someone off – can lead to violence, particularly when someone has poor anger management skills. In prison, it usually pays to be polite.

So, based on the above, I think it is clear that prison has made me a better person. But did I get rehabilitated? That’s a difficult question, particularly as I still have an appeal against conviction ongoing. However, on balance, my answer would be no, but then I never saw myself as needing to be rehabilitated in the first place.

It’s a funny word, rehabilitation. Not least because it’s one of those odd terms that is regularly used, but very rarely defined. And therein lies the problem. Without a clear definition of any word, it can mean something – or nothing.

It’s also complicated because the term is often used in a medical context, whether the condition being treated is physical or mental. As ‘rehab’ it refers to support to recover from an addiction (something that there isn’t much of inside the nick these days). Then again, in the Soviet Union it meant the quashing of a conviction – often posthumously – of those convicted for political offences during the Stalinist era.

Taken at its most basic level, rehabilitation can be defined as preparation for reintegration back into society of a person who has been convicted of a criminal offence. Of course, they don’t necessarily need to have been sentenced to a custodial term, but it can equally apply to someone who has been given a community penalty, or even a fine.

The whole question of rehabilitation should be central to the whole debate over our prison system. Can imprisonment reform and rehabilitate? Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog will probably know that my personal view is that any real pretence of achieving rehabilitation while cons are inside has been abandoned in recent years, even if it still exists on paper. 

Not much rehabilitation here
During a recent online debate on the subject of deteriorating conditions in our prisons, one of the contributors suggested that deprivation and poor living conditions should be “what prison is all about” because it might deter prisoners from committing further offences and getting sent down again. In my reply I pointed out that if this theory was correct, then there would be far fewer repeat offenders in our jails.

My own view is that treating people inhumanely or brutally has never made anyone a better person. Indeed, given the terrible childhoods that some prisoners have already experienced – including years of physical, mental and often sexual abuse – it seems pretty obvious to me that brutality and violence are often learned behaviours that can have disastrous consequences in later life. The key issue is whether these can be ‘unlearned’, whether in prison or in the community and, if so, how? 

Mistreatment and abuse simply seems to reinforce these undesirable personality traits, particularly when a person already has very low self-esteem. Making daily life inside prisons even more grim, humiliating and miserable than it already is really doesn’t seem to work when it comes to reducing reoffending, as the very high reconviction rates appear to demonstrate. As the rising figures also show this ideological approach of being ‘tough on cons’ also appears to fuel self-harm, violence and suicide.

Kicked out of the gate...
So what does rehabilitation mean for ex-prisoners? I have deliberately avoided using the preferred criminal justice term ‘offender’ here, because I think that rehabilitation should equally apply to those who have been held unconvicted on remand, as well as victims of miscarriages of justice. In my experience, these are two specific groups that are routinely overlooked when it comes to rehabilitation. If a conviction gets quashed by the Court of Appeal, then the former prisoner is just kicked out of the prison gate with absolutely no support or assistance, even if they have already served many years in custody and have become totally institutionalised.

Writing as an ex-prisoner myself, my view is that any support that is offered to assist with the reintegration process will be welcome, both pre-release and when former prisoners are discharged back into the community. Unfortunately, major budget cuts and staff shortages within our prison system mean that resettlement outcomes across the board are often very poor, as recent reports by HM Inspectorate of Prisons have highlighted.

After prison: a struggle to get a job
This also raises the vital, and much more difficult, issue of finding gainful employment when a person has a criminal record. In reality, most of the former prisoners I know who have found legal employment are either self-employed (which requires some initial start-up capital and a range of skills to deal with the paperwork), or else they are working for family, friends or – in a small number of cases – former employers. Obviously the last option is only there for ex-prisoners who had a job prior to being sent down.

However, for a far larger number of ex-cons, there are still massive challenges to face, particularly those who have very limited education or who struggle to read and write; those who are living with mental health problem or who are still struggling with addictions, in some cases fuelled by the easy availability of a wide range of drugs (legal and illegal) inside jails. It’s these much more difficult cases – including those who will leave prison with nothing beyond a £46 grant and no-one to go home to – who will be the challenge to resettle back into the community. In far too many instances, their most likely destination will be back in court and through the ‘revolving door’ of our prisons.

As a society, we just don’t have sufficient support mechanisms in place to address their complex needs, including starting to deal with childhood abuse and all the emotional damage, including self-hatred and the destructive behaviours, that it can cause. Nor will imprisonment have addressed most mental health problems, mainly because these often go undiagnosed because of scarce resources, or dependencies on alcohol or drugs. Some of these ex-prisoners are just so alienated from society that reintegration is probably the last thing on their minds as they step out onto the pavement outside the prison gates - and that is an issue that should concern us all.


  1. I agree my mate used to b homeless when he came out. N u guessed it 3 months nicking n baking inside for 12 yrs he lived like that. Guess what. Once he got a room then a flat he never went back. Simple. Vas

    1. Thanks for your comments, Vas. Accommodation is a key priority for people being released from prison, yet there is often very little - if any - practical support unless the person is considered high enough risk to be eligible for a place in approved premises (a hostel). It's almost impossible to live rough these days without breaking some law or other, resulting in a probable recall to prison, so the vicious circle goes on and on.

  2. Hi Alex, thanks for another interesting post. I always enjoy reading the articles you write. Thank again, Sally.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Sally. I'm glad that you are finding the posts interesting.

  3. It's a very good point that you raise and also raises the question of what the point of prison is.

    I spent almost 18 months inside. Rehabilitation just didn't happen. I'm fortunate enough to be sufficiently literate to follow what was happening during my numerous appearances in court. Never once after conviction was I told how I maybe could correct the errors of my ways and be a better citizen.

    I fully understand the punishment aspect of imprisonment - denied of liberty etc etc. But as for rehabilitation I never saw anything constructive for either myself or my fellow cons.

    Tragically prisons today simply take offenders off the streets to create a brief period of time until their next crime. Re-offending rates are ridiculously high which points to a system of pointless human warehousing where absolutely no rehabilitation occurs.

    1. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with us. I fully agree that rehabilitation was never even discussed with me at any stage during my time inside. Anything vaguely constructive was almost always down to the individual prisoner making an effort to study or acquire practical skills for themselves. Sentence plans were, quite frankly, a bad joke.

      I think that our present prison system is now purely geared to providing costly human warehousing for people. Some of these will go into prison clean, but will soon develop drug habits. Others will experience deteriorating mental health with little or no professional support available. It's hardly surprising that cases of violence, self-harm and suicide are rising daily. As I've mentioned above and in previous posts, rehabilitation is effectively a dead letter in UK prisons and all the negative statistics, including the high rate for reoffending, support my view.

  4. this will be a bit random but i don't know where to put it. sorry.

    i've been thinking about you quite a bit (in the acceptable, non-creepy way) over ther last few days because i was watching citizenfour, a film of the few days in which ed snowden revealed large-scale surveillance of the public. and it brought up thoughts on whistleblowing and human rights and stuff like that. and somehow that totally tied in with your blog.

    so, i don't know whether you've seen this: it's shocking to see how much people are being crushed for making something known that the rest of the community knows just the same (i mean, surely all of snowden's colleagues had access to the same information as he?) but i wonder what drives people to ostracisye others in this way (some kind of herd instinct?).

    and so i want to read that book some time.

    and then i thought also about how difficult it is to protect yourself in these circumstances. i think that any whistleblower will always and obviously be identifiable but the agency they take on, in this case the US government, really isn't. it's a 'body' which makes it really quite scary.

    anyway, it kind of fitted with all this prison talk. i thought of assange who is essentially imprisoned in the ecuadorian embassy and the people who support them. etc etc.

    it's a bloody inspirational film, i can't stop thinking of the courage these things require.

    that is all.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Martina. It's sometimes a difficult call when you're faced with a dilemma over whether to be a whistleblower about a highly political or controversial issue. I can understand why many people make the decision to remain silent, although in my experience things that people in power want to keep quiet eventually leak out one way or another.

      It is true that the consequences can be horrendous for the individuals involved, as well as their families: loss of job and income, sometimes their home and, in the worst case situations, their freedom as well - as I well know. Despite everything, I would still make the same decision, but I can also see why many others wouldn't!

  5. thanks for blogging, sir! it is a wonderful way of learning!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you are finding the blog of interest.

  6. I agree r.e. Making you a better person. When I went in I was 23 with no direction or purpose in life. I can't say I'm doing as well in comparison to my old school friends, but at least I now have some goals and motivation. I also have a lot more respect for others and general anger management (thanks TSP)

  7. In my experience, the only rehabilitation you get in prison is the rehabilitation you undertake yourself. HMPS certainly isn't going to provide anything or if they do its some useless box ticking offender behaviour course that you will be forced to undertake to please OMU and which will have zero effect on your state of mind, way of thinking etc because its been designed by someone who has zero experience of what make people commit crime and is more than likely completely irrelevant to you and your situation.

    Prison does give you a lot of time to think and if you're sensible you use the time to do some navel gazing. After all we all have issues we need to deal with no matter where we are and its rare that daily life allows us the luxury of time to do the required navel gazing about ourselves and our flaws.

    Did prison make me a better person? I doubt it. By all accounts I was rather a decent person to begin with and continued to be a decent human being whilst in prison and now on the out.

    What prison did make me was a lot more inclined to stand up for myself, my rights and those of others. I am a lot more assertive to the dismay of my OM (usually because I am hauling her up on her many failings) though the anger is always channeled in appropriate ways and through official channels.

    Prison failed to afford me a single instance or opportunity of a way of "bettering myself". I went in well educated (3 degrees) so there was no real educational opportunities available to me in prison as the highest qualification I could do was a level 2 (having previous degrees disqualified me from doing an open university course apparently). There was also no real job training either with no female prison I was in offering me anything more challenging than dead end physical labour jobs. Any skills training was limited to cooking, cleaning or gardening and as I have never had the slightest interest in any of these role (apparently the only jobs HMPS trains women for) I was out of luck.

    All the jobs I held in prison were mind numblingly boring, have provided me with no new skills whatsoever and were simply a way to kill time and earn the equivalent of slave wages.

    The skills I do posses which could have been employed to great benefit to the prison and others whilst I was inside went to total waste because of a complete resistance of management to create programmes that would actually be of use to people trying to get a job on the outside.

    To be honest I don't know of anyone I met whilst inside who I could honestly say was rehabilitated by the experience as the MoJ allegedly intends to happen. Oh I heard numerous people blather on telling the officers and staff what they wanted to hear but you knew damn well they didn't mean a word of it and were only spouting the party line to gain brownie points.

    Prison simply doesn't work and is a colossal waste of time and money for the most part.