Friday, 12 December 2014

On the Wrong Side of the Door

One of the most common phrases that anyone who is a serving prisoner hears on a daily basis is “Behind your doors!”. It’s an order from a member of staff to go back to your cell and close your own door, locking yourself in – effectively becoming your own compliant gaoler. 

Behind your doors!
Since there isn’t a handle on the inside of the cell door, once the bolt is sprung, it can only be opened from the outside. After you’ve ‘banged up’ (closed your door), a screw will come along the landing checking that the door is locked and opening the viewing flap to peer through into the cell to ensure that the right number of cons are present and correct for the roll.

There is something very final about the sound that the heavy lock makes as it seals you into your pad (cell). Once you’ve heard it, whether in a police cell or in the nick, you’ll never forget it. 

The clunk made when you shut a cell door is a very different sound to the other common noise inside a prison and that is the loud clang when barred metal gates are shut by members of staff. These gates are at the end of every wing in a closed prison, as well as dividing various walkways and sections. Crossing from one side of a jail to another can involve frequent stops and starts as cons have to wait for each gate to be unlocked and then relocked by staff.

Keys are a potent symbol in prisons, as well as a stark reminder of the vast gulf between those who have them (the screws and other staff) and those who don’t (the cons). Even civilian staff wear leather belts with keys and chains (a security measure to guard against cons grabbing them).

The power of the keys
Today, I was reflecting on just how powerless a prisoner in a closed nick is simply because he or she is the one who doesn’t have a bunch of keys – or the freedom of movement they provide. They are, quite literally, on the wrong side of the door.

This evening there is one extra con on a wing of some Cat-B local, possibly down in the induction wing, or even lying on his bunk in a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU) reflecting on how roles have been reversed. This prisoner, Scott Chapman, used to be a prison officer. Now, like all the other cons in whichever nick he is in tonight, he is essentially a number. While all staff and prisoners do have ID cards, they are very different and now he has the ‘wrong’ type hanging on a bootlace round his neck – and he is on the wrong side of the door.

Mr Chapman, who has just been sent down on a sentence of three and a half ‘sheets’ (years) has been found guilty of selling stories about a prisoner who was in his care to the now defunct News of the World tabloid newspaper. In this case, the tittle-tattle was about Jon Venables, one of the two kids who killed little James Bulger back in 1993. On their own, the stories seem not to have had much meat to them, just bits of information about what was perceived to have been special treatment that Mr Venables (now known by another name) was supposed to be receiving when he was recalled to prison in 2010.

The late, unlamented News of the Screws
Although Mr Chapman claimed in court that he felt these stories were in the public interest, the fact that he’d pocketed a cool £40,000 from various tabloids including the News of the World, The Sun, The Sunday Mirror and The Daily Star did tend to undermine his attempt to justify his conduct. He was accordingly convicted by a jury last month of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and sentenced this week. A former News of the World hack received a six-month suspended prison sentence in respect of the same offence.

I’ve posted previously on this blog about how stories get leaked – often for cash – from inside prisons: Telling Tales out of Jail. Sometimes the culprits are fellow cons, but screws and civilian prison staff occasionally get prosecuted for selling stories about famous or notorious prisoners. Now Mr Chapman is paying the price for his activities.

All prisoners are potentially vulnerable to this sort of information leaking, although it’s obviously the well-known or infamous who are most liable to have confidential details about themselves plastered over the tabloids. The practice is particularly harmful because it can severely undermine what very limited trust exists between uniformed staff and cons. Which prisoners would ever talk to their wing officers about personal problems if they suspected that such sensitive discussions could be sold for cash and published? Jails are rich breeding grounds for paranoia and activities such as those Mr Chapman profited from simply fuel this distrust.

Paranoia thrives behind bars
Now he has been sent down I doubt that he will get any sympathy or favours from his former colleagues in the Prison Service. During the trial, the head of security at the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), Adrian Scott, explained in evidence how leaking confidential information about prisoners risked creating “security and order issues” inside prisons. 

Although for his own safety Mr Chapman won’t be sent to any establishment where he formerly served as an officer, his situation for the next 21 months (unless he qualifies for early release on Home Detention Curfew or ‘tag’) isn’t likely to be enviable. As his barrister pleaded in mitigation during sentencing, he fears being scalded with boiling water and sugar (‘jugging’, as it is usually called), or being slashed with prison-issue razors melted into plastic brush handles (‘striping’). This evidently didn’t carry much weight with the judge, Mr Justice Wide, as he imposed a pretty stiff prison sentence.

Prison-made 'shanks'
Having met a couple of disgraced former screws when I was in a Cat-D (open) prison, I actually think that it’s unlikely Mr Chapman will get either ‘jugged’ or ‘striped’. While he’s in closed conditions, he’ll almost certainly serve his sentence on a VPU with other vulnerable prisoners, including sex offenders, former police officers, dead-beat drug debtors and cons suspected of being ‘grasses’ (informers). I doubt there will be much congenial company for a former screw, but if he has any sense he’ll keep his head down and avoid getting into any trouble. This may mean that he has to spend 23 hours banged up on the wrong side of his door, but such is life.

I suppose that he will also find his former colleagues less than supportive. If there’s one thing that most prison officers despise more than ordinary cons, it’s a bent screw who has been sent down. This sort of thing gives the uniform a bad name. They also won’t want to be seen doing him any favours or cutting him slack, so he’ll have to get used to hearing the word “no” when making requests. No doubt he’ll find all this a deeply humiliating and humbling experience.

No favours from staff
I’m sure he will be only too conscious of the complete role reversal. He’ll now be on the receiving end of procedures that no doubt he oversaw himself in his previous career. Like any other con he’ll be ordered to strip, wear grubby, ill-fitting prison clothing and to get behind his door. He’ll be body searched regularly and, above all, he will feel utterly powerless. He’s joined the ranks of those who are on the wrong side of the door and who don’t have a bunch of those all-important keys. 

Reflecting on Mr Chapman’s current situation, I’m reminded of a verse from the appropriately titled song This is Hell by Elvis Costello:  

It’s not the torment of the flames
That finally sees your flesh corrupted
It's the small humiliations that your memory piles up.

And I suspect that he will experience those “small humiliations” pretty much every single day of his sentence, at least until he finally gets to an open prison where things might be a bit more relaxed. As he is lying in his bunk tonight, I imagine he’s feeling very scared and very much alone. Every prisoner has been there, but he will be in a very special circle of hell and it is of his own making.

Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I must admit that I do find myself feeling a bit sorry for him, as one human being to another. If he does get to share a cell, I hope he’ll find it’s with someone who will offer him a bit of support. Who knows, perhaps he’ll discover that there are some very decent people in prison who are willing to extend the hand of friendship – even to a disgraced screw who finds himself on the wrong side of the cell door. 


  1. I have often wondered how much is common knowledge inside about a prisoner's conviction. In Mr Chapman's case, there has been publicity, so he would find it hard to keep it a secret, but in general, do prisoners talk about why they are inside, or is there a "don't ask, don't tell" culture? Does every screw know what every con is in for?


    1. Thanks for your questions, Richard. Although there is a myth that you never ask someone what they are in prison for, in my experience the first two questions any con will ask a new arrival on the wing are: "What are you in for and how long are you doing?"

      Anyone who is a bit evasive or won't show their "deps" (court papers) is at risk of being suspected of being in for something "naughty". This doesn't just cover sexual offences, it can also include cruelty to a child, beating up an elderly person, violence against women and so on. I knew one bloke who was in for emptying the bank account of a severely disabled relative and he got an incredible amount of stick from other cons who thought his offence was really mean and nasty.

      Ex-prison officers and former police officers will always face a hard time inside. Because prisoners do get transferred around the system, they always risk being identified by a fellow con, either because they worked in another nick or, in the case of an ex-cop, because he or she arrested them previously! Of course they can try to keep their former occupation quiet, but it's not really possible in this day and age.

      Where there is some doubt about a con's story, other prisoners will ask family or friends on a visit to Google them and report back. And, of course, with so many mobile phones circulating on the wings, it's pretty easy for a determined inmate to find out what someone else is in for.

      Every screw can find out exactly what any prisoner is doing time for via the computerised p-NOMIS records. According to the Ministry of Justice, the system "contains offenders' personal details, age group, type of offence(s), type of custody (including those remanded on bail and sentenced), sentence length, prisoner movement data (internal and external), case note information, addresses of the prisoner (release, reception and curfew) and involvement in breaches of prison discipline. It also includes full details of the prisoners’ visits history, activities (both paid/unpaid work and offender rehabilitation programmes) and details of the prisoners’ financial records whilst in prison." In short, pretty much everything.

      At one Cat-B I came across a screw who actually enjoyed inciting violence between cons by spreading rumours, sometimes leaking true information from p-NOMIS, but at other times just getting a kick out of seeing a lad being given a good kicking for being a suspected 'nonce' or child beater as a result of his gossip. One of these young lads - he looked about 15, but was 21 - was beaten so badly by several other cons because of these rumours that he was completely unrecognisable afterwards... two black eyes, swollen face, missing teeth, broken ribs. Knowledge is power in prison and, sadly, a few screws choose to misuse it.

  2. Thanks as always, Alex, for a great site -----fascinating and insightful stuff, uniquely available right here.

    As I read this latest post I wondered about keys and bolts. Why bolts at all? And do all the cells in a given area have the same lock (and thus only one key required)?

    It would be possible to feel sympathy for the plight of a jailed prison officer ...but only in proportion to the extent that he was a 'decent' officer before capture. Sympathy for the right ba**ard must be harder to access, I would think.

    I mean 'decent' in terms of how much empathy he felt for prisoners when he did that work --- a little would be OK, but none at all and cruelty with it, wouldn't.

    It's surprising that 'bent' screws don't get sympathy from staff; I would have thought that they would. It's rather reassuring that they don't. (!)

    1. Thanks for your kind comments and your questions. I'm glad to learn that you are finding the blog informative!

      The question about bolts on cell doors is mainly to do with security category. Some high security cells have two bolts (top and bottom) as well as the lock, while lower security categories only have one bolt or none at all. At one Cat-B the door was locked and one bolt (the top) was used, but the bottom bolt, although present, wasn't. Of course, in a Cat-D (open) prison there are no bolts and the room doors can be opened from both sides.

      To be honest, I have no idea about the way prison keys work, although I gather that there are 'area master keys' that give wider access. I could guess that cells on each landing do have a common key, but never having got close enough to inspect a screw's keys in action, I'm really not sure. Maybe the information is even covered by the Official Secrets Act!

      It's always easier to feel sympathy for a 'decent' screw or cop who falls from grace, I suppose. In the case of Mr Chapman, I think he does deserve his sentence because what he did was both unprofessional and pretty mean... not to mention greedy since he made £40,000 in his back pocket that honest colleagues didn't get for doing the job properly.

      At the same time, I can only imagine how scared he is at the moment and I really don't like to see fellow human beings in that sort of situation. He is in prison as his punishment, not for further unofficial punishments from others - whether from staff or other cons. Another consideration is that because of his knowledge of the security systems and routines he'll probably be categorised as potentially high risk to the security of the prison. If he is even suspected of sharing any professional information with other cons he'll almost certainly end up down the Block (segregation unit) on zero privileges.

      He might not even be allowed to work, attend education or activities because of his past career, so he could face an even more miserable time inside than any 'ordinary' prisoner and, having done time myself down the Block, the thought of that doesn't give me any pleasure at all. After all, it would be very hypocritical for me to campaign for better prison conditions for all prisoners, but then enjoy the humiliation and fear of a former screw who finds the roles reversed.

      On the issue of support from staff, I think they will be keen to show that Mr Chapman won't be getting any favour or preferential treatment at all. If anything, he'll be treated worse than your average con by the screws. As I mention in my post, he'll need to keep his head low. Any attempt to get 'matey' with wing staff will probably result in a very public and crushing put-down designed to show him exactly what his new status is, maybe even repeated disciplinary 'write-ups' (negative reports) or even nickings (charges) and severe punishments. He really is in a whole world of crap and I just hope he is strong enough not to self-harm or worse.

  3. The bolt of a lock is the big block of metal that moves out of the lock and goes in the door frame - you can't see one in any of the photos above.

    I understand that the details of how the key systems work is interesting, but unfortunately I doubt you'll get many people willing to say anything about it in public, in case they end up on the wrong side too!

    1. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. I'm actually quite surprised that the Prison Service allowed the few photos that do exist of cell doors with keys in action to be taken in the first place! I also suspect that most prison staff, former or current, are far too discreet to provide information about a prison's security systems.

  4. Quite often after evening association we'd hear a casual "come on lads, behind your doors" to pick up the stragglers. We rarely needed to be told because we know the routine and more often than not were behind our doors before screws came along to bang us up for the night.

    Only on a couple of occasions I heard a desperate screw shout "BEHIND YOUR DOORS, NOW" This was terrifying because it meant to some degree or another a disturbance was happening on the wing. Understandably staff get as many inmates out of the way of any disturbance as quickly as possible. Of course, not being involved in the incident you would have no idea what was happening or how long it might take to resolve. You could be banged up for just 5 minutes or for the rest of the night.

  5. I have to say I think it should be obligatory for any new prison officer to spend at least 48 hours being treated as a prisoner i.e. locked up, forced to wear prison clothes, eating prison crap that masquerades as food etc. How on earth can they possibly do their job properly unless they have experienced first hand what it is like to be a prisoner? It might prompt some of them to be a lot nicer to the people in their charge for a start. Not to mention giving them a taste of what will happen to them if they decide to go bent.

    As for the bent screws well HMPS is riddled with them. Downview's nickname was always known as Brownview because of the ease with which anyone could get drugs in there. The way the stuff got in was mainly through the staff and we all knew which officers were bringing the shit in too. Ditto with mobile phones. Then there was the infamous period of time back in 2010 when the screws and governors were engaged in wholesale sexual abuse of prisoners. We had an SO of many years employment with HMPS finally done for importing drugs and other contraband into the jail not that long before the jail closed. We were just all surprised at the length of time it took the powers that be to cotton on to what this woman was doing and report her for it because we all knew what was going on so it would have been impossible for colleagues and management not to as well. We had a governor who was an alcoholic who stank of booze most of the time which raises very interesting questions about the decisions she made during her time. This is just one prison in the period of a few years and it was hardly the exception to the rule. I find it incredible how staff are not searched on a regular basis except in the high security estate thus allowing the free flow of contraband into prisons on a daily basis. Yet interestingly the MoJ always blames the prisoners for any contraband discovered hence the book ban etc.

  6. I read this with interest.

    I served time with an ex police officer. She was targeted by prisoners and staff alike.

    She survived, she kept her head down, she helped where she could, she showed everyone she was more than a job. There were of lot of people who wouldn't speak to her, but there were a lot that didn't care.

    I know female prisons are probably totally different to male. But I hope he finds someone, to talk to, to help him get through it. To survive fairly intact.

    Just I I would any person in prison.

    He's more than just a job. More than just a prisoner.

  7. I am Scott Chapman and reading this made me laugh, you know nothing about me or my times in prism, and before I was a prison officer I had already served time. So to pre judge me is wrong and if you wanted to know what life was like both sides of the metaphorical bars all you had to do was ask.