Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things to do in Segregation

For those who haven’t spent any time inside as a guest of Her Majesty, the segregation unit – otherwise known as ‘the Block’ – is a kind of prison within a prison. Prisoners refer to being ‘down the Block’, although it’s also called ‘the Seg’.

It’s a separate unit inside a prison where cons get sent for extra punishment over and beyond the usual, although a few prisoners do get sent there for their own protection – often if they’ve run up substantial drug debts or are suspected of ‘grassing’ (informing) on other cons. Usually, however, prisoners get sent to Seg as a result of being found guilty of a disciplinary offence, for which they might get 14 days or 28 days in solitary.

Typical seg cell down the Block
Life down the Block can be pretty austere. No rented TV, no personal possessions to speak of. You get to wear dirty old prison kit (usually the oldest, most stained specimens available) and you get a coarse prison towel. Unless it’s actually a ‘strip-cell’ in which case you are kept naked, but with an anti-suicide blanket you can wrap round yourself. 

The bed is either a solid concrete slab with a very thin mattress on it (if you don’t have back pain when you arrive down the Block, you will have by the time you leave), or in the older type of Seg it can be a metal-framed single bunk bolted to the floor. In fact, pretty much everything in the segregation unit is fixed to the wall or the floor in order to prevent irate cons from either throwing anything at staff or trying to barricade themselves in.

Metal bed in Seg
Windows can’t usually be opened, but are fixed units with a small grill to one side that can be opened for fresh air using a knob. However, some of these window mechanisms aren’t working – so either the cold air blows through in winter, or it’s jammed shut in the heat of the summer. Either way, the environment can be pretty grim. After all, what’s the point of having a prison within a prison if it isn’t made even nastier than a normal jail cell?

Although Block cells vary in design, most have some form of table fixed to the floor and wall, a similarly fixed bench to sit on, a stainless steel sink and WC and… that’s about it, folks. Apparently they used to make you roll up the mattress during the day and leave it outside the door to discourage cons from lying on their beds. This practice seems to have stopped (or at least it didn’t happen to me when I was in the Seg).

In theory, you are supposed to be able to request the loan of a radio. However, I’ve never, ever been in a prison where such an item is available. Perhaps those cons who already own one can ask to have it with them. I never had one, so just went without. 

Plastic mug
During my stay in the Block I was allowed the following personal possessions: a cheap wrist watch (mainly because I think the Seg screws forgot to confiscate it), my reading glasses with plastic lenses, one paperback book and a toothbrush (prison issue). I also had the usual plastic prison-issue mug, plate and bowl, plus plastic knife, fork and spoon. Add in a towel, some toothpaste and half a bar of prison soap and that was the lot. Absolutely nothing else other than bedding.

Meals were served on the floor. Literally. You had to stand back from the door as soon as a screw opened it. Then place your empty utensils on the floor by the door. They were then collected by a fellow con who had the enviable job of ‘Seg orderly’ while the two officers on duty watched you like a hawk. Next a tray with food (no choices down the Block other than like it or lump it) and two slices of dry bread was placed in the same place, along with a plastic flask containing hot water – enough to make three mugs of prison tea. When ordered to do so, you stepped forward, bent over and picked these things up, then stepped back. The door was slammed, locked and bolted. 

During the course of the day, three people would invariably come and look in your cell. One was a medic, another was from the chaplaincy team and the third was a governor grade. Occasionally the senior officer responsible for the Block would also check up on you. That was the extent of the human contact permitted.

View from the Block yard
Exercise consisted of being allowed to walk on your own around an entirely enclosed concrete yard with high walls on all four sides topped with rolls of razor wire and what I later discovered were anti-helicopter nets, just in case any of us were sufficiently well-connected to have associates willing to fly over and rescue us, James Bond-style. Every move was monitored by two screws and by CCTV cameras mounted on high poles around the yard.

So what else is there to do in the Seg unit? Well, I was lucky because I was permitted to have a paperback book – actually the Collected Short Stories of US writer John Cheever – so I kept myself going by reading. I deliberately rationed myself to a set number of short stories each day, just in case I ran out. If I had, then there would have been no chance of getting a visit to the prison library to borrow a different book.

John Cheever: short stories
Another activity was to pace out the cell in each direction. My cell was around 8 feet by 10 feet, so I paced it out a couple of hundred times each day. I also did some rudimentary exercises (sit-ups, press-ups etc).    

What struck me most about being down the Block was the almost total lack of human interaction. Prison staff would simply ask “Any complaints?”, although the chaplains usually managed at least to enquire how we were doing. We weren’t allowed to speak to the Seg orderly and although we could hear that there were other prisoners held in the Block, we never actually saw them. Sometimes you did hear cons screaming or shouting, but the screws quickly put a stop to any disturbances. At least it was usually pretty quiet down the Block.

I’m very fortunate that I don’t get claustrophobic. For any con who is, a normal cell must be torture, but a Seg cell must be their very worst nightmare. While I was down there I often heard the alarm sounding because one of my unseen fellow residents had managed to smuggle in a razor blade and cut his wrists, arms or neck. For this reason, razors are forbidden in Block cells. Instead they are issued each morning as you are locked in the shower cubicle and are then collected by the member of staff who also stands and watches as you wash. Self-harm or suicide is always a constant problem in the Seg unit. 

I was lucky in that I only did a week in the Block when I first went into prison. However, I visited most of the Seg units in the prisons I was held in while working as an Insider (peer mentor) or when acting as a ‘McKenzie Friend’ (a lay legal advisor to prisoners facing governor’s adjudications). In the latter cases I used to spend most of a day locked in a Block cell together with my ‘client’ – the con on a disciplinary charge. At least then I had someone to talk to which was a considerable improvement on being in solitary confinement.

It’s well documented that extended periods of isolation have a negative impact on mental and physical health. Some prisoners in UK prisons experience solitary confinement for months or even years resulting in the inevitable deterioration of their minds. 

HMP Bronzefield: criticised by HM Inspectorate
One of the most notorious cases in England was at HMP Bronzefield, a women’s prison in Surrey. HM Inspectorate of Prisons discovered that a female prisoner had spent over five years in the Seg. As Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick observed in his report: “We were dismayed that the woman who had already been in the segregation unit for three years in 2010 was still there in 2013. Her cell was unkempt and squalid and she seldom left it.” He went on to state that “her prolonged location on the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment − and we use these words advisedly.” 

A few other prisoners have spent 20 years or more in similar conditions down the Block. All pretty shocking in 21st century Britain, especially when the British government is so quick to criticise human rights violations elsewhere in the world. Perhaps we should sort out our own backyard first.

I’m not sure how I would have been able to cope if I had served my entire sentence down the Block. Although I’m pretty strong-minded and haven’t lived with any form of mental illness, I’m certain that extended solitary confinement would have impacted on my personality, perhaps even led me to consider self-harm or suicide. 

However, for those prisoners who are already vulnerable, or suffering from mental health problems, or have addictions, a stint down the Block could prove to be a life or death situation, especially when healthcare resources and staffing are at critical levels in many prisons. In such cases, perhaps the best we can hope for is that they actually survive the experience. Sadly, some don’t.


  1. I suffer from mental health n don't leave house much. Even TV n reading gets dull after day in day out. So I sleep a lot. But isolation n no conversation is cruel. I sometimes go weeks not speaking to anyone n stay in bed for 3 4 days. It ain't no fun I assure u. I'd kill myself in seg for sure . No books to or people I'd sleep as much as I could but then my depression would get worse. I had 2 overdose s in past due to depression. That guy in USA did 40 yrs in solitary n his mate still there. They played chess n exercised to keep going. I ain't that strong mentally I'm afraid. This govt love kicking the ill n poor. I hate conservatives. Vas

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this important issue, Vas. You are quite right when you mention sleeping all day. Quite a few prisoners who are in the Seg do try to sleep through it, although this is discouraged by the staff.

      It is also very easy to become disorientated down the Block. You start to lose track of the days, especially as there's no TV and usually no radio or newspapers. I know one lad who actually cut a mark on his arm each morning so he'd know how many days he'd been in the Seg unit. At the end he had 14 marks when he was finally moved back onto the wing. There's no doubt that solitary confinement does impact negatively on mental health, even when people are pretty strong.

  2. Great post however , I was wondering if you could write
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    could elaborate a little bit more. Bless you!

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  3. I visit a seg in a larege and very busy inner city cat b prison on a regular basis and I just dont recognise a lot of your comments. the seg i visit is certainly quiet, and prisoners in seg are on basic so no tv, no radios but access to phone calls books & newspapers are all provided, meals are a choice from teh daily menu. it is not pleasant but the seg where i go is used positively as means to address violent and reckless behaviour by those inmates who do not comply

    as you well know with around 5 officers to manage up to 180 inmates on a wing without a significant level of cooperation on both sides whole prson wings would need to be run as segregation units,

    for me this article comes over as not fairly balanced at all

    1. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion. I think that it's important to recognise that no two prisons are ever exactly the same, so Blocks (or 'Care and Separation Units') are also likely to differ. I can only comment on those I have been in or have visited. However, I can state very definitely that while I was in Seg I was never offered a meal menu, books, a newspaper or access to a payphone. The number of official visits was just as I describe it above.

      What I would point to, however, are the criticisms made of the use of segregation units in reports issued by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons. While some Segs are being run professionally, a number clearly are not. In some cases the Inspectors have identified units where use of force is not documented (as is legally required) or where unauthorised regimes are in operation or unlawful punishments are meted out. Because prisoners who are isolated can be particularly vulnerable, these are all important concerns.

      I'm interested in your comments concerning the "positive" use of the Block "as a means to address violent and reckless behaviour" by prisoners. How many of these inmates are living with mental health conditions that are not being addressed? In many cases solitary confinement can make existing mental health problems worse, particularly where an individual is awaiting transfer to a secure psychiatric unit but this is being delayed because of a shortage of places. Often, our understaffed establishments are not equipped or resourced to address these issues, but I very much doubt that any qualified mental health professional would advocate the use of the Block as a surrogate psychiatric ward.

      On the issue of cooperation between inmates and staff, I would whole-heartedly agree with your point. In fact, one of my previous blog posts (Running Prisons with Consent - 28 July 2014) addressed this.

      That is one of the reasons that the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system has played a significant role in undermining this tacit understanding between prisoners and staff. Even the Prison Governors' Association has warned that what has been imposed by Chris Grayling for purely party political motives threatens to undermine the "legitimacy" of the prison disciplinary system. With overcrowding, protests by prisoners, violent incidents and other forms of disorder on the increase, I'm afraid that the era of cooperation by the majority may be coming to an end. I just hope that no-one gets killed as a result.

    2. As someone in the mental health field whose recently worked in several prisons I can state categorically that prisoners with mental health issues are cared for far more inside than they typically are on the outside.

      Mention to your Dr outside that you're feeling down, depressed, thinking of or have self harmed (in any way) and you might walk out with a prescription for anti-depressants or an appointment with someone like me in a few weeks. Do the same in prison and an ACCT document will be opened, you'll be checked on regularly, you'll see someone from Healthcare within 24 hours and you'll be monitored & helped as much as possible.

      Trust me, if I was going to have a mental health problem, I'd rather be in a prison, at least to start with.

    3. Thanks for your contribution. I suppose it's all a question of degree of awfulness! I do agree that mental health provision in the community is grim - one of my family members has been waiting two years for a specialist referral and that's after a hospital admission!

      On the other hand, I'm afraid that my own first-hand experiences are somewhat different to your own. Of course, no two prisons are the same but as I've mentioned in previous blogs, I've been in establishments where I helped prisoners with severe mental health problems write applications to see the mental health team. It could take two weeks for a response. One reply simply said "I regret to inform you that you don't currently meet the criteria for a mental health appointment." The prisoner concerned then slashed his wrists and got seen immediately after he had been stitched up in Healthcare. Crude, but seemingly effective.

      In fact, this is not just my own experience. Recent reports by HM Inspectorate of Prisons suggests that in some establishments, such as HMP Hewell, prisoners are resorting to self-harm as a means of accessing "basic amenities". And as for the ACCT system, reports from both HMIP and Prisons and Probation Ombudsman have highlighted the problems of running it effectively in the light of current staff shortages.

    4. I think Alex has described the conditions in many 'Seg units' around the country perfectly.
      I have spent time 5 different blocks up and down the country and was given nothing like meal choices, phone calls, access to reading material, etc.
      There were often excuses as to why the staff were unable to let you have an exercise period or a shower.
      I certainly not saying that all prison staff are bad - far from it. However, it is the 'Seg units' that tend to end up with the 'bully boy' staff.
      I will never forget the routine of the daily visits mentioned by Alex.
      One screw walks in front and cracks open the cell door, the Governor appears and says "Is everything ok? Are you well?" and before you have even had a chance to answer the Governor has moved on and your door has been slammed by the screw bringing up the rear! Very much a comedy moment if you made it a scene in Porridge!

    5. Thanks for sharing your own experiences of Seg. I only spent time living in one Block cell myself (although I've been locked in others for a day when acting as a McKenzie Friend to fellow prisoners! Some were worse than others Lincoln's old Seg was particularly grim and I've spent a fair few days behind those doors during other people's adjudications.

      The daily rounds by governors and staff were little more than a tick box exercise. I found most Seg officers were stern, but fair as long as you kept your head down. However, there were some who did like a rumble if the chance presented itself!

  4. Like I said I suffer from really poor mental health. Sat in a small concrete box all day with nothing to do or stimulate the brain is soul destroying. Alex is right I'm afraid and I am of the opposite thought I advocate violence by prisoners to get better treatment regime changes etc. Because nothing changes otherwise. Conservative government needs a good kicking. I say more protests in all jails in uk. Smash n burn everything til change occurs. It will cos conservatives r greedy n riots cost money. Vas

    1. Thanks for your comments, Vas. The problem with violence in prisons is that it is almost always the most vulnerable who tend to get injured or even killed during riots - and generally those who die are cons. I'm afraid that the situation is getting so bad in some prisons that the real question is when the trouble will start, rather than if.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Alex, your comment is so sadly true. Anon-I can't fault your logic and I am no pacifist. However, what frightens the Establishment is ordinary people organising together and showing each other solidarity.
      I don't believe Screws are all fascist boot boys or, as some maintain, just *Workers in uniform*. The Government puts them there to give us a battering and to take the occasional battering themselves. They might be in the way but they are not the real enemy. Always remember that.
      I wish you well and that your health issues are resolved and that you have a happy and peaceful life on release. Stay safe.

  5. I spent some time in seg in Albany and parkhurst last year. Prison wouldn't move me to winchester quickly enough (Albany is the local remand now for the iow) so I pretty much volunteered to go down there (via smashing up). Bunch of nutters down there, though I'm not surprised really, it's pretty dire having to listen to a bunch of rapists talking to each other. I personally recommend getting some of those yellow foam ear plugs off the canteen asap.

    1. Oh and I got moved from Albany to parkhurst in a little truck for going a little wild in their seg. Turns out Albany is much quieter, but possibly less pedophiles in parkhurst.

    2. Thanks for sharing your own recent experiences of Seg. I'm interested to know whether you reckon my descriptions in the post above are basically accurate, based on your own time in the Block?

      The IOW cluster prisons always seem to have been something of a law unto themselves... maybe it's the island mentality! One governor was had up in the High Court for running his own unlawful version of the IEP system a few years ago!

      And the famous yellow foam earplugs from the canteen - 99p, if I remember right! They were a great investment, especially if you had a pad-mate who snores like a freight train or noisy YOs/YPs on the same wing or the next houseblock! Happy days...

    3. Hi a family member of mine is in seg at the moment, he does not want to go back to a normal wing and is refusing to go.
      He has therfore been put on a 14 day report and had his use of phonecalls taking off him and is not allowed his ppc.
      Is this not against his human rights?

    4. Thanks for your question. I do believe that denying access to a PIN phone could be a breach of prison rules.

      Certainly, when I spent some time myself in the Block I was asked whether I wanted to make a phone call every day during governor's rounds. I would recommend that when the governor grade or chaplaincy team member calls in each day he makes a request to have access to a telephone. Even if he doesn't currently have PIN credit, he can make a request for a compassionate call to family on emergency credit or an office phone under supervision. I hope that information helps.

  6. Hi there could you tell me what rule 95. In segregation means? i have continuosly tried to find out and im getting no where? Thank you.

    1. Rule 95 (Prisons & Young Offenders Institutions (Scotland) Rules 2011
      - Where the Governor may order that a prisoner must be removed from association
      with other prisoners when it is appropriate for one of the following reasons:
      (a) Maintaining good order and discipline
      (b) Protecting the interests of any prisoner
      (c) Ensuring the safety of other persons

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  8. No criticism intended, Alex, but the conditions in my Block episode were.....just think of the Monty Python sketch here.
    The picture of the pristine plastic mug confused me as mine (originally white) had names/graffiti scored into the outside. Each gouge was full of grime which was impossible to get off. I will never forget *YOZZER*, whoever he was, and the cartoon of a giant penis (presumably his).
    We (or I) were not allowed anything in the Block, no books-no nothing. The only luxury I had was my pyjamas which I had not worn until I encountered the freezing dungeon which was my pad for <14 days (got out a few days early as they needed the space for a real hard man).
    We had to leave our bedroll outside where I discovered later was my box of precious books secreted in an alcove.
    Eventually, I was granted the privilege of an A-Level maths paper which, ironically, these days students from my native area are sent to other Education Authorities to study. The paper was like manna from heaven.
    My personal Screw, Mr Xmas (I kid you not), told me that I was not to beaten but broken psychologically. The Chinese claim to give Worker dissidents a beating then let them off with a warning but detain *intellectuals* and subject them to psychological abuse. As a lad who left school at 14, maybe they did it to me for fun. After returning from the underworld, Mr Xmas used to often ask me questions such as this one I recall, *What is a Polytechnic?* or *What was the name of that Lord (Belper) who was caught riding the prostitute with a horsewhip
    You read Social(sic) Worker*.
    I used to request cleaning materials 2/3 times a day and clean my pad and polish the floor. One fine day,Governor Grade told me he knew why I was engaging in this activity but would I, please, desist. Once a day would be OK. Now here is a man who deals with the quotidian *counter manipulation of malingerers*.
    Not the book I read but might be the same ideas. Cite it just to prove it does exist!
    In conclusion: I was not treated as a hero, I lost my cushy job but my Comrade Cons acknowledged I had not broken by not beating me or throwing scalding hot water in my face. Happy days!

  9. What a fantastically written entry, and very informative. My dad is a night guard at a prison, and he is pretty well liked. But I have seen him when he comes home from a night on the seg. It hurts his soul to see people like that, I am sure. Of course, some of them deserve it if, for example, they decide to smash up their room and flood an entire floor in the hopes of getting a new cell like a spoiled brat. However to live in those conditions long term surely amounts to a cruel and unusual punishment, making it illegal?

    All I can say is that you clearly made the best out of a bad situation and for that reason you are an inspiration to us all.

  10. Thanks for the insight. I am currently in the US but have struggled to get some insight on this subject. I do agree completely with what was mentioned, Alex. Use of extended seg for inmates is a terrorizing means of justifying the need.
    As for the anonymous who had very little insight to offer on this subject, is clearly not seeing things as a whole, in my opinion. I would like to see him subjected to a prison for mental health assistance. That is just naive and ignorance speaking - if I may say so, myself.
    Cheers and thanks. Enjoyed the read and insight.