Monday, 12 January 2015

Regrets? I’ve Had a Few…

One of the recurring questions I’ve been asked about my prison experiences is the extent to which I’ve found them of value for my professional work. I was recently also asked by a serving prison governor whether I found it “painful” to recall my time inside. The answers are complex.

Better than the streets in winter?
Obviously, only a tiny minority of people really want to end up in prison. Those who do are often facing homelessness on the streets during the winter months or have become so institutionalised after years inside, sometimes on back-to-back short stretches, that being sent down through the ‘revolving door’ of the nick has become a familiar way of life.

Unlike many ex-prisoners I really don’t find my own memories of incarceration to be painful as such. Certainly, there are some recollections that cause me sadness – principally of people that I’ve known inside who have died, either by suicide or from natural causes – as well as my contacts with people whom I believe to be genuinely innocent of the crime, or crimes, for which they are being punished through imprisonment. 

A closed and secretive world
I’m also very concerned for younger and more vulnerable inmates, some of whom I feel are presently being failed by a Prison Service in deep crisis amid rising levels of suicide and self-harm among prisoners. However, from a purely personal perspective, my time inside the nick has proved to be immensely productive and interesting.

For a start, I’ve developed what I believe is a good working knowledge of the prison system, including its often obscure and convoluted bureaucratic channels and internal rules. I have also gained fascinating insights into the way in which I believe our current prison system fails to deliver on its own stated objectives, especially when it comes to rehabilitation and preparing soon-to-be released cons for stable or sustainable resettlement back into the community.

NOMS: does it really do what it says on the tin?
Being a prisoner also gave me very privileged access to what remains a closed and often very secretive world. Since my release I’ve spoken to numerous academics and researchers who have found that their work on prisons, or with serving prisoners (or even those still on licence), has been blocked or impeded by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which has to approve any applications to carry out research or interviews inside our prisons. 

Anecdotally, it seems that quite a few potentially very important investigations and studies are being obstructed. The best-known of these cases has been the blocking of access to both prisoners and ex-prisoners released on licence to researchers from the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Commission on Sex in Prison. Presumably, Chris Grayling and his sidekicks in NOMS really don’t want the general public to be aware of how much rape, other forms of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of inmates may be going on inside our jails on his watch. Having helped victims of such abuse to survive their traumatic experiences, I can well understand why Mr Grayling might feel that way. After all, it should be a national scandal.

Fortunately, despite the barriers put up by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the Commission has still managed to gather vital evidence about this issue. It will be reporting on its findings at a one-day conference: Behind closed bars: The research findings of the Commission on Sex in Prison that will be taking place in London on Tuesday 17 March (details here).

Keeping the gates firmly closed
However, I’ve spoken to other British academics who are experiencing similar problems with getting their research topics or methodologies approved by NOMS. Not all of these are as potentially sensitive as the Howard League’s Commission. One specific project that is being blocked is more to do with the internal management of offenders by prisons. Perhaps that is another ‘hot topic’ Mr Grayling isn’t keen to have outsiders probing our dysfunctional custodial system too deeply. Who knows? 

When I was a serving con, despite the bars, steel doors and high walls confining me, I was much freer to discuss relevant issues with fellow inmates than any researcher or journalist would ever be. We could chat between ourselves with no screws listening in and I found that many cons were happy – even eager – to talk about their own experiences, both prior to custody and during their sentences. 

Because prisoners are regularly moved around between prisons, I also got the chance to compare regimes in specific establishments through discussions with new arrivals from other nicks who were being ‘processed’ through inductions. As my own network of contacts developed, when I was transferred to other jails I often met people I already knew on the wings and they would update me with all the local information. 

Getting an insider's perspective
Being an Insider also gave me access to senior prison staff and governors. I think that once they had got to know me, some were relieved to have someone they could talk to about their own concerns over the direction that penal policy is going in our country. Perhaps a few of them spoke a little too freely about internal tensions between governors and NOMS than they should have with a serving con, but for me this provided a fascinating insight into the widening cracks between the Ministry, NOMS and senior operational managers.

Even visiting NOMS researchers were interested to hear from carefully selected cons – including myself – about what prisoners really thought about some of the new policy initiatives, As a result, I ended up discussing proposed changes to Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) rules, equality monitoring, safer custody policies, moves to ban smoking… even down to the rules on external paid employment for serving inmates in Cat-D prisons and what types of vehicles such cons would be permitted to use and park in the prison grounds.

While these discussions were extremely interesting as examples of how NOMS does attempt to engage with prisoners, I also had the distinct impression that most of the real decisions had already been made down in Petty France (Mr Grayling’s office in London) and that these NOMS ‘missions’ were really more about taking the temperature on the ground before rolling the new rules and policies out than listening to inmates’ ideas or suggestions.

Opening up locked doors...
Moreover, my prison experience has opened up many other previously closed doors. As a social anthropologist, my real interests are in the relationships and social structures that many prisoners develop between themselves. This includes friendships, support networks, self-help groups and similar initiatives that really pass under the radar of the prison authorities. Some of these relationships between cons can be exploitative, but in my own experience the majority simply reflect the ways in which humans tend to band together for mutual suport. 

Most of us need social contact and interactions with others in order to maintain, or improve, mental and physical well-being. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed in his Politics: “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

There is a significant percentage of people in prison living with mental health problems or addictions, but in my experience although some do want to live solitary existences in single cells (where these still exist), the vast majority of cons recognise their own need for company. Some of those who do find it very difficult to socialise appear to be within the autistic spectrum (including Asperger syndrome), for which I have never come across any professional support or care in prison.

Life on a prison wing
I know that I am a social person. I enjoy good company and informed discussion, whether that was in a university common room or in a Cat-B cell, so prison often offered opportunities for quite lively debates over a wide range of issues, although for obvious reasons incarceration and our failing prison system tended to dominate these sessions which often took place during association over cups of tea or cheap coffee. All my friends knew I was planning to write a future book on the social anthropology of prison life and most were keen to contribute.

Very occasionally, a friendly wing screw who happened to be wandering by might join in our discussions when the wing was quiet, especially if the younger cons were off the landings for a gym session. My impression was that the majority of frontline staff feel almost entirely disempowered and their morale is close to rock-bottom. There can sometimes be a shared sense of frustration. At times like that, those on both sides of the door can start to appreciate each other’s viewpoint. After all, it can be good to talk.

So do I have any regrets? Well obviously, there is the continuing stigma of having been convicted and imprisoned. It impacts on almost every aspect of daily life, from insurance premiums to travelling internationally, and I’ll be dealing more with this topic in a future post. However, would I have missed the opportunity of spending a few years doing first-hand field research into life inside English prisons? The answer is no. Not for the world.


  1. Prison is a microcosm of society so it's a wonderful place to do some up close and personal studying of human beings and how they react when you put them in a very strange environment. I found as much variety of people on the inside as on the outside which shines a light in the dark corners of the politicians desire to label anyone with a criminal record some sort of sub human abberation.

    The most stressful thing though was not being able to get away from people. You were constantly with people even in the shower, well not literally but you know what I mean. In a lot of ways it was like some sort of weird boarding English boarding school complete with awful food, strict and stupid rules.

    Should people regret their time in prison? I'm not sure because I firmly believe that the Universe sends you lessons about things you need to learn and its up to you to learn those lessons or not. I suspect if you don't the lesson will simply be repeated or given to you in a slightly different fashion until you do learn what you are supposed to learn. So from that point of view, no, no regrets. I learnt a lot about myself and others and about what is important to me. I met some really decent human beings. I met some less so but then I've met more than a few people over the course of my life who leave a lot to be desired in one way or another.

    I do wish though that prisoners got consulted more and actually listened to. I find it ridiculous and pathetic that those who work in the system and those who manage the system are so blinkered that they automatically discount anything an inmate may have to contribute. To be honest the discussions I had with people inside produced cheaper, faster, easier ways of doing things and solving problems than management ever came up with. We experience the problems first hand so we can figure out the solutions to problems a lot quicker than someone at NOMS who has rarely if ever stepped inside a prison and even if they have their interaction with inmates is limited if non existent.

    I have a feeling that the only real way to change the system is to either shut it down completely and start again from the ground up and by putting someone who has actually been a serving prisoner in charge of the zoo or import something like a Scandanavian model that actually works on a wholesale basis.

    The prison system suffers the same sort of malaise as the NHS. Too many managers and civil servants who don't have a clue, too much wasted money and resources and a really blinkered attitude to change and progress.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences of prison with us. I definitely agree with your analysis, especially about how prison can be a fascinating place to study human nature in all its rich varieties! I also think you are spot on when it comes to the ongoing political drive to 'dehumanise' prisoners, regardless of the actual reason that they are incarcerated.

      As I've written elsewhere on this blog, there is an incredible diversity of experience and expertise among prisoners. However, prisons rarely listen to cons or attempt to utilise their skills or talents. Sometimes I think that this is due to a reluctance to accord any real value to any prisoner, although at other times I suspect that it could be because some cons are actually much better qualified or educated than the vast majority of the prison staff.

      I think a lot of frontline staff are disgruntled over the way senior managers treat them. A lot of screws do have the perception - real or imagined - that governor grades will often side with cons, especially in disciplinary matters. In contrast, the vast majority of prisoners are absolutely convinced that the system is stacked against them and they will never be found 'not guilty' at an adjudication. Probably the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but the lack of confidence and trust between rank and file uniformed staff and senior managers can have serious impacts on how our prisons are run.

  2. Norway and Sweden are egalitarian societies with flat hierarchies and power structures, I doubt the Scandinavian model would work well in the UK.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's difficult to say because the UK rarely seems to learn anything from European best practice, preferring to follow trends and strategies developed in the USA. Perhaps very few senior staff in the Ministry of Justice speak any language other than English...

      One of the major problems is that Britain is very slow to test out 'pilot' projects in the prison system. It would be fascinating to contract a prison reform organisations to actually run one single Cat-C trainer prison and see if more enlightened policies and practices produce better, more cost-effective results in terms of rehabilitation, stable resettlement on release and reduced rates of reoffending. Until we test an adapted Scandinavian model here, we'll never really know whether it would work or not.

    2. The American prison system is in even more of a crisis than the UK system is. At least here we don't have the barbaric practice known as the death sentence although for some people prison is a death sentence for those who die inside. So if we are basing how to run our system on an even more flawed system no wonder things are in such a meltdown. This is why we need to radically rethink the situation. Maybe now it is time that we look at a Dutch or Scandanavian model because what we have is clearly beyond dysfunctional.

    3. Thanks for your contribution. I think that Anglo-Saxon countries still have an unhealthy obsession with punishment, rather than reform and rehabilitation. Common sense suggests that if a convicted criminal can be persuaded not to commit any further offences, then this has to be a positive outcome for society as a whole. The only losers might be the private sector prisons that rely on a constant supply of human flesh to keep them in profit. However, for most prisoners our deep-in-crisis prison system has effectively abandoned any pretence of reducing reoffending.

      I suspect that no British government will seriously consider adopting any prison reform that will be seen by the Daily Mail and the 'disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' brigade as getting 'soft on crims'. Even now the right-wing tabloids love to put the boot into anything other than 23-hour bang-up and solitary confinement. Until we have a government that isn't running scared of the media, I fear that real prison reform will - sadly - remain pie in the sky!

    4. its an old story but interesting. Apparently someone actually had some sense at this probation trust to use ex offenders in the service. Probably didn't last though and certainly wasn't rolled out across the entire probation service which would have been sensible. But then when did sense ever figure in any decision made by the MoJ?

    5. I am curious why, for example the Inspectorate doesn't hire ex cons who have done their time as part of the inspection process because the former cons would spot things that the inspectors may miss about how a prison is functioning. It would be an excellent way of employing people who have a unique insight into the prison service and how may otherwise find it difficult to secure employment when released due to the inherent prejudice society has against anyone with a criminal record.

    6. Thanks for the links and the questions and comments that have followed. Common sense would suggest that the best people to advise on prison issues from the inside or to mentor people being released on licence might be ex-prisoners who have turned their lives around and are living law-abiding lives!

      However, there does seem to be a massive amount of official discrimination against anyone who has a criminal conviction, let alone has served time in prison. This affects hundreds of thousands of citizens who, even after their sentence has expired remain part of an 'untouchable' class.

      I firmly believe that at least some ex-prisoners should be encouraged to apply for jobs in the criminal justice system, especially with HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs). I can understand why an ex-con couldn't be a screw or a prison governor, because of potential conflicts of interest involving staff or cons he or she might have known during their sentence, but there are plenty of other jobs, including as special advisors to ministers, that could be done by someone who has relevant prison experience.

      I am aware of a single case where a person who had served a prison sentence for fraud subsequently had his conviction quashed and managed to join an IMB. However, he experienced real problems once prison staff at that establishment discovered he was an ex-con - even one who no longer had any criminal record. I imagine that he was seen as a potential trouble-maker who knew far too much about the system from the inside. His appointment was not renewed!

  3. Regarding the communal showers, I guess it's the only way to ensure cons leave their cells at some point during the day. If showers were included within the cells, cons would not socialise unless they had a job or were students.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Some modern prisons - such as HMP Stocken - do have Enhanced wings which have in-cell showers, in addition to the usual wash basins and WCs which most UK prisons now tend to have. Of course, that does mean that 23-hour bang-up becomes even more feasible! However, these wings remain in the minority as are often used as 'perks' to reward good behaviour by cons.

  4. Hi Alex can you tell me what medical hold means my son is already in prison is due to go to Crown Court on an other chargewill he return to the same prison.

    1. Thanks for your question. Technically, 'medical hold' usually means that a prisoner is undergoing some form of ongoing medical treatment or procedure (such as chemotherapy or a series of operations) that could be interrupted should they be moved to another prison. In practice, putting prisoners on hold seems to be very rare. It is occasionally done to keep trained Listeners in establishments where they are in short supply, but generally speaking transfers take place as and when space is needed by the Prison Service.

      In your son's case, if someone is being tried on a new charge he will be moved to the nearest Cat-B prison to where his trial will take place. If he is convicted, this could also change his security status, particularly if it is a serious charge. I would expect he will be reviewed after the conclusion of his trial. If he is acquitted, then his status shouldn't change.

      In these cases, a prisoner is usually instructed to pack all his possessions and take them with him to the nearest Cat-B local. Once the trial is over, he may return to his current prison, depending on available spaces. If there is a good reason for this, such as a course of medical treatment, then that might increase his chances of being returned. Hope that helps!

    2. I was on medical hold for a while. When I entered prison I was under a consultant due to a long term issue with a broken arm. As I had an appointment for a review I was not allowed to be moved to another prison. In the meantime I had a court hearing some miles away from the prison I was in. I was duly taken on a long journey to the court and returned the same day so I remained in the prison local to my hospital.

    3. Thanks for sharing your own experiences. These days, I suspect it might depend on the distance involved, the length of the trial and the nature of the charges. I know a fair few cons who have played 'musical jails' in these circumstances!

  5. Way I see it is u need to get politically noticed. Or change will just be words. I feel u owe it to prisoners alex. May God help u succeed. Vas.

    1. Latest update is that the C4 News prisons feature will be broadcast on Friday 23 January (tomorrow!) during the 7.00 pm programme. Watch this space to see if there are any further developments!

    2. An interview with Jack O'Connor was featured in "Shortlist" didn't mention his role in "Starred Up"! I can't believe I missed this film, considering Rupert Friend plays an important role in it.

  6. Latest update on C4 News prison feature: now scheduled for broadcast on Monday 26 January at 7pm (allegedly...)