Saturday, 30 August 2014

Prisoners: the Unnetworked

One of the strangest things about being in prison is just how quickly you realise that you are almost completely disconnected from the outside world, particularly if you have been using computers and the Internet for many years. At times, it’s not entirely a disagreeable sensation. However, prisoners who are released after having served a long sentence are likely to find reintegrating into our highly networked society that much more of a challenge.

Slave to the ring-tone
Before I ended up in prison, like most Brits I was using many of the current communications systems, both for my work and to maintain social contact. The Internet, e-mail, social media, smart phones, a laptop, tablet, desktop computer… each had a pretty central role in my life. Even during my trial I kept in touch with family, friends and well-wishers by iPhone during the adjournments.

Then – silence. As soon as I was sent down to the holding area under the Crown Court, I was effectively disconnected from the outside world. My mobile phone was the first thing that was seized from my pocket, to be bagged and inventoried with the rest of my property. I did get the chance, via my solicitor, to pass on a few messages to my family, but that was pretty much it. It would be years, rather than months, before I got to use a mobile or the Internet again.

Perhaps people are right when they warn about getting too dependent on networked communications. I was rather abruptly disconnected – effectively ‘unnetworked’ (yes, the term does exist, apparently) – from pretty much every modern system for staying in touch. And I did start to experience what I can only describe as ‘withdrawal symptoms’.

My situation was made worse by the fact that I started my sentence down in the Block (segregation unit). This is fairly unusual, particularly for people who haven’t been convicted of violent offences, however there were special circumstances in my case owing to my professional background and the unfortunate fact that I had previously taught what is called ‘Escape and Evasion’ during my time in the military. I’d actually appeared on television in a documentary demonstrating techniques from what is called Resistance to Interrogation (R2I), so my reputation went before me and until I could convince a board of security governors that I wasn’t about to tunnel my way under the wall with a plastic spoon or snap a screw’s neck with my bare hands and nick his keys, I was locked down very firmly in what can only be described as a latter-day dungeon.

Prison payphones: not high-tech
During this period I was denied access even to the prison payphone system. On arrival at the nick I’d been permitted to have a couple of minutes on the Reception officer’s landline to let my family know which prison I was at and that I wasn’t planning to top myself anytime soon, but after that a complete communications blackout was imposed. I wasn’t even permitted to have a pen to write with in case I turned it into some kind of improvised offensive weapon. However, in accordance with the rules I was given a blank sheet of prison letter paper that was useless without anything with which to write. Prison logic: you soon get used to it in the nick.

And that was how my enforced ‘detox’ from the networked society began. No telephone access, no means of getting in touch with anyone – not even a rented TV set down in the Block. I admit that it did come as quite a shock to the system. At one point I even thought how it would be good to have a photo of the Block cell to send to my friends… then I quickly returned to reality. I had no smart phone. I would just have to commit everything to memory.

In prison you come to realise the extent to which communications technology has come to dominate our everyday lives in the UK. When I was working, my mobile never seemed to stop ringing or buzzing with message alerts, while my e-mail inbox was usually overflowing with ‘urgent’ issues with which I needed to deal immediately. 

A potential holiday wrecker
Even when I went on holiday with my family, I used to take an iPad with a wireless keyboard so I could continue to monitor and manage what was happening back in the office. I well remember how one particularly serious crisis thousands of miles away came close to wrecking our trip to Canada, and just how much tension that caused between me and the other half. I really understand what some critics have dubbed the ‘tyranny of technology’. In a high-pressure work environment it can mean being on stand-by – mentally, at least – 24/7.

For someone of my generation, who can still remember a black and white TV being the standard household appliance, I sometimes reflect on just how far networked communications have come in the last 30 years. In prison, however, cons are effectively back in the 1970s: small, rented in-cell TVs, hand-written letters and wing payphones. It’s not so long ago since prisoners could still buy BT phone-cards to use in prison phones. Remember those? Naturally, they quickly became a unit of prison currency as an alternative to burn (rolling tobacco), bars of chocolate and tins of tuna.

Inmates do not have access to the Internet, except for those who are released on temporary licence (ROTL) from D-cats (open prisons). Even then there are strict licence conditions prohibiting cons from accessing Facebook or other social media sites. Transgress and you can easily find yourself shipped back to a B-cat on Basic IEP status for the rest of your sentence.

In fact, most prisons severely restrict even staff access to the ‘Net through firewalls and other means. Members of staff aren’t even permitted to bring their own mobile phones or USB devices past the locker room in the main gatehouse, so even they can experience the sense of being caught up in a 1970s time warp when they are at work. It must feel a bit like being Gary Sparrow in the 1990s TV time travel comedy Goodnight Sweetheart: walk down that alleyway and you find yourself back in 1940.

Very naughty - but available
Of course, for most cons serving short sentences, being disconnected from their smart phones and Facebook is no more than a temporary inconvenience. Quite a few make use of smuggled mobiles and SIM cards – with which most prison wings are awash – to keep in touch with their family and friends, as well as sorting out various types of ‘business’ transactions – mainly drug-related. 

The really dim ones don’t seem to realise that posting selfies of themselves in their cells – like the prat who recently put snaps on Facebook of his birthday party behind bars, complete with an iced cake, candles and a kebab – will incur the wrath of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) which is very sensitive to this sort of embarrassing security breach. Since he is a lifer on a 24-year minimum tariff, the con in question will probably have received some very unpleasant belated birthday ‘gifts’ from the security screws and I wouldn’t fancy being in his shoes at the moment, or on every birthday to come for the next 20-odd years.

An extremely daft photo to post
However, for prisoners who are serving very long sentences, the wonders of modern communications technology will often have passed them by. Although most education departments do offer basic IT courses, none of these involve online connections to the Internet. As an Insider (a peer mentor to other prisoners) one of my roles when I was in a D-cat was to accompany fellow cons who were being allowed to go out to town on ROTL for the first time without a screw as an escort. 

We would usually make time to go to a local library or an internet café so they could spend an hour experiencing navigating the ‘Net for the first time. I’ve helped quite a few set up their first e-mail accounts, send their first e-mails and get to grips with their first mobile phones. It can be a steep learning curve for some cons.

Strange as it may seem, D-cat prisoners on ROTL are strongly encouraged to own pay-as-you-go mobiles (usually without Internet capability). In an emergency, they can be recalled to prison by phone or they can keep in touch with the jail if anything goes wrong. It also effectively allows their movements to be checked, although not yet in real time, apparently. 

Inmates purchase these mobiles via the prison – which activates the tracker system before issuing the handset – and they then keep the phone in a locker at the gatehouse. This avoids breaking the prison rule that no mobile can be brought into a jail – even the Number One governor isn’t exempt – since the locker room is outside the security perimeter.

Mobiles: not past this point
I understand that there have been internal discussions within the Prison Service about allowing some prisoners supervised access to the Internet while they are actually in prison, rather than just when they are outside on ROTL. Obviously this would have to be closely monitored and filtered to prevent surfing for porn, the harassment of victims or online criminal activities. 

Such a development would enable those inmates who haven’t yet had any experience of what has become an essential communication tool for everyday life to start the process of gradually acclimatising to the 21st century as part of their resettlement preparations prior to release. This could include getting themselves on local authority housing lists, registering for benefits on release, uploading CVs and starting to search for voluntary or paid work. All of this would be productive use of the Internet and e-mail. However, in view of the current hard-line policies of the MOJ under Chris Grayling, I can’t see it happening any time soon. You can imagine the tabloids’ mock outrage: cons on computers, whatever next?

To be honest, I did experience some real benefits of not being a slave to my iPhone and e-mail accounts while I was inside prison. I had the opportunity to read much more than I had for years (this was when we could still have books sent in from outside), I became a prolific letter writer again – and really improved my handwriting following years of only using computers and e-mails. Also, I’ve come to realise just how much time I do spend each day using my computer and my mobile devices – including posting on this blog!   

Friday, 29 August 2014

Prison Gambling: Playing With Your Safety

Have you ever seen a group of grown men involved in a punch-up over a game of Scrabble or serious violence sparked off by an accusation of cheating at dominoes? If not, you’ve probably never been in prison.

Prisoners, like most other folks, often get very bored and are constantly looking for diversions to help pass the time. A popular phrase in the slammer is “it’s a bird killer” (ie, something that makes the sentence seem to go by more quickly). Gambling, in all its many forms, is an acknowledged ‘bird killer’.

Fancy a punt on the footie score?
Some cons will gamble on almost anything: football results, other major sporting events, games of cards, board games… you name it, someone, somewhere will be willing to take a punt on the outcome. Playing cards is probably the most common type of prison pastime, with poker, whist, crib and kaluki (sometimes spelt kalooki) very popular games. 

Kaluki – which I’m told is very similar to Rummy – is sometimes considered to be a very typical card game played in the nick, although it is said by some to originate from Israel. Jokers are used as wild cards and the objective is to be the first player to play all the cards in your hand. I’ve never played it myself, although I have watched innumerable games being played on prison wings (and in prison workshops when there is little or no work to be done).

I’ve never been an enthusiastic card player myself, and I barely know the rules of much more than patience or snap. However, I did find myself getting drawn into watching some of these games, as they can get quite exciting. One very affable young drug dealer I got to know in a B-cat prison did try to teach me the rudiments of poker, but I really couldn’t pick it up. Just as well really, because he was a noted card sharp and supplemented his meagre prison wages by winning ‘burn’ (rolling tobacco) and chocolate bars from other cons.

Contraband in some prison workshops
Some prison governors have banned prisoners from taking playing cards to work because it sets a bad example and can look awful when official visitors turn up without warning. However, at other nicks most screws and instructors really don’t mind because anything that keeps inmates occupied and quiet during slack periods is to be welcomed. If an official visitor suddenly appears, then cards are easily swept off the table and into a pocket. You might be surprised to learn just how much informal collusion of this kind goes on between cons and screws in the interests of everyone having a quiet life.

In one nick there was a very active football pools racket running during the footie season. All participants were required to pay in a 50p bar of chocolate from the canteen in order to play. The winner would end up with 20 or more bars that could then be used as prison currency to pay other debts or for services such as private laundry. Not a bad return on a 50p stake for the lucky winner. What really shocked me was that two of the wing screws were enthusiastic members of the pool – raising all sorts of questions about appropriate boundaries and the potential for blackmail.

Very popular in YOIs
Other popular activities in the nick include board games such as Scrabble, Monopoly and chess. You may find it hard to believe but many prisoners are chess wizards, particularly lads who’ve spent long periods in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). Even some of those who have literacy problems can learn to play chess to a very high standard and tournaments can go on for weeks, spread over many association sessions. Playing dominoes is also very popular, especially among prisoners whose background is from Somalia or other North African countries where the game is a favourite in all-male coffee houses.

In one B-cat, a large group of black lads used to occupy a cross-landing (the middle walkway that connects two sides of an upper landing) using small wooden tables moved from their pads and play simultaneous games of dominoes for high stakes. Of course, the scoring was done with things like matchsticks so passing screws wouldn’t realise that players were actually wagering cash, canteen goods or burn, since actual gambling is supposed to be a violation of prison rules.

It’s ironic that while alcohol and drugs are officially prohibited in jails, gambling – which is also against the rules – tends to pass under the radar, at least until it all turns very nasty and someone gets seriously battered. And this can happen when a player’s debts have mounted up and he can’t cover his losses, or when allegations of cheating have been made.

That’s why gambling in prison can be for very high stakes indeed: your personal safety. To be fair, extreme violence sparked off by gambling is probably responsible for only a fraction of the incidents caused by the illegal drugs trade inside prisons or the business of loaning out tobacco at interest. However, when incidents flare up over gambling they can be every bit as nasty and violent.
Potentially offensive weapons
One of the biggest prison brawls I’ve ever witnessed during my time in the slammer was set off by one lad of Egyptian origin being accused by some Somalis of having cheated during a game of dominoes where high stakes were involved. This accusation led to the overturning of tables, Wild West saloon-style, and a free-for-all punch-up during which the players split into two groups: fighters and excited spectators. The wing security alarms went off as the screws realised it had all kicked off up on the top landing.

Various participants were hauled off and ‘nicked’ (charged) for fighting, while all the rest of us were ordered to get back ‘behind our doors’ to be banged up for the rest of the evening. Bad feeling over this incident dragged on for weeks, particularly because of the high amounts of cash and canteen goods that had been at stake. Like many fights in the slammer, you rarely get to the truth of what really happened and everyone has his own version of events.

However, if you are surprised to hear that dominoes can be such a dangerous game, then imagine two Scrabble players rolling round on the floor beating the seven bells of hell out of each other because one had dared to challenge the validity of a word played by his opponent in a close-fought game which had money on the line. Even though the word in question had indeed been misspelt, the player refused to accept that he had made a mistake and, since he suffered from what might be called ‘poor anger management’, the end result was a right royal dust-up, during which quite a few hard blows were exchanged. End result: black eyes and nickings all round. 

Not supposed to be a contact sport
I’ve heard of similar rows over alleged sharp practice during games of Monopoly. Chess, for some reason, tends to be less of a violent activity in the nick. I’ve yet to come across two chess players slogging it out. Perhaps the nature of the game appeals to a more intellectual type of con. Still, I’m sure that disputed moves have probably led to prison violence at sometime.

In addition to the problems caused by debts between prisoners, gambling can also have other negative consequences. Quite a few cons are actually in jail for gambling-related offences, particularly embezzlement, theft or robbery. I’ve been inside with lads who’ve blown their pay packets or weekly benefits down at the bookies or on the slot machines and then held up the manager or the cashier at knifepoint to try to get their cash back. It’s much commoner than you might suppose.

Gambling: can be highly addictive
Other inmates are doing time for stealing from their own companies, employers, family members or friends in order to fund gambling addictions. I’ve known some very decent blokes – ex-professionals – who have wrecked their own lives, and sometimes that of their families, because of serious problems with gambling that got completely out of control. 

Strangely enough, although most prisons do offer some limited support programmes for cons whose offences have involved misuse of alcohol or drugs, I’ve never come across any provision for prisoners with gambling addictions. In my opinion this is a serious oversight, given the number of inmates who are serving time for crimes that have involved some element of gambling. 

Almost invariably, the same men run the risk of getting sucked into the various opportunities to continue gambling inside prison, often with negative consequences for them and, potentially, for their families who may get desperate phone calls pleading for money to be sent in to help them cover their debts. Like so many other activities inside prison, even seemingly innocent and peaceful pastimes – such as a game of cards or dominoes – can have a darker, much more sinister side. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Things I Missed while I was in Prison

I was talking on the phone yesterday to a friend I first met in prison. We’re both on the out now, but – as many ex-prisoners like to do – we were chatting about our shared experiences inside the slammer. One of our topics of conversation was the different things we had both missed while we were inside. The most obvious things we missed were our families, but beyond that we discussed how we’d experienced other senses of loss.

When I first went into prison, I spent time in the Block (segregation unit) so down there I pretty missed everything, including being able to take a shower without being watched by staff through a locked washroom door. I gather this is to prevent cons who are being held in solitary confinement ‘slashing up’ (self-harming) with the single-bladed prison razors. 

The Block: segregation cell
Being held in the Block generally means having no personal possessions of any kind. I was lucky because I had been permitted to hold onto my cheap watch, my gold wedding ring and a single paperback book. At least I had something to read and my watch ensured that I didn’t lose track of time, which is extremely easy to do when you’re in solitary bang-up with no contact of any kind with the outside world.

When I was on the wings, however, I suppose I missed peace and quiet, as well as any sense of ever really being alone. My second pad-mate was a Catholic so when he went off to Mass on a Sunday morning for 60 minutes I was left locked up in our cell on my own, with my own thoughts. I generally used the time to catch up on writing my daily diary. That’s also when you have time to reflect on what you are missing.

Officially, we are told that the punishment element of incarceration is the loss of liberty. Actually, I think it is much more to do with deprivation of contact with family and friends, as well as the experience of total helplessness and dependence on the whims and moods of total strangers who have power over you: the wing screws and managers. 
A telling off

Imagine being back in primary school and having to ask permission of a potentially hostile adult to do pretty much anything. Well that’s a bit like being in prison. Sometimes when you make what you feel is a perfectly reasonable request, you get told in no uncertain terms that the answer is “no”. It hurts – rather like a hard punch in the stomach. It makes you feel resentful, no matter how you try to laugh it off or ignore it.

I recall one incident on my first full day in my second B-cat prison – a miserable, Victorian-era dump that is totally unfit for purpose (a view shared by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, incidentally). I was moved to a pad (cell) that lacked one of the small six-inch square acrylic mirror tiles that cons stick to the wall above the sink with prison-issue toothpaste, since Sellotape and Blu-tack are considered contraband items. I volunteered to go and find the ‘cleaning officer’ – the duty screw – and ask him if he could issue one from the wing stores, a five-minute job.

I eventually located the cleaning officer, a Mr D_______. He was a tall, thin, greying chap who looked at the cons around him as if he had just stepped in something nasty and was considering how to get it off his shoe with the least amount of effort. I found him standing in the middle of the ground floor, next to the ancient pool table. He was doing nothing in particular, just staring malevolently across the wing. Perhaps he’d had a bad day or a row with his wife earlier that morning or had indigestion. I don’t know. Anyway, our ‘conversation’ went as follows, word for word. 

The offending item: mirror tiles
“Excuse me, Mr D_________, is there any chance of getting a mirror for the pad as it doesn’t have one?”

“Fuck off out of my face, you fucking cunt!” 

I duly obliged. God knows how he’d have reacted if I hadn’t been so polite to start with. Perhaps he’d have accused me of having tried to grab his keys from his belt and battered me into a pulp on the floor. 

Believe me, that isn’t being too far fetched. At the same jail I later witnessed a similar attack on a young prisoner who lost his front teeth after he dropped a food tray and splashed the trouser legs of a very aggressive young screw up on the 4s (third floor landing). The lad was beaten black and blue, ‘twisted up’ (put in a painful restraint lock) and then chucked down in the Block on a completely bogus charge of “attempting to escape”. When a few brave cons who were standing on the landings watching the incident started to slow clap the screw dealing out the beating, they were all nicked too, as a general discouragement to any show of solidarity.

How prison can make you feel
These incidents make you feel powerless and infantilised, like a small child again. The psychology of imprisonment is essentially about disempowering adult men and women because they have been ‘naughty’ or ‘disobedient’. I suppose you could describe jail as being one enormous ‘naughty step’ where some people have to sit for decades.

That doesn’t mean that a great many of the cons in the nick don’t deserve to be there. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, a fair number of the people I’ve met inside are not nice blokes. Many of them have committed truly awful offences and hurt or even killed people and I’d not want them living next door to me or my family. That’s why they are being warehoused in very secure storage facilities at considerable expense to the taxpayer. However, I’m not convinced that infantilising them for years is going to promote positive change or help them to make better decisions in the future.

Prison isn’t just about being deprived of the freedom to pop down the pub or go shopping. It isn’t only being forced to wear stained and dirty clothing, including underwear, that hundreds of other cons have previously worn before you. And it isn’t just about being locked up behind a heavy steel door in a small concrete box, often with a total stranger. It is all about total powerlessness in the face of institutional control. 

Of course, if you feel you’ve been badly treated, you can always write out an ‘app’ (application) or fill in a Comp1 (complaint form), but the answer – assuming that you ever get one – will almost always be to support the original decision to say no, usually without further explanation. And if a prisoner can’t write - as a significant number can’t - then the matter will almost certainly go no further anyway. Many cons regard the complaints system as a complete waste of time and effort.

So did I miss anything else while I was in prison? Well, a good cup of fresh coffee - like the one I'm drinking as I type this post.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Prison Violence: Is It Going Up or Down?

As we all know, statistics can be used – or misused – to justify almost anything. Recently I’ve become very interested in the official statistics on violence in prison as these are being cited as evidence that British prisons are becoming more violent. I’m not actually convinced we’re getting the whole truth, so I’ve been investigating what data is currently available.

Statistics: it's all about method and interpretation
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that prison can be a violent place. I’ve seen some very nasty incidents, including a ‘jugging’ (boiling water and sugar thrown into another inmate’s face), a felt-tip pen stabbed into a bloke’s eye and a fair number of punishment beatings, mostly designed to scare rather than to cause serious injury, so I’m not denying for one moment that nasty things happen in the nick. They do and, given that prisons tend to accommodate a fairly high proportion of individuals who have anger management problems, I suppose that’s what can be expected. However, I am starting to doubt whether the current furore over ‘rising’ figures for violence is based on a correct interpretation of the available official data.

For example, if we look at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) figures for assaults on prison staff in 2013, we are told that there were 356 incidents. Of course, we’re not told whether any of these involved one con kicking off and assaulting more than one screw during a single incident, so that is an area of some uncertainty and more clarity might help. 

Now, based on the MOJ’s own published Safer Custody statistics for 2002-2012, I can only assume that the recent figures quoted in the media – which aren’t in the consolidated report as they post-date it – are for what is defined as ‘serious assaults’, because during 2012 a total of 2,987 assaults on staff were recorded, of which 260 were defined as being ‘serious’. On the face of it, therefore, the number of serious assaults on members of staff did increase year-on-year from 260 to 356 – quite a jump of around 27 percent. 

Prison violence: is it really on the rise?
However, that’s not the whole story. If one looks at the official figures for serious assaults on prison staff over the previous ten years, one can see that the figure of 260 incidents in 2012 was in fact the lowest of any year since 2002 itself when there were 196 cases recorded. In 2005, for example there were 299 serious incidents and in 2010 there were 302. So while there was an undoubted rise during 2013, it is much less statistically significant than a simple year-on-year comparison might suggest.

If we then look at all recorded assaults (not only those defined as ‘serious’) on prison staff between 2002 and 2012, in point of fact 2006 was the bumper year with 3,530 incidents. In comparison, during 2012 there were 2,987 assaults of all kinds and this, in itself, was actually lower than it had been during seven other years in the period 2002 to 2012. So if we were to re-write the media headlines they could have said: “Assaults on Prison Staff Lower in 2012 than in Seven Previous Years since 2002” – but that wouldn’t have been quite so exciting, a bit like the infamous “Small Earthquake in Chile, Not Many Dead” headline that allegedly once appeared in The Times

The Prison Officers Association's take on the situation
Now let’s turn to prisoner-on-prisoner violence – which accounts for by far the highest number of assaults. During 2013 we are told that there were 8,123 incidents, with 2,278 cases involving ‘weapons’ (presumably shanks, razors or table legs etc, rather than guns). Since I was in the slammer throughout last year, that figure must include a fair number of attacks I either witnessed or saw the consequences of afterwards. According to the MOJ’s published Safer Custody figures for 2012, there were 14,511 assaults (of which 550 occurred in female prisons). 

This raises the question of how 8,123 incidents can be interpreted as an increase on 14,511. Common sense dictates that the number of overall assaults appears to have fallen, rather than risen. Perhaps there is something I’m missing (and remember, I’m a social anthropologist, not a statistician), but I really can’t see where the claims concerning rising violence are supported by the data that is currently available.

Prison shanks
OK. Let’s next examine the figures for serious assaults by prisoners on prisoners. In 2012 these were recorded as 1,255 (of which 28 involved female inmates). However, when examined in comparison with previous years covered by the MOJ Safer Custody stats, these had actually gone down significantly. For example, in 2011 the figure was 1,374; in 2010: 1,385; in 2009: 1,317 and in 2008 it was at an all time high of 1,491, with 2007 not far behind at 1,485. If we are to accept the MOJ’s published statistics, then 2012 was actually the least violent year for serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence since 2004 when the number of recorded incidents was 1,220. 

So what, dear reader, can we deduce from the MOJ’s Safer Custody figures? On the face of it, at least, prison seems to be becoming a less violent place, even if 2013 saw a significant rise in serious attacks against prison staff. However, there are some missing variables that we should consider. 

Drugs and debt: behind much violence
The first is the extent to which prison violence goes unreported. Punishment beatings for debt – which I’ve dealt with in a previous blog post – often fail to come to the attention of the prison authorities, because no-one reports them.

If you’re going to give someone a pasting because they owe a few ounces of burn (tobacco), then you don’t hit them in the face. You punch them in the stomach and kick them in the balls so there are no immediately visible bruises. In fact, you only tend to see the physical evidence in the showers or the gym when no screws are looking. These assaults are rarely reported owing to the inmate code against ‘grassing’ (informing).

The second is that it only takes the arrival of a few very violent cons in any nick to significantly increase the number of assaults against staff. One extremely disturbed and violent inmate who fancies ‘a bit of bother’ can statistically skew the Safer Custody figures for an entire year. The Blocks (segregation units) at most higher security establishments house these individuals, some of whom can only be unlocked in the presence of a posse of well-equipped screws. Therefore, a rise in the overall number of serious assaults against staff may be attributable to the violent actions of a few hard cases, some of whom may well be suffering from serious mental illnesses.

So are UK prisons becoming less safe or more violent? In my experience, the answer to the first question is yes. Fewer frontline staff on prison wings can lead directly to a rise in bullying, ‘taxing’ (extortion/charging of protection money), the drug trade and all the associated violence that flows from these activities. In addition, the rising number of older and more vulnerable prisoners across the prison estate means that there are more targets for the bullies and the extortionists. Much of this will not appear in the official MOJ statistics simply because such incidents rarely get reported.

Behind closed doors
However, in answer to the second question, I’m not entirely convinced that we are witnessing a significant rise in serious incidents of violence on prison wings. Violence was not a daily occurrence at the two B-cats in which I served a substantial part of my own time inside. I personally never felt that I was at any risk, although I did witness some very nasty incidents. The official figures tend to suggest that the number of reported assaults, at least, are pretty stable, with some annual fluctuation, rather than specific spikes that can be attributed to any specific policy.

Where we can see a significant statistical variation is in the figures for suicides in custody in 2013-2014. It is undeniable that these reveal a very worrying trend. By March 2014, 88 inmates had committed suicide in prisons in England and Wales. This represents a rise of over 40 percent on the previous 12 months and the situation certainly hasn’t improved since then as the recent report issued by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman highlighted. 

Reported incidents of self-harm also rose to 23,478 so far this year, an increase of 750 when compared to the figures for the same period in 2012-2013. So if prison is indeed becoming more violent, then the hard evidence tends to suggest that prisoners are becoming more likely to self-harm or commit suicide and that, in my opinion, is closely linked to rising tensions, shortages of frontline staff, inadequate mental health support, more time spent behind the cell door and the generally deteriorating conditions inside our prisons.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Healthcare: Prison Sentence or Death Sentence?

Ask pretty much any prisoner in the UK prison system to name the most dysfunctional, least effective department in any nick and I’d be willing to bet that healthcare would probably come at the top of the list. Fairly or unfairly, there is a widely held perception that the standard of medical care inside prisons is extremely poor. Having had personal experience of four jails run by HM Prison Service (plus two others in transit), I’m going to offer readers an insight into just a few of the worst horror stories I’ve encountered.

Medical care behind bars
Virtually every prisoner in the system will have had some interaction with healthcare staff, even if only for five minutes during the initial induction process. Newly arrived at one nick, my healthcare assessment consisted of three questions: was I feeling suicidal (no). Was I taking any prescribed medication (yes – for migraines). Was I on the methadone programme (no). “Next!” And that was about it. 

Despite my being on prescribed medication, no fresh repeat order was placed as it should have been, so once what little I held in possession on my arrival was finished, I had a three-week wait for the new supply, which was only ordered – very grudgingly – after I made three applications. Of course, I was very lucky. Although they can be agonising, migraines don’t prove fatal, unlike diabetes, which afflicts a growing number of cons as the prison population grows older. 

I pretty much lost count of the problems that diabetics experienced inside the slammer. Insulin not ordered or not kept in proper conditions; special diets ignored; outside hospital and clinic appointments cancelled at the last minute. And as for specialist chiropody treatment for those with diabetes-related problems, the chance would be a fine thing.

According to its official website, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) claims grandly that “Prisoners get the same healthcare and treatment as anyone outside of prison”. I beg to differ. The UK prison system isn’t equipped to deal with people suffering from serious or life-threatening conditions or illnesses. The MOJ will claim otherwise, of course, but take it from one who knows: it really can’t cope. It may be another story in the very few prisons that offer special units for inmates who require palliative care, but across the mainstream prison system the situation is pretty horrific.

UK's growing prison populations
It also needs to be remembered that Britain’s prison population is ageing. According to MOJ statistics, in the category of ‘older prisoner’ (defined as being aged 60 or over) the total number incarcerated as of 31 March had reached 3,577. That means that the actual number of older prisoners has almost doubled over the past ten years and now accounts for around five percent of the 85,700-strong prison population. Of those older prisoners, 102 of them are aged 80 or above, with five men older than 90.

Before I’m accused of special pleading on behalf of cons, I should point out that I’m only too well aware of the shortcomings on the NHS outside the prison gates. I have close family members who have waited two years or more to see specialists and my own mother’s medical conditions were misdiagnosed for years before it was confirmed that she suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS). The NHS is under-funded and under incredible strain. However, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is responsible for the contracting out of prison healthcare services and – in theory, at least – the Prison Service has a duty of care to those it holds in custody. It is also worth remembering that even if these inmates weren’t serving prisoners, their medical conditions would still require treatment by the NHS in the community.

Prisoners can’t call in at the local branch of Boots to pick up over-the-counter remedies for minor ailments, nor can they take advantage of local clinics or A&E departments. Everything, from a headache to a heart attack has to go through the prison healthcare system and this, in itself, causes an overload. 

Prison doctor
Anyone who has done time inside will be familiar with the long line of prisoners standing outside the wing healthcare office. They are sometimes referred to as the ‘walking dead’. They go up to the hatch, one con at a time, to collect whatever medication has been prescribed for them. Most will have to take their pills there and then under the supervision of the nurse to guard against bullying or the resale of “meds”.

Inmates are a truly captive audience, so when the system fails to deliver appropriate care, there is little that they can do other than try to survive or, as in the case of a friend of mine whose serious health conditions weren’t being managed because he was being refused the pain relief medication that specialists outside the prison had prescribed (on ‘security’ grounds), they can commit suicide.

I’ll give you another example of a young prisoner known to me personally. He was on the methadone programme to manage his addiction and he suffered from a range of other health problems, including being unstable on his feet at times. One night, he climbed out of his top bunk to use the toilet and slipped. He fell and landed over the back of a metal-framed chair, crushing his testicles. Although he was screaming in agony, and his cell-mate pressed the call bell to get staff assistance, the night screw (‘the clocky’) just told him to get back into bed and shut up.

The next day he was in a very bad way and was unable to walk. Delays in getting an appointment with healthcare meant a three-day wait before he was seen by a nurse, then it took almost a further week until he was taken, handcuffed, to the local hospital. Of course, by then it was far too late and his condition was so serious that he had to be castrated. Yes, you read that correctly. 

When he was finally returned to the prison, after surgery, the powerful painkillers he had been prescribed at the hospital were confiscated and he was given paracetamol instead. News about what had happened went round among the staff and a couple of the screws he encountered found his predicament extremely funny. Just try to put yourself in his position – or imagine that this youngster was your own son.

The same treatment as anyone else?
After this life-changing incident, this young lad received no psychological support or counselling, nor did anyone discuss the possibilities of taking testosterone replacement with him. There was no option to have prosthetic implants. When I encountered him he was in deep depression and constantly thinking of suicide. I know his situation well because I volunteered to take up his case and we tried to initiate legal action against both the healthcare department and the prison authorities.

I’ve witnessed other horrific incidents. A lad broke his leg playing football and even though it was a complex fracture and the bones were visibly breaking through the skin, was told by healthcare staff that it was “just a bad sprain”. Fortunately, the gym screw – who I suspect had more humanity in him than the whole of the healthcare team – had been an Army paramedic and he told them what he thought of their triage diagnosis in no uncertain terms before contacting the duty governor and getting an ambulance called to take the bloke to hospital for appropriate treatment. 

Or the con who had such a serious tooth abscess that he was unable to eat, but couldn’t get any kind of dental appointment for weeks. Instead he was prescribed painkillers. Due to a ‘clerical’ error, however, he was in fact given massively strong doses of antipsychotics that were intended for another con who suffered from violent delusions. Because the two men looked vaguely similar, the duty nurse didn’t check their ID cards – as she was supposed to – before dispensing the tablets. Since they were given their medication in small plastic cups and were required to swallow them immediately, neither inmate suspected anything was amiss. 

Medical care in prison
It was only when the guy with a toothache ended up wandering round in a heavily sedated state that anyone realised there had been a massive cock-up. Naturally, the whole incident was hushed up and the lad with dental problems was quickly shipped out to another prison before he could cause any trouble. 

Despite this catalogue of horrors, and I could add many, many more specific incidents, it would be unfair to blame healthcare departments for everything. The environment in which they operate is not conducive to good doctor-patient relations and I’ve also witnessed some horrific behaviour by prisoners towards medical staff.

I have encountered a few excellent clinical staff and doctors in prison healthcare teams. These are the individuals who genuinely treated cons as patients and behaved with tact and humanity. Unfortunately, they stand out in my mind now because they were fairly few and far between. At least in the D-cat (open) prison I was at for nearly a year, the healthcare department was pretty good. In any case, a lot of cons who felt that they needed over-the-counter medication just popped into the local chemist when they were allowed out on home or day leave (ROTL), even though this was officially against the prison rules. 

On the 'dog lead' in hospital
One of the major problems faced by healthcare departments is trying to coordinate outside medical appointments with prison security. Most prisoners requiring any kind of medical or dental treatment outside the walls have to be escorted by officers, to whom they will remain handcuffed throughout their treatment, no matter how intimate the examinations or procedures may be. If prisoners need to be kept in hospital overnight (very few prisons now have facilities for in-patient care on site), then they can expect to be handcuffed to an officer via a long chain (known to cons as the ‘dog lead’). 

Therefore, if there is a shortage of security staff available to serve as hospital escorts, the appointment – which may have taken weeks or months to arrange – gets cancelled with little or no notice. It would be interesting to know the amount of taxpayers’ money that is wasted every year on cancelled medical appointments for prisoners and the true cost of the NHS resources involved when inmates aren’t produced for treatment. Perhaps an MP might like to ask that question in Parliament, because I’m certain that this situation is likely to get much worse owing to the current shortage of prison staff. 

I fear that given the escalating crisis in our prisons there will be a rising number of incidents where urgent – possibly life-saving – hospital treatment will inevitably come second to ‘operational issues’ (ie staff shortages) and some prisoners will probably die as a result. It’s in cases like these that a prison term can actually prove to be death sentence in the UK.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Shorts in the Shower: Prison Extremism

Until this post I’ve pretty much avoided the issue of religion inside UK prisons. That’s not because it isn’t an important issue, it’s more that I’ve been thinking about the best way to approach the subject in an honest and (hopefully) non-judgemental and non-offensive way. Here goes.

Prisons are full of people from all kinds of backgrounds. They are, believe it or not, a pretty wide cross section of our society. Just as in the world outside the prison gates, some prisoners inside hold very strong views on all sorts of issues: political, religious and social. 

Marx: 'opium of the people'
I’ve met militant Marxists and atheists, for whom all religious belief is the ‘opium of the people’ and I’ve met Muslims who would go out of their way to help any fellow con, regardless of his faith or lack of it. No prison wing is complete without its resident ‘Bible basher’ who tries to engage with anyone willing to listen. You soon learn who they are and I tended to give them a wide berth.

The influence of religion in British prisons is closely linked to the fact of the Church of England being the faith ‘established by law’. For that reason, the Prison Act (1952) makes it a legal requirement that “every prison shall have a governor, a chaplain and a medical officer and such other officers as may be necessary (7.1).” For many years the official chaplain was always an Anglican, but where sufficient inmates were recorded as adhering to another denomination, other ministers could be permitted to visit them and provide services. Religion has always been regarded, at least by the prison authorities, as a necessary antidote to criminality.

Always welcomed by cons
In recent years, many establishments have bent over backwards to find suitable ministers to offer spiritual support to prisoners. At one nick we had an impressive range of ministers on offer: Anglican, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witness and Humanist. Some prisoners would take the opportunity to do a little bit of shopping around by attending various services each week to see which one suited them best and - perhaps less spiritually – whether any of the denominations offered coffee and biscuits afterwards. Catholic rosaries are also much used (even by non-Catholics) as decorative jewellery and you can always find plenty of cons wearing them round their necks.

Prison rosary
Prisons – like universities – do offer rich recruiting grounds for many religious groups. The key problem is that many inmates are highly vulnerable and for this reason they make ready recruits for extremists and fundamentalists from all sides. Many cons are basically very lonely, socially isolated people. Some have no family or friends outside with whom they are still in contact. Quite a few are the products of broken homes or the so-called ‘care’ system, so they lack any support networks. That’s why a bit of kindness or attention from anyone can be so valued - and so easily abused.

During my time in prison I met quite a few chaplains and ministers from a range of faiths and denominations. To be honest, I can’t think of one who was an aggressive proselytiser on behalf of his or her particular group. They all seemed to be decent people who had found a vocation ministering to men who were society’s outcasts. I got to know several of them personally and I have a good deal of respect for the work prison chaplains are called on to do: comforting the bereaved (very common in the nick); listening to cons talking about their many problems – in a way that would drive most screws round the bend – and just being kind and patient with inmates who have learning difficulties or religious manias.

Although I’m not a Catholic, I found most of the visiting priests I met in my capacity as an Insider extremely helpful. They have a very important role to play because of the significant numbers of prisoners who are either Irish or Travellers, or both. Travellers tend to band together into small groups as a survival strategy, but their interests are often ignored. Quite a few have literacy problems owing to disrupted schooling, so they often find it difficult to represent themselves or write applications (apps) to the prison authorities. The Catholic clergy offered them much needed advice, support and assistance.

Open to all, often used by few
When I was in a B-cat prison, I also worked closely with one of the Muslim imams who was concerned about problems followers of his faith were having on wings owing to a very rigid and inflexible management. Again, I found him to be a thoughtful, well-educated man who was keen to give good leadership to Muslim inmates.

Much of what I have learned about the problems posed by radical Islam inside prisons I picked up from one of my close friends at a B-cat. He was a British-born Muslim with a PhD who had formerly served as the imam at a UK mosque. He had previously advised the government on strategies to tackle the radicalisation of the young and he shared a wealth of knowledge about these issues, so I’m happy to pass on some of his insights, along with my own. 

In my experience, the problems with radicalisation and fundamentalism inside prison arise from prisoners themselves who either don’t really understand their own faith or who have converted for all the wrong reasons. I have yet to meet an extremist chaplain, but I have encountered some very fundamentalist cons who regard the official ministers appointed by the prison authorities to be ‘sell outs’ and ‘collaborators’ with a regime they detest.

There are periodic panics about ‘Islamist radicals’ thriving in prisons and these concerns are fuelled both the media and by politicians. A problem definitely exists in some establishments particularly, I’m told, in the high security estate where those convicted of terrorism offences are usually held. The likelihood is that a prisoner who is already very radicalised before he or she comes into custody isn’t going to moderate their views because they are locked in a cell. A few may, but it does appear that concentrating small groups of extremists together in prisons merely provides a hot-house environment in which hard-line opinions can flourish and spread unchallenged.

Muslim prisoner on a landing
However, I think that this issue is just as relevant in lower security jails. The title of this post is based on an experience I had at a B-cat prison in the south of England. Having been to a boarding school, then an all-male university college and the Army, followed by some years as a member of a rugby club, I’m pretty relaxed with the matter of male nudity in changing rooms and showers. But this issue can create potential conflicts in prisons, particularly where there are significant numbers of Muslim inmates.

Although the wing showers were provided with cubicles, those in the gym changing rooms were the older, completely open plan style of wet room: just shower heads around the outer walls. There was no privacy and towels had to be kept on the hooks outside or they’d get soaked. When a group of non-Muslim prisoners, including myself, started using these showers after a gym session, there was uproar. First, we were told in no uncertain terms that Muslims didn’t want to shower with ‘dirty’ unbelievers as this would ‘contaminate’ them before prayers. Second, we were called ‘dogs’ because we weren’t wearing shorts or boxers in the showers. There was something of a stand-off because we were determined to take a shower as by the time we would get back on the wing it would be evening bang-up and we’d have to either use the sinks in our cells for a quick strip wash or go to bed stinking of sweat. 

Sensing the risk of violence, the gym screws eventually intervened in order to ensure that things passed off peacefully. However, the problem simply wouldn’t go away until we – the prisoners – agreed between ourselves that we would take it in turns to finish our gym sessions 10 minutes early so that the Muslims and non-Muslims could shower separately. I’ve since heard from fellow cons in other establishments that there have been similar stand-offs about showers and shorts.

Community support for Muslim inmates
In some prisons there have also been clashes over the use of wing kitchens where more militant Muslims have prohibited the use of bacon or other pork products by non-Muslim prisoners. One non-religious con told me how when he was forced to share a cell with a hardline Muslim inmate he was forbidden from ordering or consuming any non-halal food, was banned from standing up when he used the toilet in the cell and was not permitted to eat or drink during the daylight hours of Ramadan so as not to ‘tempt’ his padmate to break his fast. After a few weeks of this lifestyle he managed to get permission to move cell, but it had been a struggle.

It’s difficult to be sure how many of these conflicts are caused by actual religious belief or practice and how much is merely personal control freakery on the part of the individual prisoners concerned. I’ve occasionally found that the most radical and unwilling to compromise are those who have converted to Islam. Although they don’t come from a Muslim background at all, these prisoners have found something for which they were looking in radical Islam. Perhaps it is the very black and white rules for everyday life that they find so appealing. 

US Evangelical extremists
Of course, this isn’t limited only to Islam. It is a well-known phenomenon in many faiths that recent converts feel that they have to be ‘more Catholic than the Pope’ in their enthusiasm to prove that they have fully embraced their new religion. Years ago, when I was a student at university, we had serious problems with extremist evangelical Christians who seemed determined to make other peoples’ lives difficult and whose methods of evangelism verged on bullying and harassment.

In my view, the danger lies for those converts who have embraced radical religious beliefs in a very abnormal, closed environment, such as a prison. Some of these men are already very damaged and vulnerable, often following years of abuse and neglect as children, so they can experience a very strong need to ‘belong’ to something bigger than themselves, or as an emotional support or protective factor. Among these converts debate or questioning seems to be strongly discouraged and there is more of an atmosphere of a gang that uses religious symbols, than a genuine, supportive religious community. 

Certainly, I know of many cases where outward conversion to a fundamentalist faith hasn’t done anything to stop the new converts from peddling drugs and other contraband – other than hooch – across the wings to other prisoners. I well remember how one of the most vocal hardline Islamists at one nick was caught by prison security with £200 in cash hidden in his boxers, along with numerous wraps of drugs that he had been selling to other cons. I’m not an expert on Islam, but I’m pretty certain that drug-dealing wouldn’t be considered an acceptable activity.    

Radicalism has an impact in prisons
A friend of mine who had been in another D-cat (open prison) related how a group of Islamist radicals had systematically taken over an entire corridor by bullying and threatening non-Muslims to make them move rooms. Although the motive claimed was to ensure that the showers and kitchen at the end of the corridor were kept clean and ‘unpolluted’ by non-believers, he suspected that there was also a strong gang-related undertone to the whole incident.  

I believe that the British prison authorities have been very slow to combat this kind of radicalisation inside prisons because of a fear of being labelled ‘institutionally racist’. However, there is also the issue of how to deal with the problem of vulnerable inmates who get caught up in such movements, as well as the negative impact that these divisions and tensions can cause within UK prisons – especially at a time when there is widespread overcrowding and a chronic shortage of frontline prison staff.

Yet there is definitely a great deal of concern over potential sectarian violence in British prisons. Immediately after Lee Rigby’s murder in May 2013, prison security at the establishment I was then being held in called all former British services personnel up for informal ‘discussions’ about whether we felt safe and to ask us to ensure that there were no reprisals against Muslim inmates by veterans. Fortunately, there wasn’t any trouble, mainly because at that particular prison we had excellent relations with our fellow cons who were Muslim and they were equally as appalled by the horrific murder of Lee as we were.

Prayers in prison
This is where the chaplaincy teams and visiting ministers need to bring back some sense of proportion and balance to their respective faith groups. In those prisons where there is a sizeable Muslim population, the presence of a mainstream, moderate imam as a full-time member of staff would be a welcome start. He should be in position to challenge extremism, as well as providing support for those who genuinely wish to convert for religious reasons, rather than for the misguided attraction of joining a powerful prison gang. The Prison Service is also noticeably short on Muslim staff in both frontline roles on wings and in senior management positions.

My fear is that given the current crisis in the prison system – denied by Chris Grayling and his cohort of yes-men in the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) but nonetheless ongoing – radicals from a range of fundamentalist religious and political backgrounds will find it easier to recruit weaker, more vulnerable inmates, and potentially to exploit them under the cover of more noble motives. Eventually most of these men will be released back into the community and it would be better to combat extremism while they are still inside prisons than try to deal with an ongoing problem on our streets.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Prison Life: Sweatboxes and Sweaty Socks

It is an undeniable fact that prisons stink. Anyone who has been on a prison wing knows that there is a peculiar smell of captive humanity: male sweat, stale cigarette smoke from cheap tobacco, bad plumbing, festering dustbins, a hint of urine, unwashed socks. Imagine a rugby club changing room on a hot summer’s day and you’ll be in the right sort of ballpark area.

You first get a sense of what is coming from the prison transport or ‘sweatbox’ that will take you from court to the jail to which you’ve been assigned in your capacity as a newly minted convict. These vans are operated on contract by private sector firms such as GeoAmey, G4S or Serco.

A sweatbox
There are cubicles on each side of a central corridor and you are locked into a tiny mini cell which consists of no more than a hard moulded plastic bench and a tinted glass window. Tall prisoners will probably find it excruciating as you can’t stretch your legs at all. I’m 6 1” and I had a hard time. The cubicles often stink. There are no toilets provided on board, so a prisoner who is being transported and gets caught short may either use an empty water bottle or, in some cases, may be told by the escort staff to just use the floor. You can imagine the rest.

Cons can end up being locked in sweatboxes for many hours both travelling to and from court and between prisons. My personal record in a sweatbox was six hours non-stop, although we did halt at another nick to pick up a couple of other transferees. The escort staff weren’t in any hurry, so we were all just left locked in our little boxes in the sun in the August heat as the temperatures soared. On occasion, inmates can also be sick during the journey and I’ve had the unpleasant experience of being in a sweatbox with vomit running down the gangway and under the cubicle doors.  

But that, dear reader, is just the antechamber of hell. The real fun starts when you get to the prison itself. The institutional smell of caged human males hits you as soon as you get onto the residential wing. 

Mopping the wings
The usual strategy on the part of the prison authorities is to have wing cleaners mop down the walkways with highly-diluted disinfectant a couple of times a day. Sometimes the main floors will also be buffed up with polish. This does little to eradicate the all-pervasive smells and just adds to the institutional atmosphere of hopelessness and inaction, but at least it makes it look like something is being done, particularly when there are official visitors around.

Prisoners, just like members of the public outside prisons, come in a range of types. Some are fastidiously clean and ensure that they and their cells are spotless; others are much less so, rejoicing in nicknames such as ‘Dog-end Dave’ (who used to collect roll-up nubs on the exercise yards to remake into the cheapest kind of ciggies for resale to other cons) or ‘Sid the Binman’ (so-called because of his habit of rummaging through the wing rubbish bins in search of anything that might be recycled and/or sold).

For cons who prefer the cleaner things in life – and I like to think that I’m one of this number – it would have been unthinkable not to have had a daily shower, unless the prison was on lockdown. Our pads (cells) were mopped out regularly and the in-cell WC and sink were washed down daily. Occasionally, I even cleaned the windows panes between the bars. 

Sealed windows in cells
Some jails have installed closed-unit windows in cells. These cannot be opened (mainly to prevent cons from running contraband items on ‘lines’ – pieces of string or strips of torn up bedsheets – between cells during bang up), but instead have small barred grills at one side that can be opened or closed with a knob. Little fresh air is admitted and in summer cells can become unbearably hot. If we left our pets in such dangerous, inhumane conditions the RSPCA would be round.

One of the greatest fears for most cons is to have a real stinker of a pad-mate imposed on you: someone who neither washed themselves, nor their clothes. This only really happened to me once, for a single night, but I’ve heard tales of woe and misery from mates who haven’t been so lucky. 

The worst fate was to have to share a cell with another con who was incontinent or who wet the bed pretty much every night. Believe me, this is not so unusual as you might think in an adult prison. Some inmates suffer from serious health conditions, others are heavily medicated (on prescription or otherwise) and so just sleep through anything, even the need to relieve themselves. Others have terrible nightmares, often related to childhood abuse, and these sometimes lead to nocturnal accidents. 

I remember one saint of a bloke who shared with a young prisoner who had learning difficulties. He had grown up in an abusive local authority children’s home and he regularly wet his bed. Most cons would have requested a swift cell move. A few would probably have beaten the lad senseless every time it happened. This man helped the kid strip his bed every morning and would even assist him in approaching the ‘cleaning officer’ – the daily duty screw responsible for the state of the wing – to get the stores opened so he could get clean sheets and blankets. 

Prison bedding from the stores
Just imagine doing that almost every morning and braving the contempt of the staff. Would you do this for a complete stranger? Anyone who imagines that all prisoners are evil and lack compassion should think again. In different circumstances, a few of them would probably be canonised.

Occasionally, wing officers could be less compassionate. I’ve come across cases of prisoners being forcibly stripped and hosed down with cold water from fire hoses in shower blocks because their personal hygiene left much to be desired. In most instances, the cons on the receiving end of this ‘treatment’ – which was intended as much as a punishment as a cleansing operation – had serious mental health problems or learning difficulties.

The shortage of prison issue clothing hasn’t helped in matters of cleanliness. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the problems of forcing male cons back into prison uniforms when the shelves in the stores are almost empty. Having men wearing the same set of issued jogging bottoms, boxer shorts and t-shirts for days or even weeks at a time doesn’t make the average prison wing smell any better.

Most closed prisons have a specific day for putting out washing so it can be taken to the laundry. Some have special arrangements for washing prisoners’ own clothing (assuming they are being allowed to have any in possession), either in smaller laundries on the wings or down in the main one.

The price of clean washing
Of course, if you want your clothing washed property using decent washing powder purchased yourself from the canteen sheet, then there is a price to pay. Working in a prison laundry is a brilliant opportunity for a bit of profitable private business on the side. The usual tariff was a can of tuna (£1.10) or a couple of bars of cheap chocolate (50p each). 

Almost everyone moaned about this, and almost everyone paid up. The sheer indulgence of getting your clothes back smelling fresh and neatly folded – rather than smelling of everyone else’s dirty socks and screwed up into damp balls straight from the tumble driers – was a guilty pleasure for which most of us were willing to pay.

Newly released prisoners often talk or write about “scrubbing the stink of prison” off as soon as they get out. I’ve spoken to quite a few ex-cons who have shared this sentiment. You just want to get into a proper hot bath as soon as you get home and soak yourself. If they can afford to do so, quite a few prisoners ditch any clothing they have had with them inside because it is difficult to ever completely remove the smell of the nick. You may be able to wash off the smell of prison, but you can never ever quite forget it. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Perils and Pitfalls of Life After Prison

Many people assume that prisoners look forward to their day of release like a kid anticipating Christmas or their birthday. Of course some do, but many don’t because of institutionalisation, fear of the unknown or anxiety about the struggle to survive outside the gates. And then there is the impact of release on prisoners’ families.

I was motivated to write this blog post by a couple of comments made by family members of prisoners who have had first-hand experience of a return from prison. Some of these observations have been contributed to the excellent Prisoners Families Voices website, including a recent letter entitled The Strain of Prison Release. It is often easy to overlook the impact that the return of an ex-prisoner – particularly after serving a lengthy custodial sentence – can have upon his or her family.

Prison life regiments and institutionalises. To some extent it has to, otherwise the daily regime wouldn’t work. In each establishment hundreds of cons have to be managed, fed, escorted to and from activities, counted, unlocked and locked up again and the only way this can be achieved, particularly given the decreasing number of wing staff, is through strict regimentation. However, one consequence of this highly inflexible regime is that prisoners quickly start to lose initiative and eventually can become institutionalised. The longer the stretch being served, the more likely it is that this will happen.

Any nick is a strange place in which to live. Originality of thought and action is strongly discouraged. Acts of altruism, such as lending an item to a friend, are breaches of the Prison Rules. ‘Normal’ human interaction and social relationships are changed in ways that are both subtle and overt. I can only write from first-hand experience about adult male prisons. Perhaps things are different in establishments for females, although I suspect that the risks of institutionalisation remain very similar, especially during long sentences.

On the other side of the gate
Many prisoners who are approaching release have - quite literally - no idea of where they are going once they walk through the gate. Almost all high-risk inmates will probably be required to live in approved premises (hostels), at least initially, as part of their licence conditions, but for many lower risk cons their first night out of the slammer could well be spent on a bench in the local park, a shop doorway or a bed in Salvation Army night shelter. Release in the depths of winter is particularly dreaded. It’s easy to see why the prospect of freedom can be overshadowed by fear and anxiety for ex-prisoners who have no family ties or support in the community.

However, plenty of other prisoners do have family homes to which they will be returning. The stereotypical view is that their families will be eagerly awaiting the release date and will be outside the prison gate to whisk their loved one off home for a celebration. If only that were true in all cases.

Of course, some ex-cons are fortunate in that they do have strong support networks made up of family and friends, as well as former workmates. Their return home is often a cause for happiness and catching up with their partners, kids, siblings and parents. Others, however, will be returning to a whole world of relationship problems, stress, depression and pain. The success or failure of their resettlement can often depend on what happens during this adjustment period immediately after release from custody. 

For families, the anxiety can be overwhelming. Some, having struggled financially while their loved one was incarcerated, will face the prospect of an extra mouth to feed at a time when payment of benefits may be delayed and employment prospects for people with criminal records of any kind are bleak. The £46 discharge grant given to adult prisoners as they leave the prison gate isn’t likely to make much impact on the family budget. This, in itself, can lead to feelings of guilt. I know of specific cases where ex-prisoners have returned to crime, such as burglary or shop-lifting, so they can make some sort of ‘contribution’ to the family finances.

Not always easy to sort it all out
For ex-prisoners who have learning difficulties or literacy problems, there can be the nightmare of trying to register for benefits at the local JobCentre – now mostly done online and a potential challenge to people not familiar with computers or who cannot read. Getting it wrong or not having the correct information to hand can result in lengthy delays in receiving any money, as well as possibly impacting on the continued payment of existing family benefits. The financial implications of an ex-prisoner coming home shouldn’t be underestimated.

I recently spoke to one lad who was discharged from prison in May. Because of complex paperwork and a missing document from his last prison, he has yet to receive a single penny in benefits and is completely reliant on his family for food. That doesn’t make his home circumstances any easier and to be honest I’m quite impressed that, so far, he hasn’t drifted back into crime. Maybe his rehabilitation is going better than anyone expected.

Then there are the psychological adjustments that will be required. A relationship that was in trouble before a person was sent to prison is unlikely to have improved while they have been away, assuming it has even survived at all. Even very strong relationships can come under severe strain because of the difficulties some ex-cons will experience when trying to reintegrate back into a very different type of environment to a prison wing. It would be interesting to know whether there are any figures available on relationship breakdowns shortly after release of a partner from prison. Just based on the anecdotal experiences of friends I made in prison, I suspect that the numbers may be depressingly high.

The jangle of keys on every wing
There are also practical issues to deal with. An inmate who has spent years living in a single cell may find it difficult to sleep in the same room or bed as their partner. Some end up kipping on the sofa or in a spare room. Other ex-prisoners may not be able to cope with the lack of noise in the average family home. Prison wings are often very noisy places: shouting, banging of doors, cell call bells buzzing, jangling of screws’ key-chains, clicking of inspection flaps in cell doors. Readjustment to a much quieter environment can take time. 

Using domestic appliances, mobile phones, computers – even handling keys or kitchen knives – after a long custodial sentence can take time to re-learn and may require patience and tact on the part of those around ex-cons who are back in the community. Prison life is so constrained and dominated by rules and regulations – some seemingly very petty to outsiders – that returning to a ‘normal’ existence at home doesn’t always come naturally.

And then there is the issue of traumas experienced in prison with which many ex-cons and their families will have to deal. Some newly released prisoners may want to talk about prison all the time, others don’t want to think about it at all, and this can extend to answering questions from curious friends and family. If someone has been assaulted while in jail – physically, sexually or psychologically – this can have a significant impact on his or her personality and mental health. Family members may notice marked differences in behaviour and attitudes without fully understanding why the former prisoner has changed. 

Not so easy to talk about
Some will not be willing or able to even start sharing information about these negative or painful experiences. Prison can be a violent and sometimes brutal environment. Bad things do happen. It’s never easy for someone who has been the victim of a serious assault or bullying inside prison (or outside, for that matter) to disclose what they’ve been through to those close to them. Anything that has involved sexual violence is likely to be particularly traumatic to cope with.   

Family members also face a range of challenges. If an older child has taken responsibilities in the absence of a parent who has been in prison, they may suddenly feel resentful and threatened by the reappearance of someone who may expect to be respected – and obeyed. Partners who have had to make difficult decisions on their own may now risk losing a degree of autonomy and freedom. The period immediately after release can be a complex process of people getting acquainted again and of negotiating delicate family politics.

Relationships within extended families may also have changed while someone was away in prison. In-laws may prove hostile, judgemental or be reluctant to welcome the ex-con back into the wider family circle. This can cause deep divisions and tensions within some families and can lead to estrangement and bitterness. No resettlement courses in prison – assuming any are now still being offered – can prepare a prisoner for this moral and social maze. 

Moreover, nothing is likely to be on offer for their family beyond a quick home visit from the local probation office. For me, this is one of the major failures of the rehabilitation process. Getting it wrong at the family level can mean a complete failure of any release plan, including breaches of licence conditions resulting in a potential recall to prison.

It can be much easier after ROTL
That is why home resettlement leave on temporary licence (ROTL) is so vital. It offers an opportunity for the prisoner who is approaching release – usually in the final months of his or her sentence – to leave the prison and go back home (or at least to a hostel in the area into which they will eventually be returning) for a few days of relative ‘normality’. They get the chance to start the long process of readjustment before they are finally discharged from custody. 

Personally, I found that the six periods of ROR (Resettlement Overnight Release) I had before my own release from prison earlier this year played a major role in reducing the anxiety and stresses, both for me and my family. I returned home for four nights every 28 days during the six months before I left prison and this gave me the opportunity to reconnect with my family, to discuss practical matters and for us do some planning for the future. 

Based on my own experience, I believe that rather than being regarded as a luxury or some kind of reward for good behaviour, any inmate who is going to be released after serving a lengthy sentence should be granted periods of ROR as a standard part of their preparation for release. In fact, I would go further and recommend that it should even be a clear objective in pretty much every sentence plan, especially for prisoners who are going to be released from closed prisons. 

Happy to be leaving?
Unfortunately, at the moment it appears that only those inmates who are already at D-cats (open prisons) are being granted ROR. The Ministry of Justice also seems determined to make the granting of ROTL much more difficult across the board following a relatively small number of cases where cons have failed to return to prison as agreed or where further offences have been committed. 

Like so much of the nonsense that passes as penal policy in Grayling World, reducing access to ROTL will not reduce the future risk of re-offending, nor will it do anything to improve the prospects of ex-prisoners reintegrating successfully back into their families or local communities. It is, in my opinion, simply setting many ex-offenders up for failure.

Moreover, where prisoners are expecting to return to their family home (whether that be to live with a partner, parents, children, siblings or other extended family members) it should be seen as essential to offer support to those who will be expected to live with them, both before and immediately after they have been released. As is clear from the contributions on the Prisoners Families Voices website, some writers feel that they’ve had no support or advice and feel great anxiety about the imminent release from prison of a family member.

Developing a comprehensive approach to resettlement before and after an inmate leaves prison - including an integrated strategy dealing with benefits - that would fully involve the soon-to-be ex-prisoner’s family would be a major step in the right direction. An approach that would focus on setting ex-offenders up for successful reintegration, rather than for failure and recall to prison. Now that really would be a ‘rehabilitation revolution’.