Monday, 29 September 2014

Prison Pests (3): The Wing Bully

Bullying – whether in general or in a prison environment – is a significant problem that is receiving more attention at the moment. This blog post is the latest in a series about the wide variety of numpties you can encounter in prison and the wing bully definitely deserves his or her place in the list of pests.

Flashman: school bully
Many people’s ideas about bullying have been influenced by portrayals of very obvious examples in films and in the media. The ‘classic’ school bully would probably either be Flashman from Tom Brown’s School Days or – in a more updated version – ‘Gripper’ Stebson from the BBC school drama Grange Hill. Both characters used their dominance to inflict pain and misery on others, and in the end they had their comeuppance: Flashman gets expelled for drunkenness (not bullying, ironically), while ‘Gripper’ was excluded from school for racism.  

Of course, in the real world – even prison in this context – things rarely turn out so neatly. All too often the victims of bullying are silenced or ignored while the bully gets what he or she wants. 

There was a time when bullying was seen as being mainly a school phenomenon. Then it was realised that it takes place in institutions where physical dominance and power-relationships tend to be based on control: prisons, the armed forces, the police and even care homes have all come to be seen as closed environments where bullying can take place. Now there is a much greater awareness that bullying behaviour can and does occur in the workplace, in sport and within the home, as well as increasingly online. 

I think that there is a general expectation that there will be bullying in prisons. After all, it can’t be denied that jails do tend to house some of our less pleasant folks, a fair proportion of whom are in the slammer because they have preyed on the weak and vulnerable. 

They target the weak and vulnerable
Perhaps there are those members of the general public who think that cons deserve to have a hard time, whether from staff or from other prisoners, so that they ‘get a taste of their own medicine’. Maybe some even think that – as with the fear of prison rape – this sort of thing is all part of the deterrent value of incarceration. The more terrible prison seems, the less willing others will be to find out the truth for themselves. I actually believe that this school of thought is more prevalent than you might think. 

If you watch classic films like Scum (set in an old-style Borstal) then the dominant theme is brutal bullying, initially by some of the screws, but mainly by the older, stronger cons. The very graphic rape scene that leads a young, vulnerable kid to commit suicide, is set within the context of the strong bullying the weaker lads and taking what they want from them, with the tacit approval of at least one officer who watches the attack from a distance without intervening.

As I’ve written in a previous blog post about Glen Parva, the Young Offender Institution (YOI), these establishments can be particularly brutal places. This is confirmed in the most recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons which highlights various types of bullying and violence, with correspondingly high rates of self-harm, including three suicides since 2013.

Scum: "I'm the daddy now!"
Adult prisons – some of which also accommodate Young Prisoners (18-21) – are not without their share of bullying problems. While not every wing has a ‘daddy’ figure, some do and a fair amount of the covert bullying is related to the illicit drug trade, debt and the misdirection of prescribed medication, which has been a feature of every prison I’ve been in, even in Cat-D (open prison).

I’ve previously posted about bullying behaviour linked to radical religious gangs - Shorts in the Shower: Prison Extremism – and some prisons have a worse reputation for this than others. There have previously been studies published about this phenomenon focusing on HMP Whitemoor, a Cat-A high security establishment, although similar problems are reported at other prisons.

This sort of organised and structured bullying of inmates by groups of prisoners can also often be related to gang culture imported from outside. Recently, a friend of mine who is still inside told me about a Cat-B prison where the dining area is rigidly divided into specific tables for lads from different towns and cities. Apparently you need to be part of the respective gang to sit at their tables – or face threats and the risk of violence. 

Prison gym: a top target for gangs
Bullying of this kind tends to be about asserting control and marking out territory inside the jail. Sometimes you can also find it being institutionalised even further by gangs or ‘posses’ effectively taking over specific activities within a prison. For example, the kitchen or the gym can be seen as prime territory to be targeted and controlled. Members of a gang try to get in as orderlies or kitchen workers and then systematically fill vacancies with members of their own crews, occasionally intimidating other cons to clear them out. 

The UK prison system doesn’t have the same level of security intelligence when it comes to prison gang culture as the USA or Russia have developed, so often bullying and control related to internal gang activity passes under the radar, at least until there is a power-struggle to hold on to, or to gain dominance over, a particular area of prison life. These turf wars can turn very violent if not checked early.

Beyond the world of gang-related bullying, there can be a good deal of lower-level intimidation, particularly of more vulnerable inmates. I’ve seen this in action in a problematic inner city Cat-B nick where stronger, more dominant cons used to stand up on the wing staircases during mealtimes in order to bully food out of weaker, less assertive prisoners as they left the servery and went up the stairs to their cells. This must have been obvious to the wing screws, yet I was unaware of any action being taken to combat the problem. It continued throughout the many months I was at that prison.

Behind closed doors
Occasionally a bully misjudges the situation and comes off worse. I recall a short, very quiet bloke arriving on the wing. It was his first time in prison and to start with he did look a bit shell-shocked. This was obviously not lost on the ‘harder’ cons who thought that he was a likely mark for fleecing. One of them matched up to his cell and demanded that he hand over a carton of milk he’d just received at the servery. 

The new con invited the bully into his pad and the door closed for a moment. Then the bully emerged holding his stomach. The new con turned out to be a former Army sergeant major and he had just given the would-be extortionist a very hard gut-punch to make the point that he hated bullies. Needless to say, he never had any further problems and became quite active in the anti-bullying movement that can operate on a wing when a significant number of cons decide to make a stand against this sort of behaviour. 

Although some prisoners can look after themselves, there are a fair number who can’t. In addition to those cons who have mental health problems, there is also a rising population of older inmates who are ripe for bullying and exploitation. Anyone who regularly receives prescription medication, especially painkillers, antidepressants or sleeping tablets, is likely to come under pressure to ‘share’ these with the cons who run the drug trade. Sometimes there is a deal to be struck, at other times medication is simply bullied out of vulnerable blokes who really need their meds.

I’ve come across various other types of bullying inside. Occasionally, a small group will start targeting a fellow prisoner who suffers from mental health problems or learning difficulties. Sometimes the aim of the bullying is to get the lad to ‘kick off’ – lose his temper – so that the wing staff intervene and he will usually by the one who gets ‘twisted up’ (put into restraint) and taken down the Block (segregation unit) to be punished. For some cons, watching another bloke being dragged off by the screws can be a very sad form of entertainment.

A decent screw or a bully?
And then there is the other type of bully in the nick: the screw. While most members of staff aren’t bullies, I’ve met a few real pieces of work in my time inside. These guys are sometimes disillusioned with the job and have really come to hate and despise the prisoners they work with. A bit of bullying, during which the con in the firing line is really made to feel small and worthless, can brighten up a bored screw’s day no end. On occasion, this can be dressed up as ‘humour’ to make other screws and watching inmates have a laugh, but at a specific con’s expense. 

Some officers also abuse their power by putting prisoners on report in order to get them into trouble or by using negative entries in an individual’s record as a means of bullying. A more covert form of victimisation can involve the disappearance of applications (apps) or complaint forms that have been submitted. I’ve actually witnessed one specific screw accepting apps from a con he didn’t like and as soon as the prisoner had left the wing office tearing the paper up before chucking it in the bin with a big grin on his face.

Combating bullying in prisons, whether as part of the overall ‘Violence Reduction Strategy’ or on a case-by-case basis, is made much harder when there is a breakdown in trust between screws and cons. If there are only a few bullies in black and white uniform working on the wings, it can set the tone for much more widespread bullying by prisoners throughout the establishment. It’s difficult to enforce a zero tolerance approach when those who are supposed to be leading the battle against the bullies are behaving in very similar ways.

HMP Swaleside: serious problems
Given the current crisis over under-staffing in our prisons, caused by mismanagement at the senior levels of HM Prison Service, it is perhaps not surprising that bullying – along with self-harm and suicide - is a rising problem in many establishments, as noted in HM Inspectorate of Prison reports. Only last week we read that some prisoners at HMP Swaleside (a Cat-B prison in Kent that has around 1,100 inmates) were “too afraid” to even leave their cells owing to violence and staff shortages. Perhaps predictably, the establishment also has serious problems with drugs and the easy availability of alcohol – both factors that can lead to violence between cons and bullying.

As HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, observed: “Frightened prisoners need to be identified and supported and the violence reduction policy rigorously implemented. Management of the use of force also requires urgent improvement. However, other much-needed improvements, which go to the heart of the prison’s challenges, require staffing levels to be brought up to at least the agreed levels and to do this the prison needs much more effective support from the centre.” 

The often unchecked rise in bullying in some nicks is yet another example of the ways in which the UK prison system is currently failing. However, while the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) continue to deny that there is a crisis in our prisons – despite all the objective evidence – reversing this dangerous trend is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dead Souls and Burned-Out Cases

Our prisons are full of life’s casualties. Much of this misery is self-inflicted, but when you get to hear prisoners’ histories you do get the impression that some lads have really never had a chance. 

Leaning on the landing
In the UK, prisons tend to be used as warehousing for deeply damaged people, some of whom represent a real danger to themselves and others. It’s also a general rule of imprisonment that no matter how bad your own situation may be, there are always plenty of fellow cons who are much worse off.

You can find them on every prison landing when cells have been unlocked, leaning on the railings just staring into space. They are the ‘dead souls’ and ‘burned-out cases’. Some of them have fried their own brains and wrecked their bodies with hard drugs or years of drinking. Others have sustained brain damage from fighting. 

I’ve met lads in their early 20s who look like wizened old men… emaciated, toothless and covered in scars from street fights or from sleeping rough. Some are living with HIV as a consequence of sharing dirty needles with fellow addicts.

Then there are other kinds of casualties: those for whom imprisonment has proved too much to cope with mentally. You can see it in their eyes. They often seem like they have souls that have died long before their bodies. It can be hard work talking to them about their futures, mainly because they can’t imagine anything beyond the next day. 

Architect of IPP "injustice"
Some of these cons have often served long stretches, sometimes many years longer than the minimum tariffs handed down in court when they have been given one of the infamous Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) – now mercifully scrapped – which even its architect, former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, now accepts was “an injustice”. However, the change in the law hasn’t benefitted the several thousand inmates still serving these open-ended IPPs who have no idea when, or even if, they will ever be released. In my personal view this has become a form of mental torture and when some of these prisoners are eventually set free, a number of them may prove to be ticking time-bombs for the future.

Trying to understand why certain people turn out like this can be an uphill struggle. It’s easier when you find out that they have come from a dysfunctional background: broken home, absent parent(s), time spent in local authority ‘care’, victims of abuse, early offending, youth custody… the rest seems to write itself.

One of life's casualties?
Would early intervention produce better results? This is a difficult question, simply because each individual, and his or her circumstances, is so different. Being taken into ‘care’ by the authorities certainly doesn’t seem to solve some of these people’s problems, especially in those cases when the ‘care’ they received included horrendous physical, sexual or emotional abuse from those who were supposed to be caring for them, or from other very damaged young people they came into contact with in these institutions.

If we look at the statistics, they are pretty grim. Around 23 percent of the adult prison population has been in ‘care’, while almost 40 percent of young prisoners aged under 21 were taken into ‘care’ as children. This remains a complex area for both criminologists and sociologists, but given that only two percent of the UK population end up in prison, the conclusion could be drawn that people who were in ‘care’ as kids are grossly overrepresented in the adult justice system. For those interested in reading more about this issue, the Prison Reform Trust study: Care - a Stepping Stone to Custody? (2011), is a good starting point.

When hearing some of these horror stories from fellow cons while working as a prison Insider (peer mentor), I was often reminded of Philip Larkin’s famous poem: This Be The Verse, especially the line in which he observes: “Man hands on misery to man”. How true that is. 

Larkin: "Don't have any kids yourself"
The troubling thing is that many of these deeply damaged blokes, some not long out of their teens themselves, have already had kids of their own – sometimes several each, often by different women – and already some of these young children are involved in the criminal justice system or have been taken into ‘care’. It’s a pity that these lads haven’t taken Larkin’s final piece of advice: “And don’t have any kids yourself.”

However, when some of your fellow inmates come from respectable families, who are often as mystified as everyone else why their offspring have turned to crime, the stories can be much more puzzling. Every nick I’ve been in has a significant proportion of former university students or ex-professionals who have fallen from grace. Many are very intelligent, although some have particular character weaknesses. Sometimes it’s the temptation of easy money – often linked to drugs – or else embezzlement or fraud, or nicking cash or valuables from family and friends. 

The situation of a fair number of younger lads in the slammer could be summed up very briefly as follows: got pissed and hit someone. At times they don’t even really remember what led up to a drunken criminal act that may have changed (or even ended) another person’s life and often that of the victim’s family, as well as having had a devastating impact on their own future.

Some men do need to cry
One of the regular discussions I’ve had with friends and pad-mates in the nick is just where they think things started to go wrong. Don’t think that cons don’t talk about this sort of thing in their cells with each other. They do… quite a lot of the time and they can be much more honest with each other than they ever are with probation officers or addiction counsellors. 

I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve sat for hours with some of these lads, quite a few of whom have ended up in tears of guilt and regret for what they’ve done to others, as well as to their own families. And, on occasion, I’ve put my arm around them as they’ve sobbed their hearts out, trying to offer some reassurance that it’s OK and big boys can cry.

Getting in with a bad crowd in their teens is often one of the key factors, along with alcohol and the use of recreational drugs. I’ve met guys whose criminal records for violence are almost exclusively linked to excessive consumption of booze. Once they’ve had a skinfull, they lose all self-control and end up giving someone – often a person they’ve never met before – a slap outside a pub. Then things then get out of control until there has been a serious injury or even a death. Yet when you get to know them sober, they can be perfectly normal, decent lads. The main challenge is to keep off the pop when they are released.

Excessive alcohol: a key factor
It’s only when you get to actually spend time with some of these blokes in the nick that you come to realise just how ordinary they really are. Sometimes they’ve just been incredibly daft, immature or else easily led. I certainly don’t want to minimise the harms they’ve caused to their victims, or to make excuses for their criminal behaviour, but the fact of the matter is that most crime is committed by very ordinary people, not monsters.

Other people end up in prison because of their reactions to various circumstances that are sometimes out of their control. They are basically normal people who have behaved in a criminal way in abnormal situations. In our society some get prosecuted, but others don’t. Those inside are just the ones who got caught and as the poet A.E. Housman rightly observed:

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
  Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,        
  Than most that sleep outside.

Armed robbery: not glamorous
A couple of my close friends have been armed robbers (although their crimes are much less glamorous than movies such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels would have us believe). In certain circumstances, armed robbery can involve just picking up a iron bar during a tussle over disputed money, so forget the idea of blaggers in balaclavas toting a pair of sawn-off shotguns outside the local branch of Barclays. Most of the lads I’ve known who are in the nick for robbery got caught up in a series of incredibly stupid events and have ended up with sentences ranging from six to eight years – and that’s without a single firearm being involved.     

Most of my mates, who understand where they went wrong, will rebuild their lives once they’ve been released from prison. In many cases their families are standing by them and they will have a home to go to when they walk out of the main gate with their black prison holdall and their £46 resettlement grant. As long as they keep their noses clean during their licence period – which is usually half of their entire sentence – then I doubt that the majority will ever go back to jail. At least I really hope not.

It’s the much more difficult cases – those who will leave prison with nothing and no-one to go to – who will be the challenge to resettle back into the community. As a society, we just don’t have sufficient support mechanisms in place to address their complex needs, including starting to deal with childhood abuse and all the emotional damage, including self-hatred, that it can cause. Some of these blokes are just so alienated from society that reintegration is probably the last thing on their minds as they step out onto the pavement outside the prison gates.

And then there are the casualties of our ‘care’ system and our prisons: the ‘dead souls’ and ‘burned-out cases’ who stare into space on every wing landing. I don’t pretend to know where to start with them… but then, it seems, neither does anyone else.  

Friday, 26 September 2014

Votes for Prisoners: No, It’s Yes…

Only a quick post today owing to pressure of my real work, I’m afraid. Around ten days ago I was asked by a reader of this blog to give my views on whether serving prisoners in the UK should be allowed to vote. Part of this post contains my answer, although there has been a more recent legal development as explained below.

As the BBC’s Home Affairs Correspondent, Dominic Casciani, has pointed out in a helpful feature article online, it has been nearly nine years since the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a judgement that the UK had a legal obligation to extend the vote to some prisoners at least. In effect, the current total blanket ban on voting by convicted inmates is unlawful. Needless to say, no British government wants to be the one that defies widespread public opinion by putting such a bill through Parliament.

Earlier this week, the UK Justice Minister, Lord Faulks QC, gave a promise to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers that Britain would sort the mess out. He assured the committee that the UK would fulfil its obligations.

Now Westminster has been given a reprieve since no further action will be taken until September 2015 – effectively kicking the issue into the long grass again until after the next general election. That will come as a relief to the Coalition, no doubt.

Yesterday, the Council of Europe issued a rather terse statement, more in sorrow than anger, that made clear its irritation that Britain is continuing to flaunt its legal obligations. The statement “noted with profound concern and disappointment that the United Kingdom authorities did not introduce a bill to parliament at the start of its 2014-2015 session as recommended by the competent parliamentary committee; urged the United Kingdom authorities to introduce such a bill as soon as possible and to inform them as soon as this has been done.” I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Name and number?
The voting issue is interesting. For a start, all remand prisoners who are on the Electoral Register are legally entitled to vote (either by post or proxy) under the Prison Act. That accounts for around 10 percent of the current prison population, so thousands of prisoners CAN vote. The fact that most nicks make no arrangements for them to do so is a serious failing of the system, in my opinion, and this issue needs to be tackled much more urgently.

One of the arguments that never seems to get aired is that prisoners who serve sentences in between general elections are unaffected by the present ban. This means that as long as they are back in the community (even if on licence) in time to re-register then they can vote like anyone else. Therefore, it seems that you only get disenfranchised if you happen to be inside jail around the time of an election. I’m not sure that this makes much sense.

I could understand it if we had a system (as exists in some other countries) where convicts lose civil rights, including the vote, for a set period of time after conviction regardless of whether they are in prison or not. However, as things stand it’s the actual timing of a prison sentence that deprives a con of his or her vote, not the fact of a criminal conviction.

Another anomaly is that if someone has been convicted, but is then granted bail ahead of sentencing, he or she can still vote if there is an election before the sentencing hearing. Someone who is sent straight down loses the right to vote. It does seem to me that the present system is a bit of a 'lottery’.

Not on prison wings anytime soon
I can certainly see an argument for allowing prisoners to vote. However, in practice - as with remands - I very much doubt that even if cons were given the right they would find it an easy process to get registered and then to cast their votes. And would they vote for an MP or MEP in their home constituency or in the one where the prison is located? I remember similar issues with university students some years ago.

Ten days ago, when I posted the comment above, I observed: “my best guess is that nothing will change any time soon”. In fact, it seems that I was right and we’ll have to wait until after the next election to see how whichever government is then in power deals with this tricky – and deeply unpopular – legal conundrum.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Long Littleness of Prison Life

I’ve been asked by several readers to give my impressions of everyday prison life – what is often called ‘the regime’. Inevitably, when recalling some of the memorable events from my time in the nick, most blog posts tend to focus on things that I’ve found fascinating, troubling, puzzling or funny, or else on behaviour – whether by screws, governors or cons – that has made me feel inspired, amused, angry or sad. It’s human nature, I suppose.

Heavily edited diaries
I’m sure most private diaries, even of celebrities and the famous (or infamous), if published unedited, would make for very tedious, dull reading. That’s the obvious reason that almost all diaries, including those by witty or waspish writers – such as the late Conservative politician Alan Clark – have been heavily edited prior to publication. 

We only get to read the really juicy, funny or scandalous bits about the diarist or other people whose names we might recognise. Otherwise, we’d all soon fall asleep or lose the will to live. Even writers like Samuel Pepys, Jeffrey Archer and Alan Clark must have had days of mind-numbing boredom. We just don’t get to read these entries.

So, imagine an existence where the very fact of getting to take a shower or actually being given the chance to visit a library were considered worthy of a written mention in your journal. Unfortunately, most days during a prison sentence are exactly that: incredibly mundane and boring. I know, because as I’m sitting here typing this post, I have a small pile of my prison diaries on my desk next to me. They have proved incredibly useful in my writing for this blog, but also serve as a stark reminder that often nothing much of note happens inside a nick.

Some entries are very brief. For example, 27 September 2012: “Laundry in morning. Worked. Lunch. Worked. Tea.” And that folks, as they say, is that! 

Of course, there are other days when things got much more dramatic. Exactly two years ago today – 25 September 2012 – evening association was disrupted by one particular con cutting his wrists while he was supposed to be on suicide watch in what is sometimes called a ‘safe cell’. That is a cell which has a barred gate rather than a solid steel door. 

Cells for inmates at risk of suicide
A wing screw has to sit on a chair outside the cell in order to observe every move made by the prisoner inside. It is an enormously costly means of monitoring one con because it involves several officers being on duty throughout a single 24-hour period. Governors and wing managers hate the practice, because it consumes scarce resources. 

On this occasion, I’m not sure whether the screw had been distracted or dozed off or what, but this con – who was severely disturbed – had managed to cut his wrists with a prison razor blade. There was blood on the floor outside the cell as he’d done it right at the open bars of the gate and it was spurting all over the show. 

The alarm went off, screws rushed onto the wing, we were all ordered back behind our doors, and a nurse from healthcare was summoned. The con then attacked the nurse in his cell and we could all hear the screaming and shouting. Eventually he was put under restraint and carted off for sedation, stitching up and eventual sectioning under the Mental Health Act.

However, by and large, most days in prison are eminently forgettable. I’m very glad that I kept a diary throughout my sentence because many of the incidents – even dramatic ones like that I’ve just described above – could easily have been forgotten. Even so, I’m actually quite shocked to read just how many hundreds of entries consist of just a few words that reveal how dull and uneventful life in the slammer can be, even when, like me, you have had some quite interesting jobs or things to do.

Deserted wing: cons behind their doors
It is quite a challenge to get over to readers who have never been inside the nick (as a con, that is) just how each day stretches into the next. In those prisons that currently have 23-hour bang-up because of frontline staff shortages, I’m sure that every single day is pretty much the same. This will also go for anyone who is retired, disabled or unemployed, even in those nicks where there isn’t an effective daily lockdown.

I entitled this post ‘the Long Littleness of Prison Life’, borrowing the phrase from the 20th century poet Frances Cornford. She used the term “unprepared for the long littleness of life” of her fellow poet Rupert Brooke to imply that he was a heroic ‘golden boy’ who was simply not equipped to deal with the uneventfulness of everyday existence. Well, a life lived in prison is definitely all about the ‘long littleness’ that those of us who have been behind bars experience.

Empty association room: no cons
Prison regimes – at least in closed nicks – are all about set routines. What time you are expected to be out of bed, what time cells will be unlocked, what time food will be served. There will be precise times for handing in dirty kit or putting clothes out for the laundry. If you are lucky, there might be an hour or so when you can associate with fellow prisoners, although my mates who are still inside report that this is getting rarer and rarer at the moment. 

Of course, if you are lucky enough to have a prison job or to get on an education course then your weekdays might be a little more varied. You are certainly likely to get more time out of your cell during what is called the ‘core day’. 

Governors like cons to be unlocked for what are called ‘activities’ – work, education, courses – because evidence of the average number of hours prisoners spend engaged in what is euphemistically called ‘purposeful activity’ is one of the statistics used by HM Inspectorate of Prisons when assessing an establishment against its so-called ‘healthy prison’ tests. These are:

Safety:  prisoners, even the most vulnerable, are held safely
Respect: prisoners are treated with respect for their human dignity
Purposeful activity:  prisoners are able, and expected, to engage in activity that is likely to benefit them
Resettlement:  prisoners are prepared for release into the community, and helped to reduce the likelihood of reoffending 

Lockdown: more and more common
Since safety, respect and resettlement all appear to be pretty low down the Ministry of Justice’s list of priorities these days, a bit of ‘purposeful activity’ of out cell is probably the best that can be hoped for in these days of overcrowding and understaffing. Even then, with so few opportunities to do anything meaningful in many nicks, a significant number of cons probably spend most of their days lying in their pits sleeping, reading (assuming they can get access to books) or watching daytime TV. 

When stripped of any real pretence of rehabilitation, imprisonment simply becomes very expensive human warehousing in which those who are ‘stored’ can deteriorate mentally and physically. That really can be the long-lasting impact of the long littleness of prison life for many inmates.

Everyday retribution
Opportunities to take vocational courses, to make up for lost time through education or to learn new skills are being reduced or undermined by petty, vindictive and short-sighted government policies – such as restrictions on having books sent to prisoners and the removal of any education qualifications beyond level 2 (GCSE). Even when these ‘purposeful activities’ still exist, access to work, libraries and classrooms is being undermined by staff shortages that limit or prevent prisoners’ movement within jails. You can provide the best stocked libraries or education departments in the penal system, but they are all useless if cons are confined on wings because there are no staff available to escort them there, as HM Inspectorate of Prisons has been highlighting in recent reports. 

I read recently a comment on prison that seemed very insightful. The writer observed that in our modern penal system, we have replaced physical punishments that were once inflicted on the bodies of criminals with the psychological punishment of the mind. It’s positively Orwellian. Forget Room 101, if you want a vision of real retribution in action in our prisons, then imagine a con watching endless repeats of the Jeremy Kyle Show – forever.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Prison Psychology (2): The Strip Search

Back in July I blogged a post entitled Prison Psychology (1): The Importance of Small Victories. I wanted to continue the theme of the psychology of prison by exploring the subject of strip searches, particularly since this issue – along with prison showers – causes much anxiety for many people facing imprisonment for the first time.

An everyday experience in the nick
We’ve probably all seen prison-themed films, dramas or soap episodes on TV and, almost inevitably, there will be the strip search, either on first reception or as part of routine security checks. I suppose it is inevitable that being compelled to undress in front of complete strangers is something that looms large in most people’s psyche. It’s a bit like one of those nightmares in which the dreamer finds him or herself stark naked in a public place.

Every prison memoir seems to include the obligatory bit of institutional nudity. You can find it in books by Jimmy Boyle (who seems to have spent a fair amount of his sentence in the buff one way and another), Lord Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Denis MacShane… they have all felt compelled to share with us all the gory details of their enforced jail stripteases. I think that reflects the psychological impact of what can be a very humiliating and dehumanising process for many people.

Aitken: he wrote about it
Let’s face it, it’s never going to be pleasant to have two or more complete strangers ordering you to remove your clothing item-by-item so they can inspect your naked body, particularly your genitalia and anal region. Unless you happen to be an exhibitionist with a perfect physique, most of us are understandably a bit reticent about being seen bare-arsed naked, especially when you are the centre of attention.

Officially, there are various specific types of strip searches mandated under the National Security Framework and detailed in Prison Service Instruction (PSI 67/2011): Searching the Person. There are different levels of search dependant on the security category of the particular prisoner. 

Those in the high security estate (A-cat prisoners) are subject to much more rigorous and intrusive procedures, mainly because the escape of such cons has the potential to cause a political earthquake and no secretary of state or prisons minister really relishes the prospect of standing up in the House of Commons to explain why some notorious terrorist or child murderer has legged it from a high security nick or from a prison vehicle while in transit.

Having been an inmate in Cat-Bs, Cat-Cs and a Cat-D (open prison), I’ll confine myself to the run of the mill rules for non-Cat-As. What are called “full searches” (ie strip searches) take place on initial reception to a prison; on transfer between prisons (both on the way out of the old jail and on the way in to the new one); on return from court; on return from Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL); during cell searches (what cons call ‘pad-spins’); before Mandatory Drug Testing (MDTs) and after having had a social visit (although this is often only a handful of inmates selected, in theory, at random).

Some strip searches are mandatory (such as initial reception or most inter-prison transfers), while others can be done completely at random. Many are ordered ‘on suspicion’ (that is a screw suspects that a particular con has something he or she shouldn’t have hidden about their person, which is sometimes the case). 

Prison E-list suit: for escapers
Of course, if you have the misfortune of being on the E-list (an escaper), then you get the full knackers-out, cheek-spreading experience pretty much every time you leave your pad (cell), as well as spending much of your time when banged-up behind your door without clothing. When you do get to dress, it’s in a fetching green and yellow patched clown outfit (dubbed a ‘banana suit’ by fellow cons). I get the impression that much of this targeted treatment is as much designed to humiliate and punish would-be escapers for extended periods of time, than it is to do with actual prison security.

Inside the nick, the majority of personal searches are routine ‘pat downs’ when returning from work or education – to check for stolen equipment or other contraband. Given the large number of cons and the small number of screws, especially in Cat-C prisons, an amazing amount of contraband does pass through the prison every day, ranging from drugs to almost any other small portable object that can be concealed down underpants or in socks.

According to PSI 67/2011, these “lawful and effective procedures in place for the searching of prisoners, visitors and staff” are designed to ensure that:

escapes are prevented;
threats to the security, order and control of the establishment are detected and deterred;
crime is detected and deterred;
the number of illicit and unauthorised articles present in establishments is reduced;
harm to self and others is reduced;
searching contributes to a safe and decent environment by being proportionate to the risk assessed. 

"Raise your arms..."
It is worth noting that even prison staff (including civilian workers and governors) can be subject to searches, although it happens much more rarely than the searching of prisoners. Any member of staff who is suspected of being bent and smuggling in contraband items to cons can be on the receiving end of a right going over by his or her colleagues from the prison security department.

Personal experience of strip searches can vary. I’ve been in nicks where it is a relatively quick and painless routine procedure. “Stand on the rubber mat. Remove your upper clothing and hand each item to me. Raise your arms and turn around. Put your upper clothing back on. Now remove your shoes and socks. Hand them to me. Now remove your trousers and underpants. Hand them to me. Turn around. OK, you can get dressed.” Less then five minutes and no total nudity.

Of course, there are some refinements. Male prisoners can be ordered to lift their genitals and, if uncircumcised, to retract their foreskins. Cons can also be required to squat while semi-naked (occasionally completely naked) and have their anal regions inspected by screws equipped with a mirror on a pole. It can all be a bit humiliating, really.

Mirror to check those awkward bits
I’ve written in another blog post about a particular screw at one prison who was alleged to be carrying out his own unauthorised genital examinations, complete with lewd sexual comments, particularly targeting younger lads after they had had family visits. Eventually he disappeared from that establishment, probably because fellow screws had dobbed him in to the governor. Good riddance, too.

My only really unpleasant experiences with strip searches were in a really crap Cat-B prison which is regularly criticised by HM Inspectorate of Prisons for its awful conditions and poor treatment of cons. On initial reception I was made to strip completely naked (against the rules, but I wasn’t in a position to argue) in an office in front of three very arrogant screws who kept me naked with my arms and legs spread-eagled while they shouted questions at me, including asking whether I had ever had sex with another prisoner in my previous nick (the answer was no) or whether I intended to do so at their prison (again, the answer was no). 

Despite the rules that state personal searching should be done ‘respectfully’ and out of sight of other cons, reception orderlies were wandering round and having a good snigger. I wasn’t the only victim of this treatment and I had the distinct impression that this was all about deliberate humiliation and the screws putting newly arrived cons in their place right from the beginning. 

Enough to make your eyes water
It was also at this establishment that my pad-mate and I were subjected to a very humiliating strip search during a pad-spin when the screws were searching for a missing pair of 12-inch cloth shears from the tailoring workshop (where neither of us worked). It was clear that these screws weren’t really looking for foot long shears in our anuses or foreskins… it was all about giving me a hard time because of my support for fellow cons during governor’s adjudications and because I was regularly getting prisoners off of these nickings, much to the irritation of both wing screws and their mates down in the security department. It was all about payback.

To be honest, having been in boarding schools, the Army, an all-male college at university and a playing member of a local rugby club for years, as well as a gym regular, a bit of male nudity really doesn’t faze me at all. I’ve been through many dozens of them during my time in the slammer. I’ve even sampled the joys of a strip cell (where you are stripped completely naked and given a blue quilted anti-suicide blanket to wrap around your nude loins). My only real objection was that the cell down in the Block (segregation unit) was a bit chilly, especially when your feet are always bare.

A bit chilly down the Block
However, I am aware that for some prisoners, particularly those who are in prison for the first time, or who are young or have been victims of sexual assaults as kids (as a significant number of cons have been), then these strip searches can be deeply disturbing experiences, especially if they are done in a way that feels abusive or are made to be deliberately humiliating. Having a dodgy screw making lewd and inappropriate comments about your penis size isn’t calculated to make the procedure any less traumatic for vulnerable inmates and as an Insider (peer mentor) I’ve had to deal with the fallout and obvious distress when young lads have been mistreated in that way.

Recent policy changes to reduce the amount of routine strip searching that takes place in custody, particularly of children and teenagers, are to be welcomed. In most cases, there is little real justification for two reception strip searches, both when a prisoner in a closed prison leaves one prison and a second full search when he or she arrives at another. Surely one strip search ahead of departure should be sufficient for most cons, since they will be travelling in a locked cubicle in a secure ‘sweat-box’ (prison transport van) throughout their transfer.

A handy little bag of puff
At the other extreme, in many Cat-Ds (open prisons), security can be incredibly lax. There just aren’t enough screws to search every single con going in or out of the gate each day on ROTL, voluntary work in the community or paid employment. At some Cat-Ds, drugs, including so-called legal highs, come in under the radar almost every day, along with porn DVDs, alcohol and mobile phone SIMs. A fair number of cons do get caught in possession of contraband eventually, but equally, a great many don’t and a lot of money can be made.

In fact, the honest truth is that most serious contraband – particularly drugs and mobile phones or SIM cards – is concealed in orifices where no legal strip search is going to find it. Experienced smugglers and those cons who have been in and out of the nick many times before know all the moves, so much of the routine searching is pretty pointless anyway. Indeed, if these methods were effective, maybe our prisons wouldn’t be awash with drugs (legal and illegal), as well as illicit mobiles. As they say in the USA, “just do the math”. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

New TV Documentary on Marriage to Prisoners

Production company Nerd TV are looking for true stories about couples who marry in prison for a new TV documentary. Are you engaged to an inmate? Or did you marry your partner in prison? We'd love to hear from you.

Being in a stable relationship is associated with a decrease in new crimes and marriage is proven to reduce the probability of reoffending. With an emphasis on weddings conducted inside prisons, and exclusive access to couples around the world, this positive and insightful documentary explores the poignant, complex experiences of prisoners and their romantic relationships.

If you would like to share your story, or for more information, please contact Assistant Producer Kate Pumfrey: / 020 7043 0080

The ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ Movement in Prisons

I decided to write this post following recent media coverage of two deaths of prisoners in UK prisons during the past week. Both were natural deaths, in the sense that the cause of death in both cases was a long-standing serious illness, but the detail that caught my eye was that the two cons concerned had both signed ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ (DNR) instructions – one had even had it tattooed on his body.

Pity about the spelling
These two stories interest me because I myself signed just such an order – often referred to in medical circles as a “No Code” – while I was in prison. It is a legal form that (in theory, at least) is supposed go on a patient’s (or prisoner’s) file to prevent the administering of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) – including chest compressions or the ‘kiss of life’ or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) if that person’s heart stops or they have ceased breathing. In essence, a DNR means that if you stop breathing, you don’t want to be brought back. You want to stay ‘brown bread’ (dead).

You might be surprised just how common this sentiment is in prisons, even among those cons who aren’t feeling suicidal. I know a fair number of lifers, or inmates serving Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), as well as elderly prisoners, who have signed up for DNR in order to make their wishes clear. 

As I’ve written in the blog previously, I’m not the suicidal type myself, but I have seen some real horror stories inside prison when it comes to healthcare – or the lack of it – in the nick. After one terminally-ill prisoner who really wanted to die was repeatedly resuscitated by wing screws (who no doubt meant well), I decided that in the unlikely event that my slightly high blood-pressure did stop my ticker beating, I most certainly didn’t want to suffer the same fate.

IRC Morton Hall
My reasoning was as follows: if I was so unwell that I experienced sudden cardiac death while in prison, there would almost certainly be an extended delay in any type of help arriving. If you doubt this, just look at the media coverage of the recent death in detention of Rubel Ahmed, a 26-year old immigration detainee at Morton Hall Immigration Detention Centre in Lincolnshire. 

Although the alleged circumstances of Mr Ahmed’s death are being disputed by the Home Office – which has informed his family that he committed suicide – other detainees have spoken of him suffering from chest pains the evening before his death and claim that he desperately tried to attract staff attention to get help by banging on the locked door of his room, but was ignored until it was too late to save his life. Let’s hope that the truth behind this tragic incident will eventually come to light during the investigation and inquest. 

However, this sort of incident is one of the main reasons that I – and other prisoners – signed up for DNR. Perhaps the one thing worse than being dead is surviving in some horrendous persistent vegetative state on life support owing to irreversible brain damage because of long delays before CPR is attempted. Being in prison was bad enough, but that would be far more of a trauma for my family, so I spoke to the duty nurse in Healthcare and asked if I could sign up.

Typical DNR form
The reaction was somewhat unexpected. I was immediately quizzed as to whether I felt suicidal? No, I explained, but I do have a history in my family of sudden cardiac death, as well as higher blood pressure than normal for a man of my age. The nurse reacted with about as much hostility as if I’d put in a request for a length of rope or some cyanide with which to top myself!

Next, she made an urgent appointment for me to see the duty doctor. This was actually the first time I’d seen one in the slammer. He was extremely pleasant and we had a very relaxed chat about my concerns. 

Although he did express the view that CPR in such cases can have a positive outcome, he also agreed that extended delays in the administration, such as can occur in prison setting, might not be a great clinical decision in some cases. Having satisfied himself that I wasn’t about to use the TV coaxial cable to string myself up anytime soon, he agreed to put the required note on my medical file and to ensure that both wing staff and the healthcare team were aware of my wishes. He did, however, book me in for a routine electrocardiogram (ECG), just to check my heart. And he tested my blood pressure, which wasn’t too bad.

Getting the message over
Of course, in reality I also accepted that even having signed up for DNR, there was no means of guaranteeing that the night screws – who often find that they have to deal with this type of emergency – would even be aware of the notes on my prison file. When the alarm is sounded at 3 am, checking the computer doesn’t come very high on the list of priorities.

There is another irony about my own decision to sign up for DNR. In my first nick I trained as a gym orderly. When I was sent down I was actually in pretty good shape and used to visit the gym four times a week after work, as well as run regularly, so I was quite keen to stay fit and keep my weight down. Working in the gym was an attractive option.

A qualification many cons gain
Part of the gym orderlies’ course was called Heartstart, sponsored by the British Heart Foundation, and I am trained in Emergency Life Support (ELS) skills, including CPR. Quite a few cons take these courses, so there are probably more qualified first-aiders on prison landings than there are outside in the community. 

On occasion, cons who have given up the will to live, will attempt suicide and I’ve known individuals personally who have written ‘DNR’ on their chests, carved it into their flesh with razor blades or even tattooed it prominently on their bodies (a breach of the prison rules on tattoos, by the way). In these cases, there’s also no guarantee that anyone will take any notice of their wishes, but I suppose it is a pretty forceful statement of intent. For a person who doesn’t have anything much to live for, death – in either its natural or premature forms – can seem to offer a way out and, sadly, for some prisoners it can seem to be the best chance they have for release.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Prison Insiders: Screws Without Keys?

I’ve written in a previous blog post about bent prison officers being called ‘cons with keys’. Since the title of this blog is “an Insider’s View” of the UK prison system, I thought I should respond to a recent reader’s request and share some thoughts about Insiders and why some cons consider them to be ‘screws without keys’.

Among the most trusted categories of prisoner you can find Insiders, Listeners and orderlies. All three roles are technically carried out by ‘red bands’ (trusted cons who are the equivalent of trustees in the US prison system). As I’ve explained in my earlier post about Screw Boys, red bands can be distrusted by other cons because they are perceived to be privileged and often far too close for comfort to the wing screws and even to managers and governors.  

Listeners support other prisoners
Just to recap on what I’ve written previously, orderlies are red bands who are trusted to work in special or privileged positions. They are recruited from the ranks of the well-behaved and responsible cons and often get placed to work in prison offices, the staff mess, the stores, reception and so on. They sometimes get better rates of pay than ordinary inmates and can develop friendly relationships with those members of staff they work with on a daily basis.

In contrast, Listeners are unpaid prisoners who have volunteered to be specially trained by the Samaritans as non-judgemental peer support. Set up in 1991, the system operates across most prisons in the UK. According to the official mission statement “the objectives of the scheme are to assist in reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths, reducing self-harm and helping to alleviate the feelings of those in distress.” The service is supposed to be available to any prisoner 24/7. You can find out more about the Listeners and the support they offer here.

The Samaritans estimate that there are around 1,200 trained Listeners working across the prison estate at any one time. As their name suggests, they are supposed to listen to prisoners talking about their problems, but not to give specific advice or start solving other people's problems for them.

Insiders, on the other hand, play a very different role and one that seems to be expanding as the numbers of uniformed wing staff are reduced. Insiders are peer mentors and ‘fixers’ who are supposed to be available on wings to help their fellow cons. They are appointed by wing governors, on the recommendation of wing staff, and can be called upon to do all manner of jobs that there just aren’t enough uniformed staff to do. At times, cons prefer to talk things over with other prisoners, rather than screws.

One of the major roles of an Insider is to welcome new arrivals when they hit the wing and to make sure that they have essentials such as prison bedding, unless this has already been issued during the reception process. They answer basic questions about timetables, regimes and explain how to submit requests (applications or ‘apps’) to the prison staff.

Newspaper app
In some closed prisons, the Insiders largely run the induction process for newly arrived cons. They organise talks in a classroom on various aspects of prison life and give advice on specific problems as they arise. In some nicks they even get to oversee education tests (literacy and numeracy) and help new cons fill in forms, an important role when a fair proportion of adult prisoners has problems reading and writing. Every prison is slightly different, so even new arrivals from other nicks can require assistance.

The Insider role tends to be more crucial in B-cat local prisons because this is where remands and newly convicted cons first arrive in the system. Many will never have been inside a nick before and most are, to put it mildly, crapping themselves with fear of the unknown, particularly of experiencing violence or even rape within the first 24 hours. Of course, the reality is very different, but try telling that to a new reception who has seen films like the Shawshank Redemption or Scum on TV… There can be a lot of tears sometimes.

In these situations, the Insider will sit down with the new arrival and basically reassure him that he will honestly be OK as long as he keeps his head down and doesn’t get into debt on the wings. You help them fill in their first pre-order menu sheet so they don’t end up on what is called ‘discrep’ (sometimes dubbed ‘dis crap’) – basically whatever surplus meal may be left over from the day before. Believe me, discrep is not something you really want to end up on during your first week in the slammer.

Room service left much to be desired
If disillusioned screws sometimes complain that cons these days demand ‘room service’, the Insiders often end up being the ones who deliver it to the cell door. Need to borrow a pen to fill in an app, a menu order or a canteen sheet? Of course, the Insider will have a pen – that will rarely be seen again. Having a bad day and feeling the need of a compassionate phone call home from the office phone? Get the Insider to go and sort it out with the nasty-looking screw who is scowling in the wing office. The list of little jobs is endless.

Because the Insider – there is usually one on each wing, sometimes two in a very large B-cat local nick – is often the only fellow con who is perceived to enjoy any sort of influence with the senior management, he will be the one selected to go and raise any grievances during wing meetings with governors, whether that’s because there’s been no hot water in the showers for the whole week or because the weekly library visit has just been cancelled for the third week running owing to ‘operational issues’ (ie not enough uniformed screws available for duty).

Whereas Listeners aren’t supposed to give advice to other cons, Insiders are tasked with doing just that. They are supposed to learn all the Prison Rules, local regulations, regimes and timetables, relevant Prison Service Instructions (PSIs), Safer Custody procedures and more policies than the average screw. When I was working as an Insider, I used to get Senior Officers (SOs) asking discreetly for advice on PSIs they’d never bothered to read.

Prison blanket: not wool
Some of the jobs you get as an Insider can be bizarre. I was once tasked by a governor grade in the Equalities Team at one C-cat nick to find out whether the standard-issue orange bedding blanket (one per con unless you are over 65 or have a medical problem and an appropriate certificate from Healthcare!) was suitable for vegans to use. 

This particularly odyssey started because a particularly vocal vegan – who enjoyed causing problems – claimed that the blankets contained a polyester and wool mixture and was therefore threatening to bring legal action against the nick. Was there a label on these bastards? No, of course not. That would have been far too easy.

Eventually I had to trek down to the prison laundry and get a signed chit from the chief laundry wonk that all prison-issue blankets were entirely synthetic and no animals had been involved in the manufacture thereof. The governor almost danced for joy when I handed him the paperwork.

Then we had the saga of transsexual pyjamas. Really. One of the prison wings accommodated a pre-op transsexual. Now, in this age of equality and diversity there are specific rules on the treatment of transsexuals in custody – quite rightly, in my view. There is even a special section in the PSIs about this very issue. 

Post-op, these cons are considered like any other female prisoner and are allocated to a women’s nick. However, if they are still awaiting gender reassignment surgery, but have had the psychological evaluations and commenced hormone treatment, then they are still considered to be male, even if they are allowed to use a female name and appropriate clothing inside a male prison. As you can imagine, this can cause certain complications, though more because of the jail bureaucracy, rather than other cons, who can be remarkably broadminded and liberal. 

In this particular case, the con was happy enough wearing prison jeans and a sweatshirt on the wing, but had requested being permitted to purchase female nightwear from the mail-order catalogue to wear in her cell after bang-up. A female principal officer had refused the request, regardless of what was written in the PSI on Equality. Eventually we got it sorted out, permission was granted by a more senior governor and the prisoner ordered her female clothing. Everyone was happy again.

In this era where 23-hour a day bang-up is becoming far more common in closed prisons, Insiders often get much more time out of their cells than other inmates. Increasingly, they are being used to cover staff shortages where tasks aren’t related to security, for example handing out menu and canteen sheets, helping fellow cons fill in official forms, delivering messages for staff, organising meetings for equality and diversity, or for older prisoners or just sorting out numerous everyday problems on wings that a few years ago might have been done by uniformed screws.

Listeners: on call 24/7
Similar problems are being experienced by Listeners in some nicks. They can find themselves ‘baby-sitting’ potentially suicidal cons who should really be on suicide watch supervised by wing staff. Although this is officially against both prison regulations and the Samaritans’ own rules, it definitely goes on because there simply aren’t sufficient frontline members of staff in some prisons to cover these roles.

At one D-cat (open prison), a senior manager once told me in private that he wished he could employ the Insiders to do much more, simply because they were often better educated than many of his wing staff. Although I’ve never been an inmate in a private sector prison, I gather from fellow cons who have that some wings are virtually run by red bands because the staff who are recruited on private sector contracts as operational grades are so young and inexperienced that the older cons know far more about how to run a prison properly. 

As I’ve mentioned before in these blog posts, most prisons in the UK have to run on the basis of an unwritten deal between the screws and a majority of the cons. Even in a B-cat local, two or three wing screws can never hope to control 170 prisoners if they refuse to be managed. For this reason, most inmates take the view that a quiet nick is a good gaff in which to do your ‘bird’ (sentence). 

Mr Bridger: no riots
Moreover, the traffickers and tobacco barons inside prisons who are much more interested in making huge profits, definitely don’t want a rumble or a riot if they can keep a lid on things because disturbances usually disrupt the flow of contraband, while serious violence can lead the shipping out of other cons who may be owing them money. For that reason, riots are almost always bad for business.

Without the compliant cons – Insiders, Listeners, orderlies, tobacco barons, screw-boys and grasses – the only kind of prison model that could work would be a US-style supermax where the entire inmate population is on 23-hour lockdown. This would be ruinously expensive for the UK taxpayer and unnecessary overkill for the majority of cons who aren’t violent or who pose little or no threat to the public, as well as storing up a potential mental health crisis when these prisoners are eventually released back into society, having basically been driven insane by endless solitary confinement.

We may not yet have reached quite the level of collaboration between cons and screws that was portrayed in the Shawshank Redemption. As far as I’m aware no Andy Dufresne characters are really cooking the books for bent governors or doing screws’ tax returns in HM prisons. However, without the peer mentors – Insiders and Listeners – I think prisons would be increasingly difficult to keep running, not to mention that the rate of suicide and self-harm might well be rising even more steeply than it is at present. Not a bad return for around £16 a week for each Insider.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Chris Grayling’s Pants

Only a brief post today because I’ve been travelling, but I just wanted to share a quick story with readers of this blog. I happened to meet another ex-con earlier today and he told me what I thought was a brilliant anecdote.

Buried under a pile of pants?
Following on from the recent campaign led by the Howard League for Penal Reform to encourage supporters to send donated books intended for prison libraries directly to Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State, as a protest against the ban on families and friends sending in books and clean underwear to prisoners, this bloke – who is now off his licence – decided to go one better and send Mr G a pair of men’s pants. He assured me that these keks were brand new, rather than second hand.

The donated underwear in question was accompanied by a formal letter requesting that the Secretary of State respond to inform the donor to which prison the pants were being allocated. As yet, he hasn’t had a reply (surprise, surprise!). However, he does intend to keep chasing the issue up. I really appreciated this lad’s sense of humour.

New IEP policy is complete pants
Given that supporters of the Howard League campaign who have previously sent books haven’t had any responses to date on the fate of the volumes they have posted, I’d be willing to bet that these freebie pants have ended up in some low ranking bureaucrat’s desk bin (or perhaps even his personal knicker drawer at home). However, if I find out more, I’ll be sure to keep you all updated. 

Maybe we should consider launching a new national campaign called ‘Chris Grayling’s Pants’. The thought of the office of the Secretary of State for (In)Justice’s office suddenly being inundated with hundreds of pair of boxers, trunks, briefs, slips etc would just be too good to be true. Anyone out there up for the challenge of organising this?

Friday, 19 September 2014

Prison Penpals: Who Writes and Why?

Having posted recently on this blog about the problems prisoners can face in keeping in touch with family and friends while they are in jail, I thought I should write something on the subject of prison penpals. These can really be a lifeline for prisoners who don’t have any close family or friends of their own. Just receiving an occasional letter from the outside world can make all the difference to someone who is struggling with life inside.

Although the whole prison penpal thing isn’t yet as developed in the UK as it is in the USA (where there are numerous websites listing cons requesting penpals such as, it is still a growing phenomenon in our prisons. I know a large number of cons who do write regularly to their correspondents, some of whom they have never actually met in person. 

Typical US penpal ad
Sometimes these penpals are friends of friends, or even female prisoners in women’s nicks. Others are involved in various prisoner support groups, religious organisations or just make contact through online websites similar to the US versions.

In general, I’m all in favour of anything that provides prisoners with a window on the outside world and a bit of normality in what can be a very dark, depressing and loveless environment. Having a regular correspondent can also improve cons’ writing skills, as well as their motivation to learn.   

Years ago I was involved with an international charity that matched prisoners on US death rows with penpals. For several years I wrote a couple of times per month to a con who was in a prison down in Florida. He was an entertaining correspondent and I did learn quite a lot about the US penitentiary system from him. We also had a shared interest in English literature and I was able to order paperback books for him via We’d both read the same book at the same time and then compare our views and reactions to it in our letters. I really enjoyed writing to him and I like to think that our correspondence made his existence on death row a little more bearable and less isolated.

Sadly, his appeals ran out, his time came and he was executed by lethal injection. I still have a collection of his letters that were written around 12 years ago, including the last one he sent me the night before he was put to death, in which he thanked me for my friendship and support. Obviously, back then I never imagined that I’d end up in the slammer myself. It’s a strange old world.

So I do appreciate how important having regular correspondents can be, especially when prisoners have no-one else with whom they can communicate. However, there can be potential perils and pitfalls for the unwary. 

I was reminded of the problems with prison penpals when I was reading one of the latest letters on the excellent Prisoners’ Families Voices website. I’ll share it because I think this is an instructive story of the sort that will be familiar to anyone who has served a jail sentence, but which may come as something of a surprise to those who haven’t had any direct experience of prisons or prisoners.

The writer of the letter explains that she made the decision to break up with her then partner who is serving a lengthy stretch inside and told him this during a visit. She goes on to observe that her ex recently informed her in a letter that he has now met another woman who has become his penfriend. 

In this letter he also let her know that this person is sending him money and ‘looking after him’. However, she relates that her ex-partner then goes on note that he has no intention of settling down in a relationship with the woman he is writing to, but would “jump at the chance” to get back together with her (his ex) when he is released. And thereby hangs a tale!

Writing in search of love or...?
This phenomenon will be only too familiar to many women who have developed a penpal relationship with a bloke who is in the slammer. For those on the outside, writing to a con they may never have actually met is seen as a slightly edgy thing to do. There may even be a frisson of excitement in corresponding with a self-proclaimed ‘bad boy’ who has some tattoos and a bit of attitude. 

Prison, by its very nature is a closed world and people can become very curious about what really goes on inside. Maybe that’s why so many people read this and other prison blogs.

However, there is also a potentially romantic element to having a boyfriend in the nick, particularly for females who are a little bit – how to put this politely? – needy. Having a boyfriend who is in jail at least means that his penpal girlfriend knows where he is on a Saturday night. He won’t cheat on her – at least not with another woman – while he’s inside and the fact that she holds the purse-strings also gives her a degree of power over him. It’s her decision whether she sends him a regular postal order or not. The relationship can soon become one of mutual dependence: romantic, as well as financial.

A weekly postal order can make all the difference
The key problem is that a sizeable number of cons are highly manipulative people. Those that don’t have close family members willing to provide financial support have limited options when they are in prison. Having a penpal who is willing to provide the readies for burn (tobacco) and other essentials is a prize worth having. If she (or he – believe me, some cons aren’t that fussy) keeps that all-important cash flow coming, then his letters from prison will continue to drop on to the doormat.  

Understandably, a great many cons are also sexually frustrated. Having a regular supply of explicit letters from a female correspondent is a massive bonus, as is having a few candid photos from time to time. Of course, there is a limit to just how sexually explicit prison mail can be, but the bar is actually pretty high before a letter will get blocked. 

While working as an Insider (peer mentor) I’ve been asked to read letters to cons who have problems reading and I’ve been quite amazed at what routinely gets past the censor, including some of the photos wives, girlfriends and female penpals have sent in. Really racy ones might get passed round between mates in order to spice up those moments when a prisoner manages to get some special time alone in his cell… if you catch my drift. 

Some do find true love with cons
I have known some cons who build up quite a ‘stable’ of female penpals, often in addition to having a wife or regular girlfriend at home. One young drug dealer I got to know quite well in a B-cat nick was running four relationships simultaneously: his partner, with whom he had two kids, as well as three unsuspecting female penpals who each thought that they were in exclusive contact with him and who believed they were romantically involved. 

All four women were sending him a monthly postal order and the cash, which totalled much more than he was allowed to spend each week on the canteen, was mounting up in his prison account. He was completely shameless about his activities, although he did ensure that he wrote a loving thank you letter to each one in response to every letter – and postal order – he received.

Now, it is also true that some prisoners and their penpals do form serious relationships that continue after release. However, for every story of true love, I would guess that there are another half-dozen that are doomed from the start, mainly because – as in the case described above – the con really isn’t romantically involved beyond breaking up the boredom of prison life by writing letters and, of course, waiting for the arrival of those loveable little postal orders that make life in the slammer so much more bearable. And as the cynical American writer Dorothy Parker once observed, the two sweetest words in the English language are “cheque enclosed”. I wonder if she ever wrote to a con.