Friday, 5 September 2014

One of the Two Tribes: the Screws

UK prisons are very tribal societies. There are the most obvious divisions between prisoners (‘cons’ or offenders) and everyone else who works in the prison system: “them and us”. However, there are also many other sub-groups, including the uniformed officers (‘screws’ or ‘kangas’), suited governors, chaplains, backroom office staff, civilian instructors, maintenance contractors, educators, medics and psychologists. Some fit neatly within the traditional prison hierarchy, others don’t. 

A 'kanga' or 'screw'
When I was in prison, I became a keen observer of every aspect of how our jails actually function in practice – which is often very different from the theory. I had a pretty unique opportunity to become a small part of a very interesting experiment in participatory anthropology, as readers of my previous blog posts will probably already be aware.   

As a social anthropologist I’m primarily interested in social structures within human societies, including tribes, families, hierarchies, sources of authority, laws, rules, customs and conflict resolution systems. Prisons present a fascinating, although very neglected, area for any researcher. Of course, most academics never get to see right inside our penal system with all its rich variety. 

A few postgraduates and university research staff are given privileged access by the National Offender Manager Service (NOMS) to conduct research into approved topics, but they are usually restricted to interviewing a handful of volunteers, whether staff members or serving cons. Getting down and dirty on the actual residential wings is extremely rare. 

Interviewing a con
Another key barrier is that the vast majority of prisoners are very reticent about talking freely with outsiders. Building up trust is a slow, often painstaking process and few researchers will ever really have the time or the extended access that would be required to persuade cons to open up and discuss their experiences and perceptions of prison life. As an insider myself, who didn’t face those barriers, I count myself as very fortunate that I’ve been able to make what could have been an extremely negative experience into something positive and to be able to share this information with the wider world. 

For an outsider, getting any sense out of the other most visible tribe inside our prisons – the uniformed staff (‘screws’) – is likely to prove even more challenging. Frontline officers are set apart in various ways. They wear black and white uniforms (clothing colours that are specifically prohibited for inmates) and have prominent key chains attached to their belts. 

NOMS: crisis management?
They represent power and authority on prison wings, even if that power has become more limited as NOMS rules and regulations have got ever more complicated. Human rights legislation and Prison Service Instructions (PSIs), not to mention health and safety rules, have all converged to disempower your average screw. One of the most common complaints I’ve heard from wing staff is that governors are now so afraid of legal action or negative publicity that they have become ‘soft’ on cons, but are too tough on uniformed officers. 

‘Screwology’ – the study of prison officers – is equally as fascinating as criminology. Perhaps even more so. One of the common questions that cons pose about wing staff is why would anyone in their right minds sign up for a job that involves locking and unlocking doors for people who live in small concrete boxes, particularly if there is always the chance that you might get injured by an angry or aggressive prisoner? There is also a general myth among prisoners that the vast majority of screws are the sort of people who couldn’t hold down a decent job in the real world.

My experience is that members of the uniformed prison staff have as wide a range of motives for choosing their occupation as pretty much any other public sector workers. Some consider it to be a steady job with the prospect of a pension; others sign up because a job at their local nick means they can stay in their home area with other members of their extended families, especially if the opportunities for other types of work are limited. 

I’ve met whole families where two or even three generations work in the Prison Service. Sometimes one will be on a wing, another in a backroom office, yet another in the education department. It can represent a way of life. 

From the Army to HMPS?
I think that there has also been a major shift in the way the Prison Service recruits. Traditionally, most uniformed officers (and quite a few governor grades) came to HMPS following service in the armed forces. For many years, the grade system mirrored Army ranks. Former commissioned officers tended to become governors, while ex-NCOs and career soldiers became unformed wing staff. 

The old Chief Officer grade (now long gone, but once upon a time the nearest thing to God inside prisons, other than God himself) was often held by former Regimental Sergeant Majors. I’m told that they often had the presence to terrify cons and lesser screws alike.

Mr Mackay: old school
There was a time when many older screws still wore peaked caps and medal ribbons on their uniforms. Even today you can still see Veterans Badges pinned to ties and fleece collars, since probably about a third of all wing staff I met during my time in prison had an armed services background of some kind.

Of course, just like in any other line of work, you can meet decent screws and absolute bastards. I met all sorts in prison. Short fat screws and thin tall ones; creepy weirdoes, as well as kind, compassionate people and a fair number of evilly sadistic ones; hard-workers and bone-idle lumps. It’s impossible to generalise.

Occasionally you do have to question an individual’s motives for opting for this type of work. For example, at one C-cat nick I started to get complaints from very embarrassed young cons about a particular male officer who was often on searching duty after visits. 

A normal pat-down search
It was alleged that he was regularly subjecting younger prisoners to extremely humiliating intimate inspections during post-visit strip searches – practices which certainly weren’t in the official rules (PSI 67/2011 on Searching of the Person) – and even making lewd comments about their genitals, much to the apparent amusement of the second screw who always accompanied him in the searching area. These young cons felt very humiliated and embarrassed even talking about what they’d experienced. A few even started cancelling visits from their families out of fear that they might be targeted again by him.

Eventually, there were so many similar accounts from young lads on different wings that I believed the complaints were definitely true. No-one dared to complain to staff because they were afraid of possible reprisals. I gather that word of this situation eventually reached the ears of the governors – probably from fellow officers – and the screw in question disappeared from that particular nick, although whether he was merely ‘given words of advice’ and transferred elsewhere or actually sacked quietly, none of us ever found out. 

Not just needed by cons...?
A small number of the uniformed wing staff have quite serious problems with basic literacy. I’ve met a couple of older screws who really couldn’t cope with the more complex reading exercises towards the end of the Toe by Toe adult literacy coursebook. How they managed to write wing reports is a mystery. Perhaps other officers helped them out or they just didn’t bother with that aspect of the job.

At one B-cat nick, a particularly unfunny and rather sinister screw used to be responsible for checking prisoners who were deemed at risk of suicide or self-harm via the Assessment and Care in Custody Teamwork (ACCT) system. Basically, this means that cons considered to be at risk should be monitored regularly by wing staff at intervals that are determined by the seriousness of the risk to ensure their well-being. 

He thought it was a great joke to look into a cell where prisoners were on the ACCT book and say: “Well I see no-one’s hanged themselves yet! Try not to do it on my shift... too much paperwork!” It was perhaps hardly surprising the suicide and self-harm rate was very high at that particularly establishment – so much so that HM Inspectorate of Prisons delivered a shockingly damning report. 

In addition to the inevitable weirdoes, misfits and numpties, it is also fair to say that I’ve met a fair number of decent screws. Some have senses of humour that are familiar to anyone who’s been in the armed forces. One of the best female officers I ever got to know was an out lesbian – “I’m a dyke and proud of it, mate!” was one of her catchphrases. 

She didn’t just care about prisoners as individuals, but she also knew exactly how to get almost any con to comply with her instructions without complaint. Most prisoners were putty in her hands. She could also calm down and defuse almost any conflict or mini-crisis on the wing.

Managing adult male prisoners effectively requires an innate combination of man-management skills and a good grasp of male psychology. There are occasions when a female officer can succeed in achieving peaceful conflict resolution where her more macho male colleagues might not do so well. Of course, being a female screw in these environments can require a lot of bottle and I have to confess to a sneaking admiration for some of those I’ve met.

A game of strategy and cunning
At times, being in prison can resemble a giant game that involves a sense of strategy, low cunning and calculation of risk. If given the chance, many cons will try to play screws at their own game. Remember that there are quite a few prisoners who are serving time for clever, highly complex frauds or other crimes that have involved considerable amounts of skill and intelligence. If given the chance, some of them will manipulate screws and other non-uniformed staff, as well as fellow cons. 

At times insecure, gullible, less experienced or greedy screws can fall into their traps – and then find themselves getting blackmailed into turning a blind eye to certain activities on prison wings or even into acting as ‘mules’ to smuggle in drugs (both illegal and so-called ‘legal’ highs’), mobile phones, SIM cards and alcohol. They became what are sometimes called “cons with keys” - until they get caught, as many do.

Pretty much every Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU) or open nick in the UK has at least one former screw in it serving a sentence for misconduct in public office (maximum penalty – life) or some other offence that has involved smuggling contraband into jails. That’s why prison Security Departments watch staff just as closely as they scrutinise cons. And once they end up on the wrong side of the cell door, they quickly find that no-one, officer or con, really likes a bent screw. It’s a pretty wretched and terrifying existence, often made more so by former colleagues who want to make a point.  

On a day-to-day basis, however, pretty much all prisons – or at least those outside the high security dispersal system – can only run with a degree of cooperation between wing screws and cons. Obviously, we could never be friends across the great divide – neither tribe would stand for it – but relations on wings can be polite, cordial and at times even humorous. Some screws can be extremely witty and humour sometimes has the power to defuse tense standoffs. 

How many screws feel
It seems that now is not a great time to be working in the Prison Service. Government cuts and resulting staff shortages are just two of the current problems. The recent round of Specification, Benchmarking and Costing (based on the 2007 Carter Review of prisons) is giving rise to individual performance appraisals. Significant reductions in the number of staff across the prison estate – around 30 percent over three years from 27,650 officer grade staff in September 2010 to 19,325 in September 2013 – have also increased the pressure of work. I think it’s fair to say that morale among prison staff members has just about hit rock-bottom. 

When I was working inside prisons as an Insider (peer mentor for other prisoners) I sometimes found that I often had access to more information about upcoming policy changes and new NOMS initiatives than rank and file staff on the wings did. Questions to uniformed staff often met the response: “Well, you know more than we do!” I got the impression that some wing screws were so disillusioned that they were planning to move on or take early retirement just as quickly as they could.

I well recall a little flash of resistance by staff at one nick when they dared to pin up a printed photograph of growing mushrooms on the outside of a main wing office door. The unspoken message was clear: “Kept in the dark and fed on shit”. It was an attempt at humour, as well as a mute protest. An eagle-eyed governor soon spotted it and the sign duly disappeared.


  1. Very interesting read, many thanks

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found it interesting,

    2. I'll go along with most of this......was highly interesting....and well put....mirrors many of my thoughts on screws......

    3. Thanks for your comment, John. It's interesting to get the views of others who have experience of the prison system.

  2. Didn't a screw (who probably had an argument with his wife that morning) call you a c**t for no reason?

    1. He did indeed. It's mentioned in a previous blog post, so I didn't mention it again.

  3. My time inside showed me both sides of the prison officer. There are some that really do care for your needs - they want to help and really do whatever then can to do whatever could help. Others are real sadistic or lazy bastards wanting to punish you.

    I've met officers who have personally offered me great acts of kindness, others, have absolutely shafted me for no apparent reason. I treated them all respectfully, their responses differed wildly.

    When I was inside I wondered whether being a prison officer would be a good career choice for me - probably not going to happen given my history. Would I want it? Probably not. As in Alex's post it's a fairly mundane job - opening and closing doors for a bunch of people that may at any moment try to take your life. It's not actually like that but you would have to assume that may happen. And for £20k ish a year would you do it?

    As an ex-con I think I'd make a fantastic screw - policies wouldn't let me, I really believe that every potential prison officer should spend a week or two "inside" to get a real idea of how it really is,

    The reduction in staff numbers is an absolute disgrace, they really do have a very difficult job to do anyway but with fewer numbers the contact with inmates and sometimes very humorous and calming banter would be lost. A good screw maintains calm with his personality. If it becomes physical the system has failed. There are idiot inmates in the prison system - they're by far the minority,

    Grayling - time to get you finger out! Maintain staffing, get rid of the freeloaders, do your job, make prisons safe, productive and rehabilitate some folk.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I wanted to try to give as balanced a picture as possible - good and bad - based on personal experience and impressions, rather than just perpetuating stereotypes.

      I've often wondered if it would be a job I'd have liked to do myself and I think it would be the sheer boredom of the wing routine that would be unbearable. It's not just cons who get bored, I've known quite a few screws who say they feel the same. Also, they are locked in the slammer while on shift and have a lot of their liberty taken away - mobile phones, internet access, now smoking - even if they do get paid for the job.

      Of course, as we all know, some screws do abuse their position, but then so do some police officers and politicians. And for every uniformed sadist or weirdo I've met during my sentence, I've probably met two decent, hard-working screws and two more bored time-servers who just want a quiet life and go through the motions. Those are the real 'key monkeys' who only lock and unlock doors and gates.

      The best screws are those who can maintain a sense of humour and lighten the atmosphere on the wing. I remember one Scottish officer - ex-army - who could have us all in stitches with his quick wit and turns of phrase. Yet he was also a tough disciplinarian - very old school - who took no crap from anyone, including governors. Most importantly, he never had favourites - those notorious 'screw-boys' that every nick seems cursed with! I'll be writing about those soon.

  4. I guess a prison officer is a copper within a confined space, both attempt to maintain law and order.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Up to a point, although any serious incidents have to be referred to the local police because internal prison discipline procedures are limited in scope and the penalties that can be awarded.

      One of the oddities of the internal adjudication system is that in most circumstances the accused con has no right to legal representation and the Prison Service itself provides the charging officer, the judge (a governor), the prosecutor and the main prosecution witnesses, so the remit is much wider than the police on the street.

    2. Can u do post on regime inside n weekend what prisoners do plz

    3. Sure. Happy to oblige. Keep the suggestions coming.

  5. Organise an "Any questions" post please, I have plenty of questions >.<

    1. Sure, that's a great suggestion. I'm happy to take questions as this is one of the reasons I started the blog after I posted on The Guardian online comments section and had loads of questions in real time.

      I've also thought about doing a joint posting session with Jack Hill, another ex-con, who vlogs on YouTube. We're trying to work out how best to organise it, so watch this space!

  6. Good! I've seen one of his vlogs, he looks like a happy chap.

    1. Glad to learn you found Jack's vlog interesting. He's probably the only ex-con in the UK posting regular vlogs at the moment, although there are a few of us blogging. We're in regular touch and planning some joint online projects.

  7. Should cons be members of a Union and should they be permitted to vote during Elections?

    1. Thanks for your questions. On the issue of a 'prisoners union' or association, it has been tried before. Some years ago - long before I ended up in prison - I actually signed up as an associate member (since I wasn't then either a con or an ex-con) of the Association of Prisoners launched by John Hirst. I was interested in general prison issues at the time.

      To be honest, nothing really came of it. I think I may have received one letter about it, then nothing. I think the practical difficulties involved in trying to set up such an organisation, especially by serving prisoners, would be too complicated and I'm not sure really what it would achieve. So my own view is that it wouldn't fly anyway, not least because the MOJ would never recognise it. Of course, some cons remain members of their own trades unions when inside - I did myself - and there is nothing stopping us doing so, but those are external organisations.

      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.

      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 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 its 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'.

      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.

      My best guess is that nothing will change any time soon.

  8. There should be a Prison rep to negotiate the extent of the Draconian Prison Rules. Maybe lifting the book ban and library closures could be traded with a smoking ban, books or cigs?

    1. Thanks for your comments. Interesting suggestions. Most prisons do have wing reps, but they are almost always appointed by wing governors and aren't respected by a majority of the cons. They are generally perceived to be 'screw-boys' and tend to be despised.

      The problem isn't really with the Prison Rules - which aren't very detailed at all - it's more the Prison Service Instructions (PSIs) that determine every tiny detail. When the latest revision of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system was implemented on 1 November 2013, it was purely ideological.

      Previously, governors had extensive discretion over what they could allow prisoners to have in possession. 'Exceptional' circumstances clauses provided individual governors with the power to make sensible decisions and to defuse situations. For example, the whole ridiculous row over steel-stringed guitars would never have happened prior to PSI 30/2013 coming into effect.

      Governors - who are best placed to know their individual establishments and to check on security issues - could allow specific prisoners to have education course books posted in, for example. The new PSI removed almost all discretion from governors - effectively disempowering them - through the new National Facilities List which details every tiny issue. It was a key part of Chris Grayling's political posturing for the tabloids to prove he was being 'tough' on cons. Ironically, the people most affected are those prisoners who actually want to gain new educational and vocational qualifications so they have a chance of getting work on release. Utterly counter-productive.

      I think the tobacco ban will involve two issues: the commercial relationship with DHL, which has the contract to supply canteen items, and the potential impact on prison staff (including a potential rise in violence, as well as opportunities for wing barons to profit from contraband supplies). Generally speaking whenever anything that is in widespread demand - and 80 percent of adult male cons smoke - is banned, it just creates a massive illicit market inside jails.

  9. Take a look at this:

    1. Thanks for the link! That YouTube vid was a blast from the very recent past! I think I actually recognised a couple of the screws...

      It was a useful, quick introduction to some the typical dramas you get on the wing of any closed nick... self-harming, 'twist ups' (restraint), Tornado Team (cell extractions), attacks on screws... what a place prison is! On the other hand, the video doesn't show any of the positive things that do go on inside, including good relationships between the decent screws and many cons.