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.


  1. Maine State Prison is a Supermax.

    1. I missed the recent TV documentary, but I hope to watch it when it's repeated. The reviews sound interesting.

    2. It's on Youtube. Search for "This World Life in Solitary", There is a full length version of 59.06 minutes.


    3. Cheers for that info, Peter. I'll catch up on it.

    4. Hi Peter, I've just watched the TV documentary on Main State Prison solitary unit. Physically, it's not so different from a UK Block (seg unit), although, to be honest, the facilities looked a bit better in the US version.

      However, the type of disturbed behaviour shown, including self-harm and the obvious deterioration in the inmates' mental health after only a few weeks in seg, are very similar to what I've witnessed in prison myself. The negative impact of solitary confinement is well-documented. In my experience, the use of the Block to punish non-violent offences is almost always entirely counter-productive and often makes inmates' behaviour worse. The problem is what to do with cons who represent a serious danger to other prisoners and staff? I don't have an easy answer to that, although poor mental healthcare in our prisons definitely doesn't help.

    5. Do cons pass things to each other on lines of string?

    6. Thanks for your question. Yes, they certainly do, although the system in UK prisons is somewhat different to how they do it in the US segregation units (as shown in the TV documentary on Maine State Prison).

      The UK system involves running lines between cell windows at night after bang-up when all the cell doors are locked. Cons can't usually get hold of string, but improvise with torn strips from bed sheets or thick cotton or nylon thread nicked from jail workshops. The idea is to tie the item you want to send to another pad (cell) to the end of a line and swing it out of the window to the required cell. Obviously, this only works within a limited range and on your side of the prison wing only.

      At night, staff patrol outside to try to catch people swinging lines. That's why many nicks have cell numbers painted on the outside walls by each window so screws can easily identify which cells are involved when lines are being used.

      More modern prisons tend to have either sealed window units that can't be opened (with a side vent covered with a metal grill) - and these severely restrict the flow of fresh air - or the small side windows do open, but have metal stops welded on to prevent cons opening them more than two-inches or so. With the first type of window, there's no chance of swinging lines, and it is almost impossible with the second type.

    7. What do you call cons who shout insults at screws from their window?

    8. Thanks for your question. We used to call guys who shout out of cell windows during bang-up 'window warriors'. Mostly they shouted stuff about other cons, sometimes very funny stuff, but often just really boring crap. In Cat-B jails a few lads did shout insults at screws, especially at night, but that didn't happen too regularly.

      There was always loads of noise during New Year's Eve inside the nick. Lots of lads shouted out of their windows to other cons for an hour or more as the chimes of Big Ben came on the TV.

    9. Check this if you miss more Prison shows:

    10. If you have a facebook account, this is worth a look:!/UkPrisonOfficer

      He posts about Prison matters from all over the UK.

    11. Thanks for the link. I've seen this Facebook site before. The person who posts covers many of the same news items as I do, although often from a different perspective, which I find interesting. Some prison officers do read my blog and have posted interesting comments, which I always welcome, even if our views differ.

      What is a bit depressing, however, are some of the comments that get posted under this person's Facebook posts. Some of these are so spiteful and vindictive that you really do get the impression that at least few the people who are posting (and claiming to be serving prison officers) are verging on being dangerous psychopaths themselves! Maybe it's the legacy of the job, or perhaps HMPS still attracts some very warped folk with massive chips on each shoulder!

      A couple of other comments seem typical of the old-style screws 'canteen culture' - extremely right-wing and out of date. Screws are supposed to set good examples to cons, however, based on what a few of them have posted online, at least a couple of these guys might be better placed on the other side of the door!

  2. Did an Insider meet you on your first day in Prison?

    1. Thanks for your question. In my own case, no because I was put straight into solitary down in the Block (segregation unit). This was because of my Army background and the job I used to do.

      However, when I was finally given the all clear by the security team to go to the wings, I was met by two Insiders at the wing gate and they organised induction for me and other new receptions. I subsequently ended up doing the same job myself in four different prisons.

  3. I didn't meet an insider when I first entered into prison. I really wish I had, I got to know a few of the insiders over time and they did help so much when they had contact with new arrivals - when they could.

    All new arrivals are supposed to have an induction with wing staff to explain processes and safety issues. I never had an induction other than my name, address, next of kin details being taken - although reception had already taken the same details.

    I was told to walk up to the 4's (3rd floor landing as I know now). - a foreign language to me then - I got a blank look from the officer who was maybe unsure why I looked confused.

    Prison is a very strange environment, in a morning your cell door would be unlocked by a screw and you'd have absolutely no idea what you were expected to do. Shit, shave, shower, work, collect food, make a phone call? - there was no way of knowing what to do in the early days.

    I was lucky, I was sharing a cell with a lifer who knew the ropes and would point me in the right direction. Staff were no use - even a couple of years ago before the massive reduction in staff numbers they were overstretched. Many didn't care, those who did simply didn't have the time.

    Insiders provide a very vital role in the prison system. I wasn't granted access to one on inception when I really could have done with some help. I've seen the difference they can make. Prison is such an alien environment, you can find yourself walking the streets a free man in the morning then be eating your evening meal in a cell with a complete stranger the same day and not have clue what is going on around you. That's exactly what happened to me.

    A friendly face, somebody you can know you can trust is invaluable when you're at your lowest.

    1. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your own experiences. I think that what this shows is just how much of a lottery the whole prison induction process can be.

      At one nick you can find well-trained Insiders who really show new arrivals the ropes and continue supporting all the cons on their wing, which definitely makes what is a very traumatic experience for any first-timer easier. At the other extreme, the whole system is disfunctional and new receptions are just dumped on the wing, sometimes with no bedding, towels or hygiene items (toothbrush, comb, soap) or even a chance to take a shower or call home to inform their family which prison they are in.

      I think that the most serious problems are in the B-cat locals. These take all the new receptions from court, both remands and cons, many of whom have not a clue about the prison system. They can be badly organised, have far too few frontline staff and without the Insiders the whole process would be even more chaotic.

      Since the evidence from a range of sources, including the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and HM Inspectorate of Prisons, highlights the raised risk of suicide and self-harm among newly arrived prisoners, you might think that the induction process would be the right time to calm people down (especially first-timers) and provide them with factual information about regimes, family contact, how to put in apps etc. That period of contact also enables switched on Insiders to spot which new receptions might be at risk of self-harm or suicide and they can share this information with staff. However, if the particular prison is understaffed and disfunctional, then all of these opportunities can be missed and more tragedies can occur.

      Of course, a good first pad-mate can fill in some of the gaps left by an inadequate induction system, but that is often the luck of the draw. I would recommend that Insiders should be more carefully selected, should agree to be put on hold at that prison for an agreed period of time, and should receive better training (not necessarily from wing staff, but from other experienced Insiders, maybe chaplaincy, Safer Custody etc). There are lots of lessons to be learned, but sadly too many senior managers don't seem to want to listen or improve induction processes.

  4. Write something about the role of the Chaplain. Does he look for cons when they arrive or do they need to seek him out somehow?

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I have mentioned chaplains from different faiths in my post on religious extremism, but I'll have a think about doing something on the role chaplains play generally.