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.