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.


  1. I've often thought that if I was ever incarcerated and did 'all' the activities / jobs available I'd still be incredibly bored most of the time.

    Unlimited books / Kindle would be the only way I could combat the boredom; I believe I could handle the loss of liberty etc but not the loss of reading material.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I used to share that view myself. Having always worked for a living in high pressure, professional roles, I often used to dream about having plenty of free time to enjoy reading for pleasure (rather than official reports), writing or just relaxing in front of the television without feeling guilty about doing nothing. Not having a mobile phone ringing or buzzing was another fantasy. Then it all came true... in a very unexpected sort of way!

      I was fortunate to have been in prison for a couple of years before the new Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system was introduced in November 2013. I was allowed to bring a pile of books into prison with me, as well as having another dozen sent in from home, including some specialist books that I could never have found in any prison library.

      This gave me plenty to keep my mind busy in the days before this ridiculous and vindictive policy of only allowing a maximum of 12 books in possession (excluding the Bible or other religious books and a dictionary). Back then, in the 'good old days' the only limit on books was whether they would fit in your two 'volumetric control' boxes. You could also borrow six books from the prison library on top, so I read voraciously, including re-reading various classics that I'd not revisited since I was at school or university. I even brushed up on my ancient Greek!

      Now the environment is very different and most of my books would probably have been confiscated as they far exceeded the maximum of 12 (which includes any library books a con has borrowed). Once in storage or sent back home, I'd never have been able to access them again until release.

      For prisoners who don't like reading (or who struggle with literacy) that might not be a problem, but a large number of cons are literate - or want to improve their education and qualifications - so they really do feel the impact of Chris Grayling's 'crackdown'. As the Prisoners' Education Trust recently observed in its report 'Brain Cells: Listening to Prisoner Learners', the restriction on the number of books prisoners could have in their cells was "inadvertently impacting on higher level and distance learners who need a variety of sometimes specialist books". It was obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about prisoners or education that this would be one of the negative outcomes of the new IEP policy, but it's also obvious that Team Grayling couldn't care less. So much for rehabilitation!

    2. I had a very bizarre experience with the education department inside. I was allowed to take an Open University mathematics course. Initially I was rejected because my English (GCSE grade B) wasn't sufficient to take the course.

      After a number of protests I was allowed to enrol. Somewhat deceptively I requested a dictionary to aid my studies. Me and my pad mate were lucky enough to have a scrabble set and played avidly each day to pass the time. The dictionary was only to help our games and resolve any gameplay conflict. I was presented with a brand new dictionary, paid for by the education department for my mathematics course without question.

      Prisons work in strange ways, with my dictionary sorted out for my mathematics course I requested a calculator. This was bluntly declined. It was a security risk for me to have a calculator. Eventually I did get this resolvde and the prison delivered to me a scientific calculator.

      Thankfully all this happened before Grayling's vindictive regime kicked in. My Open University course contained, I think, around 10 books. Add to that my dictionary I would now be only allowed one book from either my own personal possession or borrowed from the prison library for 'pleasure' reading.

      I read extensively in prison, I don't at home usually - maybe a novel on holiday. Given the option of a large collection of Open University books to further my education or some escapism tales to pass the time I'd take the latter. If Mr Garyling isn't allowing cons to educate themselves AND read for entertainment there is a very worrying future for anybody entering into the criminal 'justice' system.

    3. Thanks for your very insightful observations and comments on this issue. It's always interesting to learn about the personal experiences of other cons and ex-cons.

      I fear that because of all the recent changes - both to the prison education system and the IEP rules - the 'golden age' of capable prisoners being able to take university level qualifications will soon be a distant memory. Even while I was still in jail it was becoming more and more difficult to sort out funding for OU study and to submit typed coursework or essays for assessment.

      I think that lifers and those serving very long sentences might stand a slightly better chance of getting enrolled on degree courses, but I'm not optimistic. I get the impression that higher education is sometimes regarded as being 'wasted' on cons, especially at a time when rising tuition fees and other costs are discouraging many 6th formers and mature students from even applying to universities or colleges, particularly those who come from working class backgrounds or people who don't have wealthy families.

      What is also of great concern is the way in which the new IEP regulations on books in possession are impacting negatively on those prisoners who really do want to study and gain qualifications - whether purely academic or vocational, as you point out in your comments. I've posted elsewhere on this blog about my friend who is still inside (and has a long time yet to do) whose self-funded vocational course is being obstructed by his inability to get access to the required textbooks through either his prison library (via the inter-library loan system) or from other sources, such as his family.

      No matter what Messrs Grayling and Selous claim in their official spin on this issue, the hard evidence is that prison education is being reduced to basic literacy and numeracy, with a bit of elementary IT being thrown in for good measure. A recent report by the Prisoners' Education Trust highlights the devastating impact of the revised IEP system on distance learners. Utterly contemptible and a measure of what Team Grayling really think of cons who are making an effort to rehabilitate themselves through improving their education and skills.

  2. I have a copy of the Alan Clark Diaries at home.

  3. You mention a prisoner being sectioned. Did this happen often? Also, did you get the chance to meet these people after they had been treated and returned to the general prison population?


    1. Thanks for your question, Peter. In my experience sectioning under the Mental Health Act tends to occur in two specific circumstances in prisons. The first is after first reception from court at a Cat-B local when it has become clear that the prisoner's behaviour represents a danger to themselves or others and the second is during a sentence when an inmate's mental health has seriously deteriorated (sometimes due to drug use or clinical depression).

      The principal problem is that is can take time between a mental health referral and sectioning, and then identifying a suitable bed space in a secure unit. I've known it take weeks or even longer for a person who is very obviously severely ill being transferred to a hospital. Unfortunately, our criminal justice system is not good at dealing with people who live with mental illness, so terrible mistakes are sometimes made, including on occasion further violence (self-harm, suicide or against others).

      I have personally never encountered a prisoner who has been sectioned return to prison after being transferred to a secure mental health unit. However, I have known quite a few who were held on Cat-B wings awaiting transfer.

  4. I think id go mad locked in a cell all day. How did u cope. Vas

    1. Thanks for your comment and question, Vas. Well, for me it was important to share a cell with a good pad-mate. I was lucky that in most of the prisons I was held at I had decent people in with me, including an ex-solicitor, a former college lecturer, a former deputy bank manager, a university student etc, so there was already a bit of intelligent conversation to be had even when we were banged-up. I was never really that keen to have a single cell myself, but then I'm quite a sociable person. I know other people really prefer to be locked up on their own and hate sharing. Horses for courses etc.

      I always made sure that I had a prison job because that got me out of the cell during the day, gave me a chance to spend time with other cons - some of whom became good friends - and also to get some satisfaction by helping others as an Insider (peer mentor). Taking any opportunity to keep busy in prison can be very important for good mental health, even jobs like cleaning or emptying wing rubbish bins.

      Other than that, when we were on lockdown 23 hours a day, we just watched TV, read books or passed the time writing. If you have a Scrabble set or chess board then you can pass the time playing. I'm not really into playing cards, but a lot of cons do get really into this.

      To be honest, you just have to learn to cope. I only had one very mild and minor 'panic attack' early on in my sentence when I woke up late at night and really felt claustrophobic and trapped. I just lay in bed, took deep breaths and it soon passed. It never happened again, thankfully. However, for prisoners who do have mental health issues or who suffer from certain phobias (such as being buried alive), jail can be a terrible ordeal.

  5. The media and the movie industry has definitely made jail time either more glorifying than it should be, or more terrifying than it should be. Thanks for "keeping it real" so to speak and giving an honest account of what jail is really like for so many regular people who just fell on hard times.