Thursday, 26 February 2015

Prison Suicides: Reducing the Risks

During the recent debate over the rising number of prisoners committing suicide in custody – 84 in England and Wales during 2014 – there has been much discussion of the reasons that some inmates make the decision that life is no longer worth living. However, there has been less focus on whether there are more effective strategies that could be adopted to reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody.

Suicide in prison: rising numbers
I believe that it is an unrealistic expectation that every suicide in prison could have avoided. Moreover, I think that it is essential that members of prison staff are made aware that they can never expect to prevent every suicide in custody. However, the key issues should be risk identification, management, monitoring and mitigation and this is best achieved through the appropriate use of the ACCT system (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork). These procedures are set out in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 64/2011.

It is important that ACCT procedures should not become a routine ‘box-ticking’ process primarily designed to protect members of staff during the investigations that follow any death in custody. All too often the ACCT document observations log that is supposed to be completed at set intervals for each prisoner who has been identified as being at risk can easily become a routine scribbled note that isn’t particularly meaningful – eg just writing “asleep”. 

I have personally witnessed some appalling lapses of professionalism by bored or demoralised wing screws who have risked making bad situations even worse by belittling or taunting individual prisoners who are on the ACCT book. I have known certain members of staff give the impression that the imposition of these additional monitoring duties are all the fault of those cons who are sometimes seen as being inadequate, soft, needy or babyish.

In short supply
There is also no real substitute for wing officers and managers building up relationships with prisoners in their care and being able to spot changes of behaviour or mood. Although most prisons do operate a personal officer system in which each inmate has a designated uniformed member of staff as a first point of contact, in practice the system often fails to work effectively owing to the sheer pressure of work as staff numbers have been reduced. 

When officers are on leave or off work due to illness, or have been transferred on unattached duty to cover staff shortages at other prisons, there is often a lack of continuity and no handover. As a result, many vulnerable prisoners appear to go unnoticed on the wing, particularly if they aren’t demanding or disruptive. All too often these inmates only come to the notice of staff once they have been found hanging in their cells or lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

Of course, a prisoner who is determined to end his or her life can also plan to avoid becoming the subject of an ACCT document by simply concealing his or her distress or depression. Some inmates – just as with people in the community – can be extremely good at concealing their true intentions when it comes to ending their lives. Someone who has planned their suicide can also take steps to act in between periodic observations and unless a specific inmate is on what is termed ‘constant watch’ for 24 hours a day, then gaps between staff visits, however brief, can provide opportunities for self-harm or suicide attempts.

It is a well-documented phenomenon that some individuals who are severely depressed can seem uncharacteristically cheerful immediate before committing suicide. This is because they feel that have found a way to resolve all their problems. I feel that members of staff, particularly recent recruits, should be made aware of this in order to manage their own expectations that they will be able to identify all prisoners at risk of suicide. They can’t. However, I also believe that higher risk inmates could be managed much better.

Identifying those at risk of suicide
There are several identified risk factors when it comes to suicide in custody. Unconvicted remands are recognised as a group at particular risk of suicide, in some cases due to the uncertainty of their situation pre-trial. Some establishments have extremely poor practices when it comes to managing remanded prisoners. In some cases they are treated exactly like convicted prisoners in respect of wearing prison-issue clothing, being made to work and being accommodated with convicted prisoners.

My own view is that Cat-B locals that accept prisoners straight from court should appoint a remand lead or focal point who is tasked with managing prisoners on remand. Each remand prisoner should have an individualised custody plan (since they cannot by definition have a sentence plan). This should identify personal needs in respect of education or skills, interest in working, healthcare needs, dependencies etc. The emphasis should be on avoiding a period spent on remand as ‘wasted time’. Unfortunately, remand prisoners are often overlooked when it comes to being encouraged to apply for work or education courses. 

I would strongly recommend that unless absolutely unavoidable, all male remand prisoners should be positively encouraged to wear their own clothing and made aware at initial reception of all their specific rights and privileges under the Prison Act and the Prison Rules (female prisoners, whether convicted or remand do not have to wear prison-issue clothing). This may best be achieved by means of a first night interview with an experienced officer who sets out these matters clearly. A printed handout listing remand rights should also be seen as good practice, even though I have never come across this being offered in any establishment I’ve been in.

Listeners play a vital role in prisons
The use of Insiders (or their local equivalents) as peer mentors can be particularly important during early days in custody, both for remands and newly convicted prisoners. Samaritan-trained Listeners also play a vital role in helping inmates in distress by providing an opportunity for them to talk about their fears and problems. I believe that appropriate interventions can significantly reduce the risk of suicide among this particular group.

Many suicides – or serious suicide attempts – are preceded by a complex series of events. These can include receiving a very lengthy sentence (or a life/indeterminate sentence); relationship breakdown; increasing ill-health; mental health problems or the death of a loved one. Suicide can also follow incidents of bullying or assault, including sexual assault while in custody. In many cases such incidents are closely linked to the availability of drugs – both legal and illegal – on prison wings and the culture of debt that can easily arise from drug use. Such bullying and threats of severe violence can easily push a vulnerable inmate over the edge.

I believe that it also needs to be recognised that for many prisoners the future is likely to be extremely bleak, especially those serving indefinite or very lengthy sentences. A significant number who are released on long licences might also be recalled at some point and prisoners on recall, like remands, are recognised as a specific group who can be at elevated risk of self-harm or suicide particularly shortly after they have been recalled to prison.

Recalled to prison and at higher risk
In some cases, a period spent in custody following a recall can be even more stressful than the original custodial element of the sentence, especially when re-release on licence is subject to the Parole Board. The most tragic single case of any prisoner suicide I was involved with was of a young prisoner on recall who simply couldn’t face being returned to custody. He hanged himself in the early hours of the morning a few days after having been taken off the ACCT system.  

I would recommend that all newly recalled prisoners should receive an in-depth review by the mental heath team during the reception process. It should never be assumed that just because a newly recalled prisoner has no documented history of self-harm or suicidal thoughts during a previous period in prison, the change in their circumstances cannot be assumed to have left them unaffected. When it comes to suicide reduction, such assumptions can prove fatal.

My own view is that the use of inmate peer mentors – Listeners, Insiders and Safer Custody reps – needs to be carefully managed by the Safer Custody teams. I have previously argued in blog posts that staff shortages should not place additional responsibilities and inappropriate burdens on other prisoners. Indeed, the agreement with the Samaritans clearly states that establishments should not use Listeners as ‘baby-sitters’ for prisoners considered to be at risk.

Prison can be a lonely place to die
In an ideal world, prisoners should probably not be used in such positions. However, in the present circumstances, it may be unavoidable owing to staff shortages and scarcity of resources. On that basis, I would recommend that each prison should identify individual prisoners who are willing to be trained to support Safer Custody strategies. They could receive training from members of the psychology department, as well as certification in basic first aid and Heart Start (CPR).

One option could be to have identified Safer Custody reps on each wing who are willing to have a shared cell with a vacant bed in it that can be used in times of crisis. These prisoners should not be Listeners, as this could compromise their non-directive role. Such prisoners could also work closely with Safer Custody staff, managers and wing officers to help support individual prisoners who are considered to be at risk of suicide or serious self-harm.

If prisoners are to be used to support staff in these roles, then I believe that it is important that this is seen as a responsible prison job subject to very careful recruitment criteria and rigorous risk assessment. Those selected should be given appropriate training and support, including having regular opportunities to off-load concerns in group meetings and to share their experiences with both members of staff and fellow peer support workers. The impact of a suicide on fellow prisoners and staff is sometimes underestimated and peer mentors may require counselling following the death of a prisoner with whom they had been working.

TV cables: ligature of choice in cells
Another key objective should be to keep all those inmates who are identified as being at particular risk busy during the core working day. Unfortunately, the current levels of overcrowding at many establishments, combined with staff shortages, have significantly reduced the number of opportunities for purposeful activity, with more and more inmates spending 22 or 23 hours each day locked up behind their cell doors.

Other practical measures could include ensuring that prisoners considered at risk of self-harm or suicide are not accommodated in single cells where the opportunities to act on negative thoughts are likely to be much greater. In addition, TV aerial cables – which are often used as ligatures – may need to be removed from cells or an alternative found, such as the introduction of wall-mounted flatscreen TV sets that don’t require cables long enough to use as a noose.  

Although the problem of suicides in prison is becoming more openly discussed in the media, I also believe that there needs to be a much more open discussion within prisons concerning suicide and self-harm. Too many short staffed establishments have a tendency to over-rely on Listeners and on putting up a few posters on wing notice boards, rather than on ensuring that good Safer Custody practices are followed at all times. While we might not be able to prevent every suicide in prison, a more integrated and imaginative approach – along with appropriate numbers of experienced frontline staff – could certainly play a key role in reducing the overall number of suicides. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

I'm a Writer, Not a Fighter

There is a surprising amount of creative talent inside our prison system. I’ve met many poets and painters, as well as graphic artists, dramatists and would-be novelists. Prison poetry is a particular genre all on its own and it’s hardly surprising that plenty of prisoners do write behind their cell doors. Some even manage to get their work published in Inside Time, one of the three monthly newspapers circulated free in jails, or into occasional anthologies of prison writing such as those published by New Leaf Books.

The freedom to write in prison
Poetry and other forms of creative writing can often provide a way of expressing personal thoughts and deeper emotions in an environment that can be pretty barren emotionally. In some cases, prisoners write poetry or fiction, or else draw pictures to send out to their loved ones, while others write solely for themselves. Cell noticeboards can be decorated with art that can impress, as well as disturb.

Creative activities can be extremely therapeutic in a prison environment, particularly for inmates who find it difficult to express themselves articulately. A few of the best visual artists I met inside the slammer were functionally illiterate, but could draw or paint extremely well. It can also be an excellent way of passing the time – a commodity that many prisoners have in abundance – as well as helping people to manage depression and other mental health conditions.

Sadly, various restrictive rules have been imposed over the years that can make it very difficult for some prisoners to purchase art supplies beyond the cheap coloured pencils or pens that can usually be bought from the list of items on a typical canteen sheet. While some restrictions – for example on access to certain types of glues or varnishes – can be justified on security or safety grounds, many other bans are more difficult to comprehend.

I have known cases of very talented artists, including a few who have won Koestler Awards, being denied access to essential items such as small canvases for painting. This is all the more incomprehensible when any personal art supplies are purchased by prisoners using their own money. In recent years even organised art classes in education departments have been abolished in some prisons on financial grounds.

Writing usually presents less of a challenge than artwork as the essential requirements, pens and A4 paper, can be bought from prison canteens. It can be more difficult to find a suitable surface to write on in tiny cells that now accommodate two or three men. Of course, when you have been used to using computers for years, returning to the old method of writing everything out by hand can also be pretty daunting for some people.

In addition to keeping a daily diary during my time in prison, like many other cons, I tried my hand at creative writing. It wasn’t the first time that I’d written short stories – a couple had even been published some years ago – but the desire to fill my time inspired me to work on a collection of shorter fiction, including this reflection on the sameness of everyday life inside.

One Morning in the Life of John Dennison

He awoke, as usual, at 05.30 when the cell light was switched on for the morning count. The flap in the door was opened and shut before the dim light was extinguished again.

His pad-mate rolled over on the bed across the cell, then grunted and buried his face in the blanket. He was soon snoring softly again, like a cat’s purr.

John lay awake in the early dawn. The cell was quiet: just the sound of his cellmate’s breathing and the faint rattle of air in the heating pipes under the window. He stared up at the ceiling above his head. Every morning began in the same way.

He knew that neither he nor his pad-mate would get out of bed until at least 07.00. This hour and a half was his time for thinking, for reflection – and for regret. A period of recollection, for memories and for fears about the future.

John had drawn a ‘tenner’ on a Section 18 GBH. “With intent”. He’d thought a lot about those words as he sought ways to get through his sentence, or to ‘kill his bird’ as some cons called it.

Making your own bed
He had had the intent and he knew it. He’d made his own bed and, now, he was – quite literally – lying in it.

He rolled over and faced the wall next to his bunk. He’d stared at this spot every morning and evening for the past year. Before that, it had been a similar spot of wall in an identical cell in another nick.

Pad-mates came and went, but the small patch of wall remained the same. It was his blank canvas on which he sketched images of his past and, less frequently, his future. Some of these memories weren’t pleasant.

He saw himself as a young man; more of a boy really. Full of energy, his whole life before him. Then it had been exciting, like travelling through unmapped territory.

Back then he hadn’t had plans or goals, just the knowledge that life with all its rich possibilities lay before him. Now, as he lay in his cell, he knew that he had betrayed himself – the young man he had once been.

The early hours of the morning
John rolled onto his back, hands clasped on the hard prison pillow under his head. He stared again at the ceiling. It was as blank and featureless as his current existence. Across the cell, his pad-mate snuffled in his sleep, gave a single deep snore and resumed his usual rhythmic breathing in the early morning half-light.

At least he could look up at the ceiling. In this cell they enjoyed the luxury of two single beds. In his previous prisons they only had bunks and you could never achieve a deep sleep. Each man was aware of every movement of the other. Here you could roll over without waking your cellmate. That, he reflected, was positive progress of a kind.

In prison every small comfort was appreciated, its loss anticipated or feared, then resented deeply. That’s why any disruption to the routine or change in living conditions could lead to tensions or, on occasion, violent outbursts of anger. It was a survival mechanism – a fight to keep what little each man had.

Sink in a cell
John glanced at his watch. It was 06.30. He still had half an hour before he would get out of bed. He and his pad-mate were agreed on not getting up before 07.00 on weekdays or 08.00 on weekends. This meant that they would have 45 minutes in which to wash at the small sink, shave, boil the kettle, make a brew and eat their cereal. It was enough.

No-one wanted a cellmate who got up too early or who watched TV all night. Sleep was the best bird-killer. Each night meant another day gone. One less day to serve, another box ticked, a part-payment on a debt owed. Whichever way you looked at it a sort of progress was slowly being made.

Someone had once remarked that sharing a cell with another man was like being trapped in a larger than average toilet with a total stranger. Not for an hour or two, but for months on end. Getting a good pad-mate was an undoubted bonus, but there was always the knowledge – and the anxiety – that good shares never lasted. One or the other would eventually be moved on, shipped out or released.

John reflected on just how little he really knew any of his pad-mates – even those he’d shared with for many months. They weren’t real mates, just casual acquaintances you happened to be thrown together with in abnormal circumstances.

Sharing a cell with a stranger
So far during his stretch he’d shared with a few decent lads, a handful of weirdoes and a couple of nutters, as well as with some whose names and faces he could barely recall. Strange how you could live in such close proximity to someone without ever getting to know them, let along start to understand them. He guessed that this was just another facet of the prison experience.

His pad-mate rolled over again and the purring snore became slightly louder. It would soon be time to get up, to leave the warmth of his hard bed and then go through a series of mechanical activities on autopilot without really thinking.

Another day. More mindless movements, more queuing, more hours of bang-up, more repeats on daytime TV. It wasn’t worth keeping a diary. Describing just one day would be enough. Then each subsequent entry would read: ‘The same as yesterday’. That was now his life and how it would be for years to come.

“With intent”. Yes, he had acted with intent. But this wasn’t what he had intended, what he had hoped for when he was younger. Sometimes, although not often now, he thought about the man he had beaten so severely and why he had felt that all-consuming desire to hurt – even to kill. He wondered whether this man, whom he’d not seen since his trial, ever thought of him. Wondered what was happening in prison to someone he known since childhood; a man that he’d once called his best friend.

It was morning. He could hear the rising sounds of movement. Somewhere, on another landing below, he heard the faint jangling of keys. A heavy gate was swung shut with a dull, metallic clang that echoed across the empty spaces. It was just another morning in the life of John Dennison.

(With apologies to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich remains such an inspiration to prison writers. Ivan Denisovich can be translated into English as ‘John Dennison’)

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Prison Radicalisation: a Prisoner’s Perspective

Perhaps it’s inevitable in the present climate of anxiety about terrorism that the issue of radicalisation of prisoners whilst they are in custody remains highly controversial. Having served time in a couple of specific prisons where this has been a problem, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the process of radicalisation and why it can happen.

Shorts in the shower
When it comes to the practical impacts of various radical groups inside our prisons, I’ve explored some of the issues in a previous blog post: Shorts in the Shower: Prison Extremism. However, I haven’t really explored the issue of how radicalisation inside jail seems to occur. This is often a very complex process that rarely seems to be analysed in detail. Having previously lived and worked in three Muslim countries during my career, and having some very close Muslim friends both inside and outside of prison, I feel that I can share some personal insights. 

Being in prison can be a very isolating and lonely experience. Some people seem to cope with incarceration reasonably well, but our prisons also hold a large proportion of people who are already very damaged human beings – many of whom have left a trail of misery and devastation in their wake prior to being sent down. 

A fair number of prisoners are individuals in search of meaning in their lives. For some, positive mentoring can help to fill that aching void, but others can be particularly susceptible to the attraction of belonging to an exclusive group. That doesn’t necessarily need to be a religious conversion – although a large number of cons do seem to ‘get God’ when they are banged up – as extremist politics also has the potential to draw some people in, especially when there is a charismatic leader figure to whom loyalty can be pledged.

In recent months there have been various official reports concerning the influence of gangs within prisons and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). For example, in its most recent report on YOI Feltham HM Inspectorate of Prisons identified 48 specific gangs operating within the establishment which holds around 240 boys and youths aged from 15 to 18 at one site and around 400 young men aged 18 to 21 on a separate location. According to the inspectors, conflicts at the YOI, fuelled by gang-related tensions, were leading to “unpredictable and reckless violence”.

While some of this gang-related activity has been imported from the streets where gang membership and networking can become a survival strategy for some youths and adults, as well as a means of making money from drug dealing and other criminal activities, the existence of such groups inside prisons can both challenge the security of an institution and lead to the recruitment of new ‘foot soldiers’ on the wings and units. In my experience, there can be close links between gang activity and radicalisation – whether that is essentially religious or political in character.    

In the gang? Or are you on your own?
Most prisoners quickly come to realise that there is strength in numbers on prison wings or residential units. An isolated con can be vulnerable. For many, membership of a gang or another clearly defined group can offer much-needed protection, as well as social ties – even genuine friendship. 

I’ve written in previous posts about the importance of having good mates in the nick. It’s not just a question of having people that you can trust around you, it’s also psychologically important for most cons to know that they aren’t alone. There is a strong need to feel that others are watching your back and will come to your aid in conflict situations or help you out in times of trouble.

There can also be a strong drive for conformity within a wider context of institutionalisation. Few prisoners really want to be the ‘odd man out’ or to be regarded as the loner or ‘wing weirdo’. Wider society – maybe even your own relatives – may have rejected you because you’re banged up inside the nick, but your mates on the landings, your ‘bluds’ or ‘bruvs’ can offer an alternative kind of family. Add in the dynamic of a popular or charismatic con as the ‘daddy’ or leader of the group and you have an often invisible social structure where loyalty and trust counts for pretty much everything.

I think that this need to belong to something bigger than yourself mirrors much of what happens in our wider communities outside prison, particularly among disaffected and alienated younger males. It also goes beyond the desire for the protection that group or gang membership can provide. I think that it can often include a search for meaning, as well as for an alternative kind of family support. 

"Wagwan? Blud!"
This mentality is reflected in the widespread use of the language of brotherhood: ‘blud’ (blood), ‘fam’ (family), ‘bruv’ (brother), ‘bro’ (brother), ‘cuz’ (cousin). Some of these may be just figures of speech imported from the street, but in other cases they are used to define group membership, both in and out of prison. 

Perhaps the development of such ties and bonds will always be an inevitable consequence of locking large groups of men together for extended periods of time. It also serves to reinforce the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divisions between inmates and staff, as well as among prisoners who belong to rival gangs or other groups.

Against this background – the need to belong, to have membership of something – it’s not surprising that religious and/or political extremism can appear very attractive as the cement that can hold a particular group together. Although British prisons haven’t yet developed the gang culture that dominates most prisons and jails in the USA, Russia or Latin America, which are often sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines, there is still a very serious risk posed by inter-gang violence in many prisons, as noted in recent HM Inspectorate reports. 

Street gangs recruit in jails
While political ideologies in our prisons are often much more narrowly defined by concepts of race and culture, religious extremism has the capacity to cross many of these boundaries. In terms of successful proselytising, radical Islam is undoubtedly the most effective force within prison communities. By promising radical, often simplistic solutions for very complex problems both in the UK and across the globe, extremist ideology can quickly fill a vacuum of identity, meaning and purpose. 

Young men whose lives were empty can suddenly find something new that they feel will redefine them and their role in society. Since radical Islam of the Islamic State (IS) variety appears committed to the defeat and destruction of the existing world order, the ideology neatly plays into the widespread hatred and contempt many prisoners feel towards the ‘establishment’ and this usually includes the prison authorities. This brand of nihilistic extremism also feeds on genuine grievances that are common across the prison estate, as well as relieving some of the daily boredom of imprisonment. For some cons, the fact that identifying with terrorists is illegal in the UK makes it all the more exciting.

While I was in prison myself I observed how radical Islamist groups can appeal to a very wide and diverse group of prisoners who might have little else in common. In some jails young lads from non-Muslim backgrounds are attracted by the idea of belonging to a religious movement that stresses brotherhood and solidarity. When these groups also become visibly more powerful on wings or house blocks, then they are perceived to offer real levels of protection to otherwise isolated or vulnerable prisoners. 

Conversion can offer a fresh start
Lacking any other experience of Islam – particularly in its non-radical forms – prison converts may find it very difficult to make informed decisions on religious questions, preferring to follow the lead of group leaders. In some cases, radical groups can assume a ‘shadow’ existence within an establishment, functioning on the margins of orthodox Muslim practice by outwardly participating with other Muslims in officially sanctioned common worship, while actively undermining the leadership and teaching of moderate imams, chaplains and prayer leaders who are regarded as ‘sell outs’ to the prison authorities or ‘collaborators’.

This can impact on everyday life in prison. I have witnessed some very heated discussions in jails between Muslim prisoners over what should be regarded as ‘haram’ or sinful. The subjects of these debates can include whether listening to music (particularly instrumental or when performed by female artists, as well as any music that might be considered non-religious) is forbidden in Islam. 

Other issues that are discussed include whether a Muslim prisoner should be willing to accept sharing a cell with a non-Muslim and, if so, what ‘rules’ the observant Muslim should insist upon being observed (for example, no pork products being ordered from the menu sheet or ways of using the in-cell toilet). Smoking – including tobacco, cannabis and so-called herbal highs – can be another hot topic especially as around 80 percent of all adult male prisoners smoke. 

Robe for Friday prayers
In some prisons Muslim inmates are much more visible on the wings than other faith groups because of the widespread use of religious garments and artifacts, especially on Friday afternoons when jumu’ah salat (congregational prayer) takes place. Although adherents of other religious groups do sometimes wear outwardly visible symbols, particularly neck crosses or rosaries round their necks or Sikh headwear, the visible impact of a large number of Muslims going to their prayers dressed in traditional robes strikes a very vivid contrast with non-Muslim prisoners who wear prison clothing or private casual wear. It makes a very public statement and can demonstrate numerical strength on a particular wing or unit.

Of course, it is also fair to state that many mainstream Muslim inmates who have grown up in their faith are deeply suspicious of the motives of some of the recent prison converts. It is a well-recognised phenomenon that a few non-Muslim inmates in every jail will suddenly declare themselves as having converted just before the start of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Some of my Muslim fellow cons used to get quite indignant at this, suspecting that the real reason for the unexpected conversion was motivated by the perception that fasting Muslims received better food in the evenings when breaking their fast at the iftar meal. It can be seen as just another way that some cons cynically try to play the system for their own advantage.

Extremism of all sorts
Although the UK government’s Prevent Strategy – which seeks to combat radicalisation – does include prisons (along with universities and other institutions), my own view is that there is a lack of practical understanding about how extremism of various kinds can flourish inside our jails. Research on this topic seems to be very limited.

In its report issued in December 2013 the Prime Minister’s Task Force stated that: “We will not tolerate extremist activity of any sort, which creates an environment for radicalising individuals and could lead them on a pathway towards terrorism.” However, there is no coherent analysis of why some prisoners are vulnerable to radicalisation. In my view this demonstrates a lack of ‘joined-up thinking’.

The Prevent strategy also seeks to make a clear distinction between religious belief and extremist ideology – effectively divorcing modern radical political Islam from its religious and historical roots. Ironically, it is the extremist rejection of the political legitimacy of ‘the West’, including its institutions and moral authority that can prove so attractive to a minority of prisoners who perceive themselves as having already been rejected by their own society. In essence, it is the reinforcement of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset that prevails inside prisons.
According to the Task Force report: “Our prisons house some of the most dangerous terrorists and extremists in society who have rightly been locked up for the crimes they have committed. It is not acceptable that some prisoners are able to use their time behind bars to radicalise other prisoners. We must take the opportunity of having control over this difficult and dangerous set of individuals before they are released to manage them closely, confront robustly their extremist views and disrupt their activities.”

However, I have to observe that I’ve never seen any evidence of this strategy being implemented on the ground in any of the prisons in which I served time. While I was a prisoner I discussed the challenge of radicalisation and the recruitment of vulnerable inmates by extremist groups with other cons, both Muslim and non-Muslim and we all came to the conclusion that nothing was really being done about the issue. Simply banging-up a few prisoners suspected of radicalising others down the Block (segregation units) isn’t addressing the problem either.

IS: violence and terror
Perhaps the situation is different in the high security estate (Cat-As) where most prisoners convicted of terrorist offences are likely to be held, but in lower security establishments there was no sign of any intervention or activity designed to combat extremism, so recruitment was taking place openly. Could this be yet another symptom of the current overcrowding and understaffing of our prison system?

Managing the potential risk posed by different varieties of extremism in our prisons – whether religious, political or ideological in character – is an issue that should concern us all, especially when young and otherwise vulnerable prisoners are susceptible to indoctrination of any kind. Many of these youths and men are serving relatively short sentences and will be back on street. Some – albeit a small minority – may be taking with them a range of negative, and even destructive, attitudes and beliefs that have been nurtured and allowed to flourish unchecked inside our prisons. 

To be effective, rehabilitation of ex-offenders and planning for their resettlement on release should be about much more than the basics, yet given the mounting crisis in our prisons even these crucial issues – education, housing, employment, management of drug and alcohol problems and community support for those with mental health conditions – aren’t being dealt with due to lack of resources and, frankly, rock bottom morale across the Prison Service. Tackling radicalisation or extremist views among prisoners doesn’t even seem to appear on the Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) agenda at the moment, at least as far as ‘ordinary’ inmates are concerned.     

However, until the root causes that make such extreme views attractive to certain prisoners have been recognised and addressed, it’s hard to see how this challenge can be met. Too many prisoners are being released to nothing and with nowhere to go in every sense of the word. Is it really surprising that extremists and those promoting radical ideologies are stepping up to fill the void?

Friday, 13 February 2015

Sex in Prison: an Inside Story

No sex please, I'm Grayling
In previous blog posts about sex in our prisons I’ve focused mainly on the issues of sexual assaults and rape, but I haven’t so far really explored the wider questions of sexual activities. These include consensual sexual acts, as well as the often unequal relationships between prisoners that occur inside. 

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) – which is paranoid about anything to do with sex and prisoners – clearly doesn’t want the issue discussed at all which is no doubt just one of the reasons that Chris Grayling is currently blocking researchers and journalists from visiting prisons to find out what really is going on behind the high walls. Trying to break the silence is why this blog exists.

Ahead of the forthcoming Howard League on Penal Reform’s conference Behind Closed Bars: Sex in Prison which is due to take place in London on 17 March (see here for more details), I thought I’d share my own thoughts on this highly contentious subject, especially since MOJ policy blocked my attempts to participate in the Howard League Commission on Sex’s face-to-face interviews. My observations here relate only to prisons for adult males, since I have no first-hand experience of the female jails.

My first observation is that there is probably much less sexual activity between adult males in prison than would be imagined by members of the general public who have no direct experience of prison life beyond films – such as the Shawshank Redemption – that often focus on scenes of brutal gang rape in jail laundries or showers. These sensationalised fictional accounts continue to influence popular misconceptions about UK prisons, as well as fuelling male fears of rape.

Shawshank: plays on male fears of rape
Having helped support victims of rape and other sexual assaults while I was working as an Insider (peer mentor) I can state that rape certainly does take place in our prisons even if the MOJ would like to pretend otherwise. However, gang attacks of the kind often portrayed in the movies are incredibly rare. I am only personally aware of a single case where more than one attacker was involved directly.

Much sexual activity that does take place in prison is, by and large, consensual. However, a significant number of these relationships and encounters also involve some aspect of inequality (such as the offering and/or acceptance of sexual acts in return for material items such as tobacco, other canteen goods or drugs) or else the granting of other favours, for example protection from bullying or help to get desirable work assignments.

Most blatant sexual exploitation takes the form of older, adult males who mostly identify as being heterosexual targeting younger or more vulnerable prisoners, particularly in those B-cat local prisons which hold Young Prisoners (YPs) aged 18-21 on remand or newly sentenced. The current practice of integrating YPs on wings with much older adult prisoners has undoubtedly created opportunities for sexual exploitation. 

Young Prisoners: especially vulnerable
I’ve written previously about one particular Cat-B where every single one of these young men – mostly still in their teens – disclosed that they had been victims of various types of sexual abuse and exploitation, either at that establishment or elsewhere while they were in custody, including at Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), within the youth justice system. Their descriptions of what they’d experienced ranged from unwanted sexual approaches from fellow inmates or sexualised bullying and inappropriate touching, right through to being forced against their will to perform sexual acts on other inmates.

Those male prisoners who identify as homosexual or bisexual, and who have stable relationships with partners outside prison, appear much less likely to engage in same-sex activity while in custody, even if serving long sentences, including life or Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP). I’m aware of exceptions, but in general most openly gay or bisexual men in prison aren’t notably promiscuous even when opportunities do present themselves. 

A minority of gay or bisexual men do develop sexually active relationships while in prison and, by and large, these are either ignored or tacitly tolerated by prisoners and staff alike. On specific occasions, two men known or perceived to be gay have been put by staff in the same two-man cell in order to reduce the risk of conflict or bullying by other prisoners. In the cases known to me, these men were not in relationships with each other, nor – as far as I’m aware – did they subsequently engage in sexual activity with each other while sharing cells. 

Behind closed cell doors
A relatively small number of self-identified heterosexual males do ‘experiment’ with same-sex activity in prison or take advantage of opportunities for sexual acts when offered by other inmates. This type of sexual behaviour seems to be almost entirely opportunistic in character. It also tends to be very covert. 

In terms of men who would normally consider themselves to be entirely heterosexual when not in custody, yet are willing to have some form of sex while they are in prison, the recurrent pattern seems to be that if an otherwise heterosexual prisoner (particularly, although not exclusively, serving a substantial sentence) finds himself sharing a cell with another male who he knows to be, or perceives to be, gay or bisexual he then might take advantage of this situation. It’s what is sometimes known inside as being ‘prison gay’.

In my experience such prisoners self-identify very strongly as ‘straight’ and can be prone to react very violently if anyone dares to suggest otherwise. The common view seems to be that what goes on in prison stays in prison and such activities are rarely discussed among prisoners themselves, although there is always a fair amount of wing gossip going round.

For this reason, sexual activity in these situations also tends to be very secretive in nature, with activities taking place at night after the final evening head count has been done by wing staff. Moreover, it is necessary for prisoners who are engaging in sexual acts with each other to conceal this from officers or they risk being ‘nicked’ (put on a charge) or receiving a negative entry in their prison records.

Ideas of masculinity
Some self-identified heterosexual males will attempt to justify their behaviour, particularly when it has an exploitative element, to themselves and to the subject of their attentions as “doing the gay boy a favour”. These attitudes are often rooted in distorted beliefs about the assumed passivity, sexual promiscuity and low self-esteem of male homosexuals. Prisoners who are ‘out’ about their homosexuality on the wings can soon discover that they risk being the focus of unwanted attention from other inmates seeking sex, often based on the widespread misconception that being gay automatically means that the prisoner in question is sexually available to anyone.

Sexual activity is very rarely reciprocated in these cases. Sexually active prisoners who identify as heterosexual can often have a sense of entitlement and expect to receive oral sex or, much less commonly, give anal sex as the active partner, but would never consider reversing roles as this would be seen as an unacceptable challenge to their own notions and conceptions of ‘masculinity’. These observations are mirrored both in academic research and a range of other, anecdotal, evidence from various countries, including the USA and Russia.

There are rarer cases where sexual activity is initiated by a gay or bisexual prisoner after a period of tentative questioning or ‘testing’ of attitudes. I know several gay prisoners who reported that they set out to ‘seduce’ their apparently straight cell-mates over a period of time. Common ice-breaking activities have included offering to provide massage for gym or sports injuries, hair-cutting, assistance with body-shaving (surprisingly prevalent in prisons owing to the widespread cult of body-building) or other physical contact activities. 

Body-shaving: very popular in jail
One openly gay man confided that he had succeeded in “seducing” – his own words – every cell-mate he had found attractive by initially offering massage services in the cell after the nightly roll-check. In almost every case he reported that these approaches were accepted and then led on to various forms of sexual acts.

However, it seems that these sexual approaches were not without a degree of risk. The same prisoner observed that most of his ‘conquests’ had subsequently experienced some kind of sexual identity crisis following their participation in such activities. On occasion, their reaction had been very aggressive or even violent. In one incident a regretful cell-mate actually physically assaulted this gay prisoner the morning after they had had consensual sex overnight. The aggressor was then moved by staff to another cell, although the actual reason for the altercation was given as an argument about what to watch on TV.

At one inner city Cat-B local any gay or bisexual men who had declared their sexuality to staff (in the induction interview or subsequently) were almost always put into cell shares with other known gay or bisexual inmates. Although this appears to have been a local practice (almost certainly unofficial), members of the wing staff clearly held the opinion that accommodating gay men together was a means of reducing potential conflicts between prisoners or homophobic bullying. 

I know of one specific case where two men who were civil partners prior to coming into custody were deliberately separated and not permitted to associate together on the wings while they were in a Cat-B. However, this appears to have had more to do with the fact that they were co-defendants in the same armed robbery than their sexual orientation. 

As soon as they were both transferred to the same Cat-D (open prison) staff willingly placed them in the same shared room where they lived as a couple, although reasonably discreetly. Both were very nice guys and popular with other prisoners, so as far as I was aware they didn’t experience any homophobic bullying even though the entire prison seemed aware of that they were in a civil partnership. 

MOJ: no sex on our watch!
It is interesting to note that these local practices – which would no doubt raise concerns in the current climate within the MOJ and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – do appear to have minimised the risk of homophobic bullying. In contrast, at an inner city Cat-B prison where openly gay men were either accommodated in single cells or with heterosexual cell-mates, there was a much higher level of sexually-motivated bullying and insults, despite the visible presence of two openly gay wing officers.

At one Cat-C establishment the management attempted to steer a middle course by trying to accommodate men known to be gay together in shared cells following an appropriate risk assessment to reduce the likelihood of sexual exploitation or ‘grooming’, particularly if one of the men was considered to be vulnerable. At that time this prison did have a very active Equality and Diversity Officer who was a very open and proud lesbian and the prison’s officially supported monthly support group for gay men and bisexuals was reportedly very well attended. 

I personally only came across one openly transgender prisoner during my own time in custody. It was in a Cat-B nick and she was pre-op but was accommodated in a single cell on the basis of ‘psychological vulnerability’. In the privacy of her cell she was also permitted to have female nightclothes in possession, although she wasn’t allowed to wear female clothing around the prison.

No two prisons are ever the same, but it does seem that there is a more relaxed atmosphere towards sexual diversity at open prisons. Some establishments run dedicated support groups for gay and bisexual men. There are also health awareness campaigns on sexual health – applicable to men of all sexual orientations, with condoms easily available from Healthcare or via clinics in the local town during temporary release (ROTL). Owing to the nature of these establishments, which have rooms to which the occupants have their own keys rather than cells, sexual activity is easier to arrange, even when the participants are not sharing accommodation.

Men do get sexually assaulted inside
However, at one open prison there was also a significant number of sexual assaults of varying severity (ranging from inappropriate touching to aggressive rape) during the period 2013-2014. In the most serious cases local police were involved and statements taken, although at times the prison authorities seemed reluctant to involve outside agencies, preferring to rely on internal disciplinary procedures. In most cases, the alleged perpetrator in a sexual assault was quickly transferred back to closed conditions.

Without doubt, a wide range of sexual activity does take place in prison. While most of this is – broadly speaking – consensual there is a real concern over unequal and exploitative relationships. Recent changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system have left many prisoners very vulnerable as a result of the prohibition on families and friends sending in clothing and other items. Since 1 November 2013, all items must now be purchased from prison-approved catalogues or the canteen (other than books as of 1 February 2015). This, in turn, has increased the risk of ‘grooming’ and sexual exploitation, as all many younger prisoners have to offer is their own bodies in exchange for canteen goods, particularly tobacco.

Debt: tobacco and drugs
In addition, the problems of debt arising from borrowing or else maintaining a drug habit can also make some prisoners vulnerable. In some cases these debts can be paid off by providing sexual services, although the extent to which this happens is very difficult to assess without further research.

When dealing with the issue of sexual activity in prison, the authorities also face serious inconsistencies in terms of official policy. For example, the PSI that deals with Prison Disciplinary Procedures (PSI 47/2011) makes it clear that consensual sex between prisoners is not a specific offence: “there is no Rule specifically prohibiting sexual acts between prisoners” (1.76). A potential disciplinary charge only arises if sexual acts are observed by a third party, usually a member of staff. 

Moreover, the PSI also allows discretion on charging even in such cases: “But if two prisoners sharing a cell are in a relationship and engage in sexual activity during the night when they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, a disciplinary charge may not be appropriate” (1.76). 

In contrast, however, the latest PSI dealing with Incentives and Earned Privileges (PSI 30/2013), makes it clear that prisoners will be required to [act] “with decency at all times remembering prisons/cells are not private dwellings (this includes not engaging in sexual activity)” (Annex B). However, what actually constitutes sexual activity is nowhere spelt out in detail, so could in theory include any act of masturbation, even if conducted in private and on one’s own. These apparent inconsistencies within NOMS’ published Instructions and policies serve to create confusion among both prisoners and prison staff.

Although some prisons provide internal support groups for gay and bisexual men under the banner of equality and diversity, the impact of these can be mixed. Such groups raise awareness of sexual health issues and can help to promote positive identity and feelings of self-worth. However, there is also sometimes a tension between these activities and wider prison policies that appear to take a negative stance towards same-sex sexual activity.

The vital issue of consent
As I have flagged up in previous blog posts, there still exists a culture of official denial when it comes to sexual assaults and rape inside some of our prisons. In my view, sexual offences committed in prison should be considered as purely criminal matters with complaints always being referred to the police.

However, there is evidence that in some prisons the management prefers to avoid reporting such allegations to the local police and instead makes use of internal disciplinary processes. This can make prisoners reluctant to report incidents of sexual assaults.

Although recent official statistics reveal that reported incidents of sexual assault in prison have risen significantly – to 170 cases in 2013, up from 113 during 2012 – this is likely to only be the tip of a much larger iceberg of sexual abuse inside our prisons owing to chronic under-reporting by men. Research by the Commission on Sex in Prison suggests that around one percent of prisoners have been raped, while 5.3 percent had been coerced into sexual activity. These findings may mean that anything between 850 and 1,650 inmates could have been victimised sexually whilst in custody. As I have written in a previous blog post, I was one of that number, even though the actual assault was at the less serious end of the scale.

I’m hoping that the Howard League’s conference will draw public attention to many of the issues I’ve raised above. However, achieving positive change inside our prison system is likely to take much longer, especially while the MOJ remains in a state of denial and our jails are in lockdown. 

A good start would be by clarifying and harmonising prison rules and policies so that good practices are made clear and applied rather than relying on the current contradictory approaches between the Prison Rules and various PSIs. Let’s see whether whoever gets Chris Grayling’s job after the next general election will be brave enough to face up to this particular challenge – or will the whole issue just be kicked into the long grass again?

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

What Chris Grayling is Trying to Hide

We have had a recent spate of media stories about what amounts to an information ‘lockdown’ across our crisis-hit prison system. This month alone we have read of complaints by academics that their access to prisons to conduct research is being barred, while earlier this week journalist Amelia Gentleman documented the struggles that she and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger experienced in trying to obtain permission for her to visit a prison (you can read her piece here). 

Russian jail: more open than ours?
As Ms Gentleman observed: “I found it easier to visit a military prison in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than to gain access to a British jail.” You don’t say.

Taken together with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) blocking the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Commission on Sex in Prison from having any access to serving prisoners (or, indeed, ex-prisoners who are still on licence), the picture emerges of a prison estate that seems to have become as impenetrable as North Korea. It’s all pretty damning, really. 

So what is really going on behind the high walls and razor-topped fences of our prisons? The answer, ironically, is very little indeed (other than drug taking, violence, sexual assaults, self-harm and suicide). Due to current overcrowding in many establishments – our prison population is now well over the 85,200 mark – combined with serious shortages of frontline staff, many prisons seem to have ground to a halt. 

When any prison is compelled to run what is euphemistically called ‘a restricted regime’, you know that there are very serious problems. Effectively, this means that most prisoners will end up being locked down in their cells for 22 or 23 hours each day. 

Banged up for 23 hours
Non-essential work by inmates is likely to be cancelled, as are education classes and other activities such as visits to the library or the gym. Cells will be opened up landing by landing to allow two meals a day to be collected from the servery and then it’s back behind the doors again. 

Perhaps twice a week the prisoners on specific landings will be permitted ‘association’ for an hour or two during which time they can have a shower, queue for the payphone to call their families or else play a quick game of pool or table tennis. Otherwise, they will be locked down in their cells – now usually sharing a space designed for one prisoner with one or even two others – for the rest of the week. 

I think that we can safely assume that all this enforced idleness is one of the things that Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling and his hapless sidekick Prisons Minister Andrew Selous don’t want the prying eyes of researchers and journalists to see – and then report to the general public, particularly taxpayers who are funding all this expensive human warehousing at an average annual cost of around £40,000 per prisoner. 

Reporting on the prison crisis
After all, the MOJ has quite enough problems with the regular reports produced by HM Inspectorate of Prisons that highlight how our crisis-ridden prison estate is failing against pretty much every single indicator. For Mr Grayling, less is definitely more when it comes to negative media coverage about the prison crisis. 

The very last thing Mr Grayling wants to read at his desk down in Petty France is yet another hard-hitting exposé in the morning papers about the way that the idea of rehabilitation for prisoners has all but been abandoned on his watch. Such headlines aren’t good news for him or for his party in the run up to the forthcoming general election.

A new prison scandal every week
Most reasonable people seem to share the view that at least some effort should be made while inmates are in prison to steer them away from committing further offences upon release, or even to learn new skills that might help those who want to earn an honest living find work rather than spending the rest of their lives on benefits. Since very little serious rehabilitation or resettlement work is currently being done due to a noxious combination of budget cuts and staff shortages, having some nosey journalist observing the mind-numbing inactivity that now dominates too many prisons just doesn’t make any political sense.

Moreover, when it comes to sensitive topics such as sexual assaults and rape in our prisons or the rising rates for suicide and self-harm, the MOJ has nothing meaningful to offer by way of explanation. It’s a similar story in respect of the shocking amount of drugs that find their way into even the higher security category prisons. The simple – and very inconvenient – truth is that Mr Grayling has cocked it all up since he took over in September 2012. It’s been one PR disaster after another and the body count just keeps rising – literally.

The other grubby little secret that ‘Calamity Chris’ is doing his best to keep under wraps is that staff morale has reached rock bottom and is now heading south, deep into the bedrock. Even if ambitious governor grades and senior managers have the sense to put up a good front amid the escalating crisis, Mr Grayling knows that he cannot trust his own frontline officers not to go blabbing to visiting journalists and researchers. Better to lock the system down and allow no-one access. It’s a tried and tested strategy that has kept North Korea under wraps for more than 65 years.

Just keep smiling and say nothing!
And that is what I believe lies at the root of the current culture of secrecy and denial about the current prison crisis. The political leadership of the MOJ “cannot bear very much reality”. Whenever the extraordinarily hapless Mr Selous raises his head above the media parapet he manages to make it sound like he knows nothing whatsoever about his own ministerial portfolio – which probably isn’t so very far from the truth. 

Moreover, the MOJ press office is about as inept as it can be and simply isn’t capable of countering the tsunami of criticism about so many disastrous policies across the entire criminal justice system. The default setting of both ministers and their press office wonks now seems to be to batten down the hatches and hope it will all go away. 

It’s the PR equivalent of them all putting their fingers in their ears at the same time while saying “La la la! I can’t hear you!” It’s a pretty poor way to be running a ministry, but that’s the situation in which we seem to find ourselves. 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Head in the Sand Approach

It was always predictable that the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Commission on Sex in Prison would ruffle more than a few feathers. Prisoners and sex are two topics that just don’t go together in the right-wing vision of harsh imprisonment. 

Selous: in denial
This is reflected in the present position of Prisons Minister Andrew Selous: head in the sand, arse in the air, busily pretending that there isn’t really any problem. His latest considered response to the findings of the Commission concerning the risk that imprisonment and prison violence can lead adolescent boys towards dysfunctional attitudes towards sex and even, in some cases, set the foundations for future sexual offending was: “Alarmist comparisons drawn off the back of different justice systems in other countries help no one.”

Well, well. This is a minister of the same Ministry of Justice (MOJ) that was solely responsible for blocking Commission researchers from interviewing serving prisoners and moreover, those released on licence. In effect this barred academics – including former prison governors, psychologists and even Sir Edward Garnier QC MP, the Conservative’s own former Solicitor General – from getting first-hand testimony from those currently in custody. 

The ban on face-to-face interviews with ex-prisoners on licence also excluded all lifers and pretty much anyone who has recently served a year or more inside. In short, those people who just might know what they are talking about on the basis of personal experience. Now Mr Selous – who, as is painfully obvious, doesn’t know a thing about his own portfolio – falls back on accusing the Commission of being “alarmist”, while criticising the very researchers his own ministry banned from entering prisons because they have had to make use of some data from abroad!    

Of course, lest we forget this is the same junior minister who fluffed his lines on BBC Newsnight back in December (see here) and who also made a pig’s breakfast of his last ill-informed comments on sexual assaults and rape in prison (see here). Is it any wonder that the official figures for sexual attacks committed in our prisons are rising to 10-year highs when the Prisons Minister is in such total denial? In fact, as I’ve argued in previous blog posts, the reported incidents are only the tip of a much larger iceberg of sexual violence and exploitation inside our prisons that the government seems determined to play down or even ignore.

Predictably, Mr Selous has completely failed to address the important issues raised by the Commission’s research in respect of the potential impact of imprisonment on children. Researchers have warned that:

Prison limits normal adolescent development and can delay teenagers’ maturation process.
Punishing boys for normal sexual behaviours encourages them to keep sex secret, or feel ashamed about it.
Violence among prisoners and the use of force by adults to control children might make children more likely to be sexually aggressive in adulthood.

The Commission reports also draw attention to the serious risks of accommodating vulnerable children with complex needs in large institutions without appropriate levels of staffing. To all of these issues, Mr Selous – as usual – has nothing meaningful to contribute. I suppose we should be grateful that he is an unpaid part-timer rather than a salaried minister, otherwise that would be yet another wodge of public money wasted.

Based on my own experience, prisons are often very misogynistic environments. Many of the young prisoners I met inside, aged 18 and up, came from very disturbed family backgrounds where their mothers and other female relatives had often experienced violent relationships, sometimes in the context of misuse of alcohol and drugs. A fair number of these young men had already spent time, sometimes years, inside Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) or other types of secure environments before ‘graduating’ to adult prisons.

Prepared for relationships?
I also believe that a significant proportion of adult male prisoners – far higher than would ever admit it – have experienced sexual abuse, as well as severe physical and mental cruelty, often within their own extended home environments during childhood. None of this negative ‘conditioning’ can be a good preparation for balanced, non-abusive adult relationships.

A great many adult male prisoners seem to suffer from arrested development in one form or another. Some remain stuck in a permanent state of adolescence, unable to move forward and grow into responsible adults. This extends to risk taking behaviour and a self-centred view of the world. Others revel in the role of class clown.

These childish attitudes can be seen in the ways in which women who work in adult male prisons are viewed by many cons. Either these female staff must be lesbians (generally the uniformed officers) or ‘bitches’ who enjoy having control over men (especially female psychologists or governors).

Even the everyday language on the wings is highly misogynistic. In a pack of cards the queen is routinely called “a slag”.

Queen or just a 'slag'?
In general, the only adult women that many male prisoners don’t verbally abuse are their own mothers, sisters and – sometimes – their female partners. All other women are seen variously as being devious, deceitful – and therefore potentially unfaithful – or else as sex objects. For anyone who believes in equality and human dignity – whether they are staff members or inmates – prison can be a constantly challenging environment.  

Since most of these negative attitudes and behaviours are learned in childhood and adolescence, it’s hard to see why the findings of the Howard League Commission should be so controversial. What part of a common sense approach to these issues does Mr Selous not understand? Trying to sweep these problems under the carpet does nothing to improve public protection or to reduce future reoffending.

Surely we should acknowledge that helping troubled and challenging kids through the storms of puberty and youth – particularly when they are in the very unnatural environment of custody – makes perfect sense. Boys and young men who come out of the prison system regarding most women as ‘slags’ and ‘bitches’ are much more likely to carry such distorted attitudes with them back onto the streets, often with terrible and tragic consequences.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Prisons and Paranoia

I’ve previously written about mental health issues in our prisons, but in this post I wanted to explore the specific problems of paranoia – including delusional thinking and irrational fears – that can be made much worse by experiences in custody. Having worked as an Insider (peer mentor) supporting fellow inmates who exhibited serious symptoms of paranoid delusions, I thought I could share a few thoughts on the subject.

"Just because you're paranoid..."
Paranoia is often simplistically described as an irrational anxiety that ‘everyone is out to get you’. I’ve certainly lived in close proximity to a number of prisoners who share that fundamental world-view.

Many cons believe that they have been the victims of circumstances beyond their control. Some have come to regard any form of authority with deep suspicion and resentment, even naked hatred. Others suspect that people around them are watching them, spying on them or even reporting what they say and do to the prison authorities in order to cause them grief, especially those on parole sentences since a negative mark on their records can mean a ‘knock back’ (Parole Board refusal) and even more years inside.

In my view, imprisonment can play a key role in fuelling paranoia mainly because prison can be a harsh and unforgiving environment that does little or nothing to encourage any sort of trust between human beings, whether prisoners or staff. Moreover, the experience of being confined to a small concrete box for many hours of each day – in some cases up to 22 or 23 hours – can give inmates plenty of time to stew on perceived slights or injustices, as well as to plan their vengeance.

Paranoia thrives in cells
A wrong word or even a look from another prisoner – or a member of staff – can set off a chain reaction. What is even more frightening is this may not be immediate. Some cons will lie on their bunks over-thinking situations for hours or even days before coming to the conclusion that they have been slighted, mocked or insulted. Once they have arrived at that point, trying to convince them that they are mistaken or have misinterpreted something innocuous can be very risky as this can merely add fuel to the fire of their delusion that everyone is against them or talking about them – including whoever is trying to help.

I remember reading a book about Cat-A (high security) prisons that referred to lifers treating each other with exquisite courtesy and politeness at all times lest a fellow con should come to believe that he had been disrespected – “made a mug of” – and, therefore, feel obliged to respond by inflicting some horrendous act of violence on the perceived ‘offender’ in order to ‘straighten out’ the situation.

Paranoia can impact on almost every aspect of daily life inside and, on occasions, lead to conflict and, sometimes, real violence between prisoners, but also against members of staff. In this present era of chronic overcrowding, staff shortages and scarcity of mental healthcare in our prisons, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the number of violent incidents that are recorded has risen. The latest figures issued by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reveal that in the year ending September 2014 there had been 15,763 incidents of violence, including fights (up from 14,207 in the previous 12-month period), while attacks on members of staff rose from 3,178 to 3,470.

When it all kicks off
Of course, a fair amount of violence is connected to the rampant drugs trade in our prisons – including punishment beating of debtors, bullying and clashes between rival gangs – but the sharp rise in the levels of self-harm also point to worsening mental health among prisoners. Recorded incidents during which prisoners had self-harmed in the 12 months ending September 2014 were also up to 24,748, compared to 23,240 in 2013-2014. This data suggests that in general prisoners are at much greater risk of harm from themselves than from other cons or staff.

It is also true that paranoia and anxiety can be made much worse by the use of certain types of drugs – particularly some of the new synthetic substances that are commonly available inside our nicks. Whereas most real cannabis tends to make users drowsy and feel ‘chilled’, some of the so-called legal or herbal highs can cause the opposite effect. Seeing people under the influence of these drugs as they stagger red-eyed down prison landings and corridors, or vomit all over washrooms, can seem like you’ve found yourself on the film set for one of the Walking Dead zombie episodes.

The 'walking dead'
When I was in Cat-B prisons I saw on many occasions how rampant paranoia can trigger violence. I’ll give one example of a lad who was prone to this sort of thing. I’ll call him Smithy (not his real name).

He was a young man in his early 20s who had many complex problems, including coping with the stresses of his sentence through regular bouts of self-harm. In his case he cut his arms with prison razor blades to the extent that he was almost always wearing plasters and bandages. He also lived with various bizarre forms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and had a tendency to get himself into confrontations with staff, as well as occasional punch-ups with other cons.

Pretty much everyone on the wing was convinced that Smithy was gay. It wasn’t his job as a barber, nor his occasionally effeminate mannerisms, that raised these suspicions, but that fact that when he was either drunk on prison-made hooch or under the influence of drugs he became what might fairly be described as ‘physically over-familiar’ with his mates.

To be honest, no-one on the wing really cared much about Smithy’s sexuality. Prisoners these days can be surprisingly broad-minded. He gave a good haircut and didn’t over-charge for these services (in fact he wasn’t supposed to be charging anything, but such is life in the nick!)

A quick trim from the barber
However, Smithy was absolutely paranoid that people might believe that he was homosexual. One wrong word on that particular subject could easily trigger an explosive reaction and he wasn’t a small bloke, having bulked up in the gym.

One weekend he was cutting hair on the ‘twos’ (first floor landing) during association when he became convinced that someone, somewhere on the landings above had shouted “fat poof” aimed at him. Who knows whether they had or not, but Smithy was absolutely convinced that he had been publicly insulted, his fragile body image slighted and his masculinity mocked. Given his particular rag-bag of obsessions and anxieties this promised to escalate into a really violent situation.

Then a fellow con, probably out to make mischief, managed to convince Smithy that the person responsible for the homophobic abuse had not been a con, but a screw, a Mr M________ who happened to be on duty at the time. Unlikely as this allegation was, Smithy instantly became convinced that Mr M________ had indeed been the source of the insult and stormed off to his own pad (cell) in an absolute rage to plan his revenge.
Up on the landings

Unaware of the trouble that was brewing, I went down to Smithy’s pad to fix a time for a haircut. I found him sitting on his bunk, fists clenched, eyes wide and glassy. I quickly realised that this wasn’t a good time to be making an appointment for his barbering services and instead tried to find out what the problem was in order to calm him down before someone got hurt.

“That cunt M________ called me a fat poof. In front of everyone. I’m gonna kill the bastard!”

At least I now knew the trigger that had started this particular bomb ticking, but defusing it would be another story. Smithy’s paranoia was so all encompassing that trying to convince him that this was pretty unlikely wouldn’t be easy. Unfortunately, at that precise moment, the screw in question pushed Smithy’s cell door open and asked if he was OK. I thought that at that point Smithy would launch himself from his bunk and start bashing a member of staff – never a particularly good idea, but at that moment Smithy wasn’t thinking rationally.

“Smithy’s a bit upset Mr M, mind if I chat to him for a bit?” I said indicating by my eye movements that he had best clear off quickly. By this stage I was physically holding Smithy down on his bunk using both hands while he screamed verbal abuse at the bemused officer.

Screws running to an alarm
The screw – one of the more decent blokes in what was a rotten and dysfunctional establishment – took the obvious hint and made himself scarce. Eventually, after a marathon session of standing in as an emotional punch-bag, I managed to convince Smithy that he’d been the victim of a practical joke by one of his own mates who just wanted to see him  ‘kick off’, maybe even with the aim of seeing him lose his job as wing barber and then get carted off down the Block (segregation unit), all for the sake of having a cheap laugh.

Some cons cope with the mind-numbing boredom of imprisonment by stirring up trouble in the hope that someone will lose their rag and have a fight on the wing. It can easily become a bit of a rather sad spectator sport for prisoners who have nothing better to do than hang around the landings leaning over the railings, shouting and catcalling the lads having a scrap. Even Smithy was well aware of this, so I could see the possibility that this was true slowly crossing his mind.

Once the realisation dawned that he might well have been set up by another con, he calmed down and on that occasion no-one got hurt, including Smithy himself. He even made me a coffee and by the end of association he was taking it all as a joke.

Mr M_______ looked around the cell door again to check that everything had been sorted. He didn’t even write Smithy up for swearing his head off at him, which I thought was quite decent of him in the circumstances. By prison standards that was a good result, but all too often these situations can spiral out of control and violence can be the result.

Perhaps predictably, Smithy did eventually lose his job as inmate barber – one of the most coveted posts on the wing owing to the opportunities for taking backhanders from cons wanting to jump the long queue for haircuts – because of a later run-in with a different screw. I suppose this does go to show that just because Smithy was paranoid, it didn’t mean people were not out to get him.