Monday, 2 March 2015

Rehabilitation: What Does it Really Mean?

It’s a funny word, rehabilitation. Not least because it’s one of those odd terms that is regularly used in the criminal justice system, but very rarely defined. And therein lies the problem. Without a clear definition of any word, it can mean something – or nothing.

But what does it really mean?
It’s also complicated because the term is often used in a medical context, whether the condition being treated is physical or mental. As ‘rehab’ it refers to support to recover from an addiction. Then again, in the old Soviet Union, it meant the quashing of a conviction – often posthumously – of those who had been wrongly convicted for political offences during the Stalinist era.

So what does rehabilitation mean for ex-prisoners? I have deliberately avoided using the officially preferred term ‘offender’ here, because I think that rehabilitation should equally apply to those who have been held unconvicted on remand, as well as victims of miscarriages of justice who are released when their convictions are quashed by the Court of Appeal. 

In my experience, these are two specific groups that are routinely overlooked when it comes to rehabilitation. They are expected to leave prison with nothing in the way of support and effectively ‘pretend’ that it all never happened and just go and pick up the pieces, even when they may well have lost their jobs, homes, family relationships and are possibly carrying their entire worldly goods in a black prison holdall back into the outside world that neither knows nor cares what nightmares they have lived through.

Taken at its most basic level, the rehabilitation of prisoners can sometimes be defined as having ‘reformed’ people in preparation for their return to the community, although I think that there is a significant difference between reducing the risk of reoffending and actually facilitating the reintegration back into society of a person who has been convicted of a criminal offence. Of course, this is relevant not only to those who have been sentenced to a custodial term, but it can also apply to someone who has been given a community penalty, or even a fine since these outcomes also involve the person concerned getting a criminal record with all the civil and employment-limiting consequences that can involve.

A multi-dimensional approach
Perhaps we need to think about rehabilitation in the sense of repairing damage that has been done, both to the victims of crime, but also to prisoners, some of whom are coming out of prison in a worse state than they went in, particularly since the wings of many jails are now awash with drugs of all kinds. There is also the longer-term psychological damage that can be inflicted through bullying and exposure to other kinds of violence that inmates may experience while they are inside, including – perhaps to a more limited extent – sexual assaults or the trauma of seeing fellow cons commit suicide. 

Certainly in its medical or therapeutic context, rehabilitation is all about the treatment and management of injury, illness or the addressing of dysfunctions. Given the high levels of drugs or alcohol misuse by those committing crimes – not to mention the astonishingly widespread availability of drugs (legal and illegal) on our prison wings – rehabilitation often also needs to include the wider issues of ‘rehab’ in that sense too.

To be honest, depressing as it may sound, I have rarely met a fellow con who came into prison with a drug dependency who has really managed to kick whatever addiction they have. Often they just look for available substitutes inside. Even most prison support services for addicts, which are contracted out to external service providers, are doing little more than managing these problems at best. 

Prison wings awash with drugs
I well remember one particular peer mentor – a ‘former’ drug addict who was supposed to be supporting his fellow prisoners to get clean and stay off drugs – who was high as a kite almost all the time. I would see him wandering down unit corridors in one establishment completely out of his head mid-morning. None of the screws or civilian staff could possibly have failed to notice it, but they simply seemed to let it all go.

One of my principal criticisms of our current prison system is that rehabilitation, in any of its accepted meanings, no longer seems to play any significant part in the average prison sentence. Those inside on short stretches are basically ‘warehoused’ until being shoved out of the main gate of the nick with their £46 discharge grant – unless they are under 18 in which case they won’t usually get a penny. 

Massive cuts to the prison budget have also seen a number of establishments close down their resettlement units. These were specialist centres staffed by experienced officers who helped prisons preparing for release with problems such as housing or registering for benefits or other support. These units seem to have all but disappeared, even in Cat-D (open) prisons. This is particularly concerning as almost all lifers and many other prisoners who have served very long sentences will eventually pass through what are laughingly termed these ‘resettlement’ prisons.

Going back inside again?
At present, the commonly-used yardstick seems to be whether a person released from prison reoffends (that is actually gets reconvicted), rather than whether they are making a successful resettlement back into society. I’ve known many former prisoners who are discharged from custody and are then unable to find any type of paid work, even if they are ready and willing to start from scratch on casual, unskilled minimum-wage jobs. Their criminal record can mean that they are all but unemployable.

Add to that the whole range of addictions and substance dependencies, mental and physical health problems and dysfunctional relationships, as well as functional illiteracy, that can all play a part in excluding many prisoners from successful reintegration back into the community and it’s clear to see how a custodial sentence very often fails to address any of the real issues. That is why I continually refer to prison sentences as offering little more than costly human warehousing.

Above all, I think that our underfunded and understaffed prison system is missing potential opportunities to support and encourage genuine rehabilitation. One of the most obvious examples of disjointed thinking about custody, particularly in the closed prisons, is that by depriving adults of any meaningful choices or degrees of responsibility for their everyday lives, we somehow expect them to emerge from prison at the end of their sentences as people ready to become responsible for themselves and their own actions. Locking anyone behind a heavy steel door for 22 or 23 hours per day can never, and will never, achieve such positive outcomes.

Learning to take responsibility?
I firmly believe that we need much greater debate over what we, as a society, really want imprisonment to deliver. There are a series of fundamental questions that need to be answered. 

Do we want safer communities with lower rates of crime (particularly when it comes to violent or sexual offending) and positive outcomes for public protection, or do we simply want to continually repeat outdated penal policies and practices that have been shown time and again to be failing? This is evidenced by unacceptably high reconviction rates, particularly among those who have served short prison sentences, even though overall crime figures are falling. 

Do we genuinely want ex-prisoners to become useful, law-abiding and productive members of society again – or does imprisonment bring with it an indelible stigma that should continue to marginalise thousands of men, women and even children for the rest of their lives? If so, are we willing to continue footing the bill for generations to come?

Are we content to see these ex-prisoners as rejects and outcasts who serve as a terrible warning to everyone else? Have we really considered the longer-term economic and social implications of our prison system’s potentially catastrophic failure to provide opportunities for rehabilitation?  

Since society itself – including our political leaders and representatives, as well as most of the media – seems unable to decide what rehabilitation really means and why it would be beneficial, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our crisis-hit prisons aren’t delivering on HM Prison Service’s own mission statement that commits it to help prisoners “lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released”. By this measure, at least, prison definitely isn’t working. 

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 observations 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?