Prison

Prison

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Maintaining Your Moral Compass in Jail

The prison system can often be a difficult place in which to behave like a ‘normal’ person. Different rules and standards can apply. Sometimes words or actions that outside would be considered decent and praiseworthy can land a prisoner in deep trouble or even danger. I was reflecting on this during a recent exchange I had on Twitter and thought I’d share a few thoughts on my own experiences in prison.

'Snitches get stitches'
I’ve posted before on this blog about the perilous position of inmates who are labelled as ‘grasses’ (informers) or ‘screw-boys’ (those eager to suck up to the staff). Both types of con can find themselves ostracised by fellow prisoners and, in many cases, find themselves on the receiving end of threats and violence – sometimes very extreme. 

Although the atmosphere does vary from nick to nick, and even wing to wing, there is a general consensus that ‘grasses’ are the lowest of the low and far more dangerous than sex offenders (who are, in most cases, segregated for their own protection on Rule 45 or held on separate wings).

According to common prison lore, another unforgiveable sin is being seen to save a member of staff from attack or even death. In his memoirs Parkhurst Tales, Norman Parker – a very old-school con – describes the grim consequences faced by a fellow prisoner who had pulled an unconscious screw from a burning building at grave risk to his own safety. 

Prison life old-style
In a prison context what would be regarded as an heroic act anywhere else suddenly becomes treachery against other cons. In many cases, having been seen to have rescued a member of staff would be a rapid short-cut to spending the rest of your sentence down the Block (segregation unit) or these days on a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU) having a thoroughly miserable existence. At best it might involve being transferred to another prison perhaps hundreds of miles from your family. 

For that reason, some emergencies in prison can require the making of split-second decisions about whether or not to get involved. I remember one particular case in a Cat-B when two wing officers were involved in a particularly nasty altercation with two cons on a landing and neither screw could reach the green general alarm button. 

One of them shouted – to no-one in particular – “Hit the alarm!” Needless to say, no-one moved a muscle. There was already a large crowd watching the scrap and cat-calling. To have gone anywhere near that alarm would have been a public declaration that the con involved was a screw-boy and probably a grass. In any case, other members of staff were soon on the scene and we were all ordered to get back behind our doors for early bang-up. To be honest, I don’t really think that there had been any expectation that one of us would break ranks, but it was worth a try.

"Don't panic...!"
During the time I was inside, I honestly can’t recall any con ever sounding the alarm during trouble. I have occasionally seen inmates trying to persuade some new and gullible arrival in the system that he should just push the green button if he wanted to ask a member of staff for some advice – which would probably be “You’re nicked, lad!” as a screw put him on a charge. However, I can’t actually remember anyone being daft or green enough to actually test this.

Dealing with the bullying of weaker and more vulnerable cons can be another moral challenge. You can’t just walk up to a wing screw and report it – otherwise you become a grass and end up in deep trouble. On the other hand, just letting it continue lowers your own moral standards and leads you to question your own humanity. Fortunately, most bullies are cowards and will back off if several large cons – particular ex-armed services veterans – pay them a quiet visit and advise them to pull their horns in. This does genuinely work in most cases.

Problems involving members of staff can be much more problematic. I was once involved in a potentially dangerous situation in prison where I was forced to make a moral decision that could have had traumatic consequences for the rest of my own sentence. It occurred when I was working as a peer mentor in the education department of a Cat-B jail. 

Prison education session in classroom
Generally, these basic literacy sessions were pretty calm and sedate. Most cons were either glad to be out of their cells for a couple of hours in a clean, bright classroom being taught by a pleasant female tutor, or else were heavily medicated and inclined to doze off in the sunny warmth of the room.

However, on this occasion we had what we termed a ‘refusenik’ – a con who resented having been forced to attend education classes and who was extremely hyper. I’ll call him Dave (not his real name). His nickname was ‘Dangerous’ because of his aggressive and unpredictable behaviour.

In fact, he was living with serious mental illness and was back in prison on recall. His medication hadn’t yet stabilised his condition since he had arrived back in custody and he could be extremely aggressive, particularly towards female members of staff. Since he was 6ft 4” tall, he could be very intimidating, even for fellow cons.

It all started when he was asked – very politely – by the young female tutor not to eat a bag of dry breakfast cereal he had brought with him into the classroom, but to wait until break. He responded by simply ignoring her request and munched on loudly. He was sitting right at the back of the room which usually accommodated about 12 prisoners per session.

Ideal for disrupting lessons in jail
Having defied her once – and having got away with it – Dave decided to try his luck with other means of both getting attention and disrupting the lesson. His next ploy was to flick prison-issue rice krispies at other cons. Childish behaviour, but sometimes prisoners can revert to infantile actions in the slammer.

Clearly the education session was degenerating into a circus. Rather than call for the duty screw – who was down the corridor reading the paper and drinking his tea – the tutor made the error of confronting the disruptive con directly at the back of the room. This placed her about five metres from the nearest general alarm button which was located next to her desk in case of trouble.

Dave didn’t like the idea of being giving a dressing down by a young, slight woman so he stood up and towered over her. At this stage there had been no actual physical contact between them. Intimidated, she retreated into the far corner – nowhere near the alarm – as he advanced towards her. She was completely trapped and starting to panic. This was the point at which moral decisions had to be made.

Either the other peer mentor assigned to the class and I could stand by and allow what could be a very nasty situation to end up with a serious assault against the tutor, or we had to do something. Hitting the alarm really wasn’t an option as we knew the potential consequences, especially as peer mentors were already considered halfway to being screw-boys anyway.

Restrained
In the end, both of us walked up to the corner and placed ourselves between the tutor and Dave, making it clear that if he wanted to hurt her then he’d have to deal with us first. I don’t particularly like the idea of being thumped by a bloke who is much bigger than me, but the only alternative to becoming part of a human shield in front of the tutor was to press the damned alarm button and take the consequences once the story got around the nick.

Fortunately, ‘Dangerous Dave’ backed off. Intimidating a female member of staff was one thing, getting into a possible scrap with two big cons was another. He weighed up his options and then grumpily stomped back to his seat, giving the tutor the chance to get back to her desk and hit the alarm. In a few moments four screws arrived and Dave was being ‘twisted up’ – placed in a restraint hold – and then marched down the Block to cool off. We didn’t see him again on the wing for a week or so and he didn’t return to education classes.

In this case, we were both very lucky. Our fellow cons saw the logic in what we’d done and neither of us got any negative reactions. However, this incident shows what an ethical minefield prison can be and why having an accurate moral compass to help you negotiate the potential hazards can be essential. Just ask yourself how you would have handled this situation!

Monday, 6 April 2015

The Soundtrack to My (Prison) Life

Having blogged about the books that helped get me through my time in prison, I thought that I’d share some thoughts on the music that kept me going inside, especially when things were particularly grim. Some tracks are included in the list because they were played regularly when I was a con; others because they had a special meaning to me personally. I suppose that you could call this selection a soundtrack to my prison life.

CDs: prison listening
Music plays an important role in the lives of many prisoners as it can provide emotional comfort, mental escape from confinement and – when using earphones – create a much-needed refuge of personal space within what can be a very noisy communal living area, especially when there are two or even three adult men sharing a tiny concrete cell. Some lucky prisoners still have guitars, although new rules introduced in 2013 have made it much more difficult for inmates to purchase musical instruments.

Even those who don’t possess a radio or CD player can still listen in via the rented in-cell TV. Of course, iPods and other MP3 devices are banned by law from prisons, so other than CDs and old cassette tapes the choice of medium for playing music is very limited. There are also strict limits set on the number of CDs that any inmate can have in possession at any one time and loaning them to other cons, which of course does go on all the time, is a breach of prison rules and can get you put on report.

So here is my personal list.

1. Last Stand (Harry Chapin) 

Harry Chapin
Maybe an unconventional choice from the late US performer who is better known for his hit Cat’s in the Cradle, but Last Stand is the song I listened to every day in the run up to my trial and then every night after the hearing adjourned for the day. It’s a song about coping with defeat and disaster in pretty much all its forms.

Every criminal trial is a terrifying experience, so Chapin’s line that runs “you try to find some courage on your knees” struck me as being particularly apt. There is one verse above all other that I think sums up the sensation of standing in the dock as the jury delivers its verdict:

Take your look around the top,
For now you face the final drop.
You’ll go down fast and you won’t stop,
You found a very deep hole.

And thus it was. I didn’t get to hear Last Stand again for a couple of years. I never invested in a CD player and it didn’t get played on the radio while I was listening, but since I knew every verse by heart that song probably did more to help me find the courage to face the worst that the prison system could throw at me than almost anything else during my time in jail. When I finally went home for the first time on temporary release it was the first song I listened to on my iPod.

For many prisoners, being sent down – particularly for a long stretch – is the beginning of the end. I’ve seen so many casualties inside whose lives have effectively been ended by addictions, uncontrolled tempers, mental illnesses. For them, Chapin’s lyrics have a special relevance:

You watched as the last light
Went out there in your soul.

Walk around the wings of any prison and, believe me, you’ll find plenty of men – some of them barely out of their teens – from whom the last light in their lives really has gone out. It can be very frightening to witness.


2. Friday Mourning (Morrissey)

Morrissey: Friday Mourning
No list of songs relevant to the prison experience would be complete without at least one from Morrissey. Again, this is a number that meant a lot to me in the run up to the trial. I well remember pounding on a treadmill in a local gym trying to keep fit in the 14 months I was on bail listening to this and other similarly grim tracks from the master of dark and depressing lyrics.

In this case, his description of condemnation from family, friends, colleagues and wider society fits perfectly with the experience of many prisoners, whether innocent or guilty.

And when they haul me down the hall
And when they kick me down the stairs
I see the faces all lined up before me
Of teachers and of parents and bosses
Who all share a point of view
“You are a loser”
“You are a loser”.

Some prisoners have already spent most of their lives being kicked down the stairs (sometimes literally) and a majority have probably already been written off as “losers” long before they got through the prison gate. Self-esteem is not something that the experience of incarceration does much to build and when you have nothing to lose...


3. Payphone (Maroon 5)

Maroon 5: Payphone
Funnily enough, this song embedded itself into my prison experience as it topped the charts while I was inside. The main reason it became so relevant was not because of the accompanying music video in which Adam Levine transforms from a bored bank clerk via an armed robbery into a fugitive engaged in a dramatic police pursuit, but because so many cons used to sing or whistle the tune while standing in the long queues to use the wing payphones!

I’m at a payphone trying to call home
All of my change I spent on you.

Imagine 20 or so cons leaning against a long corridor wall all waiting to get their ten minutes on the payphones singing this chorus, more or less in tune, to the bemusement of the wing screws. Moments of humour like that aren’t common in prison, but they do occur and that was one of them.


4. I Shall be Released (The Band)
The Band: I Shall be Released

This is not just a song, it’s more a state of mind. I much prefer the 1968 release by The Band to Bob Dylan’s own solo version. This is one of the most famous prison-themed songs of all time and for me it has a timeless quality.

It deals with the psychology of loss and confinement, as well as addressing in the final verse the plight of the wrongly convicted who find themselves trapped unjustly within an uncomprehending system. For those people, the lines “So I remember every face, Of every man who put me here” are particularly poignant.

It is also, above all, a song that focuses on hope and the prospect of eventual release that is in the mind of just about every prisoner, even if the likelihood is remote. I spent many, many hours looking at the high walls surrounding Cat-B and Cat-C prisons while imagining how everyday life was going on just over the other side. Occasionally, from upper landings, you could glimpse the world over the walls and I know cons who could spend hours each day just looking between the bars of their cell windows dreaming about the day when they would be released. Some probably never will be.


5. Reflections of My Life (The Marmalade)
The Marmalade: Reflection of My Life

This is a song from the 1960s by the Scottish band The Marmalade about a longing for a return to the old familiar past and, above all, a deep desire to get back home, a feeling that is familiar to every prisoner and person held captive. For many inmates thoughts of home – even of a home that is long gone – sustains them across the years inside. They live on their memories of happier times and of the love of family:

All my sorrow, sad tomorrow
Take me back to my old home.

Of course, the reality for a great many prisoners is that there is nothing left on the other side of the wall. Families have split up and moved on or loved ones have died. There is no ‘old home’ to go back to, so they have to make do with fading memories. When the day of release finally arrives it can prove to be both a big shock, as well as a sad disappointment.

So what keeps prisoners going, especially when sentences stretch into decades? Sometimes it’s hope and for others it can be fear of the unknown:

The world is a bad place, a bad place
A terrible place to live, oh but I don’t wanna die.

Hope of any kind can keep people going no matter how terrible their situation – and this is true of many who are facing crisis outside of prisons – but once all hope is lost, that’s when the balance can tip and death can come to be seen as offering a welcome release. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the suicide rate is climbing once more in our prisons.


6. The Needle and the Damage Done (Neil Young)
Neil Young

This 1972 song is Neil Young’s reflections on the scourge of heroin addiction – a very relevant issue in our prisons where wings are awash with every kind of drug, legal and illegal. Many prisoners are serving sentences that are directly linked to crimes committed in order to obtain drugs and you can often see the way these substances have ravaged their bodies and minds. Youngsters in their 20s look like old men, frail and toothless as they totter down prison wings.

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.

Although Young’s lyrics were inspired by his own experiences of seeing friends, band members and other musicians of his generation destroyed by heroin, they also mean something special to anyone who has witnessed this nightmare at close quarters. And that is just as relevant to those who are the victims of drug-related crime, often including family members or neighbours of the person who is addicted.

When I was in an open prison in the last year of my sentence I attended a charity concert given in the prison chapel and one of my fellow cons did a Neil Young set, accompanying himself on the guitar. Like the original it was a stripped-down performance, although in this case the lyrics were being sung by a man who was serving a life sentence for terrible crimes committed under the influence of drugs. As he sang those lyrics, I looked around the chapel and could see for myself the truth of Young’s words.


7. Part of Me (Katy Perry)
Katy Perry: Part of Me

This is another song that hit the top of the charts when I was inside in 2012. It was wildly popular with most cons – probably due to the irresistible combination of Ms Perry and a music video that showed her playing with guns. However, I chose to see something a bit more meaningful in her lyrics within a prison setting.

Prison is all about de-personalisation and imposed uniformity. The experience of incarceration tends to dehumanise everyone involved in it, both inmates and members of staff and it can be a real struggle to retain ‘normal’ standards of humanity. So when Katy Perry sings:

This is the part of me
That you’re never gonna ever take away from me.

this can have a relevance to prison life, especially since the music video that accompanies the track shows her reacting to a failed relationship by enlisting in the military, going through basic army training and then preparing for combat. Prison inmates are given numbers, uniforms and have much of their former identity stripped away. The key issue is to what extent you manage to retain your essential humanity – the part of you that no-one is ever going to take away.


8. The Mercy Seat (Johnny Cash)
Johnny Cash

I doubt that it would be possible to compile a list of prison songs without including Johnny Cash, even though the nearest he ever really got to being in the slammer himself was the odd overnight in police cells for minor drink or drugs offences. He did, however, perform concerts for inmates at both Folsom Prison and San Quentin in the late 1960s.

I actually think that Cash’s version of The Mercy Seat is better than Nick Cave’s, but that’s personal choice. The song tells the powerful story of a man awaiting execution in the electric chair and, at various points in the lyrics, it seems as if he is actually welcoming death as a relief from “all this twistin’ of the truth”. He also asserts repeatedly that he is not afraid to die and that he is innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned, although there is a twist in the final verse where the lyrics suggest that he has been lying – although whether about his innocence, or his fear of dying, or both is never made clear.

The symbolism is heavy with religious imagery, particularly that of the Israelite Ark of the Covenant – sometimes known as the ‘mercy seat’ – that was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Throughout the song, the Ark, which had to power to kill those who touched it without authorisation, is compared to the electric chair which does the same to the condemned man.

Long before I went to prison I appreciated this song because, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I used to write regularly to a prisoner on Death Row in Florida for several years prior to his execution (by means of lethal injection, rather than the electric chair). I’ve always been deeply opposed to the death penalty, so this number by Cash means something very personal to me.

There is a lesser known song recorded by Johnny Cash called The Wall and this deals with the death of a prisoner who according to the official report tried to escape, but in reality committed suicide by approaching the prison wall deliberately in order to be shot by the guards in the watchtower. I was torn between this and The Mercy Seat, so I decided to include it here anyway.


9. Sit Down (James)
James: Sit Down

This 1989 song by the Manchester band James always reminds me of the large number of prisoners I met inside who live with mental health problems – which is one of the main themes of this chart hit. As an Insider (peer mentor) I spent a lot of my time in jail sitting with fellow cons who were in distress or crisis, particularly those who were in desperate need of mental health care, but who were often simply ignored or even punished for their erratic behaviour.

Sometimes they shared their problems with me because there were occasions when it seemed that no-one else had any time for them. This role became more than a prison job for me, perhaps it was more of a vocation I suppose. However, it was rarely easy to share someone else’s dark night of the soul.

I’ll sing myself to sleep
A song from the darkest hour
Secrets I can’t keep
Inside of the day.

Some of the things that I was told by other inmates have had an enduring impact on me. Terrible stories of human depravity, often of crimes committed against them when they were young kids, including rape and other forms of abuse. Many had lived with these traumas for most of their lives and some weren’t coping very well or had used alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. Others were consumed with hatred and anger that could erupt into violence without warning, making them dangerous to themselves and those around them.

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
Love, in fear, in hate, in tears.

And when listening to these adult men, some of whom remained small, frightened children inside, I experienced all of these emotions and more. It was both a privilege and a burden. I doubt that my life will ever be the same again.


10. Anthem (Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen: Anthem

I’ve always enjoyed Leonard Cohen’s music, but I think that the particular song that came to mean a great deal to me while I was in prison was Anthem. It was also a great favourite of an old friend of mine who died very suddenly and unexpectedly last week. He was a great help and a source of comfort to me throughout my time inside and I’ll always associate this song with him.

The lyrics are all about the losses, griefs and betrayals of human life, yet the song also speaks of the possibility of redemption even in broken lives:

There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in. 

I’ve seen for myself how some very damaged and broken people in prison can still be capable of great acts of kindness and selflessness. It’s often their presence on a prison wing that can make the difference between life and self-inflicted death or injury among those around them.

Those readers who know me personally will also understand why these lyrics by Cohen are very relevant to me:

I can’t run no more 
with that lawless crowd 
while the killers in high places 
say their prayers out loud. 
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up 
a thundercloud 
and they’re going to hear from me. 

Sometimes you just have to do what is morally right even when the legal consequences can be devastating. Perhaps this blog is a small part of what ‘they’ are going to hear from me.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Strangeways: Could it Happen Again?

The 25th anniversary of the start of the prison riot that led to the devastation of Manchester’s HMP Strangeways on 1 April has been marked by the broadcasting of a fascinating television documentary on BBC2. During the programme we heard first-hand accounts of the 25-day standoff from the former governor, ex-prison officers and several former inmates who led the protests.

HMP Manchester (aka Strangeways)
What was particularly striking were the all too familiar complaints concerning overcrowding of prison wings and the frustrations fuelled by a lack of activities that led to 23-hour bang up. If it hadn’t been for the grainy 1990s news footage and the severely dated haircuts of both screws and cons, viewers could have been forgiven for thinking that this was a current affairs programme probing the prison crisis of today.

Even former members of the Strangeways staff highlighted the problems of having too many men crammed into Victorian-era cells designed for single occupancy. However, although the repellent practice of ‘slopping out’ buckets and chamberpots may have ended, the prospect of having an hour of exercise and fresh air every day back then might be seen as an improvement by many prisoners who consider themselves lucky to get 30 minutes these days – that is assuming it isn’t cancelled altogether owing to staff shortages.

Another key factor in the Strangeways riot was the intense media interest, especially in the men who were holding out on the roof. This was a mass media event, covered daily by an army of journalists and photographers armed with telephoto lenses.

Up on the roof
What hasn’t changed much is the willingness of the tabloids to play on popular fears of prisons and prisoners. As one of the front page ‘splashes’ featured in the BBC documentary proclaimed: “20 dead”. In fact, the final death toll was two: one prisoner who died following a severe beating from fellow inmates and a prison officer who fell ill and died during the standoff.

Recent interviews with Lord Woolf, the retired Lord Chief Justice who chaired the public enquiry into the Strangeways riot, have raised speculation that we might face similar incidents today. Indeed, Lord Woolf himself has warned that in several significant respects penal policies have gone backwards in recent years and that poor conditions in our prisons are similar to those that led to the protests at Strangeways in 1990.

What became evident during the recent documentary is that the original intention of the protesters did not include a full scale riot. According to the planners, their intention had been to stage a vocal sit-in protest in the prison chapel in order to draw attention to grievances, including poor conditions. Like so many peaceful demonstrations, however, events soon slipped out of the protest leaders’ control and escalated into mass destruction of the prison fabric, as well as violent attacks on other inmates – particularly suspected sex offenders – and violence aimed at prison staff, over 140 of whom were injured.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from the lead up to the actual riot and that is just how volatile prisons can be, especially when there is widespread resentment seething just below the surface. Even a peaceful protest can easily escalate into something much darker and more violent as tensions and frustrations lead to an outpouring of anger and violence. As one former prisoner observed in his interview for the BBC documentary: “It was payback time.”

HMP Moorland: riots in 2010
In some ways we don’t really need to debate whether another Strangeways riot could occur today. There has already been a series of disturbances in our prisons over the past few years. Some incidents have been minor, although others – such as the trashing of two wings at Doncaster’s HMP Moorland in 2010 and the burning of parts of HMP Ford in 2011 – have been much more serious.

There have also been significant incidents at HMP High Down in 2013 and at HMP Ranby and HMP Oakwood during 2014. Any one of these examples of what the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) prefers to call ‘concerted indiscipline’ could easily have spiraled out of control and escalated into full scale prison riots or even sieges.

The other key fact is that you don’t need a majority of prisoners to start rioting. A lesser known feature of the Strangeways riot is that around 1,000 of the prisoners made their own escape from the chaos and handed themselves into prison staff who were waiting outside. Even at the height of the 25-day protest, there were less than 250 inmates involved – a figure that rapidly dropped to 25 by the 11th day of the crisis. By the end of the siege there was just a handful left on the roof.

Strangeways ablaze in 1990
One of the main outcomes of the Strangeways riot was reform of a prison system that even some of its own officers accepted was still rooted in the Victorian era. Conditions of incarceration were made less austere and reforms were introduced.

Following the findings of the Woolf enquiry there was a recognition of the truth expressed in Parliament by Roy Hattersley, the Labour shadow home secretary at the time of the 1990 riot, that: “If we treat men like animals we shouldn’t be surprised if they behave like animals.” Across the floor of the House we saw the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, glowering. However, even she couldn’t turn the tide. It seemed that the era of Victorian prisons was passing forever.

And yet in 2015 we are again having the debate about overcrowding and the warehousing of two or three adult men in a tiny cell that was built to house one person. Likewise, some prisons are now running almost permanent ‘restricted regimes’ where prisoners are locked in their cells for 22 or 23 hours per day, with little access to education, employment or training. Tensions in some jails are running high and any minor incident has the potential to set off a much greater outburst of violence and aggression.

No need for blackboards these days
In some respects the situation is even more dangerous today than it was 25 years ago. For a start there were no illicit mobile phones back in 1990. Now most prison wings have contraband handsets and SIM cards circulating. Whereas the Strangeways protesters had to make use of blackboards and chalk to get their messages out to the watching media, these days half the cons would be calling and texting the media or, just as likely, taking ‘selfies’ amid the wreckage of a prison wing.

This ability to access illicit phones would also certainly lead to protesters contacting their mates in other prisons to spread the word. Although there were copycat incidents at other jails back in 1990, news of a major incident will be circulating throughout the prison estate within hours or even minutes, even if there is a media blackout on reporting.

Prisoners are also well aware that if there were to be simultaneous incidents at multiple prisons at the same time, the overstretched Prison Service would simply not have the staffing required to restore control across the country. Like the proverbial toppling dominoes, violent disorder could spread literally like fire across our prisons.

Chronic staff shortages in many prisons also means that there would be less chance of 400 specially-trained officers – as the Prison Service had available to deploy at Strangeways – being mustered. Moreover, having fewer prison staff than were employed back in 1990, the risk of officers losing control of a wing – or even a whole prison – are that much greater.

Aftermath of the Strangeways riot
Every prison governor’s nightmare scenario is a siege with hostages having been taken. In that respect the Strangeways riot could have been much worse than it was. Officers and other prison staff withdrew in April 1990 and the Prison Service made the decision not to send in the 400-strong riot squad to retake control of the jail. No hostages were paraded on the roofs or threatened with execution. Despite the tile throwing, events at Strangeways assumed a surreal tone with groups of prisoners dancing on the roof to pop music being blasted out from loudspeakers.

So could another Strangeways riot occur again today? Although, as I’ve observed in previous blogs, I think a full scale riot and siege on that scale is unlikely I also believe that the pressure-cooker environment in our prisons has gone beyond crisis point. In some establishments it could only require a minor incident to escalate into serious violence and rioting – something that is even more likely when prisons are severely short-staffed.

Another unknown element is the potential impact of so-called legal highs which are easily available on most prison wings. Prisoners under the influence of these substances can and do behave much less rationally. In such an environment things could easily get out of hand very quickly.

As the Strangeways riot demonstrated, most prisoners are actually quite a conservative lot – as can be seen from the vast majority who exited at the first available opportunity. Very few want to run the risk of being prosecuted for prison mutiny and having an extra nine or ten years added on top of their existing sentences. However, some others may feel that they have little or nothing to lose and decide that “payback time” has finally arrived. If they do, then most of the conditions would seem to be ripe for some serious incidents of ‘concerned indiscipline’ over the hot summer months.

As the anonymous prison officer who participated in this blog’s recent Q&A observed, at the moment our prisons are a “ticking bomb” with violence on the increase. There may be trouble ahead.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Q & A with a Frontline Prison Officer

As regular readers of this blog know I do aim to make the posts as informative and balanced as possible. Since its launch in July 2014 the blog has acquired a wide readership ranging from the Chief Inspector of Prisons and politicians to ex-prisoners, as well as quite a few people who are facing the prospect of a custodial sentence.

Prison officers: staff shortages
This particular post is a first for this blog, however, because a serving prison officer has agreed – on condition of anonymity – to give his personal views on working on prison wings, as well as an insight into the impact of current policies, staff shortages and the reasons that morale is so low. He also shares his experiences of the dangers posed by so-called ‘legal highs’ that are smuggled into our prisons.

We conducted the Q & A via e-mails. All we have agreed to reveal is that he is a male officer with over 20 years’ experience and currently works in a male Cat-C establishment.

Q. How would you say the job of being a prison officer has changed over the last few years?

A. ‘More for less’ as that often repeated popular Tory slogan goes!

There is less time for ‘good old’ prison officer duties i.e. face-to-face communications with prisoners and dealing with their ‘issues’. We’ve been pushed out of roles where prison officers were employed, and could utilise when working ‘on the landings’ – for example Offence Focused Groupwork.

On a daily basis I just don’t have the time to attend to individual prisoners’ requests and issues. There appears to be a ‘if it can’t be quantified’ attitude – by ‘management’ – then it is not important.

There is more emphasis now – via ‘management’ – on paper filling and box ticking to make it appear that the jobs are being carried out satisfactorily. For example, my daily duties are now broken down into slots of 15 minutes. At least twice, on a daily basis, my detail shows me as being in two places at the same time.

Q. What impact has the 28 percent cut in staffing had on you and the colleagues you work with?

A. There are less staff to complete all the daily tasks to a satisfactory level and, more importantly, far less time interacting with, and monitoring, prisoners and their behaviours – for example bullying, violence, substance misuse, vulnerabilities, etc.

Less time to talk to prisoners
Also, there is lowered confidence in dealing with anti-social, pro-criminal behaviours due to lack of availability of staff.

Q. How does overcrowding (if that is currently a problem in your own nick) impact on the way you can do your job?

A. I’ll give an example.  A typical wing has 94 single cells. Currently, a typical wing is holding 126 prisoners. That's approximately 32 prisoners sharing cells originally built for one prisoner. This means more demands on staff time and the resources available within the wing/establishment. Also, everyday is a ‘ticking bomb’ due to prisoners fighting for attention, and for the use of limited facilities such as showers, phones, association equipment, etc.

Q. Most of the prison officers I communicate with feel staff morale on the frontline is pretty much rock-bottom at the moment. What’s your own take on this?

A. I would agree with that. However, most of the experienced staff help each other get through the day. There is a distinct feeling that the ‘management’ of the establishment is not that bothered about the frontline staff as long as all the relevant paperwork is signed and dated, for example wing diaries. There is an opinion that the calibre of ‘management’ within the prison service nowadays do not want to engage with officers or prisoners on a daily face-to-face basis - they are more happy to sit behind their computers looking at and making spreadsheets.

In my first couple of years’ service I remember governors being based on wings and the ‘No. 1’ [governing governor] and the ‘Deputy’ making daily rounds of the prison talking to and observing staff and prisoners. I have yet to see the current ‘No. 1’ and ‘Deputy’ do this! This just reinforces officers’, and prisoners’, views that the prison ‘management’ isn’t interested in what is actually going on within the walls of their establishments.

Q. Do you feel that safety – of staff and cons – has been compromised due to Chris Grayling’s ‘reforms’? If so, where do you see the real flashpoint and dangers?

A. Without a doubt, yes!

Staff shortages mean less supervision
There is a distinct lack of staff presence during the ‘line route’ to and from activities which makes it a prime time for prisoners to ‘get even’, carry out assaults, ‘taxing’ [charging protection money] etc.

Activities are regularly being curtailed due to lack of staff due to sickness, emergency escorts etc. Gym is a regular activity that is cancelled due to staff being re-deployed.

Gang activity is on the increase, along with the availability of drugs – particularly the so-called ‘legal highs’. The prison’s security department has been depleted, along with the number of searches that used to take place, together with staff who were available within the establishment on a day-to-day basis.

Q. You’ve commented previously on a lack of support from management. How does this work in practice on the wings and has it got worse in recent years?

A. ‘Management’ is rarely seen on the wings, within the grounds during the working day. It has been regularly commented on by officers that if the building where all these ‘managers’ are located was in London in would not make any difference to the current running of the establishment.

I would say the quality of the ‘managers’ (governors!) has declined over the past ten years. It appears to me these new ‘managers’ are good at balance/spread sheets and looking at computers but they appear very hesitant in dealing with or communicating with officers and prisoners on a personal basis.

Officers have a saying for the type of current ‘management’ and that is ‘management by e-mail’ as this appears to be the preferred method of communicating with staff and means that ‘management’ do not have to leave their offices and see what is being dealt with on a daily basis throughout the prison estate.

On the wing
Q. Can you give us an insight into the way the revised Incentives and Earned Policy (IEP) policy has impacted on your establishment since September 2013?

A. It hasn’t made much of an impact, in my opinion! I see it as just another bureaucratic ‘exercise’ that diverts disciplinary cases from adjudications.  Call me cynical, but these do not show up on monthly statistics!

There was/is very little difference between a ‘standard’ and ‘enhanced’ prisoner and the privileges, etc.

In all honesty I haven’t paid much attention to this policy as, like a lot of officers and prisoners, I do not rate this system much as it’s a poor substitute for the old disciplinary system.

Q. What effect has so-called ‘legal highs’ had on your nick? Are these substances widely available at the moment and, if so, are they making your job more difficult and/or dangerous?

A. This is one of the most frightening things that is worrying frontline officers. You don’t know, on a daily basis, if there is going to be a spate of prisoners using these and what strength they are using. Prisoners become violent, have an increase in strength, lose all awareness of where they are and the physical dangers to their bodies is worrying too.

Ticket to the Mambulance
On one particular day we had 18 known cases that required medical attention i.e. ambulances. Prisoners now refer to these as ‘Mambulances!’

It takes all of the wing officers to deal with just one prisoner who is having one of these ‘attacks’. This leaves the rest of the wing unsupervised, so you can draw your own conclusions as to what else could be happening, or could happen, when we are dealing with the use of these ‘legal highs’.

They appear to be easily available and a popular method of entry into the prison is being thrown over the fence as the chances of staff stopping these ‘drops’ is minimal.

If a prisoner is suspected of using these substances then they are automatically downgraded to the Basic IEP level.

Q. Have you noticed any changes in the type of prisoner you are dealing with or the length of sentences they are serving? Have you seen the prison population ageing during your time in the job?

A. There does appear to be more prisoners over 50 entering the establishment and the younger ones are more violent and willing to resort to violence. I believe this is because of how they have been treated during their ‘rise’ through the Criminal Justice System. In other words, they have been treated with kid gloves and the sanctions that have been applied or are available to punish them are a joke. They often say “And what are you going to do about it?” The answer to this has been not a lot or nothing and this has been imbedded in them

Q. It’s often said that our prisons run on the basis of cooperation between staff and most cons – particularly in view of the numbers of prisoners on a wing in relation to the smaller number of prison officers now employed. What is your take on this? Are cons becoming more difficult to manage or work with?

New regimes: increase tensions
A. Yes, they are more difficult to manage. This, I believe, is due to staff not having time to talk with prisoners, and the same goes for prisoners as the new regimes that were brought in last year do not allow for prisoners and staff to slow down. It’s rush, rush, rush: get them out and get them to work!

Most prisoners would like to go back to being ‘banged up’ during the lunchtime period as this forced them to slow down and relax. Now, because they are out [of cell] it increases tensions and I have noticed a lot more aggression shown between prisoner and prisoner particularly.

Q. Have you ever met any cons in the last 20 years that you genuinely believed might have been wrongly convicted?

A. I don’t know. But, I have met some who I believe should not have been sent to prison. For example one prisoner who ‘stole’ food thrown away by a well known supermarket into a skip. I think he was sent down for three months for this. He is now dead from overdosing after being released.

Q. Do you get any job satisfaction from your work these days? How do you cope with the increased violence and the risks to your personal safety? Have you considered looking for an alternative career because of working conditions getting worse?

A. Sometimes I get satisfaction but it’s very rare as we are too busy to take time on task and requests.

I’m constantly worrying about my own and my colleagues’ safety. I’ve come to realise that I stand clear until enough staff arrive or the prisoners cease fighting each other or I withdraw as quickly as possible. I’m finding it very stressful and not just the violence but the workloads and staff cuts.

I have – and am – seriously considering leaving. This is due to the increase in violence, reductions in officers and how ‘management’ treat us, particularly those at the higher end and, of course, politicians.

Prison UK: Many thanks for sharing all this with us.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Accomplices to the Crime

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the 25-day riot at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways it should be of deep concern that Lord Woolf – who presided over the public inquiry into the reasons behind the explosion of resentment and violence during April 1990 that left two people dead (one an inmate and the other a prison officer) – has called for a new inquiry into the dire state of our prisons. Now chair of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), the former Lord Chief Justice is warning that we have been going backwards and that the situation today is “back where we were at the time of Strangeways”.

Up in smoke: HMP Strangeways 1990
Perhaps predictably, Lord Woolf’s warnings are falling on deaf ears at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) down in Petty France. His lordship’s message is deeply unwelcome in a ministry that appears to have battened-down the hatches as part of a retreat from reality ahead of May’s general election. Just as predictable are the complacent platitudes rolled out by hapless part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous.

If it often sounds like Mr Selous is reading from a prepared script, then he probably is. The prisons portfolio is the current equivalent of a hospital pass in rugby and it seems that not a day goes by without some new scandal or shockingly negative report landing on his desk. The more he tries to pretend that the prison system isn’t in deep crisis, the less convincing he sounds. I doubt he really believes a word of the MOJ press office garbage he is briefed to repeat by rote.

Although every week is ‘disaster week’ for Chris Grayling and his sidekick, last week was especially grim. They must have known that the parliamentary Justice Committee report was going to be a real shocker, but perhaps the routine state of denial that seems to pervade the ministry had anaesthetised them ahead of what for any other government department – other, perhaps, than the Department of Work and Pensions – would have been a devastating indictment documenting institutional failure and inhumanity in equal measure.

Institutional failure from the top
It’s difficult to know where to start with the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State for Justice and his entourage by the Justice Committee which – lest we forget – is charged with holding the politicians who currently run this clown show accountable to Parliament and thus to the people of this country. If I run through just the critical paragraphs it would mean reproducing virtually the entire report verbatim. Other than the title page and the index, of course.

I’ll confine myself to just a few of the most pointed observations. If we start at paragraph 75 – as good a place as any – we find: “All available indicators, including those recorded by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and NOMS itself, are pointing towards a rapid deterioration in standards of safety and levels of performance over the last year or so.”

In other words, the prison system is in a real mess. However, this is really just stating the obvious for anyone who knows anything about our prisons. What it does mean is that Mr Grayling, Mr Selous and Mike Spurr of NOMS (the ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ of my earlier post) really didn’t manage to pull the wool over the eyes of the Justice Committee members when they gave evidence last December. It was a lamentable performance then and this report is the well-deserved riposte from the MPs who had to sit through Messrs Grayling & co trying to wing it.

"Arrogant and disrespectful? Me?"
Most of the specific issues raised by the Justice Committee have been covered in much greater detail on this blog since July 2014 and in many other places. However, one paragraph does merit careful attention:

“Most concerning to us is that since 2012 there has been a 38 percent rise in self-inflicted deaths, a 9 percent rise in self-harm, a 7 percent rise in assaults, and 100 percent rise in incidents of concerted indiscipline. Complaints to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and other sources have risen. There are fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, including diminished access to education, training, libraries, religious leaders, and offending behaviour courses.”

So, just about everything do to with our prison system has got much worse since Mr Grayling came into office in 2012. That’s a pretty shocking record by any standards.

The Justice Committee report also summarized the evidence that had been given by witnesses. Of particular concern was the impact of staff shortages and serious overcrowding on how prisons operate on a day to day basis: “Angela Levin of the Wormwood Scrubs IMB [Independent Monitoring Board] believed that increases in suicide, a “huge increase” in self-harm and a 50 percent increase in violence were due to the length of time prisoners were spending in their cells and the lack of capacity of staff to monitor them. For example, at Wormwood Scrubs more prisoners were now sharing cells, including three to a cell in some cases.”

HMP Wormwood Scrubs
The report also highlighted the marked fall in the number of prison staff: “Between 31 March 2010 and 30 June 2014 the number of full-time equivalent staff in public sector prisons fell by 28 percent, a reduction of 12,530 staff.” Moreover, it also pointed out that “staff turnover in public sector prisons has doubled since 2010/11”.

In other words, prison staff are bailing out at a significantly higher rate than before. This is perhaps unsurprising given that prisons have become a much less safe environment in which to work.

By this point in the report the Justice Committee is really getting into its stride. However, it saves up the real kicker until paragraph 102 in which it is observed that: “In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.”

Lord Woolf: warning
Basically, every single policy that ‘Calamity Chris’ has pushed through since 2012 has damaged the prison system to the point that safety – of both staff and inmates – has now been severely compromised. Quite an achievement over a 27-month period. No wonder Lord Woolf is warning that our prisons are going backwards towards the point when Strangeways went up in smoke.

Just in case anyone really thought that Mr Grayling might be saving the taxpayer money, the Committee shone the spotlight on the eye-watering cost of NOMS’ shocking incompetence in respect of managing the number of prison staff required to keep the system running. Chronic staff shortages mean that serving frontline staff are having to be bussed around the country – so-called ‘detached duty’ – at a whopping cost of £63.5 million over a 13-month period. This amounts to £2,500 per officer per month.

However, when it comes to the full cost implications of this mess – including subsistence allowances, travel and accommodation costs, the MOJ simply failed to produce the figures. Apparently no-one down in Petty France really thought that the MPs who sit on the Justice Committee would be interested in such minor details. After all, surely it’s the bigger ideological picture that really matters.

HMP Isis: short of half its staff
Each new paragraph of the report seems to expose some new horror or fiasco such as HMP Isis being short of almost half its officers due to 26 unfilled vacancies and another 27 members of staff off work for various reasons.

As the Justice Committee observed: “We believe that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards over the last year is that a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes.”

Moreover, the report correctly points out that: “Having fewer prison officers can tip the power balance, leading to less safety and more intimidation and violence on wings. Interim measures such as restricted regimes and the national detached duty scheme have been adopted as a necessary means of minimising the risks of operating with insufficient staff, but these measures themselves have an adverse impact on the ability of the prison system to achieve rehabilitation and reduce reoffending.”

In other words, the taxpayer is essentially being ripped off by the MOJ. Not that that seems to worry Mr Grayling a fig, since the report notes: “The Ministry’s inability to provide us with fully worked out costings of its reforms is a recurring issue for us.”

It appears that no-one down in Petty France really knows – or seems to care – how much the current prisons crisis is actually costing us. Certainly, to the evident frustration of members of the Justice Committee, if anyone does know they aren’t saying.

Terrible crimes down in Arkansas
The title of this blog post is borrowed from the book of the same name written by US prison reformer – and one-time warden of Arkansas state prisons – Tom Murton. I first read this hard-hitting exposé of the murder, torture and corruption that Dr Murton uncovered when he was appointed as warden in 1967 back in the early 1980s when I was still a student. The book made a significant impression on me and this is probably one of the reasons I was interested in penal reform long before I spent time in British prisons myself.

One of the reasons that the Arkansas prison scandal was permitted to happen was the failure of the state to properly fund its own prison system. With too few staff to actually run these sprawling farming establishments, wardens before Dr Murton were forced to rely on inmate ‘trustees’ – who were armed and empowered to dish out whippings and other forms of torture, including electrocuting their fellow inmates’ genitals if the fancy took them. Some prisoners were murdered and buried in anonymous plots out in the fields with no questions asked.

Rape and other forms of sexual exploitation were commonplace, as was corruption at every level from the warden down to the prisoners’ barracks. Everything had a price. Massive financial kickbacks were paid and ordinary inmates were used as slave labour by neighbouring farms and businesses.

The reason that Dr Murton used the title for his book was that these abuses – up to and including rape, torture and murder – were only possible with the collaboration of the state (sometimes active, at other times passive). Politicians, bureaucrats and local businesses had all played roles in encouraging the establishment of a prison system built on criminality and corruption. They were all “accomplices to the crime”, even though few of them were ever brought to justice.

Because he refused to cover up the terrible abuses he discovered Dr Murton was eventually dismissed and driven out of the US penal system. He ended up as a university academic and duck farmer, dying of cancer in 1990.

Dr Tom Murton: wouldn't cover up
I believe that many of the abuses that are taking place daily in our prisons – including widespread drug use, as well as a marked increase in sexual exploitation, bullying, self-harm, suicide and violence – are the direct results of frontline staff shortages, inadequate resourcing and serious overcrowding. At what point will this become a form of corporate negligence? And, if so, who – if anyone – will be held to account?

We may not have reached anything like the depths of depravity in our prisons that Dr Murton discovered when he took on the role of warden in Arkansas, but I fear that we are well on the way, particularly in respect of the casual manner in which Mr Grayling dismisses suicides of prisoners as a statistical “blip” and blocks independent research into prison rape and sexual assaults. He sounds more like the chair of the Arkansas Prison Board dismissing the deaths of inmates as a matter of no importance than a UK Justice Secretary. From such attitudes are monsters made.

We would do well to heed Lord Woolf’s warnings, as well as consider carefully the latest findings of the Justice Committee. Our prisons are heading for disaster and it gives no confidence when Mr Selous claims that: “Our modernisation programme has created an estate fit for purpose, and saved the taxpayer millions of pounds.” But what is that purpose? And why will no-one at the MOJ reveal the full costs – and what is the price of the rising loss of human life?