Monday, 26 January 2015

Prisons: Washing the Dirty Laundry

Sorry to disappoint those readers who were hoping for an internal exposé of the prison system in this post, but I thought it was time I wrote about how the laundry actually gets done inside our jails. It’s a subject I’ve rarely seen mentioned, even by other cons in their memoirs or blogs. However, for those seeking some real scandals in our jails, read on to the end. You may learn a few home truths that will turn your stomach.

Plenty of dirty laundry in prisons
The first thing to point out is that when you herd hundreds of people together in confinement, they will generate a great deal of dirty washing: clothes, towels and bedding. Trying to keep prisoners – and their cells – clean and hygienic isn’t just about good order, it can also help to cut down on the spread of infections and diseases – with which some prisons can be rife.

Broadly speaking, prison washing is divided into two specific types: ‘kit’ and ‘private clothing’. As the names suggest, the former is anything that has been issued by the prison, while the latter consists of clothes, bedding or other washable items that are the personal property of individual prisoners.

Prison-issue bedding
Issued bedding includes two green poly-cotton bed sheets, one pillow-case, one bright orange blanket (two if you are over 60 or disabled) and one ‘fire blanket’ (a heavy green canvas sheet). I’ve never really worked out what the fire blanket is supposed to be used for. Most cons use it as a top cover for the bed, but I imagine that in the event of a fire in your cell it could be used to smother the flames. I’ve never seen it used for such a purpose, however.

Prison clothing these days various from nick to nick. Most stores are supposed to have a stock of blue jeans, grey jogging bottoms and matching sweatshirts (occasionally in maroon), blue or maroon t-shirts, grey socks and light blue boxer shorts. Some also issue traditional blue and white striped shirts for visits (think Fletcher in Porridge). I have occasionally seen short denim jackets, but these 1970s throwbacks are now pretty rare. 

Prison shirt in Porridge
In addition to the above, prisons also supply two white or green towels (light blue ones tend to be issued for use in the gym showers). They are also supposed to provide pyjamas, although I’ve never, ever seen any on offer in any stores in the prisons I was in.

On top of the personal kit issued, prisons also have a range of clothes for work: kitchen whites for prisoners working in catering or the serving of food, overalls for those working in maintenance, ‘greens’ for prisoners who are cleaners or wing painters, plus innumerable coloured t-shirts and polo shirts for those cons who do special jobs. These include Insiders (peer mentors), Listeners, Toe by Toe mentors (adult literacy), wing reps, violence reduction reps (anti-bullying), diversity and equality reps… and so on. All of these garments need to be washed.

One a week – often on a Friday after lunch – most nicks hold a session called “kit change”. This is the opportunity to bring a set amount of prison-issued clothing, bedding and towels to be handed in for washing. As each con hands over his contribution, together with a small paper slip detailing what he is handing in, this slip is signed off – either by a wing orderly or by a screw. He can then report to the wing stores to collect fresh kit to replace the items sent to the laundry.

Prison laundry slip
There is always a gamble with handing over kit for washing: you can never predict in what condition the replacements will be. I’ve handed in perfectly good condition bed sheets and had rags full of enormous holes given to me in return. The important thing to remember is you never get back the same kit as you hand in. This means that if you hand in boxer shorts, for example, you will get back pairs that have previously been worn by dozens – perhaps hundreds of other blokes. Ditto with socks, sometimes complete with fungal infections, broken off toenails or stains from the last wearer’s open sores.

Now we come the real exposé of this blog post. I spent some months working as a slave in a prison laundry at a large inner city Cat-B nick, so I’ve seen what really goes on for myself. In fact, I am the proud possessor of a full set of SATRA professional laundry qualifications. In the unlikely event that I should ever feel the urge to do so, I am now qualified to operate most industrial laundry processes. 

Some prisons don’t have their own laundries these days, so they ship their dirty washing out to neighbouring establishments. I’ve done the washing for at least five different nicks, including one immigration detention centre.

Most prison laundries are running on a wing and a prayer. Massive industrial washing machines and driers are often old or reconditioned. Nothing new has been bought for years. We experienced frequent breakdowns and malfunctions. Sometimes there was no washing liquid fed into the machines, at other times the steam feed failed and the laundry in the washers went through the cycles cold. 

Prison washing machines: can malfunction
While this might not be a major problem at home, in an industrial setting, it can prove to be potentially disastrous. Many prison garments come into the laundries heavily soiled. Some are soaked in human urine, faeces, semen or mucus; other items are contaminated by fresh blood, which can carry and transmit a range of infectious diseases. A significant number of adult prisoners are actually incontinent, either as a result of illness, age or mental health problems. Dealing with bedding that has been wet in the night is a daily chore in most prison laundries. 

In our prison system we also have to deal with a fair amount of blood, sometimes lots of it. Plenty of prisoners cope with their sentences through regular self-harming, often involving cutting their own flesh. At other times there might have been a serious fight between cons or a suspected grass might have been cut with razor blades. Prison towels and sheets are then used to mop up the blood.

Bio-hazard laundry bags
Although officially, bio-hazards were supposed to be dealt with in a sealed, dissolvable bag – and an outer sack marked with a red stripe to indicate danger – in reality, there was often no means of separating such garments from the rest. Generally speaking, everything tended to be piled in together. This meant that health and safety measures were defective from the start. 

When washing machines fail to reach the correct temperatures this also means that potential infections – such as scabies, where tiny mites burrow into human skin – may not have been eliminated. Periodically, prisons do get outbreaks of such highly contagious infections. It’s all very scary, really.

However, what was even more worrying is that this prison laundry didn’t just take washing in from other prisons, it also had a number of commercial contracts with local restaurants, cafés and wedding venues. This means that although batches of their towels, tablecloths and napkins were processed separately from prison-issue kit, the same contaminated laundry barrows and machines were used indiscriminately. There was never time for a ‘service wash’ to clean the machines in between loads of prison and external washing.

Laundry barrows: sometimes leaking urine
I’ve seen prison laundry barrows leaking human urine being used for external contract washes on many occasions. I often wondered if diners at these exclusive eateries would be so enthusiastic about sitting at tables set with cloths, or wiping their mouths with napkins, that have been washed and dried in machines that had been used immediately beforehand for prison garments covered in human faeces, possibly contaminated blood, semen or infectious mucus – not to mention scabies mites. 

As the restaurants’ tablecloths and napkins were passed through the giant calendar (a rotary ironing machine), cons on duty had the less than pleasant task of picking off human hairs – pubic and otherwise – that had attached themselves to the items in the massive industrial tumble driers. No-one wore gloves and some cons working on these machines had themselves nasty skin infections or diarrhoea. 

Bon appétit: prison fresh linen
As soon as each item had been ironed smooth, it was packed into a crate ready for delivery back to the café or restaurant.  And to think that the owners of these catering businesses were paying good money for this service… Next time you dine out, it might pay to ask whether the restaurant or café of your choice gets its table and kitchen linen laundered at the local prison laundry.

Clothing for prisoners was treated even less carefully. Some of the garments that came out of the laundry were still heavily stained with human waste or were so tattered that they were only fit for use as cleaning rags. Nevertheless, within a few days this clothing would be on the bodies of prisoners because of the ‘take it or leave it’ policy in the stores. Not happy with the old boxer shorts you’ve been given because of the disgusting stains from human waste? Well then you can ‘go commando’ (not wear any underpants) until the next kit change. Your choice!

As things stand, pretty much every male prisoner now experiences this sort of humiliation, especially during the first two weeks or so of their sentences. The new Entry level of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme introduced from 1 September 2013 via PSI 20/2013 has forced all male prisoners into prison kit as a purely punitive measure (all women cons are exempt and can wear their own clothes at all times). 

Work gear
Many prisons then allow cons to have their own clothes back again as soon as they get onto Standard level. However, a fair few Cat-B locals don’t have the facilities to wash much private clothing on the wings, so in at least three of these nicks a prisoner will have to wait a further three months to attain Enhanced level before being able to wear their own clothes. In the meantime, they will have to make do with the often filthy and unhygienic kit handed out by the stores.

Quite a few prisoners who do manage to get issued with a decent set of prison gear will never exchange it. They will either simply wear what they have until it stinks or else try to hand-wash items in the cell sinks. In fact, the canteen sheets in most nicks actually sell cheap washing powder for this purpose. Then they try to dry their clothing on the hot water pipes or from the bars in the cell windows. That’s why prison landings often smell damp and musty.

Of course for those cons who have money there is often a very different level of service available: so-called “private washes”. This is where the wing laundry orderly collects your clothes from your cell at your convenience, washes them separately in a clean machine on the wing, using your own washing powder and softner and then returns them neatly folded – or if you pay for the deluxe service, even ironed. The usual tariff was a couple of tins of canteen tuna or some bars of chocolate. Unsurprisingly, to be wing laundry orderly was a very desirable, profitable and hotly contested job in every prison I’ve been in.

Fees for a private wash...
Moreover, stores orderlies were not above corruption and, should a fresh consignment of brand new prison clothing arrive, for a small consideration they would ensure that you received new boxers, socks and t-shirts in the appropriate sizes. So come kit change day, there would be no stained, grubby, ill-fitting clothing for the well-heeled elite cons of the wing.

As with so many of the punitive policies introduced by Chris Grayling, those who are really suffering are usually the prisoners at the bottom of the pecking order: the ones who really are penniless and have nothing with which to trade. But then, isn’t that the whole philosophy of the free market?

Friday, 23 January 2015

Two Cheers for the End of the Book Ban!

As regular readers will know, I’ve been following the saga surrounding the prohibition on the posting in of books to prisoners with considerable interest. The recent High Court decision that struck down the inclusion of books within the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme reflected the deep unease that the whole matter has rightly generated.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and its many supporters, including politicians, journalists, authors, ex-prisoners and members of the general public, have made sterling efforts in bringing this issue to national and international attention. The campaign became a genuine cause célèbre of 2014 and raised public awareness of some of the nasty and often irrational things that go on inside our prisons as a result of poor policy-making by politicians and their sidekicks in the civil service.

PSI 30/2013: ban on books by post
I’ve noted in previous blog posts that I’ve seen at first-hand how this vindictive and counter-productive regulation was imposed via Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013. I’ve also witnessed its negative impact on the lives of many inmates, especially those who really want to improve their knowledge and reading skills or to study for external qualifications, so the news that the ban on family, friends and external organisations sending books will end is to be welcomed.

Moreover, cons earning £8 or £9 a week, assuming that they can even get work in our overcrowded prisons, are rarely going to be able to purchase books for themselves using their own meagre resources. Access to prison libraries is also often highly restricted, in part owing to current staff shortages. All this was highlighted in detail in the High Court judgement handed down by Mr Justice Collins in December.

My main concern, however, is that – as usual – the devil will be in the detail. So far, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) doesn’t appear to have issued any instructions to prison governors about how the lifting of the ban on posting in books from 1st February will actually work in practice. 

I’ve cautioned previously that I very much doubt that prison security departments will start accepting parcels sent in directly by families and friends of inmates. Many establishments didn’t allow this for years prior to PSI 30/2013 coming into force on 1 September 2013. In fact, I’ve only really been in one prison – ironically an awful Cat-B local – which regularly gave permission for prisoners to have books posted in from home. Even then, each specific book title requested had to be pre-approved via the submission of a written general app (application) to the wing manager.

Was it a crime to ban book posting?
There was no option for well-wishers on the outside to suddenly post in a book they thought a con might enjoy. There were no nice surprises on birthdays or at Christmas. The process was bureaucratic and in some cases apps could take weeks to get back with ‘approved’ scrawled across them. To be fair, I never had any title refused, but everything took time.

The great advantage of this particular nick’s system was that once you had the written permission in your hand, you could phone home and ask a family member or friend to parcel up books you already owned and send them in. This really saved money. Again, there could still be an extended wait – ranging from a week to a month or more – before the contents of the package had arrived at the prison, had been opened and checked by security (presumably including having drugs dogs give the volumes a good sniff) before they were sent up to the wing by Reception.

Updating a prisoner's prop card
Next, all hardcover books needed to be individually recorded on the ubiquitous ‘prop card’ (personal property record) by title and author. Presumably this was designed to prevent buying and selling on the wings. However – bizarrely – paperbacks were classed as ‘consumables’ and no record was required, regardless of the value!

Finally, once all the security checks and prop card records had been completed (and this could easily take days or weeks), the eagerly awaited books were ready for collection from the wing office. Even then, a written note was usually slid under your cell door informing you that books had arrived and were ready for collection.

Cumbersome as this system may sound, it did work, albeit slowly. I had the enormous pleasure of actually receiving books I’d purchased myself years earlier and now really wanted to read again from cover to cover or to have available for reference on the little table in my shared cell. 

There is something comforting in the feel and smell of having your own books around you, especially when you are confined in a tiny concrete box for up to 23 hours a day. I’d bought these items when I was still a free man and they became a sort of tangible reminder of my former life. In fact, I could often recall exactly when and where I’d purchased them: from Blackwell’s in Oxford or on the Charing Cross Road.

Happy memories of buying books
Several of my pad-mates also got the benefit of my mini-library which eventually extended to about 25 books – way over the arbitrary limit of 12 originally imposed by PSI 30/2013, a restrictive rule that also included any items borrowed from the prison library. It did not, however, include a Bible (or other sacred text) or dictionary, so the real in-cell limit was actually 14.

Just imagine serving a very long prison sentence and having to select just 12 books, up to six of which could be library loans, for your entire stretch. Which ones would you choose? 

Mercifully, this nasty little piece of vindictive twaddle was quietly dropped by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) even before Chris Grayling received his much deserved trouncing in the High Court. Maybe the lawyers had warned Team Grayling that this highly restrictive rule – which was impacting seriously on prisoners studying for Open University qualifications and other correspondence courses – just wasn’t going to be defensible on the grounds of common sense. 

So where do we go from here? My best guess is that there will be no return to families and friends being able to post in books directly from home. This would represent far too much of a climbdown for a Justice Secretary who has repeatedly claimed that his robust new rules were introduced on grounds of prison security – variously to keep drugs out or to prohibit ‘extremist’ literature from getting in.

Approved supplier to prisons
Instead, I suspect that from 1st February prisoners will have to submit a general app for each specific book they wish to receive. Once this has been approved in writing – probably by a custodial manager – they will be able to ask family members or friends to order the book for them via an approved supplier. In many prisons, perhaps all, this is likely to be It certainly was in at least three nicks I was in.

I won’t go into all the reasons that giving an effective monopoly to this particular vendor might be fraught with moral and ethical concerns. However, having the ‘choice’ of only one approved supplier will severely limit the range of books available to prisoners, particularly if specific titles are now out of print. Some works may also only be obtainable direct from specialist bookshops, such as foreign language books. Are they to be excluded from prisons because of new restrictions on where orders can be placed?

Stalinist? Us? Never!
Prisons may also insist that all books ordered from its approved retailer be brand new and come delivered directly to the establishment in sealed wraps for security reasons. While this system is certainly better than nothing, it could still impose wide-ranging restrictions on access to many books, especially specialist volumes needed for study, not to mention additional costs to be borne by prisoners’ families and friends.

As of today, the reality is that we really don’t know which way this issue is going to go. Perhaps down in the MoJ offices in Petty France no decisions have yet been taken. It seems characteristic of the current senior management within Team Grayling to make decisions on the hoof, without consulting governors or others who have professional experience of how prisons actually operate.

All sorts of new barriers could still be erected to thwart the spirit of the High Court judgement following a judicial review that was bitterly contested by Team Grayling at every stage. That’s why – at least for now – I’m only giving two cheers for the ending of the ban on posting in books to prisoners. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

How to… Cook in a Prison Cell

Although a small number of prisons – mainly in the high security estate – do allow prisoners access to kitchen facilities on wings or units, the vast majority of our 84,800 inmates get nothing more than a travel kettle and plastic cutlery with which to create culinary delights in their cells. Various ex-cons have written on the subject of ‘cooking in a kettle’, however I thought a few personal reflections might be of interest to blog readers.

Typical in-cell kettle
Broadly speaking, there are three sources of cooking materials available in prisons: canteen purchases (almost all processed foods); meals from the servery and ingredients pinched from the kitchens or the staff mess. Since only a select handful of cons have access to the main kitchens or the staff facilities, most less privileged prisoners have to be inventive if they are going to cook something up in their pads (cells).

It’s also worth remembering that those prisoners who can actually afford to buy extra food from the weekly canteen sheet are the lucky ones. In our most of our overcrowded establishments there is a shortage of jobs or places on education courses, so large numbers of cons don’t actually get the chance to earn money to spend on canteen goodies. For those who have financial support from family or friends (or income from personal sources or a private pension), then the canteen can be their oyster… so to speak, but most inmates aren’t in that fortunate position.

I once knew two ex-soldiers who shared a pad in a Cat-B local. They were resourceful and had plenty of active service experience to rely on when it came to catering in the field. The canteen sheet at that prison included packet jelly, Bird’s Angel Delight, tinned cream, tinned fruit and digestive biscuits. From these ingredients, the two lads could create the most amazing ‘cell cakes’ which they would have ready for their tea at weekends (when the evening meals were dire - usually a stale sandwich and a small bag of crisps).

Essential ingredient for cons
Another con could use biscuits, chocolate bars, Angel Delight (chocolate flavour) and dried fruit to manufacture a very dense type of chocolate cheesecake. It was a sometimes bit too rich for my taste, but it was very popular among our friends, especially for birthdays.

My own speciality was nicknamed the ‘Kempinski pudding’ (after the famous chain of luxury hotels). First you boil full fat milk and pour it onto plain porridge oats. Next you mix in raisins and mixed nuts. Finally you top it off with golden syrup. All of these ingredients were available on the canteen sheet. It might sound like a breakfast treat, but my Polish pad-mate and I used to eat it in the evenings when the hunger pangs really started to kick in. It gave us a very welcome hit of carbs.

The evening meal in most prisons is served very early – often around 5pm. This means that – like most adults who eat so too early – we really started to feel hungry at around 8 pm. When you’re locked in a tiny concrete box, you can’t just pop down the road or order in a pizza, so we had to make do with what we could afford to buy. Luckily, I was never really without a prison job, usually as an Insider (peer mentor), as well as often working in education departments helping other cons with literacy or numeracy. Also, most of my pad-mates had some kind of income, so although money was never abundant we could usually afford to stock up on basics to keep us going.

Half for you... half for me!
However, as you get closer to the weekly canteen day, the locker shelves start to empty and belts get tightened. I well remember a dismal winter evening when my pad-mate and I had only one 33p packet of instant noodles between us. We literally had nothing else other than teabags and sugar left. So, like the good prison ‘bruvs’ we had become, we carefully split the packet between us. To be honest, I reckon any decent con would have done the same with his pad-mate.

Every prison’s canteen sheet is slightly different. Some items that you get used to purchasing in one jail won’t be available at your next prison. One nick will allow cons to buy butter and cheese, another nick won’t, citing food storage concerns in cell where there is no refrigeration other than the windowsill by an open window.

Quick snack... but pricey
Shortly before I was released, my last prison added Cup a Pasta (a bit like Cup a Soup, but with dried pasta in a packet) to the menu. When the boiling water had been added, you just waited for a few minutes and then you could add tinned tuna to make a high protein snack. This quickly became a favourite with lads who used the gym.

Prisoners can become adept at surviving on whatever food is available. Some become quite creative. If fresh eggs are available on the canteen sheet (or can be ‘procured’ from the kitchens or the staff mess) then various egg dishes can be created, including scrabbled and boiled varieties. 

The small travel kettles provided in each cell can be used as a cooker in different ways. We used to save an empty metal golden syrup tin and fit this into the top of the kettle. The boiling water beneath heated up the can and enabled us to be a bit more inventive when it came to heating food up, including boiling milk or making decent porridge – rather than the dreadful institutional variety made with hot water and milk powder.

Some of our ducks are missing
Of course, like all prisoners we heard rumours of other cons catching wild pigeons on the yard or through windows using lures, but to be honest the only inmates I was ever aware of that had done this were some Vietnamese lads who managed to catch a couple of wild ducks while working in the prison gardens. They then snapped their necks and quickly shoved the dead birds through the open window of a ground floor cell. I later heard that they’d boiled the meat with sugar in their kettles to make some kind of duck dish eaten with rice saved from a regular prison meal.  

Apart from this instance, I suspect that tales of cons cooking rats or other small creatures are basically urban legends, although of course I may be wrong. Awful though it is to relate, I have seen hungry prisoners rummaging through wing rubbish bins in search of edible food or else hanging around by the bins at mealtimes and begging scraps from fellow inmates who were about to throw the remnants of their own meals away.

Bins: real desperation
Hunger in prisons tends to affect younger lads – some of whom are still growing teenagers – much more. If they are active and go to the gym, then they can get pretty desperate due to the ‘one size fits all’ system of portion control at prison serveries.

Like quite a few older prisoners we learned fast to take anything and everything that was offered at mealtimes. Even if we didn’t want it, there would be a penniless, hungry lad somewhere on the wing who would be very grateful for our surplus food. 

Just one of the problems of long hours of cellular confinement is boredom and this can encourage snacking – usually of junk food which is always available to buy on the canteen sheets, such as crisps or chocolate. Where fresh fruit or vegetables were available from the canteen, they tended to be very expensive, so the system also seems to discourage healthy eating.

Worth cooking up for any prisoner
I do recall that one Cat-B prison started offering short courses in basic cooking. At first no-one was really interested, but then word went round that the lessons included making a roast chicken dinner and a full cooked breakfast with all the required ingredients provided. The payoff for a successful session was that instead of the usual prison lunch on that day, students got to eat what they had prepared in the class.

Once the first few cons returned looking very satisfied after polishing off their large plates of bacon, eggs, sausage and fried bread, or roast chicken with all the trimmings, there was a very predictable scramble to volunteer for cooking lessons across the whole nick. On our wing alone, over 100 lads signed up for the next course! Much better than anything we could have rustled up in our little travel kettles.

Monday, 19 January 2015

101 Things to do in a Cat-B Cell

I was asked recently by a blog reader to provide an insight into what there is to do in a typical Cat-B cell during 23-hour bang-up. This regime is becoming more and more common these days owing to a combination of staff shortages and overcrowding on the wings.

'Purposeful activity' in a cell
By pure coincidence, I was back in a Cat-B nick about ten days ago visiting a mate. I explained what I was planning to write and I asked him for some ideas. 

He looked at me blankly for a moment and then said: “I wake up, I shit and shave, I watch TV, I collect my lunch and eat it. Then I sleep or read until the evening meal is served. I eat it, watch TV and then I sleep. It’s like Groundhog Day without the happy ending.”

He’s actually quite fortunate as he has a job as the shower cleaner on the wing. This means that he gets out of his cell for around an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon in order to mop the shower room. Because of this job he also gets a single cell – a real luxury in most nicks these days. He generally doesn’t bother with 30 minutes exercise around the yard, mainly because the weather is so cold at the moment and since library visits haven’t happened for weeks, he has largely given up on reading. 

In many nicks association periods are mainly spent queuing to use the wing payphones or getting a quick shower. Some Cat-B locals also only allow one evening association session per week for each landing.

“What do your readers actually think cons do in a cell?” he wanted to know. 

“Well, I suppose they are trying to picture themselves in your position and to try to understand how you pass your time,” I replied. 

He laughed. “It’s going to be the most boring blog post you’ve ever written!”

A typical shared cell
Anyway, based on the discussion we had in the visits hall, we put together this list for the average 23-hour day behind the cell door. He doesn’t smoke and neither do I, but 80 percent of adult male prisoners do, so we decided to add that to the list. We also opted to leave out anything related to drug use, mainly because neither of us have ever taken illegal substances, but I suppose that for many cons that is also a central feature of their day in the slammer.

We also omitted self-harming, which for a significant number of inmates is the only way that they can cope with the stresses of their own sentences. As HM Inspectorate of Prisons has noted in some of its recent inspection reports, it’s also how many prisoners attract official attention when prisons are so short of staff that only self-harmers are noticed or referred to mental healthcare.

There are only so many games to play
In a shared cell, of course, you can also talk – assuming you and your pad-mate have anything worthwhile to say to each other. You could also play cards, if either of you owns a pack (£1 on most canteen sheets) or a board game, such as chess or Scrabble, if you have one in possession. In reality, the longer the sentence, the less you really feel like playing board games. Alternatively, if you and your cell-mate don’t get on then you can both stew in tense silence or finally snap and start fighting each other until the general alarm gets sounded!

So here is our list. Sadly, we didn’t make it to the magic 101…

1. Sleep
2. Lie in bed
3. Lie on the bed
4. Get off the bed
5. Make the bed
6. Roll a cigarette
7. Smoke a cigarette
8. Get dressed
9. Eat breakfast (small packet of cereal with carton of milk)
10. Make a cup of tea (five prison tea-bags issued per day)
11. Wash up the bowl
12. Wash up the mug
13. Urinate
14. Defecate
15. Wash in the sink
16. Shave
17. Clean teeth
18. Clip nails (as required)
19. Clean the cell with a dustpan and brush
20. Read a book (assuming you have one)
21. Read a newspaper (assuming you order and pay for one)
22. Watch TV (assuming you’re not on Basic regime)
23. Listen to music (if you have a radio or CD player)
24. Write a letter (one free letter per week)
25. Read a letter (assuming you’ve received one)
26. Fill in menu sheet (once a week)
27. Fill in laundry list (once a week)
28. Fill in canteen sheet (once a week)
29. Write out a general app (application form)
30. Sit and wait for a screw to open the cell door for showers (three times a week)
31. Sit and wait for a screw to open the cell door and use the wing payphone (twice a week)
32. Collect sandwich for lunch
33. Eat sandwich
34. Collect hot evening meal
35. Eat meal
36. Wash up plate and plastic utensils
37. Watch more TV
38. Look out of the cell window at the wall outside
39. Get undressed
40. Get into bed
41. Masturbate (optional – and easier in a single cell)
42. Try to sleep again despite the shouting and screaming around you
43. … er, that’s about it, folks!

One of the frequent claims made by politicians is that prison life should be all about “purposeful activity”. This can include participation in education, offending behaviour courses, vocational training or work. Successive prison ministers have demanded that cons shouldn’t simply “sleep through their sentences” or watch TV all day.

The punishment of daytime TV...
While there will always be a fair number of prisoners who would prefer to sleep in their bunks for most of the day, in my experience the majority actually want to be doing something, even if it’s cleaning the landings, doing a bit of painting, working down the stores or in the laundry, or in the kitchens or serving food. Others genuinely want to participate in education classes to start catching up on basic literacy and numeracy that they missed out on as children, while some are keen to gain vocational qualifications that might help them find employment when they’ve been released.

Current overcrowding means that there are far too few work and education placements to go round. When it comes to the best prison jobs preference is often given to those prisoners who are serving longer sentences so will be around longer once they’ve been trained up as orderlies, so cons on shorter sentences may not be considered when a vacancy arises. At present the default setting seems to be human warehousing with little or no chance of “purposeful activity” of any description.

Hopefully, between us – an ex-prisoner and a serving con – we’ve managed to answer readers’ questions about life in a Cat-B cell on 23-hour bang-up. Apologies if you found this blog post boring, but just imagine how much more boring it is to be locked in your cell day after day, week after week and month after month.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Sentenced to Silence

I’ve often reflected that literacy can – sometimes literally – provide a lifeline to prisoners. For many inmates their experience of imprisonment is primarily about exclusion and isolation. Separated from family and friends, and increasingly from other inmates due to the rise in 23-hour a day ‘bang up’ in their cells as one consequence of overcrowding and staff shortages in many prisons, the ability to read and write can maintain channels of communication with the outside world that otherwise might be closed.

Communication skills matter
One of the less appreciated aspects of the current crisis engulfing our overcrowded prisons is that serving prisoners are less able to get paid work inside their jail or access to education courses which also pays a small weekly wage of around £8. Those who have no financial support from family or friends outside often have to survive on what is termed ‘bang up pay’ of £2.50 a week and either £1 or 50p of that gets deducted at source to pay for the rented in-cell TV (depending on whether it’s a single or double cell).

The age of austerity has left many prisoners unable to afford to buy credit for wing payphones – the preferred mode of keeping in touch with families and loved ones for many cons, particularly those who struggle with reading and writing. This, in turn, can place immense strain on relationships, particularly with partners and children. In between prison visits, contact with the outside world can depend on the ability to read and write letters.

Learning to write as an adult
However, it is also clear that this option isn’t open to many prisoners who face challenges with reading and writing. Some official estimates indicate that around 48 percent of inmates have literacy skills at or below Level 1 (what would normally be expected of an 11-year old child), with as many of 75 percent having some problems with writing, ranging from poor spelling right through to functional illiteracy. This isn’t really surprising given that around half of all adult prisoners were excluded from school during their childhood and this early alienation from the classroom can continue to have a long-lasting impact throughout adult life.

Outside prison, many people without basic literacy skills have come to rely on mobile phones to keep in touch. However, inside prisons these are contraband items and smuggling or possession can now incur severe penalties, including longer sentences. This coping mechanism can be transferred to using prison payphone, but only if money is available in the prisoner’s account to purchase credits in multiples of £1. No credit? No phone calls.

No cash on account? No phone call!
So how do prisoners with little or no cash manage to keep in touch with family and friends, other then by occasional visits? All prisoners are entitled to a free ‘weekly letter’ with an envelope and a sheet of writing paper provided. This is sent out by 2nd class post. In some establishments the number of free letters allowed is determined by the individual prisoner’s status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, with some jails awarding three per week to those cons on Enhanced – the highest level within the scheme.

This is fine for those prisoners who can read and write. However, those without these key skills can find themselves with the means to communicate at least weekly, but with no easy way in which to make use of the statutory provision of free letters. The default solution is to find another con willing to assist. However, for those who are already isolated in their cells or who are living with mental health problems or other conditions – such as partial sight – unpaid support can be in short supply.

In theory, at least, all new receptions to every prison are supposed to participate in induction, a process that can last from a couple of days to a week or more. During this phase, not only are they given information about the prison daily regime and advice on a wide range of issues, but they are also supposed to be tested on their literacy and numeracy skills in order to identify those who may be eligible for basic courses in the education department.

Education class
Having worked in several prison education departments as a peer mentor, I would identify flaws in this approach at various levels. Many prisoners living with functional literacy are deeply ashamed of what could be considered a lifelong disability. Outside they may have relied on family or close friends to help them with day-to-day tasks. Others have developed different coping mechanisms to conceal an inability to read or write. Men whose education has been severely disrupted when they were young boys can sometimes be very resourceful when it comes to evading a need to be literate.

This is a particular problem for members of the Travelling community whose numbers are rising inside UK prisons. Most Travellers I’ve met in jail struggle with reading and writing often because of disrupted education during their childhood.

Inside prison, however, they can be confronted with situations that require a degree of literacy or face exclusion. Very few prisoners are now considered for a prison job unless they have achieved at least Level 1 in literacy and numeracy. Older cons who have been in the system for some time can suddenly find themselves sacked from existing work assignments (or ‘not required for labour’, as it is termed in prison) simply because they lack the required education certificates. For those who struggle at Entry Level 1, this can be an uphill battle, even if the motivation to make progress is there.

An additional disincentive for remedial study is the fact that many prison governors are bound by imposed targets that lead them to force prisoners back into the classroom as a matter of policy. For some adults, a return to formal education in a class setting can be either deeply humiliating, genuinely frightening – or a combination of both. At times, this compulsion can create what we termed ‘refuseniks’ – prisoners who prefer to face disciplinary action and the prospect of punishment, rather than participate against their will in literacy and numeracy sessions.

Serving a double sentence?
An alternative tactic adopted by others is to attend the classes – in order to get marked as present and then receive their pay – and then either feign illness, or else become highly disruptive in the classroom in a bid to get sent back to their cells. Of course, this inevitably disrupts the learning environment and makes it much more difficult for others who want to embrace the opportunity to improve their skills to make progress.

This can also be frustrating and very demoralising for education department staff who have no control over the prison’s policy of compelling some inmates to attend education classes. I have seen several members of the teaching staff in tears, or even taking sick leave, as a direct consequence of the daily battleground in which they are forced to work.

I have often reflected that a much better, and probably more effective, approach would be to assign literate prisoners as peer mentors to work with individuals who have become ‘classroom-phobic’, often as a result of traumatic experiences during childhood or adolescence. Working in a one-to-one environment can mitigate the worst stresses of returning to the classroom and it can also reduce the perceived stigma of having to ‘go back to school’ – which is how many cons regard compulsory participation in education.

Toe by Toe uses peer mentors to support reading
Such strategies can also be more cost-effective in an era of budgetary constraints, but probably need to be much more intensive than the existing Toe by Toe voluntary adult literacy scheme, as this only offers a 20-minute session up to five times a week and depends on other prisoners volunteering. It also requires regular association time and this is being severely reduced across the prison estate.

At the same, it shouldn’t be overlooked that a great many prisoners do participate in literacy and numeracy classes because they recognise that improving their own skills does offer real benefits, both inside prison as a condition of finding paid work, and as an important element of their future prospects upon release. In these circumstances it can be very rewarding to work with fellow prisoners who are eager to learn.

Reading can be a pleasure in prison
Back on the wings it has been great to see prisoners who couldn’t read or write when they arrived for induction starting to put pen to paper for their family and friends. I’ve seen a man in his 60s triumph over a lifetime of illiteracy through his determination to use his free weekly letters to maintain contact with his wife and family. For him, the first five tentative lines on a sheet of prison paper proved to be a major breakthrough. Now he’s a regular correspondent and enjoys reading books. He attributes the fact that his wife is still supporting him throughout a long sentence as a direct result of being to maintain communication with her through letters.

However, it also has to be recognised that there are many other prisoners, across the whole age range, who remain cut off from their families, both by a lack of money to use the wing payphones and by their inability to communicate in writing. Unless they are lucky enough to find other prisoners willing to help them out by reading and writing letters for them, then they really can be serving what amounts to a double sentence – in silence and isolation.