I was talking on the phone yesterday to a friend I first met in prison. We’re both on the out now, but – as many ex-prisoners like to do – we were chatting about our shared experiences inside the slammer. One of our topics of conversation was the different things we had both missed while we were inside. The most obvious things we missed were our families, but beyond that we discussed how we’d experienced other senses of loss.
When I first went into prison, I spent time in the Block (segregation unit) so down there I pretty missed everything, including being able to take a shower without being watched by staff through a locked washroom door. I gather this is to prevent cons who are being held in solitary confinement ‘slashing up’ (self-harming) with the single-bladed prison razors.
|The Block: segregation cell|
Being held in the Block generally means having no personal possessions of any kind. I was lucky because I had been permitted to hold onto my cheap watch, my gold wedding ring and a single paperback book. At least I had something to read and my watch ensured that I didn’t lose track of time, which is extremely easy to do when you’re in solitary bang-up with no contact of any kind with the outside world.
When I was on the wings, however, I suppose I missed peace and quiet, as well as any sense of ever really being alone. My second pad-mate was a Catholic so when he went off to Mass on a Sunday morning for 60 minutes I was left locked up in our cell on my own, with my own thoughts. I generally used the time to catch up on writing my daily diary. That’s also when you have time to reflect on what you are missing.
Officially, we are told that the punishment element of incarceration is the loss of liberty. Actually, I think it is much more to do with deprivation of contact with family and friends, as well as the experience of total helplessness and dependence on the whims and moods of total strangers who have power over you: the wing screws and managers.
|A telling off|
Imagine being back in primary school and having to ask permission of a potentially hostile adult to do pretty much anything. Well that’s a bit like being in prison. Sometimes when you make what you feel is a perfectly reasonable request, you get told in no uncertain terms that the answer is “no”. It hurts – rather like a hard punch in the stomach. It makes you feel resentful, no matter how you try to laugh it off or ignore it.
I recall one incident on my first full day in my second B-cat prison – a miserable, Victorian-era dump that is totally unfit for purpose (a view shared by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, incidentally). I was moved to a pad (cell) that lacked one of the small six-inch square acrylic mirror tiles that cons stick to the wall above the sink with prison-issue toothpaste, since Sellotape and Blu-tack are considered contraband items. I volunteered to go and find the ‘cleaning officer’ – the duty screw – and ask him if he could issue one from the wing stores, a five-minute job.
I eventually located the cleaning officer, a Mr D_______. He was a tall, thin, greying chap who looked at the cons around him as if he had just stepped in something nasty and was considering how to get it off his shoe with the least amount of effort. I found him standing in the middle of the ground floor, next to the ancient pool table. He was doing nothing in particular, just staring malevolently across the wing. Perhaps he’d had a bad day or a row with his wife earlier that morning or had indigestion. I don’t know. Anyway, our ‘conversation’ went as follows, word for word.
|The offending item: mirror tiles|
“Excuse me, Mr D_________, is there any chance of getting a mirror for the pad as it doesn’t have one?”
“Fuck off out of my face, you fucking cunt!”
I duly obliged. God knows how he’d have reacted if I hadn’t been so polite to start with. Perhaps he’d have accused me of having tried to grab his keys from his belt and battered me into a pulp on the floor.
Believe me, that isn’t being too far fetched. At the same jail I later witnessed a similar attack on a young prisoner who lost his front teeth after he dropped a food tray and splashed the trouser legs of a very aggressive young screw up on the 4s (third floor landing). The lad was beaten black and blue, ‘twisted up’ (put in a painful restraint lock) and then chucked down in the Block on a completely bogus charge of “attempting to escape”. When a few brave cons who were standing on the landings watching the incident started to slow clap the screw dealing out the beating, they were all nicked too, as a general discouragement to any show of solidarity.
|How prison can make you feel|
These incidents make you feel powerless and infantilised, like a small child again. The psychology of imprisonment is essentially about disempowering adult men and women because they have been ‘naughty’ or ‘disobedient’. I suppose you could describe jail as being one enormous ‘naughty step’ where some people have to sit for decades.
That doesn’t mean that a great many of the cons in the nick don’t deserve to be there. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, a fair number of the people I’ve met inside are not nice blokes. Many of them have committed truly awful offences and hurt or even killed people and I’d not want them living next door to me or my family. That’s why they are being warehoused in very secure storage facilities at considerable expense to the taxpayer. However, I’m not convinced that infantilising them for years is going to promote positive change or help them to make better decisions in the future.
Prison isn’t just about being deprived of the freedom to pop down the pub or go shopping. It isn’t only being forced to wear stained and dirty clothing, including underwear, that hundreds of other cons have previously worn before you. And it isn’t just about being locked up behind a heavy steel door in a small concrete box, often with a total stranger. It is all about total powerlessness in the face of institutional control.
Of course, if you feel you’ve been badly treated, you can always write out an ‘app’ (application) or fill in a Comp1 (complaint form), but the answer – assuming that you ever get one – will almost always be to support the original decision to say no, usually without further explanation. And if a prisoner can’t write - as a significant number can’t - then the matter will almost certainly go no further anyway. Many cons regard the complaints system as a complete waste of time and effort.
So did I miss anything else while I was in prison? Well, a good cup of fresh coffee - like the one I'm drinking as I type this post.