Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dead Souls and Burned-Out Cases

Our prisons are full of life’s casualties. Much of this misery is self-inflicted, but when you get to hear prisoners’ histories you do get the impression that some lads have really never had a chance. 

Leaning on the landing
In the UK, prisons tend to be used as warehousing for deeply damaged people, some of whom represent a real danger to themselves and others. It’s also a general rule of imprisonment that no matter how bad your own situation may be, there are always plenty of fellow cons who are much worse off.

You can find them on every prison landing when cells have been unlocked, leaning on the railings just staring into space. They are the ‘dead souls’ and ‘burned-out cases’. Some of them have fried their own brains and wrecked their bodies with hard drugs or years of drinking. Others have sustained brain damage from fighting. 

I’ve met lads in their early 20s who look like wizened old men… emaciated, toothless and covered in scars from street fights or from sleeping rough. Some are living with HIV as a consequence of sharing dirty needles with fellow addicts.

Then there are other kinds of casualties: those for whom imprisonment has proved too much to cope with mentally. You can see it in their eyes. They often seem like they have souls that have died long before their bodies. It can be hard work talking to them about their futures, mainly because they can’t imagine anything beyond the next day. 

Architect of IPP "injustice"
Some of these cons have often served long stretches, sometimes many years longer than the minimum tariffs handed down in court when they have been given one of the infamous Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) – now mercifully scrapped – which even its architect, former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, now accepts was “an injustice”. However, the change in the law hasn’t benefitted the several thousand inmates still serving these open-ended IPPs who have no idea when, or even if, they will ever be released. In my personal view this has become a form of mental torture and when some of these prisoners are eventually set free, a number of them may prove to be ticking time-bombs for the future.

Trying to understand why certain people turn out like this can be an uphill struggle. It’s easier when you find out that they have come from a dysfunctional background: broken home, absent parent(s), time spent in local authority ‘care’, victims of abuse, early offending, youth custody… the rest seems to write itself.

One of life's casualties?
Would early intervention produce better results? This is a difficult question, simply because each individual, and his or her circumstances, is so different. Being taken into ‘care’ by the authorities certainly doesn’t seem to solve some of these people’s problems, especially in those cases when the ‘care’ they received included horrendous physical, sexual or emotional abuse from those who were supposed to be caring for them, or from other very damaged young people they came into contact with in these institutions.

If we look at the statistics, they are pretty grim. Around 23 percent of the adult prison population has been in ‘care’, while almost 40 percent of young prisoners aged under 21 were taken into ‘care’ as children. This remains a complex area for both criminologists and sociologists, but given that only two percent of the UK population end up in prison, the conclusion could be drawn that people who were in ‘care’ as kids are grossly overrepresented in the adult justice system. For those interested in reading more about this issue, the Prison Reform Trust study: Care - a Stepping Stone to Custody? (2011), is a good starting point.

When hearing some of these horror stories from fellow cons while working as a prison Insider (peer mentor), I was often reminded of Philip Larkin’s famous poem: This Be The Verse, especially the line in which he observes: “Man hands on misery to man”. How true that is. 

Larkin: "Don't have any kids yourself"
The troubling thing is that many of these deeply damaged blokes, some not long out of their teens themselves, have already had kids of their own – sometimes several each, often by different women – and already some of these young children are involved in the criminal justice system or have been taken into ‘care’. It’s a pity that these lads haven’t taken Larkin’s final piece of advice: “And don’t have any kids yourself.”

However, when some of your fellow inmates come from respectable families, who are often as mystified as everyone else why their offspring have turned to crime, the stories can be much more puzzling. Every nick I’ve been in has a significant proportion of former university students or ex-professionals who have fallen from grace. Many are very intelligent, although some have particular character weaknesses. Sometimes it’s the temptation of easy money – often linked to drugs – or else embezzlement or fraud, or nicking cash or valuables from family and friends. 

The situation of a fair number of younger lads in the slammer could be summed up very briefly as follows: got pissed and hit someone. At times they don’t even really remember what led up to a drunken criminal act that may have changed (or even ended) another person’s life and often that of the victim’s family, as well as having had a devastating impact on their own future.

Some men do need to cry
One of the regular discussions I’ve had with friends and pad-mates in the nick is just where they think things started to go wrong. Don’t think that cons don’t talk about this sort of thing in their cells with each other. They do… quite a lot of the time and they can be much more honest with each other than they ever are with probation officers or addiction counsellors. 

I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve sat for hours with some of these lads, quite a few of whom have ended up in tears of guilt and regret for what they’ve done to others, as well as to their own families. And, on occasion, I’ve put my arm around them as they’ve sobbed their hearts out, trying to offer some reassurance that it’s OK and big boys can cry.

Getting in with a bad crowd in their teens is often one of the key factors, along with alcohol and the use of recreational drugs. I’ve met guys whose criminal records for violence are almost exclusively linked to excessive consumption of booze. Once they’ve had a skinfull, they lose all self-control and end up giving someone – often a person they’ve never met before – a slap outside a pub. Then things then get out of control until there has been a serious injury or even a death. Yet when you get to know them sober, they can be perfectly normal, decent lads. The main challenge is to keep off the pop when they are released.

Excessive alcohol: a key factor
It’s only when you get to actually spend time with some of these blokes in the nick that you come to realise just how ordinary they really are. Sometimes they’ve just been incredibly daft, immature or else easily led. I certainly don’t want to minimise the harms they’ve caused to their victims, or to make excuses for their criminal behaviour, but the fact of the matter is that most crime is committed by very ordinary people, not monsters.

Other people end up in prison because of their reactions to various circumstances that are sometimes out of their control. They are basically normal people who have behaved in a criminal way in abnormal situations. In our society some get prosecuted, but others don’t. Those inside are just the ones who got caught and as the poet A.E. Housman rightly observed:

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
  Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,        
  Than most that sleep outside.

Armed robbery: not glamorous
A couple of my close friends have been armed robbers (although their crimes are much less glamorous than movies such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels would have us believe). In certain circumstances, armed robbery can involve just picking up a iron bar during a tussle over disputed money, so forget the idea of blaggers in balaclavas toting a pair of sawn-off shotguns outside the local branch of Barclays. Most of the lads I’ve known who are in the nick for robbery got caught up in a series of incredibly stupid events and have ended up with sentences ranging from six to eight years – and that’s without a single firearm being involved.     

Most of my mates, who understand where they went wrong, will rebuild their lives once they’ve been released from prison. In many cases their families are standing by them and they will have a home to go to when they walk out of the main gate with their black prison holdall and their £46 resettlement grant. As long as they keep their noses clean during their licence period – which is usually half of their entire sentence – then I doubt that the majority will ever go back to jail. At least I really hope not.

It’s the much more difficult cases – those who will leave prison with nothing and no-one to go to – who will be the challenge to resettle back into the community. As a society, we just don’t have sufficient support mechanisms in place to address their complex needs, including starting to deal with childhood abuse and all the emotional damage, including self-hatred, that it can cause. Some of these blokes are just so alienated from society that reintegration is probably the last thing on their minds as they step out onto the pavement outside the prison gates.

And then there are the casualties of our ‘care’ system and our prisons: the ‘dead souls’ and ‘burned-out cases’ who stare into space on every wing landing. I don’t pretend to know where to start with them… but then, it seems, neither does anyone else.  


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm glad you found the post interesting.

    2. Wow. Very well written, and very sad too.

    3. Thanks for your kind comment. I do find the whole situation tragic. One of the problems with prison is that you meet so many of these folk that you risk getting 'compassion fatigue'. As a fellow con you can only help a tiny minority and you have no resources to really assist them beyond being willing to listen if they want to talk.

  2. I believe we all deserve a second chance. Except those heinous of crimes. It makes me sad cos my mate was in n out fir 15 yrs n he is a smashing chap. He was stuck in a circle of drugs n sleeping rough. Hed been out ten yrs now. And I trust him more than anyone . People do change. But people need hope love and a roof. Vas

    1. Have you read "A Shropshire Lad" by John Betjeman?

    2. Thank you for your comments, Vas. Having accommodation for those leaving prison is a key issue. I've known too many lads coming out of jail and not having a clue where they are going to stay. Unfortunately, many prisons have closed their resettlement departments because of staff shortages and budget cuts, so this situation is not going to get any better.

      As I point out in my post, those people who have family support during and after they have been in prison are much less likely to reoffend. I think plenty of ex-cons are very much aware of how much grief they have caused their own families and that alone can be a powerful deterrent to committing further offences.

    3. Thanks for your question. Yes, if I remember it's the Betjeman poem about Captain Webb the famous swimmer. I must admit that I prefer A. E. Housman's Shropshire Lad poems!

    4. I like this one:

      When lads have done with labour
      in Shropshire, one will cry
      "Let's go and kill a neighbour,"
      And t'other answers "Aye!"
      So this one kills his cousins,
      And that one kills his dad;
      And, as they hang by dozens
      at Ludlow, lad by lad,
      Each one of them one-and-twenty,
      All of them murderers,
      The hangman mutters: "Plenty,
      Even for Housman's verse".

      I hasten to add, I'm very much opposed to the idea of corporal or capital punishment!

  3. When I was facing being sent to prison I had a very stereotypical idea of what prisoners were like. I was not one of those people and didn't want to become one.

    I was astounded at the vast array of the different folk I met inside. Teachers, police officers, prison officer, vicars, professional who knows whats and low life thugs. My outside view of an inmate was quickly changed. Even those convicted of the most horrendous crimes turned out to be, on a day to day basis, really friendly nice guys. My first pad mate had committed a well publicised awful murder but he was so helpful and kind to me in my first few days.

    There was one chap in particular who I will never forget. He got a lot of stick from the other inmates due to his demeanour. It was almost as though he had moved out of his own body. He had all of his faculties but he just didn't have any sense of a personality. His eyes were glazed and empty and there seemed to be nothing inside his head. I've seen this many times with inmates under heavy sedation but he wasn't, he was just completely destroyed emotionally but wasn't subject to mental health care. On rare occasions I did manage to get a brief comment or even a small grin from him. Maybe there is some hope.

    Such people have so complex issues lasting many, many years. The prison system as it stands just simply cannot deal with it. He was on a relatively short sentence and would, by now, have been released. It would not surprise me in the slightest if he's back inside already with worsening mental health issues still not being addressed.

    1. Thanks for sharing your own experiences. I think everyone has preconceptions about what prison would be/will be like, often informed by the media. It's either going to be like Porridge or much more horrendous. In the end, while it isn't generally a barrel of laughs, neither is it the 'monster mansion' of popular legend either.

      Like you, I've got to know fellow inmates who have sometimes committed the most atrocious crimes - some of them household names. However, unlike Denis MacShane, I'm never going to refer to them by name in anything I write. I respect their privacy, as do you. Of course, once you know what they are in for, you look for signs of psychopathy or 'evil' in them, and to be honest, I've rarely found it.

      Perhaps it's what Hannah Arendt referred to as 'the banality of evil' in her book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem'. In other words, it can be ordinary people who commit the most terrible of crimes. That's why we feel the need to make them into 'monsters' because we can't comprehend such things.

      You do make an excellent point about the use of sedatives in prison. A fair number of cons are under the 'chemical cosh' to keep them quiet. It can be a very inadequate substitute for mental healthcare.

      You also refer to the fellow inmate who was "completely destroyed emotionally'. These people really are the 'dead souls' and 'burned-out cases' of my post title. It's difficult to tell whether they have undiagnosed mental health problems or, perhaps, because the enormity of their crimes have utterly crushed them as human beings, so they retreat into silence and a kind of living death. I've met similar men in each of the prisons I served time in. Nothing seems to be done for them and it's frightening to think that if they are released, they could have become far worse than when they were sent down.

    2. Maybe follow Grayling's ideology, put these guys in solitary, remove all privileges and wait until they kill themselves. That's one way to stop reoffending without having to bother rehabilitating.

    3. Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately that's exactly what's happening in many prisons at the moment. The suicide rate is up 64 percent year-on- year since Mr Grayling introduced his 'crackdown' on cons, so maybe that is his strategy to reduce prison numbers and save money. I would put nothing past the man...

  4. Many young men in the penal system have gone through the 'care' system. I can't provide a solution but it seems to me the lack of a father figure for these guys really impacts on their criminality.

    I've know a few from broken or dysfunctional families who didn't have that figure to have an influence on their lives. All too often it was left to Judges and prison staff to tell them the rights and wrongs. Well meaning staff members in care homes, coming and going on/off shift, are one thing but a single point of parental advice over many years (father or mother) cannot be replaced by those people

    It's clear to me that the 'care' system for teenagers who don't have access to their parents for whatever reason is simply a feeder to the prison system. I accept there's some generalisation in my comment - I'm sure some do succeed through care - it just seem disproportionately high numbers of those 'cared' for by the authorities find themselves in prison.

    1. Thanks for your observations. I think that there is a general correlation between disfunctional family background and disruptive behaviour by children. Of course, it's not inevitable and plenty of kids from difficult family backgrounds don't become criminals, but perhaps in those cases there has been some other positive role model in their lives, a teacher or social worker, maybe.

      As a social anthropologist I've studied the way in which different societies mark the transition from childhood to adulthood and there are various 'markers', particularly in traditional tribal cultures, that guide that process. In the post-industrial West we seem to have blurred boundaries between the two and maybe that's led to the rise of the so-called 'man-boy' - a man who is still emotionally a child and deals with issues in a childish or selfish way.

      That is certainly the case with a fair number of cons. Although they have the bodies of men, they still react like small kids and demonstrate some very immature attitudes. A lot have major problems accepting responsibility for their own actions.

      That's why I believe that mentoring - if done properly - can help them start the process of maturing into functioning adults. The lack of positive adult role models for young males in particular is having a devastating impact on our society. Even when young men are already in prison, I still think it's not always too late to start mentoring them. It just needs to be done by the right peer mentors.

    2. I cannot agree more with your 'man-boy' comment. I've met with so many cons in their 40's, 50's etc who act like teenagers. You've hit the nail on the head.

    3. Thanks for your comment. I'm convinced that immaturity and an inability to make sensible choices lies at the root of much offending. Peer pressure can be a powerful force and too many cons are susceptible to it, both outside prison and inside.

      Having worked as a peer mentor in various prison education departments, I've seen that some of the 'lads' (even some who are 50 years old) still thrive on playing the 'class clown', which many will admit privately is the main reason their levels of general education - including literacy and numeracy - are often so poor. I've spoken to many prisoners who were excluded from school as young as 12 or 13 for disruptive behaviour and a significant proportion still haven't moved on or grown up.

      Of course, the prison environment also reinforces infantilism. Grown men are called 'lads' or 'boys' by members of staff and since most meaningful choices have been removed by the fact of imprisonment, a fair number of cons revert to childlike behaviours. In the worst case scenarios, this can involve smearing excrement on themselves and their cells, having temper tantrums you might expect from a three-year old and lashing out at anyone who tries to help them.

      One of the expressions you regularly hear in the slammer is: "He's thrown his toys out of the pram again!" To be honest, at times it really can be a bit like working in a nursery for massively outsized babies.

    4. I've read an article which links anger with anxiety. If a con is anxious about prison life or his sentence, he is more likely to kick off.

    5. Thanks for your comment. In my experience there is a lot of anger inside prisons. Some of this is to do with terrible abuse in childhood, in other cases it's because many prisoners do have poor coping mechanisms, including strategies to manage anger. Prisons do offer anger management courses, but sometimes these can be more to do with 'ticking' boxes for parole, than really addressing the root causes of anger.

  5. How many years does an IPP con need to serve before he can request a meeting with the Parole Board?

    1. Thanks for your question. There are two different issues involved with the Parole Board when they consider the cases of lifers and IPPs. The first is a recommendation for re-categorisation of security level and the second is a recommendation for release on licence (either life licence or for a minimum of 10 years for an IPP). The final decisions are made by the Ministry of Justice.

      As with all those serving indeterminate sentences, the Parole Board cannot recommend release of anyone who has not yet reached the minimum tariff handed down in court. So an IPP with a tariff of five years will only be considered for possible release on licence once the five-year point has been reached.

      Most IPPs (or lifers) won't really stand a realistic chance of being recommended for release unless they can show that they have reduced their risk to a level that the Board consider can be managed in the community during the licence period. The ways they can do this include completing offending behaviour programmes and by successful 'testing' in open conditions.

      I have known lifers and IPPs to get to a Cat-D (open prison) before their minimum tariff, but it is rare. Almost everyone I know in that position is already years over tariff before they even make it to Cat-D and a fair number 'fail' in open conditions (some more than once) which usually results in them being returned to closed prisons. A negative transfer back can easily add extra years to a sentence - often around 2 to 4 years for each Cat-D failure.

  6. As what would be described as a respectable middle class professional I do sometimes read your blog and think but for a small number of pivotal moments in my life it could be very much be me bagged up inside. As you mentioned I am/ was lucky enough to have a support system to pull me back from the brink. I’m sure so many people could have benefited from something similar in their life’s.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Interestingly, I've heard very similar comments from some of the wiser screws inside prisons.

      There are quite a few professionals who get banged up for serious motoring offences, particularly causing death by dangerous driving, drink driving or having been responsible for accidents on the road. Their whole lives - and that of the victim - as well as both families can change forever in an instant and then they end up in slammer.

      Every nick I've been in has a few of these blokes: businessmen, footballers, solicitors, a magistrate, a doctor... it's one area of crime that can affect almost anyone who drives, including people who'd never dream of being violent or nicking as much as paperclip from work. A sobering thought!

  7. So interesting hearing it from someone who has lived it. I've never been to prison, but I must say I get frustrated when I hear people (friends, colleagues, taxi drivers) casually argue that prison must be an easy ride, 'they all get Playstations you know' etc, having never really considered what the loss of liberty would mean. The thought of not being able to make simple, dull choice such as what to cook for tea, buy a dvd online, whether to go for a drink after work, take dog for a walk, text your friends, family meal. To me, that's what makes prison a scary prospect, losing your ability to make those every day choices. And as for a wouldn't interest me in the least!

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think that you are right. Until someone really experiences the loss of their liberty, then imprisonment is a very abstract concept. Most people (including many of the 98 percent of the UK population that have never been a prisoner) base their opinions on what they have read or seen in the media, or else in fiction (which is sometimes the same thing!) I was in the same position myself until I found myself on the wrong side of a cell door for a few years.

      On the other hand, it is perhaps equally as frightening just how quickly many people can get institutionalised. For many, 'switching off' their minds or suppressing their emotions is the only way to get through a prison sentence, particularly a lengthy stretch.

      For me, the most tragic cases are those who have come into the system as kids - 15, 16, 17 years old and are still doing time as older men in their 30s or even older. They really don't know much about life in the real world and they have grown up inside the walls and fences. This, in itself, can cause massive emotional damage and - in some cases - make the person even more dangerous and unstable than when they were sent down. Without any serious work on rehabilitation and preparation for resettlement, they may be released as disasters just waiting to happen and that doesn't protect society one iota.

  8. A well written and informed piece of writing.

    Hi Alex, my name is Charlotte and I’m a writer. At the moment I am in the early stages of research for my new novel. One of the characters is serving a custodial sentence.

    I have no experience of prison, and I don’t know anyone who has been to prison or knows anyone who has, therefore my knowledge is limited.
    This presents a problem, as I don’t want to base my characters experiences on media reports of prison. Rather than perpetuated myths I would like factual information, so I can do my character justice (excuse the pun).

    I would be grateful for any help, either from yourself or from any of your followers, if I could email you some questions to further my own knowledge and build a believable fictional character.

    1. Hi Charlotte, sure. Happy to help. Please e-mail directly on and we can arrange to chat.

      I have just had a bereavement in the family this afternoon, so I may take a few days to respond as I am involved in making various arrangements. Alex

    2. Thank you Alex,

      I understand you’re going through a difficult time right now; therefore it would be rather inconsiderate to bombard you with questions. I haven’t formulated them all yet, but when I email them, please do take all the time you need. There is no urgency for a reply. As I stated previously I’m still in the very early stages of research.

      My condolences,


  9. I get the impression I have perhaps offended you somehow. I notice while my above condolence hasn’t been acknowledged, many others have.
    It was an error on my part to have bothered you. Obviously, given the circumstances, I shall take my research into another direction.

    I apologise for any offence you feel I may have caused.

    All the best,


    1. Hi Charlotte, you've not caused any offence at all. The only reason for my tardy response to your comment - for which I apologise - was that we don't have any internet access at my parents' home out in the country. I've only just found a wireless hotspot in the nearby town to check e-mails. Regards, Alex