Prison

Prison

Monday, 29 September 2014

Prison Pests (3): The Wing Bully

Bullying – whether in general or in a prison environment – is a significant problem that is receiving more attention at the moment. This blog post is the latest in a series about the wide variety of numpties you can encounter in prison and the wing bully definitely deserves his or her place in the list of pests.

Flashman: school bully
Many people’s ideas about bullying have been influenced by portrayals of very obvious examples in films and in the media. The ‘classic’ school bully would probably either be Flashman from Tom Brown’s School Days or – in a more updated version – ‘Gripper’ Stebson from the BBC school drama Grange Hill. Both characters used their dominance to inflict pain and misery on others, and in the end they had their comeuppance: Flashman gets expelled for drunkenness (not bullying, ironically), while ‘Gripper’ was excluded from school for racism.  

Of course, in the real world – even prison in this context – things rarely turn out so neatly. All too often the victims of bullying are silenced or ignored while the bully gets what he or she wants. 

There was a time when bullying was seen as being mainly a school phenomenon. Then it was realised that it takes place in institutions where physical dominance and power-relationships tend to be based on control: prisons, the armed forces, the police and even care homes have all come to be seen as closed environments where bullying can take place. Now there is a much greater awareness that bullying behaviour can and does occur in the workplace, in sport and within the home, as well as increasingly online. 

I think that there is a general expectation that there will be bullying in prisons. After all, it can’t be denied that jails do tend to house some of our less pleasant folks, a fair proportion of whom are in the slammer because they have preyed on the weak and vulnerable. 

They target the weak and vulnerable
Perhaps there are those members of the general public who think that cons deserve to have a hard time, whether from staff or from other prisoners, so that they ‘get a taste of their own medicine’. Maybe some even think that – as with the fear of prison rape – this sort of thing is all part of the deterrent value of incarceration. The more terrible prison seems, the less willing others will be to find out the truth for themselves. I actually believe that this school of thought is more prevalent than you might think. 

If you watch classic films like Scum (set in an old-style Borstal) then the dominant theme is brutal bullying, initially by some of the screws, but mainly by the older, stronger cons. The very graphic rape scene that leads a young, vulnerable kid to commit suicide, is set within the context of the strong bullying the weaker lads and taking what they want from them, with the tacit approval of at least one officer who watches the attack from a distance without intervening.

As I’ve written in a previous blog post about Glen Parva, the Young Offender Institution (YOI), these establishments can be particularly brutal places. This is confirmed in the most recent report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons which highlights various types of bullying and violence, with correspondingly high rates of self-harm, including three suicides since 2013.

Scum: "I'm the daddy now!"
Adult prisons – some of which also accommodate Young Prisoners (18-21) – are not without their share of bullying problems. While not every wing has a ‘daddy’ figure, some do and a fair amount of the covert bullying is related to the illicit drug trade, debt and the misdirection of prescribed medication, which has been a feature of every prison I’ve been in, even in Cat-D (open prison).

I’ve previously posted about bullying behaviour linked to radical religious gangs - Shorts in the Shower: Prison Extremism – and some prisons have a worse reputation for this than others. There have previously been studies published about this phenomenon focusing on HMP Whitemoor, a Cat-A high security establishment, although similar problems are reported at other prisons.

This sort of organised and structured bullying of inmates by groups of prisoners can also often be related to gang culture imported from outside. Recently, a friend of mine who is still inside told me about a Cat-B prison where the dining area is rigidly divided into specific tables for lads from different towns and cities. Apparently you need to be part of the respective gang to sit at their tables – or face threats and the risk of violence. 

Prison gym: a top target for gangs
Bullying of this kind tends to be about asserting control and marking out territory inside the jail. Sometimes you can also find it being institutionalised even further by gangs or ‘posses’ effectively taking over specific activities within a prison. For example, the kitchen or the gym can be seen as prime territory to be targeted and controlled. Members of a gang try to get in as orderlies or kitchen workers and then systematically fill vacancies with members of their own crews, occasionally intimidating other cons to clear them out. 

The UK prison system doesn’t have the same level of security intelligence when it comes to prison gang culture as the USA or Russia have developed, so often bullying and control related to internal gang activity passes under the radar, at least until there is a power-struggle to hold on to, or to gain dominance over, a particular area of prison life. These turf wars can turn very violent if not checked early.

Beyond the world of gang-related bullying, there can be a good deal of lower-level intimidation, particularly of more vulnerable inmates. I’ve seen this in action in a problematic inner city Cat-B nick where stronger, more dominant cons used to stand up on the wing staircases during mealtimes in order to bully food out of weaker, less assertive prisoners as they left the servery and went up the stairs to their cells. This must have been obvious to the wing screws, yet I was unaware of any action being taken to combat the problem. It continued throughout the many months I was at that prison.

Behind closed doors
Occasionally a bully misjudges the situation and comes off worse. I recall a short, very quiet bloke arriving on the wing. It was his first time in prison and to start with he did look a bit shell-shocked. This was obviously not lost on the ‘harder’ cons who thought that he was a likely mark for fleecing. One of them matched up to his cell and demanded that he hand over a carton of milk he’d just received at the servery. 

The new con invited the bully into his pad and the door closed for a moment. Then the bully emerged holding his stomach. The new con turned out to be a former Army sergeant major and he had just given the would-be extortionist a very hard gut-punch to make the point that he hated bullies. Needless to say, he never had any further problems and became quite active in the anti-bullying movement that can operate on a wing when a significant number of cons decide to make a stand against this sort of behaviour. 

Although some prisoners can look after themselves, there are a fair number who can’t. In addition to those cons who have mental health problems, there is also a rising population of older inmates who are ripe for bullying and exploitation. Anyone who regularly receives prescription medication, especially painkillers, antidepressants or sleeping tablets, is likely to come under pressure to ‘share’ these with the cons who run the drug trade. Sometimes there is a deal to be struck, at other times medication is simply bullied out of vulnerable blokes who really need their meds.

I’ve come across various other types of bullying inside. Occasionally, a small group will start targeting a fellow prisoner who suffers from mental health problems or learning difficulties. Sometimes the aim of the bullying is to get the lad to ‘kick off’ – lose his temper – so that the wing staff intervene and he will usually by the one who gets ‘twisted up’ (put into restraint) and taken down the Block (segregation unit) to be punished. For some cons, watching another bloke being dragged off by the screws can be a very sad form of entertainment.

A decent screw or a bully?
And then there is the other type of bully in the nick: the screw. While most members of staff aren’t bullies, I’ve met a few real pieces of work in my time inside. These guys are sometimes disillusioned with the job and have really come to hate and despise the prisoners they work with. A bit of bullying, during which the con in the firing line is really made to feel small and worthless, can brighten up a bored screw’s day no end. On occasion, this can be dressed up as ‘humour’ to make other screws and watching inmates have a laugh, but at a specific con’s expense. 

Some officers also abuse their power by putting prisoners on report in order to get them into trouble or by using negative entries in an individual’s record as a means of bullying. A more covert form of victimisation can involve the disappearance of applications (apps) or complaint forms that have been submitted. I’ve actually witnessed one specific screw accepting apps from a con he didn’t like and as soon as the prisoner had left the wing office tearing the paper up before chucking it in the bin with a big grin on his face.

Combating bullying in prisons, whether as part of the overall ‘Violence Reduction Strategy’ or on a case-by-case basis, is made much harder when there is a breakdown in trust between screws and cons. If there are only a few bullies in black and white uniform working on the wings, it can set the tone for much more widespread bullying by prisoners throughout the establishment. It’s difficult to enforce a zero tolerance approach when those who are supposed to be leading the battle against the bullies are behaving in very similar ways.

HMP Swaleside: serious problems
Given the current crisis over under-staffing in our prisons, caused by mismanagement at the senior levels of HM Prison Service, it is perhaps not surprising that bullying – along with self-harm and suicide - is a rising problem in many establishments, as noted in HM Inspectorate of Prison reports. Only last week we read that some prisoners at HMP Swaleside (a Cat-B prison in Kent that has around 1,100 inmates) were “too afraid” to even leave their cells owing to violence and staff shortages. Perhaps predictably, the establishment also has serious problems with drugs and the easy availability of alcohol – both factors that can lead to violence between cons and bullying.

As HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, observed: “Frightened prisoners need to be identified and supported and the violence reduction policy rigorously implemented. Management of the use of force also requires urgent improvement. However, other much-needed improvements, which go to the heart of the prison’s challenges, require staffing levels to be brought up to at least the agreed levels and to do this the prison needs much more effective support from the centre.” 

The often unchecked rise in bullying in some nicks is yet another example of the ways in which the UK prison system is currently failing. However, while the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) continue to deny that there is a crisis in our prisons – despite all the objective evidence – reversing this dangerous trend is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

21 comments:

  1. Do prisoners bully and manipulate screws?

    Peter.

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    1. Thanks for your question, Peter. Yes, although I think there is probably much more attempted manipulation of staff than actual bullying. Some cons are very intelligent and manipulative, so it's only to be expected and screws do get trained in how to spot it and deal with it. Of course, sometimes they get caught up in compromising situations.

      I think that some prisoners do try to bully screws, especially if they perceive that the target has some weakness or other. However, straightforward verbal and physical abuse happens. Most screws will have their own horror stories of being showered in human excrement or attacked, or at least of witnessing such behaviour. It's not a job I would really want to do myself!

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  2. What kind of compromising situations?

    I guess working as a copper is better than working as a prison officer cos a copper can threaten a troublemaker with a gun, taser or truncheon.

    Write something about the Police or Police Custody

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    1. Thanks for your questions. Well, I suppose not all police carry guns (yet) and screws can't have tasers or guns inside the nick. Wing screws do have small telescopic batons, although the Tornardo Team - specially trained screws who deal with riots and cell-extractions - do have proper batons and riot shields, as well as protective equipment such as anti-stab vests and helmets.

      Your average wing screw doesn't have much at his or her disposal. On the other hand, although there are some very nasty improvised weapons available in many nicks, the police often have to deal with firearms, bigger knives etc. The reason ordinary wing screws aren't very well armed is that in a riot situation, it could be very dangerous if cons got hold of guns etc.

      Funnily enough, I've not actually had much personal experience with the police, beyond two interviews. Police cells are pretty basic (I only experienced one night in a police station) - a concrete slab bed, thin mattress, a very grubby blanket and a sink/WC. I was actually treated very politely and they offered me loads of hot drinks, food etc. Even the Chief Super on duty popped in for a chat. So I've no complaints at all!

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    2. Sorry, I omitted to answer your first question! Occasionally screws do get involved in situations where they can be blackmailed or pressured to smuggle in contraband. Sometimes this can result from inappropriate relationships (not always sexual) or arising from personal contacts outside the prison, for example back in the community where they live.

      Another risk is when screws break prison rules and are known to have done so by certain cons. For example, I know that a screw at one Cat-D (open prison) made the serious professional error of accepting hospitality - a meal - from a con who was on escorted ROTL (town leave). Although this sort of thing isn't unknown, it was a potential security issue and the screw concerned was very fortunate that it was never used to apply pressure later.

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  3. >>The UK prison system doesn’t have the same level of security intelligence when it comes to prison gang culture as the USA or Russia have developed..

    We don't hear much about Russian prisons. Could you tell us more?

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    1. Thanks for your question. Almost everything I know about modern Russian prisons I've learned from documentaries or from books.

      I have been to Russia (or the Soviet Union as it then was) when I was a student and I did have a run-in with the political police (KGB) back in 1980 when I was arrested on suspicion of meeting up with anti-Soviet dissidents (quite true, in fact). I was questioned roughly, given a right beating up and then deported by train to Finland! Not a nice experience at all and I still have a few faint scars from being belted and a small round mark on the side of my knee where a cigarette was stubbed out on my bare skin by a KGB goon. Funnily enough I never fancied going back there - and so I never have.

      From what I understand of modern Russian prisons they have various levels of security and are heavily controlled by internal gangs, often coming from different parts of the Russian Federation. The criminal tattoo system is used by gang members (and police/prison authorities) to identify fellow gangsters or rivals (as well as grasses, homosexuals etc).

      As in many prisons around the world, people who are well connected, or who have money, can survive reasonably well. However, the poor or vulnerable are seen as fair game for exploitation. Food is supposed to be very bad and ill health, including TB, is widespread as medical care for prisoners is very limited. I believe that foreign prisoners are sometimes held in separate units where conditions may be a bit better since they do tend to get visited by consular officials.

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  4. Ive read something about the Gulag camps within fictional novels, I may be 60 years out of date tho.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure to what extent the conditions in Russian labour camps for criminals (and political rivals of Mr Putin) have improved much since Stalin's era. I still think that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's account in 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' is likely to be pretty accurate, even today.

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  5. I have spent the last few hours reading through just some of your posts on your blog and think it's brilliant that you have put so much time into giving an idea about what prison is really like. I never would have thought about it before but now that I am expecting to be dong time inside myself being able to hear what to expect from someone who's been through it does help. I know all prisons are different but just reading about the reality of it all makes me think how different it will be from the real world.

    Paul

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Paul. I'm glad you've found the blog posts helpful. One of my main aims in writing this blog is to raise public awareness of what prisons are really like (or at least the Cat-B, Cat-C and Cat-D ones) and what goes on inside. I think that many people are genuinely interested in our prisons, but a lot of the media coverage is wildly inaccurate or simply untrue.

      In general, prisons in England are neither hell holes, nor are they paradise for prisoners as the Daily Mail would have everyone believe. There can be a lot of unhappiness, loneliness and poor health (mental and physical). On the other hand, you can also meet some really decent people who will prove to be loyal, trustworthy mates, so it's important to keep a sense of proportion, especially if you may be joining our ranks as a con!

      Let me know if you need any specific advice on any aspect of going to prison. I'd be happy to share information that you might find useful as preparation.

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    2. Paul, I spent a while in prison - I didn't have the luxury of a blog such as this to find out what it is really like before I went in - to say I was scared is something of an understatement.

      To add to the comments Alex made I can only stress that you shouldn't worry. Awful things do happen in prisons but there are over 80,000 in the UK banged up tonight, very few will have had a bad day. I'm not suggesting it's a holiday camp it's just not as awful as you might imagine.

      It's a weird alien environment. Much the same as a school or workplace isn't like home. It's not particularly pleasant but not intolerable.

      From a practical point of view, if you're heading to court expecting a spell inside I can recommend a few things for when you go to court.

      Most importantly, if you smoke, take enough tobacco (burn) to last you two weeks. If you don't smoke, take tobacco - it's the most valuable currency inside if you need absolutely anything.

      If you can, take to court about £200. That will be added to your prison funds for you to spend as it becomes available.

      Take underwear - you really don't want to be wearing the prison issue heavily stained prison boxers. You are usually allowed 7 pairs of undies and socks. Some nicks allow personal underwear even if you're not allowed personal 'external' clothing.

      Write all your friends/family contact numbers on a piece of paper, keep it in your pocket. You should be allowed to keep that through the whole reception process.

      Every prison has different rules so some of the above might not apply. I've had items removed from me at one prison only for them to be returned at the next.

      Above all. Don't worry, it won't be a pleasant experience but if you keep your head together it can be a very, very interesting experience and you'll meet the most bizarre array of characters (good and bad) that you've ever met in your life.

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    3. Thanks for these comments. I've just put up a new blog post with some more detailed advice for people who may be going to prison.

      I'm not sure about your advice on the tobacco (burn). My understanding is that any tobacco brought into Reception from outside will be confiscated and destroyed. This is presumably to stop people mixing in legal or illegal highs with ordinary tobacco.

      All smokers do get offered the chance to purchase a 'smoker's pack' (which contains a pouch of cheap burn, a packet of roll-up papers and a disposable lighter). The cost of this is deducted from any cash that has been deposited in your prison account at the time of your arrival, sometimes at the rate of 50p per week until it's been repaid.

      Non-smokers usually get offered a parallel 'welcome' pack that contains basic canteen items like sweets, biscuits, teabags, a bottle of squash etc. I think these packs cost around £4.50 these days, but there is no obligation to buy them.

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    4. I guess this highlights the differences between different prison receptions. I mentioned taking tobacco to court - I was sent to a local Cat-B straight from court, I was not allowed the tobacco or underwear I had in my possession.

      A month later I was transferred to a different Cat-B local, upon reception the staff seemed bemused as to why I hadn't been allowed these items at the last nick. They were duly handed to me and off I went.

      I can fully appreciate security concerns over open packets of tobacco contaminated with other substances. Mine were new and sealed, however I was allowed a half full open packet of cigarettes in the second prison. I really wasn't expecting that.

      What you are allowed or not depends on the security regime of an individual prison and, sometimes, the mood of the individual reception screw who is processing you.

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    5. Thanks for the replies I do appreciate it.

      Like the other anon said I’m shitting myself about it but you are both pretty reassuring. Having the blog with all the info is great. It really does give an insight as to what to expect. Very different to what people say and what the papers say.

      Having this hanging over me for the past while has been bad enough and not knowing what to expect has made it worse. I don’t know anybody in the real world who has been to prison before and never thought it would be happening to me. I just wish I could go back and change what happened but I know I can’t and just have to deal with it the best I can now.
      Before all this I would have thought that most prisoners were scum and deserved things to be bad for them in prison but when you are expecting to be going to prison I think very different now. I never realised that so many people were in prison – 80,000 is like everybody in a town. It’s good to be able to hear from ‘normal’ people who’ve gone through this. Makes it better feeling that I am not the only one.

      Appreciate the advice about going in. I will be able to have a decent bit of cash with me – suppose having that makes things easier in there. Is £200 the limit? I do smoke – more than I used to – so hopefully will be allowed them in. Maybe a few sealed packs? I’ve not even smoked a rollie before but will probably have to get used to that. The stuff about underwear and names and addresses make sense. Didn’t realise you could end up wearing other people’s underwear.

      Hearing what you have said definitely makes thing seem better. I do have some other questions you might answer for me.

      Paul

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    6. Hi Paul, hopefully the other replies I've posted have been useful and informative.

      The main thing is not to work yourself up over a spell in the slammer. Honestly, it's not the worst situation in the world. While I wouldn't have chosen to go to jail, I actually gained a hell of a lot from the experience and met some really decent lads, a few of whom I'm still in touch with. If you can find a small number of good mates, that will make the whole thing seem less of a bore.

      As you write above, it's amazing how your own attitude towards prisoners changes when you (or someone you care about) ends up inside. That's because it's always easier to hate and fear the abstract, but when it's real people you know, things are very different. I experienced and witnessed enormous acts of kindness inside the nick (as well as some less pleasant incidents, of course).

      You can take in more cash than £200 if you want to. It just depends how long you reckon you'll be in. It will take you a minimum of 3.5 months to get to Enhanced level these days, so the maximum you'll be able to spend will be £10.50 per week for the first two weeks and £15.50 per week for the following 12 or 13, so that will be around £222.50 (obviously you can spend much less, if you want to). If you are going to be in for a while, then more cash would be sensible as it is quite expensive for your family to buy postal orders to send more in for you and cheques can take weeks or even months to clear.

      I really doubt that you'll be allowed to bring in tobacco products through Reception. You can try, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is all binned these days. Practice making roll-ups before you go in... thin ones are called 'skinny burn'!

      If they do take you ciggies away you should get offered a 'smoker's pack' to keep you going. These cost around £4.50 and get repaid from your 'spends' account at the rate of 50p a week, usually.

      Also, be aware that if you are looking at a longer sentence, there are plans in the pipeline to ban all smoking during 2015. Whether this will actually happen or not remains to be seen, but I have written about the issue in an earlier blog post: Burn: Going up in Smoke? (July)

      Feel free to ask anything else you like. One or other of us ex-cons on here will usually know the answer!

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    7. A superb response, as always. My experiences of entering prison are over 3 years ago now and so, of course, things have changed, I can't accurately comment on how things are (have degraded) now under Mr G's influence.

      I did smoke roll ups occasionally before I went to prison, but not often for convenience. I used a rolling machine to make them but that was confiscated on reception - I quickly learned how to hand roll through necessity. It's just another prison anomaly that you can't take a rolling machine in but you can purchase one if you need to.

      Absolutely nobody smokes real cigarettes inside (or 'straights'). They are just too expensive. On enhanced, with wages (£25.50 private spends + £9.50 prison wages a week), you can't fund a 20 a day habit. They were only ever bought as a ten pack for a birthday or Christmas treat.

      As for other cons - I totally considered myself not to be 'one of those'. There were many like me, some much more educated and intelligent, some less so. We were all cons together from absolutely every walk of life and background. No matter what you expect a con to be like you'll find one, or many more, who are exactly the same as you are, and you'll probably make some life-long friends.

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  6. Some very informative and reassuring information there, thanks to everyone who has contributed. I have one major concern, what to do if someone is going to try and target you and attempt to bully you? Do you stand your ground and fight back with full force ? Obviously you don't give in, as then you'll be a target all the time. What if your fighting skills are zero, been thinking about going to gym and get some sort of fighting/self defense lessons before the possible happens. Obviously keeping low profile and doing your best to stay away from trouble is the way to go, but if someone trys it on what would your advice be ?

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    1. Thanks for your questions. There is a good deal less bullying in prisons than most people might imagine. However, it can happen. Bullies are often very insecure blokes who seem to feel the need to control and dominate others - probably because they have been victims themselves in the past or currently feel that they have no control over their own lives.

      The general advice I give is not to allow yourself to be 'mugged off' - that is exploited or taken for a ride. Prison culture tends to see anyone who is a bit weaker or softer as a target, so don't allow others to take liberties. Don't lend stuff to (or borrow anything from) people you don't really know well. Once you've made a few good mates, that's another story, but keep clear of debt (including gambling or borrowing tobacco etc).

      Most serious violence in the nick occurs for a reason... usually related to debt, disrespect or being a suspected 'grass' (informer). Keeping clear of these things is probably better than doing a self-defence course! I'm ex-Army, a big lad and I do know how to defend myself, but I was never in a position where I ever felt the need to use any physical force while I was inside.

      Adult prisons (i.e. not YOIs) tend to be a bit quieter and more stable. There is a lot of kicking off among younger lads - mainly because of boredom, but if you are in an adult establishment that shouldn't be too much a problem. Just stand your ground and don't let people make a mug of you if anyone does try it on, but it's worth remembering that if a fight does occur all participants are likely to get 'nicked' (charged) and that can had an adverse impact throughout a custodial sentence - including transfer to open conditions (Cat-D), so avoiding conflict is definitely the best way to go.

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    2. Thanks for the fast reply, certainly makes me feel calmer. Your blog is something I am very happy I came across, wish I didn't have to but very glad I did. Once again thanks for your information it makes a huge difference. Have you written a book yet ? If so what's the name, if not I think it would be something invaluable to people facing such situations. Cheers.

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  7. Hi Alex. Great blog! You mention you can go up ranks in terms of good behaviour and getting more treats and money to spend. What constitutes as good behaviour, and who judges it? I'm assuming it like a gold star system? Also do you see any reason why a kindle would not be a permitted item for an inmate? It doesn't have a USB drive. Thanks, Sarah

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