Sunday, December 7, 2014

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Beautiful People … in Prison

Alex Cavendish with a piece from Prison UK: An Insider's View. Here he deconstructs the routine redtop depiction of prisoners. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation.  
A post with this sort of title might seem strange, particularly over a weekend during which the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has promised to introduce tougher penalties for prisoners who assault staff. Of course, as anyone who knows anything about prisons will be aware, this belated attempt to deal with the rising number of violent incidents inside our crisis-ridden jails is nothing more than a bit of window-dressing by embattled Justice Secretary Chris Grayling who is so completely out of his depth it is now a national source of embarrassment.

Does he really give two hoots?
The latest move won’t convince anybody – screw or con – that Mr Grayling really gives a damn about what is going on in our nicks while he is in charge. However, it does seem that the rising tsunami of public criticism – from just about every direction, including the Daily Telegraph – is goading him to act tough at a time when tensions inside our prisons are reaching boiling point, mainly as a direct consequence of his mismanagement. 

To be honest, prisons are full of people who tend to make bad choices (and not only the cons, for that matter). They also accommodate a fair number of men who have serious anger management problems. When current chronic frontline staff shortages result in such people being locked behind their doors for up to 23 hours a day, the result of cancelled work, education, gym sessions and even healthcare appointments, then it is unsurprising that volatile blokes kick off. I’m actually amazed it doesn’t happen more often.
Being fair, working as a screw isn’t a job I’d choose personally. It sometimes mystifies me why some of the decent officers I’ve got to know well have made what is a very strange career decision to spend their own working lives behind bars – often serving more time in the slammer than your average murderer. Of course, they do get to go home at the end of their shifts, but it’s still a pretty grim environment, especially at the moment when everyone’s morale is at rock bottom.
Working behind bars
I wouldn’t fancy telling some very large bloke with a very short fuse that he isn’t getting out of his pad (cell) because of staff shortages, or that his medical appointment has been cancelled at the last minute… or even – and this is the killer – that family visits have been called off. That’s usually when you hear the baying for blood and the sound of breaking glass on wings.

Funnily enough, some years ago when I was a university student one of my fellow ‘inmates’ was none other than our own Mike Spurr, currently the head of the dysfunctional National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which is supposed to be running our prison service. As the current crisis gathers pace, I sometimes wonder whether he ever regrets his choice of career.

Back then, when he still had a serious acne problem and a very unfashionable haircut, Mike and I used to play darts together in our tiny college bar and, over a few pints of 80/- real ale at 50p a pop, I did my best to convince him that going into prison management as a graduate trainee wasn’t the brightest thing he could do with his life. Of course, he didn’t listen and look where he is now... sitting on top of the NOMS volcano.
Mike: regretting his career choice?
Since I gather that Mike does follow this blog from time to time, it would be interesting to know if he remembers our little chats in that smoky, pokey little bar in the basement just before we embarked on our respective career paths. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into one another at some conference on penal reform and laugh about how things have turned out, although I doubt it.

Having painted such a grim picture… of prisons, rather than college bars… it may come as a surprise to read that in my experience there are some very decent people serving time in our jails. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I believe that some of these blokes are innocent and have been wrongly convicted, while plenty of others are guilty as charged but have genuine remorse about the impact upon others of the crimes they have committed and want to change for the better.
I chose this title for my blog post after having had time to do some reading during this period following my father’s death, but before his funeral. The famous American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – best known for her analysis of the various stages of grief following a bereavement – once made some observations that I find both interesting and thought-provoking. 
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
She wrote:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have know defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

Funnily enough, I was immediately reminded of some of the people I’ve met in prison who fall into that category of Kübler-Ross’ ‘beautiful people’. There are men who have lost everything that they could conceivably lose – family, home, careers, good name, reputation – and yet they still manage to find time to listen to the problems of others. Some volunteer to work as Listeners (Samaritan-trained peer support), others as Insiders (peer mentors), while some don’t take on formal roles, but are just there when you need them.
When you are a prisoner – no matter what the offence or sentence – sometimes you really need a kind word, a friendly smile or a good mate in whom you can confide without fearing that your particular problem or anxiety will be all over the wing before tea-time. In my experience, every prison wing has at least a few of these folk. Without them, prison truly would be a much darker and more dismal place.
Comforting others
The prison experience can affect people in different ways. Some are completely broken and destroyed by the impact of incarceration, but others seem to find themselves in a way that might mystify outsiders. They grow as human beings and turn their own experiences of loss and rejection into an inner strength that not only enables them to survive a spell in the slammer with their own humanity intact, but they can also find sufficient inner reserves to offer support to others who are less able to cope. 

I well recall an incident at a Cat-D (open) nick when a female member of staff was attacked from behind in the dark in a car park within the perimeter. She was quite badly injured, but it was a con who saw what had happened and chased off the attacker, before protecting her, while another raised the alarm and got medical help. Her status as a member of staff was irrelevant to those prisoners. They acted instinctively to help someone who was terrified and had been injured – with humanity.
I genuinely believe that this sense of concern for humanity is one of the reasons that daily life in our prisons during the current crisis is able to continue without a degeneration into widespread violence and an explosion of frustration. Of course, I can’t predict how long the present situation can endure before individual establishments reach breaking point and control is lost, but at a time when resources inside prisons are very scarce, it’s often the unseen support that prisoners offer each other that is preventing the rising rates of suicide and self-harm from rocketing much higher.
When you have a few decent, level-headed cons on a wing, the atmosphere can be more positive. Experienced screws know this and a fair few do appreciate the invisible support and counselling networks that develop among the prisoners, not least because these can go some way to reducing the number of violent incidents, including self-harm. Although levels of violence inside the nick are getting worse, fuelled by tensions caused shortages of staff, believe me the situation could easily be far more volatile if it weren’t for those influential cons who are doing their best to keep a lid on the boiling pressure cooker.
So when you next read in the media that there has been some terrible act of violence in one or other of our prisons – whether against staff or fellow inmates – it might be well to reflect on the fact that the overwhelming majority of cons weren’t involved. The Daily Mail and its ilk love to portray all prisoners as evil, worthless, violent monsters. They never mention those who are called on to use their humanity and skills to pick up the pieces in Chris Grayling’s increasingly dysfunctional prison nightmare, often showing much greater humanity and real concern for others than he ever could.   


AM said...

I think Alex Cavendish does a great job with his site. It is a must read for people serious about understanding the facts on the ground of prison life rather than the fiction put out by prison management and government spin doctors.