Wednesday, January 7, 2015

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New Year’s Eve … and Other Prison Traditions

Alex Cavendish writes on prison traditions. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

As this will be my last blog post of 2014, when I look back over my time in prison I’ve been reflecting on how many strange traditions prisoners observe. Like many ‘closed’ institutions – boarding schools, the armed services, universities, private members’ clubs – our jails have their own codes of behaviour, customs, superstitions and jargon, most of which are familiar to anyone who has spent time inside, but which would mystify most outsiders.
Waiting for midnight to chime...
One of the stranger aspects of this is the way in which some of these traditions seem to be pretty much identical across the closed prison system. For example, in every jail where I spent New Year’s Eve, there has been the custom of cons waiting until the midnight chimes of Big Ben sound out on the television before hammering violently on the inside of their cell doors for a few minutes. The noise can be absolutely deafening, so there isn’t really any point in trying to get your head down before the New Year begins.
The way that most prisons are designed, especially the older, Victorian-style wings, is to have three or four landings around a central well with very high ceilings above. The combination of the metal cell doors, bare floors and the echoing space outside on the empty landings – with no carpets or soft furnishings to absorb the noise – creates what amounts to an enormous echo chamber. It really can be overwhelming to witness.
I suspect that the ritual of banging cell doors to mark the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new is played out in pretty much every closed prison in Britain. It has become a nick tradition, although when it started no-one seems to know.
Big Ben gives cons the signal
The night screws on duty on New Year’s Eve obviously expect this percussion-only concert, so no-one really fears that a riot is about to take place. There is also much shouting – including a curious mixture of expletives, some very funny quips and, if you can hear above the racket, quite a few lads wishing their mates in other cells a “Happy New Year, bruv!”
After a short while, the deafening noise dies away and although there might be a bit of residual shouting, each wing fairly quickly settles down for the rest of the night. Soon the prison is almost silent again as cons get back to watching TV or sleeping (or drinking prison-brewed hooch or taking drugs). I suppose New Year is worth celebrating for most cons because at least another year of their incarceration has gone by.
Goal... another reason to bang doors
In many closed nicks, there is a similar door-banging ritual every time a major football match is on television and a goal is scored. This extends to various team rivalries – often because a fair amount of covert gambling is going on between cons (and occasionally even a few football-mad wing screws just can’t resist getting involved themselves). 
Rival supporters take it in turns to hammer on their steel doors whenever their team scores. Even if you aren’t interested in the match – and are trying to watch something else on another channel – you can’t avoid knowing what the score is just by listening to the banging and cheering going on around you.
Of course, there are various other prison traditions – and jail superstitions. Cons can be a very superstitious lot. One of the universal traditions concerns the eating of your final breakfast early in the morning on the day of your release. According to common prison lore, if a prisoner omits to eat his last breakfast he will return to prison again to eat it during his next stretch inside. 
Prison breakfast... or more porridge!
This superstition is so strong that even in a Cat-D (open prison), friends of a prisoner who is about to be discharged will constantly remind him that he must make sure he has breakfast before he reports to Reception to sign his discharge papers and collect his stored property. It’s fascinating to see even middle-class, white-collar cons (ex-bankers, bent solicitors, sticky-fingered accountants) who have never been inside before – and probably never will be again – scrupulously observing this odd prison tradition, even if they only eat a few mouthfuls of cereal or porridge.

Another popular prison saying concerns writing one’s name on prison property, for example inside a locker or on a cell wall. According to this legend, anyone who scrawls their name up will certainly be fated to return to prison “to rub it out”. Although I suspect that this particular superstition may have been invented by canny prison managers in a bid to cut down on the amount of cell graffiti, it has achieved widespread currency. Unsurprisingly, marker pens are prohibited contraband in closed prisons.  
Prison cell door graffiti
Funnily enough, it doesn’t seem to stop people – especially the younger lads – from signing or scratching the walls, usually with a nickname and the name of their home town. For example: ‘Smudger ov Worksop’. It’s always ‘ov’ – never ‘of’ – and that’s yet another prison custom. Some cons also add the dates of their sentences, just in case one of their mates or associates sees the graffiti at some point in the future. 

Of course, there is a long tradition of such cell graffiti – even in medieval castle dungeons or wartime prison camps. Prisoners always seem to have been inveterate vandals when it comes to marking or personalising the walls that confine them. I seem to recall from some television documentary or other that there is some historic graffiti in the various cells of the Tower of London scratched into the stonework by early ‘celebrity cons’ from earlier eras. Sadly, most of them didn’t end well, so perhaps scrawling your name really doesn’t bring good luck. 
I must admit that I never really felt the need to add my own name or dates to the long list of past occupants of any of the cells or Cat-D rooms I lived in myself during my own sentence. After all, perhaps the superstition about returning to prison to rub the graffiti out might prove to be correct...
In my last blog post of 2014, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all readers a very happy New Year. I am still very pleasantly surprised and encouraged by just how many people are interested in prison issues, even when some sections of the tabloid media continue to peddle lies, smears and misconceptions about life inside.
For those who have family or friends in prison then I hope that 2015 will see the current difficult situation improve for the better (although I’m not holding my breath, I’m afraid). At least we can hope that loved ones and friends inside stay safe. Never underestimate how much support from those outside prison means to those who are banged up inside. It can prove to be life saving – at times literally. 
If you work in a prison, or with prisoners in some other capacity, then thank you for reading these blog posts and the many comments beneath. I hope that at least some of these insights will have been useful or enlightening about how some prisoners and ex-prisoners see things from the ‘other side of the door’. I’m always pleased to read contributions and comments from serving or past prison staff or probation officers who are willing to share their own points of view. 
HM Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick
It’s also been great to have had exclusive contributions on the blog from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. In my own view it is an absolute tragedy that he will not be continuing in a vital role monitoring what is going on inside our crisis-hit prisons and reporting fearlessly on what he and his inspectors find even if it angers those in the government who prefer to pretend that everything is going well despite all the objective evidence to the contrary. We await to see who his successor will be in 2015.
Special thanks also to those readers and contributors who are ex-prisoners. No one’s prison experiences or perceptions are ever identical, so thank you for sharing your own views and thoughts on the various subjects that have been covered so far in these blog posts. 
By sharing our individual experiences of prison, positive as well as negative, I do believe that we are, gradually, playing a small, but significant role in informing the wider public about how taxpayers’ money is being spent – or misused – by politicians and bureaucrats who know little about how prisons really work in practice and seem to care even less. I hope you all have a great New Year and I’ll be back blogging in 2015 – assuming Chris Grayling doesn’t try to get me banged up again first!