Thursday, January 29, 2015

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On the Wrong Side of the Door

Alex Cavendish with a compassionate look at the plight of a former prison officer sentenced to time behind the doors.  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


One of the most common phrases that anyone who is a serving prisoner hears on a daily basis is “Behind your doors!”. It’s an order from a member of staff to go back to your cell and close your own door, locking yourself in – effectively becoming your own compliant gaoler.

Behind your doors!
Since there isn’t a handle on the inside of the cell door, once the bolt is sprung, it can only be opened from the outside. After you’ve ‘banged up’ (closed your door), a screw will come along the landing checking that the door is locked and opening the viewing flap to peer through into the cell to ensure that the right number of cons are present and correct for the roll.

There is something very final about the sound that the heavy lock makes as it seals you into your pad (cell). Once you’ve heard it, whether in a police cell or in the nick, you’ll never forget it. 

The clunk made when you shut a cell door is a very different sound to the other common noise inside a prison and that is the loud clang when barred metal gates are shut by members of staff. These gates are at the end of every wing in a closed prison, as well as dividing various walkways and sections. Crossing from one side of a jail to another can involve frequent stops and starts as cons have to wait for each gate to be unlocked and then relocked by staff.

Keys are a potent symbol in prisons, as well as a stark reminder of the vast gulf between those who have them (the screws and other staff) and those who don’t (the cons). Even civilian staff wear leather belts with keys and chains (a security measure to guard against cons grabbing them).

The power of the keys
Today, I was reflecting on just how powerless a prisoner in a closed nick is simply because he or she is the one who doesn’t have a bunch of keys – or the freedom of movement they provide. They are, quite literally, on the wrong side of the door.

This evening there is one extra con on a wing of some Cat-B local, possibly down in the induction wing, or even lying on his bunk in a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU) reflecting on how roles have been reversed. This prisoner, Scott Chapman, used to be a prison officer. Now, like all the other cons in whichever nick he is in tonight, he is essentially a number. While all staff and prisoners do have ID cards, they are very different and now he has the ‘wrong’ type hanging on a bootlace round his neck – and he is on the wrong side of the door.

Mr Chapman, who has just been sent down on a sentence of three and a half ‘sheets’ (years) has been found guilty of selling stories about a prisoner who was in his care to the now defunct News of the World tabloid newspaper. In this case, the tittle-tattle was about Jon Venables, one of the two kids who killed little James Bulger back in 1993. On their own, the stories seem not to have had much meat to them, just bits of information about what was perceived to have been special treatment that Mr Venables (now known by another name) was supposed to be receiving when he was recalled to prison in 2010.

The late, unlamented News of the Screws
Although Mr Chapman claimed in court that he felt these stories were in the public interest, the fact that he’d pocketed a cool £40,000 from various tabloids including the News of the World, The Sun, The Sunday Mirror and The Daily Star did tend to undermine his attempt to justify his conduct. He was accordingly convicted by a jury last month of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and sentenced this week. A former News of the World hack received a six-month suspended prison sentence in respect of the same offence.

I’ve posted previously on this blog about how stories get leaked – often for cash – from inside prisons: Telling Tales out of Jail. Sometimes the culprits are fellow cons, but screws and civilian prison staff occasionally get prosecuted for selling stories about famous or notorious prisoners. Now Mr Chapman is paying the price for his activities.

All prisoners are potentially vulnerable to this sort of information leaking, although it’s obviously the well-known or infamous who are most liable to have confidential details about themselves plastered over the tabloids. The practice is particularly harmful because it can severely undermine what very limited trust exists between uniformed staff and cons. Which prisoners would ever talk to their wing officers about personal problems if they suspected that such sensitive discussions could be sold for cash and published? Jails are rich breeding grounds for paranoia and activities such as those Mr Chapman profited from simply fuel this distrust.

Paranoia thrives behind bars
Now he has been sent down I doubt that he will get any sympathy or favours from his former colleagues in the Prison Service. During the trial, the head of security at the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), Adrian Scott, explained in evidence how leaking confidential information about prisoners risked creating “security and order issues” inside prisons. 

Although for his own safety Mr Chapman won’t be sent to any establishment where he formerly served as an officer, his situation for the next 21 months (unless he qualifies for early release on Home Detention Curfew or ‘tag’) isn’t likely to be enviable. As his barrister pleaded in mitigation during sentencing, he fears being scalded with boiling water and sugar (‘jugging’, as it is usually called), or being slashed with prison-issue razors melted into plastic brush handles (‘striping’). This evidently didn’t carry much weight with the judge, Mr Justice Wide, as he imposed a pretty stiff prison sentence.

Prison-made 'shanks'
Having met a couple of disgraced former screws when I was in a Cat-D (open) prison, I actually think that it’s unlikely Mr Chapman will get either ‘jugged’ or ‘striped’. While he’s in closed conditions, he’ll almost certainly serve his sentence on a VPU with other vulnerable prisoners, including sex offenders, former police officers, dead-beat drug debtors and cons suspected of being ‘grasses’ (informers). I doubt there will be much congenial company for a former screw, but if he has any sense he’ll keep his head down and avoid getting into any trouble. This may mean that he has to spend 23 hours banged up on the wrong side of his door, but such is life.

I suppose that he will also find his former colleagues less than supportive. If there’s one thing that most prison officers despise more than ordinary cons, it’s a bent screw who has been sent down. This sort of thing gives the uniform a bad name. They also won’t want to be seen doing him any favours or cutting him slack, so he’ll have to get used to hearing the word “no” when making requests. No doubt he’ll find all this a deeply humiliating and humbling experience.

No favours from staff
I’m sure he will be only too conscious of the complete role reversal. He’ll now be on the receiving end of procedures that no doubt he oversaw himself in his previous career. Like any other con he’ll be ordered to strip, wear grubby, ill-fitting prison clothing and to get behind his door. He’ll be body searched regularly and, above all, he will feel utterly powerless. He’s joined the ranks of those who are on the wrong side of the door and who don’t have a bunch of those all-important keys. 

Reflecting on Mr Chapman’s current situation, I’m reminded of a verse from the appropriately titled song This is Hell by Elvis Costello:  

It’s not the torment of the flames
That finally sees your flesh corrupted
It's the small humiliations that your memory piles up.

And I suspect that he will experience those “small humiliations” pretty much every single day of his sentence, at least until he finally gets to an open prison where things might be a bit more relaxed. As he is lying in his bunk tonight, I imagine he’s feeling very scared and very much alone. Every prisoner has been there, but he will be in a very special circle of hell and it is of his own making.

Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I must admit that I do find myself feeling a bit sorry for him, as one human being to another. If he does get to share a cell, I hope he’ll find it’s with someone who will offer him a bit of support. Who knows, perhaps he’ll discover that there are some very decent people in prison who are willing to extend the hand of friendship – even to a disgraced screw who finds himself on the wrong side of the cell door. 

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