Sunday, January 25, 2015

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Weasel Words (2): Concerted Indiscipline

Alex Cavendish illustrates how language is used to conceal from the public what is actually going on in British prisons. 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.

Back in July I posted on the use of ‘weasel words’ by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). In my first visit to the subject I looked at prison ‘disturbances’ – a preferred euphemism for what most outside observers might call a ‘riot’ (see blog post here). Now we have another equally weaselly term doing the rounds. This time it’s ‘concerted indiscipline’.

In the weasel's own words...
The guilty party this time was our beloved part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous. In answer to a parliamentary question asked by Andy Slaughter, Labour’s shadow justice minister, about how many prison riots had taken place since 2010, Mr Selous yesterday came up with this splendid example of political weaseling rather than answering the query:

The term “riot” is not a category that is used to record incidents in prison. Incidents where two or more prisoners act together to defy a lawful instruction or against the requirements of the regime of the establishment are all recorded as Concerted Indiscipline.

In essence, rather than admit that any riots have taken place inside prisons in England and Wales on the present government’s watch, it seems that the MOJ has now banished the entire word from its own lexicon. On reflection, I can see why the rather convoluted phrase ‘concerted indiscipline’ might appeal to the desk jockeys down in Petty France (Chris Grayling’s London address). It covers a multitude of incidents without the need to categorise them in any particular order of seriousness.

Of course, everyone understands the term prison riot. It means that members of staff have lost control, at least temporarily, of a particular establishment. It also implies that considerable damage has been done to the fabric of a prison (or part of one) and that in most cases some form of outside force has been required to pacify the rioting cons – usually the Tornado Team, a squad of specially-trained prison officers who are deployed to sort out such situations and restore control.

Andrew Selous: concerted weaseling
Who the hell really knows what ‘concerted indiscipline’ covers? According to Mr Selous’ explanation, two grumpy cons refusing to return to their cells of an evening can be lumped together with 100 prisoners seizing control of an entire wing or exercise yard and putting the screws to flight. Would it also include hostage situations (whether the person who has been taken hostage is a fellow con or a member of staff)? Who knows? 

To be honest, I very much doubt that Mr Selous, a newcomer to the wonderful, wacky world of prisons and a political lightweight by any measure, has a clue – at least if his recent performance in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Justice is anything to go by. One of the more depressing impressions left by both Mr Selous and his boss, Mr Grayling, is just how remote and out of touch they are over what is actually going on inside our prisons at the moment.

Looking beyond the latest weasel words, it is still instructive to see how many recorded incidents of ‘concerted indiscipline’ have taken place between January 2010 and September 2014, even if Mr Selous added the caveat that “Concerted indiscipline incidents vary widely in nature and duration and many of these incidents are relatively minor and of short duration and cause little disruption to the prison regime. Only a very small number of these incidents are serious enough to require external support from specialist intervention teams and the number of such interventions has not increased over recent years.”

Here are the figures that Mr Selous provided in his answer to Mr Slaughter’s question:

Table 1: Concerted Indiscipline, by year, January 2010 to September 2014

  2010       2011       2012       2013        2014 (to 30th September)
  104         114           94         147          153

It can clearly be seen that the number of incidents has risen significantly since January 2013 and it can be expected that by the end of this year the figure will be even higher for 2014. Based on the statistics provided by the MOJ there is obviously something going on inside our prisons, but what?

Tornado Team: how many call-outs?
Without a more detailed breakdown of this data it is very difficult to draw specific conclusions, something I suspect that the use of the catch-all category of ‘concerted indiscipline’ is actually designed to obscure. What would have been very helpful is to know the precise number of times that the ‘specialist intervention teams’ (ie Tornado Teams) have been deployed each year. 

This would at least ensure that there is a clear distinction made between minor acts of defiance, such as a few cons digging their heels in about being banged up early or when association has been cancelled, and much more serious incidents where prison staff have effectively lost control of a wing or unit. While it is true that full scale riots – of the kind that occurred at HMP Moorland in November 2010 when two wings went up in smoke during three days of rioting or at HMP Ford on 1 January 2011 when £5 million worth of damage was caused as units burned – are very rare, surely the general public has a right to know what is happening in prisons and how often serious incidents of this kind are taking place?

Ford: when it all went pear-shaped
In fact, it almost seems that there is an effective news blackout when major incidents are in progress. I’m assured by friends working in the national media that no official ‘DA-notices’ (Defence Advisory notices – a formal request to editors not to publish in the interests of national security) have been issued in respect of incidents of prison disorder, such as the protests at HMP High Down in October 2013 or more recently at HMP Humber. However, there is often little or no national reporting at all and sometimes only a few paragraphs in local newspapers or on social media websites.

There is a very real danger that our prisons are fast becoming ‘no go’ areas for the media, resulting in an uninformed general public. Official information – such as the statistics above for ‘concerted indiscipline’ – is often presented in a way that makes it impossible for commentators or analysts to identify particular trends, such as violent disorder. How many of those incidents were actual riots? Messrs Grayling and Selous very obviously don’t want any of us to know, including members of Parliament.

Our pressure cooker prisons
Is this because our overcrowded, understaffed and cash-strapped prisons are so deep in crisis that there is a real risk of multiple establishments going up in flames, with staff and inmates injured or even killed? Has Mr Grayling’s much-vaunted ‘crackdown’ on cons actually made prisons in England and Wales so difficult to manage because, as some governors are warning, the entire system now lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many inmates? 

In a pressure-cooker environment in which many prisoners are effectively entombed in tiny, overcrowded cells for up to 23-hours a day without regular access to showers, payphones or exercise, there is every likelihood that we will be seeing more acts of ‘concerted indiscipline’. This is the inconvenient truth that the MOJ and its political bosses seem unwilling to acknowledge. Denial has become the default setting.

No doubt as protests by prisoners continue we will hear yet more trite euphemisms from Messrs Grayling and Selous who are obviously intent on playing down the consequences of their prison policies. And, certainly, there will be many more ‘weasel words’ ahead of the forthcoming general election. As US President Theodore Roosevelt once observed: “When one ‘weasel word’ is used ... after another, there is nothing left”. How right he was.


marty said...

wouldnt worry to much about them old riots once privatisation has kicked in and capital punishment has been reintroduced the plebs will soon get back down on their knees nothing like the sight of an auld lag or two hanging from the gallows to install the fear of fuck into those ragged arsed miscreants.