Sunday, February 1, 2015

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Back Behind Bars … Yet Again!

Alex Cavendish, creates the ambience of captivity, as he writes about making a return to prison, this time to visit a friend. 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

I was back behind prison walls again yesterday. Hearing those barred metal gates clang shut and keys being turned in locks by men and women dressed in black and white uniforms brought back some mixed memories, as did being given a pretty thorough body search – while still clothed for once – and waiting for doors to be opened. 
A fence within a high wall
As I walked along a concrete path within a very high fence topped with razor wire, that was itself inside the massive grey and intimidating walls of an inner city Cat-B, I had a curious feeling of being back ‘home’ again. That’s institutionalisation in action. The only glimpse of the outside world from inside was the blue sky above and it reminded me of the hundreds of days I’d spent within such confines looking up above the high walls of other prisons that were very similar in layout and design.

At each phase of the journey deeper and deeper into the prison, gates and doors have to be opened by a member of staff. The spaces and rooms steadily get smaller and more enclosed as you enter each new section.

Inside, it was all fluorescent lighting and all-too familiar polished lino tile floors. You can smell the same brand of disinfectant masking the stench of unwashed men on every prison wing. On the notice boards, there were the same old posters about reporting bullying and warnings against smuggling contraband. Everywhere CCTV cameras follow your every move, controlled from the security office. Home, sweet home! 

Black and white uniforms
Fortunately, I was just making another social visit to a good friend who is back inside on recall. I knew that at the end of the afternoon I’d be going back out into the real world, while he wouldn’t. In fact, he has no idea when, or if, he’ll be getting released. Such is the inhumanity of the now discontinued Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) although thousands of prisoners are still serving it with no end in sight.

If any reader feels the urge to experience a tiny little bit of what it’s like to be locked up in a UK prison – without actually committing a crime or being the victim of a miscarriage of justice – then I’d recommend going on a prison visit if you ever get the chance. Believe me, when the first barred metal gate clangs shut and you realise that you are on the wrong side of it without any keys, you do start to get the sense of being caged and confined that prison is all about. 

Most of my fellow visitors were old hands at the game. Like me, they knew exactly what the routines were, including the order in which the body searches are carried out. You don’t even have to be asked to open your mouth, lift your arms, spread your legs or raise your feet so your soles can be checked. The security staff are mainly on the look out for drugs, but prepaid mobile phone SIM cards are also very easy to conceal and can help keep major drug dealers inside the nick in contact with their networks back on the street.

Body search ahead of a visit
To be fair, it’s all done in a very businesslike and professional manner, but the searching is quite a lot more intrusive than you’d normally experience at an airport (unless you get taken away into one of the little backrooms, of course). Having a complete stranger running their hands over your body and putting their fingers in your pockets is just one of the compulsory procedures before a visitor is permitted any contact with inmates.

A few of the younger lads going in at the same time as me had probably been inside themselves as they seemed to know some members of staff by name. I guessed that they were also visiting family or perhaps mates they’d got to know when they were serving time inside the slammer. I know that a surprising number of ex-cons remain in touch with lads they have met in jail, sometimes helping out by sending in a bit of cash to their prison accounts and coming in on visiting days to help keep morale up.

It’s good to see friends face to face, even if you do speak regularly on the phone or write. We chat about our legal cases, exchange news about mutual acquaintances and I get an update on the deepening crisis inside the prison where there has been a recent suicide and major cutbacks in staffing. The 90-minute session seems to pass in a flash and it’s soon time to end the visit. 

A visits hall in a UK prison
Leaving the prison at the end of a session in the visits hall is a much quicker affair. At this particular private sector nick they make use of electronic fingerprint scanners and it seems that almost every door and gate is open before you even get to it. Getting inside takes the best part of an hour. Going out again can be as quick as five minutes.

Beyond the enjoyment of seeing good friends who I want to support while they are inside, I sometimes feel that I also need to make these visits in order to plug myself back into what is really happening inside our prisons on a daily basis. Of course, I also receive regular letters from mates who are still serving their sentences, as well as information from family members, but there is no substitute for actually going back inside from time to time. 

Early next year I’m planning to visit another friend who is serving a very long sentence in one of Britain’s very worst Cat-B nicks. I hope to find out for myself just how bad the situation there has become since I did some time there myself a couple of years ago. It was an absolute disgrace back then, so with even less staff and much greater overcrowding on the wings, I want to hear for myself how things really are from a lad who is living through it all day, every day, year after year.