Tuesday, February 24, 2015

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Regrets? I’ve Had a Few…

Alex Cavendish reflects on the value of his prison experience and also flags up the British government efforts to curb research into prison life. 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 recurring questions I’ve been asked about my prison experiences is the extent to which I’ve found them of value for my professional work. I was recently also asked by a serving prison governor whether I found it “painful” to recall my time inside. The answers are complex.

Better than the streets in winter?
Obviously, only a tiny minority of people really want to end up in prison. Those who do are often facing homelessness on the streets during the winter months or have become so institutionalised after years inside, sometimes on back-to-back short stretches, that being sent down through the ‘revolving door’ of the nick has become a familiar way of life.

Unlike many ex-prisoners I really don’t find my own memories of incarceration to be painful as such. Certainly, there are some recollections that cause me sadness – principally of people that I’ve known inside who have died, either by suicide or from natural causes – as well as my contacts with people whom I believe to be genuinely innocent of the crime, or crimes, for which they are being punished through imprisonment. 

A closed and secretive world
I’m also very concerned for younger and more vulnerable inmates, some of whom I feel are presently being failed by a Prison Service in deep crisis amid rising levels of suicide and self-harm among prisoners. However, from a purely personal perspective, my time inside the nick has proved to be immensely productive and interesting.

For a start, I’ve developed what I believe is a good working knowledge of the prison system, including its often obscure and convoluted bureaucratic channels and internal rules. I have also gained fascinating insights into the way in which I believe our current prison system fails to deliver on its own stated objectives, especially when it comes to rehabilitation and preparing soon-to-be released cons for stable or sustainable resettlement back into the community.
NOMS: does it really do what it says on the tin?
Being a prisoner also gave me very privileged access to what remains a closed and often very secretive world. Since my release I’ve spoken to numerous academics and researchers who have found that their work on prisons, or with serving prisoners (or even those still on licence), has been blocked or impeded by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which has to approve any applications to carry out research or interviews inside our prisons. 

Anecdotally, it seems that quite a few potentially very important investigations and studies are being obstructed. The best-known of these cases has been the blocking of access to both prisoners and ex-prisoners released on licence to researchers from the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Commission on Sex in Prison. Presumably, Chris Grayling and his sidekicks in NOMS really don’t want the general public to be aware of how much rape, other forms of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of inmates may be going on inside our jails on his watch. Having helped victims of such abuse to survive their traumatic experiences, I can well understand why Mr Grayling might feel that way. After all, it should be a national scandal.

Fortunately, despite the barriers put up by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the Commission has still managed to gather vital evidence about this issue. It will be reporting on its findings at a one-day conference: Behind closed bars: The research findings of the Commission on Sex in Prison that will be taking place in London on Tuesday 17 March (details here).

Keeping the gates firmly closed
However, I’ve spoken to other British academics who are experiencing similar problems with getting their research topics or methodologies approved by NOMS. Not all of these are as potentially sensitive as the Howard League’s Commission. One specific project that is being blocked is more to do with the internal management of offenders by prisons. Perhaps that is another ‘hot topic’ Mr Grayling isn’t keen to have outsiders probing our dysfunctional custodial system too deeply. Who knows? 

When I was a serving con, despite the bars, steel doors and high walls confining me, I was much freer to discuss relevant issues with fellow inmates than any researcher or journalist would ever be. We could chat between ourselves with no screws listening in and I found that many cons were happy – even eager – to talk about their own experiences, both prior to custody and during their sentences. 

Because prisoners are regularly moved around between prisons, I also got the chance to compare regimes in specific establishments through discussions with new arrivals from other nicks who were being ‘processed’ through inductions. As my own network of contacts developed, when I was transferred to other jails I often met people I already knew on the wings and they would update me with all the local information. 

Getting an insider's perspective
Being an Insider also gave me access to senior prison staff and governors. I think that once they had got to know me, some were relieved to have someone they could talk to about their own concerns over the direction that penal policy is going in our country. Perhaps a few of them spoke a little too freely about internal tensions between governors and NOMS than they should have with a serving con, but for me this provided a fascinating insight into the widening cracks between the Ministry, NOMS and senior operational managers.

Even visiting NOMS researchers were interested to hear from carefully selected cons – including myself – about what prisoners really thought about some of the new policy initiatives, As a result, I ended up discussing proposed changes to Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) rules, equality monitoring, safer custody policies, moves to ban smoking … even down to the rules on external paid employment for serving inmates in Cat-D prisons and what types of vehicles such cons would be permitted to use and park in the prison grounds.

While these discussions were extremely interesting as examples of how NOMS does attempt to engage with prisoners, I also had the distinct impression that most of the real decisions had already been made down in Petty France (Mr Grayling’s office in London) and that these NOMS ‘missions’ were really more about taking the temperature on the ground before rolling the new rules and policies out than listening to inmates’ ideas or suggestions.

Opening up locked doors...
Moreover, my prison experience has opened up many other previously closed doors. As a social anthropologist, my real interests are in the relationships and social structures that many prisoners develop between themselves. This includes friendships, support networks, self-help groups and similar initiatives that really pass under the radar of the prison authorities. Some of these relationships between cons can be exploitative, but in my own experience the majority simply reflect the ways in which humans tend to band together for mutual support. 

Most of us need social contact and interactions with others in order to maintain, or improve, mental and physical well-being. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed in his Politics:
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.

There is a significant percentage of people in prison living with mental health problems or addictions, but in my experience although some do want to live solitary existences in single cells (where these still exist), the vast majority of cons recognise their own need for company. Some of those who do find it very difficult to socialise appear to be within the autistic spectrum (including Asperger syndrome), for which I have never come across any professional support or care in prison.

Life on a prison wing
I know that I am a social person. I enjoy good company and informed discussion, whether that was in a university common room or in a Cat-B cell, so prison often offered opportunities for quite lively debates over a wide range of issues, although for obvious reasons incarceration and our failing prison system tended to dominate these sessions which often took place during association over cups of tea or cheap coffee. All my friends knew I was planning to write a future book on the social anthropology of prison life and most were keen to contribute.

Very occasionally, a friendly wing screw who happened to be wandering by might join in our discussions when the wing was quiet, especially if the younger cons were off the landings for a gym session. My impression was that the majority of frontline staff feel almost entirely disempowered and their morale is close to rock-bottom. There can sometimes be a shared sense of frustration. At times like that, those on both sides of the door can start to appreciate each other’s viewpoint. After all, it can be good to talk.

So do I have any regrets? Well obviously, there is the continuing stigma of having been convicted and imprisoned. It impacts on almost every aspect of daily life, from insurance premiums to travelling internationally, and I’ll be dealing more with this topic in a future post. However, would I have missed the opportunity of spending a few years doing first-hand field research into life inside English prisons? The answer is no. Not for the world.


John Morgan said...

I wish people of obvious inteligence and diligence would inform their readers that all ''Greek philosophers and mathematician'' were ALL without exception educated in Egypt. Aristotle as the Tutor of Alexander being the most notable.