Sunday, February 8, 2015

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Things to do in Segregation

Alex Cavendish with a piece on how prisoners get through their day when put into segregation. In the North it was known as "on the boards". 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

For those who haven’t spent any time inside as a guest of Her Majesty, the segregation unit – otherwise known as ‘the Block’ – is a kind of prison within a prison. Prisoners refer to being ‘down the Block’, although it’s also called ‘the Seg’.

It’s a separate unit inside a prison where cons get sent for extra punishment over and beyond the usual, although a few prisoners do get sent there for their own protection – often if they’ve run up substantial drug debts or are suspected of ‘grassing’  (informing) on other cons. Usually, however, prisoners get sent to Seg as a result of being found guilty of a disciplinary offence, for which they might get 14 days or 28 days in solitary.

Typical seg cell down the Block
Life down the Block can be pretty austere. No rented TV, no personal possessions to speak of. You get to wear dirty old prison kit (usually the oldest, most stained specimens available) and you get a coarse prison towel. Unless it’s actually a ‘strip-cell’ in which case you are kept naked, but with an anti-suicide blanket you can wrap round yourself. 

The bed is either a solid concrete slab with a very thin mattress on it (if you don’t have back pain when you arrive down the Block, you will have by the time you leave), or in the older type of Seg it can be a metal-framed single bunk bolted to the floor. In fact, pretty much everything in the segregation unit is fixed to the wall or the floor in order to prevent irate cons from either throwing anything at staff or trying to barricade themselves in.

Metal bed in Seg
Windows can’t usually be opened, but are fixed units with a small grill to one side that can be opened for fresh air using a knob. However, some of these window mechanisms aren’t working – so either the cold air blows through in winter, or it’s jammed shut in the heat of the summer. Either way, the environment can be pretty grim. After all, what’s the point of having a prison within a prison if it isn’t made even nastier than a normal jail cell?

Although Block cells vary in design, most have some form of table fixed to the floor and wall, a similarly fixed bench to sit on, a stainless steel sink and WC and… that’s about it, folks. Apparently they used to make you roll up the mattress during the day and leave it outside the door to discourage cons from lying on their beds. This practice seems to have stopped (or at least it didn’t happen to me when I was in the Seg).

In theory, you are supposed to be able to request the loan of a radio. However, I’ve never, ever been in a prison where such an item is available. Perhaps those cons who already own one can ask to have it with them. I never had one, so just went without. 

Plastic mug
During my stay in the Block I was allowed the following personal possessions: a cheap wrist watch (mainly because I think the Seg screws forgot to confiscate it), my reading glasses with plastic lenses, one paperback book and a toothbrush (prison issue). I also had the usual plastic prison-issue mug, plate and bowl, plus plastic knife, fork and spoon. Add in a towel, some toothpaste and half a bar of prison soap and that was the lot. Absolutely nothing else other than bedding.

Meals were served on the floor. Literally. You had to stand back from the door as soon as a screw opened it. Then place your empty utensils on the floor by the door. They were then collected by a fellow con who had the enviable job of ‘Seg orderly’ while the two officers on duty watched you like a hawk. Next a tray with food (no choices down the Block other than like it or lump it) and two slices of dry bread was placed in the same place, along with a plastic flask containing hot water – enough to make three mugs of prison tea. When ordered to do so, you stepped forward, bent over and picked these things up, then stepped back. The door was slammed, locked and bolted. 

During the course of the day, three people would invariably come and look in your cell. One was a medic, another was from the chaplaincy team and the third was a governor grade. Occasionally the senior officer responsible for the Block would also check up on you. That was the extent of the human contact permitted.

View from the Block yard
Exercise consisted of being allowed to walk on your own around an entirely enclosed concrete yard with high walls on all four sides topped with rolls of razor wire and what I later discovered were anti-helicopter nets, just in case any of us were sufficiently well-connected to have associates willing to fly over and rescue us, James Bond-style. Every move was monitored by two screws and by CCTV cameras mounted on high poles around the yard.

So what else is there to do in the Seg unit? Well, I was lucky because I was permitted to have a paperback book – actually the Collected Short Stories of US writer John Cheever – so I kept myself going by reading. I deliberately rationed myself to a set number of short stories each day, just in case I ran out. If I had, then there would have been no chance of getting a visit to the prison library to borrow a different book.

John Cheever: short stories
Another activity was to pace out the cell in each direction. My cell was around 8 feet by 10 feet, so I paced it out a couple of hundred times each day. I also did some rudimentary exercises (sit-ups, press-ups etc).    

What struck me most about being down the Block was the almost total lack of human interaction. Prison staff would simply ask “Any complaints?”, although the chaplains usually managed at least to enquire how we were doing. We weren’t allowed to speak to the Seg orderly and although we could hear that there were other prisoners held in the Block, we never actually saw them. Sometimes you did hear cons screaming or shouting, but the screws quickly put a stop to any disturbances. At least it was usually pretty quiet down the Block.

I’m very fortunate that I don’t get claustrophobic. For any con who is, a normal cell must be torture, but a Seg cell must be their very worst nightmare. While I was down there I often heard the alarm sounding because one of my unseen fellow residents had managed to smuggle in a razor blade and cut his wrists, arms or neck. For this reason, razors are forbidden in Block cells. Instead they are issued each morning as you are locked in the shower cubicle and are then collected by the member of staff who also stands and watches as you wash. Self-harm or suicide is always a constant problem in the Seg unit. 

I was lucky in that I only did a week in the Block when I first went into prison. However, I visited most of the Seg units in the prisons I was held in while working as an Insider (peer mentor) or when acting as a ‘McKenzie Friend’ (a lay legal advisor to prisoners facing governor’s adjudications). In the latter cases I used to spend most of a day locked in a Block cell together with my ‘client’ – the con on a disciplinary charge. At least then I had someone to talk to which was a considerable improvement on being in solitary confinement.

It’s well documented that extended periods of isolation have a negative impact on mental and physical health. Some prisoners in UK prisons experience solitary confinement for months or even years resulting in the inevitable deterioration of their minds. 

HMP Bronzefield: criticised by HM Inspectorate
One of the most notorious cases in England was at HMP Bronzefield, a women’s prison in Surrey. HM Inspectorate of Prisons discovered that a female prisoner had spent over five years in the Seg. As Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick observed in his report: “We were dismayed that the woman who had already been in the segregation unit for three years in 2010 was still there in 2013. Her cell was unkempt and squalid and she seldom left it.” He went on to state that “her prolonged location on the segregation unit amounted to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment − and we use these words advisedly.” 

A few other prisoners have spent 20 years or more in similar conditions down the Block. All pretty shocking in 21st century Britain, especially when the British government is so quick to criticise human rights violations elsewhere in the world. Perhaps we should sort out our own backyard first.

I’m not sure how I would have been able to cope if I had served my entire sentence down the Block. Although I’m pretty strong-minded and haven’t lived with any form of mental illness, I’m certain that extended solitary confinement would have impacted on my personality, perhaps even led me to consider self-harm or suicide. 

However, for those prisoners who are already vulnerable, or suffering from mental health problems, or have addictions, a stint down the Block could prove to be a life or death situation, especially when healthcare resources and staffing are at critical levels in many prisons. In such cases, perhaps the best we can hope for is that they actually survive the experience. Sadly, some don’t.


Alfie Gallagher said...

Thanks for introducing me to the writing of Alex Cavendish, Anthony. I think he's a great blogger who provides an incisive insider's insight into the UK prison system.

Indeed, his piece about sexual assaults in UK prisons throws a much-needed spotlight onto a abhorrent phenomenon that most people probably presume is not a feature of prison life on this side of the Atlantic:

"In my opinion, rape and sexual assaults are a regular feature of prison life, particularly for prisoners who are younger, vulnerable (including those with mental health problems) or gay (either openly so, or perceived as such). At one B-cat prison every single Young Prisoner (18-21) on my wing admitted to me in private that he had been sexually assaulted since coming into custody.

"At the same prison another young and vulnerable prisoner, who had been raped, subsequently committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell. The reaction of the prison authorities in practically every case was to ignore the evidence, or worse, punish the victim for causing trouble by making complaints."

AM said...


I am glad you find him good. He is one of my favourite bloggers and provides so much comprehensible and comprehensive detail.

Sib Jenkinson said...

South Carolina Inmate Receives 37 Years In Solitary Confinement For Updating Facebook