Saturday, May 2, 2015

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Maintaining Your Moral Compass In Jail

Alex Cavendish reflects on the ethically choice limiting constraints that determine prisoner behaviour. 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.

The prison system can often be a difficult place in which to behave like a ‘normal’ person. Different rules and standards can apply. Sometimes words or actions that outside would be considered decent and praiseworthy can land a prisoner in deep trouble or even danger. I was reflecting on this during a recent exchange I had on Twitter and thought I’d share a few thoughts on my own experiences in prison.

'Snitches get stitches'
I’ve posted before on this blog about the perilous position of inmates who are labelled as ‘grasses’ (informers) or ‘screw-boys’ (those eager to suck up to the staff). Both types of con can find themselves ostracised by fellow prisoners and, in many cases, find themselves on the receiving end of threats and violence – sometimes very extreme. 

Although the atmosphere does vary from nick to nick, and even wing to wing, there is a general consensus that ‘grasses’ are the lowest of the low and far more dangerous than sex offenders (who are, in most cases, segregated for their own protection on Rule 45 or held on separate wings).

According to common prison lore, another unforgiveable sin is being seen to save a member of staff from attack or even death. In his memoirs Parkhurst Tales, Norman Parker – a very old-school con – describes the grim consequences faced by a fellow prisoner who had pulled an unconscious screw from a burning building at grave risk to his own safety. 

Prison life old-style
In a prison context what would be regarded as an heroic act anywhere else suddenly becomes treachery against other cons. In many cases, having been seen to have rescued a member of staff would be a rapid short-cut to spending the rest of your sentence down the Block (segregation unit) or these days on a Vulnerable Prisoner Unit (VPU) having a thoroughly miserable existence. At best it might involve being transferred to another prison perhaps hundreds of miles from your family. 

For that reason, some emergencies in prison can require the making of split-second decisions about whether or not to get involved. I remember one particular case in a Cat-B when two wing officers were involved in a particularly nasty altercation with two cons on a landing and neither screw could reach the green general alarm button. 

One of them shouted – to no-one in particular – “Hit the alarm!” Needless to say, no-one moved a muscle. There was already a large crowd watching the scrap and cat-calling. To have gone anywhere near that alarm would have been a public declaration that the con involved was a screw-boy and probably a grass. In any case, other members of staff were soon on the scene and we were all ordered to get back behind our doors for early bang-up. To be honest, I don’t really think that there had been any expectation that one of us would break ranks, but it was worth a try.

"Don't panic...!"
During the time I was inside, I honestly can’t recall any con ever sounding the alarm during trouble. I have occasionally seen inmates trying to persuade some new and gullible arrival in the system that he should just push the green button if he wanted to ask a member of staff for some advice – which would probably be “You’re nicked, lad!” as a screw put him on a charge. However, I can’t actually remember anyone being daft or green enough to actually test this.

Dealing with the bullying of weaker and more vulnerable cons can be another moral challenge. You can’t just walk up to a wing screw and report it – otherwise you become a grass and end up in deep trouble. On the other hand, just letting it continue lowers your own moral standards and leads you to question your own humanity. Fortunately, most bullies are cowards and will back off if several large cons – particular ex-armed services veterans – pay them a quiet visit and advise them to pull their horns in. This does genuinely work in most cases.

Problems involving members of staff can be much more problematic. I was once involved in a potentially dangerous situation in prison where I was forced to make a moral decision that could have had traumatic consequences for the rest of my own sentence. It occurred when I was working as a peer mentor in the education department of a Cat-B jail. 

Prison education session in classroom
Generally, these basic literacy sessions were pretty calm and sedate. Most cons were either glad to be out of their cells for a couple of hours in a clean, bright classroom being taught by a pleasant female tutor, or else were heavily medicated and inclined to doze off in the sunny warmth of the room.

However, on this occasion we had what we termed a ‘refusenik’ – a con who resented having been forced to attend education classes and who was extremely hyper. I’ll call him Dave (not his real name). His nickname was ‘Dangerous’ because of his aggressive and unpredictable behaviour.

In fact, he was living with serious mental illness and was back in prison on recall. His medication hadn’t yet stabilised his condition since he had arrived back in custody and he could be extremely aggressive, particularly towards female members of staff. Since he was 6ft 4” tall, he could be very intimidating, even for fellow cons.

It all started when he was asked – very politely – by the young female tutor not to eat a bag of dry breakfast cereal he had brought with him into the classroom, but to wait until break. He responded by simply ignoring her request and munched on loudly. He was sitting right at the back of the room which usually accommodated about 12 prisoners per session.

Ideal for disrupting lessons in jail
Having defied her once – and having got away with it – Dave decided to try his luck with other means of both getting attention and disrupting the lesson. His next ploy was to flick prison-issue rice krispies at other cons. Childish behaviour, but sometimes prisoners can revert to infantile actions in the slammer.

Clearly the education session was degenerating into a circus. Rather than call for the duty screw – who was down the corridor reading the paper and drinking his tea – the tutor made the error of confronting the disruptive con directly at the back of the room. This placed her about five metres from the nearest general alarm button which was located next to her desk in case of trouble.

Dave didn’t like the idea of being giving a dressing down by a young, slight woman so he stood up and towered over her. At this stage there had been no actual physical contact between them. Intimidated, she retreated into the far corner – nowhere near the alarm – as he advanced towards her. She was completely trapped and starting to panic. This was the point at which moral decisions had to be made.

Either the other peer mentor assigned to the class and I could stand by and allow what could be a very nasty situation to end up with a serious assault against the tutor, or we had to do something. Hitting the alarm really wasn’t an option as we knew the potential consequences, especially as peer mentors were already considered halfway to being screw-boys anyway.

In the end, both of us walked up to the corner and placed ourselves between the tutor and Dave, making it clear that if he wanted to hurt her then he’d have to deal with us first. I don’t particularly like the idea of being thumped by a bloke who is much bigger than me, but the only alternative to becoming part of a human shield in front of the tutor was to press the damned alarm button and take the consequences once the story got around the nick.
Fortunately, ‘Dangerous Dave’ backed off. Intimidating a female member of staff was one thing, getting into a possible scrap with two big cons was another. He weighed up his options and then grumpily stomped back to his seat, giving the tutor the chance to get back to her desk and hit the alarm. In a few moments four screws arrived and Dave was being ‘twisted up’ – placed in a restraint hold – and then marched down the Block to cool off. We didn’t see him again on the wing for a week or so and he didn’t return to education classes.

In this case, we were both very lucky. Our fellow cons saw the logic in what we’d done and neither of us got any negative reactions. However, this incident shows what an ethical minefield prison can be and why having an accurate moral compass to help you negotiate the potential hazards can be essential. Just ask yourself how you would have handled this situation!