A look inside British prisons
I got caught up in the drugs game during my late teens, but back then like most kids my age, I was just playing gangster. Things escalated when I made it into a prestigious London university where I found just about everyone and their mother was popping pills, smoking joints or snorting powder, and the money started rolling in. Not crazy money, but enough to get by.
I got reckless. I believed, either out of arrogance or naivety, that I wouldn’t get caught; that my educated, white (albeit immigrant), vaguely middle-class background put me above suspicion, and that the only guys that ever got busted were the kids from the Bangladeshi street gangs roaming the projects just outside campus. I was wrong.
Shit got real in early 2013 when I was convicted and sent down for possessing and selling ecstasy, cocaine and a kilo of some of the dankest dro this side of the ‘Dam. Still, thanks to my circumstances, I got off fairly light: 2 ½ years, a year and three months of which to be served inside. I was a student with a bright future and no previous record, and lawyers, professors and other respectable members of the community lined up to offer appeals and character testimonials to the judge.
But having even a year taken out of your life is no small thing, and till then all I knew about jail was from the movies. The first nick I got sent to was HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Thameside. The English prison system is split up into four categories. Category A and double-A are maximum security, reserved for the worst of the worst: terrorists, mob bosses and serial killers.
Category B’s are holding jails, where they keep you till they work out what to do with you. C-Cats are standard, medium-level security, while D-Cats are a fucking joke. Some of them have swimming pools and they even let you out to go on day trips! Thameside was a B-Cat prison and I gotta say, it wasn’t bad! I mean, every cell had its own phone, shower (so no risk of American History X-style booty bandits, as I believe they’re known on the other side of the Atlantic) and a small TV which at the time at least, offered subscription channels.
All prisoners in the UK are entitled to their own personal TV in their cell, provided they play by the rules, which helps ease the boredom and frustration which builds up when cons are locked up in a small, confined space for long periods of time that can explode into violence. I thought, if this is what jail is like then I’m in for a smooth ride! But all good things must come to an end and after six weeks I was transferred to HMP Isis, a C-Cat prison holding young offenders aged 18-25, although there was at least one 28 year-old being held there through what I can only assume was an administrative fuck-up.
Isis was a real nick. I still had a TV, but it only showed the few basic channels. There were no phones in your cell, and no showers either. You only got to use them when you got let out of your cell for association time, which was also when you could go to the gym. Unlike Thameside, nothing in the place ran properly and it was always short-staffed, which meant that we were sometimes on lockdown up to 23 ½ hours a day, because they didn’t have enough screws to run the joint. That’s because Thameside was a privately run moneymaking operation, which meant they had enough resources to pay their own people and also buy us a little more food over the set budget of £1.85 ($2.75) per prisoner per day.
While it wasn’t quite bread and water, the government-run prisons generally feed you the absolute blandest, cheapest shit they can get. If it hasn’t already been stolen by the guys working on the servery first. What we ate in Isis made the meals in Thameside look like a fucking regal banquet at Buckingham Palace.
And then there were the fights. I saw more kick off in my first week at Isis than I did in the entire month-and-a-half I spent in Thameside. That’s because Isis is full of young, wannabe gangbangers running wild, eager to prove themselves and representing their hood. The big men in Thameside would never let shit like this be tolerated. In a big man jail, you only get trouble if you come looking for it. That’s when they come into your cell, turn up your music or TV so not a soul can hear you scream, then pour kettles of boiling sugar and water over your head.
Here, fights would start over the smallest shit. Like, you’re from Brixton? I’m from Peckham, fuck you! Just like the USA, gang culture across the UK varies from region to region, from the predominantly white, fiercely territorial gangs in Glasgow who’ll carve your mouth from ear-to-ear, giving you a ‘Glasgow smile’, to the crack-dealing Jamaican Yardie crews who were blamed for an explosion in gun crime in the 80s and 90s.
Since I was locked up in a young offender’s institution in London my experience was mainly with the gangs based from there, which were mostly organised around area codes. And just like the USA, black and minority prisoners are disproportionately represented; just under half of the inmates in Isis were either black or mixed-race. But unlike America, most of the gang shit (i.e. the area code gangs), as well as most of the beefs, comes from outside and isn’t based on ethnicity. The blacks can mingle freely with the whites and so on.
But while there were groups who did stick together; the Turks, the Somalis and the Pikeys (Irish gypsies; see Brad Pitt in the film Snatch), they tended to be the exceptions rather than the rule. Gang culture here is far less entrenched than in the States and we don’t really have the ‘blood-in-blood-out’ mentality that seems to be prevalent over there, but don’t get the idea that we have some stereotypical polite British prisons where everyone enjoys a cup of tea in the afternoon and apologises incessantly as they kick your head in.
Prison’s still prison, and it’s steadily been getting worse. Ever since the right wing Conservative Minister Chris Grayling was appointed Justice Secretary in 2012, there’s been a huge drop in their living standards. First came the ban on graphically violent or sexually explicit DVDs and games, which makes absolutely no sense as some inmates have already sliced up other people in real life and in any case are way beyond the age of acting out Power Rangers moves in the playground. Then came the ban on books being sent in by friends and family.
It’s one thing to restrict stuff that can be used to smuggle in contraband. It’s another to deny inmates access to literature, through which they can broaden their horizons and learn, you know, not to steal. Fortunately, the ban didn’t last long. After a furious campaign backed by famous authors, including JK Rowling of the Harry Potter series and Salman Rushdie of The Satanic Verses, a High Court judge ruled the ban unlawful and that being able to read was a right and not a privilege.
Finally and most importantly, Grayling introduced cutbacks of hundreds of millions of pounds, resulting in staff shortages, suicides, overcrowding and even riots. In November 2013, dozens of inmates briefly wrested control of a wing at HMP Maidstone in Kent. Their frustration was caused by the new regime, which drastically reduced the time they could spend out-of-cell thanks to the staff shortages from Mr Grayling’s cuts.
Naturally if people are locked up in a small space for a long period of time tensions start to build up, but Grayling went ahead with the cutbacks anyway despite warnings that it put both screws and cons at risk. Meanwhile during the year I was inside, one hundred and twenty-five men and women took their own lives, a rise of 67% from the year before according to reports. The suicide rate in British prisons is now the highest it’s been in seven years.
I was released in the first half of 2014 and feel lucky to have got out so early. Unlike Seth Ferranti and other first-time drug offenders in the United States, my sentence was barely a slap on the wrist and compared to some other countries, almost seemed like a long stay in a luxury 5-star hotel. But as for all those politicians trying to harvest votes by being ‘tough on crime’, they’re missing the point. It’s not about how many channels you can access on your fucking remote. It’s about being deprived of your freedom and your dignity. It’s about losing the people you love and watching the world go by while you sit locked in a room with only your thoughts for company. And no amount of MTV can change that.