Prison in the UK
People hate criminals. Understandably so, because as a civilian if someone put hands on you or someone you love you’d be pissed too. You’d want whoever did this to be caught and taken for a nice, long, all-expenses paid vacation. But with an uninspired menu, rude staff, slow room service and guests unable to leave rooms 23 hours a day, chances are it’s not one they’re gonna be giving the full-star rating to on TripAdvisor. It’s easy from the victim’s point of view to want the experience to be as miserable as possible, and it’s hard to disagree with them; they deserve justice. But the problem is that most cons who are in jail are gonna come out one day. You do the crime, you do the time, and sooner or later you get to breathe the free air once more, your debt to society paid. Even lifers don’t always stick around for the whole show. So when they finally walk through those gates, do you want them to be decent, productive citizens from now on, or do you want them to get back out there and hurt someone else?
Of course, it would be nice if everyone that went to the pen learnt their lesson and became fully reformed: “Oh no, I’m not sticking up old ladies any more, no sir! I’m a changed man!” It would be nice if I could have Rihanna sit on my face as well, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen. Prison by its very nature is not an environment that fosters positive development. I mean think about it. When you’re in a cell, you have nothing to do but reflect on whatever act of depraved savagery you’ve committed. It’s basically the grownup equivalent of being sent to your room when you’ve been a naughty boy. We all do a little mental gymnastics from time to time to justify what we’ve done to ourselves, and if mental gymnastics was an Olympic sport, prisoners would be the fucking gold medallists: “He deserved it” “She was asking for it” (the rapists excuse) “They had it coming”, etc. You’re gonna be angry too; angry at society for locking you up to rot and taking years out of your life. And the whole time you’re there you’ll be surrounded by other criminals, people that share your worldview. If you play it cool, they’ll be more than happy to teach you a few tricks. There’s a reason prisons are sometimes called the Universities of Crime. Go in as a freshman studying for your undergraduate in shoplifting, come out with a PhD in Counterfeiting and Extortion.
And like all good universities, they have an alumni network. This is how powerful crime syndicates like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Russian vory-v-zakone grow and expand their reach and influence. Since most career criminals end up spending a significant part of their life behind bars, the shot-callers on the inside have tremendous control over what goes down on the streets; drug deals, mob hits, you name it.
Even if you keep your head down and avoid falling in with a bad crowd (that’s not an oxymoron; not everyone in prison is a beefed-up, tattooed psychopath), you still have to face your worst enemy: yourself. According to some studies, nine out of ten prisoners suffer from some kind of diagnosable mental condition. Given the place they find themselves in, it’s not surprising that most of them start to lose it. Even if you were fine when you were brought in, you can look forward to having something by the time you walk out through the gates. Spending most of your time, day after day after day, banged up in a cell with nothing but your own thoughts for company will play tricks on your mind. The isolation and paranoia is one; you start to feel suspicious about your peoples outside… is my girl cheating on me? Why isn’t anyone replying to my letters? To the outside world it seems like you might as well be dead; friends and family move on and life goes on without you, and that’s a dangerous thought. If someone thinks they’ve been cast off and forgotten, they’re gonna get more angry and bitter and feel they have less to lose.
Your self-esteem takes a nosedive as you’re stripped of your humanity and become nothing more than another number, a statistic. Mine was A7430CW. Depression and anxiety kick in. Now that you’ve been labelled as a prisoner, any prospects you have of getting a good job afterwards are severely restricted, and considering most dudes that went inside don’t have much going for them to begin with, that’s a serious problem. If you’ve got nothing to look forward to, why wouldn’t you go back to doing what you were doing if you don’t think society’s gonna give you a chance to do something better? Because it’s ‘wrong’? Bitch please – you’re talking about people who’ve already demonstrated a willingness to break the law.
In more extreme cases, if you’ve experienced violence or spent some time in ‘the hole’, you could find yourself suffering from PTSD, which is what some soldiers go through after war. PTSD makes you become anxious and withdrawn, looking on with the thousand-yard stare, and it can make you lash out violently. And when that happens, guess where you end up? Yep, back in the pen.
These thoughts go round and round your head in a loop and if you’re not strong enough, they can consume you until there’s nothing else left and you’re a shell of your former self. In a way, that’s what they want. The system is designed to break you. In prison, you have no control over your personal life; you only get to eat, sleep and shit when they tell you. This creates what is known as a state of learned helplessness. That’s when a living creature, be it a human or an animal, endures so much abusive and degrading treatment that it just gives up and stops fighting, accepting whatever happens, be it good or bad, as part of its fate. Some prisoners become like children, unable to look after themselves independently. That’s when you get institutionalized… remember Brooks from the Shawshank Redemption? A con can learn to consider prison their home. They don’t mind or don’t care about going back, and so they commit another crime and the revolving door keeps turning.
Here in Great Britain, the establishment is doing all it can to keep this vicious cycle going. Inmates are controlled through the Incentive Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme. You earn certain perks by respecting the rules and complying with the system; extra spending money (from £10, to £15, to £25 a week – that’s not how much you’re paid, but how much you’re allowed to spend), visiting hours, etc. If you don’t comply you get downgraded a privilege level. In theory this is supposed to keep us in line but in practise the screws can penalise you even for very minor ‘infractions’, if you even choose to call them that. Wanna call for a roll of toilet paper after-hours? Tough shit, enjoy the skid marks till the morning, or IEP. Get enough IEP’s and you lose your privilege level, so you have even less time to spend with your family when they come to see you. So wipe carefully.
As if it wasn’t fucked enough already, the reforms to IEP by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling (the right-wing minister in charge of prisons) have been hard at work making everyone even more institutionalized. From mid-2013, all new inmates had to start their term at the most basic level. You’re most scared and vulnerable when you first arrive to prison. The shock of having that metal door slam shut behind you, if you haven’t been there before, is like nothing else in the world. But Mr Grayling made all new arrivals wear uniforms for the first two weeks of their sentence, making them stand out like a free roast dinner to the predators that inhabit this closed-in jungle. And if you want to call your family and let them know you’re OK, you better make it quick cos at nearly £1 a minute (out of £10 a week… if you even have those kind of funds) you’ll be lucky if you get much further than saying ‘hello’.
Of course, the most infamously idiotic thing that Grayling did was his ban on books. One of the few ways a prisoner can genuinely rehabilitate themselves and broaden their horizons is by reading a book. In Brazil that’s even become a thing; inmates can get time off their sentence by reading works of classical literature then producing an essay about it. Shit, if we had something like that over here I would have been out in a couple of weeks! But Darth Grayling had other ideas. In early 2014 he imposed a blanket ban on parcels being sent in by friends and family. That meant children couldn’t send in birthday cards they’d drawn for their mom and dad, nor could prisoners get ‘luxury’ items like new underwear. It also meant no books. If you wanted a book, you had to put in an order through an approved retailer out of your meagre allowance, else get it from the prison library where items aren’t always in the best condition (especially in the Urban Fiction section, where I noticed Diary of a Stripper had a lot of pages missing when it came to the ‘interesting’ parts) and which you might not even be able to visit thanks to staff cutbacks, again the fault of Mr Grayling.
The idea, according to him, was to get prisoners to comply with IEP. He called it part of his ‘rehabilitation revolution’, as if encouraging good behavior and improving prisoner literacy are two incompatible goals. But everyone could see through his bullshit, and even members of his own party called him out for his dick move. The Ministry of Justice was taken to court by a female lifer with a PhD in English literature and a furious campaign ensued led by the charity the Howard League for Penal Reform, backed by a number of famous writers. Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy series His Dark Materials, called the ban “one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government.” It all came to an end a couple of months ago when a High Court judge ruled the policy an infringement of basic rights, and ordered the Justice Ministry to change their rules immediately.
Luckily for me I’d got out just as all this shit started going down. The only trouble I remember getting was when my old man sent me a copy of the Encyclopaedia of Russian Criminal Tattoos. There’s no official guidelines of what you can and can’t read as such, but it’s up to the screws to use their discretion if they see something suspect come in. Pornography, anything encouraging hate/terrorism/crime and ‘How to Escape From Prison’ manuals are all a big no-no. My book wasn’t allowed because it contained ‘depictions of nudity’ as well as ‘offensive or extremist material’. So I filed an official complaint to the governor. The ‘nudity’ they objected to was a bunch of naked old dudes and their wrinkly, flaccid penises showing off the blurry and faded ink they’d painted on their bodies while sitting in the gulag. In other words, not exactly jerking material. Meanwhile the extremism material consisted mainly of swastikas, SS runes and other iconography which neo-Nazis tattooed on themselves. But really if I wanted to gaze in wonder at swastikas and used it to start up my own white supremacist cult I could have picked up any history book… or were they gonna ban them too? What’s more, I needed those books for my Criminology course. After seven or eight complaints and threatening to take it to the Prison Ombudsman they finally caved in, if only to shut me the fuck up.
What Grayling didn’t seem to understand with all his dickheadery is if you treat people like fucking animals, they’re going to act like fucking animals. And so they did. In November 2013, dozens of inmates ran riot at a prison in Maidstone in Kent, taking control of a wing, while 70 more did the same thing hours later at another facility in Warwickshire. Fortunately no one died in the standoff, which was resolved in a few hours, but if things continue how they are we can well expect something more serious further down the road. The new guy on the job, Michael Gove, is another right-winger, and while it’s too early to say whether he’ll be better or worse than Chris “Voldemort” Grayling, the fact that he’s on the front line of the government’s efforts to get rid of that annoying ‘Human Rights Act’ and that he once came out in favour of bringing back hanging doesn’t inspire confidence.