Socialist Worker

A nightmare world of security and paranoia

Prisoner K, a recently released prisoner, writes on life inside and the politics of punishment

Issue No. 2016

Much is said these days about jail being too easy, with prisoners apparently living in the lap of luxury and enjoying Sky TV.

But prison is nothing like the way it is portrayed in the media. In reality it is a sad, drab and grindingly boring bureaucratic nightmare land.

I have been “banged up” in three British prisons, and I would like to give people an insight into the true nature of prison - how irrational and arbitrary a place it is, and how eminently abolishable it is. Most people would be better off treated, monitored and rehabilitated in a controlled way in the community.

Life in prison is often a labyrinthine process resembling something out of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. Doing anything in prison takes vastly more time than “on the out”.

Anything significant you want to do usually has to be put in writing to the relevant department in the prison via an application.

You apply to healthcare to see a doctor, to probation to see the probation officer, to the chaplaincy to see a chaplain of your choice, and so on.

If your application gets through and does not go mysteriously astray, then in a week or so you will eventually be able to see someone, or at least receive a written response of some sort.

Even if it is something urgent and tragic, nothing will be definitely sorted until the last minute. In one case I witnessed, a prisoner only found out that he was allowed to go to his father’s funeral on the very day it took place.

This kind of thing happens because prison is a highly bureaucratised organisation obsessed with security concerns above all else. Rules in prison must always be strictly adhered to, however arbitrary and irrational they are.

A culture of institutional paranoia flows from this security obsessed consciousness. Everyone is suspected, and with that culture of systemic mistrust comes a culture of prison officer patronisation, of “screws” ordering “lags” about.

No wonder some prisoners have an “attitude problem”. But curiously, officers don’t like you when you are polite. They prefer the “attitude” because they know where they stand - and they can manipulate the prisoner’s anger.

Prison is supposed to be a place for rehabilitation. There are a few concessions to this in the form of courses such as Enhanced Thinking Skills, or Drug and Alcohol Awareness.

Though these courses are better than nothing, they tend to focus on the symptoms of problems considered abstractly - drugs, alcohol, distorted thinking - rather than at the particular complex causes and their specific development in the individual prisoner’s messily impoverished life.

Opportunities for proper rehabilitation work are all too limited and barely scrape the surface of what offenders truly need - systematic and tailor made treatment, together with support to help them overcome their often tragic circumstances.

In fact prison increases their vulnerability and thus increases their likelihood of reoffending.

Not only does prison make people worse, as the frustrations and anger at the lack of any kind of respect or autonomy mount, it is very expensive too. It costs £36,000 a year to lock you up in a B or C category prison, and £72,000 to bang up Double A category prisoners.

Just imagine what you could do with that money if it was used to resolve a given prisoner’s problems - to give them counselling in the community, to give them housing and education, to address their very specific and concrete needs and vulnerabilities.

Prison is an abject failure and the money spent on it is a waste. Even the terminally ill are just left to rot. I saw a man in his 70s dying in prison, left to moulder away with his colostomy bag carried with him on his wheelchair.

He could have had 24 hour electronic tagging, staying at home to see out the remaining months of his life with his wife. But no, he is to die in prison.

Such is all “duty of care” in prison - life is cheap in jail and thus it unsurprisingly becomes a fertile ground for drug taking, other addictions and even for upgrading any new criminal skills you might wish to develop.

We have so many prisons now and we are promised a building programme for at least 8,000 more places. The soft, bureaucratised gulag is about to expand even further.

Prison basically represents a tendency to give up on people, as opposed to trying to engage with them. It is a socially accepted dumping ground for the vulnerable and abused who themselves have tragically then gone on to offend.

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