Last week I gave a general overview of prison life. This week I extend my argument with a little more detail about how the system treats prisoners, and what this does to them.
Up until around 15 years ago, beatings and targeted bullying by prison officers, as well as “slopping out” (no proper toilets then), were far from rare, and in some cases the norm, or so long term prisoners tell me.
Nowadays prison mainly operates through what I call “micro-oppression” - emotional and bureaucratic torture through constant insults, humiliations and petty lashes that accumulate and cut you to shreds mentally.
Over the past two decades the prison service has moved away from open brutality and developed a line in “humanitarian” sounding rhetoric, but the main focus is still retribution and punishment.
Mental healthcare provides a prime example of what is lacking. All prison healthcare departments are supposed to have counsellors working there. But obtaining access to them is not easy.
In one prison, a category C, I applied to see a counsellor very early - but I only managed to see one around six weeks later.
For some, this might be the difference between life and death. Many a suicidal prisoner may have waited and waited until they felt there was no other exit except their last - from life.
Surely if prisoners are to deal with the root causes of their crimes - to be “tough on the causes of crime” in New Labour’s phrase - then counselling should be freely and immediately available to all prisoners.
In another jail, also a category C, there was no healthcare counsellor in sight. The previous counsellor had left months ago. No replacement had been employed and no counsellor had been around for at least six months.
The abusive culture and atmosphere of prison also works on the level of regulations. Each particular jail has detailed rules about what you can and cannot have.
The list is very long and it depends on your “incentives and earnings privileges level”, which is determined according to the perception, often biased, of your behaviour by prison officers over a set period of time.
In two of the jails I was in, prisoners were allowed to have books sent in from outside, from friends or relatives for instance, despite the fact that it took time for them to be checked and passed on to you.
But in my third jail, no books from outside were allowed to be sent in at all, unless they were purchased through a catalogue. There was a particular day assigned for an application to be processed by the prison - once every seven weeks.
The abuses also appear in terms of the facilities, work and education that are made available to prisoners. Even if you do get “productive work” - or, more likely, have slave labour forced upon you against your will - on average you get something like 50p an hour.
The pay is especially disgraceful psychologically as it insinuates and reinforces the notion that you are valueless and mean little to society.
This in turn provides nothing but a route back to offending - “because that is all I am worth to this world anyway”, hums the subconscious or conscious train of thought.
There is also the matter of corrupt or abusive officers. I know of one inmate who managed to procure the use of a mobile when he bribed an officer, which he did regularly, and that officer did not seem to be one of the more corrupt officers.
One prisoner I met had a wasting disease in his legs and needed a very specific kind of trainer in order to maintain his ability to walk, so that he was not forced to use a wheelchair all the times.
But the prison recently disallowed him from having his own special trainers sent in.
This stems from its blanket refusal to have anything sent in other than goods from a designated company - which, conveniently, was owned by the wife of a prison officer.
Oppression occurs in many and varied forms throughout prison life. I have barely even started enumerating all the many abuses, frustrations and petty predicaments any individual prisoner is subjected to dozens of times a day.
No wonder despair and resignation reign in prison. The lack of a desire to complain means prisoners give up believing anything different is possible.
My last column will argue that there is another way. Not prison, but zones of rehabilitation that help people overcome the problems that got them jailed in the first place.