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Why prison does not work

This article is over 23 years, 10 months old
Issue 1705

Prisoner condemns the system

Why prison does not work

Whatever Jack Straw may say

BOTH LABOUR and the Tories say they are tough on crime. They say prison works. “JOSEPH” disagrees. He was on remand in Wormwood Scrubs in 1997 for breaking and entering a house. He spoke to Socialist Worker.

WHAT KIND of people are in prison?

THERE ARE a lot of people inside who you just know are not of sound mind. They should be in a hospital being helped. These people find it hard to communicate even their most basic needs. So they get nothing. I remember one black guy in his mid-twenties who you could see was ill. No one cared about him. His hair was unkempt, he was unwashed and he could not hold a conversation.

He was in the next cell to me, and he set himself alight. We all pressed our alarm bells and were kicking the doors but no one came and he died of the fumes from his smouldering blanket. There was another guy who used to cut himself constantly. When I first saw his arms I thought it was burn marks, but it was scar tissue. It was a cry for help, but the prison authorities just don’t care. There are so many like that who will be nicked, go to court, be remanded, be released, and then shoplift and go back in.

I also remember a Somali guy who heard voices in his head and talked to himself. You could hear the screws go into his cell in the evening and hit him over the head. They used to shout at him that he was bluffing-but if he was it was an Oscar-winning performance.

ARE ROTTEN prison officers only a minority?

NO. I would say that 80 percent of the prison officers in Wormwood Scrubs had an attitude. At the slightest provocation they would be aggressive and violent. Some prison officers start out with good intentions but they are just poisoned by the rest. One Sunday morning I woke up with a bad head cold. I said to the officer, “Excuse me, guv. I’ve got a really bad earache. I want to see a member of the medical staff.” I said it really politely, but he said to me, “No chance. Too fucking bad. Fuck off.”

I didn’t say anything back. I went back to my cell and got into bed. Fifteen minutes later the same screw came to my cell and said I’d got a visitor. I got dressed and he said, “Oh, so you’re fucking well enough to have a visit, then,” and walked off. I went down the landing, knocked on the office door and said to him, “Why are you swearing at me?” He said, “Listen numb-nuts, fuck off on your visit before I lose my temper.”

I became angry, I called him a fucking wanker and walked back to the cell. The door opened and it was the same officer, and I could see other officers behind him on the landing. He told me to pack up my things because I was going to the landing where you get sent if you misbehave. He grabbed me by the throat. I pushed him away to break the hold. He punched me and all the officers came in. There were four or five of them.

They ordered my cell-mate out, grabbed me, handcuffed me, then with two on each arm they bent my thumbs back until I fell on my knees. They punched me in my head, my face, in the ribs. One was stood on the bed and jumping on my back. It was frenzied, really angry, violent and out of control. They were calling me all the names under the sun-racist names, everything.

My wrists were streaming with blood. I lost the feeling in my thumbs for months. They dragged me from the block and took me to the segregation unit. All the way they were punching and kicking me, and rubbing the handcuffs. I was charged with assaulting staff and was strip-searched. I was given prison clothes and told to get food from the servery. As I walked into the servery an officer punched me in the face and said I didn’t have permission to enter.

He kept punching me because I would not call him “sir”. He told me to go back to my cell, where I threw my dinner in the toilet, and I sat on the chair. I couldn’t even lie down because during the day they take your mattress out of the cell. In the evening the adrenaline was gone and I was just in pain. It was the lowest I have ever been in my life. I was mashed-but I hadn’t done anything. Then they gave me my charge sheet, told me I only had one plea, and beat me again for about ten minutes. It was just pure brutality.

I saw another guy beaten up. They had a belt round his neck, and were beating and kicking him. He was trying to say sorry as they beat him, this young black guy. I never cried when they beat me. But I cried when they beat that guy.


NO. YOU see the same people-in, out, in, out. The prison population is getting bigger. We’ve got more people inside than any other country in the EU except Turkey. They give a guy a sentence, but they don’t give him any training, any care, and they don’t assess his criminal behaviour. The facilities for visiting are poor. You’re stuck in a room with 100 other people, and you’ve got to keep your relationship with your wife and child alive.

A lot of relationships don’t survive the sentence, so when you come out you’ve got nowhere to live. Because of the attitude of a lot of prison staff you become bitter towards society.

There is a massive drug culture because the conditions are so harsh. A lot of people turn to hard drugs to get them through. Also, mixing with criminals doesn’t give you an insight into a better life. So with no attempt at rehabilitation you just become more immersed in criminal culture. Prison is like the University of Wrongdoings. It is boring and kills your spirit.

WHAT HAPPENS when you are released?

WHEN YOU come out you may be alone, have nowhere to live, have a drug habit and just 45 in your pocket. So a lot of people turn to petty crime- shoplifting, car theft, driving offences-and end up back in prison. Your chances of employment are bad. An employer is always going to go for the guy without a record, even if your qualifications are the same.

In the old days probation was an aftercare service, with the emphasis on care. Now they just monitor people. My probation officer told me it is more like policing. Once you are in and out of prison in your late twenties and thirties it is too late.

I first went to prison for theft in 1986 when I was 18. At the time I had no job. I had been a porter in a restaurant. The money was bad and they treated you bad. I thought I could do better. Society bombards you with advertising for nice things, but the route to get them is blocked.

When I was at school I never even knew about university. In west London, where I was brought up, the “talented” ones got apprenticeships. The rest of us were expected to get a job on London Transport for the next 50 years. I thought I should have the chance to do more. Up the road from where I lived was Holland Park, where they’ve got everything. I was tempted.

WHAT DO you think about politicians?

IN MY opinion, all politicians are doing is playing the obvious “hard on crime” card and playing to people’s fears. They all want to get the headlines, irrespective of what party they are. They don’t know what prison is like. They haven’t been there. If they had they would know it is not a “soft touch”.

Straw is just a hypocrite. If his son had been sentenced for drug dealing and he visited a prison, he might have seen the way they treat visitors, let alone prisoners. PRISON MAKES people more likely to commit crime

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