Reflections of a lifer on the prisons crisis.

‘I grew up in prison’ Derek tells me.

Standing around 180 cm with dark green eyes and greying hair he looks quite good for someone whose life has been tragic, to say the least. Neither the signs of prison nor of his multiple addictions seem to have taken their toll on him.

That said, as with almost every ex prisoner I meet, the eyes provide a window to inner torment. There was a discernable sense of urgency to his need to speak of the cause of his trauma – it had the sense of a man who’d just witnessed a terrible accident. ‘I first went in in 1980….things have changed, it’s scary, I was so scared’

Insights from a breadth of experience

Although he’s tall, he’s also a slight man, hardly intimidating. ‘They’re big men inside now, all on steroids, you don’t stand a chance’. Part of him was still inside, panicked, hunted. He’d served decades in prisons, including most of the worst ones. He’d been there, done that and seen it all.

When he first went in, Derek recalls, ‘it was us and them, there weren’t no collusion or fraternising with the staff, it was piss pots, no tele, no phones. There was a code amongst us, there wasn’t heroin, it was mainly puff or sleeping tablets. It wasn’t drug dealing, you’d just get some and give some to a mate. If you didn’t pay it, after long while of negotiations, you’d get a slap. Informants, if they got cracked onto, they’d get a good hiding, and that was it. Otherwise you stuck together’.

The relations between staff and inmates shifted. ‘You knew who was who back then, but now prisoners run the jails’. As anyone with even the slightest experience knows, the officers are often the ones bringing in drugs and phones, but it’s the dynamics of this relationship that are most harrowing.

The forgotten victims of prison

‘The POs aren’t ex-soldiers from back then, but young kids out of university, The officers are scared. They open up, lock up and stand back. They’ve got no control, none’.

And then comes the really dark consequences. ‘There was a young girl, a prison officer….I saw the photos, in a cell, half naked. I don’t know if she was coerced, threatened or willing. Affairs with inmates are old news, but this was on a different level.’

The officers who smuggle find themselves in precarious position in respect of their power. ‘Mr X used to bring in packages. The inmates protected him because of that, but one day they cloned his bank card and cleaned out his bank. He couldn’t do anything about it because he was dealing with a higher level of prisoner. They had him, they had photos, the works. He was trapped’.

Derek had his old style non-smart phone in his hand. He told me about his granddaughter who had been trying to play Snakes on his phone by swiping at the screen. Smartphones are a novelty to him, having been in that brutal bubble for ten years. ‘They were there with the officer, they had the bank account open on one of these new phones, you can do anything with them. They’re savvy with technology, I’m not, the older ones aren’t’.

Beside the cases of corruption, voluntary or imposed, there’s the everyday strain to contend with. ‘When you’ve got 300 inmates on a wing with 5 officers, there’s nothing you can do. They’re scared. I was chatting to one of the young officers who I asked, ‘what will they do if 30 of you big guys come out onto the landing?’ ‘Nothing’, he replied.

As Peter Woolf put it to me recently, ‘what other job is there when you arrive at work to have a bucket of shit poured over you, be assaulted, be chased down the block with a prisoner brandishing a piece of wood?’ For all the demand for harsher prisoners, few consider the impact on the officers.

Drugs and Violence on the Wing

Having spent most of his life behind bars, Derek could handle himself, not because he was a bad man really, but ‘Nobody touched me as I had a rep. I’d carry a knife and I’d have stabbed them.’ But this was self-protection, it was necessary, it was survival.

Paradoxically being locked up in a cell provides a safe space. When the doors open it was a different matter. ‘During association I was terrified. Once the doors open people do what they want and the officers wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything.’

One would expect an older inmate with so much experience to be hardened to the reality of prison, so the stories Derek tells are all the more powerful for the fear in his eyes while re recounts them.

‘With these phones, they film themselves bashing people up. They send videos to their family or call them while they’re doing it. The victim has to talk to their Mum or whatever to tell them unless they transfer £500 to an account, or the beating will continue. And once it has happened once, it continues again and again. The thing is, they’ve got people working on the outside too, so they’ll find out the address and do a home visit.’

Aside the outright theft and extortion, there’s the debt economy.

In contrast to the old days when debts might be negotiated, one young lad owed £30 and bore the new consequences. During association a group of inmates entered his cell, ‘they kicked the shit out of him, just kept going. He was one of their own crew. When they finished they took turns climbing onto the top bunk and jumped from her.’

Derek was stood in front of me now, evidentially distressed, and using his hand to mark the height from which they jumped – around 5 foot. ‘The officers knew what was happening, but the guys doing it were giving out bags of spice by the cell, so the prisoners were packed around it to stop the officers arriving. I don’t know how he survived.’

The thing about drugs in prison is that an addiction makes you vulnerable. Derek was an addict back then and he suffered for it, although not as badly as others. ‘This other geezer, Chris, from Preston, he was their slave. He had to clean and polish cells on his hands and knees, openly forced. Officers knew. It was all about spice, they’d make him do all sorts for it, they would give it to him if they could beat him up, anything. They also had him acting as a mule. There was nothing he could do, nobody he could go to. He couldn’t even tell officers because you don’t know which of them are working for the prisoners.’

Of course spice is the big thing in prison right now. He laughed, and I couldn’t help but join in, at the story about the guy who would shake on spice, so they’d make him put his hands into a sink full of water and crockery and watch him shake it up.

Then there was a prison worker who told him about the guy who cut his own penis off and tried to eat it, and the other who bit his own finger off. He’d not seen it himself, but given what I was told while making Injustice it seemed unfortunately familiar and even less fortunately believable.

Then there’s the holding cell, where new prisoners are put pending cell allocation, or when they freak out on drugs….or from mental health collapse. ‘They’ve got these open bars. The officers just sit and ignore them, but some really need help. The prisoners walk past and spit on them, throw water on them or just give them some lip. Sometimes they’ll throw in a bag of spice to the addicts just to laugh at them.’

Derek repeated to me what I’ve heard elsewhere: chapels and more frequently mosques being used to organise drug sales and distribution. If you’re caught selling and you’re not supposed to, you get taken to the shower block to be whipped by the inmates who run the trade

Unless you’re safely ensconced in a group, you’re weak. If you’ve got addition problems it’s next level.

The groups control the kitchens ‘they get all the jobs they want. They just tell the PO they want the kitchen and they get the kitchen.’ If you’re not in the in-group, chances are you won’t get fed properly. For Peter’s part, as a weak addict with a rep, he wouldn’t get trouble, but they slowly starved him, saving the good food for themselves and dishing him a bit of potato every now and then.

When things got bad Derek, all 180 cm of him, had been reduced to just 50KG in weight ‘I’ve got small hands’, he said creating a circle between his fingers and thumbs, ‘I could wrap them around my thigh’. He was admitted to hospital with second stage malnutrition.

Lifers and Death on the Wing

‘I was sat in my cell on day and a load of inmates came in with a joint. “Wanna puff?” they asked. But I just got up and walked out…my cell, I just walked. It was because I was a lifer. They knew I’d get 12 months if caught. They’d put cell phones in my room too and I couldn’t do anything.’

The wisdom and experience of being a lifer is one thing, but at the same time it makes the inmate vulnerable, and not just to inmates. ‘I was banged up with an Asian fella. He had big psychological problems and was on spice. Nobody else would pad with him, so they officers came to ask me. I was scared of them too because if I said no, they could have planted anything on me.’

The problem is that non-compliance can result in pressure and intimidation. ‘They can put you on an enhanced thinking course’, for which he had particular disdain. ‘And then you can’t get out of prison until you’ve done it….but the waiting list was three years.’

The problem is, little evidence is needed to support an officer’s allegations. ‘You get SIR (Security Intelligence Report), it’s like A12345, B12345…. and so on. A1 is an officer, 100% trustworthy, all they need to do is say Derek’s been bringing drugs in….no trial, that’ll be it.’

Between the inmates and bent officers, they’ve got prisoners over a barrel. It’s no surprise that the suicide rate is one every three days, or, as David Scott calculated, an attempt every 3-4 hours across the estate.

As Derek recalls, ‘Suicides were rare when I first went in. When someone committed suicide, they’d shut everything down as a mark of respect…it’d be a crime scene and all, but it wasn’t like now. Nobody cares.’

The Awful Paradox of Reform

I get called an abolitionist sometimes. I don’t know if I am. Humbled by everything, I don’t assume to know much. What I do know is the problem of prison has been around a long time. At a screening at Middlesex University one of the university bosses turned up. He loved the film and found the discussion powerful but added ‘it feels like the 1970s again. We’ve been talking for decades but it doesn’t change.’

One wonders if the Ministry of Justice is staffed my sadomasochists who get a kick out of all this, but, as with any flawed system it is apparent that rearranging deckchairs can make things more precarious. For Derek, the whole problem seems to have begun after Strangeways.

‘After Strangeways you had the Woolf Report and all that, and it reached the point by 1990, they stopped us getting food and tobacco in and it started to change. By around 1995 the IEP (Incentive for Earned Privileges) was brought in: basic, standard and hard. IEP divided us and controlled us.’

The effects were not immediately obvious, ‘You see, they didn’t have the staff to control us. It was already out of hand, it’s just we didn’t notice. It took us time to realise.’

He explained how the IEP was brought in to control prisoners by offering incentives and disincentives. I replied that Tommy had told me on and off camera how the incentive scheme misfires. Given the reality of prison life, it’s not the well behaved who get rewarded, but the powerful who get to exploit the weak. I repeated Tommy’s eponymous phrase – it makes the tough tougher, and crushes the weak.

For the old-timers like Derek, the situation was tense. He explained how ‘A new breed of youngsters came in and had no respect.’ On the street and inside drugs came to dominate. ‘Then heroin came in, and cocaine, dealers were coming in. Stabbings started, and burnings with hot oil. You’d get into debt and then they own you. It started becoming acceptable to have informers on the wing, and if they’ve got drugs, they’ll be accepted’

Power relations came to be transformed, ‘Heroin got worse’ Derek explained, ‘By 2000 the heroin problem was massive. I jacked up in jail, shared needles, people were getting robbed on the landings…I did it too. The old lot who weren’t on it lost their power. If you’ve got a load of heroin addicts running around on the landing you can’t control them.’

Digging into the reasons for the heroin problem he happened upon a paradoxical explanation,

‘mandatory drug tests came around so you’d lose time for some puff which everyone did, so then a lot of people turned to heroin because it only stays in your system for three days so you could get away with it more easier.’

The changes to sentencing had similarly contradictory effects. Derek explains that they celebrated the new rules, but they didn’t realise that ‘now it meant you had to serve whole sentences and get recalled…so people would get released, get given some money, and arrange to get nicked within a few months to bring drugs back in, swallow it or put it up their arse. So then they have their habit paid for and have a roof over their heads’

Some reflections

Much of what Derek describes can be understood as a cultural shift. ‘When I was young we would respect the older inmates, now there’s none of that, they don’t care who you are. You could be one of the Adams’s and it doesn’t matter – once you’re on a landing that’s it.

It’s not the violence as such that’s the problem, but more its dynamics. ‘I’ve done violent crime, not to hurt people, but to get money. These people hurt first and the sort rest later. They’re impatient, they want everything now. Imagine being 22-23 selling lots of drugs, no respect for no one. You’re selling drugs to addicts, and not seeing them as humans, and you carry that attitude inside. It’s gang warfare on the landings.’

I tell people at every available opportunity that prisons are a reflection of a broader crisis, they’re containers for social problems. And it’s often the least dramatic aspects that provide the most penetrating insights into this. Impatience is one of the stand-out insights from Derek.

Having been inside so long, he hadn’t witnessed broader social and cultural shifts that Thatcherism, neoliberalism and technology brought about. He hadn’t seen the outside, but he witnessed its disorientating impact on prison life.

It’s pretty logical that in a hyper-consumer society driven by credit people’s patience is truncated. We’re told at every turn not to wait, to get the new bling on credit, immediately, because next year it will be out of date. In a more mundane sense, bills don’t wait, rent doesn’t wait, so why should young people wait? In a world where money is God, what else can be said?

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