INSTALMENT 10 – “Goodbye Ahmed and Hello Shoelaces” and “Crime and Punishment”

Date of writing : Sunday, 12/01/2014

I’ve moved – after two weeks with Ahmed, Paul’s cell mate was suddenly shipped off to a Cat. C prison, and I took the opportunity to hop across the landing.  Not long after I moved, a small group of people came to talk to me as I was pondering the new view from my door.  Two of them, it seems, were also ‘Ahmed survivors’ and they’d come to swap stories.  Apparently I am not alone in my discomfort at some of his habits.  Well, I did my bit, and now another unfortunate soul is sharing with him.  We’ll see how long he lasts – I’m told the record is three weeks.

So now I’ve a North-facing view over the exercise yard, and the poplars and Leylandii beyond.  Despite the Northern exposure it’s actually brighter in here.  The sun never reached my last window due to the steep slope topped with a high wall, and taller building behind.  The state of decoration here is also better, and everything works – including the toilet and the ‘courtesy lock’. I can now stop people stealing the kettle, which is nice.  Most importantly, I’m cohabiting with someone who is more socially ‘normal’.  There will of course always be areas for compromise – such as whether he should be talking at me in the morning when I clearly still want to be asleep – but I’m generally grateful.

I’m also grateful that yesterday – a month to the day since I arrived – I was taken down to Reception to sort through my belongings.  I was very briefly reunited with my phone and Bank cards (they wouldn’t let me keep them), but finally I got my shoelaces back!  My silver Whitby ring sits again in its rightful place on the third finger of my right hand;  I somehow feel a little more complete.  I wasn’t allowed to take three stamps from my wallet because ‘they can be used for currency’.  This is of course irrelevant, as stamps are freely available for purchase from the Canteen Sheet, and I have maybe a dozen already.  The only things I’ve ever seen used as currency are tobacco and UHT milk.  This may have something to do with general literacy levels:  there’s not much demand for stamps from those who struggle to read or write.

Inspired by Geoff and the objects of his destruction, I’ve made some cardboard shelves.  PVA glue is quite versatile – I’m surprised they let us have it considering some of the other idiosyncratic rules.  I used some of the left over cardboard to make a picture board too.  I was very pleased to receive a set of postcards in the mail a few days ago, which included a print of ‘The Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, after I mentioned it in a previous post.  These were sent by the same friend as sent the picture of Whitby harbour, who I will call ‘Jane’.  The harbour and ‘Metamorphosis’ are joined on the picture board by ‘The Persistence of Memory’ and a scene from The Peak District, which altogether very much brightens up the cell for me.  The board is also very portable, so when they arbitrarily decide to move me I can easily take it along.

Date of Writing: 15/01/2014   –  “Crime and Punishment”

It’s been quite cold lately, and we’re not given coats.  When going out into the yard for exercise, the best option we have is to wear both prison-issue tracksuit tops simultaneously.  I don’t particularly suffer from the cold, so I’m generally not too bothered if it’s frosty and I’ll almost always take the opportunity to get outside if it’s offered.  The rest of the wing – with a few exceptions – seem however to shun exercise when the temperature is below about 7˚C.  In fact, a couple of days ago Paul and I were the only ones to venture out.  We took the highly rebellious step of walking round the yard clockwise.

Having enjoyed the change of perspective, we tried it again the following day when other people were there.  By the level of bewildered comments we got, anybody would imagine we’d been loudly proclaiming the truth of the flat-Earth hypothesis!  This may have to be added to the long list of ‘Things That Might Get You Beaten Up In Prison’, which so far seems to include anything that makes you stand out for any reason.  However, as I’ve previously noted, of necessity, the threshold is thankfully a little higher on this wing.

The only apparent exception to my fellow inmates’ aversion to exercise in the cold is when they are given the choice between that and bang-up.  Ironically, I’ll often come back from an empty exercise yard to find most of the wing voluntarily in their cells anyway.  I think even if people don’t really have a reason to leave their cells, the knowledge that they can’t even if they want to, is more of a problem than the practical fact of confinement itself.  Often, the walls that present the most trouble are not physical, but psychological.  I’m starting to understand that this is the way prison is supposed to work.

The tabloid media sometimes portray life inside as being too easy, or ‘like a holiday camp’.  Perhaps you’ve read about plasma screens with Sky, or a Playstation in every cell.  Far be it from me to accuse the free right-wing press of hyperbole, but my experience is far removed from the Butlins adverts that seem currently to be flooding the flickering 14” CRT that takes up a large fraction of the limited desk space in front of me.  Admittedly we have nine channels to choose from, but the vast majority of even the Freeview channels are denied us, for unknown reasons.  I’ve yet to encounter a single Playstation or indeed games console of any kind.

This brings me to the oft-asked question of the purpose of incarceration.  The discussions I’ve encountered mostly boil down to three prongs: punishment, rehabilitation, and deterrence. The particular priority given to each pillar of this triumvirate is usually a good indication of a person’s position on the political spectrum.  The aforementioned tabloid newspapers naturally fall into the ‘lock ‘em up!’ category, heavily emphasizing the punishment aspect, whereas The Guardian, and to a certain extent The Independent, are more likely to come down on the side of re-education and rehabilitation. The third pillar, of deterrence, tends to receive less attention.  Some even argue that in the case of many crimes it’s irrelevant, as they’re either committed without regard for the consequences, or the perpetrators imagine they won’t be caught.  I have to say that prison never crossed my mind until I was faced with it.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t feel that emphasizing the punishment aspect is necessarily productive.  A prison that was Hell on Earth may make some who have been victims of crime (or just those with particularly strong opinions) feel they had ‘got justice’.  However, in the long run, I suspect this would produce individuals filled with anger and resentment, and a twisted desire to lash out at a world that had rejected them.  Naturally, prison is – and should be – some kind of punishment.  But the deprivation of liberty itself should be the limit of the punishment;  I’d like to believe there are few in our society who would advocate routine torture for prisoners.

The fact that a person is being prevented from making basic choices about what they can do on a day-to-day basis is the principle means by which prison can punish.  To further add to this by depriving someone of mental stimulus, or of contact with friends and family on the outside, or of opportunities for meaningful activity, is to stray into the territory of the purely vindictive.  Naturally, a balance must be struck, and this will forever be an area of debate.  As it stands, my basic needs are being met, but there is plenty that I could want for;  if this were actually a holiday camp, asking for my money back would be the least I’d be doing.  They could also expect a strongly-worded General Application (which would no doubt be misplaced or ignored due to staff shortages).

Speaking of staff shortages, we now come to the concept of rehabilitation.  In an ideal world, people would leave prison having taken time to examine their offending behaviour and to address its root causes, preparing themselves for a crime-free life as productive members of the social order.  I’m sure you realise this penal utopia is not currently a reality.  I’ve lost count of the number of those I have encountered here who are ‘on recall’ for repeat offending whilst on license.  I’ve also met many who’ve been in and out for much of their lives – in some cases having spent more years in than out. I would argue that budget cuts, and waiting lists for rehabilitation programmes that are longer than prisoners’ sentences are hardly helping this situation.

Until rehabilitation is made their primary focus, I don’t believe prisons will truly be the servants of society that they claim to be.  Simply warehousing people until their release date achieves very little other than to keep them off the streets for a while.  As an aside, there is a fourth ‘pillar’ I didn’t mention earlier:  public protection – some individuals are held in prison indefinitely to ‘keep the rest of us safe’ from them.  There are thankfully very few of these, and whilst I can accept there are probably a few lost causes, I can’t help thinking that to lock someone up for life is tantamount to admitting defeat in terms of rehabilitation; these are probably the ones with whom we should be trying our hardest.

All of this rambling is probably naïve and idealistic, and I‘m fully aware of the fact it’s almost certainly been said before, and probably more coherently.  The alternative to aiming for an ideal, however, is to bumble along in apathy.  I hope my small voice can at least encourage a little debate, even if progress continues to be slow or indeed negative.  Sadly, the current political climate probably means my views aren’t great for winning votes.  I can see more years of budget cuts and warehousing ahead before anything can start to change.

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