“A Meandering Miscellany”

Date of writing: 14/10/2015

To no great surprise, it would appear once again that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. No sooner had I gone to press with my previous post, I discovered that the smoking ban will now be delayed until probably the second half of next year. Reasons cited include the need to ‘ensure adequate provision of cessation services’;   a ‘phased roll-out’ is now being considered. Cowards, if you ask me, but then people don’t tend to ask me as they often know the answers I’d likely give.   Although having said that, I have been invited to participate in research about research. That is to say, kind of meta-research on how research is carried out in the prison and the way it’s perceived by prisoners. Often, when I’m asked to look over something and pass comment, I get complaints of excessive attention to fine detail; it’s something I’m working on moderating, dependent on context. This might be good practice.

It would seem that I’ve started this post as a meandering miscellany, so I shall continue In that vein by passing on the pleasing and slightly surprising news that I got an A* in my iGCSE English Literature. I wasn’t too hopeful after all the disruption of moving prisons and the very short notice I was given for the exam itself, but apparently I managed to pull some plausible responses out of the hat in spite of circumstances. My study of Kafka continues to provide useful insights into the occasionally troubling psychologocracy of this place. On that note, I recently received a memo from the psychology department to the effect that they don’t think there’s any point in them attempting to rehabilitate me, because my risk of re-offending is predicted to be very low.   I have been assessed in various ways, and the several measures of my likelihood of re-offending in the two years after my release average out at around 6%. When compared to an overall recidivism rate among prison populations as a whole that’s near 50%, I can see they clearly have bigger problems than me.   This does of course once again raise the question of why I must continue to sit on the naughty step for the next few years if they don’t think they can teach me any lessons.

Moving on, I’ve finally started training to be a prison Listener, having tried to get involved with this since I first arrived in HMP Anonymous. Most prisons have a Listener scheme, and the Listeners are essentially Samaritans volunteers with more prison-specific training. They play a key role in supporting prisoners in distress and helping to reduce rates of suicide (which are thankfully already low in this particularly institution). Every cell has a call button, and much of the time if it’s pressed during the night it will be to call for a Listener. People know that if they tell something to a Listener then it won’t go any further, even if they talk about suicide. (This is in contrast to conversations with any member of staff, which could lead to someone being put on a watch and woken up every ten minutes to prove they’re still alive. Personally, I’d imagine such sleep deprivation would make things much worse.)   I spent several years doing telephone-based listening for ‘Nightline’ while at university, but it’s quite different to be face-to-face with someone in a small space. The training – provided by local Samaritans volunteers – is so far proving to be informative and at times entertaining.

Part of the reason that new volunteers are being trained now is down to a dearth of Listeners in particular areas of the prison, as people have been released or moved on. It turns out that my wing was not one of the problem areas, and as a result I’ve been abruptly re-situated in one of the A blocks. I now find myself removed from the dilapidated environs of B wing and pleasantly placed in the far north-western corner of the campus, in a building that’s probably only around ten years old.

Each of the eight A blocks (including the induction block) is paired with a mirror-sibling, and arranged to form a pleasant shared courtyard with grass and miscellaneous planting. I’m now on the ground floor, facing onto our courtyard, looking roughly east. There are perhaps two-dozen species of flowers, plants and shrubs I can see from my window. This morning I ate my breakfast while watching a flock of goldfinches just a few feet from my window, as they expertly picked the seeds from something I know only as a ‘hedgehog plant’.

My room – and this is the first I’ve had that feels worthy of being called a room – is probably the largest I’ve had so far.   Its footprint is 2½ x 4 metres (or 8’4” x 13’2” if you’re metrically challenged), but quite a bit of this is taken up by my very own bathroom. Now, I realise that this is the kind of detail that could invoke the ire of the “it’s a bleedin’ ‘oliday camp!” brigade, but believe me, this is no standard feature of the UK prison accommodation. I feel daily grateful to be one of a small minority in such a position.   In any case, it’s not technically a bathroom, as it only has a shower: I’ve not had a bath in over two years. It’s difficult to explain what a difference it makes to be able to shut a door between my bed and my toilet. There’s also something subtly humanising about having standard Armitage Shanks porcelain fittings rather than ugly stainless steel. The (aerated!) taps also actually stay on for a while after you press them down, which is nice.

I’ve never understood why all prison mirrors seem to be installed at a height that would be perfect for oompa loompas but only allows me a view of my nipples. Perhaps there is an assumption that criminals all come from some kind of physically stunted underclass. Or maybe the government constructs prisons using a slave race of genetically engineered homunculi to save on labour costs (low overheads, to steal a joke from Being John Malkovitch). Thankfully, on my travels I’ve managed to obtain a spare Perspex mirror, which moves cells with me and can be removably fixed at an appropriate height using matchsticks and PVA glue.

Anyway, to summarise, I’m now living in something approximating to a basic three-star B & B, so I’ve little to complain about on that front … aside from the fact that I can’t leave my room for 14 hours of the day. Comfortable as I am, the day-to-day limitation of my life choices continues; a gilded cage is still a cage.   In any case, I could at any moment be moved with little warning or reason to a much worse position in this or indeed any prison in the country. So for now, I’m making the most of it, and I hope I get to enjoy it for a while.

A fringe benefit of my new location is that I now have a reasonable commute to work, which takes me past some small trees and various flowerbeds, including at the moment two spectacularly flowering yuccas.   My previous commute was barely a minute along a short corridor to the chapel. Now I can enjoy taking the October air of a morning, and watch the progress of the seasons. I can see many trees in the fields beyond the fences, and watch the kestrels hover and dive on their unsuspecting prey.

Speaking of the chapel, I’ve been tasked with writing and directing the Christmas play. This is generally a ten-minute skit that’s supposed to be humorous but have some kind of message. I’m mostly managing to walk the line of respectful irreverence, but apparently I still need to convince the Catholic deacon that my Pythonesque portrayal of Mary doesn’t go too far. I understand this is largely because the Bishop might be coming to see it. I’m planning to end on a barbershop quartet song to the tune of ‘Mister Sandman’, which summarises the story. So far this seems to be going down well.

By coincidence, three quarters of our quartet (including me) is now living in the same block, which is nice. Our voices seem to work well together (I’m mostly bass), and in conjunction with the Multimedia department we’ve had some good times recording a number of Taizé songs for use in future services. I wish I could share these with you, but alas it’s quite difficult to get approval for recordings to leave the prison. I am however grateful that I continue to have access to entertaining musical outlets.

I’m not sure how to round off such a wandering post, so I shall simply finish with a lame joke … How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb must really want to change …


“Up in Smoke”

Date of writing: 28/09/2015

One of the things that might strike a member of the public on entering a prison wing for the first time is something that they may have imagined to be a thing of the past: the lingering miasma of tobacco smoke. Since the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces some eight years ago, to see someone light up indoors seems to me anachronistic and faintly repellent, yet an exception was made for prisoners. Officially, a prisoner may now only smoke in his cell with the door closed, and no non-smoker will be made to share a cell with someone who smokes.   However, in practice the closed-door rule seems to be very lightly enforced. Often an inmate can be seen lighting up in his doorway, or even wandering across the landings and through the corridors with a skinny roll-up cupped surreptitiously in a tar-stained hand. Even when the rule is obeyed, a cell door is far from airtight.

Recent statistics indicate that 80% of the UK prison population is addicted to nicotine. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that at the weekends in HMP Anonymous, the smoke from a hundred bored prisoners clouded the full four-storey height of the wing, to be picked out in the shafts of sunlight coming through the roof vents. It would even cling stubbornly to my ill-fitting prison tracksuit, bringing to mind my student days of bar work and ashtray-emptying, but without the small compensation of good beer and traditional jazz. Here at HMP Arbitrary, the corridor-based accommodation thankfully limits my exposure to a fraction of that, but the problem remains, nonetheless.

One of the things most people seem to know about prison is that tobacco is used as currency. Debts are made and paid in half-ounces of ‘burn’, and though trading is officially forbidden, the weekly canteen delivery is followed by a flurry of exchanges and paybacks. Prescription medications are routinely swapped for pouches of Amber Leaf, and there are even unscrupulous payday loan entrepreneurs who prey on the addictions of the poor and vulnerable for their own tobacco profit. With an ounce (or, more accurately, 25 grams) of good tobacco currently retailing for £8.73, and average wages here being £10.60 a week (yes, you read that right), those who smoke can afford little else.

I’ve recently managed to get myself entangled in something called the Decency Committee – a working group tasked with ensuring fairness in the running of the prison by getting prisoners and senior staff together to talk about a wide range of issues. I’ve yet to discover if this will be just another talking shop or whether anything useful will actually get done, but that’s by the by. For now, I’m grateful to be in the privileged position of occasionally having the ear of a deputy governor, several three-stripe officers, and various heads of department. I’m still not quite sure why this led me to be sat in a monthly staff briefing when normally I’d have been locked in my cell for the afternoon like the rest of the prison; I felt I had somehow sneaked unnoticed into the school staff room, or that I’d unexpectedly got into that middle bit where the ghosts live in Pac Man. Anyway, among the presentation slides was a confirmation that as of the 1st January 2016, this prison will become entirely smoke-free. All prisons must apparently follow this lead at some point next year, but our governor likes to blaze a trail.

Rumours have circulated for some time, but with prison rumours being less reliable than the hurricane predictions of Michael Fish, I was sceptical. But there it was in black and white. (Well, blue and slightly paler blue, but you get the point.) There are those who predict riots, and ill informed rants about ‘human rights’ abound, but I have so far been surprised at how muted the reaction has otherwise been. I suspect there’s a degree of denial going on, and still more rumours are circulating that it will be postponed. In any case, it’s only a matter of time – whatever some might believe. In my opinion, it can’t come too soon.

One of the major benefits I can see of smoke-free prisons is that they present a fantastic way to give thousands of people a chance to quit a damaging addiction in a way that makes relapse very difficult – albeit only for a set period of time. While some may shout that it’s somehow a violation of their rights, this is frankly an absurd idea. An alcoholic who comes to prison will not be supplied with booze – he will be medically managed to dry out. Heroin addicts are not handed syringes and Ziploc bags of their chosen poison, but rather given carefully controlled substitutes that are reduced and eventually removed altogether. Why should any prisoner be allowed to indulge in a drug that not only harms them but is also unpleasant and potentially damaging to others?   Especially when the privatised canteen suppliers such as DHL and Aramark are profiting from this gradual self-harm of a frequently poor and disenfranchised section of society.

Regardless of the ban, it seems that the nicotine profits are set to continue, as tobacco supplies are gradually replaced by disposable e-cigarettes. So-called ‘vaping’ leaves me in two minds, because while the health harms seem to be reduced to near zero and the atmospheric issue is near enough eliminated, the potential for addiction remains. Having had the opportunity to examine and indeed try one of these devices – purely in the name of research, of course – I’ve found that they are quite a marvel of engineering and microelectronics. Nonetheless, I envisage a future where the provision of an addictive recreational drug for purchase by prisoners might seem a strange anomaly. But then, what of caffeine?   In its propylene-glycol-infused incarnation is nicotine really any worse than coffee? Maybe I could use this as an angle to argue at the next Decency Committee meeting that I should be allowed a weekly ration of Talisker …