Within These Walls

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Why does liberty remind me of prison?

It’s usually the case that prisoners desire to have the things that those at liberty have. It’s odd then that from where I stand for a few days each week, in one sense, UK PLC is fast imitating a prison and we’re all becoming a little more like prisoners. In here, on the wings and the workshops, in the slow routine that’s ever changing and ever constant, social relationships were commoditised a long time ago.

So when a new lad arrives in the jail and it is obvious from his chest out, eyes ahead veneer of confidence, that he hasn’t enjoyed this world before, other lads will rally round with a little reassuring generosity. Need some burn lad? Some shower gels? Like a pot noodle or two? You see it will take a week or two before his canteen allowance arrives, before his loved ones who cried in court but are now glad of the break, can put some money into his account; so a little credit is a blessing. And of course he doesn’t refuse because he wants so much to melt in, to become like everyone else. He begins to think it’s not all that bad. I can do jail. Then a fortnight later when he gets his canteen, his meagre wages for doodling or bench pressing, the creditors come calling and the new lad is only too happy to pay; except they want two of everything. Or double. Double bubble. That’s the first rule of friendship in jail. You pay twice. Pity they don’t tell you that during induction.

It could be worse of course (it can always be worse); he could have moved into a pad (cell) that comes with a debt, because the last inhabitant, despite the best efforts of persuasion, didn’t manage to pay off what he owed. And you can’t move pads because who would want yours? Like anywhere else, negative equity in jail is arbitrary. The unlucky occupant will possibly try and trade their way out of the situation and all things tangible and intangible are commodities in a prison.

Violence is a commodity, a service that is often outsourced and there is bound to be someone on the wing who wants someone else slapped, a biro thrust into a particular eye; but it is a currency for which one needs insurance. Jeopardy also, though it is more likely to be something that is forced upon you. You might be ‘offered’ to secrete a phone, a SIM card, drugs or a weapon in your pad by someone who more obviously has use of them. If you’re relatively literate you could help write to all manner of correspondents: lawyers, girlfriends, even victims. If another lad is on a victim awareness course the culmination of which is writing to one of his victims, you could be his contrition. Phones change hands for hundreds of pounds (transferred by BACS), chargers, SIM cards, tobacco, trainers, a girl’s phone number; whatever can be moved, whatever is wanted. Officers do their best to tackle the subversive market, to enforce the regime of sanction and reward, but it is impossible to eliminate. Lads will be given warnings for bullying and bullying it often is, but they don’t see it quite like that, they say… it’s jail, it’s what I need to do to get by.  

Staff are also potential customers and suppliers. It starts with a mobile number pressed into your palm. At the other end is a girl, always a girl I’m told. She asks you if you want to meet in a pub and the money is up front in cash. Then all you need to do is make the delivery. Leave the phone or whatever in the laundry. Give a nod to the wing cleaner. Some prison officers have changed uniforms, changed location on the wing because they phoned that girl. Maybe they asked her for more money after a few deliveries, not realising that they were also now the property of prisoners. So they were traded in to the security department, for a cleaner’s job or a new pad.

A few years back a contestant from The Apprentice offered to visit the jail to provide  entrepreneurial advice to the prisoners. There was a depressing degree of celebrity anticipation as public funds were handed over for her gig. When you consider that in one episode of the programme Lord Sugar remarked of a contestant “That woman would step over her dying grandmother to make a sale – I want her on my team” I thought it was a bad and paradoxical move. Many lads aren’t shy of entrepreneurial spirit, particular the heroin dealers, it’s moral reasoning and self-restraint they need but alas A.C. Grayling isn’t nearly as sexy. Perhaps the two worlds, the two programmes could meet in the other direction, with ex-prisoners and even prisoners using the BBC format to launch the avaricious on their way with enterprises legal and barely legal.

Sadly it seems to me that not only television but public life is beginning to imitate facets of prison mentality, of wing thinking: Eric Pickles’ brainwave for people to rent out their driveways; flyers put through doors suggesting people avoid the bedroom tax by fostering children; Vince Cable’s zero hour contracts are good for you homily (he’d sell double bubble to a jail-head); G4S claiming money for tagging people no longer with us, like the ghost in a debt ridden cell. And of course when the contractor or the politician is questioned about this, the answer always is… we live in a market place.

There is something revolutionary about the buying up of things we already own, of people. But in the end it reaches a Darwinian crisis and there is nothing left but ourselves and perhaps not as much of that as there used to be. One of the things that young lads tell me they hate about prison the most is other prisoners, that you can’t trust anyone; everyone is on the make, watching their backs. Then they leave. Then they come back.

4 thoughts on “Within These Walls

  1. Then again, in some prisons there are prisoners who say that jail has saved their lives by getting them out of a drug habit; or that it has broadened their experience of the world, so that they will leave as wiser men; or that it’s the first time they have had proper food and a regular bed to sleep in; that they have met so much kindness and encouragement from prisoners and staff that it has brought them to tears… But that was in the prison I worked in, which was closed down.

    • Brenda, thanks for contributing to the blog. Yes I agree. Actually think this blog should be in part about how ‘prison works’; partly because I’m rather tired of the easy and lazy stance of the contrary and because it does often work, both for prisoners and the rest of us and like you, I’m committed to it doing so. Thus I’m going to write and invite a ‘what works’ approach. Watch this space. Hope you and yours are well. Blog soon. Mike.

  2. Excellent piece, Mike, if somewhat depressing on the theme of commodification. I would certainly agree that prison culture reflects wider society, and the world of consumerism in particular, where people are persuaded to buy things they don’t need. It seems logical to me that the world’s most successful consumer culture, the USA, has the highest prison population – almost 1% of its people! On the other hand, where there’s scarcity (and you mention the infamous prison ‘double-bubble’), there’s always a ready black market. So whatever the context, the salesman is one of nature’s survivors, and Alan Sugar would no doubt do almost as well Inside as Out. I also agree with Brenda though, that there’s a lot of good work that goes on in prison, since the discipline of a custodial regime takes bad choices away from people whose lives have all to often been destroyed by them. The problem facing society, is really, to what end? Unless there are structures to support ex-offenders on their release, their previous problems will tend to devour them all over again.

    It’s good to talk!

  3. I guess life in prison, just like life on the outside is often about survival and i imagine that for many prisoners the prison `culture` is not much different from their life on the outside. For the comfortable middle classes it is all a lot subtler and many people are cushioned from the harsh realities of survival. i think the Alan Sugars of this world do speak to the baser impulses which everyone has the potential to act upon in the right circumstances.
    i agree with you about the increase in comodification of society where everything has a price and value is unimportant. Pehaps we should talk more about values and what is important. Interesting stuff Mike.

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