How Hard Can It Be?


Let’s have it right yeah. Prison’s too easy. It’s a laugh. A right laugh. I’d never have come to jail if there was no TV, shit food… well it’s shit now but it’s not totally shit. There’s too many privileges. If I was in charge of stopping reoffending I’d take it back to the old days. But you can’t do that no more because of human rights. If I was shitting in a bucket when I was thirteen I wouldn’t’ have come back. But it was the complete opposite.

David is ripped. Henched. His arms are waves of muscularity. He is a prison gym orderly and he has found his place in the establishment. He gets on well with officers, surfs the daily routine and maintains his frame. Curiously for a jail he is also tanned. It wasn’t always thus. David has lived around only one year of the last five on The Out and much of the rest of the time he tells me he wasn’t ‘a good lad’. He was first sent to custody when he was thirteen but from his point of view secure accommodation doesn’t really count. He is due to graduate next spring. Now I get on with the screws. The question people are asking, particularly I imagine in his home town, is has prison worked? He hasn’t committed any more armed robberies whist he’s been here, which he tells me he would’ve done had he not. He also believes it has worked for him. He has found out what he wanted to, developed his thinking and his physique and built some handy relationships. He’s had a lot of David time. He has accomplished what he set out to do when he was fifteen.

I wanted to go to jail. I haven’t said this to anyone. I knew this though from the age of thirteen. Why did I want to go there? To go to the gym, and to get massive. To meet people. People like me, on my level. Your level is different boss. Mine is game. Risky. People who will take chances. Do things other people won’t. I wanted to go to jail to learn from others. And you do learn. Learn to read people. Read strengths and weaknesses. Start off reading weaknesses. Then you compare it and you learn what strength looks like. And you get to know when people are pretending. When all your friends are older you feel like you need to catch up and the best place to learn how to do that is a prison.

I’ve worked with young men who offend for the last fifteen years, in young offender institutions and out there as well. I’ve always known custody is no deterrent for some, an acceptable outcome for others and a desired destination for a few, but I don’t think I’ve heard it so candidly put before. David came to jail partly to improve his ability in the dark arts, and partly because he thought it would be an environment in which he would mature. He describes it almost like a career move and it surprises even me. It is not an exaggeration to say that some young men in this country do opt, apply, and by default choose prison as they approach adulthood. It is where they grow up and hence they grow in a particular way. I have come to believe I can identify young men who have been to jail enough to leave its mark. Young men like David who plotted a course or those who just didn’t look beyond their next step, are arguably young men with limited horizons and an unlimited number of excuses but we must ask how this defines them and our country, because prison and society are not two different places.

Despite the spike of the riots numbers of young people entering custody and indeed entering the youth justice system for the first time have been declining. This is undoubtedly down in part to the success of multi-agency working in youth offending teams, and it is significant that so far the Coalition Government have not talked about tampering with the strategy. But we must always take a step back and compare the view, because England and Wales still have particularly high rates of youth custody, second in absolute numbers to Turkey in Europe. (1) And whilst 18-25 year olds make up one in ten of our population, they make up a third of those sent to prison. (2)

Prison can and does make people worse, sometimes involuntarily, and sometimes people actively collude. They may do so because criminality is their desired career and because they feel there aren’t too many other opportunities on The Out. The Out is increasingly difficult, confusing, demanding, yet a place where lads don’t have a place. In here, inside, I see lads return every week, acknowledging welcomes and other salutations from windows as they carry their plastic bag of personal effects to the reception wing. They sweep out a new pad, meticulously arrange their display, negotiate new acquaintances, and then settle back in to an ordered routine. They are taking a six or twelve month breather from the rest of us. This is not what prison is supposed to be for. I can remember as a court officer sitting in the cells with a fifteen year old, trying to sell him a bail package and him imploring me, I need boundaries. I want jail. I can’t cope out here. What with the charges and some unexpected theatrics on his part upstairs he got his way and was visibly relieved. I was obviously duly chastised by social services management for allowing a child to be sent to custody; as far as he was concerned it was a result and I think he felt guilty for the position he’d landed me in.

There is of course a spectrum and after David closed his memoir session I went over to a wing to catch up with another story. Steven doesn’t leave his pad much. The officer unlocks him and I lead him down to the medical room so we can get some privacy and he will feel safe. En route he surveys the wing suspiciously. I had typed up what was written the day before:

It was November. The day was cold. The sky like a darkened room. I was lying on my bed. Two days to go. I was going to get drunk when I got out. See my family. I had a stack of letters off Sarah and was going to see her. We were going to go for a meal at Wetherspoon’s. She likes the things I like. Scranning. She is kind and caring. She obeys the law. She is happy and cheery. I remember the last time we were having a meal at Wetherspoons’s. I was making her laugh. I remember we were going to see a film at her house. We were happy. The pub was packed…

The piece is about the day Steven found out he’d lost his girlfriend to an overdose. He has been harming himself one way or another for a long time. Sprint pace middle distance drinking sessions, standing outside the police station screaming obscenities until they arrest him, unpicking a screw from his bedside cabinet in his pad and digging it across his arm until the pain is released like air out of a tyre. He loves to see his work typed up and is increasingly enthusiastic in sessions.

“When they told me about my girlfriend I couldn’t say owt. I was shocked. I couldn’t take it in. Couldn’t eat.  I thought, I know I can get through this….Want me to write that down boss?”

The idea might seem prosaic, he drags a biro across a page instead of his arm, but generally, at least temporarily it works. I take him back to his pad across the expanse of the wing, he’s banged up and another lad I’d lost track of approaches me. I’ve known Jack since he was thirteen, since our youth offending team days. Seven years later he’s grown into a prison cell and two days ago tried to take his own life again. He shows me the burn on his neck and asks me if we can do some writing tomorrow.

A young offender’s institution for others is not the ball it is for David. The holiday camp that other lads describe it as. Young adults account for 20% of individuals in prison who self-harm but only 12% of the prison population. (3) Most lads do say they find The YOI too easy; that if the state made it harder they wouldn’t come back. But then most lads like to pin their offending on someone or something else. In my experience the prisoners for whom prison is a serious deterrent, for whom ubiquitous television, gym and poetry workshops won’t compensate a moment, fall into two categories. Those that are not serial offenders and are often vulnerable and those who were going somewhere on The Out; they had a career in the broadest sense. Anecdotally though both added together are in a small minority.

Prisons Minister Chris Grayling has announced that he wants the prison experience to be more austere. (4) Certainly if he continues to privatise prisons it will be because there will be less officers and more bullying. Personally I don’t think it will make that much difference if any. His measures of removing digital channels or televisions altogether won’t help us sleep more safely at night because the hard versus easy argument is a diversion. What matters inside is rehabilitation: education; restorative justice; drug and alcohol work; (writers in residence). There is plenty of evidence that interventions stop people coming back. £650 million worth of cuts to the prison service means there is bound to be less offending work on offer.

What matters on The Out is a chance of a career. Not a zero hours contract after an internship but an employer willing to invest in you as a person. Youth unemployment for 16-24 year olds is running at 21%. Work opens up horizons within young people. A career is who you are, not what you are. Prison appeals to the desperate and desperately lazy. With 60% of the austerity still to come, I fear a lot of the progress made in reducing youth custody in the last ten years is at risk of being undone.

NB. Written permission was granted to use the writing excerpts and names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.






3 thoughts on “How Hard Can It Be?

  1. For the minority for whom (like David) prison is a career move is there an argument for the introduction of some form of “National Service”?

    • The problem with capitalism at present, as Eric Hobsbawn remarked before he expired, is “there isn’t enough work for people to do anymore.” Granted David would be the first to admit he wasn’t out stalking what jobs there were, but surely there is a relationship between the significant increase in the UK prison population and the ‘restructuring’ or decimation of the British economy from the late seventies onwards. The contemporaneous increase in numbers in further and higher education has been a kind of privatised national service that people now go into enormous debt to enjoy. Sadly there are some young men in the UK whose university has been a young offenders institution and I think you’re right there is a need for something else because the job creation schemes and the zero hours contracts filling the void. I don’t think military involvement is an option – if indeed that is what you meant. The army don’t want the soldiers they have let alone David. An employment and training/public works national service is an idea that people should countenance but it would require public investment of Keynesian proportions, and there is a hurricane blowing in the opposite direction.

      • I wasn’t thinking of military national service, though it is interesting that while the government continues to cut numbers of serving soldiers they are increasing the numbers of reservists. My thoughts were on public works or supporting charities for example. Maybe a bit woolly and wishy-washy liberal but it is just a vague idea.

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