Underfunded, Overcrowded

Standpoint’s Mole in a prison reveals a world of incompetence and intimidation

I’m so stressed by the way I’ve been treated,” the prisoner began, “that I’ve started smoking heroin again.”

I asked him politely where he was getting it. “It’s everywhere,” he replied. “I handed over toiletries I bought from the canteen [prisoners can order from an in-prison shop] and he gave it to me. I know I’m getting addicted. My drug of choice on the outside was crack cocaine. I’d never done heroin until I came in here. I started taking it when I found that my personal papers had been given to the wrong person. It’s the prison’s fault and an abuse of my human rights.”

He added, inevitably, “I want compensation”. He’ll probably get it.

His situation is not an isolated one. In my regular working trips to and from a B-category London prison, I see how inefficiency, supplies of class A drugs and prisoners who know how to play the system are an intrinsic part of prison life today.

Hardly anyone – apart from staff and criminals – knows what really goes on inside a prison. Because of the obvious security demands, you can get inside only if you are invited. No wonder it’s a fascinating, mysterious and sometimes frightening place.

I first became involved with prison life about three years ago and, despite my preparation, I initially felt shocked to be on the wrong side of huge bars and iron gates. It made me understand how losing your freedom is debilitating to the point of impotence. Not being easily able to find out the simplest things, for example your release date, plus having nothing to do seems the ultimate endurance test. But then I am not a criminal.

For many prisoners, it is a way of life lived in segments. They have no tools to enable them to cope with the world in a law-abiding way. Many come from families who steal, and merely carry on with the tradition.

Most also have a totally dysfunctional background and upbringing. One intelligent prisoner had been thrown out of his home at the age of 11 because his mother’s new boyfriend didn’t like him.

He started stealing three years later. Now nearing 40, he is keen to start afresh, but each time he is released he is left to his own devices and hasn’t a clue how to find accommodation and a job. One day he showed me something he had written. His spelling was appalling but he had real talent, just no chance in life.

Many other prisoners can’t read or write. One got very agitated by a letter he had received, because he thought he had been turned down for tagging; in fact, the letter had merely requested his personal details. Staff allegedly had been too busy to read it to him and he was scared to ask another prisoner for fear of being bullied.

Nor is it easy to survive in an environment with the mad, bad and dangerous to know and the most pathetic specimens of the human race. It’s a Lord of the Flies challenge multiplied many times and prisoners are regularly bullied, intimidated, isolated and assaulted.

Today prisons are overcrowded to bursting point. In September, there were 83,518 prisoners in jail, almost double the number of 10 years ago. Prison places are so scarce that every day prison vans drive prisoners who have been to court round the country for hours without water, food or toilet facilities in search of a spare cell. Prisoners can be dropped off as late as 9pm, which means that health checks – for things like mental illness and TB (a growing menace) – and risk assessment (are they normal enough to share a cell?) are conducted under huge pressure and often by hard-pressed staff volunteering to stay beyond their shift.

In addition, prisoners who are taken to court from one prison in the morning but end up at another at the end of the day, often find their property is missing. It can take months to get it back and even when it arrives at the prison gates it can take weeks to reach the right cell – a journey which should take about three minutes. These possessions often include phone numbers of lawyers and loved ones. To lose them causes the prisoner considerable grief.

Almost two-thirds of the prisoners I meet have some form of mental illness or are drug addicts who should never be in a prison in the first place. If they were housed in hospitals and special units the prison population would plummet. It would almost certainly also reduce the numbers of suicides and those who self-harm.

Prisons are also seriously underfunded. A couple of months ago, the service was told to make £60 million year-on-year “efficiency savings” for the next three years. The only way to do it has been to cut staff. Many prisons are now barely safe. At my prison two officers are regularly left in charge of 360 unlocked prisoners while they have their periods of association and take their regulation exercise – but not when it rains for fear of a prisoner slipping and claiming compensation – or have lunch. Prisoners are now kept in their cells from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. They spend the time either sleeping or seething.

Staff rely on the goodwill of the prisoners and the fact that drugs make them docile to keep things calm.

Even so, a riot in the near future seems almost inevitable somewhere. Some prisoners express their frustration by going on dirty protests, a repugnant and increasingly popular mode of expression that involves smearing their cells with excrement. An alternative attention-seeking device is to pull out the wash basin or toilet in their cell and cause a flood.

Prison officers are poorly paid and virtually all of them at some time during their career will be attacked, spat at and insulted by a prisoner. Should they respond with anything less than tact they will be suspended and possibly sued for racism/bullying/prejudice or whatever a canny and manipulative prisoner or his lawyer can think of.

Low pay means prison officers are susceptible to offers from jailed drug dealers for cash to bring drugs in. Drugs are a huge problem and the ways of bringing them into the prison are ingenious, from stuffing a dead pigeon with drugs and throwing it over the walls to a visitor secreting them in a baby’s nappy.

There are regular compulsory drug tests and some voluntary ones. Cannabis takes 10 days to work its way out of the system, heroin only one. That’s why prisoners come in using recreational drugs and end up addicted to hard drugs.

To avoid being caught during cell searches, prisoners’ drugs and mobile phones – a huge problem in prisons – are often concealed in their back passage. Since the Human Rights Act, prisoners can no longer be searched there.

Sadly, there is virtually no rehabilitation in my prison. There are waiting lists for education – which appears to be almost useless judging by a couple of English classes which I sat in on – drug rehabilitation and jobs. These include cleaning the wings, helping in the kitchen or laundry, and dismantling earphones for recycling. Prisoners get 50p a day for being in the prison and 90p for a morning’s work in the kitchen. Making a phone call is far more expensive inside than outside – BT has a monopoly.

The one area where you might expect complaints is over the food. Prices in the canteen are twice that of Tesco, partly because everything has to be individually wrapped and glass containers are not allowed.

The prison has only £1.80 a day to spend on each prisoner for breakfast, lunch – the choice is halal, vegetarian, vegan, two meats and a “healthy option” baguette or wrap – plus a cold meal in the evening. Lunch is served at 11.30am and seems like the worst sort of school dinner, but the prisoners hardly grumble. Perhaps this says more about them than it does about the cooking.

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