Thursday, May 17, 2007

Inside story – a visit to prison

Well, today I went on a client site visit to interview the training manager so I could write a case study. I imagined I would be going in to his office, having a brief chat so I could write up how effective our company’s training was for the staff at the prison. Well, it wasn’t quite like that - not like that at all in fact.

The prison is a Category B Young Offenders Institute and though it caters for male prisoners aged 18 and above, it has lifers and local prisoners of all ages. I looked it up on the web and saw that the prison was essentially a Victorian one, built originally as the county jail.

I went with a colleague, Bev, and we arrived in the security reception. We had to have passports, were not allowed to take in mobile phones or perfume or anything that could be considered ‘dangerous’ (or drugs, or guns or any of that kind of thing I guess). I simply took my passport, car keys and a notebook and pen.

We were allowed through security in a brand new reception (there was much building work still going on) and were greeted by Ian, who asked if we would like a tour of the prison. I know Bev had been before, but I said yes. I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity like this. We walked into the main courtyard area and I noticed two sparrows playing in the gutter – enjoying the water left by the relentless rain we had enjoyed but was now, thankfully, in abeyance. The buildings were exactly as you would imagine – dark brick edifices, small grilled windows, imposing, dark, but not quite Satanic (that was Mills wasn’t it? – not prisons…)

After walking past where the sniffer dogs inspect visitors, the first stop was their brand new visitors centre. That is, where people come to visit their relatives, not a ‘come see our lovely prison’ centre. It was light, airy, bright and empty. There were rows and rows of seating clusters – four chairs around a single round table, all linked together in one single piece of furniture (a bit like those unmoveable tables and chairs in some of the nastier fast food restaurants). The tables were low, the seats widely spaced (but contact between those around them was easily possible) and one in every four chairs was red. “Guess which one the prisoner sits in.” Ian said. Hanging down from the ceiling were cameras, providing 360o vision, and there were two raised platforms for the overseeing officers. Up above, Ian said, were two video courtrooms. Much easier to video link rather than convene a court and transport prisoners for what might be a five minute remand hearing. There was a well equipped children’s play area funded by ‘the blue rinse brigade’ from the local diocese.

Then he took us up some stairs through two sets of doors. Every entrance was double doors – each with their own separate key. This was an administration area and Ian was showing us their mini ‘black museum’ – a display cabinet full of items confiscated from prisoners. There were many mobile phones, ropes made from bedding, packets of drugs (some hidden in tennis balls or in birthday cards), knives and other highly creative and wicked weapons created from razor blades (which they are entitled to as a basic 'human right') and an extremely complex and – I had to admire it – well-crafted ‘fishing line’. It was a spool wheel with a long string and a comb like metal affair on the end. Its purpose was to be thrown over the wall so that contraband could be attached and reeled back in. The phones though – Ian said a mobile phone was worth about £800 or £900 inside, so people were always trying to smuggle them in. Mostly, as it happens, internally. “The most we found in one guy was four.” he told us with morbid glee - and they had all been secreted in the same orifice!

He took us through to the central courtyard where the old Victorian ‘hub’ of the prison lay. Extending out from an almost octagonal building were the four original wings – so from the air the place looked a little like a wheel (I know this, as he showed us a aerial photo). We went in and he pointed to Wing A (where the isolated prisoners were), B, C and D. Each wing had a different ‘clientele’ – for example one was for the ‘unemployed’ though most of the inmates do actually work. He took us into Wing C. Through the doors, into the corridor with the prisoners. This was the old prison wing, with low brick doors (Victorian prisoners where shorter, obviously) and a metal grill between floors to ‘catch’ attempted suicides. Some prisoners were cleaning the floor, and chatting and swearing just like youths anywhere as we walked down the hall towards the stairs (he wanted to show us how the ceilings were now converted so that entry could be gained from outside, in case of riots). There were officers (we were not allowed to refer to them as ‘guards’) in an ‘office’ at the entrance end and one (female) officer at the other end of the wing. Not an overly heavy ‘presence’.

One prisoner addressed us: “Do you mind if I ask why you lovely ladies are here?” We replied “Just visiting.”
“So am I.” he said, and smiled broadly. “And he’s a lovely bloke,” he added, pointing to Ian. He wouldn’t know who Ian was – not a clue, but obviously he had a sense of humour. Ian told us they had enjoyed the company of a few famous guests in times gone by, but one prisoner who had been with them 44 years was originally a 'friend of the Krays' and couldn't survive on the outside. As soon as he was let out, he would offend and end up back in the prison, where he would be told what to do, and when. Something about the 'institutionalisation' of individuals - and a little of the architecture - reminded me ironically of an old University.

There was no communal eating area (not like in the films, he said more than once), prisoners were taken their meals from the central kitchen block. They had one hot meal a day (evening) and all cultural and religious preferences were catered for. “We spend more per day per prisoner on food than they do in primary schools.”

Ian showed us the new buildings that had been erected to extend the prison – it now held nearly 700 prisoners – and in these wings we saw an updated mirror of the original, and obviously successful, Victorian design: corridors, rows of cells, the stairs and gallery (upper levels) but no grill. “They aren’t needed now,” he said, explaining that the way things are run now, there is so much less chance of anyone trying to kill themselves by throwing themselves over the gallery (which really wasn’t that high). But prisoners do kill themselves – they’d had two in recent months, both hangings. One lad had only been in prison 8 hours, the other was not on suicide watch nor considered a risk. It depends on the determination of the individual: those determined to do so, will find a way. The thing that struck me was how bright it all was, not dark and dingy (like in films…). They also had cells for the disabled – with wider doors and special showers.

He constantly referred to ‘my prison’ or ‘our prison’ and was obviously very proud of the institution. It has very good records according to the ‘targets’ set by Government and with an average stay of only 3 months, the focus really did seem to be on rehabilitation rather than punishment. He showed us blocks where prisoners were trained in bricklaying, fork lift truck driving or electronics, we went into the education centre and saw classrooms with prisoners learning various things – including cookery (which meant knives, yes, highly trusted, select prisoners, with kitchen knives). We also saw the blocks that were the health centre, the gymnasium (currently undergoing refurbishment) and we passed the astro-turf football pitch where inmates were being coached by a Football Association coach. It sounds rather ‘easy’ – doesn’t it? But every night these men (some really only boys) are locked away. They are restricted in what they can do, who they can talk to, and what they eat, they don't see their loved ones as often as they may wish, and some of them die. Every week there are fights, posturing and rivalries between individuals and the various ‘gangs’ in the prison. “We have the Russian Mafia, the Tongs, the Italians and gangs that have been established in the prison.” And they have to be kept apart.

I thought back to those vicious looking implements in the display cabinet – toothbrushes melted to secure razor blade tips, knives made from everything from bits of wire to the sharpened metal splint from a medical wrist support. No, it wasn’t easy here, and these men around us who seemed so relaxed and casual were probably just ‘posturing’ for the visitors.

To see the newest wing we could have taken a short cut across the exercise yard, but it was prudent not to as the yard had about eight or ten prisoners out. “We wanted to make this a basketball court,” Ian said, pointing to the tarmac covered area where the prisoners lounged “but Health and Safety said we couldn’t. If a prisoner fell and hurt their knees, they could sue us.” So in the interests of prisoner safety – or protecting prisons from litigation – the inmates were denied the opportunity to play basketball. So what, they are criminals! Well, yes, but they are people. And some may be just on remand, and some may be innocent, and some may just do less harm if they could work off some energy by doing something as simple as basketball. Who knows, I wasn’t there for the psychology, but it certainly made me thoughtful. On the way back past the yard, one of the prisoners waved. I smiled and waved back - high fence and razor wire between us.

We went past a low brick hut, with stairs that led down to what could have been a basement. “That’s where I’m working until the new admin block is complete,” Ian said. “it’s the old hanging shed.” And under the flooring, the trap door is still there he told us. The last hanging was just after the war. “You can’t undo capital punishment.” I commented, and Ian seemed to agree. I’m sort of glad we didn’t meet in his office.

The whole complex was very compartmentalised – we went through many gates even when outside and the main perimeter was a high steel fence topped with razor wire. Beyond the wire was a road width empty space (suitable for emergency vehicles) and then a high, high wall. The prison had originally been built three quarters of a mile outside the town – but the town had grown to meet the prison walls and gardens now backed on to the high walls on one side at least. “You’d think we just dropped the prison in to the middle of the town, the way some neighbours react.” He said. “We were here first.”

As we walked back to the exit, I took the opportunity to ask the questions I was supposed to – about the training and how it was working out. In just a few minutes more I picked up what I needed to know for those purposes, but for my own experience as a writer, and indeed a more knowledgeable perspective for my case study, the trip round the prison itself - including that small interaction with the prisoners - had been invaluable.
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