Monday, February 22, 2010

Institutionalisation, 2

Prisons are, considering, remarkably rich in sociological depth. Many, if not most, of the activities that take place out there have an analogue in here.

There are friends and enemies, workplaces, neighbours, an economy, a social structure. If you can function well within this social milieu, clearly you are not incapable. There are a small number of what are labelled "poor copers", and I suspect that these individuals would have difficulty coping in any situation.

Of course there are differences. I don't have to pay rent or buy two meals a day. That aside, any idea that we have no financial obligations or that our economic life can't be quite sophisticated is quite wrong. The difference in prison is, if you fail to meet your obligations the outcome isn't a rude letter from the bank, it is to get your face kicked in. Or cut open.

The essential activities of life are to have a home, a job and some social life. All of these are replicated here. Granted, we don't wander down the pub of an evening but the essentials remain.

What is institutionalisation? My perception of it is that it is a matter of attitude and perception. If cons listened to the perpetual refrain that we are somehow incapable, limited and stunted people than we may begin to believe it. Faced with the prospect of entering a modern, complex society, if you believe that you can't cope then you won't.

When I had my day out in 1995, it was just before a mate of mine did the same. He was in his forties and had lived a reasonably successful life for 30 years before he entered prison. On paper, he should have found it a doddle and I should have been the one who found it hard. As it transpired, he stepped out of the taxi and collapsed with panic and had to be brought back to the nick.

For me, then, institutionalisation isn't some organic mental process but rather a sense of self-belief.

This rather freaks out my keepers, it is officially "a problem" that I don't worry about release. I do try to explain my view but they are so wedded to the idea of prisoners being inherently incapable that they are deaf.

Of course I haven't lived an independent life outside, had a job and the whole range of social obligations. But then, no one does those things until they do them. So let's view me as, say, an average 17 year old. Except add the fact that I have listened and learned from the accumulated experiences of thousands of people who have lived long and productive lives outside.

So I will have to find a job and a place to live. Like millions of young adults have done, year in and year out. So why assume that I would find it any more difficult? Why assume that, faced with a landlord or an employer my brain will somehow go into meltdown?

This is not to say that life is going to be easy. It rarely is, but then it isn't in prison either. But to leap from that to some vague idea that I'm as helpless as an infant is a jump that I can't make. That worries Them.


  1. Perhaps all you need here is a bit of positive spin?

    You obviously do think about how you will cope because institutionalization is a recurring theme in your writing. Also, you have set up an excellent support network for after your release.

    From where I am sitting, you DO worry about how you will cope on release it's just that, rather than cower in the corner trembling, you have chosen to embrace the challenge. This choice has, of itself, given you a feeling of control which makes the whole thing less frightening.

    Perhaps rather than telling the authorities that you aren't worried, you need to start emphasizing the safety nets you have put in place for yourself? Not "I don't care" but "I do care and this is how I am dealing with it".

  2. Ben, you say that the authorities make assumptions, but you know, too, that a lot of your fellow prisoners say the same from their own experience. After the torpor of prison routine (a cunning opiate), getting up to speed can be difficult. I remember a drugs baron (no poor coper he) who, after showing me a photo of himself in his pomp - gear, gun, stash of cash - told me how, after seven years inside, he walked away from the prison and after half an hour, overcome, slumped to his knees and wept. There unquestionably is much about your regime which is debilitating. I'm sure it's going to help a lot, getting your mind limbered up, but there's bound to be an experiential learning curve, too. Things have changed. A lot. If you sometimes find it tough, that won't denote inherent incapability, that's the thing to get straight. Even out here, you're probably going to have to give it time, because the way we do it (time) is different from how you do it.

    Mentally, you seem to be a very complete person. I believe that that integrity predisposes you to do very well.

  3. THEY have a problem though. They have long experience and a set of statistics that state that the half of adult rough sleepers that are not out from the other great patronising institution, the military are ex cons and the stats say that failing like that means they end up where you are before long.

    The problem is not your theoretical ability to cope, its your ability to cope well enough when a process doesn't go smoothly. For eg landlords are not generally well disposed to ex cons, so at the end of the day if you have nowhere to go and you cannot afford another night in a hostel or doss house and still have enough for a deposit what do you do? It's 5:30, the dark is descending and its raining.

    I arrived in this country for the first time since I was 6 in 1993 in possession of a PhD and with a wife and family in tow. If my employer had not helped I would not have got a bank account. We found a house to rent but it took a week before they would let us in and we ran out of money, which I had to borrow from my employer. We were lucky.

    Are you for eg aware of how long it takes to do something simple like getting a national insurance number?

    There are a myriad of things that can trip you up and assuming that faced with the near certainty of institutional fuckups and sheer lack of interest of officialdom that you will cope regardless of how tired you are, how wet, how cold, how hungry, how frustrated?

    I know you have a support group arranged and ready to go, but that is not necessarily going to help all the time.

    The problem here is that the prison service have all those population based stats and no way of necessarily predicting who will and will not cope. You are also somewhat unusual having been in custody since you were 14 so they quite understandably don't know what to do with you and you with respect have little or no experience to contribute.

    If you add in your failure to adapt to Open Prison (yes, you had reasons, but even so you failed to adapt) and this just raises their concern.

    I suspect you need to evince more humbleness to THEM on this issue, emphasise your support group and their dedication and experience instead of any capacity of your own. Just stating that you are capable will not work and I'm afraid neither should it.

  4. Dammit I meant paternalistic insitutions.

  5. @peter, as I understand it, Ben didn't fail to adapt to open prison. He failed to accept that sitting at a table folding pieces of paper, at the cost of another 2 years in prison, was of any use to his future - especially as they were blocking his PhD. More fundamentally, how he gets on in life should be none of the governments business, unless and until he violently reoffends. Not giving him the opportunities to show his capabilities and using that to keep him in prison is plain pathetic.

  6. I am sure that Ben will have some difficulties in adapting to life outside - in my opinion he should be properly and adequately assisted to re-settle. I would hope he will not just be 'thrown' out - society has a duty to assist in any way possible. Ben will be vulnerable and will need all the help he can get - I for one would love to be able to help him as I am sure so are many others. Our support may only be moral support - but it will be there. Ben seems like a sensible and thoughtful person and will make it outside - I wish they would get a move on and let him out! When Ben does make it good outside I am sure the judicial system will want to take credit for it - but most of it will be down to Ben himself and his support group.

    Good luck

  7. @Jo

    If only that were true. Ben will be "thrown out" and he will be left to fend for himself with (I'm not sure of my figures here) something like £50 in his pocket and the possessions that were taken away from him when he went in. I believe now-a-days he can also have a bank account from the co-op as well, this is no small improvement and a comparatively recent one.

    Ben will cope because he has worked hard to build his own support group. But he is the exception rather than the norm.

    It isn't the mythic "institutionalization" that causes excons to fail to cope on release; it is the lack of support of the sort you mention, which any sane person would recognize is absolutely necessary!

    How anyone can argue that that is fixed by keeping people inside longer Dog only knows.

  8. I agree with Wigarse - I see every week, when visiting a prison, people being 'thrown' out, usually 5 - 10 minutes after the bus has left which means an hour to wait for another one - without any support, and sometimes with no coats in this awful cold weather. I believe they do have a rail warrant and £49 - but is what they do not have is support. Surely a system could be set up where these ex-prisoners are at least supported to get to a home address and some warm clothes.

  9. @PrisonerBen

    I am well aware of the circumstances surrounding Ben's failure in open prison, which is why I wrote what I did. I was pointing out firstly that from the p.o.v. of the prison and parole systems none of that will be relevant, they will simply see that he failed to adapt which reinforces the charge of institutionalisation.

    Secondly Life does not always allow us the luxury of doing things our own way and if Ben continues that attitude he will not prosper outside, particularly in a formal academic environment where being seen not to be a team player and partaking of the activities of the department can easily result in a lack of necessary co-operation from others which no amount of reaching for a lawyer will fix. As an academic who has seen people crash and burn because of this I speak from experience.

    I sympathise greatly with Ben's situation, but I can also see the p.o.v of the prison and probation services who need strong justification for deviating from 'best practice' when dealing with individuals. That best practice is informed by long experience and copious statistics and it is necessary for the smooth functioning of the system for people to be categorised, it would not work any other way. Thus Ben needs to change the way they see him, or they will never let him out.

    Ben seems to think that doing so will change him, but that is not so. It is just that to function well in society it is often necessary to play down aspects of our individuality in the interest of the situation. Those who cannot end up on the margins of society which is a high price to pay for the abstract idea of individuality.

    I commend to you Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit particularly Part 3 where he efficiently shows us that we are much more similar than we are different. To assert otherwise is to deny reality. So while it may have benefited Ben to be a strong individual in prison, it does not benefit him in his struggle to be released and it will not benefit him after release unless he can learn to subsume in order to achieve goals.

  10. Peter in Dundee - you may have some good arguments there but none of them are good enough reasons to keep someone incarcertated!

    Ben has paid his dues for his awful crime and now should be rehabilitated properly so he can contribute to society in whatever way he is able to. I suspect he will be an asset to society before long.

  11. @Peter

    I think you may be functioning in a different academic environment to me.

    Thankfully, we live in a country where life certainly does not require that you toe the line with unquestioning docility, at least for now. The one place where that is most true is in academia, where original thought and challenging discussion is a sign of a very healthy team. Ben is not talking about refusing to take part in the mundanity of running a department, he's talking about standing up to foolish rules and pushing for meaningful change. I would suggest that if you were in a dept where someone was punished for that, the fault lies not with them but with the so called "team".

    I heartily disagree that Peter's arguments are good: there is a vast difference between being a team player and being a sheep!

    Being a sheep will get you out of prison faster but it won't get you very far in the real world.

  12. @ Peter: To be true to oneself is not an 'abstract idea of individuality'. I also wonder how you would define 'the margins of society'.