Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Narrow Identity

Perhaps it isn't surprising but the Prison Service has great difficulty in perceiving prisoners as other than the sum of that social construct. We are viewed as incompetent, lazy, undisciplined, devious, manipulative, untrustworthy and unstable. They teach this to new staff during training and the whole of the institutional structure reflects these beliefs.

Our particular crimes apart, our personal qualities vary. Some of us are, or try to be; good husbands and fathers (geographical restrictions permitting...). Some are excellent students. Others are steady, consistent workers. A few are incredibly creative, writing, painting, craft making and so on. We have a range of qualities but these are all disregarded and dismissed as irrelevant. "Prisoner" is the sum of our official parts and no competency is permitted to enter the official consciousness.

That is, of course, until they need something. Then, for a brief moment, they are forced to admit that we can be more than the sum of the official construction.

A couple of years ago the prison service found itself lumbered with an Action Plan supervised by the Commission for Racial Equality. This is what happens when you put a violent racist in a cell with an Asian man and a murder results. Part of this Plan involved conducting impact assessments of all prison policies and practices. As is the way, the staff screwed it up and were left with three weeks in which to re-do the exercise.

All of a sudden, prisoners weren't the detritus of humanity; we were badly needed to help management out of this hole. I was invited to come and play. Hmmm, me help management?

Obviously, I said yes... no, really, I did. It was my reasoning that improved race equality could only be a good thing for minority prisoners; if helping managers fill in a bunch of forms for HQ was the route to that, so be it. It also occurred to me that this was a chance for prisoners to play a direct part in helping to influence policy as it was being made. If we could show that we were competent, then this would challenge their perceptions of us. So helping management was merely a means to these ends, a balance I could live with.

So I formed a team, collated a mountain of policy papers and background reports and together we conducted ten surveys on distinct policy areas. Amazingly, because this was a management imperative then all things suddenly became possible. I was allowed to have a laptop in my cell; I only had to ask for a ream of paper and it was produced; access to printers in Education was unobstructed. The definition of "prisoner" was, out of necessity, expanded to include ideas of competence and trustworthiness.

The exercise was happily completed and our recommendations were largely ignored. This was always the risk but the effort was worth the attempt.

But once the exercise was over, I was firmly returned to the narrow conceptual box of being "a prisoner". Now, even though I have one of the strongest arguments of any prisoner to have a laptop in my cell, it is denied. I have to find sheets of paper where I can, because there isn't even a facility for us to buy it by the ream. Access to printing in Education is impossible, as they have disabled the USB ports on their PC's.

I won't even begin to explain how this perception affects my attempts to undertake my PhD, how the malign construct of "prisoner" is used to constrain me. In the eyes of management, it is impossible to view a prisoner as a "researcher", it is impossible for them to pause from repeating the official mantra of “unworthy, unreliable” and allow us to even try to be responsible human beings.

As someone more perceptive than I once stated, "just because we are not allowed any responsibility, it doesn't mean that we are irresponsible". Such a pity that we must function within an official culture of contempt.
PS. Rehabilitation, anyone...?


  1. I can testify to the inculcation of the diss-words (para 1). And to you, Ben, attaches the m-word, I guess, the most damning of them all, because it writes off all your blog followers and supporters as deluded dupes.

    I was always impressed by ways in which people who work in prisons sought pretexts for not bothering, blaming the failure of the regime to rehabilitate on the irremediable nature or broken psyches of its clients.

    Ironically, if prisons tried harder and enjoyed more success, I suppose the public would start demanding more of the same. What a difference that would make.

    Powerful writing, Ben.

  2. Yet again I see widespread resonances with my experiences of institutional residential care. Do some people withdraw and internalise the low expectations placed upon by them by the system and its perpetrators through inability to fight, through an attempt to keep their sanity / make the best of their situation or without even realising they are doing it? And does the prison service have theoretical policy imperatives for prisoner involvement that are largely ignored in practise, with those asking for their stated involvement rights actively resisted and victimised? That's what happens in residential care.