Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beware, humanitarians about!

Certain people ought to be looked upon by prisoners with some lightness of heart. Are not Chaplains and Doctors there to offer us various types of succour and relief?
And yet they are not the most popular people in prisons. There are many, many reasons for this but one has always stood out for me. That is, their deliberate turning away from the certain knowledge of brutality inflicted by staff.

Under the Rules, a civilian medic and the Chaplain must, every day, visit those prisoners who are held in the punishment block (or, in an Orwellian homage, what some nicks now call their "Care and Separation Unit").

If a prison has any hint of staff brutality, the block is where you will find it first. Isolated from the rest of the prison and staffed by hyper-masculine body-builder types, the potential for a toxic staff culture to develop is always present.

Every day, doctors and chaplains visit the cons held in these blocks. Every day, they see the bumps, scrapes, bruises and despair. And every single day, these doctors and chaplains eclipse the tenets of their vocation and walk away, saying nothing.

Dartmoor had a brutal block for decades. As did Scrubs, Wandsworth, Winson Green, Armley...and now Frankland. The list is a long one. In all those years of daily visits, not a single peep of protest was raised by these men and women who had adopted a humanitarian vocation.

This is why Doctors and Chaplains are regarded with suspicion or outright contempt. In my thirty years I cannot recall one medic or chaplain walking out the gates to kick up a stink about the brutality in their prison. Not bloody once.


  1. The block/CSU/Seg in my cat B nick has perhaps the most dedicated and compassionate officers in the entire prison. Their integrity is second to none. Not saying this excuses anywhere where this is not so, but don't tar everyone with the same brush. More prisoners should write - because not everyone's experiences will be as negative and hopeless as what Ben describes. There are some incredibly dedicated staff - establishment and civilians- doing amazing work, and many prisoners are indebted to them, as is society at large.

  2. Anonymous, you are right there to bring your own experience, but you are wrong in criticising ben for stating facts. It goes with all professions that there are some very dedicated professionals and idiots despite undergoing the same training. We witness police brutality in broad daylight and some police murderers are still in their jobs if not promoted. The same kind of brutality used to happen in mental institutions, in nursing homes or where vulnerable people are looked after. It takes someone with balls (here I mean brave and honest) to be what is called a 'whistleblower.' I have had my few experiences of what happens to whistleblowers; the last time I did it, it cost me 7 years of my life and I was one nail short from being crucified.

    I don't know the role of a Chaplin, but for the medical profession it is a legal requirement that we be advocates of vulnerable people. Those in prison are to serve their sentence for a crime they committed not to be brutalised and emotionally damaged. These doctors therefore have certainly lost the purpose of their profession, and I think these issues need to be taken seriously and investigated rather than fobbed off.

  3. Florence,

    Anonymous didn't criticise Ben for stating the facts, they merely suggested it would be a good idea if some other prisoners wrote so as to give us a better-balanced, more nuanced view of what goes on inside. I agree wholeheartedly.

    I have some hope that what Anonymous says about their nick is true as they have come here not to criticise Ben for speaking out, but to call for more prisoners to do the same.

    We often find prison staff writing in the comments here both abrasive and defensive; it is very nice to find someone who isn't for once. I'd hate them to go away with the feeling that Ben's supporters are incapable of listening to an eminently reasonable call for more light to be cast on the subject

  4. Wigarse, If I go back into ben's archives, I find out that you are one of the few people who has been commenting well before me. I assume that you read what ben wrote before commenting. Ben has exposed prison life and now some of us have an image of how life in some prison is like. In one of his blogs, ben also explains the difficulties prisoners have in terms of access to what we take for granted including access to computers. Therefore I will not labour myself going back to what ben has already written about his attempt in encouraging other prisoners to blog and the difficulties he and them face.

    This is my criticism of Anonymous, he says:
    "...but don't tar everyone with the same brush." and
    " because not everyone's experiences will be as negative and hopeless as what Ben describes."

    Ben's experience is not hopeless and he is not tarring everyone with the same brush. He is stating his own experience and making reference to where that abuse takes place.

    My experience is somewhat similar to ben and other whistleblowers. I said in my earlier blog that I was one nail short of being crucified and that nail was me, because I refused to be silenced despite all attempts and threats made to silence me and send me into hiding. If the whole system is corrupt, which it is, whistleblowers are shunned by their dearest and nearest, including the very same people that ben is fighting for. That was my lived experience and this is why I support people like ben.

    There is nothing wrong for a proper investigation into what ben allegies to be happening in some prisons. Good luck to those with the experience that Anonymous talks about.

  5. Anon, only the prisoners are in a position to judge staff.

  6. madalbert,

    Do you judge the staff?


    The call "not to tar everyone with the same brush" is good advice that everyone should heed, whatever their situation. There are always exceptions to every rule and that will be true of prison officers as much as it is true elsewhere else in life.

    That there are undoubtedly a few good prison officers in no way implies that what Ben has said is untrue, merely that he is not omniscient. Despite his long incarceration, Ben does not have experience of every screw on every block of every nick and, while the majority may well have been corrupted by the environment in which they work, some will not have been.

    If, when one of the rare good guys shows up to comment on this blog, all we do is show ourselves to be as mentally inflexible as the screws we denigrate, then we will do Ben no favours at all.

    How can we legitimately criticise prison officers for assuming all cons are scum if we then do the same to them?

    Anon didn't criticise any of Ben's whistle-blowing or argue with any of it, all they said was that it is not their own experience and that they would like other prisoners to start blogging as well so that those of us outside the system can get a more balanced view. I can find absolutely nothing to criticise in that statement - anything that sheds light on what happens inside prisons is good.

    I don't believe for an instant that opening up the blogosphere to prisoners all over the nation will suddenly show it to be a delightful and caring institution with every inmate's best interests at heart, but if it did, I certainly wouldn't complain.

    As ben's supporters, we should be careful not to get so caught up in the fight that we forget why we are doing this and become the very thing we are fighting against.

    If a prison officer calls for more prisoners to blog and we ignore them because they are a prison officer, then we are fools.

  7. Incidentally, how do we know Anon isn't a prisoner?

  8. Wigarse, this is getting tideous - ben is talking about what he knows - not about what anonymous knows. Ben is not stopping other prisoners from blogging - he is talking about brutality that befalls other fellow human beings and is critical of doctors and chaplins who are not voicing their concerns. End of. The next step should be that these cases get investigated.

    Of course there is no doubt that there are prisoners who might be well looked after like the ones anonymous is talking about. But then, like trolls, one never knows who anonymous is and what his/her specialist is or what his/her interest in prison is.

  9. Florence,

    I agree. So what point is it you're trying to make?

    Where did anyone suggest Ben was stopping other prisoners blogging? You seem to be getting angry at perceived criticisms of Ben that don't exist.

    Why do you bring up trolls? Do you think this anon is a troll?

  10. Wigarse says "If a prison officer calls for more prisoners to blog and we ignore them because they are a prison officer, then we are fools."

    Florence says "We includes ben." And who said anon is a prison officer? Do you two know each other?

  11. Anon # 1, I am an ex-con too, glad you are sharing your experiance aswell. My time in jail was 100% different to Bens, but i was only doing a short time. As far as the screws are concerned, some were excellent, some good, and a few rotten apples, just like in all walks of life.

  12. I'm also an ex con, I agree with Ben's view of how prison is, and the main issue being how can doctors and priests not say anything.
    My experience is that blocks are run by bullies who do all they can to antagonise inmates to get a reaction where they in turn can react with violence.
    People will say ignore their goading, easier said than done when you're snappy because of a lack of nicotine and you've got a bunch of vindictive morons being petty and having snipes, with ways that have worked many times.
    I've been in strip cells and witnessed the looks of disgust on Governors faces where they can't comprehend what must go in their staffs heads. Though they don't change anything.

    One of the places cited by Ben, Dartmoor is a prime example, look at the shock of the Nation in 2002 when the block regime was exposed, and the block at that time had improved dramatically to how it used to be. The reason it had improved? Because a coroner report a few years before hadn't actually implicated anyone but had left a big question mark as to the feasability of an excuse given for a death. The Scrubbs also improved when the shit hit the fan over the abuse suffered by inmates in the late 90s. The more that's exposed the more humanely the system will have to treat inmates.

  13. Of course "we" includes Ben, but I can't see him being so foolish as to ignore such a sensible suggestion because the person making it is a screw.

    The assumption that anon is a prison officer was made, by at least me and madalbert, based on what they said and how they said it. It may well be a faulty assumption, which I pointed out in my last comment.

    Would you consider my opinion less valid if I did know them?

  14. I honestly don't believe that there are just some 'bad apples' for prison officers, often their training and superior position among those convicted of crimes lends to them having quite backward and often bigoted views about the world and about people.

    Of course this is not across the board there will be ones that are more reasonable, but they would be the ones in the minority, not vica versa.

    It is not a matter of waiting for more good ones to come into being because the weight of the prison institution and its inherent brutality makes that idea pie in the sky.

    Exposure of the reality of what is going on is the way forward, the more people who do it, (blog, write, however the message gets across it is very important for all of us) the better.

    Of course not all experiences will be the same but there will be patterns and generalities that will be plain for all to see.

    I did want to write about the things I know about Chaplains but I will save it for another day. Except to say that Ben is right in his observations of them, they witness all and do nothing.

  15. Wigarse, I never argued against anonymous's call for other prisoners to write their experience and neither did ben. This is what I more or less agree with:
    "As far as the screws are concerned, some were excellent, some good, and a few rotten apples, just like in all walks of life." by anon an ex-con. If an excellent screw or a good one for that matter suggests anything that benefits prisons I am for it.

    I don't consider your opinion invalid - this is a debate.

  16. Ben said " In my thirty years I cannot recall one medic or chaplain walking out the gates to kick up a stink about the brutality in their prison. Not bloody once."

    If any Doctor or Chaplain had done so it would have made the national press, and all of us would have heard about it. So Ben is correct.

    Joe Sim wrote a brilliant book called MEDICAL POWER IN PRISON which details the history of medicine complicity with the penal system.

    Also don;t forget that every execution that took place in an English prison had the faithful Chaplain in attendence to bless the cold blooded killing.

    (Although to be fair in 1852 the Chaplain did whistle blow in Birmingham prison after the death of Edward Andrews. Even more surprisingly that led to the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Austin, the prison's Governor!

  17. Hi all,
    This is the original Anon. Just so you all know I'm a she not a he. Thanks for the supportive comments - those who saw that I wasn't just complaining about Ben's POV. I should have added that when I had my first CSU experience I had expected the staff there to be worse, if anything, than general landing staff, and that was absolutely not my experience, which was such a surprise. Anyway, haven't got time to write much now - I often comment on here as 'anonymous' - perhaps I should get a proper identity. Felt sad knowing it was Ben's birthday - yet another inside. Have got to know two guys in their 40s who committed murder in their late teens/early twenties. One of whom is on recall for a complete non-event last Christmas after finally being released, and the other got nicked in 2008 after absconding in 2001 and living a completely 'normal' life for seven years. I do know what I'm talking about, whatever anyone on here might think, for a number of reasons - including ones I don't feel the need to disclose just now.

    best wishes to all, and Ben, and long live the spirit of Elizabeth Fry!!

  18. Oh and lastly - I'm not a prison officer. But I do work in a prison.