Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Grayling's Riot Recipie

Not giving a man something is one matter. It can raise disgruntled feelings and frustration, but these are usually kept in check by that blanket of apathy we call the status quo. It is a different matter altogether to set up a procedure, a set of hurdles, strict behavioural standards by which prisoners can earn a number of privileges, allow them to achieve these dizzying heights for nearly 20 years - and then one day tear up that mutual agreement and remove all of those privileges.

Such arbitaryness is inherent in the latest mutterings of the Minister of Justice. Chris Grayling has expressed the urge to remove and restrict a range of privileges from prisoners, ones which have been woven into the fabric of carceral life since 1995. For obedience to certain behavioural standards, compliance and so forth, prisoners earned these privileges. And prisoners know that Grayling isn't working from some great penological insight, he isn't attempting some great experiment. Prisoners know that when the screws come through the cell door to remove their duly earned and bought goods it will solely be because of a punitive and unthinking spasm has afflicted their political master. And if there is one thing which excites a prisoner's blood, it is unfairness and arbitrary abuse of power.

It appeals to Greyling to strip prisoners of their civilian clothing. Let us ponder this. There were days, not outside of my memory, when prisoners were compelled to wear uniforms. Jeans, or grey trousers, striped shirts, denim jackets....if you have seen Porridge, you know. And then cons were, slowly, allowed to wear some of their own clothing. It began with underwear, then trainers, until by now it is possible to step onto the landings head to toe in Armani.

Well, legend would say that, but I never witnessed it. My constant companion was the Cotton Traders catalogue. Which brings us to the nasty little detail that is always overlooked in the privileges debate - prisoners have to buy these clothes. And they must buy them from whatever moneys they can earn in prison workshops (average weekly pay less than £10) or from the very limited sums allowed to be sent in by friends and family (adding to the pressures on prisoners families). The Prison Service seemed to get a good deal out of this; no longer were they bearing the cost of clothing prisoners. And now, having saved and bought their trainers and sweatshirts, Grayling wants these removed and exchanged for something more drab. I hear rumours of grey jumpsuits. The sartorial objections to this are the least concern, for I assume that having allowed prisoners to buy these clothes and then deciding to remove them, Grayling will not be in any rush to compensate cons who earned this privilege through good behaviour. Prisoners may well feel aggrieved at this situation. And rightly.

Grayling also wishes to restrict prisoners' canteen privileges. For the uninitiated, the Canteen is the prison shop, where cons can spend their wages. Not a physical location within a prison but rather a paper-based order and delivery service contracted out to DHL and Booker, the Canteen list is the prisoners last toehold into consumer society. And where he buys his tobacco, stamps, tea bags and writing paper. To what end, to what possible purpose is this ability to be restricted? None that is cogent and, again, this strikes at the very heart of prison culture and legitimate expectation. The Canteen has existed since the first penological brick was laid. To restrict it out of nothing more than a fit of Ministerial pique will anger prisoners in a way few other issues do.

Except, perhaps, one. And that is Graylings desire to restricting prisoners' access to in-cell TV's.This is the pinnacle of privileges, the one cons most desire - and, of course, the one that imposes a subtle blanket of control. Whilst cons think that TV's were an unalloyed joy, the more strategic thinkers amongst us realised that TV's would also become so adored that their loss through some protest or other would be such a threat as to render swathes of the prison population docile and impotent in the face of outrageous actions by the prison service.

When most of the prison population is locked behind their door for most of the day, and with illiteracy rates shockingly high, then the loss of the distraction that is mindless TV is bound to have a serious effect on mental health and good order.

These things may appear to be trifles to us in our comfortable lives. They are, I assure you, not. These things lay at the heart of what it means to be a prisoner, confined in an environment with few options for even tiny sparks of autonomy, where all resources are deliberately kept scarce. I can tell you that getting out of bed in the morning and having the ability to choose which trousers to wear is important. Knowing there is the opportunity to be able to buy a packet of biscuits to ease night-time hunger is important. And feeling connected to the world, society, events, through the TV is important.

These things are far more significant than I could ever explain to people who have never tasted the loss of freedom, of choice, of autonomy. For they are thin threads of decency, of meaning, that signify some remaining connection to the human community and what it means to be a human being.

And to molest them in the arbitrary way that Grayling proposes reeks of unfairness, of ignorance and of a contemptible disregard of what it means to be a prisoner. If I had to mix you a recipe for a riot it would be this. To institute a scheme to earn privileges, for prisoners to adhere to those terms and spend their pitiful wages in meagre ways to bring small comfort - and then to arbitrarily strip them of all of this out of political spite.

I'm not usually one to keep an eye on the weather. But I have a sudden hankering for a long, hot summer.....


  1. And presumably the reward of privileges is a way of keeping control. If there is nothing to gain by conforming why should anyone do so!


  3. It's the nature of things that people often worsen the very problems they set out to solve. An example of this in a different field is playing out in the news now.

  4. I'm not sure what they have to gain from this - perhaps the pressure from the public and rising concern over some prisons being "Holiday Camps" I've seen crop up in the press.

    In an overcrowded and under-resourced prison system much like many all over the world there are only two ways in which to maintain order and control - absolute brutality (Russia anyone?) or with most other places that try to maintain the peace by keeping the prisoners calm and occupied.

    I don't think it's beneficial to have prisoners sat around all day watching TV, especially while illiteracy is so high, are they planning to replace the TV with something positive? If so it may be a somewhat of a good thing.

    Pulling Canteen is something I can't see them actually pushing through, it's not only a serious recipe for disaster but also a financial hit for the companies operating it.

    What bothers me most about the prison system is the inconsistency of it. There shouldn't be privileges available in some prisons, and not in others.

  5. It seems to me this country is being purposely dismantled and privatised. NHS, welfare, Military, Probation, energy, plus corruption across the whole spectrum - Police, BBC + media, Banks, Government, Sport... The way the riots last summer were ALLOWED to spread.... These changes are indeed a recipe for disaster and riots but of course no MP or Govenor will be endangered by this. Only Prisoners + staff inside the jails. How convenient. And then what will replace the failed/destroyed system? I'm sure they have a solution just waiting in the wings to be readily offered to the desperate. :(

  6. As usual, Ben, you raise the issues with a wonderful eloquence.

    It begs the question once again: why do we allow our country to be led by people who have NO UNDERSTANDING or experience, knowledge, skill, or qualification in the areas in which they are empowered to make decisions, but distanced enough from the consequence? (e.g. Grayling is not the one who will have to actually remove the items, nor reap the aftermath or mess that will follow; Gove won't actually have to implement his stupid educational rantings in any classroom... and so on).

    Even with my ignorance of what prison life if like I cannot understand what benefit at all will be made from removing those small privileges that prisoners can earn. I don't even want to grab Grayling by the throat (well...I'mm not sure...) and ask him why why why why...but I do what a simple answer to:

    What do you hope to GAIN? Even if we coldly brush aside any human rights debate for prisoners, or any other complex issue... I just want to know, with all of the sheer hassle, time, money, backlash, consequence (which will be metered out on the screws, not Grayling)...what society is going to gain from this.

    If prisons are there to serve a sociological purpose (as is claimed they do) how does this latest change propose to improve this?