Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Identity Theft

One of the first things that happens on being received into prison at the beginning is that we are issued a unique identifying number. Mine is K12612 and it has become as much a part of my identity as my name.
Every form, every process or procedure, each time we sign our name or present ourselves, we reiterate our number. Although it begins as being part of the process of what Goffman termed 'mortification', a part of the scheme to undermine individual identity; as the years pass we somehow make it our own.
In a strange way, our number can even give more of a glimpse into who we are than our name. From my number it can be seen that my first step into detention was at Pucklechurch remand centre as a youngster; which is the origin of the "K" in the number. The numerals, being five instead of four of them, show that I have been in for decades.
This tells people something. That I have great experience, that I'm on 'old birdman'. Couple that with my apparent sanity and it suggests resilience, a refusal to abandon the fight to maintain some sort of individuality. In some places, in years past, a number such as mine evoked a small measure of initial respect from fixed termers and new lifers. I say initial respect because if a man is an arse then no matter how long he has done he is still an arse!
In this way, prisoners endowed their numbers with a meaning that rebuffs the intent of it being a dehumanising mark stamped on by the institution.
Now we hear that they are taking all our numbers off us and reissuing new ones. We have reached the stage where so many people are being thrown into prison that they have run out of numbers! These new marks will be anodyne, devoid of the informative characteristics of the present ones. In a twist that I would never have predicted, some of us are grumbling because they are attached to their number. If you carry a mark for much of your life, no matter how disfiguring, it can become a part of you and to have it exchanged can be unsettling.
This episode also gives an insight into prison service mentality. Did we find out about this identity theft from an official notice? Some announcement, coupled with an explanation? Of course not. We have to find out from other cons in far flung prisons, who have already been subject to this process. Yet again, the institution reveals a profound ignorance of what things mean to prisoners, and an indifferent disregard for discovering. This is far more dehumanising that being stamped with a Number.


  1. Sounds like those Jews that Survived Concentration camps that didnt want to have the their Identity Tattoos removed because the experience was branded into their lives and they couldnt just forget like that.

    Obviously prison isnt quite the same but it made me think of it.

    Christian Sam

  2. Soldiers do the same with their service numbers...

  3. i use my old (4 diget) prison no as my cashpoint pin no, coz i'll never forget it.

  4. I doubt that being the last person to hear about your own future is uniquely an inside experience, but I sympathise with Ben over his number. I lost my old-style prison number shortly after it was issued due to my being locked out of the prison system part way through my pre-trial remand period by prison officers working to rule. The new number I got when I re-entered the system looked conspicuously green and inadequate. It had too many zeros to use it as a PIN.

  5. In university I am just a number starting with J9****** :)