Sunday, April 11, 2010


Whilst the wider world continues with its fixation on our televisions and PlayStations, the substantive weight of imprisonment as experienced on this side of the wall is completely overlooked.

One such is the dependency that prisoners are forced to experience. Such is the level of control and regulation over the smallest details of our lives, that we are engaged in a perpetual struggle to carve out areas of autonomy or choice.

This is a child-like existence, inherently demeaning to grown men. We must ask staff for everything. Soap, socks, loo paper, to unlock the door, to allow us physical movement... Everything is designed to make us dependent. Such a deliberate effort to regulate our lives may increase the systems faith in their control, but it runs a terrible risk of eroding the abilities of their charges. I've made the point before - a good prisoner is not the same as a good citizen.

Of course, there are opportunities to exercise autonomy, in many areas of our lives. And yet, these actually shift our dependency from the prison system onto others' outside.

To give myself choices in what I wear, what I eat, drink, and when; how often I can write letters, with what class of postage and on what paper; what clothing I can wear... All of these depend on money. Not being parted with too readily by the prison system, this means being in a state of perpetual dependency on others.

The depths of this schema can be illustrated by a simple haircut. How do we get this done? Some prisons employ a prisoner-barber, which is free. Even then, his capabilities and frequency of service limit the choices that we can exercise. More often, private barbers are used. These are prisoners who can wield clippers with some skill, who we pay with tobacco. Assuming you can afford it. If you have the money, the most liberty in choice you can buy is via purchasing your own hair clippers.

This is such a small example, yet it encapsulates all of the difficulties that are involved when attempting to find some autonomy from dependency on the prison. Whether the prison barber is cutting your hair, to his skill and timescale; or whether a mate is doing it; both seem near-identical and yet are fundamentally different in their meaning and importance to the individual prisoner. I have managed to buy my own clippers now, freeing me from depending on others for haircuts(thank you!).

This dependency extends, intrudes, into every area of our lives. I write on an old word-processor that could die at any moment, killing my ability to write. The ink is scrounged off a mate, who could shut up shop. The paper is nicked from official stocks as we cannot buy A4 plain paper. The envelopes and stamps used to post it to the blog Editor are bought with donations.

The Editor spends time and effort scanning, spellchecking and posting a piece each and every day. Something more interesting may come along, you never know, and this service may cease. End of Blog.

I'm wearing clothes bought by generous others, wearing a watch which was a birthday present, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap coffee from money given to me.

My studies, such a large part of my current life and future hopes, rest completely in the hands of other people to support and facilitate.

Every aspect of life depends on others. Be it money, time, effort or simply an ear to listen to me, it rests in the hands of others.

Without the efforts and kindness of other people, I would have nothing. And this isn't a mere materialistic point, it extends to such aspects of life as friendship and sexual expression. Remember, we can't just go out and find a new partner or friend!

And yet, through this dependency on others, within prison this gives us the ability to carve out a sphere of freedom, gives us opportunities for exercising choice in an environment designed to reduce us to automatons.

This is deeply contradictory. Perhaps, importantly, it is that our dependence on other people outside helps to reduce our dependency on the prison system. If we have to be beholden and dependent, it is far better to be so to those whose motives are kind.

It is in these deep, emotional and psychological ways that prison bears its sharpest weight. Having a TV doesn't really make up for being forced to live like a child.


  1. I hear you Ben. Unfortunately, the media chooses to present prison as a great life in order to get wrath from the public. Whenever people say to me how easy prison is, I tell them that their comments show no appreciation, or even realisation, of the freedom that they have. I'm a magistrate.

  2. The comedian Doug Stanhope, has a line for those who think prison is a doddle: If you think your life is miserable, having to work and pay taxes for free-loaders, then why not punish criminals by giving them your job!

    In a society that is screaming for vengeance/justice, it is inevitable that the prison population will burgeon. I think the solution has to include more space, and as Ben suggests, more autonomy, that will lead to self responsibility.

    We should consider the establishment of self sustaining prison colonies; with their own society, fenced off from the nation, a state within a state, like the Vatican.

    The host nation provides the basics: food, energy, boarder guards, prisoners, etc. But the 'inmates' are left to organise themselves into a functional society.

    In fact, why not take it to the political extreme, and divide the nation in two. All those who want law and order through central control, live in one half; all those who want freedom through anarchy, live in the other half.

    Why lock prisoners in, when you can lock them out?

  3. How does a prisoner look like?
    I have followed ben's blog now for a couple of months - he killed his friend and he alone is living with that. I have never killed anyone, never stolen from anyone, never lied to anyone, but my own siblings pushed me so hard with their lies, deceit, jealous and envy from as far back as 1981 that they left me no choice but to either kill them or walk away from them. It is not for lack of opportunities that I did not kill them, because every time I walked away from them they blackmailed me with 'blood is thicker than water' crap, so as to abuse me more. When an opportunity to murder my brother who is ten years older than me came my way after he made me so mad with his lies that he was telling my friends, I became so angry that I could feel my brain pulsing away. I chose to get drunk to oblivion. But once I got drunk I couldn't stomach the sight of him and I had to get away from him and hence drove under the influence of alcohol. The first and only crime I have ever committed in my life. I could have killed someone driving under the influence of alcohol and been imprisoned for it.

    Prisoners are human beings like all of us and all of us are potential prisoners. What is the point of incarcerating someone for 20 years and then releasing him/her to the the outside world with no skills? I believe prison is the hell on earth for most people. But I also believe that with support and educating prisoners whilst they are serving their sentence so that they have a skill that they can use when they leave prison will make our society a better place. But what chance do we have under politicians who don't even provide proper support for those who want to learn a skill (adult education) - they are not only cutting back fundings for adult education, but they are privatising education. Buggers!

  4. My dear Ben, do the crime do the time really does not fit in some cases. I do not know what you have done, nor care. Hopefully you deserve your time away from society but whilst serving your time I firmly believe you should be well cared for. I hope you will do your bird and only see the inside of a prison on tv, but somehow I doubt it. It saddens me when young men/women return time after time becoming old lags and missing so much life. Last week a 44. Year old was released and was found dead days later in a room in a hostel. I had known him over a year, a pain in the backside, an ex soldier, mental issues - this can be the reality for some. Ben stop worrying about your hair and consider your future, don't come back lad!
    By the way, I am a Governor who cares!

  5. Anonymous - I am so glad you're here! I'm 'estate' too.

  6. How wonderful to read Anonymous above! I have always hoped that there would be some decent people in the prison service and am so pleased that one has felt able to write here. If I am honest there are some good prison staff - my son who is very vulnerable has been well looked after by most of the staff - but of course there are one or two who are evil and unkind!

    I can identify with some of the points that Ben has written as my son has expressed concern and fear of coming out as he has not had to take responsibility for himself for so long (4 years). I keep telling the authorities that they should be rehabilitating prisoners properly but feel I have wasted my efforts as the prison service in general seems intent on destroying people instead of rehabiltating them.

    Thanks Ben again for a good blog.

  7. Jo- as an ex con myself, there are some excellent prison staff, yes some jobs-worths too, but on the whole most of them are OK. I was only in Jail for 5 months, i found coming out quite hard, (and i have supportive frieds and family) but you do get on your feet again, you just have to realise it won't happen overnight.

  8. Thanks Anonymous for the supportive words.

  9. @ Florence:

    "Prisoners are human beings like all of us and all of us are potential prisoners."

    I spent my life as one of the "baying masses" but now I face prison myself for a non-violent crime, fraud. I would never have seen myself as a potential prisoner but here I am, waiting for my sentence. Suddenly one of the baying masses faces prison.