Monday, April 5, 2010

Prison Myths

People out there seem to have a ready store of prison myths to call upon, mostly culled from the dodgier end of the media and cinema portrayals.

Prisoners are equally prone to believing in myths. For all of my sentence I have heard fellow cons proclaim that Britain pays a fine to the European Court each year, in order to compensate for breaking the law in using razor-wire on fences and walls, and for reading our mail.

Utter tripe, the lot of it. The European Court has no power to fine, has never taken a view on razor-wire and is quite happy for a proportionate interference in our right to private life on the grounds of preventing crime and disorder (excepting our legal mail).

This myth is popular amongst prisoners, it trickles down the generations unhindered by reality. It is attractive, as it erodes the self-proclaimed moral superiority of our keepers. What else elevates a prisoner’s status faster than his jailers being law-breakers? I wish it were true...

My sentence is "to be Detained during Her Majesty's Pleasure", the life sentence handed out to juveniles. I'm still interrupted by the odd person sidling up to me and telling me, conspiratorially, that I will automatically be released when the Queen dies. Given that Brenda seems to hail from an annoyingly resilient bloodline, this isn't a great comfort. It is also completely untrue.

The latest generation of Lifers, and even ones who should know better, often share the idea that our sentence is actually one of 99 years. The origin of this myth is, unusually, easily sourced. Whichever jackass built the prison systems computer system, called LIDS, forgot to allow the field for 'Sentence' to cope with anything other than numbers. The word 'life' just burned its diodes. And so, on this system, Lifers are allocated the numerical sentence of 99 years.

The reality of the situation is cunningly hidden in the words 'Life sentence'. It allows for us to be held until death. It doesn't matter if you uncover a distant Vulcan relative and realise you will live to be 200, you won't be kicked out after 99 of them.

For many, many years it was accepted practice to allocate Lifers to a single cell. When I was briefly forced to share, screws apologised for this. This practice grew up in recognition that life sentences carried immense psychological pressures and sharing a cell merely added to the burden. And so the myth that Lifers were entitled to a single cell became embedded, it was repeated like a mantra, and even many staff believed it. No such rule actually exists and never has.

Old-timers will recall the persistent story that the prison service was offered unlimited free tobacco from the makers of Old Holborn. Utter tosh, of course, but it played into our general persecution complex. Even if they were offered free tobacco, those bastards in HQ would refuse it just to cause us grief. Like all myths, it rested on a mixture of wishful thinking, playing to our prejudices, and sounds like just the sort of thing that could happen. If only.

Waking up in the morning to find a cellmate dangling from the bars must be shocking. The myth persists that, should your cellmate kill himself, then you will be released from your sentence in recognition of the trauma suffered. When I briefly found myself sharing a cell with two short-termers (serving days and weeks), they tried to persuade me to kill myself so they could get home early. Alas, the prison service isn't as humane or generous as this myth assumes. In a classic passage from the Staff manual on Requests and Complaints, it lays out the scale of generosity to be meted out to prisoners who have undertaken extraordinary acts. The example given is a prisoner on home leave who charges into a burning building to save a family. It recommends that a single month be cut from his sentence...Dead cellmates aren't worth much in this schema.

Mythology isn't an area I'm particularly familiar with, but I note the broad themes that underlie all of these prison myths. They have a kernel of possibility, reinforce our prejudices, and either increase our relative status or degrades that of the prison service. Most importantly, they offer the possibility of hope.


  1. Just for the record: The European Court of Justice does have the power to impose fines on Member Sates.

  2. I was lead to belive it WAS true, if your cell mate killed themselves, you did get immediate release, they stopped it, because people encouraged them to do it.

  3. But the European Court of Human Rights does not levy fines.

  4. We don't use LIDS any more. Just so you all know ; )

  5. I was in prison for 3 1/2 years & I too heard all of the above myths & believed them, being as neither I or most of the people who know me consider myself to be uneducated, easily led or influenced by others I'm really shocked to be taken in on these matters, however I think there has never been a truer word said than "They have a kernel of possibility, reinforce our prejudices, and either increase our relative status or degrades that of the prison service. Most importantly, they offer the possibility of hope."
    Given this theory to be true I submit that these myths do serve a most essential purpose in giving us hope!

  6. anyone got any pearls of wisdom regarding recategorisation to open prison long before you are due it?


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