Friday, May 13, 2011

Screws and Cons

Could you lock a man in a cell? What does that take, to carefully, regularly, routinely, inflict that punishment on another human being? Answering that question goes a long way to mapping the distance that separates cons and screws.

And distance there is. Although there is a patina of decency and humanity, occasional intersecting interests, I have never met a screw who wouldn't partake in stitching up a con if push comes to shove.

To inflict such a punishment in such a personal way, to take a place in the carceral machine, must involve a malign view of prisoners. We are, truly and irredeemably, the Other. We are sub- human in a very real way.

In casually bouncing this idea around in company, it was suggested that screws view us in much the same way as a farmer views his pigs. I begged to disagree. If we follow that analogy, I would say that screws view us in the same way that the slaughterer views his victims.


  1. In Zimbardo's Stamford Prison experiment, the 'guards' and the 'prisoners' started out from the same point, i.e. they were all students; yet a strong demarcation soon developed according to each role.

    I've not read Zimbardo's reflections on his experiment, so I'm guessing that it's to do with resolving a conflict of empathy. Because the act of incarceration is an imposition, the natural empathic reaction by any sentient human is one of revulsion, as it would be like locking up themselves by proxy. Hence the instigator must reassess their empathic relationship with the prisoner, by projecting contempt, and making them the pariah, thus destroying the empathy by social demarcation.

  2. As I understand it, Zimbardo's experiment was pretty seriously flawed (short sumarry of the issues:
    Though realistically, the selection bias for actual prison guards would be much stronger than for participants in a study about prison.

  3. "Could you lock a man in a cell?"

    Depends on the justification behind it. What had that man done to deserve it and his he a threat to anybody else? If that person had, by his own decisions and actions, gone out and made life deliberately worse for decent people, then I'd have no qualms about delivering punishment to that man.

    It's like the question "Would I hit a man hard round the head with a cricket bat?". Not normally no, but I would if I caught that man burgling my house.

  4. I recon you are right in your final analysis Ben, and its a terrible indictment on this society, so too is the abominable way children are getting treated these days from the high cost of education to the latest housing rules which make it damn difficult for them to even get an independent roof over their heads to the lack of job prospects, it all really makes me angry.

  5. The extension to this is that almost every human interaction involves reducing the person opposite you. Every time a police officer arrests someone they know they may be costing that person their liberty.

    Every time I apply for a job I may beat someone else who wants it, or may even be far more dependent on getting it. Every time I buy a lottery ticket (or rather, if I did as I never gamble)I am potentially confining another person to a life of poverty.

    If I buy the last cake on the shop shelf? Order the last pint in a pubs barrel? Book the last room in a hotel room?

    Every time we do something that interacts with another person we potentially set their lives back and deprive them of certain things of varying importance. Does this make us less human? If the answer is no, then the only difference between a prison guard and an everyday person is that the prison guard gets to see immediately what they are doing.

  6. Ben, I am extremely saddened that over all the years of your incarceration, you do not seem to have encountered any prison officer who seemed to you to treat you with dignity and kindness. I have to say that I have been involved as a volunteer, in small group work with prisoners, their families, and officers, and on those occasions the officers involved have demonstrated empathy. I do hope it wasn't just for my benefit. Also my friend who has been in and out of prison every year for 10 years, has had experiences of officers seeing beyond the 'drug addict/criminal' and treating him accordingly. Only recently he was invited to be library orderly as an officer remebered his interest in reading and books from a previous sentence.

    I believe there are 'good' and 'bad' people in every job/profession - police, GPs, social workers, teachers, journalists etc etc. We mustn't fall into the trap of generalising about people; I'm one of the first to get irate when people generalise about prisoners but it works both ways. Everyone is a unique individual of great worth in God's sight, however we may feel about that.

  7. A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio phone in show with Crispin Blunt (prisons minister) answering questions. One of the callers was a prison officer who illustrated his approach and in so doing explained how he was able to work in a prison.

    He explained that his simple rationale was that prisoners 'must have done something really bad' to have wound up in prison and therefore he was doing society a service by locking them up and punishing them. His contempt for the Cons was clear. When talking to Crispin Blunt, he was objecting to the fact that in his prison he, and the other officers, had recently been asked to call all the cons by their first names. He objected to the humanising approach.

    I think he may have illustrated the simplistic logic with which many prison officers operate and in doing so provided an insight into the culture that prison officers operate within. They de-humanise prisoners with the rationale that they are just 'bad people' in a very similar way that other people behave with prejudice towards entire religious groups or people with a particular sexuality or race. They deal with the problem that others would have with the idea of 'regularly and routinely inflicting punishments on another human being' by detaching themselves from any sense of empathy with the group - they apply prejudice.

    In wartime, we apply the same approach on a mass scale. The enemy is denigrated and de-humanised to the extent where the individual soldier ceases to be a living, breathing, valuable human being, but instead just becomes a single element of a larger evil. 70 years ago, tearing a man's guts out with a jagged knife would have been a good thing to do - provided he was wearing a Nazi uniform of course.

    It seems to me that the prison system needs to be turned on it's head. Instead of it being a culture where people adopt a prejudicial approach, instead we need prison officers who do see prisoners as individually different people each with unique circumstances. And we need them to see their job as working with people who have done bad things (rather than just as 'bad people') to reduce the chances of them doing bad things again. A major cultural and organisational shift is needed.

    The punishment is the term of imprisonment, the period for which liberty is denied. It should not be the role of prison officers to inflict punishment. Instead their role should be to rehabilitate and simply and evenly enforce rules. Because, as a society, that's what we want. We want people coming out of prison who are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else - whereas, as it stands, for most crimes there is more than a 50% chance they will be back in prison within 2 years.

    If prisoners come out of prison feeling like they are part of the 'criminals' group of a 'them and us' culture, it's not surprising if they continue to act as criminals.

    Unfortunately, at the end of the prison officer's telephone call, Crispin Blunt congratulated the man for doing a valuable job. Perhaps this was just the usual politician's response to communicating with anyone - perhaps Crispin was just being polite and didn't really mean it..

    I just hope he was not genuinely endorsing the prison officer's approach because if so, the chances of being able to say that 'prison works' in a few years time are very, very slim indeed.

  8. Even the so called 'decent screws' turn a blind eye to the abuses being committed in prisons on every day of every week!

  9. "Could you lock a man in a cell?"

    Well let's be honest Ben, that man didn't accidentally end up in prison, he was put there for a reason. Could I lock a man in a cell? Sure, if he deserves it. This is coming from an ex-prisoner BTW. However, it should be noted that a lot of prison officers don't ask themselves, "does this guy REALLY need to be here?" Fortunately in my case I had a screw tell me from the off, "There is no way in this world you need to be in prison." And from that point I was treated "differently."

  10. On the flip side, I've met very few 'cons' who wouldn't stitch up, abuse or manipulate a 'screw' if push came to shove.

  11. @ Rob
    Congratulations Rob, I totally agree with your sentiments, unfortunately we seem to be in the minority. The Prison Service, Criminal 'Justice' System and the Probation Service, to name just a few, are so in need of reform it beggars belief. Until that happens 'they' will continue to mete out whatever further humiliation and degradation they can. Loss of liberty doesn't satisfy the 'lock em up' brigade.

  12. Could you lock a man in a cell? Not sure that I could if it were someone at random. But we're talking about locking up people who have been deemed by society to be a threat to that society. Change the question to "could you lock a murderer in a cell?" or "could you lock a rapist in a cell?" and you might get a less sympathetic response. Even the question "could you lock a burglar in a cell?" would be likely to receive the answer "yes", especially if you asked the person he'd burgled. Yes, innocents will get caught in the system but once you accept that society has a right to establish boundaries of conduct and to prescribe measures for enforcing those boundaries, then someone has to do the job.

    Are we surprised to find a disposition to nitpicking officiousness among traffic wardens? Or a disposition to bullying among the police? Or a disposition to violence among soldiers? So why should we be surprised to find a disposition to cynicism regarding the human condition among prison staff? Whether that disposition is what leads them to apply for those jobs or whether working in those jobs leads to the disposition.

    The lack of self-awareness which crops up from time to time in Ben's posts rears its head again here. Why would anyone have a malign view of prisoners and view them as "the other"? Is that a serious question? We're not talking about children in a school here or patients in a hospital. We're talking about prisoners in a prison. People who usually, by their own actions, have placed themselves outside society. It doesn't follow that they should be treated inhumanely or without understanding but is it so surprising that society will regard them as "the other"?

    Talking of that lack of self-awareness, it amazes me that no-one raises the slightest objection to Ben's use of the crass analogy of "slaughterers and victims"? Can anyone who cares for Ben's situation and hopes he may one day get released read without despair his portraying himself publicly as the victim of a slaughterer?

  13. Steve your comment is very interesting and thought provoking.

    To try and answer the question in your final paragraph, I would say that when Ben uses the analogy of the relationship between screws and cons being like a slaughterer to a victim, for me it sheds light on what is going on, it strikes me as some way towards the truth of matter, and for Ben (and me too) uncovering and stating or sheding light on the truth is of paramount importance, that is what Ben wants to do with his life after having committed such a wrong that he cannot right, he devotes his life to humanity and justice.

    From where he is standing it is about dignity and justice for prisoners, but not in isolation of the rest of society. Ben challenges us to look at prisoners as human in every aspect and as a concequence of this challenge it is right to question this societies treatment of our fellow man.

    I admire Ben for his stance and I personaly gain eye opening knowlege from reading his blog, and its a generous knowlege too, where his intention is to give to and benefit all. But of course just as all of us, he is only human therefore fallable and with flaws.