Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On Power

Eleven years in...

Lying on my bed after lunch, I heard the muffled rattle of plastic approaching my cell door. There is only one thing which makes that noise - a polycarbonate riot-shield. I was about to be "extracted" from my cell... Quite why was a mystery, but one to be put aside as I contemplated my response to the imminent charge. Three screws were about to throw open the door and charge... I could fight, but there is an endless supply of staff. I chose to minimise any potential perceived threat I could be accused of presenting by sitting on my bed, arms and hands clearly away from my body and equally clearly holding no weapon.

It made no difference. The charge came with the expected whirlwind of energy, the lead - the "shield man" using his weight and the shield to smash me against the wall, wedging me as two other staff - all fully kitted in riot gear and helmets - grabbed for my arms and applied the standard wrist-locks.... It is called "pain compliance". The wrists are twisted to cause excruciating agony, wracking the body and rendering resistance impossible.

Twisted up - bent over, wrists and arms in Aikido locks, a screw holding my head to "guide" my forward motion - I was moved out onto the narrow landing. The rest of the wing was shut down, only my screams from the viciously applied wrist- locks disturbing the post-lunch silence. The landing was long and narrow, a slow painful procession towards the stairs....from the Threes landing down to the Ones, navigating an ancient and narrow Victorian iron staircase...each step jerking my wrists and head....the pain made it difficult to stand, even when bent over.

On the ground floor I was moved with  more speed towards the Strongbox tucked away in the corner. A cell within a cell, concrete, completely empty. A small window of frosted glass brick set high. Forced to the floor, full length, my face being ground into the concrete as my clothes were wordlessly ripped from me. My legs were crossed and forced up my back, allowing one screw to immobilise me by gripping my crossed ankles as the other two ran out of the door. He leant down to my face, his helmet visor obscuring his identity. Pushing my ankles hard up my back, hand squashing my face to the unmoving floor, he said, "Don't move before I'm out of the door...or we'll be back." One last swift application of his weight onto my legs and he was gone, the iron door slammed shut. Then the outer door.

As mobility slowly returned to my limbs, the pain receding, I sat cross-legged with my back against the far wall, facing the door. I stared at the spy-hole, attempting to control my breathing each time a screw outside suddenly flicked the metal cover aside to observe me. An hour, two, passed.

The wing manager opened the door. Standing outside, his hand on the lock readied for a swift exit, over his shoulder a group of other screws. A woman governor stood at next to him. I looked across the concrete from my squatting position and said, "And what the fuck was THAT all about?!" The manager stared back. "It was an attempt to persuade you to alter your attitude..."

My legs and wrists still numb, I had to use the wall to pull myself up. Standing against the back wall, naked, hurt, vulnerable, I felt my patient contempt settle into the centre of my being.

Looking him in the eye, my flat certainty clear in my voice, I said, "Really? And how do you think this is going to go for you...?"


  1. It's a joke that builds and builds but the punchline fails to make it one person wrote the joke, the other made up an unconnected punchline.

    In a way, one could imagine an individual, in ONE MOMENT, losing a little control and misunderstanding some shouting as "threatening" and turning around to apply a little too much force, an an unnecessary strike of a baton. I say one could imagine this because in a fraught, rioting situation there is little time to think about ones actions, and stepping over that line, in anger, panic or whatever the fight/flight instinct commands, we sometimes do things like hit first, think later.

    But this? This was a bizarrely concocted, strategical (I use that word with a bit of a smirk) attack that had been planned and plotted as coldly as any mundane piece of paperwork might be.

    Maybe they'd been on a training course of "Basic Hack Psychology" and had to try out some of their learning.

    More likely, lacking an "viagra for the mind", e their intellectual impotence failed to get further than "less rough 'im up a bit, that will sort him out".

    Besides, being a horrible experience indeed...I find it sad, utterly sad.

    “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
    - Nelson Mandela

  2. When you combine 'Asch conformity experiments' with the 'Milgram experiment', you end up with the 'Stanford prison experiment':

  3. Interesting anecdote , but surely this is only the abridged version?
    If this happened when you were 11 years into your sentence that'd make it 91 or 92 right? If that's the case and you had been put into a special cell ( colloquially known as a strong box) you must have been seen by a member of the BOV (IMB nowadays) and the MO.
    Furthermore if you had been subject to a planned removal from your cell ( straight after lunch, unlock for labour delayed for the entire prison, staff kitted up in PPE etc) then it would have to have been sanctioned beforehand by the Duty Governor and Use of a special cell rather than relocation to the seg unit also sanctioned by the governing Governor or Deputy Governor. But apparently all of this happened simply as an attempt to change your attitude?
    I suspect that either there's a preceding part to this story that concerns your behaviour prior to lunch on this fateful day that you haven't included in this anecdote, or that you've transposed something that you might have seen or heard about happening to another prisoner into the narrative of your time in prison.
    Just saying, that's all

  4. And you're not joking, are you?! I spared the reader the bureaucracy that is meant to surround use of force because that would be dull and irrelevant to the point of my post.

    But everything you say is quite right. That is how it is meant to happen. It just doesn't. To say force is not misused in prison is absurd. That I soon after went to Dartmoor and had very regular "attitude adjustments" from Block staff are equally mythical. Because the BoV would never allow such things....

  5. Fair point.
    Your codicil adds a depth of context that was missing in the original post (IMO).
    The fact that BOVs, MOs and governing Governors were sometimes complicit in interestingly strange and possibly unnecessary use of force is the real point here I suspect.
    Whilst your daily bread and butter was dealing with landing officers of all shades from Barraclough to McKay, the actual abuse of power ( if that's what it was) originated at higher levels

    1. Of course it takes all levels of staff to make abuse of power a reality, to a greater or lesser extend.
      The brutality in Dartmoors block for generations was known to all involved in the prison, Area, and HQ. Cons were sent there specifically to be "warmed up". This couldn't happen without - bare minimum - tacit compliance from higher authorities. Ho hum.

    2. Grinding reality.

  6. 'Eleven years in' is the most powerful phrase of the piece. Any mind that thinks an attitude can be altered by a brief shock of pain and humiliation after it had remained constant for over a decade is essentially reptilian.


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