The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
December 02, 2005

Introducing the Social Affairs Unit's prison columnist - "You hear some good stories in prison"

Posted by Emily Kingham

Our prison columnist is writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison. Under a pseudonym, she will write - without compromising prison security or prisoner confidentiality - a fortnightly diary detailing her experiences on the wings and in the workshops.

I was in the resettlement workshop introducing myself to the prisoners. I am writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison in southeast England. I'm also a writer and journalist, I told the men sitting in front of me.

You're a journalist?
one of them piped up.
I replied. Another man asked,
Who've you written for?
I told him the Independent on Sunday, Financial Times, New Statesman... He then asked:
Are you going to steal our stories?
That's what I like about prison. You can't bullshit a prisoner. They don't want to hear the guff with which we surround ourselves. They see through it. When you're reduced to nothing and there's nowhere to hide, it's amazing how honest you become. And he was right. You hear some good stories in prison. And I have the privilege of having access to them.

I also have a set of keys that I wear on a chain that hangs from a pouch attached to a leather belt wrapped around my waist. No one is allowed to touch my keys, not another member of staff, certainly not a prisoner. I must never remove the keys from my person, except when I hand them in at the gate lodge on leaving the prison. When I open a gate, barbed-wire fence or reinforced-steel door, I must shield the keys from prisoners' view so that they can't study the shape, size or incisions of the keys in order to reproduce them.

I feel like a chatelaine in a gothic fortress.

During my security induction, or "key talk" as it's informally known, the Prison Officer responsible for security told me my first good story. Like all good stories, it posed a moral dilemma in the first sentence.

What would you do if a prisoner came up to you with a birthday card in his hand and asked you to post it?
While I pondered, he went on to explain:
He tells you he's missed the post and it will break his daughter's heart if she doesn't hear from her dad. It's her sixth birthday.
I know that I am not allowed to give messages, gifts or favours to prisoners, or accept them. I gave my answer:
I'd say I was sorry but I'm bound by the rules like anyone else.
The PO went on to describe what might have happened if I had agreed to post the prisoner's card for his daughter.
A few months later, the same prisoner will come up to you and this time it's his wedding anniversary and he's in for a right old ear-bashing if his missus doesn't get this card. You can see that it's nothing but a card with a soppy poem on it, so you post it.

By now, you have committed two acts of trafficking. It won't be long before he puts an envelope in your hand and says:
"My mate Jim's waiting for you in the pub round the corner. You can't miss him. He's a big bloke and he'll be looking out for you. He's got a package. Bring it in tomorrow. You won't get searched. You come through the gate every day. It'll be easy."

If you protest, he will then tell you that in posting his letters, you have already committed two acts of trafficking. These crimes carry prison sentences, and
you will automatically be arrested and escorted to the local police station where you will be charged. Needless to say, you will lose your job.

I was horrified. He went on:
If you agree to go to the pub and meet Jim and bring in his package - which could contain drugs or, God forbid, a weapon - you will find a few weeks later that one of the lifers will approach you.
What now? I wondered.
The lifer will suggest you visit him in his cell for a couple of hours. You see, he knows what you're up to, and he has nothing to lose if you decide to inform on him. He's in here for life anyway. You have everything to lose.
My imagination going into overdrive, I was terrified at the scenario being presented to me. I was glued to every word. I'd just been given the synopsis to a prison thriller.

Back on planet prison, I was faced with a group of sceptical, Cat B prisoners who've passed through the hands of every well-meaning, ineffectual do-gooder the prison service can throw at them. At this point I should explain that Category A offenders are the most dangerous prisoners whose escape would present a huge threat to the public. Belmarsh is a Cat A prison. My prison houses Cat B prisoners who pose less of a threat to the public, but they are still dangerous enough to warrant high levels of security.

I told them I was there to get them writing, reading, exploring their creativity. I wanted to set up a magazine, I said. They sat in sceptical silence. One of the prisoners took pity on me and broke it. He said he was reading Crime and Punishment.

What's it about?
another asked.
he said.
And guilt
I added.

They both looked at me. I said:

The guilt all human beings feel. The guilt of being born human.
The prisoner who was reading it resumed:
Anyway, it's really long. I might not finish it.
I hope he does.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

OK, so what is she doing there?

Posted by: OD at December 2, 2005 06:04 PM

What other 'employees-in-residence' do we pay for in our prisons?

Posted by: simon at December 4, 2005 01:20 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement