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January 20, 2006

Why men like "Steve" and "Dave" cannot keep out of prison - they cannot cope with the outside world

Posted by Emily Kingham

Some men seem incapable of keeping out of prison. Men like "Steve" and "Dave" return to prison after just a few weeks of freedom. Emily Kingham - writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison - thinks it is because they cannot cope with the outside world.

The informed and passionate responses to my last piece - Yes - promoting literacy in prisons does reduce crime - cannot go unnoted. Mike and Edjog in particular made me think about my position on the questions of choice and responsibility - as have two recent experiences. So this is for you, guys.

I know that on release from prison, offenders are more than likely to re-offend. It's a particularly vulnerable time for them. Some inmates harm themselves in order to prolong their "stay" in prison. Two men I've spoken to have said they feel safer on the inside than they do on the out. After the heavily reinforced structures of prison they are returned to a community where their families and friends are continuing to lead dysfunctional lives. Or they are placed in hostels and shelters where other residents are dealing (or sometimes not dealing) with drug dependency, poverty and emotional problems. In both these contexts the chaos that clouds reason and consideration is being acted out around them. They fall back into the patterns of behaviour that brought them to prison in the first place.

I know one man - "Steve" - who was released into a hostel. He has no family, his childhood was spent evading foster carers who were abusing him. He is possibly the most piteous man I have ever met. His particular thing is driving without a license. Sometimes he changes the pace and goes for reckless driving - (it doesn't take much imagination to translate his offences into a need to escape). He's been in and out prison for it since he was a teenager. But that changed when he met a young woman with a new baby, and became deeply involved with her within days of his release. The depth of their involvement should have signalled to their social workers that here were two vulnerable people turning to each other - always a bad idea. Inevitably, the father of the girl's child paid an unexpected visit, and an altercation ensued. Steve has never committed a violent offence before. No one was hurt, but he will be back inside within the week.

I know that he will argue he was protecting her. Boyfriend number one was probably abusive. The girlfriend was probably scared. Maybe she thought she'd found her white knight in Steve. More than likely she can't take care of herself or her child and looks to men for strength and for protection. But Steve can't take care of himself either. And there's no way he can take care of a young mother and her child. So we're left with two chaotic adults who cannot help themselves or their offspring and cannot find a way out of their predicaments. What on earth are we supposed to do with them? And can we talk about
them having choices when their behaviour is so deeply rooted?

Chip away at their behaviour is the only answer. Keep giving them postive role models. If there's any progress in changing them, it's slow, arduous, repetitive, and, at times, leads to feelings that reflect their own despair and powerlessness. But human nature demands that we keep trying. No wonder, though, that some of my correspondents think my work serves no real purpose. Sometimes, so do I. But I have to keep trying. It's about building trust and showing Steve alternatives: making him believe he can do something different next time. (On a cynical note - and you really do have to use gallows humour here - you could argue that he has done something different this time. He's not back inside for driving, after all.) On a serious note, I want to get him to write the story of meeting boyfriend number one, and then fictionalise it using alternatives to violence. Maybe he won't make that mistake again. Maybe it'll be another story next time.

There is another type of offender who re-offends on release and he is typified by "Dave". When Dave is in prison he has the structure of mealtimes, work, education and privacy. His day is timetabled for him, and then, back in his cell, he has time to think. On the streets, he's trying to survive. Dave sees other human beings as sharp practitioners. This is what his background has taught him. In prison he has time to reflect on this attitude. He cannot resort to the manipulation that characterises his dealings with the rest of us. Prison staff are vigilant; they can spot cunning and guile a mile off.

It is my opinion, that once they are released, certain offenders will feel a head rush of power. There's no one around to put the brakes on. Instead of applying themselves to the Job Centre and the dreary necessity of trawling through applications for poorly-paid work, they will use the mental resources they have carefully honed and that get them quick and dramatic results. It's a form of addiction more powerful than crack cocaine. It's the high of power.

I know this is going to incense certain readers but some men can't cope with the pressures they face in society (the pressures to be providers, to be successful, to be in charge) and when men feel insecure about their masculinity they become reckless.

Dave was released back into his hometown - let's say it was Hastings - two weeks ago. He was full of hope. He had come off drugs and been taught skills that would make it possible for him to get that poorly paid job. He knew it would be difficult, but he knew it was just the start. The night shelter that was to be his home for the first weeks of his release failed to find a room for him, however. He met a friend on the street who offered him a floor to sleep on. He went to the pub, got pissed, the high overtook him, and, inflated with a sense of his rediscovered power, he managed to wangle 50 out of someone in such a way that broke the conditions of his probation. Like Steve, he'll be back inside by the end of the week.

I can only say, this time with a note of plangency, that at least this articulate and sharp young man will make an excellent member of my magazine team. Maybe I can convince him to employ his powers of persuasion on the rest of us in the same ways as any good journalist would.

Thank you "Z", Mike and Edjog. I really appreciated your feedback.

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. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.


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The follwing paragraph interests me, and I would be very curious to know Dr. Dalrymple's view on it:

"Dave was released back into his hometown - let's say it was Hastings - two weeks ago. He was full of hope. He had come off drugs and been taught skills that would make it possible for him to get that poorly paid job. He knew it would be difficult, but he knew it was just the start. The night shelter that was to be his home for the first weeks of his release failed to find a room for him, however. He met a friend on the street who offered him a floor to sleep on. He went to the pub, got pissed, the high overtook him, and, inflated with a sense of his rediscovered power, he managed to wangle 50 out of someone in such a way that broke the conditions of his probation.

This situation is presented as if Dave was a passive and helpless babe who was swept up in circumstance. If he is in fact a thinking adult who has the ability to make choices and decisions for hismself the surely it was his descision to go to the pub and 'get pissed'? The consequences of this bad descision are bad themselves (returning to prison) but why should there he be derserving of sympathy?

If he was indeed 'full of hope' and 'knew it would be difficult' then he should be prepared for the temtations and hazards that would likely be thrown up in the course of his life.

Perhaps next time around he may have learned that plans do not always work, life is essentially an improvisation, and going to the pub and getting pissed may not be the best choice to make.

Posted by: harryjb at September 9, 2007 03:34 PM
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