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February 06, 2006

How the prison system fails "vulnerable prisoners" - those prisoners who are at risk of attack from other prisoners

Posted by Emily Kingham

Certain categories of prisoner - including sex offenders, police informers and ex-police officers - are at risk of attack from their fellow prisoners. They are thus classed as "vulnerable prisoners" and are segregated from their fellow inmates. Emily Kingham - writer-in-residence at a Category B local prison argues that this special status has a detrimental effect upon their rehabilitation. Such men are being failed by the prison system.

When I first started in this prison I was struck by the fact that one wing was occupied by what are called "vulnerable prisoners". This means prisoners who might be subject to being bullied by other prisoners. And perhaps I don't need to say this but "bullying", in prisons, is closer to being terrorised than being teased. Prisons take bullying very seriously, and this is why some prisons have chosen to segregate those at risk.

There is a hierarchy of inmates in a prison. At the top are armed robbers. In prisoners' eyes, these are Robin Hood-type characters who contribute to the redistribution of wealth. It's a warped kind of morality, but armed robbers are attacking the systems that represent the authority they rail at. And they're making good money out of it, too. At the bottom of the pile are sex offenders. No one likes a nonce. Prison reflects society's revulsion with paedophilia, rape, etc., but also its hysteria. Slightly above sex offenders, are grasses - they've blurred the boundaries between "them" and "us". And, surprising this, prisoners like boundaries.

Vulnerable Prisoners, or VPs, therefore include sex offenders, police informers, ex-police officers, magistrates, and those prisoners who simply cannot cope with life on the wings. As a result of the threat they are under from other prisoners, they are segregated from the rest of the prison population. But their special status, as far as I can see, has a detrimental effect on their rehabilitation. And this has not properly been taken into account by the prison system.

VPs can only use the Education rooms when other prisoners are not using them. This means they don't often get to the Education rooms. Similarly, they don't get to use the gym as often. So they cannot stretch their minds or their bodies. Their resources are severely restricted as they are confined to their wing for their own protection. But the worse thing is they accept this as their lot. They are being doubly punished for their crime. The stigma of segregation reinforces their low self-esteem. Most prisoners have low self-esteem, VPs have next to none. They are apathetic, and when a chance to do something different does come their way, they cannot find a way to grasp it. Instead, they fester in feelings of hopelessness. "What's the point?" one VP kept asking me, when I asked him to write a poem describing his feelings.

If prison is about rehabilitation, these guys are being left out of the loop. In addition, certain prison-specific experiences carry a high suicide risk. These include, being sentenced to life imprisonment, being convicted of a violent or sexual offence. For VPs, the risk is doubled. The shame of what they have done is highlighted by their removal from prison society, as well as polite society. It is a very sad sight to see a line of VPs being taken from the laundry (the only place they are allowed to work in the prison) past a wing housing "normal" prisoners. Their body language says it all. They trudge, shoulders bowed, faces tilted towards the ground. It's a scene that replays village greens in the "good old days" when we put criminals in the stocks and laughed at them.

Sometimes I think of prison as a microcosm of society. In this trudging line of VPs and in the abuse being shouted at them I see the scapegoating we all do, the offloading of feelings of guilt and fear of our own potential for violence onto those who have been identified as wrongdoers. Yes, they have committed terrible crimes (although they are not all sex offenders - the VPs), but the bile that is spat at them speaks of the dark currents running in us all.

Again, with the general prison population, characteristics that reduce the individual's range of social options are more common. These include: having low educational achievement (46-52% having no educational qualifications) and raised rates of dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties. With VPs, again, the range is even more constricted. They do not even bother asking for help with low literacy levels because they think they don't deserve it.

Out of sight, out of mind. The prison system may think that the VP wing dispenses with the problem of individual prisoners bullying each other. But that bullying is not really being dealt with, instead the system is colluding with it. It's the coward's way out.

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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I found this a thought provoking and challenging piece of writing, it shows how 'the system' is clearly failing vulnerable prisoners by colluding with the bullying as the author rightly describes - the "bile spat at them" does truly speak of "dark currents in us all" which surely find their fullest expression among those responsible for placing them in prison and out of sight in the first place. Sentence
disparity as related to black/white male/female etc is rife and
perhaps there is a lack of any credible idea of exactly what constitutes justice, it is not revenge and an integral component surely has to be impartiality and how often this is missing. The suicide and attempted suicide rates by those in prison/custody etc are a national disgrace and the operational methods employed by police e.g bullying unwell detainees to obtain confessions and yes, it does go on are also a disgrace covered up by the stick together police culture - I stumbled across this site and will return again as this is an ongoing area of concern I aminvolved in prisoner welfare and education and this area is also a research interest/concern

Dr George Coombs MA BA(Hons) B.Sc

Posted by: George Coombs at November 16, 2006 06:00 AM

I'd certainly never thought of it this way before. Never even occured to me in fact that there was this detrimental aspect to their rehabilitation, or punishment for that matter.

I am a bit frustrated with the article however that although the situation is broken down with thorough analysis and conclusions highlighted, it is not followed up with suitable suggestions, recommendations or possible alternatives of any kind! Appreciate the issue could simply be being 'put on the table', but it is not made clear that failure to mention suggestions is deliberate or not. It just may be that sometimes there are no alternatives, except of course the VPs having the living daylights kicked out of them on a daily basis. Any thoughts?

Posted by: Peter at May 20, 2007 03:53 PM

This is nonsense. I spent 7 months as a remand prisoner on a Cat B VP wing 3 years ago, and didn't notice any lack of self regard amonst the other VP prisoners. Indeed we used to laugh at the prisoners in the other (normal) wing who used to shout down at us "pee-do" "pee-do".

We had the same work, gym, and education opportunities as the other prisoners, and there was no adverse effect on our "rehabilitation" there.

If I had to go to prison again I'd rather go onto the VP wing than the normal population. A much more intelligent interesting bunch of people to associate with!

Posted by: Nick Itall at March 4, 2012 07:44 PM
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