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August 31, 2006

If you want to find out how to destroy staff morale, look at the management style of the prison service - says prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

The Prison Service has seemingly perfected the art of destroying staff morale, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham.

It is interesting when the prison system is found to be at fault; when the people who work in it are found to be as corruptible as the people who are incarcerated within it. Fourteen prison officers were suspended earlier this month (August 2006) from HMP Pentonville. They are alleged to have been smuggling mobile phones and drugs into the establishment. This is quite a common occurrence. Officers, barristers, civilian staff and visitors bring contraband into prisons. It seems extraordinary to me that so-called upstanding citizens should be so willing to break the law. I can only suppose that they came under pressure from inmates and their families. Or that they are simply greedy.

But the scale at which this corruption seems to have entered Pentonville is breathtaking. The numbers suggest a cartel, a cottage industry, at the very least some kind of organisation. Last year, the prison service held 1,360 investigations into alleged staff misconduct and dismissed 40 staff for unprofessional conduct. The effect on the prison service, and how it polices itself, will, of course, be negligible.

Only at Category A prisons are staff searched on entry. At these prisons, everyone goes through an x-ray scanner exactly like those used at airports. If these searches were carried out as a matter of routine in all prisons, it would solve a lot of problems. But lack of funding from the government ensures that rigorous checks are quite impossible.

Pentonville accepts 672 new prisoners each month. It employs 379 officers, with about 129 on duty at any one time. The warehouse model of prisons cannot be effective in punishing or rehabilitating its inmates because the prison service cannot afford to employ sufficient staff. Neither do they provide sufficient support to their staff. Prisons are highly stressful environments. The suicide rate amongst prison officers is higher than the national average for any other occupation.

When the news of Pentonville's problems hit the prison I work in, a general meeting was called. All staff had to attend. Governor Number One addressed us from a podium, and told us that he was aware of similar activities taking place in our establishment. He went on to say that there were "seven live files" on staff members who were being watched very closely. He said, "We know who you are. You know who you are." The effect reminded me of that St Trinian's film when Alistair Sim's gloriously daffy headmistress asks for all the lights to be extinguished during school assembly. The idea was that the missing lacrosse trophy would be returned to its rightful place. When the lights were turned back on, all the school's silverware had been snaffled.

I was appalled at his attempt at staff management. Instead of policing his staff, he went on to recommend that they police each other. He complained that not enough Security Information Reports were being filed. This is another bright idea for creating bad karma. We are supposed to file Security Information Reports on any member of staff whom we suspected of acting irregularly. In other words, he was asking us to create an Orwellian panopticon whereby lots of Big Brothers run around spying on each other.

After "Jaffagate", when an officer filed an SIR on me for handing out Jaffa Cakes to my editorial team, I was appalled that he (and I know who he was, and, furthermore, he knows who he was) did so anonymously. Why didn't he confront me with my wrongdoing? I was, strictly speaking, trafficking, although I had been told by my employers that I could bend the rules when it came to biscuits. The officer who dressed me down said, "One day it's Jaffa cakes, the next day it's a mobile phone." I tried not to laugh. His point was, though, that I was opening myself up to being blackmailed by inmates who could use my illicit Jaffa cakes as a means of pressurising me into bringing other goodies into the prison.

The trouble is when you work with prisoners and they know that you are trying to help them, they become very protective of you, especially if you are a woman. A bond is formed. I know that the men I work with feel very attached to me and, being a touchy-feely kind of person, that makes me feel attached to them. They work hard for me and I work hard for them. Besides, I don't like to treat people with suspicion. In fact, it's much easier to treat those people with suspicion who are reporting on your movements behind your back. And this is not an effective means of rooting out corruption. We should be working together, not against each other.

In short, I continue to be staggered by the lack of professionalism in the prison service.

But I have some good news. I've been working with a 23-year-old called Kevin who is a chronic gambler and alcoholic. He lives with his parents but doesn't communicate with them. They rarely visit him in prison. He loves to tell me about his nights out on lager and fruit machines. I listen and let him talk and don't judge him, but tell him he seems to have a gambling habit (that's putting it mildly). Anyway, I got him to write a piece about why he hates odd numbers (he'd rather lose money than take his winnings if it's an odd number). It ended with a paragraph stating, "Gambling is a disease".

I thought, "Finally, he's admitted to having a problem, and he's done it on paper!" And he did it in his own words. He had listened to me, and what I had hinted had filtered through. I had made him look at himself. He also revealed that he has signed up to do a vocational course on his release from prison whereas previously he had told me he would be going back to his old life. Again, I had challenged this lifestyle merely by repeatedly asking him if he had any plans for his release. And also by telling him he was intelligent. I have to blow my own trumpet here, because this kind of result does not compute with Home Office statistics. This is not a Key Performance Target (KPT). But I think I've made a real impact.

He showed his article to his father - and this mean he would have had to send a Visiting Order to him, which in turn means he felt he actually had something to communicate to him. Kevin told me that the result of his visit was that his father had been "shocked" by what he had written about gambling. It is quite a disquieting piece because it's so honest. Isn't that wonderful? His father now has an insight into his son's life, and was able to admit to Kevin that his own gambling habit may have something to do Kevin's. I think they both understand each other a bit better now, which shows the value of open and honest communication. If only the prison service were so amenable.

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 Universities also seem to be bent on destroying staff morale, though they are probably about ten years behind the Prison Service – as one would expect. What I think lies underneath it all is the religious element of Marxism, which has infected us all like a selfish meme. Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses”. But, atheist that he was, his “cure” was to acetylate the “God group” and convert the morphine into heroin.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 3, 2006 11:36 AM
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