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October 03, 2006

If prisoners are treated like animals they will behave like animals, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prisoners need to learn that people are not all out to con each other - that people can be kind and generous. If prisoners do not learn these lessons, they will re-offend and re-offend, argues prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham.

I have been thinking a lot about the situation of young, black men in our society because so many young, black prisoners are coming into the particular prison in which I work. This is because of the "lockdown" in London prisons. There aren't enough spaces for the new intake of prisoners fresh from the courts.

When I consider how alienated I feel in a provincial environment, I wonder about the impact on them. But prisoners are very laissez faire in their outlook. I suppose they have to be, being totally powerless. Even if they feel, as I do, slightly overwhelmed by the fact that every officer, and most of the prisoners, are born and bred, archetypal Englishmen, they just have to fit in.

Or, at least, form their own cliques. So you get the Nigerians, the Afro-Caribbeans, the Somalis and the Russians forming their own groups, and slotting into the hierarchy: dealers, bullies, independents (those who keep their heads down).

The Somalis, by the way, are the least popular. They are the ones, on the street, who carry knives and are least afraid of using them. I keep being told that they are the most ruthless, the most desperate and the most dangerous of all the street gangs. I would guess that - if this is true - it must be the effects of civil war in their country. They have learnt not to value life.

There is something to be said for the provinces. They may be all white and the officers may all play golf at the weekend (the thought fills me with horror) but the prison is ship shape. The lack of imagination that is so evident and so depressing - for example, my Head of Learning and Skills thinks Literature is making an acrostic out of the word "diversity" - is balanced by organisational skills that border on the anal. I cannot imagine life on the wings is as chaotic as it is in London prisons where prisoners in balaclavas will raid their neighbours' cells, where most inmates have mobiles and go "fishing" every night.

The ancient custom of fishing is where rods and lines are made from sheets, paper clips and hooks. These rods are suspended from cell windows to pick up packages thrown over the walls. These packages have wire hangers packed into them to make them easily hooked. The packages contain drugs, of course.

The other morning's Today programme (28th September 2006) reported on the conditions in Pentonville prison where fourteen officers were suspended recently under suspicion of trafficking. It seems an infestation of drugs is not the only plague: cockroaches and rats are running riot, too. The presenter asked whether the general public would care about the lack of hygiene affecting prisoners, as they are, after all, only prisoners. His interviewee, who had conducted the research, reminded him that prisoners are human beings.

I find it hard to believe that the general public would have this attitude towards prisoners. Would people really be so ignorant? How vindictive can you get? As I have said before, I have been a victim of crime, and have been through all the usual emotions: the initial fear giving way to anger and resentment that I should be made to feel so vulnerable. The realisation that I cannot walk the brief distance from my tube station to my front door late at night still makes me bristle. But I have to be realistic - or that's what Victim Support told me.

Our streets are dangerous. I do understand people's anger towards those who hurt us but I get angry in turn towards those who would scapegoat prisoners. It is lazy and ultimately immoral. We all have a "dark side", but some of us have been lucky enough not to have had it "fed". To pretend that it is outside ourselves, locked up in a prison, is pathetic. But that's what people who read the Daily Mail or the Sun do, I suppose. These are the people who frighten me just as much as the muggers. I've met officers like this. I've met secretaries like this. They are terrifying in their blindness.

A 23-year-old man just wrote me an essay on "The first time I realised that I wasn't the person everyone expected me to be". I had asked the workshop to write something on "the first time they did something". I was expecting the usual: the first time I smoked a joint, committed a crime, came to prison. He was the most reluctant to commit himself to paper but he came up with the best piece of writing I've received in a long time. I'm going to quote from it:

Every person has a good side and a bad side. And there's the struggle inside for one of those personas [sic] to come out stronger. It's the one you feed that comes out on top. For me and a lot of others, my environment helped feed the dark side of me. Growing up I was the mouthy little kid who all the big boys found amusing. I used to tag along and watch them rob people and beat people up. I watched them buy drugs to sell and got my education from them. It wasn't the kind of education I was getting from school. It was more the skills of life, e.g. how to spot when you're getting conned.

I used to go to school and watch kids my age, who were only interested in playing football and talking about video games. I was interested in making money, getting a motorbike, GIRLS. While the kids at school were talking about getting their parents to buy them the latest trainers, I was walking into school with the latest trainers.

I have quoted him because I want readers to see a human being. He comes from a Muslim family who just let him get on with it, after having instilled him with the necessity to earn money. After the age of 12, he told me, they didn't have to give him money any more. Clearly, life was hard for them, and making ends meet a big struggle, so they neglected their child but impressed upon him the urgent need to get on in life - through money. Now when he gets out he is determined to play football and video games, like the children he saw who actually had a childhood.

He's done his time, he's been consumed by guilt. The only thing he can do in order to better himself is to "try and live a good life". This means he should be allowed to enjoy himself. When he has served his time, he shouldn't be punished any more. It is only up to the courts to punish him, and prisons to ensure that that punishment is carried out humanely. From the rest of us, he needs understanding and support. Most importantly he needs to learn that human beings aren't out to con each other; that they can be kind and generous. In short, it means that to treat this man like an animal makes animals of all of us.

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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