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November 07, 2006

"Have you done the Armed Robbery course?" Writer-in-residence Emily Kingham contemplates the ubiquity of prison courses - and their real purpose

Posted by Emily Kingham

From anger management to enhanced think skills, courses are ubiquitous in prison. There are even courses on armed robbery - or rather why it is not such a good idea. Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham argues these courses have little to do with helping prisoners, but much to do with meeting Home Office targets.

There are two young Asian men in my workshop. They are both serving long sentences for crimes involving drugs, firearms, a couple of Columbians and some money-laundering. This particular workshop is a mixed bag of ethnicities: a German pensioner who tried a big scam to retire on, these two young

Londoners and some Nigerians. I was talking to the group about Rudyard Kipling's poem If on what it takes to be a man - an awful lot, if Kipling is to be believed. Anyway, I heard these two young men - the sharpest in the class (but the London boys always are) discussing the prison courses they'd done. All the usual suspects were namechecked: ETS (Enhanced Thinking Skills), PASRO (Prison Assisted Something oR Other) and Anger Management.

Then Mo asked:

Have you done the Armed Robbery course?
I had to stop the class and ask for more.

Apparently, it was started by a psychologist, so Mo told me, in San Quentin prison in the States. It was discontinued once it was discovered that the female psychologist had fallen in love with one of her armed robbers.

Most inmates join courses for the tea and biscuits. Some become pagans because they like the smell of incense. The idea of this course was to show the men that one big heist doesn't look so big if you divide the spoils by the number of days spent in custody. It didn't have much effect on Mo. He did the course in his first (long) sentence (for armed robbery). This is his second; although, I suppose you could say at least the crime has changed (drugs and money-laundering).

Mo is very bright and very cynical. These London boys have edges on them. They know all the moves. They work their charm to the max. What intrigues me about them is how they take masculinity to such extremes. "On the road" - which is what prisoners call the outside world - young men like Mo will have two mobile phones. One is for their deals, the other for family and friends. They compartmentalize their lives rigidly but no one is ever dealing with the whole person. You never get what you see. No one, as far as I know, has done a course in the double life.

Anyway, Mo knows very well the real point of the courses that are on offer in prison - and so essential if they want to get parole: these courses fulfill national statistics on reducing the risks of re-offending. A whole range of statistics can be gained from ETS, PASRO, etc.: psychologists get to tick boxes whilst doing their research. The prison gets to take prisoners out of their cells and give them what is called "purposeful activity" which is measured in hours spent outside of cells. The prison sends its figures to the Home Office and the government is seen to be doing something.

The drug rehabilitation programmes are pathetic: a plaster on a bleeding wound. Five weeks of tea and biscuits will not address a life-long addiction. According to Mo's mate, the only course he's done that is any good is NA (Narcotics Anonymous). The twelve-step programme is the only programme that any individual can work with. It relies on disclosure, sharing and constant - daily if needed - support. It's the talking cure adapted to addicts.

In the meantime the Security department continues to treat civilian staff with barely concealed contempt. We're one step up from the inmates, i.e. suspect. Two burly officers (one female, one male) interrogated me on my legitimate use of a memory stick. I had permission from Number Two Governor, and had filed this permission with the secretary of the Security Department who had subsequently lost the folder. I was made to feel intimidated, insecure and downright frightened when they marched me off to an office with stern looks and military mien.

The problem is that Security officers create a hostile atmosphere in which communication is fraught - this is not good for morale, and therefore not good for security. One London prison I know of is addressing this problem. But that prison is union-ised. That prison also recognises the need for education and the presence of more civilian staff in managerial positions. The military model, using statistics as its raison d'etre, is not working.

Lastly, John Reid is going to prison this week in order to ask the inmates about work opportunities on leaving prison. He has asked for articulate prisoners to be his interlocutors. He'll find plenty of those. There's another reason for his visit, though. Rumour has it, he's about to announce doubling up in cells. I doubt he'll be sharing this news with the inmates.

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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Welcome back Emily! We’ve been missing you.

Just a couple of comments:

Rudyard Kipling's poem If on what it takes to be a man - an awful lot, if Kipling is to be believed.

You can say that again! It’s a tyrannical poem, calculated to drive the conscience of a sensitive young man to a state somewhere between that of Martin Luther striving for sinless perfection during the time he was a monk, and that of one being re-educated in PR China soon after the Revolution, and struggling to produce a written “self-criticism” (自我批評) which would finally satisfy the interrogators. As for

a plaster on a bleeding wound.

that’s nothing new. As Jeremiah says twice (6:14 and 8:11):

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, Peace,’ when there is no peace.
Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 7, 2006 07:17 PM
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