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November 30, 2006

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham asks, what are we doing - or not doing - to the young working-class men she finds in prison to make them so damaged, manipulative and dangerous?

Posted by Emily Kingham

What is wrong with the young working-class men of southeast England that turns too many of them into the damaged manipulative and dangerous men writer-in-residence Emily Kingham finds in prison?

Lord Ramsbotham's front-page article in today's Independent is most welcome. In it he describes the current justice system as being run by "people who know nothing about running large organisations", and he makes the case for a more considered approach to work, education and training. The fact that the Learning and Skills Council operate the education system within prisons is so inappropriate as to be farcical. They are largely concerned with fulfilling quotas, as I have illustrated at great length in previous entries.

Ramsbotham also described the prison service as being "chaotic". Again, this is something I have repeated ad nauseam. The chaos and ensuing tension means that the prison, like the prisoners it houses, is taking short-cuts that lead to dead-ends. There's no such thing as a quick buck or an easy solution. This week, a prisoner I mentioned in one of my first pieces from this time last year has made an appearance in my workshops once more.

His appearance the first time was dramatic - he was high on his own youth and energy to the point of being insanely manic; he was over-excited at receiving attention from a female backed up by three officers in a cell on the Segregation block; he was arrogant in his sexuality. I could see why he needed containing.

A year later, he seems sedated. This is because, an officer explained a month ago, he has received a 99-year IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentence. This means that his tariff (the actual time served) could be as short as five years, but his probation period on release is in fact his entire lifetime. Any infraction of the law on release, however minor, means that he is incarcerated until his death. I don't think he is sedated at all. I think the man is one of the most unconsciously manipulative human beings I have ever met. (I say "unconsciously" because I don't think he even knows he is doing it and that is because he does not know who he is, just what he wants).

At first, as long as he gets what he wants, and, at first, what he wants is reasonable, he is compliant, obliging and makes positive contributions to whatever community he finds himself in. As soon as he doesn't get what he wants he explodes into violence. He was moved from Segregation on to a normal wing and all was well until he asked to use the toilet during his Numeracy workshop. The officer refused permission. He protested angrily. The officer removed him from the Education block. He was allowed back into Education as it was felt by his wing officers that he had been harshly treated. I said I was happy with his conduct in my workshops. So he came back.

The next thing we knew he had "kicked off" back on the wing due to his canteen not being delivered. Other prisoners offered to lend him food from their own supplies but, no, he was going to protest. It took eight officers to get him back into his cell. He then set fire to it. He had the cheek, three weeks later, once he returned to my workshop after another period in Segregation, to ask for paper, as he had none left "after the fire".

This week he arrived in my workshop, wincing and clutching his stomach. The librarian asked him what was the matter. He showed her his stomach. It was covered in blood. He had self-harmed over the lunch-hour. I was horrified. It transpired that his wing officers knew of the situation. They had sent a nurse to attend to him, but they had still allowed him to attend a workshop. The health and safety implications are bad enough, but the psychological impact of his bloody presence was as dramatic as he wished. I did not fall into his trap - I gave him sympathetic attention, but I did not dwell on the matter.

There were other men to attend to, each as demanding in their own way. For example, one was passing on allegations that I "have a special place in my heart" for another prisoner. That particular prisoner was displaying every sign of amphetamine-use, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt because I also suspect he is being bullied, and that he is in love with me - I'll explore that further next time. Maybe.

Another prisoner was hassling me to print a photograph of him that we had taken to reproduced alongside other photographs of members of the editorial team. It had been his idea that we should do this. I now realize his sole motivation was that he wanted to send a photograph of himself to his female penpal in a woman's prison. (As a matter of interest, she pays 10 a month into his prison account. Don't ask.) All these activities, requests and statements, needless to say, are highly irregular. I felt out of my depth. I could not control these feral men.

What is wrong with the young, working-class men of southeast England? What are we doing, or not doing, to these young boys that they should be so damaged, manipulative and dangerous? These are men in their twenties and thirties, so we cannot blame teenaged single mothers. From the stories they tell me, it's got to be the break-up of that most dysfunctional institution of all, the family. As with the prison system, it does not appear to be working so well.

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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Emily has, I think, hit the nail on right on the head when she writes of unconsciously manipulative behaviour. This sort of thing has to be curtailed in childhood, and while the prisoners here may well have grown up under a scream-and-thump regime, society at large has suffered as a result of being fed the fallacy that one should reason with children as if they were little adults.

As for not blaming it on teenage mothers, neither do I. But my primate instincts are agitated by the thought that we are as a nation encouraging seed-sowing by single fathers, especially young ones who in any properly run baboon society would have been driven out by the older males.

However, this sort of situation is bound to arise where social interaction is largely dominated by those aggressive encounters that so dominate the societies of the four-footed and tree-dwelling mammals. Also, our media are saturated by the portrayal of people who lead very dysfunctional family lives, and who treat sex as the new god. A parallel problem is the worldwide HIV epidemic. The driving force for this is that people can boost their social and self-esteem by indulging in sex and boasting about it. And if, like me, one has a somewhat classical way of looking at these things, in our Western society it is the nemesis of those proud medical types who thought that with their pills and devices we could do away with traditional rules of morality.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 4, 2006 07:47 PM
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I wonder if there is anyway of getting in contact with Emily as I a writer looking to interview those convicted of armed robbery about the world they inhabited before prison.

Posted by: Edward Hobson at December 11, 2006 11:14 AM
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