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February 06, 2007

Bullying in Prison - writer-in-residence Emily Kingham witnesses a scene of bullying and realises that the threat of violence is as menacing as the act of violence

Posted by Emily Kingham

Writer-in-residence Emily Kingham witnesses a scene of prison bullying - and wonders if she is acting as the matriarch of a classic semi-criminal, dysfunctional and violent family, or if she herself is the victim of bullying and is merely appeasing her tormentors.

Bullying frightens me more than anything else. I have been the victim of bullying and I have bullied myself - I went to a girl's school. Bullying has also hit the headlines recently so it has been very much on my mind. The scenes from Celebrity Big Brother and the response of the Press made me realize how endemic it is to our culture.

I have witnessed two scenes of bullying in my entire time at the prison that, if I were to repeat the words used by the perpetrators, the effect on the reader would be negligible. But I remember once reading an interview with the actor Oliver Reed - not a man known for his understated approach to acting - who said if an actor really wanted to convey a serious threat of violence he should lower his voice and keep it steady. I witnessed a scene of bullying this week that chilled me.

It made me realize what armed burglars do not understand: that the threat of violence is as effective as the act of violence itself. (Armed burglars tend to think that because the gun was a replica, or because they didn't actually harm anyone, their crime was not that serious.) It is the threat of violence that terrorises victims into complying with their tormentors' demands. When this fear is lived with over a period of time, the victim appeases his or her tormentor by maintaining a policy of appeasement, or "walking on eggshells" as victims of domestic violence call it keep your tormentor happy in order to forestall the explosion.

Within a prison, one of the definitions of bullying is when one prisoner mocks or derogates another with reference to his crime.

The scene I witnessed was ugly. What were the familiar faces of students I have grown fond of hardened into masks. If you have ever seen the face of a bully in action you will know that they become ugly; the eyes are slitted and glittering, the lips compressed into a sneer. Every word spoken or gesture made, however innocent-seeming, is loaded with menace. Look at Celebrity Big Brother contestant, Danielle Lloyd, when she says Shilpa Shetty should "fuck off home", that "she's a dog", and what was a pretty girl becomes an ugly one.

When a bully is speaking directly to his or her victim, the offending words are not so blatantly offensive. These words are veiled threats or roundabout statements of intent spoken distinctly but quietly; their force lies in the unspoken text they contain. Even the most innocent of statements can become loaded, because bullying causes paranoia: any belief in the goodness of human nature is demolished. It's a loss of innocence, faith and trust.

"Jack Tibbs" is 20 years old, and from what sounds like a classic, old-school East End family, i.e. semi-criminal, dysfunctional and violent. He has just been convicted for his first offence. It was a very serious charge but because of his academic promise and glowing references provided by myself and others, he received a lighter than average sentence. He was very lucky, and for all of one week, he knew it.

Previous to having been sentenced he had been on remand for around six months. Very early on he had been involved in a fight with another prisoner. This seems to be a rites of passage for prisoners. On coming into custody you have to prove yourself. Whether he proved himself or not, I cannot say, but he has talked of very little but violence ever since. And he has not stopped complaining about his sentence, which is irritating to myself and goading the other prisoners, who have not had the level of support he has.

I try to stem my annoyance because I realized early on that Jack was frightened of prison. I don't blame him, of course, but it is not often that I am reminded that the men, too, must find it stressful. He kept describing himself as a "small feller", which he is, and how on the Old Kent Road, where he hails from, it's just the same. He has to prove himself. But this proving of himself seems to have become an obsession.

Jack has a girlfriend. He told me that, before him, she had only had sex eight times but that he still found the fact that she had had a sex life before meeting him intolerable. He wants a girl who will "give herself" to him, he said, and him alone. Put it another way: he wants to go where no man has been before so there's no one else to measure up to.

All this was most interesting in terms of my ongoing, informal study of male psycho-sexuality. I figure that Jack is in permanent competition with other men, and size matters acutely to him. Whether it's his penis or his biceps, he needs to feel bigger than the rest. I also wonder at this fascination with other men's bodies; does it express taboo sexual longings? Or some Freudian desire to supplant his father, and claim his rightful place?

In prison, older men are called "big men". The young men refer to them as such and defer to them. Everyone seems happy with this situation, but I think Jack finds it frustrating. He has talked about his father in terms that suggest he is a man who eggs his son on to violence. Jack reports him saying that Jack must not back down in the face of aggressors or the old man won't be proud of him. What an enormous pressure to put on a boy. No wonder he worries about his size.

At any rate feeling vulnerable or weak or frightened is unacceptable in a man. No one likes to feel frightened, let alone admit to it, and yet it is fear that lies behind so many of their expressions of anger. Disappointment and hurt are other root causes. No one likes to admit to those either.

I believe that in the worlds they occupy - the streets of London and the surrounding provinces - these men live in a state of constant fear, and the knock-on need to prove themselves. This makes them dangerous. Power is the obvious goal. One of the conditions of incarceration is that prisoners are not given the chance to feel powerful.

This powerlessness, I realize, is causing me a problem, because when prisoners come to my workshops, I give them a lot of space to express themselves, and I talk to them on their level. "I'm one of them", I imply. I do not present myself as an authority figure, and this may well be a mistake. Because, in the case of Jack, I have shown my approval of two students, D and B, at the expense of him. This is because D and B have responded so positively to my approach. They have worked hard and they are committed. They are good company and good team members. They have made my job a joy.

Jack, possibly through jealousy and the need to prove himself, began to bully D and B, and I leapt down his throat. I did it subtly, employing female tactics - a clever choice of words that indirectly made a point. The intended effect was to cut him down to size. My aggression was expressed in a roundabout way, and I regret that. At the same time, I made sure I told him straight that his mockery of this student's drug addiction was unacceptable. So at least he knew why I was expressing my displeasure. But still, I feel my small outburst of aggression, whereby I read reports on B and D by a colleague in which they were praised for their hard work and commitment and I asked Jack pointedly if he was listening, unleashed a nasty situation of male competitiveness.

I don't want to attach too much blame to myself, but the dynamics of these situations are so complicated, I feel I must have played a part in it. As the only female, they are probably vying for my attention, and they cannot express aggression towards me so they will do so towards each other. Maybe that is why he went for the other guys. Although, to be fair to myself, he'd been gunning for them and anyone else in his path.

Anyway, what ensued was D, usually the most compliant and helpful of men, saying something along the lines of people having to be careful who they say things to or there could be repercussions. Then B and D, both prolific offenders, and older than Jack (though not "big men") talked long and hard of their prison experiences, their criminal records, and soon the conversation was heavy with underworld ruminations. I just sat there. They all ignored me, united in their prison machismo.

I left the table and went to talk to the Librarian about my dress and whether I needed a haircut. The Library Orderly, who was sitting next to her, told me that Jack's nickname for him is "Killer". The Library Orderly is in for murder. When one prisoner refers to another prisoner's crime in derogatory terms this is bullying. The Library Orderly (not a habitual criminal) was visibly upset about this. I was furious. I don't like bullying.

I rejoined my workshop students. Another one of them, a "big man" (in his forties) was talking about ways of defrauding the general public. The others, Jack, B and D, were visibly impressed. His big talk spurred B and D on. Jack sat listening. He knew his place, I guess. I sat at the table, and tried not to listen.

I see now that I was feeling the effects of the threat of menace but that I bypassed fear and moved straight into survival strategy. I wanted to pacify the men around me. D was being released the following day, and has been having problems sleeping. He is anxious about re-offending. I asked him if he felt he would be able to sleep that night.

I will once I've taken this.
He had nothing in his hand, but I realized immediately he had somehow procured a sedative. Needless to say this is an illegal act within the prison, and by telling me about it, he had made me an accessory. Needless to say, he knew this. I said nothing. I was shocked by the admission and by his attempt to make me complicit. But I suspect my features did not betray me and my face remained impassive. He went on to say,
You're not going to say anything, are you?
It was a question, but his inflection made it a statement.
I don't know what you're talking about,
was my immediate response.

B, my other model student, smiled his approval. D's face remained impassive, like mine. We were mirroring each other. I had turned myself into one of them: a prison aficionado, with my own gang. No one messes with us. Beyond that, I was the matriarch of the classic semi-criminal, dysfunctional and violent family: indulgent and turning a blind eye to her boys' bad behaviour. But I'm self-dramatising (I am a writer, after all). Maybe I was just the victim of bullying appeasing my tormentor by joining him.

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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