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March 07, 2007

Bullying, snitching, sexual harrassment and substance abuse are all rife in prison - and that's just among the staff, finds prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prisons are unhealthy working environments, finds writer-in-residence Emily Kingham.

Stress levels in prison officers are high. They are poorly recruited, poorly paid, poorly trained and supervised. They tend to die two years after retirement indirectly as a result of the government's refusal to pay for the resources and personnel that would make our prisons meaningful.

There are some wonderful individuals working in prisons who try very hard to make a difference. There are some who have emotional needs that they are bringing in to the prison that do not belong there.

There is a prison officer, for example, who comes into my workshops and talks abut capital punishment as an effective means of reducing re-offending. The men ignore him. During mass movement, when he searches them as they leave the Education Department, he makes insulting comments. If they respond, he comes down so heavily it is obvious he has been dying for this moment in which he can express his authority. If a prisoner backtalks him, or is funnier than him (which isn't difficult), he has been heard to say, "I get pussy. You don't." One of the admin girls has filed reports on him and deliberately hangs around his area to spot his bullying tactics.

Trouble is he has been filing reports on her, too. She can be provocative with the men and then come down too heavily on them. It seems that both these individuals have low self-esteem and take out their frustrations on the prisoners. A lot of women who work in prisons do this to a greater or lesser extent. One teacher I know will introduce the subject of sex and relationships at any opportunity. Another teacher was marched out of the building for fellating a prisoner. She was also having affairs with two senior officers in the Security Department. It isn't just the prisoners who are sex-starved.

Furthermore, because these men are in prison they can't do anything about a flirtatious woman which makes it all the more of a power kick for the woman. Some women will wear revealing clothes because the men cannot react. It is very liberating, no doubt, for the women who want to flaunt their sexuality without having to deal with a man's. In short, you get a lot of what is vulgarly known as prick-teasing - female officers do it, too. Some women staff - drug workers, probation workers, etc., become territorial over prisoners they are working with. They don't like other women having a (professional!) relationship with them. It is extraordinary how often one sees female staff members spatting over men.

I have my own issues and cannot always claim to have left them at the prison gate. I'm getting better now because I'm more aware of it but I have always found male attention rather pleasurable. At first I responded to prisoners without even realising. Now I keep a check on it. But I still have to stop myself responding to concern or compassion as it is variously expressed by certain empathetic prisoners. It is not easy. They have obviously clocked the fact that I respond to a certain level of gentle enquiry. They know I'm single - not necessarily because I have told them, but I don't come across as the married type. I must be quite easy to read, and, my God, they are sharp. People who live on the edges of society develop acute observational skills. They can suss people out in seconds. But I am getting sharper too, and realising that honesty is sometimes another word for naive.

It is very easy for me, as well, to become emotionally involved with prisoners who are not receiving the help they need when it would be so easy for me to access those services within the prison. For example, last December, B, who I mentioned the other, was due to be released at the end of January. He still had not heard from the prison's drug workers who were supposed to be arranging his accommodation and drug treatment on release. I made several phone calls to their department to express my concern. Eventually, they got the hint and made arrangements and made sure he knew they were doing their best for him. All well and good. The day before he left, I told him that I would miss him, that it had been great to work with him and that I wished him all the best for the future. One of these drug workers filed a security report against me. She had overheard my conversation.

I reckon it was the fact that I had hassled her and her colleagues to come and see B who was urgently in need of their services. This might lead her to think that B was "conditioning" me. In other words, manipulating me into working on his behalf. I can see her point. B, and my other student D, were both in dire straits round about Christmas time. That is a hard time to be in prison and they were missing their families. I am softhearted and they are starved of female attention (at least this wasn't about sex). So you could say they were trying to get my attention by alarming me into action on their behalf. On the other hand, they worked their hearts out on the issue of the magazine that we miraculously produced in time for Christmas. They gave as much as they got, which was relatively little: a few phone calls and knowing that I cared.

However, I am not supposed to care.

However, I am a woman.

I have to check myself again: perhaps I should not get so involved with prisoners' problems. But it is my policy to right a wrong when I so easily and legitimately can.

This atmosphere is unhealthy. It breeds suspicion and paranoia. What is needed is transparency and discussion.

At one prison (unfortunately not mine) the teachers' union rep is trying to build communication bridges with the security dept in an attempt to lighten the paranoid-heavy atmosphere whereby the only time you speak to security is when you grass up a colleague or have been grassed up yourself. Recruitment procedures that do not look at the psychological suitability of candidates need also to be addressed. Supervision that neglects the behavioural aspect of prison workers until it is too late, and they have infringed rules, is another potential disaster waiting to happen.

Look at what happened at Wormwood Scrubs. Home Office reports into events there between 1992 and 2001 revealed widespread abuse of prisoners involving staff drinking on the job, falsifying records, bullying and torture. Yet six of the senior staff in charge of Scrubs at the time are still working for the National Offender Management Service. Only one of the management team in place then ever faced formal investigation into their role. This is not just carelessness on the part of the prison service and a basic ignorance of effective management procedures but cronyism, even corruption.

No wonder stress levels are high. Suspicion, paranoia, bullying and the knowledge that if you blow the whistle cronyism will endure and you will be the one who is crowded out. That is what one honest prison officer confided to me. As I said recently, I hate bullying. At least I'm getting him to write an article for the prison magazine on the various, subtle manifestations of bullying. We writers always get the last word.

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 - have you read Tony Parker's 'The Frying Pan' ? About Grendon Underwood in the late 60s.

There's a character in that who sounds a bit like your capital punishment guy.i

Posted by: Laban Tall at March 7, 2007 10:17 PM

Hi, I worked in a prison for a year, teaching computer skills and English and, if I may say so, you're being played like a violin.

Virtually every prisoner deserves to be there, most have committed many more crimes than the one they're inside for, but at the same time no prisoner thinks he's 'guilty', they all have a rationalisation for why they 'had' to do what they did, which they think makes them innocence of wrong doing.

The prison officers I worked with were tough and decent blokes doing a very difficult job as well as they could. Any semblance of weakness gets you torn apart in that setting and I was always amazed at how little trouble and brutality there was, not how much. Most of the prisoners were fine too in the confines of the setting that I knew them in but to see the staff as the bad guys and the prisoners as good is insane.

From my first day it was obvious to me that any one of them would have manipulated the pants off me, so to speak, had I given them an inch. You are crazy to get emotionally involved with prisoners or to 'take issues outside the prison gates'. You will be used and abused and you should have been warned about this. You're not in a sociology A level class now Emily.

I hope you taught your 'students' to read and write a bit better Emily, that would do them more good than a thousand self regarding essays like this. I hope you managed to show one or two of them that drugs, crime and violence will only see them back inside before they've changed their shoes. You're right to say that prospective staff should be interviewed with a view to their psychological make up, but it's people with strength of character and some common sense who are needed, not blind bleeding hearts like yourself.

If you're a writer then write a novel, make some money and stop sponging off the state. Those boys would swap you for a ping pong table and some porn in a second, don't you forget it.

Posted by: Joanne at March 8, 2007 07:13 AM

There seems to be a strong disagreement here between "Joanne" and Emily Kingham. It could be that they are describing very different prisons, one of which is doing its job and one which has lapsed into a primate colony.

Or maybe, it is that the two ladies have very different mindset and politics. Could Theodore Dalrymple please shed some light on the situation?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 12, 2007 04:07 PM
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