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March 08, 2007

Essex Boys & Africans and British Blacks: The different cultures of prisons in Essex and London

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham finds very different cultures in prisons in London and Essex.

I have been working in two male prisons for a year and a half. One is in London, the other is in Essex. The differences between city boy and Essex boy are significant. If I make crude generalisations about these men it is because I am still in the process of figuring out what my experience of them has been.

The demographic of the London prison is predominantly British black and African. For the past three months I have been "babysitting" a room full of Africans learning IT and desktop publishing. They complete the course using software designed for the purpose. The only point of having a member of the staff in the room is to supervise their behaviour and mark their test papers. There is a Russian helper on hand who is in for computer fraud, so he knows more about IT than I will ever know. I spend most of my time observing the men's learning habits, their attitudes to life, and to women.

The Africans take their work very seriously. They discuss each project amongst themselves at great length and very loudly. This is disconcerting to the European whites in the room - i.e., the helper and myself. However, now that I am used to the volubility and volume, I no longer fear that a prison riot is imminent. Some of the men in this group are scrupulously polite and formal towards me; some clearly resent a woman being in a position of authority.

Their attitudes to learning are equally revealing. Some of these men have never touched a computer before, so the keyboard alone presents a challenge. Their fingers are not nimble so typing does not come easily. English is not their first language, so they find it hard to understand computer terminology. Learning from a position of total ignorance makes one vulnerable - for adults, vulnerability is especially difficult to come to terms with. For men, possibly, even harder. These are African men with very traditional notions of what constitutes a man and a woman. So they are not at all easy to teach. I leave the male helper to deal with them. They feel less affronted.

Once they have achieved a level of competence, they love - whether black or white, African or European - to help each other. Their generosity towards each other is very touching. They feel more in control, and their resentment fades. My understanding of this manifestation of male pride has dawned slowly. I am not always patient with their need for control. After all, it would be so much easier if they would allow me to teach them.

In the London prison, as in London itself, one has to adapt to different communities packed in together very tightly. The London boys have been exposed from an early age to different ethnic groups, and a city that is alive with culture in all its different forms. As a result, they are sophisticated, sharp, sensitive to moods, eager for debate, and willing to listen - or at least they pay lip service to the notion of listening. As soon as they are out of the prison gates they are back in street mode.

The foreign nationals, of whom there are a great many in the London prison, tend to be older men. Some are illegal immigrants who have made lives for themselves here, and finally been caught up with: some are genuine criminals. These men are articulate and have experienced life in different countries and different cultures. They have a tremendous appetite for learning; education is how the immigrant gets on. They don't mind learning from women. As for debate: poetry, politics, relationships, you name it, they'll talk about it intelligently and wittily.

The Essex boys are feral. They have been brought up on the housing estates of postwar Britain. Their parents are the working-class salt of the earth who moved out of cramped terraces into spacious conurbations. Everyone is white in Essex; they read the Sun. These boys are loud and large, and their girlfriends are, by repute, even more so. They have to be to cope with their boyfriends.

I have grown very fond of these boys. Their language is distinctly theirs and richly idiomatic: "sweet", "cushty" and "lemon" stand in, respectively, for "good", "happy" and "annoyed". These young men are the direct descendants of Dickens's jaunty cockney sparrers. They have all the vigour and robustness and sense of humour of their forebears. They are delightful to talk to, if reluctant to listen to new ideas. They do not like to think about poetry that does not rhyme, politics or anything that does not relate to their lives. They are bouncy and full of beans, but all that energy does not help them advance in life one iota. It gets diverted into drugs, humour, charm and crime. All of which are short-cuts to self-advancement - in the very short term. These giddy young men are giddy with a sense of their own power, but they have no idea of how to make it work for them in the long term. It is all about getting what they want in the here and now.

At the beginning of my residency, I was made aware of the statistics involving dyslexia and the prison population. I am still aware of this. But is everyone in Essex dyslexic? I cannot believe that a genetic disorder is at the root of so much criminality. Their educational levels are appallingly low, and that is certainly a factor. So is the breakdown in the family. So are the anonymous, self-contained housing estates where there is no cultural life, no difference, no variety, nothing to do except vandalise property, be violent and get off your tits on drugs and drink.

All that testosterone and adrenalin bouncing about needs tightly structured, disciplined regimes. Boys, much more than girls, need to be made to feel useful. They need hobbies, they need order. They are hard work. The hard-working families that Tony Blair speaks of do not have time to provide these structures for their boys. They cannot order their lives for them. Neither can schools or social workers, so it's up to prison officers. If we create more prison spaces in the regions, it is because we cannot manage young boys. As for the cities, more prison spaces will be filled by their slick, urban counterparts - who are infinitely more practised in the art of adaptability, and thus, in a sense, less redeemable, and foreigners who will educate themselves out of this awful mess.

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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While many studies have indeed concluded that there is a much higher incidence of dyslexia in the prison population and that dyslexia has a genetic component it is a stretch to say the dyslexic prison population is a result of genetic predisposition.

If you look at American prisons, being black and poor is a much better predictor of being incarcerated than being dyslexic. Being poor and/or a high school dropout also increases your statistical chance of going to prison.

There are many reasons why schools fail to educate students as well in poor neighborhoods as compared to more affluent ones. Partly it is a matter of money differences because of having local school tax structures. The qualified teachers have more choice where they teach and often choose the better schools which may not be the ones with the highest need to improve.

Dyslexics if identified early and given proper interventions would probably gain about the same dropout rate as the population in general and leading to a more representative number of dyslexics in prison.

I believe that the concentration of dyslexics and the learning disabled in prisons is a direct result of under funded educational resources for them.

While education of the poor has additional environmental and cultural problems, compared to dyslexics, that need to be addressed, similar decreases in the prison population might be expected with improvements in their education as well.

Posted by: John Hayes at March 8, 2007 04:33 PM
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