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September 25, 2007

Islam is what many young black men are turning to in the absence of having known their fathers - Or so finds prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham

Posted by Emily Kingham

Is it possible to keep a room-full of angry, young, boastful prisoners occupied for a morning? Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham finds out.

I noted today that a man I've been working with very closely for two years, and who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), detaches himself from his anger to such an extent that he is capable of becoming another person. In the morning workshop he had become very angry with a group of YPs (young prisoners) who are gang members. They had come into the workshop loudly protesting their innocence. Since no one had contested it in the first place I could only think of Hamlet's mother.

As soon as they saw me, knowing I am a journalist, they were on at me to write a tabloid-style expose about racism within the prison service, and how they were being stereotyped as gang members because they are black. Like all unhappy people whose early needs have been neglected, their complaints are endless and overwhelming. The prisoner I mentioned above, Freddie, had already told me that these YPs are up to their eyeballs in drugs and mobile phones - both prohibited items in a prison. He described watching them in the exercise yard as large packets of drugs were thrown over the wall. "Since they're from London", he said, "they're connected".

As well as this, I had already seen two of these men's names on the anti-bullying register. So I knew that there was something going on behind their clamorous appeals for clemency.

Here's the nub, though. They are not clever enough to maintain the fašade. They complain one moment of being stereotyped as gangstas, while the next, they are rapping about being a gang member, about bearing arms, selling drugs and rejecting "hos" (whores). This inconsistency does not seem to dawn on them. But it did to me. They are split down the middle and there is no joining the two halves. Trying to convince them of their logical inconsistencies is an exercise in helpless frustration. No wonder Freddie got so "lemon".

Generally, I find psychologists' diagnoses and categorisations extremely unhelpful. So many people fit into the category of BPD that it is rendered meaningless. All it does is help the psychologists feel as though they are doing something useful when they are not - rather like education providers with their acronyms and prison officers with their rules. Perhaps inventing categories allows psychologists to hand over difficult cases to psychiatrists who in turn hand over patients to drugs. Medication is yet another panacea for complex issues that no one wants to deal with.

Anyway, the interesting thing about BPD is that there is a borderline between darkness and light, anger and reason, in all these men. It is their very lack of integration that makes them so unreachable. They are not whole people. At any one time you could be dealing with Freddie the darling or Freddie the nasty fucker. He'd never be both those two people at the same time. Men are said to split parts of themselves off into manageable pieces - it's called "compartmentalisation". I suppose, just as they are exaggerated versions of masculine effectiveness in terms of their capacity for violence, their capacity for compartmentalising their emotions is equally extreme.

The young black men I mention above are known to the Security Department as gang members operating in East London. But I can see an inherent unfairness in their treatment, which gives me some sympathy for their plight. Freddie himself has "his boys from back home" (home being a seaside resort in Essex) who provide him with the inference of violence. This is an inference that can be drawn by anyone presumptuous enough to chance their arm with him. Freddie does not do drugs in prison. It's the moment he steps out of prison that he plunges into a vortex of drugs and violence. But inside prison, he does not need to draw attention to his "gang". It's taken for granted that this is his territory. These young black men for whom territory and "respect" are everything feel the need to impose their own physical weight on the prison.

The six young black men - two of whom are young offenders situated on C-wing, and four of whom are slighter older and on F-wing - have grouped together to present a united front in the face of what they describe as racism. They have converted to Islam - a classic prison conversion to religiosity. In this instance, their conversion speaks of a lack of identity. Islam is what most young black men are turning to in the absence of having known their fathers. It provides a validation for their anger and resentment at white society; and a strong set of rules and a punitive god who they comply with as and when it suits them, especially if it means that prison officers have to go out of their way to meet their religious requirements. It makes them feel special, and it gives them an impression of themselves as being pious, or holy. Similarly, their complaints of racism have to be taken seriously because of the prison's fear of being seen to ignore "Diversity". But everyone knows that these complaints are self-serving.

There are plenty of black men in the prison who do not feel the need to form gangs, despite the preponderance of white Essex boys. White and black men are perfectly capable of rubbing along together and respecting each other's respective space. However, with these young black men, as I said, "respect" is an issue. It is an issue precisely because they do not respect anyone least of all themselves. How can they when they don't do anything that earns respect?

Aron, a mixed-race 19-year-old, described being unable to resist girls coming on to him at clubs and parties despite the fact that he already has a girlfriend and a babymother. He was saying this because in his lyrics he had spoken in the most offensive terms of the girls who make themselves sexually available to him. The insults he was hurling at these women were so disgusting that they must express the lack of respect he feels for himself. The language was too vehement not to reflect some inner turmoil, or, yet again, some logical inconsistency. When he is not being violent, sex is his other means of imposing himself on his surroundings. He does not exercise restraint so, ultimately, he'll fuck anything. He turns his ensuing revulsion with himself on to women, blaming them for his lack of control. These are my words, not his. I put it like this because that is the bottom line here.

We had a conversation. It went as follows: he told me he could not say no if a girl made a pass at him. I said, "You have no self-control then". He agreed. "So", I said, "if that's the case, I'm not surprised you don't respect yourself - you have no discipline and no commitment". He agreed but without understanding what he was agreeing to and quickly turned his attention to something else.

The lack of self-knowledge in these young men and of a basic grasp of conversational logic is astonishing. All they know how to do is sell drugs and wield arms and have sex with lots of people. Instant gratification leads to lack of self-respect and that leads to a lack of respect for others, which makes them dangerous. But I am left with the impression of six young men who at various points in the morning, when they took time out from being rowdy, undisciplined, boastful criminals, were trying to be nice and to communicate something of their inner turmoil. But with their attempts to be nice came a sense of power - as though they could charm me into believing them. Everything, basically, is spoiled for these boys and they in turn spoil everything that comes into contact with them.

Meanwhile, Freddie was smouldering in a corner, refusing to interact with anybody. I felt at a loss as to how to keep all these men purposefully occupied. In the end, I gave Freddie a laptop on which I have installed some software for making dance tracks. It's called Fruityloops and is the equivalent of children's TV for toddlers. It has a pacifying effect. Once he has his headphones on, he is immersed in his own 140bpm world. He is happy.

And so the black boys continued to dramatise their sordid, petty drug-dealing and sordid sexual liaisons, and to strut around the room intoning lyrics that I have no intention of recording.

An hour later I spoke to Freddie on the wing. Through the observation panel in his cell door we discussed the morning's disastrous workshop. I acknowledged that it had been a bad idea getting so many men into one room with only one microphone and my own imperfect understanding of the technology involved in recording them. He pointed out that these men were not good rappers and had not prepared their lyrics anyway. I did not want to go too far down that road since we were heading towards dangerous territory - his resentment at their boasting presence and lack of understanding for their predicament. Instead I admitted that I had relied on him to make good my own technological shortcomings. I had asked too much of him - he can't control a room full of prisoners, after all. If he did, he would be considered a "screw boy", fatal for any prisoner's credibility.

He, of course, was as sweet as pie, which made the earlier anger all the more unreal. It was almost as though it had never happened, or if it had, it had happened to another person. It was as though, the moment I turned my smiling attention to him the darkness lifted and he was standing outside it. Is this what BPD means: that he stands outside himself?

If that is so, which, I wonder, is his real self? The man who had cast darkness on to the room that morning, whose feelings had placed him so deeply into the moment that he had become anger incarnate? Or the sensible, reasoning, intelligent man I was now talking to through a glass panel? I suppose the glass panel provides some kind of a clue.

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's peice was both thought provoking and damning of the prison system and our society.
One of the worst aspects of capitalism is it's pursuit of money at all costs and instant gratification.
Of course the benefit of capitalism is the enterprise and ideas that make our lives enjoyable but for those who don't have what it takes it is simply "here's some money from the state, now keep yourself occupied however out of our way".
If that means ghettos then so be it. The concept in the United states is that if you have any sense at all you would get out of the ghetto and those that are left there want to be and choose to be out of laziness or weakness.
One way to tackle cultral crime is to look at the beginnings of certain cultral trends. I mean, not many buddhists carry guns, asians tend to rank family honour extremely highly and perhaps the afro-carribean community are just passing on old tribal rites such as leaving children with the women.
My answer would be tough tough tough penalties and humiliation for gun criminals but intense encouragement for studious achievements. This will lead to further ghettos to begin with and then less in time.
One problem society will always face is that some people are just lazy and nasty and we will always have to accept that.
We need more mental health diagnosis and treatment too for those that are sick rather then just punishment.

Posted by: sue law at September 26, 2007 02:57 AM
Trying to convince them of their logical inconsistencies is an exercise in helpless frustration.

Trying to convince Henry VIII of his logical inconsistencies was a ticket to the block, the gallows, or the stake.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 6, 2007 05:16 PM

What's happened to Emily?
I think she has been sucked into that giant abyss called the 'Prison Service' never to be seen again???

Posted by: Andy Mack at December 2, 2007 05:58 PM
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