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April 11, 2008

"I was sacked as a Prison Writer-in-Residence for Trafficking - in Books": Emily Kingham describes how her prison career came to an end

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham reflects on the sudden end of her time as a Writer-in-Residence at a Category B prison - and on her wider experience of working in prison. This is her final Note from a Prison.

I was Writer-in-Residence at a Category-B prison in Essex until 23rd January 2008. I had been there for two years and four months. My instant impression was that prison is like a hall of mirrors. It is the ideal opportunity to take a long, hard look at yourself and repent of your sins. I am not sure how many prisoners take advantage of this opportunity, but it is one that I took up as a member of staff.

In such a confined space one cannot help but come up against oneself. If my approach to writing about prison sounds self-absorbed it is partly because I do not want to exploit the trust my students placed in me so it is easier to reflect what I find in them through writing about myself. We share a common humanity, after all.

Apart from that consideration, I have written about "offenders" extensively on this site in at attempt to understand them. I have felt it is important to understand the men I worked with because otherwise we cannot stop them committing crimes. I have polemicised and campaigned and harangued in the face of an obdurate, over-bureaucratized system. I have even written about the value of creative writing in prisons - the reason I was there in the first place.

What struck me most forcibly about prison was the lack of "talking cures". This is potentially lethal. The prison in which I worked has the highest suicide rate in the country. I found that potentially volatile situations could be calmed by simply talking to the agitated / aggrieved person in question. We all know this to be the case but sometimes in prison, when dealing with officialdom, I find myself speaking as though I am addressing a befuddled infant. Suicidal despair can also be alleviated by the simple act of sharing one's deepest concerns with a trustworthy interlocutor. This does not seem to be the received wisdom of prisons. Instead they have procedures to follow that are more concerned with paperwork than people.

If I ever have to fill in another form again I shall scream - and I am a supposedly respectable, law-abiding citizen. How can we be surprised when a man who has no impulse control sets fire to his cell when having to deal with jobsworths? Frankly, I would do the same.

Again, if I write about myself in the context of prison it is because I have tried every other approach and no one seems to be listening. My blogs have attracted some commentators whose opinions have enlightened and reassured me but outside this website, I find it hard to locate a forum for reasonable debate on the prison service. Yet it needs such urgent attention.

On 23rd January, I was summoned to the Head of Security's office and interrogated for an hour. On the desk a series of documents and reports were arranged. This was the evidence against me.

(i) a prisoner had tried to arrange a gift for me. He had asked his mother to acquire an Internet certificate stating that a star had been named after me. This was in appreciation of the work I had done with him. The Head of Security handed me a photocopy of the certificate that had been intercepted in his post. I reasoned that I had no control over prisoners' actions but she countered that I had created a relationship whereby presents could be exchanged.

(ii) Officers on this prisoner's wing had expressed concern in a Security Information Report that I had been spending too much time talking to this man over the lunchbreak through the observation panel on his door. I laughed at this. When else can I talk to my students if not during my lunchbreak? I spent all my spare time on the wings.

(iii) The laptops my students had been working on had photos of staff on them which had been used for the prison magazine. One of these photos was of the "governing governor" and had been doctored so that his nose and ears looked silly. Apparently, this was a very grave cause for concern. I had nothing to say.

(iv) Also found on these laptops were music tracks that had been burned from compact discs. Again, I had nothing to say.

(v) The most telling piece of evidence was a copy of my first book, a family memoir detailing my late grandfather's criminal activities. Officially, prison employees are not allowed to give prisoners presents. However, books were always a cloudy issue as they have an educational purpose. I had given a copy of my book to a man I had been working with.

I recognised something in this man the moment I saw him. It may seem strange that a 42-year-old female writer should identify with a 28-year-old aggravated burglar, but this was the case. I saw Tom's nasty side first, and my response to his sotto voce insults and snarling attitude was to tell him that I found him upsetting.

I did find him upsetting but there was something else. There was something inside him I needed to unlock, but I did not know what it was. Tom started to mouth unconvincing platitudes about not wanting to cause offence. I cut through his fake contrition.

In the ensuing silence, I asked to read his lyrics. Most men in prison are putative Emcees, and I had heard Tom's rapping contests with another man. He usually won, but then the other man, a student of mine, had profound mental health issues that got in the way of his rapping. Tom handed me typed pages that he kept in a scruffy plastic folder that was obviously precious to him. He had written his tag on it as though declaring his presence on a blank wall.

I was preparing my own platitudinous response to a pale imitation of a black American rapper until I read what he had typed on these pages. Tom was white and Welsh but he wasn't a wigger. His lyrics had a rare focus and pungency to them, and what really impressed me: they could only have been written by him. His anger shone through every word and created a lyrical momentum on the page that touched me. It echoed my own anger that had been increasing since working within the prison system.

We were sitting in a windowless portakabin that was the prison's IT workshop. I was not alone with Tom. There were 15 other men in grey sweats - four of whom were my students. An officer sat at the other end of the long aisle flanked by computers. It was a low-ceilinged room with strip lighting and nylon carpet. The idea was that prisoners were learning IT skills through a set of headphones attached to their monitors. The room should have been silent. It never was. The men rarely attended to the recorded voice telling them how to create a spreadsheet or construct a database. Instead they wrote letters to their girlfriends or lawyers, slept or gossiped.

Workshop Two was my base simply because the officer who ran it was friendly, there were lots of computers and a printer that worked - a rare commodity in prison. I encouraged Tom to tell me more about himself and to write some more. What he revealed over the course of the next six months moved me, and for some reason obscure to myself at the time, I needed him to know he was not alone. I gave him the book I had written about my grandfather.

As far as the Security department was concerned, I had broken the rules and so must be removed from the establishment. Two grim-faced officers escorted me to the prison gate and asked me to hand in my keys and Home Office prison pass. I was duly barred from the premises.

One week after my removal, I spoke to my friend, the officer in Workshop Two. He told me that the rumours had started. His superior had informed him that the Security Department had "enough on [me] to go to the police" and that the police would "press charges". I was horrified. For half an hour I racked my brain: what had I done? How had I broken the law? Then I realized I had done nothing to break the law, that this was just a rumour to stem attempts to champion my cause. There had been talk of me suing the prison for constructive dismissal.

Colleagues who knew me well were disgusted by the prison's treatment of me. This was the prison's response: to blacken my reputation and instil fear in those who remained. It had also been said that I had contacted a prisonerís family in secret phone calls - this was also a lie; and that I had written an "encrypted message" in the trafficked book. This was nonsense, I had written "To my friend, Tom" - nothing very cryptic about that. Although you could say it was over-familiar.

By the way, the day I was dismissed a report conducted by the Chief Inspectorate of Prisons was published. In it, inspectors expressed their concerns about managerial bullying at this prison. I was one of the few staff members singled out for praise for the work I had done with prisoners in enhancing their communication skills.

A month later, I realised what it was that I had recognised in Tom. I had grown up with young men like him, and like a lot of people who work in prisons I was there for a reason. Like a lot of people as well, I had not had the support I needed in dealing with such intense encounters. Instead I had been bullied and made to feel alienated from the management structure.

I do not dispute my offence in trafficking a book and I would even concede that I was over-familiar with the prisoners. But I would say that it is counter-productive to treat people - whether they are staff or prisoners - with such contempt or disregard. The governors of this prison need to look in the hall of mirrors they have created. Instead, and maybe this is why they work there, they prefer to sit in judgement on everyone else.

There were many instances at Chelmsford of a dysfunctional management style, just as there were instances of individuals battling it out, trying to do some good. There were a significant number of female members of staff who became involved with prisoners. Governor Number Two was a woman who wore deliberately provocative clothing and visibly enjoyed the ensuing attention. One of the male governors would periodically ask female staff to photocopy their breasts for him. He also had an affair with a teacher who was also having an affair with a prisoner. The Education Officer would routinely provoke men into verbal confrontations. He was once heard to say, "I get more pussy than you".

Another told a prisoner who commented on his girth, "Every time I fuck your mother, she gives me a biscuit". This passed as banter. One man, who had carved the name of his girlfriend into his forearm was told, "You're lucky her name wasn't longer".

One suicidal prisoner was dismissed in the form that was held on him as "manipulative". This form was supposed to detail his moods as someone who had been identified as being at risk. Another comment read, "He's still alive". A few days later, he committed suicide. The governor's response was to tell staff to take care what they wrote in these forms as the forms would be examined by investigators into the suicide. I could hardly believe my eyes when I read this - his concern seemed to be about the form that would be read by outsiders, not the man or the lack of help he received.

On a more mundane level, I knew one teacher who spent his entire lunch break going on to the wings to write "red entries" in prisoners' history sheets. These are comments written in a red pen that detail infractions of the regulations, such as smoking in the toilet or persistent shouting out of a classroom window. He seemed to take pleasure in this lunchtime activity. It was as though he was making up for all the slights and insults he had received from childhood onwards. If only we could write "red entries" in the history sheets of people who hurt us, and thereby bring them to justice. In prison, this teacher did just that. He was Charles Bronson with a red biro.

Perhaps I am being harsh but ultimately the HMCIP report backs my own findings up. At times, I found this prison so chaotic it nearly brought me close to breakdown, but the rewards were so great I kept going. I had a real camaraderie with the men and with certain members of staff who shared my alarm and turned it into humour.

There were even some wonderful pieces of writing to gloat over. On the whole, however, the stories prisoners wrote for me did not have a discernible artistic merit (not to an outsider anyway). But due to the intensity of our encounters (a high-stress environment, the painfulness of their lives) what they revealed was deeply touching and resonant. Each piece of writing felt like a work of art because for them, the emotional unravelling it involved, made it significant. The wittiness and sheer energy of these men was something I shall sorely miss. But I'm glad I'm out of there: the bastards, as Fletcher says in Porridge, ground me down.

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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Or Illegitimis non carborundum, if only Fletcher had had a classical education.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 14, 2008 08:57 PM

Do their victims have "wrtiers in residence?"

Posted by: Joe Schmuckatelli at March 25, 2010 07:56 PM
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