What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Last Tuesday evening In Dublin I attended a lecture held The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) delivered by Dr. Sharon Shalev on the topic of: “Solitary confinement: necessity, convenience or inhumanity?” It was a great lecture and there were some interesting thoughts and opinions that came to the fore during the Q&A at the end. As is the way with all of these events I can’t keep my hand down and yet again I ask a relevant question that not one person on the board or in the room can or is willing to answer. The emphasis of the lecture was on solitary confinement and the shock horror that this entails; a recurrent theme throughout was how harmful solitary confinement is and was. The one thing that I did notice was that no one except for my travelling companion noticed that not only in Ireland but across the UK solitary confinement has become standard operating procedure (unofficially) as Operational Reasons/lack of staff have residential prison governors locking wings and prisons down as it’s safer to keep everyone locked up. I agree lock the fekkers up, treat them like mushrooms, feed them shit and keep them in the dark. Are mushrooms a vegetable? If they are then that is exactly what is happening to human beings. They are being turned into vegetables.
One of the more promising statements that arose from the lecture is that Mountjoy is in the process of having the whole prison single cell accommodation. Now this is great news for sensitive souls like myself who utter “I vant to be alone.” The problem with this is that they actually believe it. I have seen it in nearly every prison I’ve been to or heard stories of similar scenarios and the best example to date is where one prison had brand new Voluntary Drug Testing wing (VDT unit) based on Restorative practices where staff and prisoners where vetted before they could work or play on the wing. True to form I watched it deteriorate due to operational procedures and the promotion and shift in policy allowing prison staff from anywhere in the prison to work anywhere in the prison slowly allowed the deterioration of the wing. Doubling up was introduced and the whole thing went to pot. This brand new state of the art wing, once heralded in the press as the future of prison is now a committal wing.  All that money all that investment all that good, and I am at loathe to say it, but all that what ‘worked’ has gone to pot. It’s back to being just like any other madhouse wing. I think they’ve labeled some other wing a VDT because they have to but as any person who has served in any prison will tell you “there is no such thing as a ‘drug free wing.'”
A couple of months before my departure I had a few chats with some of the officers I had grown to love over the previous years. Yep, you heard me right ‘love’. Good, kind, decent men and women who always, along with me, kept their dignity and integrity. Sorry, I digress. We, the officers and I were chatting about what it was like in the old days, the early days when it suddenly struck me that we were talking of only three and a half years ago. The wing now is in the process of full doubling up and is locked down on a regular basis because of staffing levels and as it is the only wing with in cell sanitation it is much easier to manage. The staffing levels in this place are one of the highest in the UK because the authorities have stated that they have a different type of criminal. They are partly correct but I can’t go into that as it’s too political and there are better men than I who write about that sort of thing.
It is with much vexationness that I recall these events and the promises made to me and my fellow prisoners. There was hope but it’s been scuppered by institutional need. I have watched men change in this place and I’ve laughed a lot with many different people from totally alternate cultures and walks of life but alas I see the prison service as a glorious beautiful Swan. It glides along breaking arms of people who get in its way and under the surface it’s paddling like mad to stay afloat. Solitary confinement is a UK prison norm under the guise of ‘Operational Reasons/Difficulties.’ This where the system breaks down in its duty of care, this is when duty of care takes over and the system has automatic procedures and policies that kick in to protect the idea of public protection.
During the lecture we were informed of a young Canadian girl called Ashley Smith who in 2007 hung herself whilst under institutional policy/procedure or SPAR in the UK.  This tragic story bares similar hallmarks to the Colin Bell case in Northern Ireland in and a around the same time. We, if we could stomach it, were encouraged to watch the footage recorded by prison staff. I plucked up the courage to watch it on Sunday morning. This is the reason why I have been offline for a few days. I have seen this happen in ever jail I’ve been in. Not the actual outcome of death but the procedure/policy. I feel for the guards because they have to implement policy to the letter or they will end up on the wrong side of the law if they don’t. It also makes my skin crawl as I know what it feels like to be trussed up like a pig ready for the spit. Can you imagine what this policy does to a sane person? If it drives a sane person mad then what chance a person with mental illness. I urge you to watch this footage, but be careful as one of the links takes you to fetish site where this girls death is classed as titillation. Horrific and disgusting but this is exactly my point. This process is a sign of the times and has no one single contributory factor that cause it. The system is designed in such a way that automatic processes and procedures kick in if certain words are used by inmates and they then attain a higher level of risk management for their protection. Every single process involved in the duty of care to Ashley Smith was for her own good and the protection of staff and the public. Yet she died in front of its eyes.
The aftermath is even less palpable as the process of shutting up shop and deniability kicks in. This nineteen year old girl went of prison because of string of minor offences. Ashley is then seen on an airplane done up like Hannibal Lecter and finally dead on the floor of solitary confinement cell. There is nothing solitary about solitary confinement as one is never alone, the only time people are alone is when they are on a normal wing locked up for twenty odd hours. This is where the causal factors related to suicide, self harm, depression et al sow their seeds and if you pluck up the courage to tell authority. Well the rest is history. Survival is luck, avoiding permanent brain dame is resolve; best to say nothing and suffer in silence don’t you think. Prison is a Prison and not a place for damaged goods. Don’t build more prisons build more care environments. Its only an idea but if half of those in jail got the help they needed would our society not be better protected. I know there are places attempting this but why is taking so fucking long? Colin Bell and Ashley Smith happened six years ago and I thought some good might arise from a tragic situation, lessons learned and all that, but I’m still listening to the same crap from the same people who were in charge at the time and it’s all about covering one’s ass. When are people going to realise that prison has got sweet FA to do with prisoners.


About micsirwin

I'm a Postgraduate student at Queens studying Criminology, writer, poet and lover of integrity, dignity, respect and morality
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3 Responses to What’s Love Got To Do With It?

  1. ketilson01 says:

    Powerful stuff as ever. I’m learning so much from your blog – thanks! Heard all about the VDT unit . I attended an event before Christmas at which Prof Phil Scraton gave a powerful and moving presentation about young women, mental health issues and prison, so much remains to be done.


  2. Geoff says:

    Powerful stuff indeed. Thanks from me, too!

    It’s great to read that you are at uni (and studying & researching a very interesting academic discipline).

    Betcha you value your university and that you will get every drop of goodness out of it that’s on offer.

    All the best


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