I was and still am a “Listener”. In prison I listened to men who were suicidal, suffered from self harm, mental illness, fear and most of all hopelessness. The reason I became one was because I’d felt nearly all of the above at some stage during the first couple of years of my sentence. No more so than whilst I was under questioning in the hospitality suite at Gatwick Airport hours after my arrest. As I was coming out off the fog of Brandy and Cocaine I knew I couldn’t survive the shame of what I’d done and the impending doom of prison. Sat for what seemed like an eternity trying to figure out different ways of smashing my head of the toilet bowl in an effort to kill myself in one blow. Even walked around the cell trying to figure out how to get more elevation and speed into the process and at the same time working out what angle I’d have to come at it to allow the weak parts of my skull to fracture. Thank goodness I was dying from alcohol and cocaine poisoning and the effort of thought allowed me to continuously pass out and survive the hours of relentless questioning by Customs Officers.
A ‘Listener’ listened to me once at HMP Rye Hill. Well, when I say once, it started out that way but ended up being a daily ritual for three months until I got my head back on straight. This was one and a half years into my sentence. I got it and understood the importance of simply ‘Listening’.
When I returned to Northern Ireland I signed up and received the training from the Samaritans. Now, this is just an observation ‘me’ as in ‘I’ and the other ‘Listener’s’ are not staff, nor are the Samaritans, we are sworn to confidentiality and we do not get paid (nor do we want to) for delivering a system of care to prisoners. I listen to the crap we are fed on daily basis about ‘duty of care’, ‘staff training’, ‘safer custody’ and I must declare that it is complete and utter bollix when one takes a step back to think about it.
Prison and the suffering that goes with that is a direct result of politics and the punishing of criminality. All criminals are equal in the eye of the law. And it is true that all prisoners do get the same amount of duty of care/punishment administered to them under the Incentive Earned Privilege Scheme (IEPS).
However, there is a disturbing propensity for the use of ‘basic’ to demonstrate to the newly fledged prisoner that one has to be shown how bad it can be before one can then start to fit into the regime and learn to cow tow to the petty punitive nature of punishment within the institution of prison. Much of this occurs on remand (innocent until proven guilty remember) and for those who are appealing their conviction, as is their right by law, they cannot avail to the enhanced status of the scheme. Due to the situation delivered by the new tough on prisoners model of punishment upon punishment what was once deemed as not a kick in the arse off basic is now called enhanced. In fact enhanced allows each prison under its own local rules to determine what enhanced actually is. ‘Things’, (a great prison word) allowed in one jail are not allowed in another due to the local IEPS.
I mention this for two reasons –
1. Under Safer Custody Guidelines no prisoner can use the words ‘Suicide’, ‘Depressed’, ‘Vulnerable’, ‘Lonely’, ‘Frightened’, ‘Hopeless’ ‘Pointless’ or synonyms relating to these as they will be placed on programme called Supporting a Prisoner at Risk or commonly referred to as a SPAR. To get a grasp of how this might sound great to the uneducated I must mention that there is also a ‘thing’ in prison called the “Care and Separation Unit” normally referred to as CSU or SSU by the authorities but to us lot ‘the pokey’, ‘the boards’ or in layman’s terms ‘solitary’.
2. Upon receiving the duty of care if the institution afforded to mentally unbalanced individual on a SPAR they are put in cell with 24hr CCTV, lights must remain on at all times and the person is checked every fifteen or thirty minutes and must make a sign or verbal communication that they are still alive. This will last for any period until the person says they no longer feel what they felt before.
Insomnia is also deemed a mental illness and is described a broken period of sleep two or three times a week over a period of three to four weeks. Safer Custody Policy also states how ‘head counts’ and ‘night checks’ must be carried out three to four times a night to make sure all is well in the cell and prisoners are not doing anything they shouldn’t be. Namely trying to get the require 6-8 hours sleep a human being needs to survive as and function rationally.
When I produced this evidence to a Governor at a Safer Custody meeting I was asked to leave. The Governor in his arrogance told me I shouldn’t believe everything I saw on the TV and read in the papers. However, when I produced the academic scientific evidence that insomnia does and can cause suicide I was asked to leave. A year later and a different Governor I demonstrated that I had to wear knee brace round my head at night to block out a torch being shone in my face he just smiled and told me he was covered by the policy. I was also told by a very long serving and senior officer that the very same Governor upon the end of their daily morning brief said something along the lines of “keep em alive.”
I though what arrogant fucking bastards! Where and when did they become not human?
Two recent articles in the Guardian suggest that all is not well in today’s prison. When are we going to use our brains and wake up to the fact that prison is not meant to help people. It is mean to hurt, harm, punish and destroy in order to maintain public protection. How can it do this when those who survive leave with so much hatred in their hearts that it takes a monumental effort to still not commit suicide upon release.
Lynda Davison’s 21-year-old son, Steven, hanged himself in HMP Glen Parva, in Leicestershire. He had been sent there “for his own safety” after attempting to cut his throat.
She said: “I didn’t expect them to love him, but I did think they would look after him until he came home to get proper treatment.”
In a recent BBC 3 documentary “Dead Behind Bars” one mother of a dead prisoner states I had him in my care for x amount of years and he was safe. You had him in your care for x amount of days and he’s now dead (I cannot get the iplayer link for this so cannot quote exactly).
The president of the Prison Governors Association, Eoin McLennan-Murray, said governors felt it was not a coincidence that the peak in suicides was happening when the service was facing its greatest financial challenges for 30 years.
“There are staff shortages across the estate, prisoners are locked up more, they don’t get to activities, they don’t engage with a constructive regime. Staff have less time to interact with them, things are missed,” he said. “Staff are human, they are under extreme pressure, the service is under extreme pressure, and sometimes there are tragic consequences.”
The very fact that Eoin McLennan-Murray recognises that “Staff are human…” makes me wonder why this is emphasised? Is he suggesting that there are ‘others’ related to prison who are not human? This can be supported later in the article by the statement of Jeffery Donaldson – “Jeff confronted the governor, Alison Clark, afterwards. “She was saying sorry to me. I just told her: ‘Don’t be sorry. Do something.’ That’s when she started crying and told me: ‘I’m trying, I’m really trying.’”
The satirist John Oliver’s programme on prison is also a fantastic illustration of how we ignore what is done in the name of society whereby a correctional official was flummoxed on a simple question on cell size in during a debate on “Solitary Confinement. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights”.
Oliver states “You will never pay a political price for treating Prisoners badly.”
A young woman who had a C section in prison had her wound treated with sugar and when correctional official was challenged with this he said “the story had no basis in fact and had to be taken with a pinch of salt or in this case sugar.”
This then allows me to revisit the arrogance of politics. I’ve witnessed some of this jocular play on words often referred to as political sparring or what we as normal citizens witnesses as bleating during Prime Ministers Question. Just remember – David Cameron felt physically sick at the thought of me having a vote in prison. I wonder how he feels about it now. In fact I wonder how all politicians would feel ‘if’ all of a sudden every ex prisoner in the UK was to vote for a non mainstream party or a party that wanted to actually make our world a better place to live in; just off the top of my head “The Green Party.”
As I ‘listen’ to Belfast taxi drivers change their opinion of me in a twenty minute journey home I have to wonder how much merit is there in this process of brining truth to power. For me, it’s really simple I watch Phil Scraton’s talk on the Hillsborough Disaster and the words “they all knew” will never leave me.
Why? Why, because we all know. Secretly and or publicly we want bad things to happen to bad people, that is of course until it happens to us or someone we love or care about. 90% of prisoners leave prison at some stage or another (often after only a couple of years). Why then are they left socially dead for the rest of their lives and the only people who truly suffer (apart from victims) are their families and friends. Believe it or not victims of crime and relatives of prisoners belong to and live alongside one another in close nit communities and the little I’ve learnt by ‘listening’ is that they never want what happened to their loved one to happen to anyone else.
So what? So, what is the price we as a society pay by voting for ballix. Or, why don’t we go back to medieval times and just kill everyone who does something wrong.