The title of this little piece comes not from Cindy Lauper but from an academic friend who knows a bit about the long walk of freedom. Not because they’ve read Mandela but because they, like me, are living what most only read, see or hypothesise about.  Two things have stirred me from today’s application searching, PhD funded places in the UK, One ‘Bring Back Borstal’ and the other “Channel 4 News” both aired last night.

I’ll start with two of Channel 4 News video clips available on YouTube. Michael Spurr claims, ‘Over 100 prison staff disciplined or excluded’ last year.’ and claims “Prisons are safe decent places…Prisoners attempt to do illegal things… We are dealing with a different type of people in prison now…Therefore a prison cannot be completely safe all of the time.”

Symeon Brown’s piece using video footage claims ‘Inside our jails: chaos, violence, and alleged drug dealing, “Allegedly drugs are four times the price…Physical money is banned…When you have money in prison you can afford to have someone brush your hair…over 7,000 phones and SIM cards seized in prison…the corrupt staff at the heart of this.”

When I started my prison sentence on the 19th of June 2007 I could not believe what I had become party too. On the morning of Wednesday 29 August 2007 I was not unlocked in the morning to get fed or collect my medication. Even though I’d only been int nick for two months this break in routine signalled something was afoot. At around Eleven O’clock a female in a suit opened my door with a breakfast pack and some milk but wouldn’t tell me what was going on. There were no uniformed staff in sight. An hour later ‘Channel 4 News’ announced that prison officers were on strike across the UK. If you want to read more you’ll have to get my soon to be published book ‘Life Begins at Forty’.

I started writing that day about the chaos, the waste and the sheer in-credulousness of what was happening in the institution of prison. At the time I thought that it was just the prison where I was residing. Not the case. After nearly eight years, six different jails, two jurisdictions, another year at the institution of University, and, a possibility of another three years writing a PhD on Prison and desistance; I find myself sitting at home with the fire lit being able to make an informed comment on all of these shenanigans.

Prisons are not safe, not only because of the bullying and threat involved in illicit enterprise but also by the nature of prison regimen designed to crush and harm. I spent many years as a prison mentor and listener and believe me, people die as a direct result of the duty of care provided by the prison system. Illicit drugs are a problem, but if the truth be told it’s prescription drugs that are now the more popular contraband. The orange stuff you seen in the video clip was more than likely Hooch (now legal on the outside but once prohibited. Look how that went). Although, I was once offered an actual ten glass bottle of Scotch one Christmas morning. I’ve also witnessed staff openly deal drugs on a landing and in cells and the protection delivered to inmates under their protection fuelled the violence and bully culture of the institution.

I’ve only ever seen cash once in prison, when t fell out of a Christmas card sent to me by a family member. I handed it in straight away and nothing more was said. There was also the case of a guy I knew who was accused of having over £30, 000 of drug money in his cell. The even took an angle grinder to his bed and cut it into toilet roll size pieces. No money was found and the police laughed their head off when the guy told him why the true story of what happened. Not the one concocted in the imaginations of the security team. What ‘we’ as the general public need to know is that security is a business. Prisons are run by an elite team of security personal who can and do control the inner most deliverance of regimes and will squash anyone, including their colleagues, who question their methods.
Prison ‘today’ are not in chaos. They have always been on chaos. They will continue to do so as long as society continues to believe that prison is the answer to the social experiment known as the war on drugs. I will save my thoughts on this for an academic paper but the phrase ‘social experiment’ allows me to consider ‘Bring back Borstal’.

When I saw Criminologist, Professor David Wilson, announced as ‘The Governor’ a four part TV series called ‘Bring Back Borstal’ I thought “Oh! Now this looks interesting!” I’ve followed Prof Wilson’s previous TV programmes with great interest and respect from the other side of the wall. However, the very title of this set my nerve ends tingling and that it was a ‘social experiment.’

I’ve recently watched a lecture delivered by Professor Philip Zimbardo of ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ and ‘Lucifer Effect’ fame. The academic inquisition that followed the ethics of said experiment was in fact what fuelled me to start my own academic adventure. My problem was, I was living what Zimbardo had written at the exact time of the 2007 Prison Officers strike (did I mention the strike was illegal and no officer was ever charged with an offence?) and even though the findings fascinated me I could not believe that I could speak to a person the way a member of staff had just spoken to me.

In the opening credits I watched Mr Duggaaaaan bark at the young men as they walked in and thought “Oh dear!” When I heard the most respected Professor Wilson mention that this regime was much better than lying on a bed in prison all day I thought “Ah fer heaven’s sake. Why did you go and say that?” Prisoners lie on their bed all day because they cannot get out of their cell, they are on basic and or there are not enough staff to provide a safe secure and rehabilitating regime. The concept is admirable but it’s delivery is impossible. We all witnessed how many staff it took to restrain one small flare up. This happens all day every day in any prison and young offender centre even more so. A set of safe staff quota’s were formed at a time when the prison population in the uk was at around 45,000. Just look it up.

Do we as society seriously expect to change young men with chemically imbalanced thought processes often as result of horrendous upbringing by enforcing a regimen of discipline they have little or no understanding of? The rage in the programme is meant to be diminished by hard work ethic, sport, education and discipline. In other words they should be too tired to flare up. If they do then get them a set of boxing gloves and show them a punch bag instead of each other. The trouble with that little hypotheses for a start is that ‘All’ boxing equipment is banned in HMP as the skills may be used to attack officers. Honestly, this is not made up. The fundamental ideas are admirable but the reality is far from the truth.

Borstal and Big Borstal (Prison) are horrible places where, as Michael Spurr stated “prisoners attempt to do illegal things.” This is so true, my friend, a boxing coach was charged under offence against the good order and running of the establishment (a widely used institutional rule) for making home-made boxing pads and glove. He wanted to set up a proper boxing gym and train via discipline, respect and education but none of this is allowed in case Mr Duggaaaan gets a smack in the gob. I’m, only using boxing as one example of the illogical nature of what goes on in said institutions.

The bullying that led to the removal of the two brothers wasn’t just brought about by not playing Rugby. It festers in that environment. Young men have genes and the built in condition of the human animal is survival of the fittest in order to produce more genes. The fact that this is not once mentioned troubles me as I have seen and witnessed the consequences – self harm and suicide. And what of the boys who had to leave? What do we do with them?

The crux of the matter, admitted in both programmes is that these institutions failed and fail society. I’ve lived it and now have qualified opinion on it. Before I went to jail I’d have been right up there with the pulpit politicians shouting “bring back hangin, national service, borstal, lock em up and throw away the key.” That was until I spent a significant number of time in the institution of criminal justice. Public protection is failing because we are continually fed the same set of failed belief systems by the cash cow of politically biased criminal justice processes that lead to the institution of rehabilitation via harm and pain.

So what’s the alternative? The only thing I can deliver is my experience. I met a very petite Spanish lady in HMP Highdown in 2008. She was from an Organisation called the Art of Living Foundation and was the teacher of a course called ‘Prison Smart’ delivered in prisons across the globe. Here’s the link to a YouTube clip with yours truly –

If you want further information got to – http://http://www.prisonsmart.org/

This course is designed for prisoners in prison but it is also available in a town near you check out – http://http://www.artofliving.org/uk-en

I’m often asked what is the alternative to punishment? For me this has to start within and as Professor Wilson points out that by addressing what goes on within it then allows free space for progress and purpose. As I state in the video clip this is exactly what happened to me at the age of forty one. I still continue to do my exercises and meditation. Serving Time after Time is not, has not and will not be easy but this simple little process allows me to live my life with positivity, peace and purpose? Is this not what we all want in life? The truth is ‘No’ not all of us do want as many of us would be out of a job if we started to fix ‘illegal things.” A friend of mine once said “If there is one thing we have learned from History. It’s that we have not learned from History.” It’s about time we did eh?


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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