The True Cost of Prison

This is my short paper I delivered at Queens 7th Annual Postgraduate Conference yesterday.

In 1938 Frank Tannenbaum states “The process of making the criminal, therefore, is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self-conscious; it becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, emphasizing and evoking the very traits that are complained of.” (Tannenbaum, 1938, 19f in Hacking, 2004, p. 296).

The ‘making of conscious and self-conscious’ is of great significance here as those of us who’ve been to prison know all too well that one’s sentence truly begins when one walks out the gate.
In De Profundis Oscar Wilde declares so eloquently “When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was.
It was ruinous advice.
It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind.
Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all.
I know that would be equally fatal […]
To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life.
It is no less than a denial of the soul” (Wilde, 1913).

So, how do we put the experience of that place to good use?
Dr Paul Karsten Fauteck states “I believe that I can speak from a unique vantage point, having seen the criminal justice system inside-out, from the cold floor of a solitary cell to the witness stand providing expert opinions as a forensic psychologist.”
Dr Fauteck also hit on the term “member of the offender population (M.O.P),” a somewhat tongue and cheek acronym.

During most of my talks with former people who had been to prison they shared a common view that mopping of floors for half an hour (purposeful activity in prison terms which also contributes to a Governor’s bonus) did not rehabilitate or prepare one for release.
It did get them out of the cell though.
Prison is the answer, the last resort of the criminal justice system.
Is it really?
The problem with prison, of course, is that it’s a paradox. It starts from the wrong position.
It starts in the psyche of our culture as a place of death, harm, punishment and all sorts of horribleness.
Every Idea and notion of prison fed to us as from childhood to adulthood is a negative.
As a society we do this on purpose as hopefully the images conjured up in one’s psyche will be enough to deter one from a criminal act.
The reality is a constant negotiation of institutional rules and policies designed for progression through the prison system.

After six jails in six years, I’ve lost count of how many cells and wings I’ve frequented.
It’s great that David, Paul and I can sit on the same panel and share with other citizens at events like this.
We have similar qualifications of the civil servants who work in criminal justice.
We have the horrible gift of the lived experience and it is naive of us to lay claim to it.
Many of us in this room are here for a reason and that is to make our society a better place to live in via academia and lived experience.
The term ‘recidivism’ is well known to most of us here today and it cost us as a society not only economically but socially via wasted taxes, inflated insurance, and a perpetual decline in community and family life.

Is it so farfetched that we could one day have a DOJ Official, an Academic and a M.O.P. writing criminal justice policy together for the common good?
In a most recent Guardian article Eric Allison and Alastair Sloan suggest, “The last thing an overcrowded, underfunded and failing prison system wants is a critical mass of educated prisoners who see from the inside what is wrong, and who are able to communicate this credibly to the outside world.”

This is what we did as Listeners in prison.
We used our shared experiences to identify problems and tell the truth to those in power.
I was invited to attend a safer custody meeting once and after I delivered my research into how sleep deprivation caused by the institutional need of night checks was causing insomnia and suicide – I was asked to leave and never invited back.
The cost of not listening is the most expensive of all.
Why do we need reform, constant reform at that. After all there are so many great and wonderful things going on.
I don’t know if the induction PowerPoint at Magilligan has changed but I did believe it in 2009. ‘Charlie Dimmock’s Convict Army’ helped build a Garden near the Foyle way back in 2000 and one guy got a job at the Europa.
When I introduced the Listeners scheme during induction four years later nothing had been added.
In Irwin and Santiago-McBride (work in progress) funded by Queens and Dr Santiago-McBride we organised and facilitated an international gathering of people who had been to prison in Northern Ireland, British Convict Criminology and Convict Criminology in the US and Canada via video link.
“Three major themes emerged. First was the anxiety felt towards the end of a prison sentence, described by one former prisoner as ‘fear of the unknown’.
Related to this (the second theme) was the lack of support post-release, as the same former prisoner put it, ‘going back to the same situation’.
The third theme related to the particular difficulties faced finding work and the anxiety felt filling in application forms, due the attitudes of employers that flew in the face of all the evidence that former prisoners often make the hardest working employees.”
Or as Richard Branson once said “if you give someone that unexpected chance they will spend the rest of their life proving you right.”
What struck me most about this conversation was the pressure put on former prisoners to be dishonest and not reveal their prison record.
One person who had been to prison spoke of the humiliation faced filling in forms for income support when (in his case) he had difficulty writing.
He had however recently been provided with a mentor, who had promised to meet him at the prison gates and help him deal with welfare services.
He said he was much more confident this time that he would manage to keep out of trouble.

As it stand at the moment ‘mentoring’ is voluntary and unpaid.
Personally I find this very difficult as I’d like to do more but cannot afford three or four train or bus trips into Belfast out of my own benefits.
Back in 2010 I wrote a business plan about mentoring and sent it to the Justice Minister. His secretary sent it to the Governor of Maghaberry who sent it to the Governor of Magilligan who passed it on to the residential governor who appeared on the wing one day handed it back to me and said “NIACRO do all that so stop annoying people.”
Ruinous advice indeed as it steered me toward the complaints system.

There is of course some fantastic work going on in prison – Prison Smart, mentoring courses at HMP Lewes, The Clink, The Prison Radio, Scottish Prisoners building Social Housing, The Victim Impact Programme, The Cabin Cafe at Hydebank.
Imagine if all of this could be facilitated on a restorative practice based drug free wing.
The way Halward House used to be.
During my Prison Smart course the teacher asked me “are you trying?”
“Yes” I replied.
This lovely women smiled, looked me in the eye and said “Well Michael, if you’re trying you’re not doing. Either do it or don’t.”
Prison is trying and has been for a long time.


Allison, E. And Sloan, A., (2015) The Guardian, [Accessed August 2015].
Burnett, R., & Maruna, S. (2004) So ‘prison works’, does it? The criminal careers of 130 men released from prison under Home Secretary, Michael Howard. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(4), 390-404.

Fauteck, P. K., (2001) Going Straight an ex-convict/psychologist tells why and how,, USA. P.xv.

Prison Review Team, (2011) Review of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, Condition and Management of All Prisons, [Accessed August 2015].

SEXY CHARLIE AND HER CONVICT ARMY; Jail answers braless star’s plea for ‘outside workers’..” The Free Library, (2000)…-a063249277 [Accessed August 2015]

Tannenbaum, F. (1938) in Hacking, I. (2004), “Between Michel Foucault and Erving Goffman: between discourse in the abstract and face-to-face interaction.” Economy and society, 33.3, P.296.

Wilde, O. (1913) De Profundis The Project Gutenberg [Accessed August 2015].


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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