The tears flowed easily as I watched last night’s Panorama programme about the abuse of children at Medway. What hit me most was not the violence. Violence is par for the course in all HMP’s young, adult, private or other. Security teams (Ninja’s) are highly trained staff who relish the physical aspect of rehabilitation. No, for me, it was the bullying and manipulation of situations by prison staff. I’d like to echo the words of the undercover reporter when he recognised the good work and dedication of other staff. Needless to say there will be the standard official response namely ‘there will always be a few rotten apples…’ blah blah blah. Seven, in this case – in one unit?
What is more rotten is the fear of decent hard working staff to report or disagree with the wrongdoing of others. I’ve seen it in every single jail I frequented. The closing of ranks from the top down, the systemic abuse of power and manipulation of progression through the system as a weapon of control. It’s now 2016 and what I saw last night got my teeth grinding again. There was much activity on Twitter after the programme aired, disgust with G4S and the violence, bullying and falsifying of reports uncovered at Medway.
The image of the young boy trembling and shaking, alone in his cell (with the lights permanently on) took me back to my own memories of the institution of prison. Adults too can feel like vulnerable young boys and I’m never afraid or ashamed to admit my vulnerable times. What changes? What can we learn from experience? Why do we believe that people who go into the institution of prison will come out better people? With that in mind I think I should share some of my experiences at HMP Rye Hill in 2008 run by G4S.
HMP Rye Hill 5th Feb 2008.
What a contrast, what a place, unbelievably friendly and hospitable. Was greeted by a couple of trustees in the small but modern reception area – after being de cuffed – and given a piping hot cup of coffee. They went through my property bags whilst a female officer wrote down the items on a property card.
A very pleasant young fellow popped his head round the corner and said he’d see me when I was done. Got my mug shot taken and my photo ID was printed out whilst I waited for dinner that had just been brought in on a trolley. They had guessed I’d arrive over the dinner period and made sure that I had a piping hot dinner to eat whilst I was still being processed. Unheard of, what a fuckin luxury. I’m lovin’ this place already. Fish, chips, peas and gravy and another piping hot cup of coffee. Another officer came in and took my four bags away. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said ‘they’ll be waiting for you when you get over to your cell.’
Screws carrying your bags.
Was then ushered into a room where the cheerful chap from earlier was waiting. ‘Good evening Michael, welcome to Rye Hill I hope you’re not too tired? Won’t keep you long just a few formalities and I’ll take you over to ‘Hastings,’ (induction wing) you’ll stay there for two weeks before moving, probably to ‘Edwards,’ it’s the Voluntary Drug Testing (VDT) unit, I can see from your record you don’t dabble in the weed or anything like that.’
‘Hastings, Edwards,’ I said ‘don’t tell me all the wings are named after rugby players.’
‘They are indeed,’ he said ‘the first governor here had a great love of the game.’
‘Had?’ I asked, ‘did he die or something?’
‘No, he just left suddenly.’
‘Suddenly, why suddenly?’ jokingly I said, ‘this place looks brand new, who would want to leave?’
‘Has it been open long?’ I asked.
‘Six years,’ he said.
‘So the Governor has been here for almost the whole time the place has been open then?’
‘How long then?’
‘Uh, she’s been here two months.’
‘Two months? How many governors have there been in six years then?’
‘Uh, six,’ He sheepishly replied.
I thought to myself, right there and then; get the fuck back on the bus my son you have just landed in one hell of a fuck up. Like is my nature I shrugged it off and ever so cheerful escorted me over to Hastings. Where I was greeted by Al, a guy I knew from Brixton, a true cockney villain who introduced me to a few other hard looking men, all of whom were in their late fifties early sixties. Now this is more like it. Proper men who look as if they’ve been around the block a few times. It turns out most of the guys on the wing were like me, sentenced to twelve years and more or were on their way down from ‘A’ cat prisons with ‘A’ cat time…
Was shown to my cell – number 11 – I’ll never forget it as long as I’m alive. There was nothing special about the number; I’ll just always remember it. All the officers in this place have to be called by their first name so I’ll just use a letter to address them. B comes into my cell with two brand new duvets and four big fluffy pillows, pillow cases and duvet covers.
‘Are you going to a party?’ I asked him.
‘I wish,’ he laughs ‘these are for you.’
‘You’re only meant to have one set of each but they saw on your record you needed extra pillows and decided to give you an extra duvet as well, say nothing.’
Couldn’t believe it, myself and Sandy had been trying for four fuckin months to get a duvet at Brixton – with our own money – here they were at Rye Hill issuing them as ‘in possession’ property/bedding. What a result. I made my bed up, made a cup of coffee from the full, unopened jar Richard had just given me, rolled a fag and walked out to the yard to smoke it.
The yard was a strange set up, one side of each wing faced onto the yard to from a ‘V’ shape and the other end was a very high mesh fence which looked onto the prison allotments and gardens. It formed a triangle for the guys to walk round. It was around seven thirty and it was cold and foggy and I was dazed from the hassles of moving through one prison to another. It felt strange, knew I was in the country and really started to fill my lungs with the night air, mingled with the smell of freshly brewed coffee and cigarette smoke. Felt good.
The next thing I knew it was time for ‘bang up.’
‘B’ says ‘you’ve time for a quick shower if you want one.’
The showers where right beside my cell and I stood there for about ten minutes watching the shit, the stresses of Brixton, the ordeal of the last few month disappear down the plug hole in an clockwise direction (it goes anti -clockwise in the southern hemisphere).
Got dried and lay on top of my bed.
‘B’ comes to the door ‘you set for the night Mr Irwin?
Have a good rest I’ll see you in the morning. All the best.’
I thought to myself, how kind was that, how thoughtful and how appreciated those few little words were. The manner in which they were delivered was not only sincere but made me feel real, made me feel good, made me feel human again.
The next day I was woken at six thirty and was told that I’d be ‘leaving for court in twenty minutes.’
‘What are you on about?’
‘I only got here yesterday, don’t know anything about a court appearance and I’m fucked if I’m going back to London,’
Only to wait for another six months before I can get moved again.
‘So, you’re refusing to go then?’
‘If you refuse to go you will be given a Red Entry.’
‘Do what you gotta do mate, I ain’t going back to London’ I said.
‘I know nothing about any court appearance.’
He tells me to ‘relax,’ he’ll get the Unit manager to come and see me at some stage during the morning.
Was fuming, pacing up and down the cell. What the fuck was happening. I’d only just got here and I hadn’t heard from my solicitor since the trial; that was over three months ago.
Mid morning, the unit manager turned up and took me over to the office.
We sat down and he gave me my red entry to sign.
‘I’m not signing that’ and started to explain what had occurred.
He started to shake his head and said ‘ok, ok hold on, calm down Mr Irwin you won’t be going anywhere except the seg (Care and Separation Unit. The pokey), at the minute so take it easy.’
‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’
‘Two sugars please.’We had a long chat and he ended up telling me to ‘forget about this morning,’ and he ripped the red entry up and threw it in the bin. Cool.
To say that ‘HMP functions at a snail’s pace,’ is fair comment. Private jails – at least here at HMP Rye Hill – are worse. They fool you with politeness and political correctness. There is a group of individuals among the middle management here who are rotten to the core. They spend their time covering up the mistakes and bullying tactics of a handful of their subordinates.
Was transferred to ‘Edwards’ unit, the V.D.T. wing.
There I met Angel (not real name).
Angel was the editor of the award winning prison magazine was also the founder of the prison radio. One of the staff members saw that I was always writing and instigated my pass from ‘Hastings’ to ‘Edwards’ with the idea that I would meet Angel and he could help me, and guide me to work in the radio and magazine.
What a great idea!
What a fuckin mistake.
Nothing to do with Angel. The problem was I had to go to the education dept. the person in charge of assisting prisoners (my job at Lewes and Brixton) was a civilian member of staff employed by Manchester College. When I’d gone through the induction process it took me four weeks to speak to this person and when I did. Well, to say that we didn’t hit it off would be an understatement of the greatest magnitude.
The problem was I had overheard this person interview a young lad whilst they sat at one of the tables situated outside my cell door. This person was the rudest, most arrogant, patronising piece of work I have had the misfortune of meeting within the system. I’ve met some nasty pieces of work but this person topped the lot. The prison radio and magazine where situated in the education department and I had to go there each day and try to avoid this person. To make matters worse the officer in charge of the well being, security and assistance of prisoners in the education department was one of the most reviled officers in the prison. This officer had been ‘shitted up’ (a process where inmates will save up their excrement in a largish container for a couple of days then throw it over the appropriate person) on no fewer than eight occasions. To be honest I actually believe that this person was proud of the fact.
Angel had warned me to stay well clear of both individuals because they have destroyed many a man and short of committing another crime of a very serious nature there wasn’t much you could do against them because they were protected by the little click inside the management. It was only a matter of time before I fell afoul of these people.
The British justice system has a lot to answer for. By now I had realised that the simplistic idea of being caught committing a crime, being sent to prison and serving your time behind bars as the sole punishment was somewhat rather naïve. Furthermore, being sent to a private nick was turning out to be a further punishment within a punishment. I’m not going to rant on about individuals, how delusional they are when they think that they contribute to society by turning up for work each day to antagonize, demean and bully men. What I will say is that ‘women should not be given a uniform and be put in charge of men.’
The very idea of prison is one of subversion and dominance. A well known psychological experiment conduct in the United States by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues in 1971 shows how they “set up a simulated prison situation and randomly assigned a group of male participants to the roles of ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner.’ Their experiment, scheduled to last for two weeks, had to be stopped after only six days because the participants had taken their roles to seriously. The ‘guards’ became increasingly brutal and abusive while the ‘prisoners’ became passive and showed signs of emotional disturbance. These finding seemed to show how quickly apparently ‘normal’ people – individuals neither prone to violence nor emotionally disturbed – could change simply because of the roles they had been assigned. These roles had seemingly been shown to undermine normal constraints on behaviour.” (Starting with psychology (2007) The Open University, Milton Keynes).
In Rye Hill the majority of officers are women, in certain individuals it breeds an air of superior vindictiveness. I’ve watch from a distance as these women systematically bullied, coerced and weeded out vulnerable men for some sort of minor offence and set them up for a structured stripping, demotion and relegation of privileges and status. The pettiness and ease in which they carried out these attacks left me in an exasperated awe.
Remember a guy in the cell next to me loosing the plot and throwing a jar of Branston pickle at the closed door. The female unit manager had been shouting at him through a closed door and he basically told her to go away and leave him alone.
This is how they would operate.
They would wait until you where behind your door before informing you of any misdemeanour’s or get four or five strapping lads from the security team to ghost you off the landing when everyone was locked up. I truly believe that the only reason that these women were not killed is because of the fact that they are women and the repercussions of harming a female, never mind a female officer in prison would be unfathomable. Don’t think it has happened yet, but I do stress the word yet.
Some of the male staff who refused to work with these members of staff because if they were standing beside them, their lives may be in danger or at the least they had an increased chance of having some sort of assault carried out on them.
Angel told me that he was going to leave the radio and magazine that he had worked so hard to set up. When I asked him ‘why?’ He simply said ‘it isn’t worth becoming another statistic.’ To fall foul of these individuals was to screw up your otherwise faultless prison record. At the end of the day there was too much to lose. Your sanity and family had to take precedence.
Angel left and got a job in the prison gardens and became a more content person.
Foolishly I thought I could take over where Angel left off. Don’t forget Angel had been there for three years, me three months. I’d arranged for my girlfriend to send in some CDs for use on the prison radio. I asked for permission and received a reply from the relevant governor stating that there was no problem as long as they went through the proper procedure. I asked the guy in charge of the radio if I should address them to him and not to reception as anybody could claim them in an attempt to make everything clear and above board. Oh dear! What a mistake. The little click had been waiting for a chance to pounce and pounce they did. Was sitting in the radio room – putting a programme together when an officer from the security department came in and told me that I had been sacked for trying to illegally smuggle CDs into the prison, undermine a member of staff and try to undermine the prison. That was the start of a seven month war with the corrupt system within HMP Rye Hill; a prison that was already under investigation over a death and covering up illegal practises within its walls. A reliable source told me that when the prison inspectorate came to the prison ‘the prison inspector was so concerned that they reported their findings immediately to the minister in charge of prisons.’ I was incensed.
What did it for me was the fact that I’d asked for permission and received it in writing from the Head of Residence. When I showed it to the powers that be they twisted the words and said that I should have addressed it to the prison radio or reception and not to the person in charge of the radio and that I could re-apply in six months as I was now under security surveillance within the prison. This was only the beginning of what turned out to be seven months of pure hell. They followed me everywhere. They would come and sit beside me if I was talking to a fellow inmate, go through my cell day after day, or just come and stand beside me for no reason. Well when I say no reason; it was clear to me and the rest of the prison that their intention was for me to snap and swing for one of them. Eventually I was ghosted of the V.D.T. unit to ‘Carling’ the worst wing in the jail. What had happened was in the space of one week; the reviled officer who used to be in charge of the education department was made up to be a temporary manager and was to be put in charge of ‘Edwards’ for five weeks.
None of the regular staff liked it and some even voiced their disgust at what was going on but told me that to interfere would put their own jobs at risk. Myself and Angel had a good old laugh about it and the guys started a book on how many days it would take for this person to find a reason to get rid of me. This person started on the Monday and I was gone on the Friday. The where three times in that whole week when I had to walk past this person, each and every time she ordered me to do something. She spoke to me in a way that can only be described as antagonistic and quiet enough so that other people couldn’t hear it.
The fourth time I was standing beside Angel, outside his cell having a break from what was now in cell studies. As this person walked past she told me to get behind my door or she would bang me up permanently and remove me from O/U studies. I flipped and demanded to see the prison chaplain as I was sick and tired of this intimidation and bullying. The chaplain came over and for the next hour this person hid from the chaplain. She would see him come through one end of the wing and then she’d disappear out the other. It was so childish and comical but real and truly frightening that a mature person in charge of men behind bars could behave in such a manner. The chaplain came to me and said ‘look this has become ridiculous Michael, I’ve got better things to do with my time just do me a favour, keep your mouth shut and don’t give this person any cause to cause you harm.’
They came at lunch time lock up, six of them. All the lads where shouting and roaring from behind their doors. One of the officers whom I got on well with just looked at me, shook his head and held his hands up as if to say ‘I’m helpless and I’m sorry.’ Decided to register a formal complaint of bullying and harassment. It went to the prison ombudsman and no fewer than twenty eight members of staff made statements. What happened was; they thought they could help and when they got involved they were warned off by the corrupt click and after that they could not be found, where off, or had gone on holiday. Not one person (member of staff) in that prison could help me. They all knew what was going on, but because they had seen it happen before and didn’t want to lose their jobs they kept shtum.
Personally I’d reached an all time low and it was only when I spoke to the prison Chaplin did things change for me. I’d been asked to write a piece about bullying in prison. It was for a charitable organisation and was to be mixed with music to create a CD for young offenders and prisoners who felt vulnerable in prison. It was funny, I wrote my piece and the lady in charge told me I had to go to the radio room the next day to record my writing with the sound engineer guy who’d came to record and mix everyone’s work.
‘Do you honestly think they are going to let me into the education department after what I’ve accused them of?’ I said.
She laughed and said ‘don’t worry I’ve cleared it. You’ll be escorted there and please, for your own sake, don’t say anything to anyone just walk in record your work and leave.’
Could not believe the reception committee I got the following day. There were three big lads escorting me through the prison to the education department, the head of security, the head of education, the acting governor (the other governor was in the process of leaving) and several of their minions where all waiting in the corridor by the radio room. The acting Governor nodded at me and I just looked through him. I did the same with each and every one of them looked directly into their eyes and at the back of their sculls. Those who tried to stare me out saw nothing, as I felt nothing. When I walked into the radio room it was just me, the guy in charge of the radio and the recording guy…
‘Carling’ wasn’t as bad as it turned out and a couple of days after my arrival Scouse turned up. He too had fell afoul of another smiling assassin and had been whisked away of a lunch time lock up. Smiling assassin was the name we used for all of the Unit Mangers. Some were worse than others but none of them where better.
My every move and conversation was being scrutinised and monitored by the prison security team. It turns out; the most reviled officer was the girlfriend of the woman who was the head of security. They wanted me to crack, they wanted me to give in and start smacking all round me. Cannot explain how difficult it was, not to do this. People watched me from afar and could see how I struggled some times to keep a grip of the demons inside me. There were guys who would just come up to me and say ‘don’t give the bastards the satisfaction Mick, you’re better than that, they mean nothing to you!’
Had a conversation with a senior member of staff and they told me that they where only acting on security information received. So, I sent off for my security file which every prisoner has a right to see under the data protection act. It cost me ten pounds and I was warned by some of the guys not to expect too much. What an understatement that was. Received a covering letter and two pages one blank and the other contained one paragraph which had three sentences blacked out. This was the proof of the massive conspiracy theory I had invented to overthrow the system. I roared with laughter when I received it and when I showed it to some of the guys they just shook their heads in disbelief…
Events became even more stressful when I got word that my father was in hospital with renal failure for the second time. It was awful. Again I felt truly alone and helpless. I prayed. For the first time since I was child, I prayed and meant it. A senior manager came to see me and said ‘who do you want to tell you when your father passes away, the prison or the chaplaincy?’…
[My Father is alive and well]
K – A very lovely female officer – has just had a chat with me about what I’ve been doing with (Papa John). She could see how pleased I was as he’s just received 97% out of 100% on one of his bible study courses. K has said that she will have a word with the smiling assassin about the positive affect all of this is having on myself and others. From what I can gather things might be looking up in that department and the management may be starting to give me a bye ball. I’m not holding my breath and as per usual will just have to wait and see. K is in her late twenties and is a very attractive woman with a great personality. Not all women in uniform are vindictive and K is one of the few people who has helped me in this place. She has kept her distance, but was always good for quick chat and gentle reassurance. Liked and appreciated her very much, but was unable to convey this as any form of compliment towards a female officer can be used in evidence against you. Not that she would purposely get me into trouble, but the slightest innocent comment can be turned into a debacle in this place. I never got the chance to thank her; I do so now…
T asked to speak to the people from ETS (Enhanced Thinking Skills) about doing their course and how important it was for my progress within the prison. They said I had to fill in an App’ and wait my turn as they couldn’t come running every time someone made a phone call. Poor T, she was only trying to help. Sometimes I wonder about these people and why they are in the jobs that they are in. Why do they have to be so rude? I don’t think the course is about ‘Enhanced Thinking Skills’ more like ‘you will think how I tell you to think skills!’ Am starting to see how all of this will look on my record.
“After a period of nine months at Rye Hill Mr Irwin has realised the error of his ways and that if he wanted to be returned to society he would need to address his unacceptable behaviour and do as he is told.”
The point is nobody tells you anything. You have to find out the hard way and normally after some sort of run in with ‘the powers that be.’ For people like myself – who believe it or not – survived in the outside world as a law abiding citizen for most of their lives and do have a bit of savvy will have to be put down, dragged down, de-humanised in order for them/they to step in and be seen to make a difference.
Now I truly understand the value and the meaning of the phrase ‘keep your head down.’ Everything that is set out for you in prison has to be seen to be their idea. You are not allowed to think for yourself…
It’s time for me to go to court for my confiscation hearing. I’ve been told it’s going to be a formality by solicitor, but I must attend. Need to pretend that I don’t want to leave this horrible place. In prison, if you want something the opposite always happens. So I’m telling everyone I see that I’ll be back and will see them soon. The reception manager has told me if I’m not back today I’ll be back within three or four days. I asked her if she was sure.
‘Look,’ she said ‘you’ll have to leave some of your stuff here as they will only let you take four bags with you to court.’ She’d labelled the rest and wrote on them ‘Not to be sent to Branston.’ This is the general storage place for prisoners’ belongings. If you have the misfortune of having your stuff sent there then you can kiss goodbye to it for at least two years.
‘What about my CDs?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry they are in your stored property,’ she replied.
‘May I see them with my own eyes before I go please, I want to be sure
they are there before I admit to or sign any forms.’
She headed off round the back and came out with a big basket with all my stuff in it. There was loads of stuff in there, stuff that I had asked to be thrown out ages ago.
‘Get rid of half of that crap,’ I said.
So we went through all of my stuff and she filled out a new property sheet. One of the officers who was standing behind me says
‘Is this going to take much longer?’
‘What’s your problem,’ I said ‘the transport isn’t even here yet.’ He was obviously late for his breakfast or something and just wanted to get me processed and back to whatever he should have been doing. I’d met him on a few occasions on the wing. He was new and a bit of an asshole. He knew I didn’t like him, but I didn’t care, he meant nothing to me.
After a very long wait the transport turned up. It was half past eight and I was due in court in London in an hour and a half. There was no way we were going to make it and I voiced my protest at having to leave.
‘They don’t need me at the court and I’m sure if you ring them the judge will carry out the hearing without me.’ I remembered that at my trial the judge had said that he thought a confiscation hearing – in my case – was a waste of time and the tax payers’ money.
That’s another thing you get labelled with in prison; you’re a criminal so you’ve obviously been one all your life, never had a job therefore never paid taxes. I’ve paid more taxes in one week than these guys earn in a month.
Just before I left the officer who was sorting out my property said ‘don’t worry if you’re not back within a week we’ll send your stuff on to you; as you can see it’s all here.’ I thanked her and headed off into the back of the van and plonked myself down in the seat. The door was closed by the driver. The impatient officer gets in and starts to go through his procedure and said ‘are you Michael Irwin?’ ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ I replied ‘Yes,’ to my name and then said ‘I don’t know why I’m being sent to court so late.’
To which he replied ‘shut the fuck up you cunt!’ By this stage I was locked in the cell in the back in the van.
He put his face right up to the window.
‘I hope they take all your money off you and your families too.’
‘I hope they make you suffer, you bastard.’ With that he was gone. I just sat there dumbfounded; the venom this man had used was quite frightening. It’s amazing how these brave men always wait until you’re locked up or in handcuffs before they abuse you.
‘Just remember, I’m coming back,’ I roared. The van door was then slammed shut and when the driver got into the front seat he said ‘fuckin ell mate he’s calling you all the names under the sun out there.’ ‘Do you want to make a complaint?’ I asked them if I could have their names and if they would back me up. The passenger guy shouted in ‘don’t worry mate our names or on the log and if anyone asks us we will remember what he said.’ So, off we went heading for London…