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Prison UK: An Insider’s View Wednesday, 17 September 2014 A Quick Gu > George Blake: one who got away HMP Belmarsh: London’s high security

Prison UK: An Insider’s View

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Quick Gu >

George Blake: one who got away
HMP Belmarsh: London’s high security nick
Cat-A: high walls, razor wire and dogs
HMP Rye Hill: a Cat-B private nick
HMP Stocken: Cat-C prison
Cat-D: no more handcuffs: yippee!
Escape list: a ‘banana suit’


Thanks! Glad you found it interesting.

Please write something about Prison dramas, are they realistic? I watched the first series of “Prison Break” before I was bored of it, I haven’t seen “Orange is the new black” yet.

Apparently “Porridge” is the most realistic portrayal of a UK prison.

I like Mr Mackay, the cons are better dressed in the show.

Och aye the noo!

Thanks for these comments. I think that “Porridge” is probably a reflection of the physical conditions in prisons back in the 1970s. The way it portrays relations between cons and screws is not so far from the truth! I know one particular Scottish officer (ex-Army) who has many similarities with Mr Mackay.

Prison uniforms for cons is definitely down market these days: dirty old jogging bottoms and stained t-shirts and sweatshirts. The only real survivors from those days are the blue and white striped shirts (and then mainly for visits only).

Thanks for your request for a post on prison dramas. To be honest, the only ones I’ve ever seen myself are “Porridge”, “Within these Walls” (both back in the 1970s), “Scum” (a borstal), a few episodes of “Prison Break” (before I also lost the will to continue viewing) and more recently the film “Starred Up” (which I’ve mentioned in one of my recent blog posts).

I think that the US prison experience is just so different to anything in the UK, that I’m not in a position to judge whether US dramas are realistic or not. My reading about US prisons and recent TV documentaries suggest that they are based in fact, but obviously sensationalised. I also got the impression that much of the “Prison Break” plot was simply pure fantasy.

“Starred Up” was a curious mix of fact and fiction. Some of it was instantly recognisable by any con as realistic – the gym scene is spot on – while other parts were much less likely. Funnily enough, I have served time with father-son combos, as in “Starred Up”. Sons are sometimes put together with their sons in cell-shares, as are brothers.

Alex, thank you for a tremendously diverting blog –let’s hope that you don’t run out of ideas for post topics. I’ve read that prisons tend to age folks to greater extent than normal passage of time does.

“….. that people age quicker while in prison; by up to 10 years more than their biological age ….”

This was from a report on the www.parliament website, dealing with the Justice Committee’s look at older prisoners.

I would be interested in your particular view about this phenomenon —-it seems totally scary if true ….I mean it’s equivalent to a sentence abstracting the time of the sentence from life span and taking literally more than those years, too.

I’m not explaining this very well, but I would value what you think. Thank you …Geoff.

Thanks for your kind comments and your question, Geoff. I have also read this particular report and I think that what is being described is a complex issue.

Prisoners in general do have a tendency to suffer from depression and various stress-related conditions, including higher blood-pressure, strokes and heart failure. Of course, the fact that an estimated 80 percent of cons are smokers doesn’t help matters. Those with drug and alcohol dependencies can also seem to age much more quickly. Moreover, the rising average age of prisoners across the prison estate is also a contributory factor in the number that suffer from age-related health conditions.

What I have noticed is that those prisoners who are serving life or who have Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) often appear to have lost much of their will to live, particularly when they are many years over the minimum tariff recommended by the judge at their trial. They often look much older than they really are. I suppose that it is one of the consequences of what many of them have come to believe is a hopeless situation. Even young lads in their 20s on IPP sentences soon start to look as if their eyes are dead when they are on these open-ended stretches.

Poor healthcare services in prisons also play a major factor in inmate ill-health. I well remember being on a wing in a C-cat with a man serving an IPP sentence who looked as if he was in his mid-80s. He shuffled along, was incontinent at times and barely spoke. Eventually he collapsed and was taken to an outside hospital where he was diagnosed with incurable liver cancer that had progressed because all his symptoms had basically been ignored by the prison healthcare team. It was only after his death that we realised he had been in his early 60s. He looked and acted as if he was about 20 years older.

Some inmates just give up on life, particularly if they live with serious mental health problems or are in chronic pain from physical conditions. The first visible signs are when they start looking unkempt and stop showering or shaving. They often fail to change dirty clothing and gradually stop eating. Some become painfully thin. Many self-harm by cutting or burning themselves. The degradation can be terrible to witness. It is a long, slow slide towards the grave. Once they are reduced to that state, death almost seems to be a merciful release.

I too have witnessed relatively ‘young’ men displaying the health and appearance of somebody a couple of decades older. Poor healthcare, poor exercise and a poor diet add to premature aging.

However I’ve seen a very few guys who’d been inside for very long periods (20 years plus) who had the ability to take care of themselves, eat as well as they could and stay away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco. They actually looked younger than their years.

From a different aspect what I noticed inside was the mental development of longer term offenders. It seems, for some, that their mental development stops at the time they enter into the prison system. I’ve know guys in their 40s who acted like teenagers – the same age they entered into institutionalisation, some on long stretches, others in and out many times. A first timer generally seemed to act as you’d expect him to but for so many around me it felt like they were kids at boarding school and just having a bit of a laugh as you would as a 13 year old kid. Of course, I saw no psychological intervention for these people within the prison system to help them move on.

Thank you, Alex, it was very good of you to respond.

Thinking further about it, using what you’ve mentioned, especially the concept of hopelessness and the profound effects that can have, the reality of the mind-body duality is confirmed. It must be a desperately difficult cycle to break free of, once in.

That’s interesting, Anon —just wondering if it’s to some extent the same for politicians ——straight into a very positive cocoon of massive self-validation, where nothing much gets worse for them after entry.

The complete opposite of what befalls a prisoner (very negative cocoon of massive subtraction from the self where nothing much gets better for them after entry). One isolation from society is excessively negative the other excessively positive.

Alarming that former group control the meanest circumstance of the latter.

Thanks for both your comments. I would agree with the issue of ‘arrested’ development of men inside prisons, particularly those who have been inside the criminal justice system since they were teenagers. Many of them have failed to grow up or mature, let alone learn about how to develop honest and caring adult relationships. This just stores up serious problems for the future.

However, it needs to be recognised that one of the functions of prison is control and effective infantilisation of adults. There is a paradox here. Prisoners are always being told that they need to take responsibility for their own actions, but are routinely denied any real responsibility for their own lives. Even the language used by screws reinforces this infantilisation: “lads”, “boys”. etc. It’s like being in a big boarding school or reformatory!

The worst combination is the ageing con who is in his 40s but still thinks and acts like a teenager. He has spent his youth and young manhood on the prison landings and still believes he is a kid, even though the real world has moved on. It can be tragic to see.

I guess the shock of being sentenced can turn a man’s hair white overnight, he looks old and yet acts like a child.

Thanks for your comment. I think there’s some truth in that.

Certainly some new receptions cope better than others. I think that any career criminal who is claustrophobic has made a bad lifestyle choice! On the other hand a lot of guys serving really short sentences – the proverbial “shit and a shave” – really don’t do well. A friend of mine who was serving an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) once had a new reception put in his pad (cell). This guy was sobbing his heart out, nearly hysterical.

My mate thought he must have just been sent down for “a lump” (a very long sentence, maybe even life with a minimum recommendation of 20 years or something similar). Eventually, when the new con had calmed down enough to be able to speak, my mate asked him how long he’d been sent down for. The bloke started sobbing again and replied “two weeks!” Needless to say, his new padmate told him to “shut the fuck up” and do his bird!

Please write about solitary confinement. Last night I watched a show about Maine State Prison where the new governor is reducing the number of cons in isolation. He reckoned it affected their mental health and made them more violent.

Thanks for your comments. I am also very concerned over the rising use of Basic regime and segregation in UK prisons, particularly the terrible impact on mental health – leading to self-harm and even suicide. I do make reference to this in many of my blog posts. I’ll think it through and see if I can come up with something more to add to what I’ve already written.

I was lucky enough to visit Moscow on a school trip. When I returned home I library loaned a selection of short stories by Russian writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov & Solzhenitsyn. I reckon cons should read the prison related books to see the similarities between prison characters and rules, back then and now.

Thanks for your comments. Funnily enough, I re-read Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon while I was inside. Amazingly, the remand system and even the way the canteen order worked in Stalin’s Soviet Union is not very different to British nicks today!

A lot of cons do read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s very short and quite an easy read for them. Each and every one of the characters can still be recognised in UK prisons: the grass, the jobsworth, the red-band trustee, the thief, the religious maniac. Human nature rarely changes much!


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