It’s funny, I decided to pen this blog after listening to a friends podcast, I’ll share the link to the podcast at the end of this blog. Anyway, as soon as I had written the title I was immediately taken back to prison and another friend with whom I spent a number of years in different jails. Instead of Mr? or Miss? my mate would call certain officers www? works when watched : )
Back to my original purpose for this blog. The podcast is my friends perspective on the decision to roll out PAVA spray across the male prison estate. It got me thinking about changes to our prisons.
There have been many changes, some are obvious and some not so much. Some changes have been good and some not so much. And some should have never seen the light of day.
A slight digression but still relevant. Many years ago when I was a schoolboy one of my biggest issues/problems I had with schooling was uniform. My attitude to the teachers was practice what you preach, “coming in here with your joke ties, yet expect us to take you seriously” one such retort. “You should take pride in your school” would be a regular statement from the over/under and/or ill-dressed teacher(s). My parents also cared about my school uniform. Whenever they’d catch me if I was skiving, and say down the High Street with my mates nicking out of Woolies or the latest 7″ single from Our Price, “you might as well go home and get changed out of your uniform if you’re not going back” would be the usual ‘telling off’ I’d get. Ironic really, at school my ‘telling off’ included: at junior school, one particular teacher would shut our fingers in the desk, or a rule across the knuckles. “They’re not rulers, rulers rule the country” he would often say. My answer once of “it must take them ages to measure the country with this, look at the size of it” bloody hurt. Secondary schools the weaponry used were slippers (or in the case of one teacher he had his own size 12 Dunlop white plimsol), the cane and an occasional board rubber.
In 1985, I was 15 and in August of that year had been sentenced to four months detention centre, taken to HMDC Blantyre House in the beautiful countryside of Cranbrook in the Garden of England, the county of Kent and where I became known as L85990 Breakspear. I was initially met by a hat-less medical officer (MO) who was dressed in a white tunic top and who, in a matter of minutes, had taught me the importance of addressing my elders as Sir! with a few clouts around the back of my head to make sure I remembered. The first, as such, prison officer I met is an experience which to this day is an image I have never forgotten. At this point, I was standing on a drain cover:
The MO told me to run to the door as fast as I could. The door opened and I came face to chest (I was 6ft myself) with a pair of eyes and a huge beard dressed in a peak cap and full black uniform. The peak of his cap almost meeting the tip of his nose. His tunic with not a button undone, and the buttons as shiny as his boots. The saying goes first impressions count, well, it certainly worked with me.
After going through the rigmarole and indignity of being booked in I too was provided with a uniform. The matching, and a certain colour, of your jumpers collars n cuffs, indicating your grade. What you were given was your responsibility, you had to look after them. It was a strange environment as a 15-year-old tearaway to learn how to sew. No choice really. You had to because woe betides the boy that presented damaged, scuffed or dirty kit during the weekly Sunday kit inspection by the governor, and woe betides the lad even more if the dorm suffers as a result. In my opinion, there were only two ways to do a detention centre sentence. You either conformed or you didn’t. HMDC Eastwood Park had the same principle. There was a lot of circuit training at Eastwood Park too.
In 1987, I entered the youth custody centre system. Coincidentally, I would also dip my toe in the waters of big man’s jail when I was still 17 and spend a few months on a YP landing (B4) in HMP Canterbury. Rochester, Chelmsford and Dover then followed. No more kit inspections we still had wing (or house) and cell inspections but no more having to lay out all your kit on your bed in a certain way, with your bedding sitting proudly on top of your locker as per specific instructions. Crab blanket first, then the first woollen blanket followed by your two bedsheets, then the second of your two woollen blankets, wrap the crab blanket around the parcel, turn it over and you best make sure the edges are squared off. If not, an arm of the governor left or right it mattered not, would merely wipe the pack to the floor and just like throwing a six, you got another go.
These were also the days where an officers attitude in the morning could be completely different in the afternoon following a bit of a sesh over lunch with his mates from B wing in the officer’s mess. One of the reasons behind the April 1990 riots, a time that evokes memories of prisoners on the roof at Strangeways, yet prisons nationwide joined in.
It’s now 2020 and at the start of the year, the gap between ‘them and us’ was fast becoming a chasm. Then Covid-19 hit us all like a freight train. In Italy, a country said to be in front of us in terms of the start of the pandemic, we saw riots taking place in their prisons. My concern for our prisons, the staff and prisoners within our prisons rocketed as I envisaged similar scenes reminiscent of Spring 1990, and most recently of Italy’s prisons. No doubt a concern shared by many, especially among those involved with our prisons. How wrong were we eh?
I think the attitude of our prisoners not only surprised the same people but that society has also begun to see those in our prisons from a different perspective through this lockdown. The gap between ‘them and us’ has never been so narrow. What a foundation from which to build.
Discipline and respect in our prisons have their ups and downs. They can go too far or not far enough. Policies may come and go, but discipline and respect should always remain. It is on those two where prison works.
So, what do they do? They roll out PAVA spray across the adult male estate.
We’ve been listening to the sounds on Thursday nights as prisoners bang on their doors acknowledging side by side with those in society. A noise I used to hate, especially when it’s only because the latest actor in Eastenders has been caught with his trousers down moments before the douf douf ending, then again it was a different matter when Chelsea scored, so why not listen to my friends’ podcast and listen to the results on the trial period of PAVA.
The middle ground exists for a reason.
Let’s not create war zones instead.