I recently read an article about prison and prisoners of which I don’t want to say I was shocked or surprised by because that would be the wrong choice of wording to use. I suppose the best description, and I’m going back on myself slightly, would be that the article left me feeling pleasantly surprised.
The article was written by Kathleen McDermott and Roy D. King with the title ‘Mind Games – Where the Action Is in Prisons’. The article appeared in the summer 1988 (Vol. 28) edition of The British Journal of Criminology and I have to say it is one of the best academic perspectives of prison that I have read, and I’ve read a few. The way the research was carried out, the spread of the research and the way it was finally put together had me gasping in places and glancing with looks of suspicion in some areas. Suspicion of whether or not the authors had actually served a prison sentence themselves. Yup! The research was that good it could’ve been written solely by former prisoners. My last sentence hasn’t been based on the many quotes within the article from prisoners (and staff) involved in the research, it was based on the whole of the well-written and well-researched article.
As soon as I read:
“It is suggested that the game metaphor might direct the attention of penal reform not merely to the possibility of improving the skills of the players, but also to re-thinking the rules, the conditions under which the game is played, and the nature and meaning of the game itself.”
I knew I was about to read something which Buddha would have described as:
“But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
In relation to the spread (fieldwork) of the research they visited five adult prisons for men in the Midlands. These were: Birmingham (local prison), Gartree (B cat dispersal prison), Nottingham (B cat training), Featherstone (C cat training) and Ashwell which at the time was an open prison. Remember that this is a look into the games played in prison, it matters not to the outcome of the research that all the prisons are in one area. External local issues played no part in the paper. The research team had basically embedded themselves into the prisons. Ethnographic research of our prisons will be the closest a researcher can get to being behind the door without having to commit a crime.
It provided me with a sense of familiarity.
The HMP I knew and loved
Fast forward 32 years, an amount of time almost parallel to my own journey, and the release of a paper by Alison Liebling et al titled ‘More Mind Games: How ‘The Action’ and ‘The Odds’ have Changed in Prison’ provided me with a similar sense of familiarity throughout and where early on in the paper I read:
“I don’t want to spend the rest of my days in jail. I want to live life. This is no life. You are on pause. What are you doing? You are programmed like a robot, day in day out you are doing the same thing. You are chatting the same nonsense, eating the same thing, talking the same thing, walking around in circles. You know that computer game Sims … this is a computer game, someone is playing us. It is boring. This is a very boring life.” (Matt, HMP Full Sutton)
I have to agree but also disagree with Matt’s last sentence, however, I haven’t served in the high-security dispersal system. Prison is boring, not much really happens. When it does happen it happens at the drop of a hat and is usually over just as quick then back to boring even quicker.
“Being a boring life” is, I suppose, subjective as it is objective along with being a perspective of the individual. Although prison in itself is boring it really is up to the individual whether it becomes a boring life or not.
I reached the point where banging-up was more akin to going for a break and thank the heavens my door is locked. On more than one occasion you would have heard me asking for a 7-day excursion to the segregation unit for a holiday. I even had my own towel. Plus I was house trained.
An incredible coincidence has taken place while writing this blog. ‘Keef’ has just showed me a Tweet from HMP Aylesbury which I will share below:
It would have been extremely difficult for the 31 residents mentioned in the Tweet to have had a boring life in prison, however boring prison is. No better advice to give at this stage other than:
Back to the 1988 paper and the following quote says far, far much more than the 24 words it uses.
“They don’t beat us any more-they don’t have to. They can win by using bits of
paper. It’s all a mind game now.” (many prisoners)
Unfortunately, relying on paper has a consequence, using paper as part of the game also has consequences, either just like or similar to the following situation taken from the 2020 Liebling et al paper.
“This place only understands violence. … I went down to an officer I like, an officer I get on with…And that morning I said to him, ‘If that isn’t sorted by 12 o’clock make sure they don’t send you up to my pad’, and he said, ‘Why?’, and I said, ‘Because the first person to open my door, I’m going to fucking smack them. Simple as that’. … And I don’t like that. I’m not about that. But I knew that if I threw this threat I would get what I wanted. And this is how pathetic it is. For three months I’ve been doing the procedures, pulling officers aside, ‘Please can you sort this for me, please can you sort that?’, writing the Governor.” (Brandon, HMP Frankland)
A quick comparison from the paper published 32 years previous where a prisoner said this:
“There comes a point when further compromise, further retreat becomes a total
and complete surrender. Life devoid of self-esteem and dignity is really no life at
all and survival for survival’s sake is a total negation of everything that I believe
in, everything that I’ve ever struggled for. Yes, the system can and does hurt me,
it may even destroy me eventually, but in the meantime I won’t destroy myself, or
that part of myself which lends my existence any meaning here.”
It is very easy to understand the above two prisoners feelings, especially when back to the 2020 paper we see a prisoner say this:
“Listen, I’d rather you told me to ‘fuck off’, or ‘no’… because then I know where I stand. Don’t tell me, ‘Look, come and see me tomorrow at half past three’, and I come back up, and all your mates are laughing at me, because you’ve gone on holiday, or you’re off for two weeks, why would you do that?” (Matthew, Full Sutton)
The above statement from Matthew is usually where you find the beginning of what could eventually turn out to be a major disturbance within the whole prison a few weeks later.
Games can finish as a win, a loss or even a draw.
One thing both papers highlighted is that prisoners don’t mind playing the game.
However, the vast majority of prisoners want a level playing field on which to play.
I’ll leave the conclusion for this particular blog to Officer Browne from the 1988 research but then I’ll also leave you with a question following his quote.
“This job is all about getting through the day, getting home safe, and keeping the
place locked up… if you can’t hack it on the landings, and you want to be
“excused cons” you go for promotion. If you have a relationship with the cons
you probably don’t want promotion anyway. But many screws can’t be bothered
and you just become a machine doing it for the money.”
What’s actually changed in 32 years?
KATHLEEN MCDERMOTT, ROY D. KING, MIND GAMES: Where the action is in Prisons, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 28, Issue 3, Summer 1988, Pages 357–375, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a047734
Alison Liebling, Ryan Williams, Elinor Lieber, More Mind Games: How ‘The Action’ and ‘The Odds’ have Changed in Prison, The British Journal of Criminology, , azaa046, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azaa046