Stone Walls and iron bars

Prison. The very word is like a knell, with its own tawdry glamour of secrets dark and impenetrable as the jungle and hopes as bleak as the moors. Who now, after all those plays and stories of warders and bloodhounds hunting escaped convicts through the fog, can think of Dartmoor as a sunny place? Who can think of Wormwood Scrubs as being set down anywhere other than in a wilderness? (As in a sense it is.) And now Parkhurst, with its top security wing holding the Krays and Richardsons and Train Robbers, and with an Assize judge asking for an investigation of its punishment block, has its place in prison history .

Parkhurst is one of the Category “A” prisons, which means that it is designed to hold men who are liable, and have the resources, to escape. Prisons are classified by the degree of escape risk, down the alphabet until at D, we reach the men who can be sent to an “open” prison with a reasonable certainty that they will not try to escape. Most people probably think that to send a man to an open prison is something of a compliment ; in fact in many cases the opposite is true because it often implies that he is unable to escape. This might be because he is an alcoholic, too damaged to think far enough to walk out of the prison. Or a personality so inadequate that he cannot plan even the simplest enterprise. Or homeless, so broken that life in prison is actually preferable to the discomforts and insecurities which await him outside. The result of this is that an open prison, far from being the relaxed, permissive place of popular imagination, may be run on very punitive lines, with the prison officers expressing their contempt for the wretched inmates by a harsh application of the rules.

Parkhurst is very different; it is in the top league of the prisons. Its placing on the Isle of Wight makes it suitable to hold not only Category “A” men but also some of the hardest, most determined criminals. These men, as one prison officer put it, can be “very angry”:

“He’s been locked up in his cell, see, all night for about ten hours, sometimes twelve. You open his door and he’s standing there with a pisspot in his hand and it’s brimful to the top and he’s looking at you like he could kill you and he says ‘Out of my way, you bastard or you’ll get this lot in your face.'”

Prisons are like that — emotional places. They seethe with anger, they tremble with fear, they are dark with conflict. There is currently a great deal of talk about reforming them (apart, that is, from those punishment cells at Parkhurst) but all schemes of reform are met with, and founder upon, certain basic facts. We can select here a few of these facts; there are many, many more.

The avowed object of prisons, like most other institutions of confinement, is to change personalities. In other words a man is sent to prison, mostly after breaking the property laws and rights of capitalism, not only to restrain him but also in the hope that the experience will persuade him not to do whatever he did again. Courts often work to a kind of tariff on this; the man may get five years this time but by god if five don’t change him then next time we’ll see what ten will do. Then fifteen, then . . . Eventually, it is hoped, he will be shoved back into the outside world convinced that the best way of life is that of a conforming, docile worker for a capitalist employer.

In truth, only a very few prisons make any more than the most perfunctory attempt at achieving even those aims. But that is a side issue; the point here is that there is a basic conflict between removing a person from an environment and the object of making him fit for that environment. The life of a man in prison has important differences from the life of a man outside; imagine being removed from the rush and push and scramble of the workaday world for several years, then suddenly pushed back into it, to find a job, somewhere to live, to fill up all the necessary forms, go to the right offices, speak to the right people, act like a “free” worker and not like a prisoner any more.

While the man is inside, the people who are supposed to be administering all that healthful philosophy of employees’ docility are the prison staff. They are the men who lock him up at night and let him out in the morning, who see that he is fed and goes where he is supposed to go. They are also the people who punish him. During his confinement, the officers are assumed to get to know their man — as indeed in many cases they do, if sometimes in their own interpretation of knowledge.

The anomaly arises from the dual function of the prison officer, from the fact that at the same time as he is assumed to be establishing a relationship of change with the man he is also working against change by restraining him — by locking him up. Change must bring conflict; the prison officer’s function is to suppress conflict, the prison’s primary role is not to free but to confine and discipline.

This restraining role throws up another conflict, which may seem too obvious to warrant a mention but which in practice seems to escape many prison officers. The fact that a prison forcibly restrains must enforce a clash between the prison and its inmates. Change a prison how the Home Office will, in the end it remains: the prisoners are on one side, the prison on another.

It is not surprising if, from behind their side of the barricade, the prisoners develop their own rules, customs, morals; what has been called an inmate culture. In some respects this is a matter of tangibles; because of the shortage of tobacco in prison, a prisoner soon learns to roll his cigarettes as thin as a matchstick and beautiful jobs some of them make of their roll-ups. It is also a matter of intangibles, of a wordless, even silent, resistance to the prison and an endless effort to embarrass, outmanoeuvre and con the screws. Many prisoners have firm, if rough-hewn, ideas on the larger issues of the world (depressingly often of the most reactionary kind) and they bear all the signs of men who have had plenty of time to talk about their ideas, in the mindless, empty routine of prison days. These ideas are neither subtle nor intricate; prisoners have had to learn to live in the jungle and they are hardened by their obsession with survival.

Prison officers arc also confined and they, too, do mindless, boring jobs like locking and unlocking doors, or watching the prisoners do endlessly simple, repetitive jobs, or walking the inmates from one place to another. They also have developed a culture which, although they are supposed to be on the other side to the prisoners, is very similar to the latters’. Their attitudes on the larger issues like capital punishment, race, property society, are very close to that of the men under their control. They too are taught to be servile (many of them are ex-servicemen, their talk liberally sprinkled with “sirs”. How, one wonders, do they address their wives?) And the officers are also afraid—not just in the physical sense, of an attack by the prisoners as at Parkhurst, but also of being conned or humiliated or despised by the men they want to think of as so far inferior to them.

It is this fear which can cause a prison officer to be brutal or repressive or antagonistic towards the prisoners, and which also makes his job of handling them much more difficult. This leads us to the final anomaly of the prison — that the place could not run without the consent and co-operation of the very people who are confined by it. This fact, which haunts the prison staff, is central to the existence and organisation of a prison.

Any observer of the prison scene — the locking and unlocking, the multitude of rules, the pointless work, the checks and double checks, the atmosphere of repression — must wonder how it comes about, how men can divide themselves and do such things to each other. British prisons were originally places where deportees were temporarily held before being shipped to the colonies; from that they developed, almost without thought or design, and on assumptions which are now being challenged.

These challenges are sometimes on humane grounds, on what it does to a man to keep him within walls for years on end. They are also on grounds of economy. Capitalism always wants value for its money and it is finally getting known that it costs far more to keep someone in prison than to let him stay in the outside world. Of course the drive for reform has gathered momentum from the fact that the prisons are stubbornly filling up faster than the most extravagant forecasts, and faster than the reforms aimed at emptying them can be passed.

Yet however the prisons may be changed, and however the laws may vary the criteria for sending a man inside, the fundamentals will remain. Capitalism is a system of property rights and privileges, with laws and disciplines which are designed to protect the superior standing of the master class. Prisons, as places of confinement, punishment and occasionally treatment are part of the system of discipline and if they were abolished tomorrow it would only be to replace them with something else. They are only one of the countless atrocities committed in the process of man, acting as capitalism requires, dehumanising man.


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