Grayling's riot recipe

Prisoner Ben /   June 29, 2015 at 8:33 PM 1,887 views

Not giving a man something is one matter. It can raise disgruntled feelings and frustration, but these are usually kept in check by that blanket of apathy we call the status quo. It is a different matter altogether to set up a procedure, a set of hurdles, strict behavioural standards by which prisoners can earn a number of privileges, allow them to achieve these dizzying heights for nearly 20 years – and then one day tear up that mutual agreement and remove all of those privileges. Such arbitaryness is inherent in the latest mutterings of the Minister of Justice. Chris Grayling has expressed the urge to remove and restrict a range of privileges from prisoners, ones which have been woven into the fabric of carceral life since 1995. For obedience to certain behavioural standards, compliance and so forth, prisoners earned these privileges. And prisoners know that Grayling isn’t working from some great penological insight, he isn’t attempting some great experiment. Prisoners know that when the screws come through the cell door to remove their duly earned and bought goods it will solely be because of a punitive and unthinking spasm has afflicted their political master. And if there is one thing which excites a prisoner’s blood, it is unfairness and arbitrary abuse of power. It appeals to Greyling to strip prisoners of their civilian clothing. Let us ponder this. There were days, not outside of my memory, when prisoners were compelled to wear uniforms. Jeans, or grey trousers, striped shirts, denim jackets….if you have seen Porridge, you know. And then cons were, slowly, allowed to wear some of their own clothing. It began with underwear, then trainers, until by now it is possible to step onto the landings head to toe in Armani. Well, legend would say that, but I never witnessed it. My constant companion was the Cotton Traders catalogue. Which brings us to the nasty little detail that is always overlooked in the privileges debate – prisoners have to buy these clothes. And they must buy them from whatever moneys they can earn in prison workshops (average weekly pay less than £10) or from the very limited sums allowed to be sent in by friends and family (adding to the pressures on prisoners families). The Prison Service seemed to get a good deal out of this; no longer were they bearing the cost of clothing prisoners. And now, having saved and bought their trainers and sweatshirts, Grayling wants these removed and exchanged for something more drab. I hear rumours of grey jumpsuits. The sartorial objections to this are the least concern, for I assume that having allowed prisoners to buy these clothes and then deciding to remove them, Grayling will not be in any rush to compensate cons who earned this privilege through good behaviour. Prisoners may well feel aggrieved at this situation. And rightly. Grayling also wishes to restrict prisoners’ canteen privileges. For the uninitiated, the Canteen is the prison shop, where cons can spend their wages. Not a physical location within a prison but rather a paper-based order and delivery service contracted out to DHL and Booker, the Canteen list is the prisoners last toehold into consumer society. And where he buys his tobacco, stamps, tea bags and writing paper. To what end, to what possible purpose is this ability to be restricted? None that is cogent and, again, this strikes at the very heart of prison culture and legitimate expectation. The Canteen has existed since the first penological brick was laid. To restrict it out of nothing more than a fit of Ministerial pique will anger prisoners in a way few other issues do. Except, perhaps, one. And that is Graylings desire to restricting prisoners’ access to in-cell TV’s.This is the pinnacle of privileges, the one cons most desire – and, of course, the one that imposes a subtle blanket of control. Whilst cons think that TV’s were an unalloyed joy, the more strategic thinkers amongst us realised that TV’s would also become so adored that their loss through some protest or other would be such a threat as to render swathes of the prison population docile and impotent in the face of outrageous actions by the prison service. When most of the prison population is locked behind their door for most of the day, and with illiteracy rates shockingly high, then the loss of the distraction that is mindless TV is bound to have a serious effect on mental health and good order. These things may appear to be trifles to us in our comfortable lives. They are, I assure you, not. These things lay at the heart of what it means to be a prisoner, confined in an environment with few options for even tiny sparks of autonomy, where all resources are deliberately kept scarce. I can tell you that getting out of bed in the morning and having the ability to choose which trousers to wear is important. Knowing there is the opportunity to be able to buy a packet of biscuits to ease night-time hunger is important. And feeling connected to the world, society, events, through the TV is important. These things are far more significant than I could ever explain to people who have never tasted the loss of freedom, of choice, of autonomy. For they are thin threads of decency, of meaning, that signify some remaining connection to the human community and what it means to be a human being. And to molest them in the arbitrary way that Grayling proposes reeks of unfairness, of ignorance and of a contemptible disregard of what it means to be a prisoner. If I had to mix you a recipe for a riot it would be this. To institute a scheme to earn privileges, for prisoners to adhere to those terms and spend their pitiful wages in meagre ways to bring small comfort – and then to arbitrarily strip them of all of this out of political spite. I’m not usually one to keep an eye on the weather. But I have a sudden hankering for a long, hot summer….. Courtesy of Ben’s Prison Blog

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