Fearful of the prison regime

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 5 December 2016

When I recently finished reading Professor Frederic G Reamer's powerful account of his experiences sitting on the Rhode Island Parole Board, I was reminded of my supervisory experiences when working with Erwin (not his real name).

After I had prepared a lengthy pre-sentence report for his crown court appearance, Erwin was sentenced to a determinate sentence of custody for a series of much reported offences.  Much to my surprise, conditional bail had been granted so the interview was undertaken at the probation office. Erwin presented as an engaging and personable young adult (in the 18-21 year age group), who’s 'untroubled’ persona was somewhat incongruent with the nature of his 'unpleasant and nasty' offences (Crown Court judge).

These offences had involved predatory after-school assaults on mainly vulnerable school students in a particular locality of London. The motivation for the commission of these offences was monetary gain with targeted thefts occasioned by easy opportunity and group-led behaviour.

Transfer to prison

Following the sentence Erwin was transferred from the local remand establishment to one of the more remote outposts of HM prison estate (such geographical distance clearly impairing his family links) and I arranged to visit him as part of through care arrangements operational at the time (prefigured in some of the more enlightened integrated offender management provisions now albeit variably in force).

Prior to my departure to the prison, I had a somewhat strained discussion over the phone with his personal officer who was  concerned  that Erwin had been placed in the segregation unit following allegations of assault on prison staff following an argument over a breach of a prison instruction. So the prison visit (whilst it could go ahead) might be curtailed if circumstances should change.

With this in mind, I embarked on a long haul car journey (mindful that in one of his letters Erwin had expressed his concerns at his treatment by certain prison staff via what seemed to be the complex complaints procedure at the young offender institution). When I entered the establishment, I sensed the heavy presence of the dark penumbra of its former convict history and meeting up with Erwin was conducted in one of the gloomier ante rooms within the prison.

The personal officer had clearly stated that Erwin was considered to a 'troublemaker' and there was more than a veiled intimation of ‘racism' in the comments and observations I picked up en passant from associated prison staff, who at the time seemed attached to an outdated 'quasi-military' style ethos.

Maintaining 'good order'

During our meeting, Erwin strongly remonstrated with me for what he initially believed to be my undue 'sympathy' with the views of prison staff for the challenging roles they faced in maintaining 'good order and discipline'. I pointedly stated this did not justify them derogating from their duties.

So I agreed to follow his request to be offered legal representation to challenge what he deemed 'racist bullying’. Before I left the room, I was sharply reminded of the volatile nature of the dynamics of fear within the prison when the alarm was sounded and prison staff mobilised to deal with a 'serious incident'.

It was very unnerving I remember hearing loud cries and the general discordant clamour of doors and gates shutting hurriedly, set against Erwin being escorted back to his landing by several prison staff in what was a palpably tense ending to our meeting.

In anticipation of Erwin's hearing I contacted a reputable prison law firm and, after somewhat tortuous correspondence, arrangements were made for him to secure legal assistance. One of the phone calls I received from him during this period was particularly fraught as it appeared that he had been denied access to his representative. Consequently, this was contributing to a higher level of stress and he persisted in counter-allegations that certain 'well-known’ staff members had been 'picking' on him.

Pains of confinement

A timely intervention of the prison-based senior probation officer steered Erwin towards better engagement with some of the vocational and educational activities on offer locally and helped to offset some of the negativity that compounded his through care experiences. In the course of his sentence this was undoubtedly the most uncomfortably difficult phase and although the allegations of assault were later proved and sanctioned, Erwin did learn to adapt to the  ‘pains of confinement' with only minor adjudications arising along the way.

His verified release address was now in a different part of London (partly to mitigate the impact of his release on the victims of his offences). The post-sentence licence supervision was transferred and he was then safely released to serve this time in the community.

A little while later, with a considerable shudder of residual concern, I read in the press of allegations of widespread brutality from certain prison staff on some of those young adults at the institution now being under formal investigation. I recalled that some of the fear engendered by this regime was well captured in a remark that Erwin made at the time, which I did not in the light of later history attach proper significance to.

As I walked into the interview room for our first post-sentence meeting he chirped with a knowing wink, ‘Mike, welcome to the horror house!'.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer

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