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From The Socialist newspaper, 27 June 2018

Prison: life inside a living hell

photo West Midlands Police/CC

photo West Midlands Police/CC   (Click to enlarge)

A former prisoner

I was in a Category B prison for just over two months. I had never been in trouble with the law before. What I saw left an indelible impression on me.

I spent my first week on an induction wing. The cell itself was very small with a bunk bed, sink and toilet. No chair, no TV - no toilet curtain.

The window panel behind the bars was broken so at night time it got very cold. We had to eat all our meals in the cell on our bunk beds.

When we used the toilet we had to take turns turning our backs. We were locked up 22.5 hours a day.

When we were eventually moved, we found that our cell had no toilet curtain once again, and the water from the tap was boiling hot and so dangerous. We complained but nothing was done.

I saw people who should not be in a prison. There were people who had mental health problems who would have been better treated in hospital. I saw evidence of people self-harming. I saw people with learning difficulties.

There were many homeless people. I spoke to a man about 68 years old who was homeless. He told me he had broken into a social club to keep warm. He was glad he was in prison because he had free meals and accommodation.

The prison did try to release him but he refused to go because they had found him no accommodation. They did offer him a tent at first, but eventually found him hostel-type accommodation.

I kept myself busy reading books and working in the education department. I read a letter in the prison newspaper that claimed that out of the national prison population of 85,000, about 17,000 should not be inside. I am sure the figure is higher.

During my time inside there was an inspection - which the prison failed. The findings of the inspectors were quite shocking, so much so that they brought matters directly to the attention of the secretary of state. There have been nine suicides at the prison I was in.

Hardly a week went by without someone smashing up their cell a couple of nights a week. The sound of the porcelain being smashed against the floor made my heart jump. I could not sleep.

The prisoner would usually be on black mamba or spice, strong drugs with unpredictable effects. I don't know how mamba is smuggled into the prison but it is a massive problem.

The number of prison officers and support staff has fallen by something like 10,000 since 2010. The officers were under enormous pressure as they were short of staff. Many were doing long-hour shifts and overtime.

Lockdown

This had an effect on the ability of officers to interact with prisoners. When there was not enough staff you would have 'lockdown', which meant no association time, which causes enormous tension as you can imagine.

Why can prisoners only have access to their own money at a set amount per week? The 'basic' spending allowance is 4, 'standard' is 15.50 and 'enhanced' 25.

The right to spend higher amounts of your own earned money is what is called an 'incentive-earned privilege'.

But when people are sentenced to prison, the judge hands down a sentence of a period of loss of freedom. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not right that prisoners should also have to make a choice between a 3 phone credit to maintain contact with families, or buying shower gel and toothpaste for the week.

Another punishment is the work, which really is close to slave labour. I was told by many prisoners from other prisons of the existence of its various forms.

Inmates told me that prison seems like a third-world country, where thousands are slaving in workshops making profitable goods for private companies who pay a pittance far below the minimum wage.

How shameful that grown men and women are forced to carry out menial tasks for 9 a week. I had experience of this myself, working as an assistant in education, getting 10 a week.

Then later, in an open prison, working six hours a day for five days getting 10 in total.

I even heard that when prisoners work outside for a firm, the prison takes a percentage of their pay.

I have now left prison but am on home curfew, known as 'tag'. It is a device fitted around my ankle. I cannot leave my house after 7.15pm, not even go into my garden, until 7.15am the next day.

The tag comes off at the end of September. I thought my sentence would end then - but it does not, as I am still on licence until May 2019, then post-supervision until the end of September 2019.

I may not be allowed to travel abroad again until even longer after that. My relatives live abroad. This is so wrong, I feel I have been punished enough.

Prison needs more investment and radical reform. Prisoners should not just be banged up, but should have real rehabilitation, real education and not Mickey Mouse courses which just tick boxes.

They should be given the opportunity to learn a trade so they have something to support them other than crime, and if working while inside get a decent rate of pay.

Socialists campaign to end the economic system which creates the conditions which breed crime. However, at the same time, we should expose the exploitation of the tens of thousands of people inside our prisons today and the conditions they live under.

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