The Ministry of Justice has recently revealed that there have been six murders and 100 suicides in prisons in England and Wales over the course of the last year. These figures are the highest on record for 25 years and make for uncomfortable reading when combined with the fact that assaults in prison totaled in excess of 20,500 in 2015 (an increase of 27 percent from the previous year), and reported incidents of self-harm among prisoners rose to more than 32,000 (an increase of 25 percent).
I teach at a prison, and in a welcome break from covering a three-week "motivation" course that has so far involved little more than watching the terrible prescribed video clips, Hulk Hogan talking about his divorce being the most bizarrely inexplicable, I am supervising the prisoners' library visits. In between stopping the inmates from trying to turn hardback dust jackets into roaches, I spoke to some of them to see what they made of the bleak prison welfare statistics, and what—if anything—they think needs to be done about them.
'ANY OF THAT SHIT, AND I'LL PACK THEIR BAG FOR THEM' Gary, 23, has been in and out of prison since his late teens and is currently back inside for a breach of his license conditions. He tells me that while he'd clearly rather not be in prison, he doesn't consider it a big deal at this point and has built up a series of coping mechanisms to keep his head in a decent place. He tells me that of all the self-harmers he's been in a cell with, all have had this problem prior to entering prison, and typically it's connected to drug use and homelessness. What Gary is saying is anecdotal, but it does chime with what I've observed: Problems seem be be exacerbated rather than created while in prison. I ask whether he has ever witnessed any self-harming in the cell. "No chance. Any of that shit, and I'll pack their bag for them. Get out of my cell you rat!" This may seem harsh, but according to Gary, it's basic survival—he says he's got his work cut out to look after himself. He doesn't have the time or energy to get sucked into anyone else's drama.
"If they can't be arsed to feed us proper food, I don't think there's much chance of them sorting out counselors"
Gary is prone to occasional hyperbole, and I'm convinced that he'd at least try to help someone out who was self-harming. I notice a couple of thin white scars on his forearm, and while I don't press him on whether he has ever self-harmed—the scars could, of course, be nothing to do with that—I ask whether he thinks the prison could do more to help vulnerable inmates. "Yeah, they could, if they gave a shit. But look, if they can't be arsed to feed us proper food, I don't think there's much chance of them sorting out proper counselors and shit. We're just numbers to them, and it's better to accept that and just get through it whatever way works for you."
Gary's library loan: Japanese Tattoo by Sandi Fellman
'I KNOW A FELLA WHOSE CELLMATE KILLED HIMSELF IN THE NIGHT' Nick, 40, is awaiting sentencing having pleaded guilty to his part in a conspiracy to supply Class A drugs; he is frustrated because two other members of the gang are currently still pleading not guilty, meaning that he can't be sentenced and gain access to the kind of prison jobs and courses that will help speed up a potential move to an open prison. Nick isn't surprised when he hears the latest murder and suicide statistics, and he goes on to explain his experience of suicides.
"I've known suicides, probably four or five, and in most cases, it's people you could have seen coming a mile off. I knew a fella whose cellmate killed himself in the middle of the night. He woke up to a dead body on the top bunk. He was a write-off for months after that. Generally, though, if you're not directly involved, no big deal. Every man for himself."
Nick's library loan: Ooh! What a Lovely Pair: Our Story by Ant McPartlin & Declan Donnelly
'FIRST-TIMERS SHITTING THEMSELVES MIGHT DO SOMETHING STUPID' Philip, 30, has been sentenced to 30 months for assault. In the weeks since his sentencing, he has become involved in the prison peer mentoring scheme and is currently in training to be a listener (a friendly point of advice and shoulder to cry on for prisoners who don't want to go through official prison channels). I ask Philip what motivated him to take these courses. "It looks good on your record and can supposedly help with the judge, although obviously not in my fucking case," he laughs.
If I can help first-timers out then I'll do my best. Most of the screws won't, that's for sure
This prompts laughter around the table, and it becomes apparent that in what is a still an incredibly macho environment, the notion of talking through your feelings is seen as a sign of weakness, and schemes such as the peer mentoring and listeners are viewed more as a means to an end for better wages and lighter sentences. It's even suggested that people have trained as listeners in order to better facilitate selling drugs.
This is all a bit depressing, but Philip does say that he's taken some satisfaction from helping out a few of the younger lads he's come across via the peer mentoring. "First-timers proper shitting themselves are exactly the kind of kids who might do something stupid. If I can help them, then I'll do my best. Most of the screws won't that's for sure." Philip's library loan: I Am Zlatan by Zlatan Ibrahimovic
'GANG KILLINGS WILL ALWAYS HAPPEN' Paul, 35, is being released next week after serving a short sentence for non-payment of fines. This will have been his fourth time in prison, and he tells me that the only time he has ever felt worried in this environment was when a prisoner was murdered, seemingly arbitrarily, in 2014. "I couldn't sleep for about a week, literally not at all. Don't get me wrong, prisons are fucking horrible places, and I hate screws, but up to that point, I'd always felt safe. Even though they caught the cunt straight away, it just completely changed the atmosphere. The screws were on edge. People didn't want to come out of their cells…"
I ask Paul whether he thinks anything could have been done to avoid the murder. "Honestly I think it was a one-off. I've never seen anything like it before. He was a proper nutcase and probably somewhere along the line wasn't diagnosed. I think gang killings will always happen, though. You can try and keep people apart, but if they're that desperate to kill someone, they'll always find a way."
Paul's library loan: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Speaking to the men in the prison library, it's clear that their focus is by and large on their own welfare, and this is fair enough—it's a tough situation they're in, and their priority has to be themselves. It's also evident that they have limited faith in the prison service when it comes to prisoner welfare, and while this might not be such a big problem for people who know how to handle themselves inside, it's a pretty major one for young and particularly vulnerable prisoners. Michael Gove's prison project, which looks to give prisoners who study hard early release, has some pretty lofty aims, but it's hard to see how any of them can be achieved without first ensuring that the weakest and most vulnerable prisoners are safe and not in immediate danger from either themselves or others.