Protesters at a UK public rally for the tenth Anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay prison. Credit: Demotix.
“Do you think prisons work?” That was one of the first questions I was asked at my 2006 interview for a job inside HMP Littlehey.
My answer at the time amounted to: “I’m not a judge or a member of a jury. I’m a writer. I’ve come here to teach.”
I still believe that.
If I didn’t, I couldn’t justify walking into the building. But sometimes it’s complicated.
Do I support locking people in cells at the tax payer’s expense of £37,000 per year? Or of constructing a regime that leaves imprisoned men, women and young offenders almost completely devoid of skills? That infantilises them to the extent that when they return to society many of them don’t know how to cook, wash clothes, pay bills, write letters, apply for jobs, or hold down relationships?
I’d be a liar to say that I did.
In the eight years following that interview, however, I have taught in five UK prisons – Littlehey, Belmarsh, Pentonville, Rochester, Holloway. Sometimes, the regime treats you like a massive security risk. It shies away from fully protecting you.
I have, for instance, been advised not to “fight” if a prisoner takes me hostage and then starts to rape me. I have been advised that some prisoners are an “active” danger to women and I should avoid teaching them on my own. These are shock tactics. So-called strategy methods set to put you off the job. They are little tests enacted out by the head of security, who'd prefer it if you handed back the keys, hung your head, and said, “This writing/teaching gig is not for me.”
It’s just easier. Management and staffing can become thinly stretched. A writer in residence is an irritant. You represent a massive, unmanageable fly in the regime’s minutely-controlled ointment.
Yet when you start to work with prisoners, something else kicks in. The regime’s distrust turns to disbelief. The officers become startled that you actually stay. That the prisoners engage with the work. That you can make a difference to those that may be actively writing, but also to the others, those who are in dire need of re-boosting their transferable skills.
But it’s not like that in HMP Belmarsh. This is the first and only category A (high security) prison that I have worked in. It’s spring 2010 when I approach the building, described by the human rights organisation Liberty as the “British Guantanamo Bay”.
Belmarsh holds around 910 people. Many of the prisoners are held as terrorists. The prison was formerly used to detain a number of people without charge or trial, under part four of the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. Those men were held in their cells for up to 22 hours a day.
It’s my first morning’s work. As I pull into the drive, I cross a line of cameras. The car park is overflowing. At the gate, one of the officers tells me that Julian Assange is present for his first court hearing.
I go through the security checks. Similar to an airport, I empty my pockets and I take off my shoes. All my items are screened and passed. I replace my footwear and wait in the ante chamber. The head of learning and skills comes to collect me and we walk through the grounds. Once inside, he tells me that he’s always keen to bring writers to prison.
“You build esteem and increase literacy,” he says.
In the chapel, I meet the prisoners. They’re a collection of men of various denominations. All of them are actively writing, but, rarely for a prison, they’re not linked to the education block. This was due to the Chaplain’s own initiative, He likes writing and writers. He, personally, has published several prison writing collections. The men write in the group. They write on the wings. They write in their cells.
After the group session, I’m led into the Chaplain’s office, where I start my one-to-one sessions. A prisoner comes in. He’s a white, well-spoken man in his fifties, with a wide scar across his neck.
From this point onwards, I’m going to refer to him as Prisoner X.
Prisoner X tells me that it’s his first time inside prison. I nod and don’t ask questions. It’s my fourth year working inside HMPs. You aren’t told to refrain from asking a prisoner’s offence, but somehow, it's an un-written law. Often prisoners lie about what they’ve done – they steal ‘sexier’ crimes. Something to do with money. Fraud means they’re smart. Almost everyone claims innocence. But not Prisoner X. He sits opposite me. His quiet demeanour shouts money. I wonder why he’s in a category A.
“Laura?” he says.
“Do you know why I’m in prison?”
“I killed my wife.”
At first, I hear a strange ringing. Like tinnitus. Then my mouth dries. My eyes never leave Prisoner X. Inside prison, we’re trained to watch out for “conditioning”, where a prisoner coerces you into dropping your professional guard. Looking at Prisoner X, I realise he’s not lying. As he begins to tell me the details of his case, tears course his cheeks.
Prisoner X won’t write anything now; our session is effectively over.
As I listen to his story, I’m gripped by my own visceral response. As a woman. As a feminist. Instantaneously, I loathe Prisoner X. He details his crime – the intricate stages that led to the culmination of when he took life, of how.
What do I hear? That his wife was due to leave him. That she’d met someone else. A classic case of “if can’t have her then no-one else can”.
I’m not religious. I have no higher leaning towards ways to forgive. Suddenly I feel incensed at all these men meting out violence against women. How many times are we faced with this in our personal lives? Or a social context? From the moneyed men. The privileged. The famous – Saatchi, Connery, Brown, Pistorius. I sit opposite Prisoner X and hold back the urge to pick at his eyes or bite his face.
But I’m working. I’ve been sent in to take writing classes. Maybe his confession is also part of his enjoyment. A gross self-aggrandisement. It is impossible for me to ascertain. We go on regardless and “get through” the session.
Finally, as the bell rings, I muster enough presence of mind to advise Prisoner X that he can’t take back his crime. Yet maybe he can help some of the younger prisoners with their transferable skills. Compared to most inmates, who have had very little formal education, his skill-set is large. And, in the words of the head of skills and learning he can “improve their literacy.”
Inside UK Prisons, there are high levels of illiteracy. There are many prisoners responsible for petty crimes. They are the mentally ill. They are the offspring of alcoholics and drug addicts, of the fourth generation unemployed.
That might be his calling.
When I get home, I Google Prisoner X. His name flurries up with all the details. Public school, self-made millionaire, the glamorous (departing) wife. Prisoner X’s wife, apparently, was trying to leave him for seven years. She finally succeeded in negotiating her own independence. She had met someone else. True to other domestic violence cases,she was at her most vulnerable while trying to flee. But Prisoner X did not, as he told me, kill his wife with a marble ashtray. He stabbed her with a knife.
After his arrest, Prisoner X stood trial at the Old Bailey. He admitted guilt under a reduced charge of diminished responsibility and manslaughter charges. But was found guilty of murder and given 14 years.
When I return to Belmarsh the following week, Prisoner X and I pick up the writing class where we left off. He comes to see me. I have since been advised by the chaplain that he is a good inmate: stable, reliable, and due to his education has an enormous amount of status inside.
The other prisoners look up to him. He can inspire and encourage them to write to their families, talk to their solicitors, and maybe even create a CV. Sometimes, turning pen to the page can distract a prisoner from self harm.
Prisoner X looks at me. I’ve worked with other lifers but he’s the only one to disclose – to tell me about his offence. It has created an intimacy. I forget about biting his face. He nods at me but doesn’t cry this time. We start to plan a way for him to work with the prisoners “at risk” linked to the mental health team and suicide watch. It’s during this session that he actually writes.We write together.
As I leave the Chaplain’s room, I feel sapped, yet sober. Walking through the grounds, the facts remain clear – Prisoner X killed his wife. He is at the start of his so-called ‘life sentence’. But he can make good of his time inside. He lost his own family and destroyed another. He reduced his wife to the position of a disposable object. There was no love in that homicide. For her or for any woman subject to this kind of violence. Some part of me wishes he taken his own life after taking hers.
But then I think of Prixoner X's children from a previous marriage. I wonder about them. I start to feel that if he mentors effectively, he might prevent inmates from re-offending on the outside. And that would be good. For all of us.
This article was edited on 15 January 2013 to make clear that HMP Belmarsh holds around 910 people, not 84,000.