"You've got to get your head in prison"
"Don't worry about anyone else, just focus on your sentence"
"Don't trust anyone, don't borrow anything and don't give anything away for free."
Since starting my custodial sentence on 17 May 2023, I've heard a litany of these prison aphorisms, or 'prisonisms' as I've decided to call them. One day, I shall have them painted on a kitchen wall in the wine-o'clock font, just above the autumnal gourds. Despite attempts to embody 'jaded and aloof', it's evident that this is my first rodeo to those on their second, third and fourth. When they ascertain that no, I haven't done prison before, they throw the whole prisonisms book at me, keen to advise on how I survive this place I've ended up in.
My first few nights spent in HMP Altcourse, Fazakerley, felt like being slowly suffocated. The induction wing was on a 23-hour lockup, a convenient hangover from the regime put in place to mitigate against the wildfire spread of COVID-19. This way governors can overcome an under resourced and understaffed estate without considering those who have to endure it. Like many across the country, I found the experience of living in a tiny room with someone I'd just met pretty difficult. The Perspex double-glazed windows could only open an inch, their movement restricted by a metal girder outside and bars inside. The taps didn't work. My cellmate was weaning himself off a diet of steroids, crack cocaine and several bottles of wine a night. His disposition was surprisingly easy going, but it had completely ruined his digestion and our cell developed its own putrid atmosphere by day two. This didn't feel like the unbearable part of the sentence, though. What did was the inability to maintain close and consistent communication between my friends and family. It had barely been a week before I was clawing at the walls. My cellmate recognised this newcomers' madness, blessing me with my first prisonism: "You've got to stop focusing on the outside. Think about here, you've got to get your head in prison." It was a phrase I was going to hear repeatedly.
Pretty soon, I was inundated with a deluge of similar folk wisdom, most of which seemed to add to an already bleak picture. Thinking of home and frequently calling people would slow time down. Should I borrow anything, I would become a dreaded 'debt-head', hiding from my lenders with the sexual offenders on the VP (Vulnerable Prisoners) wing. Should I give anything out, I would never see it returned and would be identified as someone to extort. If I saw anyone getting bullied, I wasn't to play hero or I'd risk getting my head kicked in. A brief weekend in a wing might bolster preconceptions of a Thatcherite prison population void of social bonds or care for one another yet built into the prison lies the kernel of its demise, embodied in the many inmates who foster cultures of resistance, solidarity and mutual aid.
People do get their heads in prison as a matter of survival. Spending your days at the phone calling people on the outside is a sure-fire road to madness for which forging friendships on the wing is a salve. Getting a job or doing a course, if possible, also gets you out of your cell and forces your focus away from the immediacy of being locked up. Sinking your teeth into the day-to-day affairs of the prison is really the only way to avoid experiencing every second of a sentence.
This does not mean that everyone simply accepts all the terms and conditions of prison. There are lots of ways in which people push back against the arbitrariness of carceral cruelty in creative ways. In one induction wing, an inmate had committed to a 'dirty protest' in response to the screws failing to give his medication on time. Another decided to get 'out on the bars' on his last night in response to the screws' treatment of him. This consists of swinging on the metal railings on the wing's second-floor landing. If you do this, it's difficult for guards to safely remove and cajole you back inside your cell. This inmate was due for release the next day and prison capacity is currently incredibly limited, so the screws were unable to add days to his sentence for this act.
Other lower-case 'r' forms of resistance are more common and widespread. Prison policy frameworks claim that the prison seeks to facilitate relationships between inmates and their communities. Obviously, the punitive aim of prison as separation always and already proves this vague gesture as completely hollow. The prison is filled with both planned obstinance and a neglect that amounts to the same result - a constant uphill battle in order to maintain ties between you, the outside world and one another. Letters are lost, electricity frequently fails, forms of communication can be costly. Many are incarcerated far from their communities, a practice which disproportionately punishes the working-class majority inside. Tentative friendships are soon ruptured as you are randomly 'shipped out' without warning, packing possessions into plastic bags to be transported to another institution that will remain unnamed until you're inside the sweatbox.
To combat all of this, there is a prosaic magic to keep our heads out of cells and prison, too. I think back fondly to a man doing 11 years, describing how he transformed his voice into hands that tucked his children into bed each night over a crackly phone line. I think of the regular pride people take in transforming cells into spaces that reflect their social roles and self-perceptions. Every cell I've entered is either studded with toothpaste, a substitute glue for photos and pictures, or bears the scars of its removal. One friend had decked his cell out with a garish kitsch phone box, Gurdwara calendars, and a curtain partition made of telephone wire and empty Walkers packets. This same friend would diligently redecorate his room every time a notorious screw removed his work with a scraper. A hand painted mural of the Kaaba surrounded by pilgrims making hajj adorns the wall of a cell near me. I think about the sonic communalism that momentarily dissolves walls when, banged up, a favoured football team scores and the whole wing erupts into a chorus of rattling doors.
I think that all these acts, no matter how seemingly innocuous, are modes of resisting the separation that has been imposed through performances of our social roles - as fathers, people of faith, fans - that we possess in our communities beyond the estate's boundaries.
Other tensions exist between what people say and do in regards to sharing. Much to my horror, prison isn't all show-tunes and crotchet. People do steal and extort from others, so you don't want to start doling out things to people randomly lest you become known as a soft touch. The level of constant worry about possessions makes it all the more remarkable that there are networks of mutual aid throughout the estate. Since entering, gifts I've received from other inmates include trainers, sliders, tracksuit bottoms, shorts, socks, pants, t-shirts, jumpers, coffee, crisps, noodles, biscuits, tea, paper, pens, letters, books, towels, a fan, conditioner and a barrage of much-needed and sometimes-heeded advice. This safety net of care spills into the legal work prisoners do for one another. Admittedly, it can be frustrating when ten different people are weighing in on your case, all based on law degrees gleaned from a hundred half-watched reruns of The Bill. This develops out of necessity as so much of a sentence is left to be figured out by inmates themselves. Lawyers attending to prison law are few and far between and they can't prepare you for the affective experience of the justice system's sharp end. This leaves inmates to hobble together their own forms of emotional and practical guidance for one another, possibly part of the reason why prisonisms as a genre has emerged.
Historically, some strands of socialist thinking have rigidly demarcated subjects with revolutionary potential. The mythical 'respectable working class' has been the focus of analysis and organising efforts. They alone possess revolutionary potential; prisoners belong to a criminal lumpen, uninterested and unable to galvanise collectively to overthrow the capitalist system. Or so the argument goes. I would welcome this ideology's adherents to spend some time in prison. I have found the reverse to be true. Outside, amplifying disdain towards bosses among colleagues is constantly obfuscated by a select few who exist in every workplace and suffer from a common Stockholm syndrome. They positively assert the boss as a friend and not a structural position to annihilate. No such allusions are shared by the inmates I have met towards their captors. Even among more reactionary figures, there are clear delineations between 'Them' and 'Us'. This manifests itself in behaviours that exclude the 'Them', like one inmate being teased for buying screws biscuits and cakes. In return, you can expect stronger ties between the 'Us'. It means the punishments are collective but so are the joys. When anyone is released or transferred, people go out of their way to wish them luck. Others bend over backwards to ensure you aren't too cold, hot, hungry, or sad. If you've got a particularly onerous job, you can always rely on someone with a friend of a friend who can help move you around. Complicated conflicts are resolved among prisoners without violence or coercion. Again, I do not seek to erase the existence of these social facts of prison life.
What I do propose is that the communalist values that thrive despite prison is the seed of that same institution's own destruction.
I am wary of a tendency within myself common among parts of the left to jostle the things people do for pleasure and survival into frameworks that match our own politico-ideological moorings. Maybe I am guilty of this in my writing. Nor do I want to romanticise prisons: hardship is not a virtue and imprisoned people are capable of all the inane viciousness that those on the outside are. The humanity of those in prison should not be the driving argument to justify the call to its end. This should be done on the principle that prisons cause harm to some without seeking to meaningfully redress it within society writ large. I am more and more convinced of our capability for that redress through other means having experienced the collective consciousness of incarcerated people during my brief stint inside so far.
- Acabatha Christie (pseudonym)