Animals in Captivity
Did you watch that documentary, Blackfish? The one about the killer whales that started actually killing people after they were put in captivity. How they took whales from the wild, separated them from their support network, locked them in little tiny tanks and they all started going mad and attacking each other and trying to kill the people in charge of them?
There was this outpouring of sympathy on social media, these protests against the companies that ran the sea parks. This understanding that animals could develop mental health problems and go insane if they were kept in such unnatural surroundings. And all I could think as I watched it was -
But we do this with people.
I went into prison the next day and couldn’t get any crims out of their cells because there’d been a stabbing on the wing and everyone was on full bang up. So I slipped some worksheets under cell doors, like a dolphin trainer sliding fish along the edge of the pool, and wondered how anyone could ever be expected to become a fully rehabilitated, functioning human being in these surroundings?
If we can fundamentally accept that whales get violent when put in cages, then it stands to reason that people aren’t going to leave prison behaving too well either. Almost half of all released prisoners reoffend within a year. This isn’t making society safer. This is insanity.
For people who’ve never been inside a prison, it’s hard to imagine just how grim it is. The closest depiction I’ve ever seen was the phenomenal BBC series, Time. It showed the banality of self injury and violence and substance misuse. It showed the bleakness of a wing. It showed the despair. It was in that environment that I, and a few dozen other well-meaning individuals, tried to change lives.
But just like throwing an Orca a ball to play with to keep it happy, providing a few hours of a thinking skills course or anger management, cannot change lives if the environment is not fit for purpose. Furthermore, there is actually scant evidence that any of these programmes work anyway. Some government accredited programmes are actually shown to create more reoffending.
Martin Narey, former Head of Prison Service said, “[we must] politely discourage those who will urge you to believe that they have a six-week to six-month course which can undo the damage of a lifetime. The next time someone tells you they have a quick scheme which can transform lives… politely explain that life isn’t that simple.”
“Decent prisons in which prisoners are respected seem to provide a foundation for prisoner self-growth. Indecent, unsafe prisons allow no such growth and further damage those who have to survive there.”
In 2019, judges in Holland refused to extradite a con back to HMP Liverpool because to do so would amount to torture. The Dutch judge said conditions were ‘inhuman and degrading’.
Just before the pandemic, inmates in HMP Coldingley were still shitting in buckets, a foot away from their beds, then expected to spend the night next to their own faeces until they could ‘slop out’ in the morning. The vile and degrading practice, that was banned after the Strangeways prison riot in 1990, is still happening.
At the height of the pandemic, on those hot June days in 2020, prisoners in HMP Leeds had their access to showers restricted as a punishment.