A guest blog, anonymized to protect the writer’s identity.
This is a summarized account of my previous life of a hell on earth in the dark unpublicized shadows of the prison system. It is a journey from abuse to anarchy and finally normality: a path shared by many of my generation.
In 1970, as a young boy of 15 given Borstal training, I entered a prison horror story that has stayed with me throughout my life, with occasional accompanying flashbacks and nightmares.
The 1970s in Borstal were brutal years, and conditions then bordered on the medieval; the dark brick cells looked like gloomy dungeons, reflecting the Victorian era in which they were first built. Dressed in black, uniformed officers resembling the SS, patrolled the grey slate landings. The evenings were the worst times when having nothing to do, groups of officers would target cells of captive vulnerable children and beat then until they screamed. No cameras or ‘phones and no external medical staff or contacting solicitors in those days: we were at their mercy and we both knew it.
The abuse continued because the archaic system could not change under the old ‘Crown Immunity’ law, which meant the state was unable to prosecute itself and therefore what happened within the walls stayed there. On transfer, we were required to sign a form stating that we had been well treated and had no complaints. No threats needed, we signed.
Hungry and frightened into a rule of silence unless spoken to, we lay on beds of bug infested straw mattresses and I challenge anyone who remembers those days not to say they didn’t cry their eyes out at night in that first week. After that, the fear, degradation and brutality slowly became normalized.
An exaggeration? No, it was simply something that happened in that era, a normality similar to that of public hanging spectacles for previous generations. If only those walls, now painted in soothing pastel, could talk.
I would describe the 1990s as a crazy anarchist era. The previous ‘disciplining of the body’ (Foucault, 1977) was replaced with an attitude of complete indifference, elsewhere referred to as ‘human warehousing’ (see Phelps, 2018, writing in the British Journal of Criminology). The beatings continued yet on a lesser scale, but with add-ons. Now, packed in like sardines, the ancient sewage system unable to cope with the volume, which regularly overflowed onto the landings and those unfortunates beneath, attracting rats. The mass sporadic diarrhea outbreaks, head lice and one shower a week in over-crowded conditions were early warning signs of approaching dysentery and cholera, diseases commonly arising from those same conditions elsewhere in the 20th century. The mass disturbance that followed in 1990 was only a surprise to those outside the prison system.
By 1994, I had gone from Cat ‘A’ to an MA Criminology. I discovered education, went on to post-graduate study and, when released, emigrated and became a professional spending many years abroad. Yet the highlight of my life is being transferred out of 1990 Strangeways into the Cat ‘A’ dispersal system, knowing the abusing prison guards were removed (were chased) from that evil blot on the Manchester landscape and the prison was systematically demolished in the biggest riot in British penal history.
Since 1999, new prison rules meant that those days have thankfully long gone, but prison has always been a microcosm of society. As society changes, it in turn produces the inmate population it reflects. In other words, the mental illness, the anarchy, and gang culture in today’s prisons are simply a reflection of the society producing them. Some might argue that prison has swung too far in a liberal direction and that might well be true, in which case that is a current problem that needs addressing, as well as the society that produced it. The jailers too, once exclusively drawn from ex-military personnel are now the products of the same liberal society as the inmates. Although I have no doubt that prison is not easy, you can now complete your sentence without having to hide a piece of bread under your pillow because of hunger (a disciplinary offence involving a compulsory beating in 1970), seeing blood on the walls in the segregation unit (‘the block’), or listen to the accompanying screams.
Research suggests that if a group of people have absolute power over another group, nasty things follow. Moreover, absolute power attracts the worst type of overseers, including bullies, sexual predators, and outright sadists. The people who staffed the old prison system were no doubt respectable law-abiding citizens outside the walls, but inside them they mirrored the participants in the ‘Milgram Shock Experiment’. This was an experiment devised to test how far people were prepared to go given unlimited authority, as opposed to their personal conscience. Briefly, the Milgram experiment revealed a majority of people in the right location and on orders from a figure of authority, were willing to carry out extreme acts of violence against helpless victims. Something not entirely unknown elsewhere in the 20th century.
Even after all these years I have no sympathy for those still living who staffed these evil places and now complain of PTSD and related symptoms. The effects of what they saw and/or participated in is now coming back to haunt them in their later years in the same way it mentally affected us, their victims.
Strangeways: A Nightmare Revisited
O well done! We commend all your pains,
And those yet to come shall share i’ the gains;
And now about thy memories tell,
Of things once unseen in a man-made hell;
If walls too had voices they would scream in despair,
As they tell their grim tales and bid thee beware;
Of times distant past though the nightmares remain,
Of something so wicked that this way once came.
As memories fade and passing time numbs,
The sound of the boots like the beating of drums;
Of whistles and bells, the hunger and pain,
While alone in the gloom a child’s tears fell like rain;
As the evil destroyed though three decades past,
Deep inside an old man the little boy laughs;
May their wickedness visited on children bring shame,
A reminder so wicked that this way once came.
This guest blog, including the poem, are the intellectual property of the anonymous author. The blog site is © Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2022.