Going to Prison
Everyone entering prison as a new prisoner will still be in a psychological state of confusion and trauma resulting from the imposition of a sentence, or the refusal to grant bail. The prisoner steps out of the van, which is already inside the prison walls. The sound of a series of gates closing behind the van heralds the stark reality that freedom has been lost. Everyone entering prison should fully appreciate that the reason for their detainment is to punish. The comforts of freedom need to be abandoned. Inmates must prepare for a culture shock.
On reception at the prison a prison officer takes and records name, age, weight, height, a description of general appearance and distinguishing marks. In addition a photograph is taken. Details of the next of kin, together with a contact telephone number is obtained. The prisoner will be questioned on matters of health. If there are, or have been, suicidal tendencies, the person may spend time in the prison hospital under observation, before being allocated a cell in the main prison area. The reception also includes a medical assessment by a member of the Forensic Mental Health team. This includes taking a person’s medical history and requesting their medical records from that person’s GP or other doctors.
In the reception room the prisoner is stripped of all personal possessions including (unless they are a detainee) clothes. Most personal items would have been previously confiscated by officers of the court prior to the transfer to prison. A detailed inventory must be kept of all the prisoner’s confiscated property (other than perishables) and returned to them on release. The prisoner is searched, can be required to bathe, and is subject to medical examination, usually the following day.
Prison clothing and items of bedding are issued, together with a ration of toiletries. Prior to a canteen being available, the inmate has to rely upon the handout of soap and razors to shower and shave and to wash certain items of clothing for perhaps a fortnight. The prisoner is then conducted to a cell.
Learning the Rules
Within the first 24 hours, a male prisoner learns:
- to call security officers, chief Custodial officers and officers of higher rank “Mr”. Custodial officers are generally referred to as “Boss”;
- to obey all orders;
- not to enter another’s cell;
- to rise immediately on the first bell, dress as required and to make up the bed in a set manner;
- to shave daily, unless permission is gained for a beard;
- to parade immediately upon demand and to remain silent during muster;
- to march in line to and from meals?;
- to shower in accordance with a set timetable;
- to live life according to a rigid set of times and rules.
For many first-time prisoners, the worst time is at evening muster when they stand just inside the cell door, and wait as each door is firmly shut and then locked.
Psychology of the Procedure
Loss of identity is one of the psychological effects of the procedure. The change of identity is emphasised by the nature of the admission process, the loss of personal possessions, the clinical and indifferent manner of recording personal details, and the search. The process can destroy the individuality of the prisoner. The process is similar to that employed in ‘recruit training’ within military organisations. The desired end result is the same – a loss of identity, an acceptance of group identity and an amenability to discipline. This is intended to result in an orderly prison life. Unfortunately, prison does not offer the corresponding positive values of a military structure — self esteem, a sense of loyalty and pride in the purpose of the system.
The new prisoner becomes subjected to the dos and don’ts of the prison culture. The peer group influence tells the new inmate that they are a ‘crim’, and that the officers are ‘screws’. A prisoner tries to conform as once the label of ‘suspect’ is put on a prisoner by inmates they lose touch with the rest of the inmates.
Once a prisoner accepts the role of a ‘crim’, and is accepted by the other ‘crims’, the new inmate finds a new self-identity by seeing themselves as part of the prison community. Staff/inmate relationships are such that some rapport is possible between the two groups.
Some prisoners are not accepted into the prison culture, although non-acceptance is rare. In most cases, non-acceptance is connected with the type of crime committed by the prisoner, especially homosexuality and sexual offences involving children. Non-acceptance can also come about by breaking the code of the prison culture.
Given all of this, the pressures on a new inmate to conform with the code are enormous, because it is very hard to live in prison as an independent individual, not only because of the way the person is treated by the prison community (staff and inmates) but also because of the individual’s need for acceptance and identification.
All prisoners entering prison for the first time do so as maximum security inmates. Within a day or two a classification committee comprising prison personnel will assess their suitability for work. A person’s status is open to review by the committee, which, if appropriate, can change a prisoner’s rating from maximum to either medium or minimum.
A new prisoner cannot expect much assistance from fellow inmates during their settling in period. The prison mentality (both inmates and authorities) is to learn and survive by oneself. A new inmate will have no friends. A feeling of loneliness is ever present. It is fair to say that there are few friends in prison, only acquaintances. Prisoners surround themselves with inmates of like understanding and interests and feel comfortable with this existence. A new inmate is regarded as an outsider and needs to earn respect and approval to be accepted by a group. It is highly desirable to ‘do one’s time’ with minimal agitation. In addition to obeying all rules and work orders this is best achieved by respecting the privacy of others, by not violating other inmate’s possessions and by doing twice as much listening as talking.
Part of the clothing which the prison provides consists of shirts and trousers which are laundered each day. The quality and appearance of the apparel is not high and prisoners may find it an embarrassment to wear.
The median age of prisoners is becoming younger, and fellow prisoners may be aggressive and anti-social. Violence is not a regular part of prison life but problems are occasionally settled by conflict. Such conflicts revolve around the younger community within the prison. The problem for a prisoner is how to respond to violence. Given that the ability to overcome violence by a greater use of violence is not present in most inmates, one option is to inform and bring the matter to the attention of the authorities. Given that this is against the prisoners’ code, there are inherent risks associated with this solution. In most cases it is resolved by an acceptance of fate and the adoption thereafter of a low profile.
Of equal concern to the system is male sexuality. Because of the age grouping, sexual release through homosexual contact may occur. Despite all systems of surveillance in prisons consensual sexual activity may occur.
The imprisonment of a person can result in serious repercussions for family members. Just as prison is traumatic for the prisoner, so it is that others similarly suffer. The sight of a person being led from the court handcuffed, destined for prison, and of the family unable to have any contact is emotionally overwhelming for both. The impact of being disassociated can lead to similar emotions that the prisoner experiences — anxiety, stress, loneliness etc.
Imprisonment can have a financially devastating effect on a family, particularly if the prisoner was the bread winner. Each party in its own way suffers helplessness. It becomes a horrifying event for family and friends to visit an inmate within the precinct of prison. The situation is further exasperated by the loss of physical contact.
Contact visits now occur every weekend and by request during the week. Visiting helps to adjust to the deprivation and assists in keeping the family unit together. Positive attitudes from both sides on visitations or through letter writing help alleviate foreboding associated with incarceration.
Page last updated 01/12/2021