Violence Begets Violence

Violence Begets Violence

“It’s true what they say, you never forget the guilt you feel from the past”

“The ghosts of your negative past stay in your mind & dreams, always”


Working within the NHS and in the public & private prison sectors, as a young professional, I was fed a diet of head down and do your job, supported by a strict hierarchy based on comments such as:

“Stand when your senior grades come into the room”

“Stand to one side when your senior grade is walking towards you”

“Speak only when addressed directly by your senior grades”

And before anyone gets confused, no I was not alive in the Victorian era, even if I feel like I was sometimes, this was 1980’s, 90’s and even 2000. These were extreme environments such as Prisons, Psychiatric Secure Units, even a Unit for Adolescents ‘Lifers’ (murderers, arsonists, rapists & paedophiles), and the extremeness was matched by the system’s need to enforce a rigid and unforgiving hierarchy within each establishment. This isn’t surprising as a traditional career path for Armed Services Personnel was the prison service, and likewise psychiatric environments had their murky origins in prisons, when the ‘insane’ we locked up and treated worse that hated animals.

Even to this day some prisons were known to Staff their Segregation Units with ex-Paratroopers or Marines and would brag about it, jousting with comments between Governors to see who could prove they had the toughest Segregations, as if a badge of some perverted honour, as if being in prison wasn’t bad enough. This on its own was a reinforce to those working within such extreme and intense Unit, but I believe the real reinforcement was to be drunk on the power one could have over Prisoners in the toughest Units, the power to crush a Prisoner’s will, rightly or wrongly, you went to Segregation to be punished and punished you were. Segregation Units prided themselves on breaking on so many levels the toughest of Prisoner, breaking them down physically and psychologically.

Segregations were the epitome of making life hard for people, Staff and Prisoners alike, the Prisoners would demonstrate how tough they were by ‘kicking-off’ (what a ridiculous term that basically tries to make violence cool) in Segregation, and on the first occasion they were allowed to by the Staff, a clever trick as this first incident was used to justify all that then transpired; the Prisoner has already gone up against Wing hierarchy, the Staff would make sure that they didn’t make the same mistake in Segregation.

To counter the mistake of taking on the system, Staff prided themselves to be able to deliver more coordinated violent response than they had surely faced, more aggressive than the aggressors, Segregation Staff even claimed themselves as the elite of the Prison Officers, some Units even had a score card on the wall keeping track of how many Prisoners they had “broken”. Following a ‘restraint’, a formally trained method of dealing with aggression which is supposed to avoid injury to the Prisoner being restrained, the Staff would often use the phrase “another F.U.B.A.R.” as a Prisoner lay crumpled up on a floor in a corner of their Segregation cell. There were even times when a Prisoner would be brutalised physically and emotionally because he was “too mouthy” and that was just not acceptable in the eyes of the Staff. People, as that’s what they are regardless of your views, were sent to Segregation because they were viewed as ‘trouble makers’ by the Wing Staff, and needed breaking, ‘Seg’ was more than happy to comply with their coded request, coded as the Prisoner as committing an offence under Good Order and Discipline.

How do I know this went on, I started my career in the hospital Units of prisons and saw the injuries done to Prisoners, I even sutured more than my fair share faces and heads carrying punch marks, sometimes even ‘Doc Martin’ (the favoured footwear of Staff) soul prints outlined in flesh discolouring in front of me. There were numerous broken fingers, wrists, arms, legs, and especially ribs. When talking to Staff they came out with excuses such as:

“Another Prisoner attached them”

“They through themselves down the stairwell”

“They ran themselves into their cell door over and over”

“Idiot fell over”

I even heard one say that a Prisoner head butted his cell door before he could be stopped, splitting his head open at the crown and at the same time got a black eye. Sometimes these reasons were true but more often than not they were said with a smirk on the officer’s face and the score card was increased by one since I last looked. Prisoners often claimed that officers attacked them and some of the time it was of course not the case, but sometimes such claims were accompanies by an officer slapping the Prisoner across the back to the head to shut them up, or digging them in the wrists. I genuinely heard one office whisper in a prisoner’s ear, as I was examining him asking how he got the injuries, “say nothing or there’s more you Nonce”.

I lost count of how many Prisoners I was called to see in Segregation, where the reporting Officer reported that the Prisoner had beaten themselves up.  Yes you read that correctly, these high manipulative Prisoners were even, on one occasion, able to manipulate their own bodies in a feat of contortion that any Yoga Instructor would be proud of, delivering a booted stamp mark to the small of their own back. A miracle by any standard and not because they were just physically able achieve this, in an unshared cell, they managed it without anything on their feet, as Segregation Inmates were never allowed to were trainers in their cells.

I look back and remember the media unleashing their reporting dogs of war upon Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of Prisoners there, rightly so, yet in our own Prison we were doing far worse at times than that reported about the ‘Bay’. It wasn’t a secret, the so called authorities absolutely knew what was going on, they did their own form or Prison ‘Rendition’, deliberately moving people threatening a Prison’s stability to a Prison where they were far away from any possibility of visitors and also to an establishment where they could be ‘dealt with’. Yes HMP Rendition was usually done without warning, and in total isolation for any family or legal representation, swift, brutal, as often the handcuffed and shackled Prisoner looked like they had been through a grinder by the time they were spilled out at their new home, a bare cell with only a rip proof blanket and mattress for the first 48hrs, all privileges were earned, including clothes, toilet paper, the facility to empty their bowel used for all bodily functions. Did the higher echelon know? Yes of course they did as all Prisoner transfers were Governor approved, both the releasing Prison and the receiving Prison Governors, and also Home Office approved, usually at Junior Minister Level was mentioned to me, not that I can prove this.

The golden rule that was said to me over and over was, “never embarrass the Minister, and always make sure the paperwork reflects the rules not the reality”

It is with great shame, immense shame and feelings of cowardice that I did nothing to stop the brutalisation of some Prisoners. To be honest there was an unwritten code that one never reported a fellow Officer, there were ‘urban myths’ about Staff reporting their fellow Officers, and being set up to be assaulted by Prisoners to get them to recant their claims, in the stories they always did. As I rose through the ranks I even looked at the stats once and there were hundreds of investigated and unsubstantiated claims against the same groups of officers for serious assaults, and the files were marked as NFA, No Further Action. This stuck in my mind to this day, and in my throat as it implied there had been no action in by people in authority, probably as Segregation was their best deterrent for even ‘Lifers’ that had nothing to lose, even medical/nursing reports of injuries were changed to say the Prisoner admitted it was another Prisoner, or some other implausible excuse when one put the injuries into the context of where the injuries occurred, places where Prisoners would have been alone with Officers, because in Segregation “no one can hear you scream” (sorry to use plagiarise from a film) and no one would take a Prisoner’s word over that of an Officer. The other statistic was that out of all of the allegations made against Prison Officers, no one came from another Officer, not one. Staff that could not cope with the violence, from either side of the cell door, were forced to either put in a transfer request and/or go on long term sick; “weakness” in Staff, as one Principle Officer described it, had to be eliminated from the ranks, when he said this I had a chill run down my spine.

I felt at one stage I was in some form of horror film, everywhere I turned there was violence, Prisoner to Prisoner, Prisoner to Officer, Officer to Prisoner, and I suspected Officer to Officer, usually via setting an Officer up to be intimidated or even assaulted by primed Inmates, eliminating the weakness from the ranks no doubt.

Again, I sanctioned everything I witnessed, I colluded in my silence with people who themselves should have been locked up, I was and am as guilty as those using their fists and boots to gain compliance, as I did nothing to stop it, report it or even draw attention to it, I simply took the promotions and the job opportunities, and got the hell away from it, and I ran as far from it as any coward had run from any battle line or enemy bombardment, I was scared to death at times and just wanted to hide. Actually this is the first time I have ever allowed myself to even remember what it was really like, to take the rose tinted glasses off and stare these memories down, look at the beast that rampages in my nightmare, without flinching, I felt it was time, felt it is right to now speak out and put it out there to the world.

I guess you can put it down to the nightmares I have, the guilt that I did nothing, the faces I still see bruised and beaten both physically and mentally. I remember one young offender that was literally driven into mental illness and self-harming by the torture he underwent when officers kept telling other inmates he was in prison for raping young girls, and they said this just because he stood up to an office. They literally unleashed constant hell on this young man who was in prison for theft and nothing more. I will never forget the self-harm, the mental hell he was in after weeks of constant abuse 24hrs a day, food spat in, drinks mixed with urine, beating after beating, faeces smeared on his sheets – interesting point, how did the prisoners get into locked cells to defecate on his bed if it wasn’t for collusion of officers. I will never forget the deep cuts he made with anything sharp, deep into his arms, thighs, stomach, blood everywhere, he even ripped out stitches we had put into him, he was lost in mental illness thanks to the system I was part of. It took two months to transfer him to a mental health hospital, diagnosed with acute psychotic episode – was this a just punishment for his crime?!?! I genuinely think of him most days and I deserve to be haunted by his memory, the ghosts of the awful, tragic system with a singular aim to contain prisoners at any cost.

I colluded through my guilty silence, I am as guilty as any of the Officers involved, I am ashamed. I personally knew of dozens of Prisoners that were in prison for assaults of one degree of violence or another, and many would come in thinking they could beat the system, and actually many of them were literally beaten by a savage system, at least by the representatives of a system that brutalised those in their charge. But who really wants to know, out of sight out of mind I guess.

No one ever wonders, the public I mean, how a couple of Prison Officers are able to control a Wing or Landing of 30 to 40 adult criminals; no one thinks this is strange that out number 20, 30 or even 40 to 1 and yet ‘good order’ is maintained. No one gives it a moment’s thought, it’s just too gruesome to digest and most would say criminals deserve everything they get. No one thinks that often the system mashes people into pulp so that all they know is to hate, is to hit back, is to hurt the society that gave up on them and sent them away, to be subjected to the whims of a regime run by criminals in themselves. In some cases, I mean this literally, Prisoners controlling Prisoners and encouraged, even bribed to do so.

As this is the key to the questions I just posed, how does an Officer or two control dozens of adults, by getting the inmates on the Wing that are ‘top dogs’, as they are called in prisons, and controlling these individuals and small groups, they empower and encourage them to control the rest of the Wing/Landing with any means necessary. These same ‘Top Dogs’ are often those that control the contraband coming into the prisons and frequently Officers will look the other way, not search their cells, not search them, not look too closely when they have visitors, and certainly not search the Top Dogs’ visitors, often the couriers of contraband. By turning away from what is happening in front of them, the Officers allow an internal Prisoner based hierarchy to exist, and all done for the sake of ‘good order & discipline’.

I have seen the results of the most vicious of beatings at the hands of groups of Prisoners, and sometimes, on rare occasions admittedly, the victims, as that’s what they were, would disclosed that the they had received their ‘kicking’ because they had spat at or struck an Officer. Now some may see this as eye for an eye, or like attracts like, but what is more likely is that violence begets violence.

I genuinely believe in the Model of Social Learning theory, which, boiled down to just a sentence, states people learn from their peers and the role models around them, especially those in power. Prisons are educational establishments that teach non-violent Prisoners, which may be in there for receiving stolen goods, non-payment of fines, other non-violent crimes, and they are mixed with violent psychopaths. They quickly learn the only way to survive is to become violent. As with our Soldiers that are so conditioned to the violence of war (and rightly so in defence of our country) struggle sometimes to undo that conditioning, Prisoners get released after years of living in a violent, insula community – how do we expect them to act? Society is breeding violent criminals, we are teaching violence keeps you safe, what an irony, and we are teaching the only way to survive is to be violent, violence equals control and power.

Some believe that Prisons should be hard, Prisons should be tough on Prisoners, and I don’t disagree, I think the aims of Prisons should clearly be:

  1. A place of hard physical labour
  2. A place of education & teaching of positive life skills
  3. A place of offending rehabilitation
  4. A place lead by Psychology services & Mental Health professional
  5. A place of safety
  6. A place were Officers that are violent and not positive role models are ousted and prosecuted openly

I completely accept violence will occur and physical restraints need to be used, but not a violent response to violent behaviour, what does that teach the person. There should be consequences for Prisoner that are violent but not be brutalised by a system until they are compliant, until they are broken in body and in mind. It’s just wrong!

Surely going to prison and the loss of liberty is the punishment, not to lose liberty and then be taught to be worse than when you entered the prison. At some point the system, our society, has to try and stop the circle of violence and the decay of appropriate behaviour, which costs society so much on so many levels. Perhaps the key is not bigger Prisons, more Prisons, but invest in changing the environments that condition people to become offenders against society in the first place. I wrote a blog about our youth and people claiming unemployment benefit working for the benefit of society, positive schemes to give the next generation positive role models, positive feedback for positive behaviour. Perhaps if we invest enough in such things we can grow out of the need for so many prisons, it would be good to judge our society about how reduce the need from prisons. I am a blue sky thinker but also a pragmatist, I accept we will always need prisons but perhaps we can reduce the need as each new generation come through.

I hope my disclosure shocks people so we can stop creating violent prisoners that spill back out into society, let’s try and break this destruction of our youth – please read the following blog to understand what I mean: 

Perhaps my ghosts will rest easier now, perhaps.

 Yours with sincere regret

Jonathan W