Monday, September 12, 2005

A life again

UK: Last week, I met the man dubbed "America's toughest sheriff". Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa county, Arizona, was in Britain for a week to see if he had anything to learn from a criminal justice system that he regards as scarcely less luxurious than the Hilton hotel.

The sheriff is famous in the US for his uncompromising attitude to those who break the law. His "tent city" prison in the Arizona desert - a permanent, high-fenced canvas compound - holds 2,000 prisoners in 130-degree heat without air conditioning.

He puts men, women and children in chain gangs and uses them to clean the streets. His prison meals, he boasts, cost no more than the equivalent of 10p a head, and - a particular favourite punishment of the sheriff - he makes all his prisoners wear pink underwear. After all I had read and heard about him, I was, to be honest, a little apprehensive about our meeting, which took place at a programme for young offenders in east London. I expected an abrasive, unapproachable man who would have no time for the likes of me. Instead I found a charming character with a solid handshake and a ready smile.

Arpaio is not about to apologise for his methods. What did he think his chain gangs achieved, I asked him. "When good folks drive by, I want mothers to be able to say to their kids: 'Look at those bad people, honey. Behave or you'll end up just like them.'" Yet he admitted that arrests in Maricopa county remained steady at what to me sounds an alarming 300 a day, and that he had no evidence that his policies, many of which have been condemned by Amnesty International, had any reductive effect on reoffending rates.

As far as I could tell, his only justification for the systematic humiliation and maltreatment of prisoners was the fact that he was responding to public will. "The public is my boss," he said. "I serve the public." On that ticket, he has been re-elected three times and served for 13 years.

I'm not convinced of the merits of Sheriff Arpaio's way. Last year, after serving 20 years of a life sentence in prison, I was released on parole. After a passage of two full decades, which took me from a standpoint of self-loathing and worthlessness to a position where I can look myself in the mirror and feel a measure of self-respect, I know that he is wrong.

Of course, many victims of crime would be only too glad for their tormentors to get a taste of Arpaio justice - and if no prisoners were ever released, it might not be such a cause for concern. But since all but two or three dozen will one day be somebody's neighbour somewhere, it seems sensible to me to ensure that all prisoners are treated in a way that tries to ensure they are better equipped and motivated to lead responsible, law-abiding lives once they are back on the streets. Considering where I'd come from, to end up having this conversation with the sheriff was almost unbelievable. I'm sure he would have struggled to grasp the magnitude of the journey that had taken me from condemned man to writer for a national newspaper.

What many people fail to understand is that convincing prisoners of their own worthlessness, which the Arpaio method is designed to do, is rarely necessary. When I walked through the prison gates at the beginning of my sentence, I knew I was the proverbial scum of the earth. At my trial I had experienced the full force of public condemnation and disgrace for my crimes.

I was a guilty man, sentenced to mandatory life. The journey back to achieving a worthwhile life on the other side of the prison wall was going to be a long and difficult one. Further castigation and degradation were unnecessary. Not that the first prison officers I met as a freshly sentenced convict saw it that way.

I remember the encounter well. It was early evening in the reception area of one of the biggest prisons in London. I was locked in a small cubicle waiting to be "processed" when the shout rang out. "Next!" I had no idea it was aimed at me. There was more shouting and swearing, but I didn't know who it was directed at. All I knew was it was making me nervous.

Suddenly there was a tremendous rapping on the cubicle door. "Are you still fucking in there or what?" With my heart racing, I said yes, I was. The door opened and a laughing officer directed me to the front of a large counter with the baton he had obviously used to bang on the door.

"Right, strip," said one of his colleagues. All three wore their caps with peaks slashed. When I was naked, an officer called for someone to bring me some kit, at which another prisoner appeared and handed me a too-small striped shirt, oversized denims, ill-fitting shoes, a pair of socks and some huge white underpants before retreating back to his room. Self-consciously, I dressed as fast as I could, then was ordered back into the cubicle to wait to be escorted to the wing.

The whole procedure had taken no more than a couple of hours, but the way I was treated in that short time determined my attitude towards prison officers for years to come. They made it clear that the prison was their domain and that I was going to be tolerated at best. No doubt Sheriff Arpaio would have approved. But I felt like one of the captured humans in Planet of the Apes, fearful and wary of my captors, who thought of me as another species entirely.

My first year in prison was spent in 23-hour-a-day solitary bangup. As well as having to face up to the wrong I had done, my lack of education, social skills and work skills meant that I had massive failings to overcome. I wanted to make progress, but I did not know where to start. To counter my feelings of helplessness and reduce my vulnerability, I exercised rigorously in my cell. Intimidation and violence between prisoners, during the brief periods in which we were unlocked, were widespread, while the culture of the prison officers was resolutely hard-line. As prisoners we held our defences high and trusted nobody. I was in no doubt that survival was my main concern. It was no place to inspire a man to better himself.

As the years passed, however, I learned that prisons were full of conflicting forces. A prison governor I met at my second jail, for example, told me: "My job is to get you back out there and functioning properly. That's what prison is for." These were powerful words for me to hear, and even now they ring clear in my memory. Though most of his officers would have disagreed, there were always a few who understood that prisoners were still human, and that all it took was a little respect and consideration to get the best out of us (they would invariably find themselves nicknamed "Care Bear" or "Mother Teresa" by their colleagues).

And gradually, as time passed, I came to believe that it was possible to become a better man than I had been. A couple of years into my sentence, a well-meaning professional persuaded me that I was capable of being educated; seven years later, with the support of various prison education departments, I had a degree. The instinctive rivalry among captives, endemic hard drug-related activity and the constant negotiating around the self-appointed punishers in the prison staff meant that there was no let-up in the general hostility of the environment for almost all of the 18 years I spent in closed prisons. I think this gave me a good taste of the mental equivalents of Sheriff Arpaio's chain gangs and desert heat, and it convinced me that if we kick people when they are down, we should expect little of value in return.

In 1999, after a series of coincidences and lucky breaks, the chance arose for me to write a column for the Guardian, a weekly account of the reality of prison life, to be called A Life Inside. At this stage I was a life prisoner with at least five years still to serve. I was weary of prison life, but my activities during earlier years had left me well prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.

The reaction of some members of the prison service to this opportunity highlighted the vagaries and absurdities of prison life. Even though, years earlier, when I had expressed an interest in journalism, the Prison Service had supported my application for funding for a course, the authorities in the prison I was in at the time were adamant that it wasn't going to happen. It wasn't until the prisons minister and the head of the prison service gave their personal approval that I was able to proceed.

On one occasion, shortly after I started the column, the governor was showing a visitor round. Stopping at my cell, he introduced the visitor and announced, apparently with some pride, "This is Erwin James. He writes for the Guardian." This emboldened me to ask a question I had been longing to ask of the "number one". I had been saving my prison wages, I told him, and wondered if I might be permitted to buy a word processor. "Oh no, no, no," he said. "The public wouldn't like that." Thankfully, one of his officers went out of his way to make sure I always had a plentiful supply of extra paper.

Six years later, I am a free man on life parole. And this is the last column I will write for G2, though I will continue to write for the paper in other guises. My life is no longer governed by cell walls and bars; now I look out each day on a big sky. With the encouragement of people who were prepared to help rather than hinder, I was able to turn my life around, and I'm grateful to the "do-gooders" whose kindness cancelled out those who, like Arpaio, believe there is merit in "getting tough". As far as I am concerned, I succeeded in making my prison time work in spite of most of what I encountered and not because of it.

Sheriff Arpaio and I parted on good terms with a warm handshake - and an invitation to tour his jails the next time I'm in Maricopa County. I felt, in spite of the chasm between us, that we had forged a mutual respect. But my experience has taught me that a society that offers hope of betterment and genuine rehabilitation to its prisoners is healthier than one that offers no hope at all.

* The Home Stretch and A Life Inside, Erwin James's collections of Guardian columns, are published by Guardian Books

Sheriff Joe Arpaio (in Arizona) is doing it RIGHT!!:

* He has jail meals down to 40 cents a serving and charges the inmates for them.
* He stopped smoking and porno magazines in the jails.
* Took away their weights.
* Cut off all but "G" movies.
* He started chain gangs so the inmates could do free work on county and city projects. Then he started chain gangs for women so he wouldn't get sued for discrimination.
* He took away cable TV until he found out there was a federal court order that required cable TV for jails. So he hooked up the cable TV again but only let in the Disney channel and the weather channel. When asked why the weather channel he replied, so they will know how hot it's gonna be while they are working on my chain gangs.
* He cut off coffee since it has zero nutritional value.
* When the inmates complained, he told them.....this is a good one......"This isn't the Ritz/Carlton. If you don't like it, don't come back."
* He bought Newt Gingrich's lecture series on videotape that he pipes into the jails. When asked by a reporter if he had any lecture series by a Democrat, he replied that a democratic lecture series might explain why a lot of the inmates were in his jails in the first place.

By The Guardian posted 12 September 05


Crowded jails 'boosting suicides'
UK: The chief inspector of prisons warned that an overcrowding crisis in Britain's jails was leading to an increase in prisoner suicides.

Chief justice calls for new approach to law and order
UK: The retiring [ruling class] lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, made a passionate plea for a new approach to law and order which would see a major shift away from punishment towards the solution of problems which generate crime.

Britain's only prison ship ends up on the beach
UK: The last inmates have departed and a skeleton staff is left guarding Britain's only prison ship - in case anyone is minded to break in rather than out.

Throw away the key
The one profession to get results on recidivism has been sacrificed to Labour's desire to lock up criminals in private prisons.

Judges' misdeeds will remain secret
UK: Judges who are disciplined for bad behaviour will not have the findings against them made public under a complaints regime to be launched next year.

Prisoner total rises 15% in six years
England and Wales are continuing to jail offenders at a higher rate than any other major country in western Europe, it emerged today. New research indicates that the government's use of prison as its main tool of penal policy has increased by 15% since 1999.

CPS drops prosecution over death in custody
UK: The family of Roger Sylvester, who died after being restrained by police officers, yesterday expressed their disappointment at a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute any of the officers involved.

Prisoner's cell death
UK: A prisoner was found hanged in his cell last week, the Home Office said, fuelling criticism over the soaring number of suicides in custody.

Plans for five new 'superprisons'
Recent figures show a total of 75,550 prisoners were held in 139 jails in England and Wales, nudging up the previous record of April 2004 by just six inmates.

Prison has lost its way - report
UK: Bristol prison is suffering wide-ranging problems because of inconsistent management, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said.

Row over acupuncture for prisoners
UK: The Home Office has responded to criticism over prison inmates who are being offered acupuncture on the NHS in order to relieve stress.

Number of prisoners sent back to jail trebles
UK: The number of prisoners being sent back to jail after release has nearly trebled in the past five years, according to a report published today.

Top judge says crowded prisons cannot break cycle of crime
UK: Reoffending rates after a prison sentence are at an "unacceptably high level" and the failure of the criminal justice system to stop prisoners reoffending should shock the public, England's top judge, [Ruling Class] Lord Woolf, said last week.

All the World's a Prison: History
No doubt many of my readers, even those who are well-educated or widely read, think that the prison -- the place where dark deeds are darkly answered[2] -- is an ancient institution, a barbaric hold-over from barbaric times. In fact, the prison is of relatively recent origin, and this tells us a great deal about the pretentions and realities of modern times, and the wisdom and high degree of development of the ancients.

Decade after inspector left in disgust, report tells of filth
UK: Dirty, mice-infested cells, high levels of self-harm, and widespread bullying over drugs and medications were just some of the damning findings of a report into conditions at Holloway, Britain's largest women's prison.

Most women 'should not be jailed'
Women make up 6% of the prison population in England and Wales. Imprisonment of women should be "virtually abolished", a prison reform group has said.

Youth 'murdered for officers' pleasure'
UK: An Asian teenager was murdered by a white racist after they were placed in the same cell as part of a game to fulfil the "perverted pleasure" of prison officers, a public inquiry heard on Friday.

Deaths in isolation as prison segregation increases
The use of segregation [solitary confinement] of prisoners as punishment has been increasing recently in Australia, the US, and the UK. Segregation can be used for protection or punishment, but in both cases it results in extreme psychological stress. An indication that segregation is being over-used is the appearance of deaths in custody from suicide of those placed in segregation.

Inquest blames jail for overdose death
UK: An inquest jury returned a verdict itemising a catalogue of faults at Styal prison in Cheshire, concluding that the prison's "failure of duty of care" contributed to the death of Sarah Campbell, 18, who took an overdose of tablets on the first day of her three-year sentence.

Put in the way of self-harm in a place intended to protect others
UK: Sarah Campbell, 18, spent the last hours of her life in the segregation unit of Styal prison, Cheshire. "The seg", as those places are referred to, used to be known as "the block", short for punishment block. [ Seg is a bullshit word for Punishment, Solitary Confinement, Torture, Mental Illness, Self-Harm, Human Rights Abuse and that is State Terror.]

Britain 'sliding into police state'
The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is transforming Britain into a police state, one of the country's former leading anti-terrorist police chiefs [false flag police chiefs] said yesterday.

UK solitary confinement
UK: Segregation units are prisons within prisons - the places where the most unchecked brutality is meted out to prisoners. In recent years conditions in high security segregation units have deteriorated, and the use of long-term segregation as a control mechanism has increased.

Inquiry must root out prison racists
UK: It is difficult to imagine a more brutal murder than that of Zahid Mubarek. The 19-year-old was clubbed to death by his cellmate at Feltham Young Offender Institution in the early hours of 21 March 2000. He was due to be released just a few hours later.

Prison suicides soar as jails hire 'babysitters'
UK: Prison officers are being taken off suicide watch and replaced by unqualified 'babysitters' because the system is overwhelmed by an epidemic of self-harm.

Plan to sell off juvenile jails as job lot
UK: The government is to put out to tender all its dedicated juvenile jails that hold children under 18 in a departure in Whitehall's privatisation programme.

Failure to sack 'racist' prison staff condemned
UK: Two prison officers suspended for racism are still on full pay three years after a stash of Nazi memorabilia, neo-fascist literature and Ku Klux Klan-inspired 'nigger-hunting licences' was found in a police raid on their home.

Report slams 'unjust' jailing of women on remand
UK: Six out of 10 women sent to jail while they await trial are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence, a report published today reveals. Introducing the report, Lady Kennedy QC calls for a complete review of the use of remand and bail for women saying it is "inhumane and unjust".

Concern as UK prison suicides hit record level
UK: More prisoners took their own lives in English jails in August than in any other month since records began, prison reformers said today.

End of years of despair as Holloway closes its doors
But now Holloway prison in north London - where Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, was hanged in 1955 - has been earmarked for closure, along with several other women's prisons, which have been hit by a spate of suicides.

How detox and self-help brought suicide jail back from the brink
UK: Six suicides in 12 months made Styal jail notorious and the Prisons Ombudsman criticised the prison and its staff for serious failures. But things are changing.

Belmarsh detainees consider suicide, says freed man
UK: The first of the Muslim detainees released from Belmarsh high security prison after being held on suspicion of terrorism has told the Guardian his fellow prisoners are suffering such severe mental problems that they constantly consider suicide.

Suicides and unrest have soared, admits Home Office
UK:The already overcrowded prison population is set to go on rising and will top 80,000 within the next three years, a senior Home Office civil servant warned yesterday.

England tops the EU in imprisonment
England and Wales jail more offenders per capita than any other European, Union country, according to new figures.