Lilian Pizzichini: I saw for myself the shocking reality of prison life

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The Independent Online

It will be no surprise to those who work in prisons or are incarcerated in them that Jack Straw has conceded that the Government's plans for "super prisons" may not have been such a good idea after all – second thoughts that come a week after Her Majesty's Chief Inspectorate of Prisons published its damning report into HMP Chelmsford.

I was writer-in-residence at Chelmsford for two years until the day before the report was published. Its findings were no surprise to me either: the inspectors concluded that bullying was endemic, and that vulnerable prisoners were inadequately supported. Three suicides have occurred at Chelmsford since Christmas Day 2007. A remand prison, Chelmsford is home to some 40 lifers, whose needs it cannot possibly meet.

The work I did – setting up a magazine and enabling prisoners to express themselves by writing for it – made it clear to me that in many cases they had no one else to talk to. Yet their problems needed urgent attention.

This was the case even at the most mundane level. I remember one man going without a light bulb in his cell for a month. He never completed the book review I had commissioned him to write for our magazine because there wasn't enough light to read the book.

The inspectors reported that they felt unsafe within the prison grounds, and it was clear to me that the tension was not just between the prisoners. In the time I worked at Chelmsford, going in three days a week, I was aware of a bullying culture permeating the entire prison: from management to staff to prisoners. There were cliques among staff that affected those of us out of the loop. Morale was low, largely because of staff shortages; staff were encouraged to file Security Information Reports on each other, thus creating an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. Gossip, scandal and griping could very easily have filled our days.

But there were too many instances of individual officers and staff battling on, trying to provide some kind of service, to write off the prison completely. It was these brave individuals who kept the rest of us going. One thing, however, did strike me: prisoners were routinely dismissed as disruptive or time-wasters.

It was the difficult prisoners who had the most problems. There is not enough therapeutic work going on, or support for people with learning difficulties and dyslexia. Low literacy is rife in Chelmsford. Men get frustrated in classrooms.

Unfortunately, the systems that deal with the vulnerable are designed to satisfy procedural concerns rather than provide care. Staff are unequipped to engage in a meaningful dialogue with prisoners. Instead, those identified as suicidal are put on a report which means that officers "interact" with them several times a day and then write their observations on the form.

These officers are over-stretched and some of them, through no fault of their own, are out of their depth when dealing with profound distress. One inmate, who had carved the name of his girlfriend into his forearm, was dismissed by an officer with the quip: "You're lucky she's got a short name." One of the three men who committed suicide was dismissed as "manipulative" by staff who filled in his form.

The day before the report was published, I was called to the head of security's office. One of the prisoners I had been working with had tried to arrange a gift for me as a mark of appreciation. He is that rare thing: a success story at HMP Chelmsford. His gift was intercepted by security and suspicions were aroused. The cells of the men I worked with were "spun". During these searches, it was found that I had given another prisoner a book. Officially this is trafficking, and so I was escorted out of the prison by two grim-faced officers. I read the HMCIP report the following day, and found what had been said about me: "A small group of prisoners worked with the writer-in-residence and significantly improved their personal and social skills."

A few weeks before my dismissal, one man (a lifer), told me that he had "calmed down" and that he would not "kick off" on the wing because he had "something to lose" now that he was working on the magazine. I listened to the prisoners I worked with and I encouraged them to write about their feelings. As a result, they told me what was going on in their lives without fear of being judged or criticised.

I would encourage the governors at HMP Chelmsford to listen more closely to the needs of their charges. In so doing they will find they need to focus not so much on bureaucracy and passing the buck as on literacy and mental health.