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

Share
Related Topics

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.

lilian_pizzichini@yahoo.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tessa fizzes with ideas; she has all the warmth in the world but a core of steel  

Why Tessa Jowell gets my vote for London Mayor

Alan Johnson
Was this the game when the public started to fall back in love with English cricket?  

How can anyone say Test match cricket is dying after this glorious, complex battle?

Matthew Norman
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf