Prisoner Ben: Take away a prisoner's number and you rid him of his identity

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The Independent Online

One of the first things that happens on being received into prison at the beginning is that we are issued a unique identifying number. Mine is K12612 and it has become as much a part of my identity as my name.

Every form, every process or procedure, each time we sign our name or present ourselves, we reiterate our number. Although it begins as being part of the process of what Goffman termed "mortification", a part of the scheme to undermine individual identity; as the years pass we somehow make it our own.

In a strange way, our number can even give more of a glimpse into who we are than our name. From my number it can be seen that my first step into detention was at Pucklechurch remand centre as a youngster; which is the origin of the "K" in the number. The numerals, being five instead of four of them, show that I have been in for decades.

This tells people something. That I have great experience, that I'm an "old birdman". Couple that with my apparent sanity and it suggests resilience, a refusal to abandon the fight to maintain some sort of individuality. In some places, in years past, a number such as mine evoked a small measure of initial respect from fixed termers and new lifers. I say initial respect because if a man is an arse then no matter how long he has done he is still an arse! Now we hear that they are taking all our numbers off us and reissuing new ones. We have reached the stage where so many people are being thrown into prison that they have run out of numbers! These new marks will be anodyne, devoid of the informative characteristics of the present ones.

In a twist that I would never have predicted, some of us are grumbling because they are attached to their number. If you carry a mark for much of your life, no matter how disfiguring, it can become a part of you and to have it exchanged can be unsettling.

Yet again, the institution reveals a profound ignorance of what things mean to prisoners, and an indifferent disregard for discovering. This is far more dehumanising that being stamped with a Number.

Taken from the blog of 'Prisoner Ben', at prisonerben.blogspot.com, the only blog by a serving British prisoner. The author is serving a life sentence, and posts entries via the Royal Mail

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