Rough justice in the gaolbirds' pecking order

The mass killer holds a peculiar place in the prison hierarchy, writes Jim Smith, who is now beginning his 12th year inside

Jim Smith
Wednesday 04 January 1995 01:02

As a long-term prisoner, I have spent many years of my life in a variety of British prisons, including maximum security. From my experience, I would say that, for the most part, prisoners are treated with humanity and respect by the authorities.

Positive opportunities, however, are only available once the prisoner has come to terms with the fact that he is living in a bleak, lonely, hostile world where the stench of menace permeates prison-grey skin, and where the threat of violence regularly manifests in dark corners. It is a world where "justice" is indeed rough. The killing of Jeffrey Dahmer, beaten to death by one of his fellow prisoners, highlighted the fact that serving time can be a dangerous business.

What about honour among thieves? The idea behind this proposition is that those involved in crime, or those in prison, have a set of pseudo-honourable values in common. In fact, the modern-day criminal code involves little in the way of honour, and prob

a bly reflects the demise of a creditable value system in the outside world.

Among the population of any British prison there exists a hierarchy, a pecking order. Far from being rigid, it is movable and dynamic. There are constant power struggles as those in the middle vie for more status. Life is indeed a case of the survival ofthe fittest. Sid, a friend, described his existence in jail as "a war of survival".

It does not automatically follow that the strong and intelligent are at the top of the hierarchy and the weak and slow are at the bottom. A strong intelligent man would be disqualified from his natural position in the pecking order if, for example, it was discovered that he was a rapist or a child molester. A person who appeared weak and perhaps not so bright could be elevated to the upper echelons of the hierarchy if his crime was bank or security van robbery. The type of crime a person has committed i s the greatest determining factor of where the person finds himself positioned within the hierarchy.

Lowest on the list are sex offenders, or "nonces". Offences against children are the worst. Those who commit them are the most reviled. They live in constant fear of attack, of being scalded with sugared hot water or being slashed with home-made tools.

R apists come next, along with people who attack elderly folk. At the top of the hierarchy is the armed robber. He is the aristocrat of the community and the sex offenders are the serfs. Between them is a whole plethora of types of offender; from fraudster s and thieves, to those who have committed grievous bodily harm (violence rates highly). Murderers are relatively exempt from the pecking order unless they also happen to be sex offenders or armed robbers, in which case they will be at the bottom or the top respectively.

There is another category of offender: the mass killer, who holds a peculiar place in the prison hierarchy. Regular prisoners seem to become confused in the presence of this type of offender. I watched as Britain's answer to Jeffrey Dahmer regularly paraded a gang of acolytes around the exercise yard of a maximum security prison, meeting any glance in his direction with an intimidating, icy glare. There were often discussions among prisoners trying to define his status; those in awe of him would defend him; those in whom he inspired revulsion dismissed him as a "nonce". He was also the victim of a savage attack by one of his detractors, which left him with a thick, ragged scar running from his right ear to the corner of his mouth. This event immediately established the reputation of his attacker.

The 10 months that Frederick West spent on remand in Winson Green prison would have given him a good idea of what to expect had he been convicted. Perhaps the thought of spending the rest of his life in such a precarious environment was pertinent in the way his life ended.

The hierarchy offers offenders a means of self-justification - "I've done wrong, but I'm not as bad as him." Moreover, it is a reaction to the way society appears to condone this primitive idea of the way things should be. For the British public are approving towards those who mete out prison "justice'' to sex offenders and the like; Myra Hindley gets attacked and "it's no more than she deserves".

Voltaire said: "Fear follows crime, and is its consequence." Perhaps Fred West had more to fear than most, but it is worth considering that the thirst for vengeance leaves a bitter taste when slaked. Vengeance inspires potent and dangerous emotions, but is rarely sweet. Society's present pre-occupation with revenge reminds me of advice given to a fellow prisoner by Tony, another friend. The fellow was going to "do" someone who had "stitched him up". "Before you go to take revenge," said Tony, "dig your

own grave." Society would do well to take account of this sound advice when deciding what it wants from prisons and prisoners.

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