Years ago when work was the focus and for ten other reasons I had no life, I worked in a men’s prison. Committing a crime was possibly the quickest way of getting in because going through the multi level gates was arduous and occasionally damn demeaning. The alarms controlled your thoughts 24 hours a day from waking (don’t wear an underwire bra) to the very essence of people you spent your time with socially. The front gate was sometimes where officers ended up for their sins and where others attempted and sometimes succeeded in exerting what was left of their career power. Few jokes were shared in the room of x-rays, beeps, sign-ins, drug rota testing, buttons, doors opening and slammed shut. 250 metres, press another button and wait…….
Institutionalisation and its impact on behaviour has always fascinated me. What makes a person become so identifiably moulded into an environment that at its most basic level has taken control of attitudes, social construct and personal identification? I had already worked in the “system” for a few years before being drafted into the new prison for six months. Almost all the trainees were new. They had given up their past employment to become prison officers. A lot never made it through the 85% pass mark required in the twice weekly exams but those that did sprouted justice, humaneness, safety, care, equality and all the other theoretical requirements that would get them to the finish line. They made friendships and alliances which would become important to their survival, quite literally.
Into the mix of these trained officers came a uniform and 600 males prisoners. It was no longer about exerting ones testosterone among peers. The point where theory and philosophy became the tool of aspiring senior management and humaness is defined by the rest on a day to day basis. The sheep from the goats. Them and us. Unions. Inappropriate friendships. Collusion, anger, threats and a hundred other most basic human reactions in an inhuman world.
For the prisoner it’s about survival, counting days, months or years, choosing the right contacts, jumping through hoops (or not) and making a decision about whether to return.
For the officers it’s…………………………….what?