My staff and I did a lot to try to make the library feel un-prison-like (and in some ways, un-library-like). We painted the walls a bright blue. We played loud music, we shouted across the room. Once we had a contest with giant rubber bands, trying to knock books off the shelves. We did this as much for ourselves as for the prisoners, if not more so. When I say the prison could be a depressing place to work, most people nod their heads like they know what I mean. They don’t, but it doesn’t matter. But when I say it was also a lot of fun, they assume there’s something off about me. My anecdotes sometimes come off as unprofessional, but those antics were part of coping with the environment, just like gallows humor, and keeping your back to the wall.
A lot of my responsibilities took me outside the library and around the rest of the jail. I enjoyed this because it gave me a chance to remind the rest of the prison that there was a library, and me a chance to find out what was happening in other areas. I sat on several committees with members of the senior management team. The management structure of a prison is complicated, and I’m not going to waste words here with a detailed explanation. Simply put, the head of the prison is the Number One Governor. He (or she) is responsible for everything, if there was an escape, or a murder he would lose his job. Under the Number One is the Dep(uty), and then there are governors (managers) of each area – Security, Operations, Health & Safety, Diversity, Learning & Skills etc. All rules and policies put in place by the senior management team are implemented by the uniformed staff – the Officers and Senior Officers, and the civilians contracted in like me, the education staff and the nurses in the healthcare department. That’s as brief as I can describe it.
In a prison, the biggest gap in communication is between the SMT and the officers. The officers and the prisoners are closer. Some of the prisoners and staff had been living and working together since the jail opened in 1992. For the most part, they had good relationships. You’ll find the odd prison officer who hates the prisoners and treats them that way, and vice versa – there are prisoners who do not communicate with staff. That relationship, between prisoners and staff, is complicated and dangerous. Prisoners, understand why they are there and why the staff are there. Most of the inmates are murderers, arsonists, gang members, drug addicts and mentally ill. Keeping that environment calm and safe for everyone involved is the biggest part of everyone’s job. Over time, years I mean, one develops what is known as jail craft, the ability to assess a person or a situation, evaluate risk, negotiate and if necessary, use force. My four years was nothing – especially for a civilian; a well-run prison trusts the experience of staff to uphold its primary duty which is to protect the public.
In the time I was there, we had three Number One Governors, and four Deps. The rest of the SMT shuffled responsibilities every few months at the whim of the Number One in an effort to meet whatever performance targets or audit requirements had been set by the Ministry of Justice. Shortly after I left, the third Number One resigned under allegations of serious professional misconduct involving swapping difficult prisoners with other jails during inspections to improve scores. One of those difficult prisoners committed suicide.
Prisons are an unfortunate, but practical neccessity of civilization. But the idea that anyone is really protected or helped in a prison is an illusion, an exercise in futility.
*This post was originally published at The Daily Theme on January 21, 2011