June 11, 2020

From Behind the Door...

Michael Campbell-Brown
Deprofundis Ltd.

When I went to jail, I didn’t know what to expect. We’ve all seen Midnight Express (and Porridge for that matter). What was in store for me? I felt alone, petrified and above all else scared out of my wits. I was welcomed onto a wing and immediately locked up for the night. Because my family lived in Spain and the officer’s PIN didn’t allow him to dial internationally, I had no chance to talk to the one person who could calm me down; my wife. Indeed, it would be 3 long days before I could talk to her. The next morning, I was opened up with the scream “INDUCTION!!!!!” My induction into custody lasted about 30 minutes and all I had to do was to fill out some forms. I still didn’t know how to contact my family, how to see my solicitor. Heck, I dint even know when I was allowed to take a shower!

I am lucky; I left prison a better man than when I entered. I decided that I wanted to pay back to the very service that saved me. I created a pseudonym on social media that gave clues to my Scots background: I write under the name of The Tartan Con. I started writing about what I thought the prison service could do differently; to perhaps understand the machinations of the mind of a former prisoner. I wanted people to understand that a former prisoner could add benefit in shaping how we deal with those remanded to the custody of society’s jails. 

Those Early Days in Custody are so very nerve wracking for an individual. We need to remember that some of the people who are arriving at the front gate have never been to prison before. Remember the nervousness you felt when you went to a new school or started a new job? Good! Then multiply that anxiousness by a thousand. Now take into consideration that the person in front of you isn’t going home to their loved ones that night or possibly for many more nights.

Look, I am not saying that we need to cover the new arrival with cotton wool and pretend that nothing is wrong. Something is!! What we need to do is to treat the person with decency. We need to understand that the person in front of us, is grieving. They are grieving for their lost life, their lost family. We talk a lot about re-settlement, don’t we? We don’t talk about settlement. This is where I wanted to add my experience.

For me the Early Days in Custody are the most important of a prisoner’s journey whilst incarcerated. I say, deal with them decently and with respect as a fellow human being, then you will have taken the first step to breaking down that barrier that exists between prison officer and prisoner.

However, Early Days in Custody shouldn’t just be looked at during the first week they are on the induction program. I believe that Early Days in Custody is just that. The EARLY DAYS. This means for the first few weeks not days. In 2019 we had 84 Self-inflicted deaths in custody of which almost 45% were in the first 6 months of being detained (Self-Inflicted Deaths in Custody). Furthermore, in 2018, 55,615 incidents of self-harm took place throughout the entire estate. Of those, 61.7% happened within the first 6 months (Self Harm Statistics to 2019). If nothing else, these sobering statistics show that we need to place more emphasis on the entire early days in custody of a prisoner not just the first 24 hours!

I wanted to help staff understand from “the other side of the door.” You see being a former prisoner I have the experience that those who carry cell keys can never have. I know how it feels to be a deer stuck in the headlights, I know what it is like to be spoken at and not hear a word. I know what it is like to have the fear of the unknown.

A few years ago, I did what I thought I never would, I walked into a prison with a smile on my face. Now perhaps that smile might have been because I knew that I would be leaving again the same day and I was entering without being in handcuffs!  I think it was more than that!  I think it was because I knew that I was to be welcomed by a Governor as someone who could help him, and his staff understand things a little better.

I have yet to cross the threshold of a prison and not been welcomed by the staff. I have always been treated as an equal. People knew and indeed do know about my past, but they have never judged me for it. Rather they have taken me into their fold as someone from whom they can learn. Just as I have always learnt from them. To a man and woman, they have taken the time to explain the reasons why they carry out certain instructions and they have listened to me explain that perhaps if they understood the thoughts of the prisoner, they would achieve a better result.

Fortunately for me (some would say unfortunately for the governing governor!), I have had my work inspected by HMIP fairly regularly over the years. Indeed, the program that I have implemented in numerous jails has been mentioned as good practice by the inspectorate (HMP Dovegate). A few other reports mentioning the program can be found here ( Oakwood, Lowdham, RyeHill)

Another avenue I really enjoy is when I am asked to talk to the new prison officers during their training programs. Let me give you just two of the things I tell them:

  1. If I am locked up in my cell and you are walking the landings; don’t jangle your keys. Why? Because I am convinced that you are coming to open me up for some reason.
  2. If you are on your lunch break and I am “behind my door” don’t stand outside my cell and have a natter with your colleague. Why? Because my ear will be sore form pressing it against the door listening to you, as I am convinced you will be talking about me!

Now some of you, I am sure, are thinking “Well he must be guilty of something if he is thinking like that!". I will grant you that occasionally that might be true, but do you understand that as prisoners and former prisoners we live with constant paranoia?  We just always assume something bad is going to happen. I live with it today. Let me give you a for instance; a few months ago (pre-covid) I was sitting in a Starbucks (other overpriced coffee shops are available!). It was located on the second floor of a bookshop. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a police car stopping outside the store. As four burly officers got out of the car, my mouth started to go dry. As they climbed the stairs, the palms got a bit sweaty. The all got to the top of the stairs and looked around, I almost jumped out of my seat to shout, “I am over here” The result? They bought their coffees, went back outside and drove away. Now I hadn’t done anything wrong and there was no reason for them to be looking for me, but I just assumed. It’s like I wear a sign on my chest that says “FORMER PRISONER”

The sad fact of the matter is that I will wear that badge for the rest of my life. I wonder if you think that’s fair. Have I not paid my debt to society? Served my time? Then why I am labelled as something? Intriguing question, don’t you think? It’s more of how society treats a former prisoner. I will end this with a 'thank you'. Thank you to all HMPPS staff who have welcomed my input, my ramblings on social media, my passion to ensure that we deal with all those we come into contact with whether they be staff, serving prisoner or former prisoner with decency. After all that’s what makes a good society isn’t it? Decency.

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