Historical Bore or Prison Lesson?

On Tuesday 15th March, our first year Law students went on an educational trip to Shrewsbury Prison. Duncan Carson, a Law student, has written about the experience

Prisons. We’ve all seen them on the telly. From Ronnie Barker’s prisoners’ view in “Porridge,” (incidentally, the only ever sit-com with no opening music) to C4’s more recent officers’ view in “Screw.” Well now you can go and walk on the wing without committing a crime. HMP Shrewsbury has been transformed and is open to the public for visitors. It’s cold, forbidding, authentic, cold, grim, unpleasant and cold. Yes, it really is that cold, on a chilly March morning, it was a relief to step outside into the wind for some warmth. It has cells made-up to show how they have changed since the 50’s – one which represents riot conditions – and they will lock you in one until you answer some riddles to “escape.” You can even visit the long disused execution room.

A cell set up to represent riot confiditions

It’s all very real and if you visit and walk around yourself, it can be very dull.

But…

Take the tour with real ex-prison officers Graham and Mick and it all comes to life. Not in a television melodrama way, but through the eyes of those who have lived it. Graham is a natural performer who will describe what happens upon arrival, where “normal” inmates and “protected” prisoners (sex offenders, convicted policemen and the odd lawyer etc) are segregated. He’ll tell you about the swift and violent retribution for not repaying a prison debt, and he’ll tell you about his  regret of watching inmates kick their drug addiction only to see them return three months after release, because they have nowhere to go expect back to the same bad crowds and same bad habits that got them banged up in the first place. Mick loves to tell a “war story.” Some are amusingly disgusting involving slop out buckets and some make you despair as inmates come to harm because of managerial penny-pinching and corner-cutting in the name of efficiency.

Throughout the tour, these guys, with decades of experience, will tell you how it really was in HMP Shrewsbury; and you can feel their pride in what they felt was a good prison, where officers could build relationships with the men and they felt they could do something to help make sure that, at least some of them, never returned. The feeling that they disapprove of newer, bigger, “more efficient” prisons is palpable and you can tell they believe a 5% budget saving today means a 10% increase in returning customers.

These are not bleeding heart liberals, but professionals who have figured out that dehumanising treatment and a “lock ‘em up and forget ‘em” attitude does not magically transform criminals into well rounded, law-abiding members of society. They talk with excitement about “listeners;” prisoner volunteers who sit and talk with suicide risk inmates and then advise the officers how often they need to be checked on. They proudly mention that many prisoners said HMP Shrewsbury had the best food in the country. They state that tobacco never drove anyone to violence (except as prison currency), but the ban on smoking created a gap which hard drugs filled as inmates look for something to de-stress. This led to an escalation of danger on the wings. They appreciate prison is a punishment, but without rehabilitation there is little point in release dates.

So please, go to Shrewsbury Prison. Take the tour and see if you can honestly say you came away without having at least a more nuanced approach to crime and punishment.

Oh, and wrap up warm. It’s really cold

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