Close Prisoners All

TONY PARKER, born in Manchester, 1923, is the author of The Courage of his Convictions (with Robert Allerton) and of The Unknown Citizen, two remarkable studies of delinquent personalities.

PENTONVILLE: A Sociological Study of an English Prison. Terence and Pauline Morris, assisted by Barbara Barer. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 50/-).

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

We are all conceived in close Prison; in our Mothers wombes, we are close Prisoners all; when we are borne, we are borne but to the liberty of the house; Prisoners still, though within larger walls; and then all our life is but a going out to the place of Execution, to death. Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the cart, between Newgate, and Tyborne? between the Prison, and the place of Execution, does any man sleep? And we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never throughly awake.

JOHN DONNE WAS WRITING — OR RATHER SAYING IT, since it is from one of his sermons — in 1619. Three hundred and forty-five years later imprisoned men may read of how they imprison their fellow prisoners and keep them captive for arbitrary periods, vaguely hoping that this will deter them and others, or reform them, or punish them, or something … they do not ask themselves, and are not frequently enough asked by others, exactly what they have in mind.

Dr. Terence Morris is a lecturer in sociology at the London School of Economics, and his wife Pauline a psychiatric social worker presently working for P.E.P. They persuaded the Prison Commission and the Home Office to allow them to go into Pentonville for a period of about eighteen months, and they researched primarily by being there, by listening and looking and feeling and thinking; and behind their amiable and assiduously anonymous exteriors they hid their sharp-steel brains and their humane hearts — usually successfully, but not always, for there were times … The most crucial of all was when the work was done, as one of the opening sentences reveals: "The Official Secrets Acts remain in force, and in consequence the draft of this book had to undergo some modification." They continue: "It must be acknowledged, however, that the Prison Department of the Home Office has gone far in allowing us to publish material which indicates that Pentonville is by no means a 'model' prison. Such a policy is, we think, an optimistic sign."

I think they are right. Many things are missing which ought to have been included, and which would have been if the Morrises had had their way. But insistence would have meant no book; and even as far as it goes, it is shattering enough. A prison visitor at Pentonville said to me after he'd read it "I've been going into that place every Tuesday night for the past four years — and you know, up to now I've been doing it with my eyes shut."

Before this book there was nothing comparable in this country to the two American works, Gresham Sykes' The Society of Captives and Donald Clemmer's The Prison Community. Pentonville is a long-overdue start on the study of what we are doing.

"The clue to understanding many of the social processes operative in Pentonville lies in the recognition of the fact that the prison is a totalitarian society in microcosm which derives its ultimate authority from the world outside." The prison has a predominantly recidivist population, and it is this type of offender who is the problem — to judges, to penologists and criminologists, and to us all. If the authors had taken as their subject a prison for first offenders that choice in itself would have been an avoidance of what really matters. Whether we are floggers-and-hangers or humanitarians, psychiatrists or political theorists, we none of us have any answer at all yet to the problem of the criminal who persists reactively to everything. The simple fact is that we know nothing that even seems relevant, let alone effective.

And if there is one word in this book which suggests any comfort in the contemplation of the matter, then I have missed it. There is nothing anywhere here but a pitiless indictment of our pitiful stupidity.

"The most immediately striking feature about the Pentonville population is the presence of so many chronically socially inadequate individuals … The prison contains a significant proportion of men who, without any markedly dangerous criminal propensities, are social nuisances who have deteriorated to a state of social anomie. It also contains a much larger number of men for whom crime is a mode of subsistence and imprisonment an occupational risk. In one sense these men are failures too, in terms of their own criteria of success. Finally there are those whose personality problems and / or mental ill-health is such that they are constantly involved in criminal activities."

There is perhaps already too much of this categorising of human beings as criminal types, this listing of the guilty as social inadequates or disordered personalities; and non-criminals do not have to suffer it. Not much can be learnt about prisoners here that is not already known. But what is much more important, and was to the authors obviously much more interesting too, is the assessment of the staff.

Of necessity the Governor remains an unconsidered name, and so too does the Chaplain. Deputy and Assistant Governor, Welfare Officers, visiting parsons, prison visitors — they all escape detailed consideration, no doubt to their relief. The Medical Officers, however, are not so lucky, and Chapter IX, " The Health of The Prison", is surely as damning as anything could be under the circumstances. "The Medical Officer … for the most part operated in virtual isolation … like the mediaeval prelate, he is subject to the temporal authority of the Governor in only a limited sense; his authority derives from elsewhere."

If the words of the Hippocratic oath mean anything, he should be the most humane and enlightened man in the prison. And is he? "One of the most striking characteristics of a prison like Pentonville is its ideological inertia. Nowhere is this clearer than in the medical sphere where concepts of health and treatment which were current twenty-five or thirty years ago remain guiding principles today … Where mental health is concerned, mankind is divided into the 'sane' and 'intellectually normal' on the one hand, and the 'insane' and 'mentally defective' on the other. Epileptics are regarded as essentially a problem for the physician, 'neurosis' is a concept of doubtful relevance, and the notions of 'character disorder', 'personality problem' or 'psychopathy', are quite without meaning in the context of the prison … (which) adheres rigidly to the view that there are only 'mad' or 'bad' prisoners. Even the 'mad' are sometimes seen as 'bad' if their behaviour is particularly heinous, and the extension of the sick role to them is sometimes seen as an unfortunate necessity. Pentonville cannot adequately handle the mentally abnormal, and attempts to control behaviour problems by increasing repression." A prisoner who had been on report five times in a few months for creating disturbance was punished for smashing up his cell with 28 days loss of remission, 28 days loss of privileges, 9 days No.1 diet (bread and water), 9 days close confinement, 28 days stoppage of earnings, and 28 days non-associated labour. "From the mass of data gathered by the research, the indications are that as far as disturbed offenders are concerned, incarceration in Pentonville pushes the chances of rehabilitation further and further into the realms of pious optimism." The prison has no psychiatrist and no psychologist, and makes no use of consultants.

The assessments of the lower echelons are in one way more restrained because they are, after all, the lower; and in another more critical because there can be more anonymity. It is they indeed who are the real prisoners in and of Pentonville. At the beginning of the research, Pauline Morris wandered about the prison day after day on her own among the "dangerous" population. Some of the warders arranged to have her protectively shadowed. When no one tried to rape or murder her (fancy!), they began to say the presence of a woman was upsetting the prisoners by making them fight down their desires; when increasingly the inmates began taking their problems to her, the screws retreated into sullen and at times open hostility and sneers.

Out of 82 prison officers invited for interview, 30 refused to co-operate — most of them in the group who had been in the service for between 10 and 16 years. The conclusion from this can only be that the sample from whom information was taken were therefore the more flexibly-minded of the staff. so what the others were like almost defies imagining.

"The candidate for the prison service requires no formal qualifications, and basically needs only to be physically fit, literate, of a very moderate educational standard, and of 'good character'. He must have satisfactory employment references and/or a record of good conduct in the forces." They were asked among many other things how the job differed from what they had expected on entering it, and the majority said that discipline for prisoners was less strict than they had expected it to be. The basic theme in nearly all replies was the same. "Reform is a waste of time. No one can be reformed by Pentonville. Pentonville men are not worth reforming."

There are a few minor criticisms, I feel. Figures are given for prisoners' wages, but not for the staff; as these figures are generally available, I cannot see why they should have been omitted. Consideration of officers' "Reasons for Joining the Prison Service" confines itself to given reasons, which hardly justifies the description of this as a "probe". And in the questioning of the staff, no one was apparently asked the most revealing question "How do you define an ideal prisoner?"

But these are small things, and allowance must be made for nausea and boredom. "It was impressive during individual staff interviews how each officer thought that not only was his method of maintaining order the best, but that however much other officers might be disliked, prisoners certainly liked him."

One sentence exactly captures the attitude of these imprisoned staff. To them, as they receive each new prisoner at the end of the day from the sentencing courts, "Essentially, he is a replacement of a man who has gone out that morning."

There is nothing exciting, nothing glamorous, about the recidivist and our way of facing him. Occasionally in the depressing dark there is a faint gleam of someone striking a match and trying to see. Sometimes the anxious puffs of breath that try to blow it out come from the authorities, sometimes they come from those who are being studied; and sadly sometimes they come from others who are themselves engaged in trying to research the same gloom. Terence and Pauline Morris experienced it in Pentonville while they were making their study, and no doubt now it is finished and published they will be blown at from several different directions. The hierarchy will feel they are letting the side down, the rebels will feel they have not gone far enough. But they have done this and it is an important thing; it is good that they should have done it, and done it as they have done, well. It is a beginning, that no one else has yet made, and the only critics should be those who can point to something they have done themselves better. Pentonville is an ignoble place, and to say that the book monumentalises its ignobility is its reason and its praise.