Lost to the System

Following on from my last post, often people will re-offend and return to prison intentionally because of that old cliché; institutionalisation. It’s not fully understood by most people, so it tends to get the eyes rolling when it is blamed for some breaking the law again. But I’ve seen it first hand.

A few years back I had a conversation with one prisoner which will always stay with me. He was from Birmingham and had recently returned to prison for what must have been his eleventeenth time. He took full responsibility for what he had done, and didn’t blame the system at all. But he openly admitted that he couldn’t cope on the outside and was institutionalised. He had committed his most recent crime and immediately handed himself in because he wanted to come home. He wanted to come back to prison.

I asked him what he found so hard to cope with and he said that, after being released, he just hadn’t had anything to aim for. He had no direction. No drive. Up until then he had been working towards freedom. Now what did he have to aim for? He was alright at first, but then he went shopping. He told me that he went to the Bullring shopping centre, was walking along completely as normal, and then realised that he was surrounded by literally hundreds of people. He froze. He stopped breathing. He didn’t know where to look. Then he started hyperventilating. He thought he was dying. He staggered over to one side. And then he went into a full panic attack and just sat and cried. He told me that, when he got himself together, he knew. This wasn’t his world any more. He had to return to prison.

And there are others too. Some of the people I’ve known have even said to me that they don’t even want to get released at all. This is their life now. They’re used to it. Releasing them would be like putting them in prison. But why can being released have such a negative psychological effect on people?

One of the reasons that some prisoners say that they found their first days in custody to be the hardest is because they simply aren’t used to being around people who they feel that they need to watch their back with. It is depressing to think that simple prison problems can and do become exaggerated and spiral out of control, but its a fact that prisoners quickly accept and get used to in order to cope with their sentences. You try to avoid any unnecessary aggravation, but you know that it can come at any time and from any direction. So you watch your back. You learn to clock who is in the room within the first second of entering it. You try not to sit with your back exposed. You glance into doorways as you walk past them. Everything you do and everywhere you go, you are vigilant. Within days of being locked up, most prisoners will be doing these things subconsciously, but we all do them. Even if we don’t realise it.

When prisoners are released, most will switch from ‘Jail Mode’ to ‘Road Mode’. But not all. Some will stay in Jail Mode. They will continue to subconsciously watch their backs. It could be because they have done a long sentence, or even just because their psychological vigilance has become so strongly rooted. But the result is that they treat people on the outside with the same suspicion that they treated people in prison.

They aren’t used to cars or other fast moving objects. They’re hard to keep your eyes on. They get jumpy around busy roads. They are used to having a strong routine that they can fall back on, including returning to a safe environment at the same time every night – locked on their own in their cell. On the outside they don’t have that. They feel lost. They wander aimlessly. They become paranoid. They find it hard to sleep. And they aren’t used to having so many people around. In prison they had no more than twenty or thirty people around them at a time, most of which were known to them. On the outside, standing in the middle of a crowded shopping centre, they are surrounded by hundreds of people that they have never seen before, all moving around them quickly, and from every direction. Subconsciously they feel compelled to keep their backs to a wall, but most of the walls are windows. They have no way to feel safe. They feel panicked, attacked, unable to be vigilant, unable to defend themselves, unable to operate, unable to cope.

These things happen to relatively few prisoners. But it does happen to some. And if it happens to any, then it’s a problem. It’s a problem that current pre-release courses and support packs fail to address, let alone solve. And it is a problem that results in people intentionally re- offending so that they can return to prison. It is a problem that creates victims on both sides.

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