I was just reading a piece in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine about an NHS whistle-blower and it set me thinking. Why do we see so many whistle-blowers from a wide range of jobs and backgrounds but so very few whistle-blowers in the prison service?
It can only really be due to one of five explanations. Firstly, it could be that nothing happens in the prison service to blow the whistle about. Well, I think that most of us know that that isn’t true. Prison staff are frequently sacked for some kind of wrong doing or another, but rarely as a result of whistle-blowing.
The second possibility is that things do go on within the prison service which shouldn’t, but no-one cares enough to blow the whistle about it. It could well be the case that many people don’t care, but I find it very hard to believe that absolutely no-one cares. I know of plenty of members of staff who genuinely seem to care both about the job and also about the people they are supposed to be helping along the road to rehabilitation.
The third option is that things go on, and people do care, but they are too scared of the potentially negative repercussions that might come from blowing the whistle. This I find a little more believable, since I have personally witnessed a campaign of bullying against one officer simply because she refused to join in with the vindictiveness of a small group of her colleagues. This only ended when she quit the service altogether.
Fourthly, it is possible that there are some people who blow the whistle, but the prison service is so preoccupied with self preservation that these things are simply swept under the carpet and covered up. Again, I have seen examples of this myself. At Frankland a guy on my wing was murdered in his cell by two other prisoners. His cell was just a few metres from the officers’ station. His screams could be heard from the landing. But the screws weren’t on the landing at all. They were all sitting in the corner office watching England play Scotland in the rugby world cup. But when the Prisons Ombudsman investigated the death (as they do with all deaths in custody) this was first hidden, then denied, and finally excuses were made for it, including the claim that “the prison is dangerously understaffed”. Well, yes. It would be understaffed if your officers are all prioritising television over prisoner safety.
Finally, there is one more possibility. That the whistle is blown, and sometimes it is taken seriously, but that the mainstream media have so little concern for the lives and rights of prisoners that such stories are barely reported upon.
Personally I think it is a combination of these. There are plenty of things which prison staff could blow the whistle on, but most of them don’t care enough to do so and those that do are often scared of what will happen when they do. Of the few that are left standing, and who actually do blow the whistle, most are hounded out of the job as part of a cover up, leaving just a handful of cases where the prison service actually conducts a proper investigation. Some of these will be completely ignored by the media (such as the massive under-reporting of the recent court ruling that direct action taken by prisoners at HMP Highdown was both legitimate and understandable), but only one or two cases will ever get the full attention they deserve.
My point here is simple. When you do see a story about how bad it sometimes is in prisons, don’t believe the line that it is rare or that it is not so serious. It is far worse than is being made out, and it happens far more often. It’s just near impossible for such things ever to come to light.