What a lot of people don’t realise is just how hard it can be to do the right thing in prison. Not because it is inherently difficult to try but because, when you do try, you are often pushed further and further to see if you’ll keep trying. This happened to me recently when I bit my tongue in an effort to keep my head down, but was almost immediately required to bite it again for my trouble.
I’d been on the phone to my mother when, without any warning, I was cut off. I tried to call back but it wouldn’t connect. I tried again but it still wouldn’t. So I tried another number but that wouldn’t connect either. I called one of the officers over and told what had happened and he said that my calls were being limited to twenty minutes a day. That wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d had any forewarning of it at all, but I hadn’t. So I explained that my mum wouldn’t have a clue why I’d been cut off, what had happened, or if I was ok, and would probably be quite worried, and I asked him if he’d call the relevant department and get them to let me call back for just ten seconds so I could tell her what it was and that I’m ok and would call back another day. He was really good about it. He understood my concern, showed a rare demonstration of empathy, and said he’d go to call them right away.
However, within ten seconds of him going off another officer who had no knowledge of what was going on told one of his colleagues to return me to my cell. His colleague explained that the first officer had just gone to sort something with the phone but the second officer said no, he wanted me in my cell. Now, this is one of those sliding doors moments for me. On one hand, I only wanted to wait to make a ten second call as the first officer had already said I could, and I was pretty sure that – if he’d listen – he’d realise that I wasn’t being awkward or unreasonable. But on the other hand, I was fairly sure that given how he’d spoken to his colleague, he wasn’t going to listen to reason. So I bit my tongue, I shook my head in disbelief of the chronic lack of communication, and I shrugged it off before heading back towards my cell.
However, then the officer called me back and walked over demanding to know why I’d shaken my head at him. I could see he’d taken it personally so I tried to explain, telling him that I honestly wasn’t shaking my head at him, but at the situation. Given that I was being both compliant and polite, his response shocked me; “I’ll tell you the situation,” He said. “You’re in prison. We don’t work around you, you work around us. Now get back to your cell.” And then he took two steps backwards. Sliding doors moment number two of the day. I wanted to bite back. I wanted to set him straight. I wanted to point out that I have consistently spoken to him and his staff with respect, wasn’t a control problem, and never caused them any issues whatsoever on the wing. I wanted to say that I’d only been trying to wait because the other officer had said that this was ok and that me shaking my head at their failure to talk to one another rather than starting an argument should be taken as a positive sign of my compliance, not as a license to be aggressive and disrespectful.
But he’d already shown both an unwillingness to listen even to other officers, let alone a prisoner, not to mention a high level of hostility. Added to which, I’d seen the two steps backwards tactic used against others in the past. In those cases it had been an invitation to either disappear or argue the point. In the incidents I’d seen the prisoners had (none aggressively) argued the point and had immediately been jumped on physically by the officers in the space vacated by the two steps backwards for not disappearing immediately. Again, I knew I was in the right, but I also knew that if I tried to argue that point I’d probably be put under unnecessary restraint, blamed for that myself, placed on adjudication, and kept in the segregation unit for some time. I took a second of silence, contemplating my next move, registering that there were two CCTV cameras behind me that I could use as evidence both in my defence on an adjudication and in a subsequent claim for assault if unnecessary force was used by them, but also remembering that last time I tried to use such evidence on an adjudication the governor denied its existence (despite a later letter from the Government Legal Department confirming that the footage had in fact been preserved and the Ministry of Justice was willing to disclose it to me – a fact that, though useful, doesn’t remove a wrongful guilty adjudication finding from my prison record). And then I thought of my mum and the fact that this was all about me worrying about her fretting because she wouldn’t know why I’d been cut off or if I was ok. If I couldn’t bite my tongue again I wouldn’t be able to call the following day either to explain and let her know I was ok and not to worry. So I did. I bit my tongue a second time. And this time it hurt my tongue to do it, but I knew it was better than the alternative. So I took two steps backwards myself, unable to resist at least shooting “the look” at him, and then turned and went back to my cell.
It doesn’t shock me that some people act like this. But what does still shock me is that they will do it even when you’re trying to do the right thing. No, the truth is that some of them do it ESPECIALLY when you are trying to do the right thing.