Here at Grendon there are no less than five different types of meeting that we are required to attend on a weekly basis, and that’s just on the assessment wing. I hear that when my assessment is complete and I move to a therapy wing there will be even more. One of these meetings is called a ‘minute meeting’ and this raised an interesting question for me: When is grassing, not grassing?
Grendon operates on the principle that nothing is confidential. Everything that is said or done here is open to be spoken about in group therapy.
In every other jail I have been in (even at Wakefield — a prison notorious for the number of ‘grasses’ it holds) the rules of the game have been clear: You mind your own business and you never, ever tell the screws what someone is up to. At least, that is the official party line. It is a little known fact that the biggest grasses in most jails are the heavies, the big dogs, the ones in control, those with the drugs and the phones and influence. Why is that? Well, because they are the ones with competition and vendettas who want to keep hold of the control they have built up. You’ll rarely if ever see them talking to officers, but you can be sure that most of them have at some point put an anonymous note in the complaints box revealing where one of their competitors hides their stash or paid one of the druggies to do the snitching on their behalf.
As for myself, I have no shame in admitting that I have ‘grassed’ twice in the course of the last 17 years. The first time was when I was approaching my 18th birthday. I was in a juvenile prison when an officer approached me and told me that he wanted to know what a certain other prisoner was up to on the wing, what he was selling, who was buying, and anything else that might be of interest. I told him that I didn’t want to get involved and he replied that, if I didn’t grass for him, he’d have me on basic (the lowest privilege level in prison) over the Christmas period. I thought about it long and hard and then I decided that I would grass. So I went to one of the teachers and asked her to set up a meeting between her, myself, and the wing senior officer, which she did. I then grassed on the officer who was blackmailing me. The senior officer assured me that it would be investigated and sent me on my way. However, I never heard anything else about any investigation and, two weeks later, the officer who blackmailed me followed through on his promise. I was on basic regime for Christmas.
The most recent time was just a couple of years ago at Wakefield. A deeply disturbed prisoner who had been moved to Wakefield after taking a female member of staff hostage at another jail approached me and asked me for legal advice (knowing that I’m fairly well versed in Prison Service Instructions etc.). He then proceeded to ask me the most repulsive question I have ever been asked in my life:
“How much can I get away with doing to one of the women screws without getting shipped out?” he asked.
I was shocked, but I suppressed the rage. I knew that if I laid into him it would be me that paid the price and that if I let him know how angry I felt he would simply run and hide. Far better, I thought, to keep him onside. So I told him I wasn’t sure but I would think about it and let him know. Hopefully, if he was planning to act on what he was considering, he might share that information with me first, giving me the opportunity to prevent anything happening. However, I wasn’t satisfied at that so I immediately made a number of trusted prisoners on the wing aware of what he had said and asked them to keep their eyes out. Whenever there was a lone female officer on the landing, there was always someone watching his movements, just in case. But even that wasn’t enough. I woke up a couple of days later and I couldn’t shake the thought that if he ever slipped watch and attacked someone, I would never forgive myself. So I grassed. I went to the wing senior officer and I told him what had been said. I don’t much care that it isn’t the done thing. I have no doubt that it was the right thing.
Grendon is different. At Grendon even the officers discourage prisoners from covertly sharing information with staff.
That isn’t because they don’t want the information. It is because they operate an entirely different process. In most prisons information is gathered to prevent indiscipline or to punish it. At Grendon I am sure that these things are priorities too, but it is far more important to get to the bottom of the reasons for the indiscipline, and to deal with those. As such, prisoners are encouraged to submit minutes to the minute meeting. These meetings are led by two prisoners who act as chair and vice chair. To submit a minute you simply approach the vice chair and give him your name, the name of the person the minute is towards, and a one sentence brief of what the minute concerns.
Minutes are raised in order at the meetings and, when your minute comes around the vice chair will read out the summary you’ve given and then it is your turn to speak about what the issue is and how you feel about it. Anyone else involved then has the chance to speak about it too and finally it is opened up to the room for anyone else to ask questions about it.
Since being at Grendon I have seen big minutes (such as somebody threatening someone) and small minutes (like somebody taking too long in the toilet). I have also seen prisoners minuting other prisoners, prisoners minuting staff members, prisoners minuting the community as a whole, and even prisoners minuting themselves. The point is, you can minute anyone for anything and there is actually no such thing as big minutes and small minutes, the important thing is that you can be open about how you feel about the issue, recognise the emotions, and challenge both yourself and others in a helpful and constructive way. But is this grassing?
In most jails the prisoners would say yes. Of course it is. But this view ignores the well-established exceptions to the no-grassing rule. Almost all prisoners would agree that, if a friend tells you that he’s going to kill himself, you have every right to tell the officers that he needs support. This is not grassing; it is in their interests. Similarly, many prisoners would agree that if you have a fight with someone and that person tells you he’s going to take the rap, it isn’t grassing to go along with whatever he says.
Grendon is pretty rare in that it is one of the only prisons you can only be sent to if you applied to come here yourself. No one can force you here against your will. Moreover, when we do apply to come here we do so knowing that we have to be completely open about our negative behaviours in order to challenge them and that we must also accept such challenges. By submitting our applications we are making a declaration that, as with the previous examples, it is both in our own interests and our wishes to be minuted when we breach boundaries.
Despite the culture of open challenge here, I nevertheless find it difficult to expose people so publicly.
I do see the point in it, but asking me to ‘grass’ is asking me to break a 17 year habitual resistance to the idea. That is never going to be easy. So I’m easing into it. At the moment I am taking the view that, if something happens that I see as minute worthy, I will challenge the person themselves on a one to one basis first. Only if I am still holding feelings about it after this will I then minute it, and if I do, I will tell them first. Strictly speaking, I don’t think this is exactly what is expected, but the most important thing is that everyone has the opportunity to both voice their feelings about incidents that arise and to challenge their own behaviour in relation to them. I’ll get into the swing of it eventually. This is just the first step.