Deliberately inflicted powerlessness

By John Bowden , from insidetime issue July 2010

John Bowden is angered by what he considers to be disinformation and rhetoric intended to camouflage the reality of the Wakefield CSC

Deliberately inflicted powerlessness

Barbara Davis' powerful and very disturbing description of the ill-treatment of prisoners held in the Close Supervision Centre (CSC) at HMP Wakefield (June issue) will have undoubtedly been recognised by prisoners unfortunate enough to have directly experienced life in the segregation unit, or F Wing, at Wakefield, the physical location of the CSC. On the other hand, the response/defence of Danny McAllister, Director of High Security Prisons, to Barbara's claim will be seen by those same prisoners (including myself) for what it is; prison service disinformation and rhetoric employed to disguise and camouflage what is in reality a deliberate abuse of human rights.

In terms of trying to convey something of the true reality of the atmosphere and aura that exists within the segregation unit at Wakefield, it might be appropriate to ask the question what exactly it is about the place that has made it a favourable location for behavioural modification experiments in the past, as well somewhere traditionally used to contain and punish the system's most "disruptive" and "difficult" long-term prisoners? Contrary to Danny McAllister's disgracefully manufactured image of F Wing at Wakefield, it is indeed as Barbara Davis describes, a severely austere and oppressive place, purpose-built in physicality and regime to dispirit, subdue and intimidate even the most resilient and defiant of "troublemakers". Physically removed and separate from the main prison complex, F Wing exists and operates very much as a prison within a prison where clinical isolation and absolute powerlessness is deliberately inflicted in an attempt to break psychological resistance to the authority of the prison system and those who enforce it. Barbara’s description of the psychological damage and trauma caused by such treatment is obviously considered by those responsible to be an acceptable by-product of the process of moulding minds and personalities more amenable to the requirements of prison "good order and discipline".

In 1974 the segregation unit at Wakefield was chosen by the prison department as a location eminently suitable for the setting-up of what became an infamous "Special Control Unit" experiment following a wave of nationwide prison protests co-ordinated by the national prisoners' movement Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP). Prisoners transferred to the control unit at Wakefield were subjected to a regime of sensory deprivation and psychological cruelty, although without the official McAllister-esque smokescreen; those administering the control-unit regime were more explicit about its purpose – to convey the message to prison malcontents that it didn't pay to cause trouble. The control-unit at Wakefield would eventually be the subject of a high profile legal action instigated by the then National Council for Civil Liberties on behalf of prisoner Michael Williams. Public opinion and the political climate at the time were far less favourable to the blatant abuse of prisoners' human rights and the control unit experiment was officially discontinued, although within the re-named "F Wing" at Wakefield vestiges of it remained and prison staff there would continue to see their role in terms of breaking the spirit of defiance of those consigned to their personal care.

During the late 1970s and early 80s the segregation unit at Wakefield was used increasingly to house those prisoners considered too disruptive to be managed elsewhere in the prison system, and as their numbers increased at Wakefield the attitude of staff towards them became correspondingly more unyielding and hostile. In 1982 two "high security cells" were constructed on a subterranean level in the segregation unit for the long-term containment of prisoners considered the most dangerous and unmanageable in the system; they would become known as "The Cages" and "The Nutcrackers Suite". I personally experienced life in this facility in the winter of 1984.

There have been outbreaks of collective prisoner resistance to the regime in Wakefield's F Wing; in October of 1984 prisoners in "The Nutcrackers Suite" and segregation unit smashed cell fittings and staged a collective non-co-operation protest that resulted in a complete emptying of the unit and the transfer of its inhabitants elsewhere. A police investigation would subsequently take place into claims made by some prisoners that they were seriously assaulted by staff at Wakefield before being transferred. The protest would seriously undermine the confidence of both staff at Wakefield and prison service headquarters in their ability to again manage sizeable groups of "difficult" prisoners at Wakefield and for the next 20 years the accumulation of such prisoners in the prisons' segregation unit would not be allowed to happen. The setting up of the current "Exceptional Risk Unit" at Wakefield would suggest that it's now pretty much business as usual.

Historically there have been two polar-opposite approaches to the management of "difficult" prisoners within specialised units, both informed by radically different philosophies. The liberal model represented by the Barlinnie Special Unit in Scotland before its abandonment in the early 1990s took as its starting point a recognition of the basic humanity of the prisoner and his capacity for positive change in the right circumstances and conditions. Prisoners considered the most dangerous and resistant to reform, previously locked-down in the cage cells of Inverness jail and controlled by brute force, were now encouraged within the "Democratic Community" of the Barlinnie Unit to explore and develop their capacity for non-violent and creative expression and thereby contribute to a seismic change in penal culture within the unit. Although considered largely a success, the Barlinnie Unit eventually expired under pressure from a hostile right-wing press and reactionary elements in the Scottish Prison Service and Scottish Prison Officers association.

The "Exceptional Risk Unit" at Wakefield occupies the opposite end of the spectrum and is the total antithesis of everything the Barlinnie Special Unit came to represent. Whereas prisoners at Barlinnie were empowered to make positive choices about their lives, those confined at Wakefield are treated as "problems" to be straightened out on the anvil of discipline and punishment; trust, responsibility and empowerment have absolutely no place in the lexicon of those overseeing the treatment of prisoners at Wakefield. In such an environment, positive change in the prisoner is impossible, and as Barbara Davis says produces only learned helplessness, psychological regression and de-personalization. As far as Danny McAllister is concerned, however, the "CSC system is achieving its aims and proving to be an asset", which as a claim is depressingly indicative of an official mindset that considers the collateral damage of fractured minds a price worth paying in the interest of achieving total obedience and conformity.

John Bowden is currently resident at HMP Glenochil

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Comments about this article

30/6/2010 George Coombs -

I know John Bowden well and this is yet another excellent example of his writing of the harsh reality of institutionalised cruelty that he and others known to me have direct experience of.
What is being discussed here is a deliberate attempt to control and dehumanise prisoners whose only

9/10/2010 Destiny

Dear Mr John Bowden i believe you on your article above, as in 2009 i visited the CSC unit F Wing HMP Wakefield and it is disgusting, but the visits in there, the prison service seriously crossed the line when they did not consider the loved ones of the prisoners and deliberately inflicted detrimental ill effect upon us as visitors as well as highlighting the detrimental ill effect inflicted upon the prisoners, my loved one! This really distressed me.
With respect i am aware your solicitor represents almost all of the CSC clients in the CSC unit in F Wing HMP Wakefield so why for so many years has your solicitor done nothing to stop the inhumane,, cruel degrading indecent visiting facilities here, your solicitor knows his clients are entitled to visits as every other prisoner is and yet almost all of these csc prisoners in this exceptional high risk unit at Wakefield are your solicitors clients and they have have been denied visits because of the disgusting inhumane degrading conditions facilitated there, my loved one is in this unit and he told me the prisoners in this unit do not have visits because of the awful degrading inhumane conditions facilitated here, so again why has your solicitor done nothing about the visiting facilities in the CSC unit at HMP Wakefield to enable all his clients to receive visits in a humane decent dignified setting. When i visited F Wing csc in 2010 there was huge change, massive improvement in the csc visiting facilities there,the small hatch on the wall with bars across it was much much bigger so prisoner is can now sit for the vist as before improvement was made prisoner was forced to stand throughout the 2 hour visit, there absolutely is a large perspex window hatch door attached to the new largely expanded barred hatch on the wall so this perspex window will allow for closed visits and not as the director describes in his response to this paper, i saw the large perspex window door attached to the new very large barred hatch on the wall i saw it this year so Misinformation is as absolutely correct on your part and so shocking to me. It has newly decorated prison cell walls and new carpet fitted with new furniture but a much larger obstructing table screwed to the floor in front of the large barred hatch on the wall of visitors side, highlighting the fact this larger obstructing table by law should not be there. Mr Bowden this was NOT achieved by your solicitor fact!. Your solicitor knew the visiting conditions were inhumane and a clear breach of human rights, the cruelty inflicted on Prisoners and Visitors in the CSC unit in F wing for so many years was very bad and your solicitor knew this for so many years but Mr Bowden your solicitor did nothing, why has your solicitor allowed and condoned this wicked treatment and not brought this to the Court of Human Rights years ago, he did nothing to improve and allow humane visiting facilities at HMP WAKEFIELD CSC UNIT for prisoners and their loved ones including small children can you imagine the major shock and distress and humiliation i experienced as visitor but first and foremeost my loved one as prisoner in this unit suffering such horrendous ill treatment, what a a wicked act by the authorities to allow and condone such inhumane treatment to prisoners and to us as visitors, so can you please be kind enough to explain why your solicitor did nothing sooner ie 10 years ago when this csc exceptional high risk unit opened at Wakefield Prison, your solicitors specialist field is Prison law, Human Rights but he did nothing about the visits, had your solicitor done something about the visits much sooner back in the day when it first opened to help allow his clients their family visitors to have visits in acceptable HUMANE decent, dignified conditions i would not have been so badly effected by this terrible experience.
Mr Bowden i understand this is not your fault but your honest view as your solicitors client would be most appreciated.
I hope you receive my letter and you are able to respond on here.

Best wishes


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This article appears under the following categories...
Prison Conditions
Prison Writers

Summary of headlines for July 2010
‘Prisons are awash with drugs’
‘An open letter to Kenneth Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Justice’
Quality not quantity
Month by Month
A matter of life and death
Prison is whatever you want it to be …
The learning experience
Ben's Blog
Trials, timing and influence
Anonymity Until Trial
Reducing isolation … increasing socialisation
Current page: Deliberately inflicted powerlessness
“They know who you are, where you are, what you are doing and who you are doing it with!”
Flawed sentences
Does prison fail inmates with mental illness?
Civil Recovery Orders

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