As the Tories unveil plans to create a “super prison”, Paddy Besiris spoke to Siân Ruddick about the reality of life behind bars–and how prisoners can fight back
'The system is designed to build frustration. The screws manipulate that and contribute to it by treating people differently for no reason. They can make your life hell if they want to.'
That’s the experience of Paddy Besiris, who was just 21 when he was imprisoned following riots in Stokes Croft, Bristol, in 2011. He was charged with violent disorder and sentenced to 14 months.
Paddy was taken to Bristol prison. “I was locked up for 22 to 23 hours a day,” he said. “We were given meals in the cells with an hour a day for exercise.
“It was mainly young poor kids there. People were in for all sorts—drugs, guns, violence, sexual assault—a real mixed bag.
“Everything about prison is horrible. Even on the bus that transfers prisoners from one place to another there aren’t proper seats. You sit on a ledge that is angled forwards so you constantly slip off—with your head and knees on a wall in front of you. It’s like a stress position.”
Section 2 of rule 47 of the Prison Rules states, “No officer shall act deliberately in a manner calculated to provoke a prisoner.”
But that wasn’t Paddy’s experience.
“When I first arrived I asked the guard if the number outside my cell was mine or if it would change,” he said.
“The guard told me, ‘That number is yours for life’. They do it to see who they can break, who they can get to inform.”
Guards would also lie to prisoners to try and create antagonisms between them.
“They threw two extra lunch packs into our cell one day,” said Paddy. “We were glad of the extra food. But later on the screw came back screaming saying the people next door hadn’t eaten because of us.
“We were terrified and thought we were going to get our heads kicked in. The next day I went to the next cell to apologise—they knew nothing about it, they’d had dinner. The screw had just done it to scare us.”
Paddy said that guards had many ways of creating tension among prisoners in order to keep control.
“There are different regimes throughout the prison,” he said “G wing was known to have some of the most hours in cells. People know, or think, they’re being treated worse or better than others. That’s key to understanding the system.”
Guards use rewards and punishments as a way of trying to discipline prisoners. This is another way of creating division.
“There are three tiers of behaviour, and you’re automatically put on standard,” Paddy said. “That means you have a one hour visit every 14 days and about £30 to spend at canteen.
“Canteen is run by a private company—you can buy tobacco, phone cards, chocolate from there.”
Guards then regrade prisoners who misbehave down to a “basic” level. This means they can have no visits and have less money to spend in canteen.
“If you’re late for work or disobey an order or swear you can be put down to basic,” said Paddy.
“It means they take you off work so you’re locked up for longer. It takes weeks to work back up to standard.”
Guards dangle the carrot of “enhanced” status to try and control prisoners’ behaviour.
“You have to be in for three months before you can apply to be on enhanced where you get an extra visit and more money in canteen.
Research has shown that many prisoners get into debt with other inmates because of the economic penalties incurred following “bad” behaviour.
This leads to tensions between prisoners which are further manipulated by the guards.
Paddy said that violence in prison is rare, but when it flares it is serious.
But he was clear that the main threat to prisoners comes from guards—not other inmates. And for all the attempts to divide them, prisoners have worked together to try and win some changes.
Paddy tried to organise prisoners to improve conditions. “I drew up a list of demands,” he said. “It was things like how the food should be consistent, fixing the TVs and asking for a meeting with the governor.
“I got over 40 people to sign it and handed it in. The next day with no warning I was woken up and put on a bus to another prison.”
Paddy was transferred to Erlestoke prison in Wiltshire. A 2008 report by the prison inspectorate slammed it for widespread use of drugs, violence and bullying.
A later inspection in 2011 found that despite some improvements there was still cause for concern.
“I spent six weeks in the induction wing for new prisoners,” said Paddy. “It’s also where they keep vulnerable prisoners—grasses, ex-police, ex-guards, sex offenders, people that owe debts inside the prison.
“Here you spend 23 hours in your cell, there’s a shower in there too. There was a big push on education and working. Everyone had to do English and maths tests.”
This gave Paddy an opportunity to organise among other inmates.
“I was made the wing rep and the library rep,” he said. “I spent most of my time helping other people to read and write and doing their paperwork.
“I started organising meetings in my cells. Between 4.30 and 7pm every day there would be association time.
“Since the prison riots in the 1990s they removed all the social areas—they literally boarded up the rooms.
“There used to be one TV and people would sit together.
“So we made a table in my cell and started eating together and playing cards. The screws let it go. It was only when I started organising meetings, handing people bits of paper and discussing what we could do to change things that they took everything away.”
Report after report has criticised the way that youth offending teams and courts treat young prisoners with mental health problems or learning difficulties.
One recent report from the Prison Reform Trust report described an “ad-hoc approach” and a “postcode lottery” in terms of how inmates were treated.
Paddy recounted the experience of one of his fellow prisoners who had learning difficulties. He was initially given harsh punishments by the guards.
Later he was simply ignored. “I asked him what he was going to do when he was released,” said Paddy. “He replied, ‘I’ll have to get myself an IPP’. That’s an indeterminate sentence.”
It seems little attention is paid to the fate of inmates once they leave prison.
Yet prison rule 5 claims that “From the beginning of a prisoner’s sentence, consideration shall be given, in consultation with the appropriate after-care organisation, to the prisoner’s future and the assistance to be given him on and after his release.”
Paddy says that for all the media condemnation of those sentenced following the riots, many people have been supportive.
“When I was sent in the Bristol Post wrote a disgusting article about me,” he said. “But in the next issue loads of people had written letters to support me. A lot of working class people have shared stories of them, or their friends or family, doing time.”
For Paddy, the experience of prison can have a big impact on inmates’ ideas.
“Prison makes you hate the system, if you don’t already. When you’re sitting in a cell all day you know it’s not immigration that’s the problem.
“It’s the police and the courts that put you there that you really hate—and the system they protect.”