After writing about the mentality of a prisoner, describing the barriers and boundaries that I now have from my experience as a serving prisoner, this allowed me to reflect and question how and why I now feel the way I do. Detailing a forced and necessary mentality to survive a prison sentence that remains with me, has now enabled me to consider identity. How my identity was prior to prison, how and why it changed in prison and now my identity four years post release.
Many characteristics form an individual identity, from social circles, class, religion, demographics, family, education, beliefs, morals, sex, image and so on. In today’s world, I embrace being a black sheep rather than keeping up with the Kardashians. I don’t believe in normal and I prefer to hear stories of struggle and triumph over silver spooned success.
Self-identity, while so many people struggle with it, is so important. To learn through life what you believe in, what you don’t, how your feel about yourself and how you portray and present yourself to the world. While I don’t mean to emphasis self-identity as appearance, this too also plays a vital role in today’s world. Especially as a woman. While there are so many stereo types and so many boxes to tick which enable you to be grouped into a social identity, a strong ability to identify with one’s self is a vital and hard to reach ability, especially when it comes to being a prisoner and in more recent times, a former prisoner. The characteristics of a self-identity are what sets individuals apart from the other billions of people in the world.
While we all need to somehow socially identify with a group, a strong self-identity I feel is key to success. This is where prison, the staff, the regime, the structure….are able to take away every identity you ever associated with, minus your self-identity, and they will still try and take that if you aren’t strong willed enough to maintain control over your own thinking processes (which many prisoners aren’t). Being a prisoner means you are stripped of your liberty, your freedom and your life how you knew it before. Prison takes away your name, it takes away clothes, your style, what ever once made you unique, prison takes it, it gives you a prison number with a mug shot and for your time in prison, you now Identify as a prison number. A208 1CJ. Yes, I understand that being in prison means that you now have a set of rules and regulations that you need to follow, but why are prisoners issued tracksuits, in sizes that don’t fit, with a HMP stamp on? Why can prison decide for you, that you don’t smoke, that you can’t wear a hoody or have ripped jeans, and for the two years you are hear you can only have 2 pairs of shoes. Prison should be preparing inmates for the real world and I can assure you, nobody out here is telling me what I can and can’t wear and how many cigarettes ill smoke today.
The prison regime, is punishment focused and by no means rehabilitative. In my experience, in a women’s prison, we were controlled by a system enforcing a general identity of prisoner upon us. All of us were daughters, the majority were mothers, sisters, aunts. Many had talents, dreams, ambition but we were just a number. The skills, knowledge, attributes and compassion that prisoners had for one another and shared with each other were completely overlooked by a system adamant on enforcing power over personal identity.
What saddens me is the realness of prisoners who becomes weakened by this system. Prisoners who may struggle with self-identity so just to fit in somewhere, they take what prison if forcing upon them and embrace their life as a prisoner. Not that they enjoy this or want this, they just aren’t strong enough to or able to build any kind of self-identity foundation outside of the prison walls, geographically or mentally. Having very little choice in prison in terms of training, education, socialising and maintaining family contact, you are integrated into a failing system. A system that wants and needs prisoners. Many fall victim to identifying with this role, so much so, they end up caught in a cycle of re-offending because they have become systematically dependant and are rarely shown, offered or taught the qualities, characteristics, and attributes they need to identify with, to live a life outside of prison.
I understand that social and self-identity and what consists within these, may of course be part of the reason many people end up in prison, however, stripping a person of their social identity for a period of time and not enabling or allowing the process of learning new identities will not help anyone. It fails the person, the public and the justice system as a whole.
The rules and regulations of the prison I was in were shocking at times, I recall an older prisoner being freezing in winter and we had no heating, when asking for an extra blanket she was told no, one each is the rule. Ok, but here we have an old lady who is freezing cold, there are blankets within this estate that aren’t being used and could be spared, so why on earth could this old woman not have it!? Because, she wasn’t a freezing old lady, she was a prisoner, we were in prison and they were the rules that we had no other choice but to follow.
Another incident I recall, after being out of the prison from 6am and returning with two other woman at 10pm after working all day, we were being processed back into the prison and I heard an officer call my number, not my name, into a small holding room in reception. Two female officers were in the room, they closed the door and pulled down the blind, I knew exactly what was coming, seeing as I was being processed back into to prison with a well known drug user. Yes, a drug user who had been released for the day. Here I was, 23 years old being strip searched for drugs! I laughed and made a light hearted conversation with these officers, who clearly felt that this was wrong, I said do you really think that you are going to find drugs on me, they both said no but they had orders to follow. I was naked, handing over my knickers for an officer to feel and look through for drugs, not because they suspected I was supplying HMP with drugs but because they had let out a drug user and because I was being processed back in at the same time, I had to go through the same process. That feeling, is the ultimate of having your self-identity as a woman, stolen. No history of drug use, no drug offences, no positive piss tests yet I had an officer watch me strip naked then go through my knickers because they suspected someone else, who I was returning with, may have been bringing stuff back. Great! But hey ho, I was a prisoner and these are their rules.
Thankfully, a system that doesn’t encourage self-development, self-improvement, self-belief or self-identity didn’t quite manage to take away my own mind. I may have smiled and went along with some shit for the sake of release but I knew all along that they don’t want people to change because they need prisoners. Prisoners are making millions for some people and if the system worked and people were released with a better self and social identity, then they wouldn’t be bringing in the money. Prison really will strip you of everything you have, everything you have ever known and everything you wish to be, if you aren’t strong enough to stop it.