Covid lockdown is helping us to understand how hard prison actually is – Jim Duffy

The lockdown introduced to fight the coronavirus pandemic is giving us a taste of what ‘doing porridge’, a slang term for a prison sentence, is like, writes Jim Duffy

Real prison is considerably less amusing than much-loved BBC sitcom Porridge (Picture: Paul Warner/PA Wire)

One of my favourite TV shows ever was called Porridge. Starring the late and great Ronnie Barker alongside the also late and great Richard Beckinsdale, the storylines were hilarious.

Set in the imaginary Slade prison, these two lovable scallywags were cell-mates. Barker played the character Norman Stanley Fletcher, whose dry wit and sarcasm had me in knots as he got himself into and out of many jams as he did his time. This series is well worth a watch and I would argue it was British comedy at its best on the BBC.

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But, while it scoffed and chuckled its way through prison life, it was simply a comedy set in prison and I always wondered if those actually serving long sentences ever watched it and laughed? Because prison ain’t easy. In fact, as we serve our own short ‘sentences’ during lockdown, I would argue prison is bloody hard.

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There has always been that debate in criminal justice and criminology lectures as to what prison is all about. Bookshelves are full of studies and research papers on the value of prison, the rationale of locking a person up and what good it does society. And there is always that divide right down the middle, like double white lines in the Clyde tunnel, where never the two shall meet.

Prison as punishment or rehabilitation?

One side of the debate views prison as punishment. Offenders, criminals, wrong-uns, brigands, neds or whatever one wants to call them belong in jail because they are bad. These people have sinned against humanity. They have broken social contracts. They have in fact broken the law. And law-breakers need to be punished right?

So, bang them up in a small cell that is cold in winter and hot in the summer. Let them crap in a bucket that stinks all night, then slosh it out with another stinking 300 men in the morning, all farting at the same time. Lock them up for long periods without TVs or phones. And get them to do the cleaning as a privilege for simply having a mattress for the night. Yes, this side of the coin sees prison as punishment. The ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ brigade.

But, then there is the more liberal argument. Prison is not about punishment, but rehabilitation. Offenders can be changed and are mainly products of their environments. Their life chances have not been up to much and consequently they have erred. Perhaps, their minds have been warped by poor childhoods, abusive parents or bullying. While on that subject, many may suffer from mild mental illnesses that cause them to do silly things that get them into trouble.

So, providing help, counselling, education and support is what can rehabilitate them back into society. These people are not recidivists, but with nurture can see where they went wrong and get back on an even keel, then slot back into society.

Whatever view you take, whether it be one of the above extremes or perhaps somewhere in the middle, the penal debate will go on. Different political leaders will adopt various policies that social scientists of the day offer as innovative and grounded in good science. Different prison governors will run their prisons based on their own experiences and how they view punishment versus rehabilitation.

We feel imprisoned, punished, a little sad

But, in all of this, while the debate goes on, people are locked up. And no matter what side of the criminal justice landscape you occupy, ultimately depriving a human being of their liberty by placing them in a prison is punishment enough. Let me develop this further and make some points for a potential future debate on prisons.

Many of you will know the mega-celebrity personality that is Ellen DeGeneres. She seems a popular entertainer. She’s a multi-millionaire with her own company and is on TV every week in the USA. But still she posted from her big posh villa that lockdown felt like “being in jail”. It backfired hugely for her as it was far from San Quentin or Saughton.

However, it was the feeling of having liberty and freedoms removed that caused her to feel trapped, I would argue. She was voicing the frustration and anxiety she felt at being locked down. And I wonder how many of us actually have had moments where we feel imprisoned, punished or a little sad at having less liberty. Hold this thought...

Now, imagine you are just starting a five-year stretch. Not a few weeks locked down in a flat or house. No, five years locked up with brick walls, iron bars, CCTV cameras and prison guards. Imagine no popping out for a pint of milk and paper. No getting the sun on your face when it deigns to come out. No going to the pub for a quick one. No inviting friends over for a cocktail. No Costa coffee, KFC, wifi, WhatsApp, Zoom or going for a run in the park. Now I hope you can feel what prison feels like. And this feeling, I would argue, reinforces that prison is no soft option regardless of whether you have a TV, pool table or chessboard.

This period of lockdown for many of us has brought home many restless feelings and emotions. From anxiety to mild depression, from loneliness to anger. But, in a few weeks’ time, we can get back to some form of normal. Our short remand on coronavirus lockdown will be over for a great many of us. But, not those in prison. They will remain in an enforced legal lockdown.

Porridge on the TV is a far cry from doing real porridge and our current confinement has made this real for many. Perhaps in the future when the prisons and punishment debate rears its head again, we will remember what being “locked up” actually feels like.

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