© William Pryor, 2006

With my history of heroin addiction in the sixties and seventies, it is a wonder that I hadn’t known Her Majesty’s pleasure before my recent visit to the programme run by the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners trust (RAPt) in HMP Bullingdon, near Bicester. I was invited because I am the Director of Unhooked Thinking, a multi-disciplinary conference established to enquire into the very nature of addiction.

My visit was an emotional experience, though mostly and oddly an uplifting one. Emotional because all those gates, locks, steel bars and razor-wire battlements enclose the stage where the drama of society’s myths of addiction and prohibition reaches its apotheosis. Uplifting because this is the human condition in extremis and RAPt deals in its transformation.

With getting on for 80,000 people locked up, the UK has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in Europe. Well over half of them have some kind of problem with and history of drug misuse. One could conjecture that most of this half wouldn’t be there were drugs legal. In March 2005, 17% of male and 35% of female sentenced prisoners had been convicted of drugs offences, while 55% of all prisoners say they have committed offences connected to their drug-taking. Forty-seven per cent of sentenced male prisoners had used heroin, crack or cocaine and 73% of all prisoners had taken an illegal drug in the 12 months prior to their imprisonment.

Passport to the Wing
Bullingdon is a modern prison. Its full car park, manicured surrounds and enormous wall with bulbously-unscalable top give the impression of a 21st Century industrial facility; perhaps, with its “bikini black state of alert”, one that makes weapons of mass destruction. The Prison Officers that greeted me through thick plate glass are cheery and courteous as they check my passport to see I am who I say I am. I was patted down and asked to leave my mobile and packet of headache pills in a secure locker before progressing through an airlock with ponderously slow electric doors into what quickly transpires to be another country – no wonder they demand to see your passport.

Terry Bogg, Bullingdon’s RAPt manager appears through a steel door and takes our small party on its journey to the centre of transgression. Thirty-foot high steel mesh fences topped with razor wire, long corridors of steel bars and concrete, the unlocking of inordinate barred gates. We pause to admire a RAPt poster with its smiling RAPt ‘graduates’ in one of the corridors and then to be shown the outside of the prison’s recording studio where prisoners get degrees in music production, but I cannot escape the similarity between this corridor and the cage-tunnels the lions and tigers would be prodded down before performing in Billy Smarts’ circus decades ago.

Eventually we arrive on the ‘wing’. So far I’ve not seen a single prisoner, though we have passed several warders and other civilian staff. They are all at work, I am told. The sense of a clandestine government establishment producing some unspeakable secret is enhanced. The millions spent on this substantial fortress and on the legions of staff, to judge from the full car park, all say this is a project close to the government’s heart. I couldn’t help but wonder what this high-tech prison is for: retribution, reform or simply an attempt to keep nasty inadequates away from the lawns of middle-England.
The National Offender Management Service (known, as is every other such government provision, by its acronym: NOMS), a 2004 Blairite initiative bringing together the Prison and Probation Services, has a “Strategy for the Management and Treatment of Problematic Drug Users within the Correctional Services”. They would, wouldn’t they. “About one third of all problematic drug users” (hereafter to be known as PDUs) “in England and Wales are in the care of the correctional services at any one time, amounting to half their total caseload,” says the NOMS drugs strategy document. The correctional services “are uniquely placed to tackle offender’s drug use and to break the cycle of re-offending.” But if we take the maths of the above to mean that “one third of all PDUs” is equal to 55% of the prison population, or 44,000, then they are saying there are only 133,333 PDUs in the country. Which seriously conflicts with other estimates of this number at anything up to half a million.

On the wing, I thought, in my middle-class way, I might be frightened by the prisoners, but no – I’ve come into their territory and they don’t seem to mind. Later I ask what the two knobbed metal devices bolted to a table are and am told they’re tin-openers, to open cans of food the prisoners are allowed to buy. They are large and bolted down because anything else could be used as a weapon. There are two so that the one for Muslims can remain unpolluted with non-halal meat products. All religions are respected – pagans get to celebrate All Hallows Eve with appropriate solemnity. Such consideration for human rights in what could be such a brutal environment where many are reduced to the acronym PDU!

The prisoners on the RAPt programme in Bullingdon have to share their wing with those with no commitment to abstinence and when there’s a lot of gear on the landings, they look to their RAPt community for the strength to resist. I asked how the gear gets there in such a modern and secure environment. In visitors’ bodily cavities and the clothes of remand prisoners, I’m told, which can’t be searched due to respect for their human rights. Visitors adapt their clothes to give them quick and furtive access to their cavities.

The paradox between the prison’s respect for human rights and its thirty foot steel mesh fences topped with razor wire kept hitting me: the addicts in the RAPt programme have been locked up for crimes committed as a direct or indirect result of their addiction. By providing the RAPt programme (though RAPt is an independent charity, it is funded by the Government – NOMS had a budget of £152.7m for its 2004/5 drugs strategy) we – society, government – are uttering paradoxes. We’ve made some substances illegal for complex irrational and mythic reasons and we’ve medicalised addiction, and yet, when someone suffering from this medical condition transgresses so he can feed his habit for those illegal substances we lock him up only to then provide him with expensive treatment with high counsellor-to-client ratios.

Lord Chief Justice Phillips recently opined that some people are committing crimes with the sole aim that they be sent to prison so they can get treatment for their addiction. Even if he was repeating an urban myth, it’s true in its fundamentals. The quickest route to free treatment for your addiction is to get banged up. And there are other advantages: I got a strong sense on the wing that Bullingdon is not altogether a bad place for these guys to be: it’s more secure; they get more attention; and food and lodging are thrown in free.

We got to sit in on a RAPt staff meeting. The counsellors, the majority of whom are women in this all-male prison, share their feedback on the progress being made by individuals and groups in the sessions they have just been facilitating. The power of the RAPt team’s optimism about and care for their clients moves me, sweeping me up in their love of transformation. Megan, a South African counsellor, talks about how one of her clients is beginning to realise the extraordinary opportunity prison presents to reflect on the direction and meaning of his life, now he has no control over his life outside. I think: metaphor, how we’re all in prison, how we should concentrate on the relationship we have some control of, the one with ourselves. Prison as opportunity.

Inside Community Meeting
So far, so liberal and enlightened. As a visitor I only got to see a presented surface, but the darker forces were visible between the cracks. As well as the mandatory bunches of keys on long chains, some staff have truncheons in pouches and whistles. We were told that when the sex-offenders move outside their entirely separate block, all the other prisoners are locked into their wings. The cracks were more exposed in the community meeting later that afternoon, the community that is everyone concerned with the RAPt programme in Bullingdon: staff, prison officers, assistant prison governor and prisoners.

Run along adapted 12-step lines, the 20 or so rules for the RAPt group were read by members of the meeting in turn – except two of them couldn’t read and were helped by their neighbours. Feelings were aired, complaints made and applause for months of dry-time given. Individual ‘graduate’ prisoners bravely voiced their misgivings, mostly their frustration at the despicable state of the showers on the landing and the way people cheated at RAPt graduation events to get more doughnuts than they were allocated. Small beer, but you could sense the muscles of value systems being flexed.

The philosophy and clichés of a much adapted 12-steppery were the subtext and script for all the proceedings, filling in every gap in thought and word, explaining away any negativity, bolstering any flagging spirits. The RAPt team use CBT and other motivational therapies to encourage change and self-examination. It’s inevitably more intense than treatment at outside residential treatment centres for two very obvious reasons: 1) the clients can’t leave the building and are locked up in cells at night and 2) they share their landings with prisoners who are using gear. Terry said that it is wrong to call what they do REhabilitation (from ‘habitare’, make fit), since most of their clients were not fit for the rigours of being human in the 21st Century in the first place. In retrospect, nor was I, back then.

CARAT and hook
The Counselling, Assessment, Referral, Advice and Throughcare (CARAT) service was set up by the Home Office in 1999 as “a universal drug treatment service in every prison establishment across England and Wales”. Their main thing is that second word: assessment. When you start your sentence in prison your health is assessed and if a drug problem is apparent you get a CARAT assessment. Your resultant ‘sentence programme’ could, depending on its length, point you to facing up to the offence that put you in prison, and possibly into a programme like RAPt’s. Most prisoners only get one session with a CARAT worker. Does it work? It is certainly better than nothing, but as to its effect on the prevention of re-offending, the jury is still out.

In 2003 there were 114,000 deaths from tobacco smoking, 6,500 from alcohol abuse and 1,723 from all illicit drugs put together. Why then do we keep on and on about drug abuse? Sixty-three percent of sentenced male prisoners and 39% of sentenced female prisoners admit to drinking so as to risk physical or mental harm. Yeast is as valued a currency as snout inside – it’s the only difficult-to-obtain ingredient when you want to make hooch in your cell. The kitchens have to keep it under lock and key. And yet the Prison Service does not have an alcohol harm reduction strategy. Officially CARAT workers cannot help prisoners who do not admit to using drugs – there is no budget to help those addicted only to alcohol.

If the aim of NOMS and CARATS was simply to reduce re-offending, there would be no distinction in the care given to prisoners addicted to licit and illicit substances. That there are no government funds to help prisoners addicted to the licit substances that kill on such a scale can only be the result of the myths surrounding addiction and drug prohibition. Drugs are bad, that’s why they’re called ‘drugs’ and must be prohibited, regardless of the enormous damage that prohibition causes. There’s a strange irony here: if you end up in prison because of your alcoholic behaviour – as many do – you get no treatment or help, other than sporadic AA meetings. But if your drug taking or dealing gets you banged up and you admit to an addiction problem, you will get intensive treatment. Is it because being hooked to illicit substances is deemed more wicked, so you must be transformed, redeemed?

I hold that the underlying, but usually unstated purpose of the addiction treatment industry is to teach its clients how to be human. This function inevitably has a core of spirituality, of human speaking to human. This spirituality is diminished when crystallised into the kind of religious dogma much of the 12-step movement relies on. The use RAPt make of the 12-step idea skates close to dogma, but manages to avoid it. They do not demand that their clients join the fellowship and they use whatever therapeutic tools help in the pressure-cooker environment of a prison.

But that’s just RAPt, one of several agencies used to deliver treatment services. Overall, prison reveals the attitude of government as a whole (if it makes sense to use the words ‘government’ and ‘whole’ in the same sentence), their attitude to prohibition and addiction is revealed to be utterly confused and an accurate metaphor for the paradox of New Labour.

Addiction has become not only thoroughly medicalised, but criminalised. It is both an illness for which the individual PDU is not responsible, but simultaneously a crime for which he must be corrected, treated and rehabilitated.

I am in awe of the RAPt workers I met in Bullingdon; their open-hearted, shoulder-to-shoulder reaching-out into the dark hells most of their clients bring with them is exemplary. They are exploring the depths and heights of what it is to be human.

I left Bullingdon oddly elated. You’d expect a visit to addicted human beings locked in what amount to cages, often for violent crime, would be depressing, if not frightening. But no, I look forward to my next visit to prison. It’s the transformation, the humanity.

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