:: Article

Can We Undo Psychosis?

By Charles Thomson.


Jane Kelly, Inside, Social Affairs Unit, 2009

Jane Kelly’s first day as an art teacher in September 2006 at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, the jail for men in West London, does not begin very auspiciously:

No one introduced me to my class, and after what I’d just heard at the training I felt very scared standing there alone in room full of dangerous men … But the men didn’t come near me, didn’t speak to me, avoided all eye contact and disappeared into huddles behind screens they’d constructed by stretching bed sheets over easels and large painting boards. From behind these wafted the distinct smell of spliffs and roll-ups. They were not supposed to smoke at all, but how could I stop them? The smoke went into my eyes and stung my throat. Someone put on loud reggae music on the radio. I felt as popular as an uninvited policeman at a private shebeen.

The next day, her encounter with a prison officer (she has fictionalised all the names in the book) is not much better:

On my second morning in the prison, I had a visit from Mr Zippo, one of the heads of Security, a stout, furious-looking prison officer who always seems to be about to burst the buttons from his uniform as he swelled in indignation. He marched into the art room and asked me to step into the cupboard.

‘Solvents, solvents, have you got any solvents in here?’ he barked, jammed up against me, his eyes jabbing me up and down as if I had committed some heinous crime. I had no idea what he meant.

‘You use them with oil paint,’ he spluttered crossly, ‘white spirit, turpentine–’

‘Oh, no,’ I said. ‘We haven’t got anything like that, but we could really do with some. How can I put in an order to get some?’

‘You can’t have any!’ he shouted. ‘They are banned. Men use them to blind each other! They make bombs, and we’ve had napalm attacks! These are dangerous, terrible people. They have done filthy things!’ And he stormed out, looking as if he hated me.

A large part of the book is devoted to describing the interactions with the people she meets in the prison, namely other teachers, the prison officers and the stars of the show, the prisoners themselves, with whom she spends most time. It is a study of the institution and its workings, at least as much of it as she gets to see in her role. It also takes in current educational practice, courtesy of the college teacher course she has to undertake as a new entrant to the field, and adds multiculturalism for good measure. All of this is contrasted with her former career as a high flying journalist, while she wrestles with doubts and dilemmas, a soul-searching middle-age woman in search of identity and direction.

Christopher Isherwood said, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.” Jane records likewise with a seeming lack of self-consciousness and disregard for the consequences, extending the process to monitoring her thoughts and emotions with the same objectivity.

The idealistic theories of the teacher training course with its sacred mnemonic, IAD (“inclusiveness”, “accessibility” and “differentiation”) disintegrate rapidly in the light – or rather gloom – of her actual experience. She rapidly learns to go through the motions, regardless of the reality: “In my first 1,500-word essay, I trotted out a lot of what I knew I was supposed to say, embracing new words such as ‘summative’ and ‘diagnostic'”. She learns not to “brainstorm”, in case it causes offence to epileptics, and finds out she must have a “thought shower” instead.

She provides a potted history of her previous 25 years in journalism, “where people make up headlines condemning Prince Harry for his gaffes whilst remaining themselves the most non-PC people in the world”, from the start of the 1980s, when she met “ruthless young women from the provinces in expensive asymmetrical haircuts and Lycra skirts, often worn with no knickers underneath.” There is a spattering of anecdotes, such as the time a French film star bedded her and proceeded to spill the beans on his week-old marriage – in which he had scant interest – while she wrote it all down on the pretext of compiling her next day’s itinerary. Obviously where the lack of knickers plays its part. By the end of her time in the national press “I had become so cocooned that I was no longer able to compare my life with those of people outside the profession, people on average salaries who shop at M&S.” The only low-paid people she encountered were waiters.

The juxtaposition of her past and present life is jarring, to say the least, for her, but is also illuminating and often amusing. Travelling on buses is a culture shock. A life of hotels on an expense account is far removed from the prison, which is dirty with unmoved litter, unswept stairways and uncleaned dust. When her street, including her basement flat, is flooded with sewage water, she says, “My flat now smelled a lot like prison.” She is aghast at the amount of men in the The Scrubs with rotten or no teeth, and has not seen a comparable situation since she lived in Communist Poland. Medical facilities in the prison are poor and dental ones almost non-existent: if you’re going to commit a crime, visit your dentist first.

She resolutely forges ahead with a strong desire to make things work in her new vocation, slowly improving relationships with the men (in one case overdoing it a little with a strong mutual infatuation with a Dutch drug dealer, sadly terminated when he left the jail). She sets up an innovatory evening life class, shows videos, becomes the union Health and Safety representative, and runs English classes. She gets Tony Benn’s agreement to give a talk, which was barred without explanation by the prison governor, suspicious that there must be ulterior motives (a campaign for supplies of amalgam perhaps).

One of the men by whom she is strongly affected is “Terry”, age 24 and serving his sixth prison sentence. For four years from the age of eleven he was buggered by the owner of a Romford market stall, where he worked. He has no contact with his family, admits he likes the security and order of the prison, and is consumed with fear and worry that his legs are like glass and disintegrating. She hears not long after meeting him that he has killed himself, and, galvanised by the wish to be in a position to help such individuals, is accepted on a psychotherapy course, which the prison refuses to fund: “It’s not relevant to what we do here.” What is relevant is making sure that no one escapes: this is the measure of a prison governor’s success. Suicides and murders are accepted as a normal part of life inside.

The vicious circle of crime begins again for many men as soon as they finish their sentence and walk out through the gate with £40 in their pocket with which to start a new life. But the only life most know, as Jane discovers in her conversations with them, is the old one, often conditioned by a background of poverty and futility. Some see no other way of surviving than through crime, and some see no other way of gaining the materialistic status symbols which society constantly impresses upon them as essential for self-worth. They rationalise that their modus operandi in attaining such items has no essential difference to that practised by those at the other end of the social spectrum: “Their own crime didn’t count because bigger men were getting away with bigger things, and every system, everywhere, was corrupt.”

The Education Department is the only part of the system which attempts to create alternative possibilities for the prisoners, but it is at the bottom of the pecking order in the prison hierarchy. Teachers are viewed suspiciously by the “real” staff as a security risk, prisoner attendance at class is subject to arbitrary interruption, lateness or absence, and funding is meagre. It took a year for the Literacy Co-ordinator to be sent a computer and a further eight months for the software to arrive. It didn’t work. One teacher opined that the prison Security officers “would like to close down the Education Department if they could. They see it as a big nuisance and think it gives the men some kind of privilege. They never had education so they don’t see why the men should get it.”

Multicultural integration doesn’t receive many marks. When Jane first moved from the Midlands to London and worked as an auxiliary nurse, she lived in Lambeth in “the disputed ‘no go’ zone created between the black youths and the police”, watched bricks being hurled in the Brixton riots, and got mugged twice. Then she moved north of the river and started working on a national paper, where she “never saw another black face for fifteen years”, although this was obviously not the case in her private life, as one of her Afro-Caribbean friends tried to dissuade her from the risky environment of a prison job, as well as the romantic temptation of it. She observes, “I knew how charming black and Asian men could be, especially compared to reticent Englishmen.” On her first day, Jane’s question to another teacher, “Why were there so many black men in prison?” gets the answer, “They are black British.”

Britain is top of the league in Europe for putting people in prison, and black people comprise 16% of those inside – eight times their proportion in the general population. The staff room has a similarly unbalanced ethnic content and is divided on racial grounds, with blacks (who hold the upper hand) and whites mostly sitting apart. “Beware of the black sisterhood,” whispers Comfort, a mixed-race woman who fits in neither group. There is a clique of black prisoners in the art room. The good news is that you are unlikely to get raped: many of the prisoners, especially black ones, are strongly homophobic. Prison lore links ethnicity with crimes, namely Asians with incest, blacks with drugs and whites with paedophilia (one of the latter being a former banker with a large house in Richmond who had repeatedly had sex with his teenage stepdaughter). An unexpected encounter in Jane’s English classes is with some highly-educated black actors with impeccable pronunciation, who had made the mistake of locking an fellow thespian in a shed overnight, after he became excessively annoying. I wonder if the same penalty would have been meted out, had Kenneth Branagh been part of the prank.

She does not completely abandon journalism, which is something of an addiction (“like a serial killer”), and alongside her day job, she moonlights a couple of nights a week at swish events, buttonholing celebrities for newspaper diary column titbits. The evening before her first prison session she was eliciting indiscretions in Ronnie Wood’s Scream Gallery from Wood’s son about holidaying with the Jaggers, and from former James Bond star, Pierce Brosnan – “‘I’ve still got it you know,’ he said as if there was some doubt. ‘I can still dance.'” Kate Moss consistently fails to turn up at the events, but finally during an A-list Venetian masked ball at Strawberry Hill House in Richmond, Jane dodges past security men into the depths of the mansion, until she is face to face with Pete Doherty and Kate Moss, who sweetly displays her engagement ring, while Pete gives Jane his phone number after she says she has done some paintings of him. Then Kate asks if she is a journalist, and looks horrified at the affirmative answer. Jane rushes out of the building with her scoop story, which makes a tabloid double spread (and is, to her chagrin, credited to another journalist).

Back in the prison she is summoned before the Head of Operations, Miss Starke, “a massive woman with short cropped grey hair … all in black from her military-style jersey, which gripped her capacious bosom, down to her large shiny boots.” It has only taken a year for someone in the governor’s office to google her name and discover her journalistic background: “The governor won’t stand for that sort of thing here.” One might see that as something of an own goal: instead of spending the following year with a continued effort to effect some change in the prisoners’ lives, she spends it writing about her previous year’s attempt to do so.

The book has so far been ignored by reviewers, but has privately garnered some high-profile fans. A.N. Wilson emailed her, “Inside is a triumph; very funny, a real eye-opener, beautifully written and gloriously incorrect politically!! … What makes the book so successful is its raw honesty, not least about yourself and your own feelings about life.” Boris Johnson told her that an extract published in The Sunday Times was “fascinating”; Ian Hislop texted that it was “too good” for Private Eye to “review” (Lord Gnome speak, I believe, for “ridicule”). Jonathan Aitken (he should know) wrote, “You bring together in a most attractive style both the comedy and the sadness of prison life and Fleet Street life.”

Overall it is brilliantly and convincingly written, but does have minor flaws that an editorial eye could easily, and should already have, set right, mainly some slightly disorientating chronological glitches. She describes her first day in chapter one, and then goes on to show how her days are generally spent until chapter three, when we suddenly find we are back to her second day (meeting Mr Zippo). On one occasion she tells a class about her activity the evening before, hunting for Peaches Geldof. Time (apparently) passes; then later the same incident is repeated, as if for the first time. This also happens about her learning that Tony Benn is not going to be allowed to talk at the prison. Other occasional tweaks needed include the odd typo and a muddle of verb tenses in the first sentence of the passage quoted above about Mr Zippo. Although her tone is pitch perfect throughout the book, it flops into a melodramatic metaphor at the end of the last sentence, when she walks out of the prison for the final time with “can I go on swimming or will I simply drown?” She is a first class reporter, but a third rate poet, although for the bulk of the text one could adapt Wilfred Owen and say, “the poetry is in the precision.”

The description of her journalistic years would be even more effective as a foil to her new life, if it were expanded. One anecdote that is relevant but not included is the time she made a journey on behalf of a tabloid paper to write a human interest story about a family and their dog, but on arrival discovered the children in the family were black – upon learning which the photographer promptly turned back, as that would not have been, in the editor’s opinion, what the readers wanted to see. She mentions that her work as a journalist had brought her into contact with celebrities, but doesn’t spell out that her interviews were with a stellar cast of the likes of Jack Nicholson, Georges Clooney, Russell Crowe, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley and Hilary Clinton. This again would have heightened the contrast with the new characters she meets, such as the anonymous Vietnamese youth, who thought he was being charged for pirated DVDs, and hung himself with a towel, when he discovered he was being prosecuted for murder.

The termination of her newspaper career is left somewhat vague and linked to an earlier incident, when the paper settled out of court after she was sued by actress over a story. However, it has been reported on several occasions in the national press (including the front page of The Guardian) that a fifteen-year tenure as a feature writer for the Daily Mail came to an abrupt end two hours after her boss found out she was exhibiting a painting of Myra Hindley in The Stuckists Punk Victorian Show in the Walker Art Gallery during the 2004 Liverpool Biennial (albeit he has insisted there was no connection between the two events).

The reason, she informed me, for this omission, as with the absence of any account of her own progress as an artist (which has not been without its successes), was to simplify the narrative, which she felt was already complicated enough. However, the omission about the end of her newspaper job is confusing for anyone familiar with her life or anyone who looks up the barest details on it.

There’s no mention either, apart from the “about the author” section, of her involvement with the Stuckists, which dates from 2000 and includes demonstrating outside Tate Britain against the Turner Prize. A large part of the uniqueness and enjoyment of the book is its diversity and incongruity of activity – which apparently caused initial difficulties with publishers, who said it didn’t fit on any particular shelf. Some information on her own art and related activities would have added extra spice to the mix, and provided some more insight into her motivations: the interest in crime and reform was evident in the Hindley painting, which was titled ‘Can We Undo Psychosis?’

Nevertheless, Inside is a minor classic, which should be on the reading lists of educators, journalists, politicians, and, well, everyone really. As she points out, two-thirds of prisoners are reconvicted within two years, and the proportion is even higher for those aged under twenty-one. If prison suicides and murders were seen as a sign of institutional failure, and the governor’s ability was measured not by the absence of escapees, but by the percentage of recidivists, then the Education Department would suddenly find itself the most important part of the institution, and we might get some real value for the money which is poured into maintaining expensive dustbins for those regarded as the refuse of society.

Charles Thomson
was the only person in 10 years to fail the painting degree at Maidstone College of Art. In 1979, he was a founder member of The Medway Poets, and then a full-time poet for 13 years, with work in over 100 anthologies. In 1999 he named, co-founded and has since been the driving force of the Stuckism movement, which now numbers more than 150 groups in 38 countries. He has demonstrated for eight years outside the Turner Prize, and in 2005 applied under the Freedom of Information Act for Tate trustee minutes about the gallery’s purchase of its trustee Chris Ofili’s work. This led in 2006 to the Charity Commission’s ruling that the Tate had been acting illegally for the last 50 years. His painting satirising Sir Nicholas Serota, whose face peers over a large pair of (Tracey Emin’s) red knickers, is a well-known image. He was briefly married to artist Stella Vine in 2001.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 26th, 2009.