Tins Of Fish

It has always bewildered me that there is such an array of rules across the Prison Estate. I get that there has to be rules. I get that different establishments might have differing rules to suit the type of prison they are or to deal with any particular issues that they have locally.

And yet prison rules have still long baffled me. From the sign on a door that prohibited visitors bringing in, inter alia, “door stops and ladders” (how could a prison be defeated by wedging doors open and who could ever smuggle a ladder in?) to the prison that made me drop my trousers (a very long and not particularly edifying story) to the prison that turned over every page of my brief because “we had someone trying to smuggle a doughnut in…”, prison rules are, well, a law unto themselves. 

In Manchester we briefly had “the letter of introduction”. This was a letter which basically had to say “Hello, this is Jaime, he’s a barrister, and today he would like to visit one of your guests, Burglar Bill.”  A part of me always wanted them to have to finish with the phrase “and you shall let him pass without let or hindrance.” But they didn’t. 

My first introduction to letters of introduction was when I arrived at a prison and they told me I had to have one. This was news to me. I had not previously been introduced to the letter of introduction. The conversation went a little like this;

Officer: Where’s your letter of introduction?

Me: I haven’t got one. What is it?

Officer: It is a letter explaining who you are and why you’re here.

Me: Oh right. Never been asked for one of those before. Give me a moment and I’ll jot those details down on a piece of paper for you. 

Officer: No, that won’t do. It’s got to be from your boss. 

Me: I am self employed. I haven’t got a boss. I guess I am my own boss. So do you want it from me? Introducing myself?

Officer: Yes. 

Me: I’ll just jot it down then, like I just said…..

Officer: No! It’s got to be on headed notepaper. 

Me: Right, have you got a fax? Cos I’ll get some note paper faxed over and then I will write a letter on it formally introducing myself to you and sign it from myself to say it is deffo me. 

Officer: There’s no need to be arsey….

And so it went on. I didn’t get in the prison that day. But from that day forward I did carry a letter of introduction, like some emissary being sent on a diplomatic mission, and presented it at every prison I visited. Often I may as well have dropped my trousers (again) and shown my backside judging by the reception it got at most places. 

The letter of introduction now seems a thing of the past. Prisons feel no more or less safe. And in one of Machester’s prisons I can wear my watch as I visit a man on remand for murder and in the other prison I cannot wear my watch as I visit a man on remand for murder. I am sure this makes sense somewhere. Just not in the real world. 

My watch wearing is just an inconvenience. The real issue is which prison you can take your laptop or tablet into. Or, more importantly, what you have to do to be allowed to bring it in. One prison requires 48 hour written notice, another prison just needs you to mention it when you book in whilst another wants a letter from the computer’s mother and an oath taken in blood and bytes that the computer is who you say it is. 

Today I represented a man who was moved from a prison in London to a prison in Manchester and then back to London for his hearing today. I have mentioned in a blog previously that prison food is so bad that prisoners are concerned that protein is missing from their diet. I have plenty of clients that order protein shakes from the prison canteen to make up the deficit. These people are not bodybuilders, they just lack protein. My client today had overcome this by ordering 150 tins of mackerel and tuna as part of his “canteen”. 

A prisoner’s canteen is the extra stuff they can buy with their wages. Often it is tobacco or sweets. This prisoner wanted protein and decent food so he stockpiled tinned fish in his prison in London. And he was eating it three meals a day, had to buy when it was available and he amassed 150 tins of fish. He then got transferred to a prison in Manchester. A prison that did not allow prisoners to have tinned fish….

Now I appreciate that this sounds like I am making it up, but I promise you I am not. So at the Manchester prison his tinned fish hoard had to be stored. And today, when transferred from Manchester to court in London, his canned fish had to be bagged up in several bags and brought with him to London, just in case he ended up in a prison that let him have a sardine or two.

I know both prisons involved. They are very similar. Both privately run. Both house the same category of prisoner. They even look the same:



And yet in one prison you can buy tinned fish and in the other tinned fish is as prohibited as Class A Drugs and ladders….

The Criminal Justice System has become a disparate loose collection of different departments and entities, attempting to work together with little by way of overarching aims and guidance. I have no idea, from day to today, what I need to do to see a client, what I can take with me or whether they will be brought to court. And they have no idea whether Governor Antoinette is going to let them eat tinned fish or not. 

This disparate uncooperative co-op leads to delay and waste. And a man in the back of a prison van hurtling along the M6 with see-through bags full of contraband tinned fish. 

It has been a long day…..

One thought on “Tins Of Fish

  1. Panopticon

    The MoJ is keen to”reform” the CJS when it involves cost-savings for the MoJ, but it is clear that it cares not one jot about removing unnecessary burdens on lawyers trying to negotiate the arcane and obstructive rules involved in the simple act of seeing a client in prison.

    From the prisoner’s perspective, the.failure to provide consistency in the application of rules from one prison to another has all the hallmarks of the Grayling era – petty, spiteful and pettifogging, which must sap morale and give succour to the minority of prison officers who relish abusing power.

    A review and institution of a universal set of rules, with variations for different categories of prisons where justified, would be an achievable and cost effective reform, but I won’t hold my breath.

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