In the Penal Colony: What Prison Actually Does to Us
by Anders Lustgarten, An Honoured LSW Associate

When you think of prison, what do you think of? Gangs of bandanna-ed men on the bench press, their swollen lats inscribed with tats; soapy sodomy and sedition in the showers; the inky restitution of solitary confinement. Danger and violence at every turn. The stuff of innumerable films.

Well, you learn very quickly upon arriving in prison that the stuff of reality is comprised of paradoxes rather than celluloid. The profoundest oddity about our commitment to imprisonment is that virtually no-one knows anything about prison is actually like, or what it does to the people in and outside it. Without spending extended time inside, you simply can’t; it’s too complex and insulated. For the past four years I have been in and out of prisons both in England and in America.

I spent eighteen months or so as a volunteer teacher in San Quentin Federal Penitentiary, California, working on Death Row and with the main prison population.

Since my return to Britain, I have taught full-time at three major London prisons, HMPs Wandsworth, Brixton and Belmarsh. I know a lot of people socially who have been, are and in some cases should be behind bars. Obviously I don’t know from personal experience what it’s like to be banged up, but let me tell you some of what I do know about this prison where we live.

The very first paradox: despite the fact that the people there have (mostly) committed acts we deem unacceptable, and you would therefore assume we want to encourage them to act better, prison as an environment is utterly dominated by passivity and inactivity. It is not simply that there is very little to do inside. It is that, once in prison, the responsibility or the opportunity to take even the smallest decision for yourself is taken away. You never get the chance to do the right thing.

You are told when to get up, what and when to eat, where to go, what to wear, who to talk to, when (if at all) you can shower. You can’t even choose to be rained on (if it’s raining, you won’t be let outside). You will rarely if ever get called by your first name. Nothing is expected of you, at least nothing good, by the vast majority of those around you, and people tend to rise or fall to the level of others’ expectations.

Now it’s easy to portray this as oppressive, which it is, but there is also a sense in which it makes prison, as the Daily Mail leaders constantly opine, too easy. Not in the way they mean, a mythical life of home-cooked cuisine and leisurely sessions in the jacuzzi. Not only do prisoners live in crumbling Victorian monoliths all across the country, but they expend an enormous amount of time and energy over tiny, mind-numbingly tedious material details (phonecards, tobacco, teabags, ramen noodles in America), the regulation of supply of which makes them into a BIG DEAL and a surrogate currency.

But in terms of structure, of figuring out what to do with your daily life, prison rarely challenges you at all. The day is laid out, three meals are provided, your daily routine is preordained by someone else. Nothing is your responsibility. They even give you a moral compass, to help you plot the most temptingly basic path through the world’s complexities. It’s us versus them, or more accurately, as the Tupac tune bouncing out of so many people’s cells puts it, it’s me against the world.

That is what institutionalisation is: the loss of initiative in thought as well as action. And the result is a creeping, insidious infantilisation, the evidence of which you see everywhere. There are constant scenes that look like nothing less than a stroppy playgroup on a humid day. Hench, powerful men trundling sulkily along behind the screws like sullen, resentful kids; shouting matches and fights breaking out over nothing; and most of all, profound, paralysing boredom, the kind you felt as a kid at the end of the holidays when you’d been watching too much TV.

Boredom. The most dangerous thing in prison is not the violent gangs of cinematic legend, but the tedium that comes from having far too much time and not enough self to fill it with. More often than not, you can spend 48 hours behind your door at the weekend, emerging three times a day for twenty minutes for meals. In the summer, when staff shortages are at their worst, in the course of a week you might get out maybe twice. The rest of the time you run your eyes for the millionth time over the posters on your wall, flick through the magazines under your bed yet again, breathe the fug of your cellmate’s odour and the stench of the toilet in the corner. You are reduced to an aggregate of the most basic human actions. People go crazy with the sheer pointlessness of it.

It has been suggested that this provides plenty of time to think. It would be more honest to admit that all of us, not only prisoners, tend to use a hectic life outside expressly to distract ourselves from the fears and regrets and uncertainties of our inner existence. And instructing a man to dwell on his mistakes without offering him the chance to do anything about them is to offer him a most perverse form of advice.

So what do people do to fill the time? You might be surprised to learn that the answer isn’t needlepoint and moral self-improvement. Some narcotise themselves with brown or some other nasty and pernicious chemical; in a perfect microcosm of the way the prison system warps intentions, the use of heroin actually went up after mandatory drug testing was introduced, because it’s much faster to flush than weed. Some narcotise themselves using less pharmacological methods: planning moves, fronting about the girls and cars waiting for them on the out, looking for the next angle to play.

And here is the next paradox, because while very little actually happens in prison, there is always the looming possibility that it could all kick off at any moment. Because of the tedium, because of the deprivations, material and emotional, because of feuds and conflicts imported from the outside, because of the fact that you are locked up with lots of frankly mental violent people, you have to be on your guard at all times. You doubt absolutely everyone, particularly those who seem to have good intentions. The single hardest thing to do in prison is trust. This one I do know from personal experience: I trusted quite a few men inside, and one of them stitched me up. He was the only one who did, but the results, for me, were serious.

The result for prisoners on a day to day basis, though, is that when the officer bangs on your door and orders you down to breakfast, you do more than wash your face and pull on a shirt. You gird yourself once more into your armour, the protective plating of the persona. Prison is not a place that is kind to weakness; somebody around you will sniff it out and take advantage of it as remorselessly as a jackal.

So every morning you put on your game face, the persona of invulnerability, and you look out for number one. People don’t realise just how exhausting it is, how draining mentally and physically, to maintain a fiction of self at all times. Until, of course, your face grows to fit the mask of aggression and toughness it has been wearing for so long. It hardly needs pointing out how unhealthy, how entirely counter-productive this is for both the people concerned and for the society which they will soon re-enter.

What makes this ubiquitous im-persona-ting of independence and power ironic, and paradoxically necessary, is that, as already mentioned, you really can’t do or get anything in prison, at least not without asking someone’s help or permission. Men whose tenuous reputations are based on taking whatever they want from the world find themselves having to ask for a shower or a change of shirt, and being denied for two weeks at an officer’s whim. They have to stand there impatiently, powerless, until someone bothers to take them to the exam that started 45 minutes ago. They find themselves deliberately left on the wing, staff snickering around them, while their mums and kids sit in the visits hall after a two-hour journey, clock ticking.

These are the tiny organic flakes of humiliation and impotence that over time and under the weight of the prison carbonise into the fierce-burning coal of anger and resentment. Resentment not just at being dictated to, but at the position of weakness that means they have to take it. I suppose many prisoners could use a lesson in humility, but this is not the way to teach it; it is the way to achieve precisely the opposite. Nobody responds well to being reminded incessantly of their mistakes, which the wide expanse of time and the close confines of the cell both do incessantly. It makes them feel that there is nothing they can do and that therefore, paradoxically, it is not their fault.

The resentment and sullen unco-operativeness of the prisoners is, apart from active interference and sabotage by staff, the main reason why many quite well-intentioned efforts to improve prisons fail. James Baldwin, the son of a preacher man, wrote a potent essay on Fifties Harlem, called “Fifth Avenue, Uptown.” In it, he explains why the ghetto residents demolished a brand-new housing project as soon as it was built (an event that caused a lot of people who didn’t live there to opine that nothing could be done for such ingrates). “The people in Harlem know that they are living there because white people do not think they are good enough to live anywhere else. No amount of ‘improvement’ can sweeten this fact…. A ghetto can be improved in one way only: out of existence.” Everything you get in prison, from a visit to the gym to a smile, reminds you of how much you are being denied.

It makes a lot of sense to equate the ghetto and the prison, not least because they house a lot of the same, disproportionately black, people. Both are insulated, isolated, deprived environments in which society places people we don’t want to see, on the premise that they don’t deserve anywhere better, that they are in some way an inferior group of human beings.

Now a lot of people think that prisoners are inferior to the rest of us, because of what they have done. A lot of prisoners themselves believe somewhere that this is true, and that belief adds an edge of bitter self-hatred to their resentment. Whether it is true or not, and it isn’t, it doesn’t mitigate the reality or the repercussions of prisoners’ social placement. For the prisoners themselves, it worsens them. One problem with truth, especially unpalatable truth, is that after it there is sometimes nowhere else to go.

And in prison, there literally is nowhere else to go. It is an all-consuming institution, and its premise is there to confront you every day. You have to get up in the morning and face the fact that you are where you are because the overwhelming majority of society, probably including yourself at some deep and contradictory level, thinks you are a piece of shit. A dangerous, malevolent, anti-social piece of shit. It is the effect on people’s self-perceptions that is imprisonment’s most pervasive and damaging legacy.


How do you deal with being socially designated as scum? You can really respond in two fundamental ways. You can accept it, which resulting feelings of self-loathing mean because you care less about yourself, you have even less investment in the world around you, and are therefore more, not less, likely to do the wrong thing. Or you can deny it, start to equivocate and put the blame elsewhere, to emphasise the unsuitability of society or people to judge you. Most people, inevitably, end up entangled in a complex interweaving of both.

A prisoner knows more about what he’s done than anyone, and in the still of night many men have deeper, colder plunges of horror than most of us will ever know. But at the same time he will also have justifications for his actions, as we all do, some valid, some only to keep sane, and he will often have greater difficulty than outsiders in seeing exactly what is so wrong about what he did. And there is something about the sheer vast scale of the total system of punishment, all of which seems to have been assembled for the express purpose of punishing you, that would make anyone feel less like a malefactor and more like a victim.

One thing that makes it easier to reject what the system tells you is that justice is absolute for those punished but is otherwise unavoidably relative. Most crimes are unsolved; most criminals are going to get away with it. There is always someone you know who has got away with something much worse than you did. It doesn’t even have to be a criminal. “Fuckin government spent more on that Millennium Dome rubbish than everyone in this whole nick made in their fuckin lives,” was a particularly memorable variation on a very common theme.

There are dozens of other ways in which the failures of the prison system to live up to its promises allow prisoners to reject its designation of them. Inconsistencies in sentencing; differential rates of conviction by judge, by crime, by court (magistrates’ courts, staffed by part-time laymen, are particularly hated); innumerable bureaucratic mistakes and inefficiencies (functionally, prisons are bureaucracies, in which it is people rather than papers that are filed away).

These grievances are important, although not because they detract from the legitimacy of the system (not necessarily a problem in any case); prisoners are remarkably committed to the paradigm of imprisonment, mainly because they are so deep inside it that it is hard to see out. Liberals beware: prisoners actually lobby quite often for harsher penalties, a testament to how pervasive and simultaneously how futile is the ethic of deterrence.

They are important because they add yet more fuel to the raging blaze of resentment that warms the body when the heating on the wings has broken down yet again. Coupled with the obvious deficiencies of the system, that resentment encourages people not to take responsibility for themselves and their actions but to feel that they too are victims of something (not so improbable when you consider how many prisoners genuinely have been victimised as children, whether by abuse, violence, school exclusion or simply poverty and neglect).

But the simplest and most depressing way people deal with being made pariahs is to make some pariahs of their own. Prison contains a powerfully patriarchal unofficial hierarchy. ‘Boys with toys’, men such as armed robbers, willing to use their strength and violence, are near the top, big-time drug dealers or indeed anyone who’s made serious money with them, then on down through drummers and fraudsters and dippers to the lowest of the low, sex offenders. There’s a hierarchy among them too, on the same principles, with paedophiles on the bottom.

I had a student who was serving a life sentence for murdering a sex offender he met in prison, a man he had no reason to hate, with whose victim he had no connection, for the simple reason that the man was a “bacon”. My student smiled with pride as he told me about what he had done, and others in the class nodded approvingly. He was a decent kid, actually, not a monster but a man caught up in a very powerful ideology. Loathing sex offenders is a central tenet in how prisoners redefine themselves when they’ve already been defined as evil. If we as a society need prisoners as pariahs, as a group to which we can feel superior, then how much more do prisoners need their own pariah group?

There is something going on here that I find strange and tragic: prisoners try to expiate their own sins by heaping horror and hatred on others, by making others’ punishment heavier. It helps no-one: in attempting to reject society’s designation of them, the ‘normal’ prisoners are paradoxically drawn more deeply into it. They play precisely into the dividing and ruling hands of a penal system that separates prisoners into ‘normals’ and ‘nonces’ and encourages them to take out their frustrations on each other. And what does it say about us, the wider society, when we use criminals for exactly the same purpose?

Of course, it’s hard to know who’s done what on the sex offence wing, because very few men will admit to anything and a good number, quite a few I think truthfully, claim innocence. In stark contrast, in the main part of the prison astonishingly few people say straight up that they didn’t do it, and lots of lads are only too happy to regale you with tedious details of the times they’ve tiefed nuff tom, bredrin. In fact, you hear many more implausible confessions than protestations of innocence.

This is the other way you deal with being labelled scum: you don’t just accept it, you flaunt it. Many prisoners wear the label of ‘badbwoy’, of outlaw, with no small degree of pride. It signifies a certain degree of toughness, the staunchness of the survivor, which is a direct result of the prison system’s own mythology of punishment. You’re not some everyday civilian; you’re special, because you’ve made it through a system that told you expressly that you weren’t. Surviving prison gives you the stamp of authenticity. You constantly hear people talking, chests out, about how easily they’re doing their time; they’re “riding their bang-up, piece of piss,” “smashed four year, bruv, done it standing on my head.”

They’re not doing it easily; they know it and they know their audience knows it too. But again prison has failed to live up to its pledges, in this case, paradoxically, of how bad it is. People are very adaptable; they get used to anything, even find tiny grains of comfort in it. In his masterful rendering of the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes that even though he is sentenced to back-breaking labour for eternity, Sisyphus has defeated the gods, because they can do no more to him. In that sense, he is free.

The problem with any form of sanction is the law of diminishing returns: over time, repeated often enough, the greatest terror becomes normal, prosaic. Prison works much more effectively on those who’ve never been there. In a strange way, society loses a powerful influence over a man when it decides to incarcerate him, yet simultaneously damages him just as powerfully. It is the worst of all worlds.

For society continues to exert a baleful power over him while he is behind bars, by reinforcing his self-perception as a criminal. For regular offenders, crime doesn’t just pay (the bills); it is also where people get their friends, their status, their identity. Crime is what a criminal is good at, and we all need to be good at something. The imprimatur of imprisonment merely reinforces that identification.

Obviously you can’t expect the prison and associated social systems to replace all these important functions in people’s lives; they have to do that themselves. But the very least we can ask of these hugely expensive and powerful institutions is that they not compound people’s multi-faceted reliance on criminality. And yet they do exactly that from start to finish.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who, despite rather than because of the system, leave the prison determined to make a new life for themselves. They are dispatched onto the street with nothing more than a few pounds in discharge grant and a snide “We’ll see you again soon, son.” They have nowhere to go, no money, no housing, few skills, the little matter of a three-year gap on the CV to explain to potential employers. The incredibly sporadic probation services often don’t contact them for months after release.

But these are only the material circumstances that lead people back into the stony embrace of the prison walls. They mainly come back because, more than ever after imprisonment, they see themselves as criminals and prison, if not entirely as where they belong, as an unavoidable occupational hazard. And how can we expect any different, when everything around these men keeps on reiterating that that is what they are?

About the only aspect of the prison system which doesn’t either by design or by unintended consequence perpetuate this self-perception is education. It’s a mixed bag, generally: some of the staff are amazingly dedicated, but a lot are hapless timeservers, and an immense amount of time is wasted on futile targets and arid criteria. But even in imperfect form, the whole function of education is to get someone to think of the world and their place in it in a different light, to change the angle at which their globe revolves by just a few degrees and get it closer to the sun. That capacity to get people to see themselves differently, to define themselves along an alternative axis to badbwoy-hood and money-making, is nowhere needed more desperately than in the prison system.

There are a few other things inside that help with that process, too. The drug workers do a good job, and there are individual officers, more in number than you would expect, who genuinely try hard to do something for, as opposed to something to, the men in their care. Committed officers in particular are to be admired. Anyone who can deal with an incessant stream of embittered men, latent violence, colleagues who periodically border on the psychotic and the overwhelmingly mundane nature of their work without succumbing to the malaise of cynicism and passivity that afflicts everyone around them is little short of a remarkable human being.

But for every screw who tries to do an impossible job well, there are several whose apathy, resentment and sometimes malice leads them to do things like spread the word that a man they don’t like is secretly a sex offender, to ensure that he gets his spleen ruptured by other prisoners. It is almost as if many of the staff can’t stand to see the prisoners do anything constructive, because they’d have to think of them differently. Officers have come into my class and openly laughed at my students’ efforts to learn; have walked whistling through the middle of the set when prisoners are performing plays to a packed audience of their families and friends; have dragged people off halfway through a lesson to assemble brooms in the workshops for £7 a week.

(Prison workshops, incidentally, are the single most deranged, ethically dubious idea in the modern British prison. Most prisoners, who have never been regular members of the workforce, are hardly likely to be converted to the Protestant ethic by the workshops, which daily hammer home the association of work with low pay, exploitation, chronic boredom and unutterable repetition. It is yet another embodiment of how prison compounds the problem rather than solving it. The paradox here, of course, is that many prisoners lobby hard to get to workshops; anything to get out of the cell and make a few pennies. Between something and nothing, most people will choose the something, however inadequate. That makes it neither morally legitimate nor fair.)

 The thing is that departments like education, which serve some sort of ‘rehabilitative’ function, are going in the opposite direction to the bulk of the system. Education’s fundamental purpose, to make people ask questions, is entirely inimical to the aims of an institution that relies on people, outside and especially inside it, not questioning its founding assumptions. Any institution, not just prison, relies on and consciously tries to encourage if not apathy, then an unquestioning adherence to existing practice and prevailing ideas. I think anyone, officer or civilian, who tries to do the right thing in prison very soon realises that they are swimming against a very powerful tide that ultimately saps them of their strength.

Now a lot of people say that it’s different in the therapeutic prisons of Grendon and Dovegate; how humane the officers are, how nice the facilities, how much respect you get treated with. The move towards therapeutic custody has recently been described as the most important shift in British penal history. I haven’t been to a therapeutic nick, and I’m loath to criticise any attempt at improvement when the proffered alternative is usually 23-hour bang-up. But I do know a lot of lads who’ve spent time there or taken therapeutic courses like RAPt, for drug users, and it’s obvious that the therapeutic approach suffers from that most modern affliction, the tendency to pathologise.

You are asked, as in other 12-step courses like AA, to think of yourself as the victim of an affliction, the ailment of crime, and to put yourself in the hands of a person or a system that can help you rid yourself of that ailment. The burden of responsibility for what you’ve done is shifted off your back, which accounts for the evangelical fervour with which some prisoners get into it. And it does have cult-like qualities: the participants are shut off from everyone else around them, very little of the world in which they live is let in, and they come back a few months later speaking in tongues, the incoherent language of psycho-babble.

The problem is that, even more than orthodox prison, the therapeutic approach reinforces the idea that crime is a reflection of a definitive state of mind, an indubitable flaw in one’s make-up. This time at least it’s not the prisoner’s fault, but it still assumes a straight causal arrow between a prisoner’s character and their actions, some hole in their soul that accounts for what they did.

Prisoners are our emotional shorthand, our black-hatted bad guys in the Westerns. They are our attempt to sweep up the moral complexity and complicity of the world and put it into ordered boxes: good and bad, right and wrong, guilty and innocent. For our peace of mind and affirmation that we are not involved, we need to know that bad things happen because of bad people.

But they don’t. Bad things happen for innumerable reasons, but hardly ever because of some jagged gash in a person’s soul, some profound moral deficiency from which they suffer. Crime mostly comes down to contingencies, some as serious as how I see my place in the world, what is important to me, where my future lies, some as stupid and transient as an unpaid bill or an unexpected opportunity.

The vast majority of us, not just the odd poet, contain multitudes. Even a man who has done the most loathsome and monstrous things spends moments, perhaps even the majority of his time, thinking tenderly of something. I’ve met many people like that. That is the horror and the beauty of the human heart. By emphasising the horror of what you have done and denying the possibility of beauty, prison does the most pervasive and profound damage to the way you perceive yourself. There is a terrible poignancy in talking to many men inside; a hard front of grandiose badbwoy aggression covers a deeper, hidden pain of putridity, a rottenness of self like tooth decay of the heart.

I think at heart we know, or at least can guess, that this happens to people. Otherwise there wouldn’t be such an outcry, such a sense of wrongdoing, when miscarriages of justice and wrong convictions come to light. How hard we cheer for Tim Robbins when he breaks out of the murderous regime in The Shawshank Redemption! Yet somehow we assume that the guilty, because of what they have done, are supposed to take it all without demur.

Not even the most enthusiastic advocate of the punitive approach can be sure that prison will eradicate an “inclination” to wrongdoing (if such a thing exists), let alone take away the factors that make it more likely. The only things you can be sure prison will eradicate are the very things you want to preserve: innocence, belief, the ability to look beyond oneself, the time and chance to think the best of people and the world. If this is prison working, for God’s sake let’s make it unemployed.


For a lot of people, though, the question remains: why should we care? The most pervasive myth of all about prisoners is that they are not like us, people whom we’ll never meet unless we find them breaking into our houses, and that what takes place in prison or the state of its occupants are only tangentially relevant to most decent persons. Cell is other people, so to speak.

At one level, we should care because we should be bigger than simple self-interest. It is the mark of a civilised, humane society that we take some collective risks in order to safeguard the welfare of vulnerable individuals, even those who have abused our trust; that as a society we act above and beyond individual self-interest. “It is true that the rights we traditionally recognise impair our security to some degree,” writes the American academic Ronald Dworkin, interestingly about US law post-September 11th. “We must decide not where our interest lies on balance, but what justice requires, even at the expense of our interests, out of fairness to other people.”

Actually, even out of pure self-interest we cannot allow prisons to keep on doing the damage they wreak. 99% of prisoners in Britain will get out at some point, to walk around your streets and drink in your pub. Even if you don’t care about them as people, you surely must care about the damage they are more, not less, likely to do to you and yours after time inside. In that sense, the only other position that makes coherent sense is actually to keep all these men inside permanently. I think very few of us really want to live in a totalitarian society.

But in any case, the idea that prisoners are differentiated from us by anything more profound than stone walls is a lie, a story we tell to make ourselves feel better. Philosophically, it is self-contradictory: the prison system gains its leverage and legitimacy from carrying out our collective decision to regulate our society via this particular form of punishment. We give it form and life. That obliges us not only to realise our intimate connection with those we punish, but also to give very careful scrutiny to what we do and achieve in the process of punishment. We must know, even if we don’t want to, what takes place in our name, since it could not exist without our moral sanction. Ignorance is no defence for innocence, our wilful blind innocence of what we authorise, any more than it is for guilt.

Society couldn’t be further from the Thatcherite ideology of single atomistic stick figures. It is rather a giant sac of amniotic fluid in which we all live suspended, whose delicate chemistry is subject to all kinds of toxic fluctuations according to what we do. Not just how we act, but the things we allow to be done to the environment around us, have the most intimate consequences for our lives and the lives of innumerable people we will never know. Dickens understood this. “Consider poor Joe,” he said of the street-sweeper protagonist of Bleak House. “There is not a corruption, not a brutality or a wrongdoing in him that does not rise inexorably to wreak its retribution amongst the highest of society, even among the greatest of the great and the proudest of the proud.”

The fibres of the prison are more deeply interwoven amongst the warp and weft of our social fabric than almost any of us understand, and what powers the loom is money. We live in a culture in which money has never been more important: it is now our primary source not just of comfort and security but of self-definition. There really aren’t a lot of other ways now to think of yourself: jobs are transient and meaningless, we long ago lost the empire and its attendant sense of prideful purpose, Thatcher demolished collective organisations and local communities. Even old solidities like family roles or ethnic hierarchies are dissolving away. It’s a release to be free of a lot of these, but the question is what replaces them.

What’s really interesting is that it’s the people who have always been thought of as the most exploited by and resistant to capitalism, the working-class and ethnic communities from which prisoners overwhelmingly come, that have embraced materialism most fervently. Here, material wealth not only distinguishes you from those around you, but it seems like grabbing a piece of what you’ve been long denied, almost a righting of historical wrongs.

After the last decade and a half of economic growth, the problem is not absolute but relative deprivation. It is that post-modern capitalism, like prison, fails to live up to its promises. It dismantles any reason to “know your place”, to think of others as superior or more deserving, yet it offers no legitimate method for those on the margins to get a share of what the rest have. Individually, more than ever you need the connections and qualifications that favour the privileged. Collectively, politics is discredited and collective ideals are fragmented. So ordinary people are left like street urchins outside the display window, tantalised by the glistening goods on offer, but with no way of getting them bar a literal smash and grab.

That is the impact of our society on prison, the impetus behind rising crime figures. We sort of understand that. What we don’t understand at all is its critical corollary: the impact of prison on our society. I believe that almost all the contemporary urban tendencies I see each day on the streets of Brixton have drawing roots deep in the bitter water of prison. The aggression, the obscure resentment and feeling of being cheated somehow, the pressure, the “fronting” and “representing”, the mistrust of others; all are painfully familiar from the inside.

When the shadow of the prison walls looms so large, when such a high percentage of the people around me have been through the criminal justice system, that is only to be expected. But it goes deeper than that, because today everybody seems like the Ray Liotta character in Goodfellas: they want to be a gangster. There’s no place cooler than Brixton these days. On weekend nights you see them come, crowds of trendy white people from all over town, eager to soak up a little of that edgy urban vibe; to be, vicariously, a badbwoy. And the locals, in turn, put on a mad, bad show for them.

We are so lost, so uncertain of what the point of it all is, so stricken with the pervasive inauthenticity that comes of trying to buy meaning and identity, that we look everywhere for something genuine, and will copy, fake or steal whatever looks like it might be for real. One of my students, one of the relatively few genuinely dangerous men I had under my tutelage, grew up on the same Battersea estate as several of the multiplicitous So Solid Crew, about whom he had this to say. “They’re the kind of kids who wanted to be like us growing up, but they didn’t have the bottle or the nous, so they ended up doing it through records. They’re just wannabes.”

Criminals, in their willingness to action, to take charge of things, to at least do something, seem to outsiders to hammer authenticity into their lives with clenched fists. There is a terrible aesthetic simplicity to violence and crime, a sort of odd purity to it, and prisoners are seen as the nearest thing we have to rebels. They themselves don’t see it that way, and they are right: they simply entangle themselves more deeply in materiality and the punitive consequences that come of trying to get its fruits, and everything bogs down yet more intractably.

It’s because the consequences affect us all that we must confront exactly what prison does, not just throw people in there and hope against hope that the world gets better. Baldwin concludes that this is what the ghetto does to white society: “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself. Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become.” The difference now is that the damage is no longer safely confined to the ghetto. We all live in the penal colony.