Isle of Sheppey, Kent, United Kingdom – Nicknamed “stabside”, Swaleside, a high-security prison, is a place with long corridors and small, high-up windows.
Prison guard Richard Davies moves with the rattle of keys, which he uses to open an endless series of doors.
He crosses a courtyard with exhausted patches of green, surrounded by walls topped with spirals of barbed wire that shrink the sky.
The 31-year-old facility, on the Isle of Sheppey in northern Kent, the English county known as the “garden of England”, has more than 1,000 prisoners.
Before introducing 15 of Swaleside’s residents, Davies smiles and says: “They’re murderers. But they’re lovely guys. You’ll see.”
The men are slouched back in their seats, arranged in a circle in a vast grey room without windows. They are all black.
They have been selected by Davies and the prison’s governor, Mark Icke, to address violence as mediators.
Teaching how to intervene between inmates is not new. What is unique here is that the most dangerous prisoners form the group.
Anton, one of the participants, summarises the competing voices of the group.
Leaning forward in a grey Hugo Boss tracksuit, speaking with confidence, he explains: “We’re all in this group because we’ve got influence.”
“Positive influence,” the man next to him adds, and the room rumbles with laughter.
Prisoners may have unique understanding of the sorts of disputes and conflicts that may erupt between prisoners, thus making them powerful allies to often over-burdened staff.
The government has been quietly panicking about the escalation of violence across England‘s prisons.
In November 2018, parliament published a report finding that the death rates in prisons have reached record highs at 50 percent higher than the rest of the population. Drug use and suicide attempts are also rising.
When Richard asks Daniel, a tall man with a handsome, unsmiling face, what he thinks about prison life, the room pauses in a rare moment of silence.
Daniel was in a Youth Offender’s prison before Swaleside, and commands respect.
Clutching onto one foot in socks and sliders, he begins: “[The juvenile prison] was … the cells were covered in nastiness, the living conditions were wack – but on the flipside, there was a lot for people to do. [At Swaleside] there’s no motivation, nothing – why do you think people are getting stabbed left right and centre?”
Anton adds: “There are some guys with a very high level of capability in this room.”
But, he continues, there are not enough opportunities for them to develop, either through working or higher education.
A recent report showed that almost a third of prisoners are in their cells for most of the day, chronically bored and vulnerable to mental illness.
In April, another House of Commons report found that the “the Ministry of Justice and Treasury are guilty of a crisis management approach to prisons that has been failing for the past five years.” Citing overcrowding and the neglect of rehabilitation, the report delivered the damning verdict that “the government’s current approach to prison funding … is inefficient, ineffective, and unsustainable.”
Davies, the guard, knows about the consequences of a prison system losing control.
He knows how inmates melt razor blades into toothbrushes to make knives. He knows how it feels to be “hot-watered”, risking third-degree burns when a prisoner threw a boiling kettle at him. He knows that his wife, a former prison guard herself, was a different person before she was attacked and punched in the face by an inmate. She was a happy person before, he says.
“But,” he says, “how can you say to someone ‘don’t be violent’ when that’s all they know, and then put them in an environment with violent people?“
Austerity cuts, which forced many prisons to reduce their staff, are often cited as a reason for increased violence.
Between 2010 and 2016, the number of prison officers plummeted from 45,000 to under 31,000.
In 2016, the cuts were partially reversed so that staff levels are now roughly as they were before the cuts.
Governor Icke says: “We’re meant to have 178 officers – this is the first time in the history of the prison we’re at capacity.”
But, many of these guards lack experience.
Thirty-five percent of prison officers have been in the Prison Service for less than a year, whereas over half the prisoners have been at Swaleside for over a decade.
Icke adds: “We are massively underfunded.”
In 2016, Davies contacted a leading government adviser on crime, Gwenton Sloley, to help him address the increasing attacks between prisoners.
As the mediation programme was being planned, violence at Swaleside skyrocketed.
For two years in a row, the prison made national news when inmates rioted and took over entire wings of the prison.
Sloley remembers the first session as anarchy.
“The first group’s behaviour was appalling, they were kicking tables over,” he says.
By the end of 2018, he had trained more than 20 men. For many of them, it was the first course they had successfully completed.
They were better at breaking up fights. It was a new beginning for those seen as troublemakers, such as Daniel.
Daniel gestures to Davies.
“He said I know that people listen to you … it’s been a blessing in disguise, this mediation group. Because when you get to feeling like all this trying and trying is amounting to nothing, I might as well get kicked out of this jail.”
Mandeep Dhami, professor at Middlesex University London, who has worked in two British prisons and studied mediation in prison settings, said: “Prisoners may have unique understanding of the sorts of disputes and conflicts that may erupt between prisoners, thus making them powerful allies to often over-burdened staff.
“Enabling and supporting prisoners to resolve their own conflicts is not only an important part of non-violent dispute resolution but can also encourage development of social and emotional skills that underpin rehabilitation efforts … These are precisely the sorts of skills and settings we want to see in our society.”
Until you've got officers that are investing time into the day-to-day running, it's not going to work. This is how you break men's spirits - by giving them hope and then by not believing in them.
The visitor’s room at Swaleside is packed, the air thick with emotion.
Across the huge room where groups and couples have congregated, everyone has the same posture, curved forward on their brightly-coloured chairs, their faces as close as possible to each other.
Anton emerges from the groups to say hello.
When asked about the mediation project, he says he still supports the programme but feels “they would benefit from further managerial support”.
His words echo a report published in May by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke, who called the programme “a positive step”, adding that, however, “although early signs were encouraging, there was insufficient managerial oversight and support for the prisoner mediators.”
Since December, the men have largely been left to themselves to carry out mediations, rather than with the supervision recommended by Sloley, who is blunt about the programme’s status.
“Until you’ve got officers that are investing time into the day-to-day running, it’s not going to work.
“This is how you break men’s spirits – by giving them hope and then by not believing in them.”
After the visitor’s day, some of the men gather for a public speaking workshop. Some have prepared speeches. Richard goes first. He has his memorised.
“Hope? What is hope?”
He talks about his family, the inmates, and the possibilities of redemption. He talks about his wife, and how he hopes she will one day be able to let go of the pain she carries.
He ends: “I hope that one day we will able to sit outside on the grass together, not as inmate and guard, but as friends.”