‘Managing challenging behaviour’ – spreading the control unit regime throughout the prison system (UK)

The abuse of prisoners who refuse to co-operate with intolerable conditions and regimes is common in British prisons and for decades the use of control units, long-term solitary confinement and continuous transfers (ghosting) have been standard weapons of repression against prisoners who have questioned, challenged and resisted abusive regimes. John Bowden reports on the most recent manifestation – the Managing Challenging Behaviour Strategy (MCBS).

A framework for surveillance, control and repression

MCBS extends the current control unit regime whereby the Prison Service ‘manages’ prisoners perceived to be a problem by consigning them to Close Supervision Centre (CSC) facilities and allows CSC-type control measures to be used on ordinary segregated prisoners. CSCs are the most recent in a long line of ‘control units’ and ‘special units’. They came into existence in 1998, when the Prison Rules were amended to allow a small number of prisoners to be consigned to behaviour modification units from where they can only return to the mainstream prison system after ‘progressing’ through a number of levels. There are currently three units at Woodhill, Whitemoor and Wakefield prisons. In addition there are ‘designated Rule 46’ cells in Long Lartin, Frankland and Belmarsh seg units, where CSC prisoners who refuse to co-operate or are not ‘progressing’ are sent on ‘lay-downs’ for lengthy periods.

Produced by the Prison Service High Security Prisons Group in January 2009 at the same time as a new ‘CSC Referral Manual’, the MCBS policy document states that its purpose is: ‘to provide a framework for the management of prisoners whose behaviour is dangerous, disruptive and particularly challenging to manage whilst in custody’. In fact, that ‘framework’ is structured as an entire apparatus of surveillance, control and repression with a presence in every prison. The strategy then facilitates the removal of ‘difficult’ prisoners into control units operating a ‘robust management approach’ – in practice a regime of complete isolation from other prisoners but where ‘interaction’ with staff, who will continue monitoring and reporting, is compulsory. CSCs have a very high staff to prisoner ration with all movements and visits being accompanied by large numbers of uniformed officers who, at any sign of non-compliance, react with violence.

Two features particularly distinguish the current control unit strategy from earlier attempts to target and isolate specific prisoners. Firstly, the open recruitment of ‘non-disciplinary’ prison staff (doctors, psychiatrists, probation officers etc) in a ‘multi-disciplinary approach’ to eradicating dissent in prisons; secondly, a massive broadening of what constitutes ‘difficult’ behaviour.

The role of non-uniform prison staff

The strategic role of uniformed prison staff, governors, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, probation officers, teachers and even chaplains is well defined in the MCBS and in every prison all are to collaborate in identifying, assessing and recommending prisoners for control unit regimes. All information collated by the local multi-disciplinary staff team will then be forwarded to ‘Central Management Group’ at Prison Service HQ, who, in addition to co-ordinating the transfer of ‘difficult’ prisoners around the system, will share that information with groups like the ‘High Security Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Unit’, which suggests that the prison population is being trawled for politically motivated activists.

The Prison Medical Service (PMS), which ran prison health care until 2003 was completely unaccountable and doctors were notorious for sanctioning the brutality of uniformed staff and administering psychotropic medication such as largactyl for control, rather than medical purposes. During the 1990s, evidence of the collusion by non-uniformed, non-disciplinary staff, such as doctors, in covering up the brutalisation and, in some cases, torture of prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs prison was criticised by Amnesty International and the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Prison health care is now run by the NHS but the MCBS has ensured that the collusion of non-disciplinary staff in the maltreatment of ‘difficult’ prisoners is once again institutionalised and legitimised.

‘Challenging behaviour’

The MCBS policy document claims that the aims of the current control unit system is to ‘remove the most significantly disruptive, challenging and dangerous prisoners from ordinary location and manage them within a small and highly supervised unit’ whilst responding to ‘the changing nature of the population, with increasing management challenges surrounding gang affiliation and extremism.’

In their determination to blame and stigmatise a minority of ‘persistently difficult and challenging prisoners’ for the cruelty and ill-treatment inflicted on them, those who enforce the system have always constructed myths around the existence of dangerous prison malcontents and in the process created systems and methods of control that have been used against all prisoners inclined to complain and protest. However, the guidance to prison staff at a local level on criteria for what constitutes challenging behaviour is extremely broad and diverse, and includes behaviour not remotely threatening or challenging to the stability of the prison regime.

Apart from obvious ‘troublemakers’, prisoners considered suitable for transfer to control units include those suffering from mental illness and prone to self-harm and suicide attempts; even a failure to take medication is considered justification for being labelled a ‘control problem’. In fact, the MCBS document openly admits that some prisoners in the control unit system will ‘have a range of complex and diverse psychological and psychiatric needs’. It is a disgrace that, instead of being provided with specialised medical intervention, these prisoners are subjected to regimes based on sensory deprivation, crude behaviour modification techniques and psychological cruelty.

Apart from the mentally ill, prisoners innocent of any breach of discipline are also susceptible to the attention of MCBS, which is deliberately designed to provide prison staff with a weapon of arbitrary victimisation against any prisoner not absolutely compliant with their authority. Once a CSC referral has been made, the assessment process will consider any ‘negative behaviour’, from open defiance to ‘rudeness and ignoring staff,’ as sufficient reason to recommend a prisoner for a place in a control unit. But being free of ‘negative behaviour’ does not guarantee a return to normal location. Indeed, the Referral Manual says: ‘Positive behaviour can provide evidence that the prisoner is able to control himself in certain situations. However, if the prisoner is known to manipulate staff, such compliance may actually indicate a risk to others.’

Inevitably, the MCBS considers all ‘triggers’ to rebellious behaviour to be located within the personalities of the prisoners themselves and to have nothing whatsoever to do with how they’re treated by the prison system or its staff. Prisoners who refuse to conform to prison authority are simply ‘psychopaths’, inherently predisposed to behave destructively, regardless of circumstances and context. Prisoners selected for MCBS or removal to a control unit are issued with an information sheet which informs them – ‘It is your behaviour alone that has triggered the decision to manage you in this way/start CSC assessments. You can change your behaviour with or without the help of prison staff.’ The message is clear: you will conform to prison authority – or you will be made to do so.

Prisoners referred for CSC ‘assessment’ are usually moved first to the segregation unit at Long Lartin where they are subjected to a regime of intimidation and psychological bullying in preparation for the control unit proper. The intention is to push the prisoner to the limits of psychological endurance and eventually render them incapable of fighting back or mustering further resistance. It is punishment by ordeal and for those prisoners already psychologically damaged, the descent into serious mental illness is inevitable.

Control units are sold to the public as a place to consign the ‘worst of the worst’ but just as the infamous Marion control unit in the US, which was constructed on this basis ended up housing political prisoners who were sent there straight from court, the CSC and MCBS are now ready for the state to use whenever it chooses against any prisoners it deems problematic.

Those within the Prison Service’s High Security Prisons Group who formulated the ‘Managing Challenging Behaviour Strategy’ are guilty of trying to institutionalise a system of repression that violates the basic human rights of prisoners. And all those who collude and participate in that system of repression, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, probation officers etc, are equally complicit.

John Bowden

HMP Glenochil, 2009.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 1st, 2009 at 2:27 pm and is filed under Prison Struggle.