Prison Life – Introduction

Hullo Friend,

Welcome to the Prison Life section. I’d like to say this section is life-affirming and enriching to the human condition… but it isn’t.

HM Prisons Statement of Purpose:

“ Her Majesty’s Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those

committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and

help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.”

Mmm…if you replace the euphemism of “ to look after them “ with “ to lock them up for 15 to 20 hours per day… with humanity” you’re left with, not just an oxymoron but, the reality of life in prisons. Once you’ve removed their bunting and tinsel, the mere act of locking human beings into little boxes diminishes the humanity of both prisoner and gaoler.

Here’s 2 alternative viewpoints more rooted in reality.

“ Prison in the United Kingdom is where one section of the British public live

under totalitarian rule.”

( The Guardian )

“ Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the

population into specimens in a zoo – obedient to our keepers, but dangerous

to each other.”

( Angela Davis )

The National Offender Management Service ( NOMS ) states that any sentence will be designed to:

1. Punish the offender.

2. Reduce crime ( including deterrence )

3. Reform and rehabilitate the offender.

4. Protect the public.

5. Make reparation by offenders.

They claim:

“ We know that what we doing is making a difference to reducing reoffending.”

Can they really be that deluded ? Prison has been around for a long time, as has NOMS. I don’t see crime figures falling – do you ? Through my own past and current experiences of prisons my hope is to expose the vagaries and inadequacies of the penal system and, as laudable as it is, the failure of NOMS and HM Prisons to deliver on their remit.

Graham Coutts, 28th April 2015



In order to control negative and encourage positive prisoner behaviour, prisoners operate what is known as the Incentive and Earned Privileges (IEP)scheme. (see site for further information).  This punishes bad behaviour by the removal of privileges such as in-cell television, and rewards good behaviour, for example you can purchase your own DVD player.    There are 3 IEP levels a prisoner can be on:   * Basic (the lowest)   * Standard   * Enhanced (the highest)    This was extended to include an Entry level for new prisoners.

The IEP policy was revised in the second half of 2013.  Accompanying this was an updated “Possessions List”.  This details which items prisoners are allowed to keep in possession.  Notably, for the guys who bought their own guitar, prisoners were no longer permitted to buy steel guitar strings.  This caused much consternation.   No reason was given for the removal of steel guitar strings from the Possessions List.  The prison rumour mill was abound with therories.  Typically, all turned out to be false.  However, this decision appeared to have been made with no thought to the consequences.

1. Only the best behaved prisoners can have guitars in possession.  Ironically the new IEP policy now punished them by making their guitars redundant without steel strings.

2.It would also negatively effect the mental health of prisoners.  Figures from THE PRISON REFORM TRUST, Bromley Briefings (Summer 2014) found that 40% of female and 23% of make prisoners suffered from anxiety and depression (compared with 19% of women and 12% of men in the general UK population); and that there were 23,183 incidents of self-harm in prisons in 2013, including 74 suicides.   Playing an instrument focuses the mind away from negative thought processes and is a positive outlet for painful feelings.

3. Learning an instrument improves a whole host of skills, including self-discipline, as well as raising self-esteem.  It allows prisoners to see their potential as a human being.  For some of the guys in here, who have had a life-time of being told they were not good enough, this is a revelation.  As their confidence and self-perception improves, so does their pro-social behaviour.  This can only benefit the wider community upon their release.   At the end of February 2014, I wrote to my local Hove MP, Mike Weatherley and Kevin Brennan MP who are both passionate advocates for music.

Extracts from my letter:   “…Have you ever visited a prison and seen first-hand the power that music has, in particularly learning a musical instrument, to change prisoners attitudes and lives for the better? …..There are a lot of devastated guys who are having to hand back electric guitars and steel strung acoustics.  Many of them would have saved up over months or years, from their £14.47 per week prison wages, to buy their instruments….as one prison officer put it, the prisoners who are learning a musical instrument are generally the most well behaved (the power to change) …..”

Mr Weatherly very kindly wrote to the Rt Hom Chris Grayling (MP, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice for his comments.  He received a reply from Jeremy Wright MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice which expanded on the new IEP policy but also that “the specific issue of metal guitar strings has been raised with me and I am considering the arguments that have been made.”

Mr Brennan actively campaigned on this issue.  Firstly, by raising the question at The House of Commons, before securing a date.  Mr Brennan also teamed up with Billy Bragg (his “Jail Guitar Doors” site), who himself had enlisted much support, which included Johnny Mar, Richard Hawley, and Dave Gilmour.    The successful result of their campaign was that the new Prisoners Minister, Andrew Selous, amended the IEP Possessions List to re-include steel guitar strings.

Graham Coutts   3rd September 2014

Just in HMP Wakefield, the reversal of policy will have a positive effect on around 50 practising guitarists.  Therefore I would like to extend my personal gratitude to Kevin,MP, Mike Weatherley MP, Billy Bragg and all the other musicians and interested parties who supported this campaign.


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