I put out a post recently asking if anyone had ever been in prison or the forces, I wanted to interview who had spent some time in one of these environments and could talk to me about the mental health impacts. I had a few good replies and was lining up some interviews. A week or so later I sent a DM to the man I’m interviewing now, Cameron Ragnerson. Cameron is very outspoken, super intelligent and above all spent 8 months in prison. An absolute dream to interview. He wrote a large piece about his time there specifically looking at mental health in prisons, and I asked a few follow up questions. I loved speaking to Cameron, this is interesting, scary, worrying and above all makes me never ever want to go to prison.
Cameron: Mental health in prison is for lack of a better word a joke, understaffed, undervalued and highly abused by those who seek to use it as a buffer to avoid punishment or achieve their own goals or believe it will allow access to medication otherwise heavily restricted.
Prison as you can imagine is a dark and very lonely place, you’re locked in a concrete and steel box 23 hours a day with a stranger, whom you have no knowledge about, who also has no knowledge about you. A powder keg waiting for a spark.
Tensions run high in the brief 2 half hour intervals you’re out of your cells, violence runs high as well as the flow of drugs the sale and use of, bullying as well as the intended social interaction and showers etc.
It’s also during this time you’re supposed to be able to reach out to staff use the electronic kiosks around the wing and hopefully catch a member of the mental health team. The kiosks have apps you can apply through to ask to see a member of the mental health team, but the waiting list is weeks long sometimes over a month.
On entering the prison you are initially asked if you have any mental health problems, it’s noted down in your file. Then on your first night on the wing you are again asked if you have any mental health problems, it is again noted down in a separate file. Now at no point on entering the prison, be it for your first time or if you’re a repeat visitor, do you get to see anyone from the mental health team even if you have said you have mental health problems. This will only happen if you have put in an application to see someone or if its medication related and even then if you’re on certain medications for your mental health, you won’t receive that in prison, you must first be assessed by the medical team and await notes from your GP to arrive before any medication is given.
If you’re already in a dark place before you get to prison it gets a lot darker real quick. Self-harm is rife in jail, young men walking around with horrific scars all over their bodies faces and necks where they have hacked chunks out of themselves. One of the major problems with how mental health in prison is viewed stems down to self-harm, people will now happily hack into themselves for multiple reasons and few and far between are the times that it’s actually a cry for help or a release from the pressures around them.
It’s an excuse to leave your cell, a reason to get your privileges restored if you’ve lost them, an extra phone call, to cause a disruptions, to get a cell to yourself, to move wings the list goes on. But the actual amount of times it’s for mental health reasons is minimal and thus anyone who does self-harm in prison is viewed by staff and cons alike as a fucking idiot, a time waster, a muppet …… And those who actually need help are still left alone in the shadows.
A few days after being inside you might have learned by now to apply to see the mental health team via the app, this has most likely been shown to you by another prisoner, staff do not know how you go about doing anything as a prisoner, so asking staff for help is a big no-no, they literally don’t know. I personally went without a phone call or contact with my family for 6 weeks because I didn’t know how the phone pins system or post worked and the staff didn’t either. Now imagine if your mental health was on the decline you wanted to reach out and find help, who do you ask? The people in charge of course so you ask a screw/guard/officer, your response “ask one of the lads” (another con). You try another staff source, a nurse, the same question, “ask one of the officers”, back to square one. Your options are these suffer alone or ask a stranger, a criminal, a con.
Now prison has designated prisoners called PIDs workers who’s roll it is to provide you with any information you might need about the prion and its workings, but no one tells you about these guys. You find this out as you do your time and all the while your mental health steadily declines. You just see these guys walking around with bright yellow tops on with PIDs written on it, with no indication as to what PIDs stands for, the whole thing is a running joke. I watched people suffer and decline day by day and sadly witnessed 2 deaths and many attempts of people taking their own lives. I watched as a young lad on 19 years old came into prison over a 3 month period he spiraled into mental and physical decline, his skin on his shins and forearms were slashed to pieces his throat deeply pitted with scars, he’d lost around 3 stone and had developed a chronic spice habit. This young lad could barely read or write, had no contact with the outside world and had only seen the mental health team once in the 3 month period he was in there.
I worked with him closely as I was a listener with the Samaritans, which when I first signed up seemed like a good idea but again was just a farce and a joke. In the role as a listener you are not allowed to tell anyone else what has been spoken about between you and the person receiving the listen even if they tell you they are going to harm another person or take their own life.
When you’re in prison and you’re in need of mental health help you have to either hope the gods smile on you and you’re actually helped by an overly inadequate mental health support team in there or you get out quick.
The only thing I saw in that concrete tomb that resembled any kind of help was prisoners helping each other, if you manage to avoid the general mass of career criminals and abusers in there and are lucky to find a genuine soul, a kind word and a helping hand and even that bit of advice or knowledge you needed you might just be able to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel not the swirling darkness all around you.
Rory: Thank you so much. I have a couple follow up questions if that's OK?
Cameron: Of course.
Rory: Do you know how many people who had never done drugs before they went to prison actually turned to drugs to deal with the mental strain of prison?
Cameron: In my time in there and from what I witnessed myself I'd say at least 70% of the people entering prison for the first time will try drugs, it’s rife in there spice being the most common. Then sleeping pills, but there's nothing you can't get your hands on in prison everything from cocaine, heroin to steroids, people are twice as likely to try drugs for the first time in prison than on the outside. Just to break the rigmarole of the day to day life 23 hours behind the door can break anyone.
Rory: I can only imagine, man. I know I've turned to alcohol and occasionally drugs to deal with my own mental health issues out here, never mind in there. I'm not made for prison, I've never had a street fight in my life.
I'd imagine the guards are the officials that you get most contact with day to day, do you think they're trained or equipped to handle such a widespread mental health issue in jail? Like, do they make things worse or better for people?
Cameron: They view it as someone's else problem if I'm honest, they see idiots hacking chunks out of themselves for a free vape and screaming to see the mental health team so they can get access to the landing to score drugs. So when someone genuinely wants and needs help they are tarred with the same brush.
The amount of pressure the staff are under is ridiculous and the staffing levels are horrendous, which leaves the landings full of tired angry guards who just want to go home, if you suffer with mental health in prison it's genuinely passed around or you’re pied off completely. I never witnessed or heard of one person get any sort of help or support with any mental health issues in prison.
Rory: I can only imagine. Again, my only experience is seeing doctors in the NHS, and that's frustrating enough. You don't have to get too personal or incriminate yourself of anything, but did your mental health suffer and how did you deal with it?
Cameron: I was in a real dark place before I went to prison, depression, loss I was seeking chaotic interactions at every turn so when that steel door closed behind my back and the world was locked away from me I felt a huge wait lifted off my shoulders. I didn't have to pretend anymore or even try, I felt like I could just breath, that's when I started writing. I wrote as if I was talking to someone and that little journal helped me just unload my fears and my hopes and dreams, it made a massive difference to my jail and my life.
Rory: That's incredible, man. How long were you away for?
Cameron: Thankfully only 8 months I was looking at 12 years but a lot of my charges were threw out at court I felt I was extremely lucky at the time, but now have a firm belief I was fated to be in there so I could experience true darkness and appreciate everything I took for granted including my own life and the people in it.
Rory: That’s beautiful, man. Can you tell me how you would occupy your time during the 23 hours you were in your cell?
Cameron: Being padded up with someone you can communicate with is a massive help just talking and getting to know someone breaks your day down, you look forward to programs on day time TV you would normally cringe at, this is when the drugs creep in I've seen lad do a week behind the door and then next thing you know they are sniffing lines of subby just to get through another week, I was lucky enough to have a prison job and decent pad mates to keep my head straight.
Rory: That makes a lot of sense. I work from home and even in the house I go stir crazy. All my equivalents sound so pedestrian and watered down compared to yours.
The stories are out there about the violence in prison. Can you tell me a little bit about that please? My first question would be how often in your wing or area was there a violent incident and was it always against other violent people or sometimes was it against just a random person who didn't do anything?
Cameron: Prison is rife with violence, everyday there is a violent incident, and 90% of the time it is drug related, sometimes its punishment, sometimes it’s a robbery against fresh inmates or debt heads there never has to be a reason for violence in prison it seems, napalm attacks, (boiling water and sugar) slashings are the most common sadly and horrific to see, even the aftermath is a shock to the system there was also 12 rapes while I was in there. Sometimes these rapes aren't sexual, there are purely to search people's arses for what parcels they may have up there, these attacks are absolutely horrific, and mind numbing and leave the victim emotional and physically scared.
Rory: Good god! And I would imagine that this leads to a lot of people leaving prison with psychological problems that they didn't come in with?
Cameron: I witnessed a young man walk in full of confidence and leave a scarred broken spice addict after 9 weeks, there isn't the help the communication or the care set aside for the vulnerable, your options are to adapt and live with the chaos or go to the protection wing with the rapists and nonses and all the debt heads who slash up to avoid paying bills, as soon as your on that wing your branded a nonce and can't go back into general population without a price on your head.
Rory: Fucking hell. So, it's literally learn to deal with it straight away or get relief by going to this other wing and make things worse when you get back?
Cameron: You deal with it anyway you can, drugs joining a gang, become a bitch, be lucky enough that the staff will give you a cushy job on the wing and get to the protection wing which is a very last resort once you've been there you can't go back into normal population you'd be slashed to bits but if you get out and end up back in everyone will know where you've been and you'll be marked.
Rory: What does "becoming a bitch" mean?
Cameron: Running to doors picking up or passing parcels and messages, getting parcels brought in on visits or getting cash sent in to someone else’s account for protection, obviously there is that sexual aspect of it as well but that is rarely in general population, more on the nonce wings, where they target vulnerable young lads.
Rory: It all sounds fucking horrible. Were you ever the target for any violence or did they leave you alone?
Cameron: I’m lucky I guess that I look the way I do I'm heavily tattooed face arms legs head, I have a shaved head and a muscular build, so that alone puts me at the back of the list to be targeted and the fact I was in for violence adds to kind of coat of armour.
But regardless of that even if I was protected and deemed untouchable, there's nothing and no one a spice head won't slash up for an ounce of spice.
Rory: I get you, dude. Well it's probably an obvious thing but it sounds like prison absolutely fucking sucks.
Cameron: I think it's like life strongly condensed down into a small environment, the majority of people just want to do their time and get on with life then there's that handful that cause all the trouble and chaos that impacts on everyone else.