chapter  11
23 Pages

‘An inconvenient criminological truth’: pain, punishment and prison officers

ByJoe Sim

The culture is in the brickwork in [here]. Staff culture, give them nothing. If an officer is good at his job, and takes things on, people say what is he after? He is ambitious and therefore criticised. (Prison health care officer, cited in Sim 2003: 255)


In the summer of 1976, as part of a research project, I visited the Special Unit (SU) in Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison. At that point, the SU had operated for three years, having been opened in February 1973 by the then Conservative government in order to incapacitate those men who had been officially labelled as Scotland’s most dangerous and disruptive offenders (MacDonald and Sim 1978). This visit came immediately after spending several weeks in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison, an institution which was dominated by a culture of masculinity which, in turn, sustained, legitimated and

reproduced an often desperate culture of violence between prisoners and prison officers and between prisoners and prisoners (Scraton et al. 1991). The contrast with the philosophy and atmosphere of the SU was stark, particularly with respect to the relationship between prisoners and staff. Where Peterhead was built on a toxic hostility between the two groups, the everyday interactions in the Unit were based on a very visible philosophy of community support, mutual respect, individual responsibility and collective accountability.