Monday, October 5, 2015

Prison Smoking Ban

So. Let’s ban smoking in prisons. Simple, innit? As ever with all things prison, it’s far more complicated. Somehow these complexities are overlooked.
The sole reason I can uncover for this policy is Health and Safety – the Prison Officers Association are complaining about the foul air their members must inhale while in cells. Which are the only places in prison where smoking remains permitted – even smoking in the open air is usually prohibited (giving the lie to the health and safety rationale).
However, when the national smoking ban was introduced several years ago, and smoking was restricted to cells in prison, procedures were put in place to address this concern. Staff were meant to give a heads-up shout to prisoners as staff were conducting daily cell-checks, so that prisoners could air out the cells. Just to be very clear on this point: procedures were put in place to address staff safety, but staff have never used these procedures. There is no need for any member of staff to enter a smoky cell – unless they allow it to happen. And they do. And in the face of this lazy whine, a total ban on smoking in prisons is planned.
Unlike tobacco in the wider society, tobacco in prison plays a huge role in prisoners’ lives. Tobacco isn't merely a diversion. It is the default prisoner currency, the standard unit of trade that all other commodities are valued against. As such, banning it would have the same social effects as if Government suddenly banned the cash in your wallet or purse. Sans tobacco, some other substance will become the default currency and the only candidate is heroin.
There will, of course, be bits of tobacco smuggled in. Realistically, though, tobacco is bulky and not very smuggle-able. Especially when compared to the size and value of heroin. And the main channel of getting tobacco from one side of the wall to the other will invariably be prison staff – the very group that the Prison Service prefers to think of as whiter than white.
With the current medium of exchange prohibited, waves of disruption will flow through the social structure. Those who "baroned" tobacco – burn, snout – will be worthless, their ability to calm a stressed prison gone. In their place will rise, to a more embedded level than currently, those who deal in the "powders". But tobacco barons have always been a stabiliser, a bank, a bureaux de change, will the flow of tobacco being largely consistent. Heroin, in contrast, leads to some prisoners wielding undue influence – "powder power" – but inconsistently. Supplies of drugs are far more uncertain and temporary, leaving the suppliers in a shaky socioeconomic position and as such as likely to prompt instability as anything else.
Tobacco is also used by the Prison Service as an intelligence tool. Every Wing Manager has traditionally had a few packets of tobacco to hand, to dish out to the passing casual informers. This will now end. On a wider scale, by tracking tobacco purchases from the prison shop – the "canteen" – managers have been able to discern economic activity. This activity is often tied to broader prisoner activities and can highlight the wheelers and dealers. A non-smoker buying lots of tobacco is obviously "up to something"! Whether this oversight of prisoners’ economic activity has ever led to more substantial intelligence is unknown; what is known is that this source of intelligence will now cease.
The practicalities of the ban are yet to be made known, probably to be developed as this policy is rolled out. It begins in Wales early next year. Whatever details are developed, all have to face the reality that nicotine is one of the most addictive of substances and prison is the last bastion of smokers. And 50,000 smokers deprived of their fix will be a fearsome thing.
Obviously, the Healthcare departments of each prison (now NHS run) should be stocking up on Nicotine Replacement Therapies, such as patches. The problem with all of these poor substitutes is that they have success rates lower than a rugby player with a lion on his shirt. As for E-cigarettes; these would be a perfect medium. Alas, E-cigs require chargers, which can also be used to charge illegal mobile phones. How the Prison Service faces this challenge will be interesting. What will be offered medically will be risible and not cull the cravings of the masses.
Banning tobacco, then, will have the key consequences of instantly dismantling economic structures which have stood for decades; will destabilise the social structure; reduce intelligence; tempt staff to smuggle; and throw social power into the corrosive and unstable hands of heroin dealers.

I can't think of a more damaging policy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Whither Prison Reform - Part 1

I begin with the proposition that "prison doesn't work". This obviously presupposes the purpose of prison – a debate in its own right. However, in terms of reoffending and cost, prison fails. No other enterprise in human history with a 60% failure rate would be allowed to continue unchallenged, yet we appear to be singularly content with this monstrous rate of reoffending. And footing the bill for that perpetual failure.

Firstly, we should squarely address the issue of who we imprison, and for what crimes. Only then does the utility and cost of imprisonment become stark. In this Part, I will highlight Remand and Women prisoners.

Remand Prisoners. Over 48,000 people are remanded into custody awaiting trial each year. At any given moment, there are around 12,000 Remands (14% of the prison population).

A full 60% of these people are remanded to prison having being charged with non violent crime. Ten percent are outright acquitted, and a further 15% (15,000 people a year) are convicted but given a non-custodial punishment.

With the average annual cost of detaining a prisoner being around £40k, that we are remanding into prison so many people charged with non violent crimes must be questioned.

And where do we keep these Remand prisoners in the gulag? The uninitiated may not appreciate the varied nature of prisons, with categories going from Category A – High Security – to Category D, Open prisons. It is a matter of historical practice that the Prison Service places all Remands into Category B prisons – meant to hold people who pose such a risk that their "escape must be made very difficult". And Cat Bs are extremely secure, with escapes being rare.

But why place all Remands in such secure prisons? Because there is a direct correlation between security category and cost. Cat A prisons are the most expensive, Cat D the cheapest. Why place Remands, most of whom have comitted a non violent crime, into such a secure and expensive environment as Category B prisons? A quarter of a century ago, the Woolf Report made the recommendation that the default security Category for Remands should be Category C. Cat C prisons cost a significant amount less to run.

The Prison Service has ignored the Woolf recommendation, trampled over common sense, and continues to imprison those charged with non violent crimes in extremely expensive and secure facilities. If Remands were made default Category C, then tens of millions of pounds would be saved. The waste of the 25 years since Woolf must run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Women prisoners are another anomaly, making up some 5% of the prison population (just shy of 4,000). It is truly remarkable to note that fully 82% of women prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Nearly half of them are sentenced for theft or handling stolen goods.

It must be asked, why are we throwing non-violent women into expensive and secure prisons? If the Corston Report were ever implemented, the reality is that the number of women prisoners could be reduced by some 80 or 90% - with a resulting saving of  tens of millions.

In this first part of a series of posts I have made propositions which will save many many millions of pounds. In changing the structure of how Remand and Women prisoners are dealt with, whole prisons can be emptied, the social harms of imprisonment reduced, and the cost of the prison estate significantly reduced.

Thoughts please....

Reform - An Introduction

When even the Prime Minister suggests that the present shape of the prison system doesn't deliver and costs a fortune, then it could be believed that we are entering a period where the political machine may be open to significant penal reform.

This is not to over-state the possibilities, Reform can be argued for on several grounds, including utilitarian, ethical, and moral, none of which appear to be the force of our political masters. Rather, the political focus appears to be utilitarian and economic and I have focussed my thoughts around these issues.  This is not to dismiss or forget the broader grounds for reform.

What follows is a series of blog posts which explore the current organisation and policies of HMPS and highlight the positive changes that could be adopted and whose outcomes would be a lower re-offending rate, fewer victims, and a very significant reduction in costs.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Personal and The Political

If there is one unmissable difference between liberty and confinement, it is the distance between the individual and the State. Out in our daily lives, the State is hidden, glimpsed fleetingly as traffic wardens flit by and police cars grace our rear view mirrors. The State is there, in every corner of life, but it gives the impression of being concealed behind the façade that is life.

I am used to a more personal relationship with the State. Directly because of Ministerial decisions, recommendations by the Parole Board that I move to Open prison prior to release were overturned. Every moment of my existence was regimented and regulated, the State being personified by some miserable bugger in size 9’s slamming the cell door shut. Rarely in the “real world” do we have such proximity to government.

A large barrier to my forging any consistent relationship with the State, the gaping hole in the idea of “citizen”, is the denial of the Vote. Ten years after the Hirst judgement and government is still slithering around the issue like a snake in a vat of KY. A government insisting I show slavish obedience to the law whilst ignoring its own obligations is a matter which has, and always will, rankle with me.

Yet here I am, the new owner of a vote. And it came without any effort on my part. I haven’t had to show that I’m intelligent, educated, moral, or even interested. Whether I like it or not, I’m lumbered with the damn thing. And now I have to decide how to wield this miniscule, temporary, power over our masters.

 I could just bail out of the whole business, opting to spoil my paper or just not vote. In the face of a range of political parties all severely afflicted with prisonitis, the idea of voting on the basis of party is a dead duck. All of them can rot.

 In the absence of any meaningful political principles on offer, I have decided to ignore the national picture and rather chose to look local. As is, which local candidate fills me with sufficient confidence that they can do a decent job representing my constituency.

 Rather improbably, I have alighted upon David Warburton. He is not a career politician, which may suggest less adherence to slavish party lines in attempts to curry Party favour. Maybe. And politics is his fourth or fifth career, which has encompassed classic music through to E-Commerce and social enterprises. A person rounded by experience, then. Having popped into his office to sound him out of criminal justice policy, we found ourselves in the café having such a long chat that other appointments were shifted. Unlike a standard politician, David was happy to ask questions rather than merely pontificate.

Turns out, I’m voting….Tory!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The O'Brien Show

The O’Brien Show
On April 2nd – today or yesterday, depending on my efficiency! – I appear on the new ITV O’Brien Show. And I found the experience quite disturbing. Its made me angry enough to  surmount my writers block, so silver linings and all that. 

The call came in late last week. Would I care to pop along to Manchester to take part in a debate on the new O’Brien Show. Hmm. Daytime ITV can be a bit of a bearpit, but I googled James O’Brien and discovered that whilst he is a minor controversialist, he has stood in on Newsnight as a presenter. Clearly not of the Jeremy Kyle persuasion, I thought… 

Standard practice, train tickets arrived and I dragged myself to the station for the 8am train heading Oop North. Four and a half hours. I arrived slightly frazzled. Unlike any other media engagement, I was left standing in the rain in Manchester for an hour awaiting a car to hoof me to the studio. Such is the life of the part time media tart. 

Arriving at the media centre I was faced by what seemed to be a mix between an airport lounge and a mental health outpatients clinic. I was searched and metal detected. A first for any media engagement, but a loud clue that I missed. What sort of show needs its guests and audience searched? One that is determined to provoke conflict, perhaps… 

Herded into the studio, microphones attached – the process is like being ever so politely indecently assaulted – then seated. Next to a woman who had lost three members of her family to murder. And in front of another family of victims. The other two ex cons were similarly placed. I had a sneaking feeling that all was not going to go as smoothly as normal. 

The headline question we were dragged from all over the country was meant to be, does prison work. What transpired was that each of us ex cons was berated by O’Brien for our past crimes, with him egging on various victims to skewer us. 

I talk about my crime. I don’t shy from it. If id been invited along to talk about that, then id still have turned up – and it would at least have been an honest process. But to lure us in for our views and then use us to prod at victims who have suffered appalling loss is pretty repugnant. But all standard for this show. The ethics of using victims of crime to stir up heat for a tv show is, I suspect, not a hot topic at production meetings. 

The first ex con was set upon. A young guy, ex drug dealer, he was seated next to a woman who had lost a sibling to a drug overdose. The guy was piled into as if he was responsible. Then he laid into Stinson Hunter, “the paedophile hunter”, accusing him of being a vigilante and of responsibility for the suicide of an alleged paedophile Stinson had provided the evidence against to the police, who charged the guy.
Then onto me. O’Brien suggested “life should mean life”, an interesting enough topic but not the one that we were invited to address. O’Brien suggested murderers were inherently dangerous….and so I couldn’t resist asking why was he sitting next to me then?! Cheeky of me, I know, but I was hacked off with the way the show was unfolding.

 The final straw with me was when O’Brien pompously suggested that I had laughed at my crime. Nice try. Anyone remotely familiar with me will know I never view my crime with  anything less than deadly seriousness. It was a despicable trick.

 Having seen that none of us were actually being asked to address the issue of prison, having seen us being used as some sort of surrogate offender for the victims surrounding us, I unhooked my mic and headed for the door with firm politeness. It was a natural break in the recording, and O’Brien skipped across to intercept me. And I told him my problem – that having being invited along to talk about the utility of prison, all he was doing was slamming us for our past. O’Brien guided me back to my seat, making placatory noises. Then left me in the lurch as some random told me I should be executed. Right to respond? Don’t be silly.

 It wasn’t just me that felt traduced. In the first part of the show you will see me sitting next to a middle aged lady. By the end, she had morphed into a young brunette. The cause of this transformation? The lady had walked out just after me. A victim of crime, she felt this was all more heat than light and left, with tv people trying to tell her she couldn’t. Why? Continuity! And so a new person was snuck into her empty seat. The magic of television was revealed to be a grubby con trick.

 I had words with the Producer afterwards, and he seemed surprised. With a bunch of ex cons and an equal number of victims, there was a genuine opportunity to explore the issue of punishment and prison. This was squandered, deliberately, burned on the altar of what I call zoo tv.  I’d like to think they considered the victims they invited to emote and recall their loss and pain – to no good purpose. But I know I'd be wrong to believe that.

 Never again. Strictly news shows from here. Unless the jungle calls.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Media Tart Experience

The media tart experience

Whenever I have a camera pointed at me, I am aware of all the times I used to watch ex-cons on the telly. Often it was painfully frustrating – “tell them about X!” – and sometimes toe curlingly bad. When the little red light goes on, then, I am acutely aware that my harshest critics, the most important audience, is the one I never get to see or hear from – you guys inside. It is important that I do a good job for you, as best I am able.
I am not a spokesperson for prisoners. No one can claim that position and I’d quickly slap down anyone who claimed it. The best that any of us outside can do is try to reflect the pains of imprisonment, the concerns, to educate a wider audience. The longer we have been out, the harder that can become. Of course, I could be making a complete hash of it; I daresay someone will let me know!
The weird thing is, none of it phases me. My first media thing came a few weeks after my release. Channel 4 News with Jon Snow, responding to some silliness the Prime Minister had spewed. Evening primetime. Millions watching. My first glimpse into the world of telly! And its always a big deal. Not just because I somehow have to get to London and back from Somerset, but because if I screw it up then it gives people an excuse to slag off cons and ex cons even more than they do. Having gone through 13 parole hearings may have helped me develop a tolerance for pressure.
The process begins with an Email or phonecall from a producer. They explain the story and explore your views. If they think they can use you, the process rolls on. The news agenda is a fickle beast, though, and it is common to be told later in the day that the story had been dropped because something else more interesting had happened. There comes a point when the news agenda is settled, though, and the gig is definitely on.
Off to London I trekked, to find a car waiting for me at Paddington. I could get used to this… Whisked to the studio – I forget where! – and the Green Room. This is where guests sit around awaiting to be shoved into the studio. Channel 4 had the makeup artist in the corner, who faced one hell of a challenge. The night before I has fallen down the stairs face first, skinning a line from my chin to my forehead. I ended up with more makeup than Coco the Clown, although through the magic of TV none of this was obvious.
TV studios are strange. Some are actual sets. Some are merely concrete boxes with a couple of chairs; all the images, walls, etc are special effects. Its odd being told to look at a cross chalked on a concrete wall and told to pretend its another person. Channel 4 is pretty much how it looks on screen.
While I always know the topic being discussed, particular questions aren’t shared beforehand. This makes quick thinking essential. And a thoughtful use of language – swearing is a no-no! I think I’ve only been caught by surprise once, when I thought a co-guest, an ex copper, was advocating vigilante justice. I was all “Well I never, I’m appalled”, when what I’d usually say is “fecking muppet”…
Perhaps my best day was when Grayling announced his new horrible regime changes. Sixteen interviews around London, giving my opinion of our dear Minister. The highpoint was at Sky; I was leaving the studio as Grayling was entering. “I’ve just spent ten minutes in there giving you a kicking”, I told him. “That’s alright”, said Grayling, “I’m up next and I’ll return the favour…”
It’s been a busy couple of years. I’ve popped up on every channel and endless radio stations from here to Russia. But I don’t buy into much of it. I’m not called by the media out of kindness, and I know there is always another ex con round the corner who can become media flavour of the month. Perhaps Inside Time should take over the role, become the “go to” source for media interviews?
Courtesy of Inside Time Newspaper

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cleopatra, Coming At Ya

The death of Henley [] was a hard blow. While it appears I'm incapable of living with another person, I'm also incapable of living by myself. Two days after Henley's passing saw me becoming fractious. A house without a cat just isn't right.

I began to make inquiries. Kittens, how hard could it be to find one?! Very.... The large charities wanted a chunk of loot and to make home visits. Bear in mind I was looking for a cat, not trying to adopt a Chinese baby, I thought this was all a tad excessive. So I put the word out on the kitten black market, and was led to a small female black cat, a couple of months old.

She was laying on the floor in a chavvy corner of the region, trying to ignore the chaos around her as a dozen other animals  screeched around the house. A very cool cat, that twenty quid saw me and The Editor drive away with.

The Naming Of Cats is a very serious business. Not least to avoid standing on the doorstep calling for "Fluffy Bunnykins". With her large ears, triangular face, my new cat was obviously a Cleopatra. Not that she ever answers to it.

Many months on, and Cleo remains a dainty cat. She has developed her little quirks - crapping in my bath and nuzzling my armpit - but she is perceptive and kind. When I have a bad night, it's not unknown for Cleo to climb into bed with me and stretch herself out down the length of my spine, purring. Cleo is a Good Thing. She even has her own Twitter account, @TheJusticeCat and is a minor scourge of trolls and radical feminists.

Kittens don't remain kittens for long, and a couple of months ago Cleo began rolling around under hedges with various suitors. And then she grew fatter. And fatter. And lazier. Until a few days ago her favourite spot was on my kitchen worktop, above the fridge and next to the kettle.

Now, she is hidden away in a corner in my bedroom. The Editor and I prepared a lot of nests for her to choose from, so obviously Cleo picked a random binliner full of dirty clothes to give birth. But she was extremely clever. Early one morning, Cleo began to climb all over me and nuzzling my face. I woke and gave her lots of fuss, but she kept walking away. She did this repeatedly, with ever more determination, until I roused myself to follow her. Only when it was clear hat I knew where she was nesting did Cleo settle down to give birth.

I was more worried than she was, poor thing. Between us we didn't have a clue. Instinct kicked in, and we are now proud possessors of four kittens: one silver tabby, two black, and one that seems to be flirting with the idea of being grey. Just three days old they remain in the box I moved them to, piled in a heap or attached to Cleo. And she is very cool, only purring when I pet her, and making no complaint if I pick up one of the wriggling furballs.

One kitten will remain here, company for mum, and the rest will go to good homes. If I am fortunate, and if Cleo stops sitting in the middle of the road, we should be keeping each other company for many years.

Cleopatra. Coming at ya.

Friday, July 11, 2014

So I have an Idea....

The Big Idea – Shouting Louder

Nearly everything I have done in public over the past 5 years or so has had one conscious aim – to stimulate debate around criminal justice issues.

The blog sprang from that kernel; although to this day myself and The Editor cannot recall which of us suggested it. It seems to have worked, don’t you think? Granted, I have been neglecting you of late but the practicalities of adjusting to my new existence, earning a living, and encompassing all my other activities means that daily blogging just isn’t practical at present. Even so, for a small personal blog to attract up to 35,000 readers a month (our peak) is astonishing. Prison interests people, for many different reasons.

But the blog led to media interest. Profiles popped up in the Guardian and – improbably – The Times. A raised profile then followed me out of the gates and now I go through phases of “media tarting”, appearing everywhere from ITV Daybreak through to Newsnight. I’m still recovering from a day of 16 interviews, same blasted topic, same questions….by lunchtime I actually eyed a quiet alley in Westminster and wondered if I could grab a quick kip.

Behind the scenes, I appear to be the darling of some student documentary makers and film-makers. If one camera crew isn’t arriving, one may well be leaving. I’ve been filmed choked with tears, and looking moodily out of my lounge window, fag in hand. And drinking lots of coffee. I mean, lots.

There are far more talks in smaller enclaves. Law schools, universities, private groups, conferences, month after month I schlep around the nation banging the drum and engaging with people who have an interest in justice. These include generalists, such as the Skeptics in the Pub, to specialists such as junior barristers and forensic psychology undergraduates. Later this year I’ll be a keynote speaker at a criminology conference and addressing the AGM of the Independent Monitoring Boards.

Couple this peripatetic verbosity with three Twitter accounts, a website, this blog, a YouTube channel and two Facebook accounts, many would say I already have more than enough avenues of discussion – or dissent! – to keep anyone happy. Probation say I’m their “first multimedia Lifer”, which I suppose is true, even though embracing the new media hardly struck me as being a coherent plan at the time.

And yet… All this activity lacks something, a central core, a nexus. I could and should tie all of the new media stuff together, for example; but that would be mere technical trickery. Something more, something ephemeral, has been eluding me. Until I spoke to a friend of The Editors here in Frome, who happened to be involved with the local community radio station. As she spoke, my brain was racing away constructing complex spidergrams of all the potential in broadcasting.

I mulled. I mused. I ummed, I’ve aaaahd. I have spoken to many people. And I was undecided, but interested. Eventually I junked my pitch to the local radio station; with a local population of 18,000 all in and the technical capability to stream to a mere 150 people online simultaneously, the potential inherent in finding a berth with someone elses enterprise seems massively limited. After all, I’m a new media type of guy – global, not local.

This conceptual meandering led me and The Editor meeting a fascinating man this morning. A friend of Rubin Hurricane Carter in the day; a man who’d marched in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement and been beaten and bitten for his trouble; and more pertinently, a guy who had been in radio for decades and runs a station in the Caribbean.

His advice? Do it myself. His arguments were compelling, not least because I have advantages few such start-ups have the benefit of – expertise, and an already existing audience. Add in all my social media and blog followers and that is a minimum of 15,000 people who already “tune in” to me, so to speak. And whilst the core are in the UK and North America, my readers are global. I have a ready made audience on which to build a radio community.

My first hand knowledge of prison, coupled with my analytical bent, makes me nearly unique. Not that other Lifers in the community don’t have far greater academic depth, they do; but I seem to be the only one daft enough to be comfortable with being in the public eye. And as that gaze can often be malevolent, I don’t blame them one bit for ploughing their own, equally significant furrows. The result, though, is that out of those with the lengthy prison experience and a modicum of wits, I’m the loudest one. And when it comes to broadcasting, loud and persistent seems to be a bit useful.

And in this media driven age, where soundbites rule and controversy gets traction, is there another radio show on the planet focusing on criminal justice issues fronted by a convicted murderer? Profoundly cynical, I know.

We talked strategy, marketing, technicalities. It’s so easy to broadcast over the Net, and very reasonably priced. Initial startup may be under £1,000, and monthly running costs well under £100. Who knew…?!

And so I have an idea. An internet radio station focusing on criminal justice issues and thereabouts. As anyone who has read the blog or my tweets appreciates, this is an extremely broad field. And it can be approached in many different ways – if there’s one button that can be pushed to start a good row, its called “prison”, and we all seem to have a view. Equally, there is a more measured approach. My tweets can be sparky – 140 characters! – but I hope that, overall, my blogposts have been more thoughtful. If sharp, on occasion.

Imagine the scope. From restorative justice to victims issues, from prison privileges to probation, crime and punishment encompasses everything. Politics, law, media, prison….and most of all, it all centres on the very worst of what lies in the human psyche. It has something for everyone.

And I would make that integral to my approach. I have as little inclination as the rest of you to listen to my own voice endlessly waffling on, and that is to be avoided. Rather, each show would be topic-led and guest focused. Interviewing, news roundups, debates, emailed Q and A’s….filling an hour would actually be frighteningly simple. And the listeners would, I sincerely hope, leave each hour feeling better informed and maybe even a little more interested in how we as a society respond to those who transgress.

There are, obviously, the accompanying paraphernalia of a website, social media feeds, and the like. Because the actual radio element may be a handful of hours a week, also repeated and podcast, it will be equally important to use social media to continue or highlight the discussions and provide a platform for community building. And I now realise I’m relapsing to the language I used when I was an E-commerce strategist….

Guests I would love to have…. A head of a prison reform group; a local copper; a victims group; local politicos; the occasional prisoner via phone, ex prison staff, lawyers, psychologists, community groups, campaigners, journalists… it really can be an endless list. Having already quietly floated this idea past a handful of putative guests, I was warmed by their interest.

Assuming I can put in place the right model from the beginning, as the station settled then I would hope to forge links across the criminal justice landscape. The website, in particular, could become a portal through to the expertise and insights of others in the field

It’s early days yet, lots of pondering and planning to do, but I can see this has a lot of potential.

Thoughts, please, folks. On any aspect of this idea. Either here, Twitter @prisonerben, or for the shy via

Oh, and brace yourselves :)



Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ministerial Cancer

You know that an election is hoving near the horizon when the Parliamentary language in prison debates takes on a keen edge, each speaker winking up to the press gallery.

The Minister for Prisons, Jeremy Wright, has given his views on the recent Dartmoor palava. Two prisoners managed to scale a building and perch on the roof. As part of negotiations, they were offered sunscreeen (they declined). And the tabloid dogs of war were let loose.... The comments on the Daily Mail site beneath this story give you both an insight into the darker parts of human nature and reveals the gallery that is being played to.

Officially, this was "an incident at height". The Ministry has abolished rooftop protests as it has riots, by the simple means of never using those terms. Riots are @outbreaks of disorder" or "acts of concerted indiscipline", and miscreants scampering over the tiles are "incidents at height". These used to be extremely problematic for staff; chasing cons on top of high buildings is very dangerous for all involved. However. HMP has for several years being able to call upon specialist staff who, with ingenious use of ropes and airbags, can scale rooftops and challenge the miscreants. Alongside this muscular effort goes negotiation, via a trained member of specialist staff. Obviously, talking people down is easier than frontal assaults. All very reasonable and cogent so far, I'd have thought?

And if during negotiations some small token gestures of goodwill are bandied about - such as the now infamous sunscreen - then such is the nature of negotiation. The aim is to resolve the incident safely. Sunscreen or not, the prisoners face serious punishment afterwards.

The Minister, Wright, has a different view. I'd like to believe it is based upon a thorough appreciation of order and control in prison, on the delicate balances, and an understanding of negotiation and incident management. But let's be realistic. Wright may know how to forge a soundbite, but his knowledge of prison equals mine on the topic of sea cucumbers.

Wrights view is that no such offers of suncreen should ever be made, and as far as he is concerned the prisoners can stay on the roof until they develop cancer. This is from one of Her Majesty's Under Secretary of State's for Justice. What a class act.

Wright isn't wholly bto blame. He was challenged by his opposite number, Saddique Khan, on the story. Khan is also seemingly content to drag the whole prison debate into the festering gutter of hatred. Wright had to say the right thing, or appear weak.

But Wright had an option. He could have been a decent human being, and a passable politician, by choosing a different response. Such as,

"It ill behoves us to use the very important issues surrounding imprisonment to grub for electoral gain. Prison is a serious matter. It rests on crimes committed and harm inflicted upon innumerable citizens. We are best advised to deal with such pains with care, in order to reduce the number of future victims. We cannot do this if we trap ourselves into these unhelpful knee jerk responses, no matter5 how tempting. Depriving citizens of liberty and causing them suffering are issues that should not be dealt with solely with an eye on tomorrows headlines.

While I share (Khans) surprise at the way these negotiations were conducted, I am very aware that neither I nor (Khan) are specialists in incident management. The Prison Service has decades of experience and a depth of skill in dealing with such incidents and I am not going to be quick in interfering with such expertise; least of all for political gain. For Ministers to interfere with dangerous incidents risks such events becoming increasingly dangerous. It is best we leave the details of these matters to those who have the experience.

(Khan) will note that this incident was concluded peacefully. No staff were injured or put at risk, and nor were the services of the specialist roof squad needed. If an offer - declined, mind you - of sunscreen helps to calm a situation and resolve it quickly, cheaply, and safely then while I raise an eyebrow at the initial reports I fully appreciate and support the Prison Service and their methods of dealing with such events.

I hope all Members will appreciate that there are two ways of addressing prison issues. The first is to generate soundbites and react to headlines. The second is harder, but will mean more to victims and citizens alike - that we address prison issues with care. We owe that not just to those we as a society imprison, but to future generations of potential victims of crime."

And then he could have sat down. And not left Parliament today looking like a disgusting human being.