Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

Keep your ears peeled at midnight. In the absence of family, friends
and booze, 84,000 prisoners will leap from their beds and kick hell
out of their cell doors. It sounds like the coming of the apocalypse
but we hope it marks the dawn of our freedom. May you all have a good
year and never have a cell door to kick!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Prison beds are a tubular steel frame. Metal strips take the place of any type of spring. The mattress is a slab of foam some four inches thick, which rapidly compresses to two inches. These are the pinnacle of utilitarian, budget driven thinking that gives no forethought to the consequences to a Lifer’s poor back.
For normal folk like yourselves, beds have a very limited range of purposes. For us, beds are a multipurpose item. This results from cells being very small and the prison refusing to supply us with sofas, the bastards.
And so beds are used by some during the day as their main resting place, chairs being for sissies. Beds act as the spare chair; if three or four people crowd into a cell and there is only one
chair, the bed becomes crowded.
Some short number of years ago, in a fit of misplaced security fears, our beds were bolted to the floor. Prior to that, beds were excellent pieces of exercise equipment, able to be lifted, twisted, and hung from. Now they are stripped of life, inanimate metal encumbrances that we have to work around as we try to arrange our cells to suit our needs.
Only on occasion does something interesting happen with a bed (the rumours about Lifers’ sex lives are not true). Once, I returned from work, ready to grab a kip over the lunchtime bang-up. It took a moment for me to realise that my bed was missing. It was one of those moments where you stand, bemused, struggling to make sense of the incomprehensible.
Who steals beds?? It was a desperate man along the landing, who had decided to use it to wedge a gate shut in an attempt to build a barricade. Quite what his issue was didn't concern me; that he'd used my bed risked me being roped in as a co-conspirator.
Soon enough, staff noticed the barricade and charged through it, breaking my bed in the process. Did I get a replacement? Like hell. I ended up sleeping on the floor for six months and found it quite suited my lifestyle.
Each morning I would roll up the slab of foam that passes for a prison mattress and wedge it in the corner. The space this liberated seemed to be huge, more than enough for my exercise, martial arts kata and meditation.
Since that time I have always been slightly ambivalent about beds. They take up a lot of space for little benefit. Perhaps I'm a natural futon person? Now, if only I was in a Japanese prison...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Grumpy Ben

Never the most gregarious of people, of late I've found myself becoming increasingly anti-social, deliberately avoiding other people.

Most evenings we are unlocked from 6 to 7.45 pm to socialise. This is called "association", reflecting a period when it was assumed that we would serve our time in perpetual solitude (and people went insane).

It used to be that I would largely remain in my cell, the door closed but unlocked and available to entertain visitors. Bring your own tea and tobacco, though!
For weeks, of late, I've found myself locking my door and covering the observation slit during association. This allows me to ignore callers and pretend I'm not in. It's the equivalent of turning all your lights off and hiding behind the sofa out there.

This may be some outward of expression of stress, a reduction in my ability to garner the patience to deal with people in general. Or maybe I'm going through a period of great introspection, a need for solitude in order to develop and refine ways to deal with an uncertain future. Either way, you guys probably get more out of me these days than my neighbours do.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Xmas break

In honour of the sterling service rendered to date, the Editor has
wangled two days off. Normal posting resumes on tuesday. A happy
holiday to you all.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Xmas Menu

This is a touchy subject, so let's get it out of the way. This is our Christmas Day menu.
Main - Sausage, bacon, scrambled egg, black pudding, fried bread,beans and mushrooms.
Veggie - veg sausagesX2, scrambled egg, hash brown, fried bread,beans, mushrooms.
Pork Free- Halal sausage X 2, scrambled egg, hash brown, fried bread, beans, mushrooms.
Main • Sliced Roast Turkey
Pork Free - Halal Chicken Leg
Veggie- Salmon Portion
Vegan - Lentil and Nut Roast
All served with - roast potatoes, kilted sausages, stuffing, honey glazed parsnips, garden peas, carrots, gravy. Christmas pudding and Vanilla sauce.
Tea pack, choose one of the following:
1.       Cheese baguette
2.  Ham  baguette
3.       Tuna baguette
And one of the following:
1.       Pork pie
2.       Sausage roll
3.    Vegetarian samosa

You will also receive a pack with crisps, instant noodles, soup sachet, chocolate, fruit, biscuits, xmas cake and drink.
NB: As ever this reads an awful lot better than it appears on our plate. The devil is in the detail. The sausage, for instance isn't a nice fat juicy one but something about 2 inches long. The bacon is a strip l\2 inches by 4. The fried bread is half-a slice. The sliced roast turkey comes from a tin. And please don't think that the cooked breakfast is a regular thing; this is the only one of the year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Thank you all for your interest, support and greetings. I am touched. May you all have a happy holiday season, and don't do anything I wouldn't do...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Santa's Visit

Some Christmases ago we were out in the exercise yard, a fenced compound that abutted the perimeter wall.  Two hundred bored, cold men huddled in groups or trudging around anti-clockwise.

Then Santa appeared. An ex-prisoner, jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax and released months earlier, appeared at the top of the perimeter wall dressed in a Santa costume, and began to throw bags of chocolates and tobacco into the yard.

As we outnumbered the screws by 20 to 1, no effort was made to remove these goodies from us. They settled for frisking us as we left the yard to check we were free of weapons, leaving us to keep our pockets stuffed with treats.

A merry Christmas was had by all.

Yo ho ho!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Great Dope Growing Concern

Some of the boys got together, pooled their resources and ingenuity and decided to move into the cannabis growing business. This is a very rare event as hiding dope plants is nigh on impossible in prison.
Nevertheless, these budding Bransons thought they could earn a fortune. Seeds were acquired. Plant pots and a growing medium were snaffled from the far reaches of the prison. A long term hiding place was created. All of this took massive efforts and not a little money.
The excitement was high, adrenalin pumping as it can only when a scheme promises to come to fruition under the very eyes of staff. The Main Man laid out the seeds on damp cloths to begin the germination, then toddled off to work.
And was there a bountiful crop for Christmas? Ah, well, there may just have been. If only the Main Man had remembered to lock his budgie in its cage that morning after laying out the seeds...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Social History

One of my many peeves is the idea that prisoners are excluded from society. Prisons are like small villages; they may be remote from the Big City but we still have electricity!
The cultural shifts, ideologies, the currents that shape the wider society are as prevalent here as they are out there. Or so says the old 'importation' theory of prisoner culture. Whilst there is truth in it, to the extent that everybody in prison was first shaped outside, new factors must be included.
Prisons have a complex social structure, politics, power, and an economy. All that gives meaning to live outside also exists here. Although not in replica. Prisons are places of great material, political, emotional and economic shortage, all of which plays its part in moulding the culture. These scarcities imply that the importation of some new resource can have a disproportionate effect, as can the loss of some long standing feature.
Prison societies, though, are much neglected by sociologists and criminologists. I say this in the full knowledge of the mountain of material that has been produced, much of it of a quality I can only dream of aspiring to.
The neglect I speak of results from the motivations of researchers to date. They tend to be examining specific problems, mostly related to order, discipline, riots, violence and suicide. Excellent though this work may be, it is rather narrow in its scope.
No one is going back to the very fundamentals - just looking to see how prisoners’ society works. How we cooperate, have relationships, create economic alliances... Just as the original
generations of psychologists and sociologists took a wide scope of society to form initial 'laws', the same could be done for prisons.
My particular interest in this is social history. Having been here for a few decades, I have a historical perspective on our little society and the changes that have accrued.
A few years ago it struck me that it may be a useful sociological resource to have lifers like myself record our experiences. These could then be stored away in some university basement until the day comes when it may be of use to some historian or sociologist.
Such an oral history is all that there is. Much of what prisoners do, their interactions with each other, are semi-secret from the institution. And so, unlike a normal history, there are no documents, no diaries, no letters for the future to refer to. Our memories are all that there is and as each generation grows old and dies, that history is lost forever.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Not a Fluffy Blogger

I do appreciate that I cause some consternation and a little discomfort. Even those who support prison bloggers and prisoners’ rights in general would rather that a different man was leading the charge from the landings into the blogosphere.
The only really acceptable prisoner is one who prefaces every utterance with “I’m sorry I’m a scumbag, but I humbly beg you to stop kicking me in the face - which I deserve - so that I may utter a few quiet words for your consideration? Although you should feel free just to piss on me instead, because I am such a scumbag. . .”
Bad news, I'm afraid. I'm not naturally humble, nor reticent. Some see this as a reflection of some lack of remorse or a facet of my dangerousness, which is profoundly strange. That I have the sheer nerve to speak in public whilst not simultaneously whipping myself is, to some, a portent of future wickedness.

Explaining remorse is profoundly difficult, but I have tried elsewhere to do so. It may or may not satisfy anyone. But to connect my verbosity with dangerousness is to fall into the same conceptual trap that the Prison Service has used to detain me 20 years longer than necessary.
That I may wonder out loud about the nature of punishment or the equity of life sentences needn't imply that I believe I don't deserve punishment for my crime. That I wonder about the hypocrisy of the sanctity of life doesn't detract from my appreciation of my crime.
The broad thrust of my verbiage is to encourage the idea that these are matters that do deserve to be thought about; all the more so in a period of populist punitiveness.
Being disgruntled isn't to detract from being guilty. Wanting a change in our penal policies and practices doesn't detract from my acceptance of punishment. As a reasonably bright man, it would be strange if I did not begin to wonder about the morality and practicalities of imprisonment.
Whilst my mind is fairly sharp, for the sake of those around me I have tended to blunt my tongue. But in person, I'm really not a bad bloke and you shouldn't try to read into my character from my moral and intellectual musings - tempting though that is.
Perhaps what disconcerts people is that murderers are actually real, three dimensional people rather than stereotypes from the telly? And that may make me more of a challenge to some. Just a thought…

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Second Class People

I have heard some pretty strong things said about prisoners. We are, apparently, expelled from society, outlaws, unwanted, not entitled to the protections of human rights, that we have declared war on society... You name it, if it's stupid or negative; it has been said of us. And yet...

And yet all of the obligations and responsibilities that go along with being a part of society are still forced upon us. The most important ones are - that we have to comply with all of the laws, even if we can't get access to read most of them; and we have to pay our taxes, and often more of them than people outside. As a smoker, about 80% of my paltry wage has gone to the government every week for 29 years.

How is it that we can be saddled with all of the obligations that come from being a part of society are still forced upon us, whilst at the same time we are said to be not part of society, that we are denied the benefits? They can't have it both ways, a deal is a deal. There is a 'social contract' between each individual and society and society is breaking it far more than we are.

The deal was this: that if we broke the law, we would be subjected to the due measure of punishment; and then we would be restored to our pre-criminal status. That is the meaning of the word ‘rehabilitation’; it is 'to be restored'. Society has broken that deal, and if they are not going to stick to their part of the bargain then why should we?

Let’s have a quick gallop through the ways in which we are being screwed over. Firstly, we are not fairly punished. There are two reasons for this, neither pretty to look at. The introduction of victim impact statements means that some people are being thrown inside for longer not because of the crime they committed, but because of someone's best weeping and wailing performance. And the obsession with risk assessments means that there are thousands of people serving indefinite sentences on the basis of what they may do in future, not for the crime they committed. This is unjust for so many reasons; one being that risk assessments are as accurate as a drunken monkey at the world darts championship.

Whilst in prison, we are robbed and misused by any sap who fancies making a fast buck. The phone prices, the canteen suppliers, the outside firms who we are forced to work for... everybody gains from our punishment except us. Alongside the loss of freedom, our visitors are forced to trek across the nation, and are humiliated on arrival. We are denied any training or skills, despite the prettily worded 'statements of purpose’ that litter notice boards. We are kept in prison years longer merely to keep the modern plague that is psychology employed, to no obvious effect on the re-offending rates. At the end of this process we are kicked out with a week’s benefit and a plastic bag, helpfully labelled with a big Prison Service logo - just in case the people on the train didn't realise they were associating with a social reject.

On the street, we may be subject to more layers of surveillance and control, probation, police, MAPPA, Registers of various sorts. Every job interview turns into a farce because we have to declare our convictions. We are just not given a straightforward punishment for our crime; we have our lives trashed in a hundred ways. At the end of our punishment, society is then encouraged to treat us like lepers.

Where, then, is the rehabilitation? At what point are we restored to society to carry on from where the punishment ended, allowed to rebuild? It doesn't happen. This is why society breaks the 'social contract’; these are the ways in which it breaks the deal every single day.

It has to be asked, why should we keep the deal if they don't? Why should I accept my lumps and stop committing crime if society refuses to accept me back as a full citizen? Why should I be saddled with all the obligations of society when they deliberately deny me the benefits of being part of society?

Either we are a part of things, or we are not. If we are going to be kept as second class citizens, then why not reduce our obligations? If I'm going to be prevented from getting a job on a level playing field, then why should I pay full taxes? Why should I abide by the law when those very same laws are used to perpetually deny me fair opportunities?

The society that despises us can't let us go; it seems compelled by some twisted urge to keep a grip on us, even while claiming it doesn't want us. Here's a new deal for society to consider - allow us to return as full, reformed people and citizens or let us go, keeping us as second class. But if you choose the latter, don't expect us to behave as if we are proper members of society. You will get the crime rate you deserve, because you can't expect us to stick to rules that are only used to keep us down.

With thanks to Inside Times

Friday, December 18, 2009

Inspecting Prisons

The prison system has always been pored over by somebody. Perhaps the longest established body tasked with keeping an eye on this human zoo is the Independent Monitoring Board, previously known as the Board of Visitors.
For most of their history they had a dual-role. Firstly, they were meant to act as watchdogs, ensuring that we were not being ill-treated. Alas, alongside this they were also part of the disciplinary system, with powers to sling people into solitary for outrageous periods of time. They also signed off on us being thrown into strip-cells and strongboxes.
Their two roles did not sit well with prisoners. It was our universal view that the BoV were firmly in the hands of management and in no way protected us from abuse. Worse, they consistently turned a blind eye to brutality, to the extent of sending us into solitary units where they knew we were being brutalised.
In a still developing rebranding exercise, the BoV have become the IMB (Independent Monitoring Board) and along the way lost their powers to send us to solitary or hold disciplinary hearings. Despite this, they face an uphill struggle to persuade prisoners that they will challenge management when necessary. At best, we remain ambiguous about them.
It took until the 1980's before the Prison Service allowed itself to be inspected by a body that was formally independent of itself, cutting loose the Inspectorate of Prisons. Over the following years, this has led to the prison service being repeatedly savaged by Inspectors who have failed to maintain a hoped-for consensus. This always cheers up prisoners.
But the Inspectorate system is an imperfect one, in that prisons can go 2 or 3 years between each 5 day inspection. In the absence of a more robust IMB, this leaves prisoners in a very precarious position.
This was highlighted by the regime of brutality in the late 1990's at Wormwood Scrubs prison. To the eternal shame of the mainstream media, only the Guardian reported fully on the story and the wider world would rather not have to face the realities - mock executions, savage beatings, even rapes, committed by prison staff on prisoners.
The whole prison knew the reality of this. The governors knew; the healthcare staff knew; the Chaplaincy knew; and the BoV/IMB knew. But they all chose paths of least resistance, turning a blind eye and presenting spineless oversight. This extended to the Governors and BoV/IMB having to ask permission from the screws before they could visit the Segregation Unit - the first site to find staff violence in any rotten prison culture.
Whilst some of the prison staff were prosecuted or fired, their managers and watchdogs have gone on to have healthy and wealthy careers further up the prison service food chain.
Regardless of the nature of Inspections and Audits, prisons remain largely closed societies that are capable of veering off into developing brutal cultures. Perhaps, ultimately, it must rest with the prisoners themselves to organise in self defence to challenge such deviant cultures?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Charity Work

All prisons contain groups of prisoners who give their time and effort to raise money for various charities. Producing goods for auction, fun runs, you name it we do it. As I write there is a notice outside the wing office asking for donations to the breast cancer campaign, tastefully illustrated with two pink balloons.
I tend not to join in these efforts. It doesn't sit well with me that groups out in society, a society that loudly rejects us, are quite happy to scrounge a chunk of our paltry wage. You can't hate us and ask for a favour.
My cynicism initially sprang from a contribution I made decades ago so that a screw's daughter could go to the US for specialist treatment. Most of the wing contributed. Afterwards a notice was put up, thanking STAFF for their contributions.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prove It!

One of the many things that the Governor and I disagree on is the prison disciplinary system.
This is a formal system, whereby a screw lays a formal charge under the Rules, leading to a hearing where evidence is heard and challenged. This is presided over by the Governor. The hearings are called Adjudications and, in a wacky hint of prison stupidity, punishments are called Awards. Those who think this system is slightly biased as the Governor is unlikely to side with the con may be right.
The Governor takes the view that when we are caught bang to rights, we should just put our hands up and take the consequences. I don't agree. If the state wants to accuse me of something then they damn well have to prove it.
As a result, I treat every Adjudication as if it could end in an execution. Over the years I have honed my knowledge of the Adjudications process and the laws that govern it to a fine art. If bored, I can drag out the simplest charge for months and drive weak minded governors to phone Headquarters for help.
A fair chunk of my spare time is spent helping others who face charges. I research their case, the details of the charge, look at the case law, and if necessary attend the hearing with them. Then I draft any appeals. I had a particularly satisfying win just the other day.
This makes the Governor a bit cross. He has never understood my fundamental point, which is nothing about my avoiding responsibility for my actions. Hell, I pleaded guilty to murder. My motive for putting up a fight is that I fail to see why I should roll over when prison staff, who are meant to be our moral example, never admit they are wrong. Ever. No matter how dumb a policy, how twisted a report, how bigoted a statement, the staff involved waft by in a haze of self-righteousness.
The day prison staff admit their mistakes and accept responsibility for their actions is the day that I will follow suit. Until then, "Ben of the Bailey" stays in business!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Prison violence

Prison staff love to play up the risks they face in their job. Two
questions, though. How many screws have been killed by prisoners? And
how many cons have died at the hands of prison staff?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Helpful Screws

In a fit of absent mindedness I seem to have overlooked mentioning screws so far. This may seem strange, in that the staff who are in the front line of regulating my daily life should be the ones who have the greatest effect. Far more of an effect than management.
This varies by prison and regime. This place, being tiny and all lifers, is extremely laid back. I am generally left well alone, with the most substantial interaction with staff being as they tick me off as I pick up my meals.

Even so, there are significant differences between staff. There are those who are plain lazy and to be worked around when things need doing. There are those who are efficient, taking a professional pride in doing a job. These tend to be swamped, as we go to these staff rather than the lazy ones.

Then there are the staff we happily call 'dogs'. And many of them are proud of the label. Staff who are dogs are particularly strict, their lodestone in life is the rulebook. I have always felt that these staff lack a sense of confidence, they have an inability to use their judgement according to the circumstances or the individuals involved. They are a pain in the arse.

And then there are 'sensible' staff. They do possess self confidence, they do appreciate that there is more to life than rules and their lodestone tends to be to get things done, and doing things which avoid raising tensions unnecessarily.

These are the staff that can make or break a prison regime. The proportions of these various types of staff are a key factor in whether a prison is a 'good' one or a 'bad' one.
This is by way of showing my appreciation for a couple of staff who have recently been presented with a situation and dealt with it with flexibility and common sense. But I won't be making a habit of this! And if only governors could be so sensible...

Tidings of Comfort and Joy!

Bit cheeky, but if anyone feels like sending Ben a seasonal card, the post code for HMP Shepton Mallet is BA4 5LU. Meanwhile, I'll print and send in to him your good wishes.

Thank you,

Blog Editor

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I saw ben yesterday. He currently has a serious back problem which,
apart from being very painful, is hindering his writing. But he
perseveres! Ben thanks you all for your interest and is reading the
latest batch of your comments that I sent to him. And he can't believe
that people failed to get his "meat" joke...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

When to Obey?

Thinking back over my long prison career, the strongest continuous theme has been my questioning orders and sometimes refusing to obey them.
In order to do this in a rational way, I have had to create a set of criteria to sift out what is a proper order and what should be disobeyed. To rely on whether it is personally convenient is pretty vague, so I hope I surmounted that. I don't randomly go around disobeying for the sake of it.
Presented with a requirement which instinctively feels a bit dodgy, I ask myself two questions. Does the order have a legitimate aim? That is, does the order relate to the context of imprisonment and its purposes? If a screw ordered me to hop on one leg, for instance, it would fail that test. Ditto with the order I received when I was at Open to sit around a table full of smackheads and fold bits of paper. Open is about seamlessly reintroducing us to the community, not take the Mickey.
If an order does pass this initial filter, then the second question arises. Is the order likely to help achieve that aim? It's amazing how many orders are given which don't actually relate to the stated purpose. If it is a legitimate order and likely to achieve some lawful purpose, then fine.
Alas, so many governors have a genuine messianic belief that their authority derives from the Divine Right of Kings. No sense or legitimacy is required, the very fact they say it is enough. And therein lies my problem.
Power does not carry its own justification. Just because someone holds a gun to your head doesn't mean their order is 'right'. It has to be legitimate and rational. If it is not, then it is down to each person’s conscience and moral compass to decide their response.
Although I have grown increasingly flexible as the years have passed, there are still many moments where it boils down to a black or white decision. Should I comply with illegitimate, irrational orders? Or should I resist?
For me (and I don't recommend this to anyone), to comply with an order when it's only justification is that 'I will hurt you if you don't' is to undermine all that it means to be a sovereign human being. For me, not only is refusing to comply the prime option, it is a moral and political imperative.
Without wishing to imply I fall into this category, there is profound truth in the statement that 'for evil to prosper, it is only necessary that good men do nothing'. And those in authority who expect their orders to be obeyed solely by virtue that they possess greater power are an evil.