Friday, April 30, 2010


A bit of research shows that this year is actually not the 400th anniversary of the prison. Having printed the invites, management are ignoring this fact, and will probably celebrate all over again on the proper date, 2025. Hope I am not still here for that...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sticks and Stones

We call it "being killed off on file". The power of the written word in the modern managerialist prison service is immense. Some cons even state a preference for more brutal times - a beating passes quite quickly, whereas the written word remains forever.

My file is littered with comments that are less than flattering. Some are plain misunderstandings, some true, some are half-truths and others are blatant lies.

Quite innocuous phrases can carry a cryptic meaning, one that can be dusted off and used to hold up our release for years. Much of the time, this is unintentional, some bureaucrat quickly scribbling a few lines before heading off home. Who would imagine that such a thing could lead to profound disasters in future years? For what was written is repeatedly re-read by other bureaucrats and the meaning they discern need not be the one originally intended.

One report a few years ago stated that I "have not completed any offending behaviour courses". These few words could be the kiss of death for progress to release. A few moments with a pen could cost years in prison.

And that statement wasn't a lie. I haven't done any of these courses. And yet the Report failed to explain the context - that I have been assessed as not requiring the courses. Such a casual use of words could have caused me terrible problems.

This danger inherent in judging us by whatever has been previously written is completely overlooked by staff. If it is on paper, then it takes on the status of being Gospel. Any suggestion that the writer was lazy, incompetent or plain malicious is obviously instantly dismissed. If staff write it, it must be true. All that is left for future staff to do is weave the prior ‘facts’ into their own interpretation and, like magic!, another layer of 'truth' is added to the file.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chancing It

Bernie was a strange man, at least in my eyes. Originating from a prosperous family background, he had killed his girlfriend and was serving Life.

His essential non-criminality was always evident, in that he refused to adhere to the strict divide between staff and prisoners. This always disturbed me slightly; it was as if he was insisting that he was somehow different, better, than the rest of us.

Bernie was a model prisoner. He smiled at staff, did exactly as he was told... it made me sick! But even his patience with the stupidity that is the prison system had limits. He had one avenue of expression.

We had a very fat, mean-spirited bastard of a Principle Officer. This PO was Bernie's release valve. Whenever Bernie walked out of his cell and saw the PO, he let out a fearsome roar, "YOU FAT BASTARD!"

This should have been a very risky proposition, worth a week or two in solitary. But Bernie had a safety-net. In a local prison with long wings, the odds were that there was always some other porky within sight. "Didn't mean you Guv, was talking to him over there..."

We were standing outside his cell one afternoon, just passing time, when the PO waddled into view. Bernie instantly reacted. "YOU FAT BASTARD!".

A fraction of a second later, Bernie, myself and the PO all realised that there was not another solitary soul in sight. Not one. As the PO swiftly bore down on Bernie, I shuffled myself out of harms way...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Election

So we have an election next month. Just another seemingly pointless exercise for many people - whoever you vote for, the Government still wins... And not one media pundit mentioning that it may well be an illegal election.

For me, the election is forcing me to consider the relationship between the individual and the State in crucial ways. It raises that most important and fundamental of questions - by what right does the State tell me what to do? By what right does it expect to demand my compliance?

If a man walks up to you, puts a gun to your head, and demands that you hop on one leg and bark like a dog, would you do it? Probably... But you would not permit that this act was based upon anything other than naked threats.

The relationship between the individual and the State is said to be slightly more sophisticated than that, even though the definition of a State is that it has the sole legitimate authority to use force in its territory.

There is said to be a mutuality, a 'social contract’, between people and government. We surrender some of our liberty to the State, which in return provides the conditions for society to thrive. The alternative is a Hobbesian "warre of all against all" and nobody would be happy or safe.

It does make sense. Except that no-one has ever asked me if I want to play. I happened to be born within these borders and found myself saddled with this particular State, I didn't choose it.

At the age of 18 I would, in the normal course of events, have had the ability to have my say and so endow this arrangement with legitimacy. Due to my unusual life, though, I have been denied that opportunity.

So, by what right does the State try to tell me what to do? What differentiates the Government from a mugger with a gun to my head? And why should I not resist? Why shouldn't I join the Guy Fawkes faction of politics?

When a representatives of the State parks himself in your doorway and locks you in a concrete box, it can force a clarity of the issues that the rest of life just doesn't offer.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Let's Screw the Government!

As the Council of Europe has pointed out, the General Election may well be unlawful due to the government's refusal to implement the Hirst judgement on prisoners’ right to vote.

I, and others, am trying to get back into court to hammer this
point home. An unlikely success in this challenge raises the
wonderful prospect of delivering a kick in the goolies to the
Government the likes of which haven't been seen since Watt Tyler.

It could be that the courts rule the election as being unlawful. It would have to be re-run. Alas, none of the parties could afford to do that, they are in debt just from the first try.

The party system could be broken and, at last, and the likes of you and I could actually be on the same political standing as the party machines that treat us with such contempt.

A win for prisoners could be a win for democracy, a win for the millions who feel that they can make no difference. We have a chance to remind the self-serving, venal bastards who run our lives that they are our servants, not our masters. Viva la resistance!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Foul Play!

The grubby MP's who took such extraordinary liberties with their expenses that even the Crown Prosecution Service couldn't ignore it are up in court. Fairy nuff.

I am trying to get into court to force the government to comply with the European Court judgement in Hirst, re the prisoners’ vote. They have ducked and dived away from this judgement for five years.

The MP's have been granted legal aid. Seriously. They are apparently so bereft of cash, income, savings, property or possessions that they just can't afford to pay their own legal fees.

On the same day, I have been denied legal aid to challenge the government’s refusal to comply with the law.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Degrees of Badness

One of the main problems surrounding the current legal schema of murder and life sentences is that they are so broad in conception. This confuses people, both over the definition of murder and the nature of the life sentence.

Rather than having a mere two homicide offences - murder and manslaughter - would it not be more sensible, just and clear if we adopted a more graded system?
The Americans, for instance, have three Degrees of murder and several different types of manslaughter charge. Each of these reflects the degree of intent, the brutality of the act, and the context in which it takes place.

And so a person who deliberately goes out carrying a gun, intending to commit a crime, and who then shoots someone dead in the commission of his crime receives the highest charge and the longest sentence. A person who, in a fit of overwhelming emotional torment, strikes out at a spouse and kills them receives a lesser charge and penalty.

Translated into Britain, this would clarify the most obvious misunderstanding around murder, that is, intent. Intent to kill is not necessary for a charge of murder in the UK, leaving the pub brawler and the serial killer ostensibly facing the same charge if another dies due to their actions.

Would it not be more just to save the charge of murder for those who intended to kill? With gradations of charge, and sentence, down the scale from that point? And save Life sentences for the most serious of cases?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Things People Say...

Wing Representatives Meeting Minutes - "It was reported that the Holocaust day went very well..."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Life Means Life 2

Should Life literally mean lifelong imprisonment for murderers? The campaigners whose brains retreat into parroting "life should mean life" undoubtedly think so. So let us look at the type of offences and people they want banged up for ever...

It is a common (and seemingly permanent) belief that Murder must be a deliberate and intended act. This is wrong. The definition of Murder is only that the killer intended to commit 'serious harm1. If death follows, even if it was explicitly not intended, then it is still murder.

For example, if a Bad Man surgically removed your arms and legs, intending to cause you lifelong suffering, but you then died from the injury, that would be Murder. The Bad Man explicitly did not want you to die, but through his acts of serious harm you did.

The majority of murderers actually had no intention to kill at all. They were lashing out in the face of anger, jealously, rage, despair, hatred, love - a temporary 'brain storm’ that swiftly ended. Sometimes the victim lives, sometimes they die. If they die, it is murder.

Do we want to lock up, forever, people who had no actual intention of killing? Is this what the Life Means Life sloganeers actually advocate?

Crude 'Life Mean Life' reasoning also encompasses mercy-killings. The people who, with the most elevated intention of ending suffering, kill another person. This is murder. Even if the suffering individual asks to be killed, it remains murder. Do we really want to lock these people up forever?

Given these examples, I suspect that the 'Life Means Life' advocates will retreat from their broad position and narrow it down to a more specific set of murderers one that excludes the 'nice’ ones.

Perhaps endless imprisonment should only apply to those who deliberately kill, with premeditation? That is, the common murderer of myth.

But if Life Means Life for deliberately killing one person, what then is the punishment for someone who deliberately kills several people? You can only serve one Life sentence. Is it justice to give the same sentence to a person who kills once as to a person who kills several times?

'Life should mean life’ is a wonderful slogan. It is short, easily remembered, and fits nicely onto a banner. And it is a wonderful way of avoiding having to actually think. It is only when you pick away at it, give it closer scrutiny, that it is revealed as a very shaky and arguably unjust sentence to levy at most people convicted of murder.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Life Should Mean Life

As slogans go, hearing this one being thrown into any debate is my lodestone for singling out the half-wit. It is a perpetual favourite for some of the more hate-obsessed victim’s campaign groups and the first refuge of Daily Mail readers (and writers).

I'd like to unpack this seemingly simple slogan and see if its conceptual legs are capable of carrying any weight.

The Life sentence has never meant, literally, imprisonment for life. Never. And now that life sentences are handed out like confetti, if we made "Life mean life" then we would be imprisoning a very wide spectrum of people indeed.

There are nearly 10,000 people serving indeterminate sentences at present. Less than 3,000 of those are convicted of murder. Should people sentenced for rape, armed robbery, wounding, actual bodily harm (a bloody nose) and the fifty other offences where Life is now the penalty actually spend the rest of their lives in prison?

I suggest that, if this situation is considered by the Life Mean Life brigade, then they will begin to hum and haw and generally retreat from their position.

I think they will retreat to the situation where they are actually only advocating literal Life for those convicted of murder.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Death Penalty

Between 1900 and the abolition of the death penalty, just shy of half of those sentenced to death were not executed. They had their sentences commuted to Life and tended to serve around 10 years before they were released.

Overwhelmingly, they went on to live obscure, non-criminal lives. It makes me wonder what was the point of killing the other half.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Risk to life or limb

This is the crux of a lifer's detention once the tariff has expired. On the face of it, it is not unreasonable to keep in prison a person who has killed another until it can be shown that he does not pose a risk to life and limb.

But that bare statement conceals a morass of complexity. In my own case, for example, it is not actually claimed that I pose a positive risk to life and limb. It never has been, in that my crime took place in unique, unrepeatable circumstances.

Rather, it was the view of the Parole Board at the last hearing that I could only demonstrate that I did not pose a risk by being in an Open prison without incident. In essence, the claim is that I will find it so difficult to move back into society that I will blow some mental fuse and go running through the streets wielding am axe.

Note that this argument is not rooted in my original crime, nor does it rest upon any claim that 1 am inherently prone to violence. Rather, it is an assertion that society is so difficult to deal with that I will need to be "tested" - in the twisted way that Open prisons function - to see if society and myself are on a course for a violent collision.

You will appreciate that I feel that this is an utterly pathetic, incoherent reason for keeping me detained. It also reveals a truly frightening lack of understanding of the nature of murder on the part of the Parole Board.

Murderers can be viewed in one of two ways. Either they are individuals who are inherently prone to violence, bearers of a profound psychological flaw that erupts sporadically; Or, they are individuals who are overwhelmed in very specific emotionally or psychologically charged situations.

As the rate for murderers committing second homicides in around 1 to 2%, then I contend that the latter is the correct view. Murderers are not inherently violently flawed people, but rather individuals who react homicidally to specific circumstances - and these circumstances rarely occur more than once in their lives.

If this is indeed correct - and I see no evidence otherwise - then to suggest that I may react violently to the stresses of daily social life is absurd. Do you react violently to daily frustrations? No. Neither do I. And whilst the particular stresses of life out there are not precisely replicated in prison life, prison life is incredibly stressful. This is why, for example, our suicide rate is so high. And yet, in the face of institutionalised degradations and provocations, I have shown no inclination to violent behaviour.

Why, then, should I not deal with the issues posed by daily life in precisely the same way as you? I didn't "fail" life, I "failed" a specific, unrepeatable situation. To keep me in prison longer is to reveal an incoherence at the heart of the release process.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sir David Latham

And Lo! the Heavens opened, and Truth poured forth... All of us involved with criminal justice and the parole board have always known that they could be flighty creatures, prone to shifting in the face of the Government of the day.

This is despite the fact that the parole board is claimed to be independent, a claim even upheld by "the prisoners' friend", the European Court of Human Rights.
But now, at last, the Chair of the parole board has made public what we all knew in private - that the Board has been keeping people in prison longer than necessary. Sir David Latham has blown their cover, confessing that the Board has been making decisions about release based upon the wrath of the media and government rather than the character of the prisoner sat in front of them.

I was one of the many who was burned in this process of abrogating professional and personal responsibility. If the Board had held its nerve against the media then I would have been released a couple of years ago (this episode is covered in my post, "How to serve 30 years").

Note that whilst Sir David makes a long overdue confession, there is no suggestion that he should apologise. Both to you for wasting your money in paying Board members to do their job and for the ton of cash it has cost you to keep some of us inside longer than necessary. And to some of us prisoners, who were slung back in our boxes for a couple more years as a result of this shameful behaviour by the Board.

Just what does it take these days before a public servant can be prompted to say, "I'm sorry"? I can only hope that my parole board in two weeks time has rediscovered its purpose and makes a decision based upon me rather than the vagaries of Jack Straw's mood-swings.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


We are occasionally shuffled in front of a psychiatrist, just to see if we are barking. This is an extract from one conversation.

Him: "Do you hear voices coming from your television?"
Me: "1 should hope so; I pay good money for the privilege."

Psychiatrists. What would we do without them...?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Myths in the Making

I was going to entitle this piece "Oh, you LIAR!" but that just
becomes obvious as you read further...

Richard Littlejohn is one of the many commentators that the Daily Mail keeps under the stairs, ready to be wheeled out whenever some splenic verbosity is required. He has recently been doing a series, a large spread that could be entitled, "Woe is us, we are all going to the dogs, the End is Nigh, etc etc". You know the type, standard Daily Mail fare.

And it wouldn't occupy my attention accept for the fact that Littlejohn decided to dive into an exploration of human rights. This is complicated political and legal territory and Littlejohn did his research. Alas for scholarship, his research limited itself to reading his own newspaper...

And so he reiterates some blatant lies that the Mail peddled. Isn't it touching that a Mail columnist - in the full knowledge of the tripe he himself writes - actually believes that the rest of the paper is solid gold fact?

One such lie, a myth in the making, is that hundreds of prisoners were awarded compensation after being refused heroin. It speaks to the sanity of Mail readers that they could ever think this could be true, but there you are. The case in question was actually about de-toxing from heroin. In the community, detox via the NHS is supported with a regimen of drugs which lessen the pains of the process. But in prisons, this support was absent, forcing the detoxers to suffer. The compensation came about because of this inexplicable disparity in treatment, which led to their being caused unnecessary suffering. Feel free to object to that, as you please, but it had bugger all to do with being refused heroin.

His whole diatribe is littered with these lies, rehashed from 'news' reports printed in the Mail. I could list a dozen others, patiently disassembling them for our joint amusement. But that would be to over-egg the pudding. You get the point - the Daily Mail prints lies like they are going out of fashion and Richard Littlejohn is either a lazy, incompetent journalist or a barefaced liar. Nothing you didn't know...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hope 2

"An expectation and desire combined".

How does one generate a sense of hope, when every forward vista is clouded with uncertainty and bereft of any sense of control? Hope could be perceived as a desire which is maintained in the face of a difficult reality. Surviving Life sentences, the essence of uncertainty, requires a perpetual balancing act between reality and hope. If the former obscures the latter, then survival isn't assured.

The parole process can stretch these abilities to the limit, and it is almost designed to be tormenting. Lifers must, by law, have a parole hearing at least once every two years once they have passed their tariff.

This is a difficult spread of time. Being knocked-back (refused release) for another two years is a big blow. And yet two years is not such a long time that it seems out of reach. It is long enough to hurt but not quite long enough to destroy. It is almost calculated to cause maximum, but not overwhelming, distress.
Approaching a parole hearing, we receive a Dossier comprising a summary of previous staff reports and a collection of current reports and recommendations. These are pored over in great detail, each prisoner attempting to discern a pattern, uncover a hidden trap. My current reports all recommend that I move to Open prison at the hearing in May.

But this is not certain. It is the three people comprising the parole panel who make the decision and their views may not concur with those of prison staff. This is as it should be, but with a pocketful of positive recommendations it would reduce my stress level if I believed the parole board would merely rubber stamp and let me move on.

I have to try to compartmentalise my hope. This hearing can lead to one of two futures and I have to envisage and expect both simultaneously. To allow oneself to be filled with hope untainted by caution is to court disaster. If I am allowed to move to Open, then I just have to grit my teeth for a year before release. My plans for my future remain intact.

If the parole board take against me, though, then I must remain in closed conditions for a further year or two. This means that release is pushed back for at least two years, probably four, and maybe much longer. If that happens then parts of my life begin to fall apart, all of my plans begin to be shredded by the passage of time.

The trick is to hope for the best outcome, whilst preparing for the worst. This does take a lot of emotional and mental energy. And hope must be fostered, even in the face of disaster.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hope 1

There is a crucial difference between the longest of fixed sentences and indeterminate sentences.

A person serving a fixed sentence can go to sleep each night knowing that another day can be struck off the calendar. There is a certainty that, no matter how difficult and hopeless any particular day may seem, that there is an end to the sentence. Short of committing a further serious crime whilst in prison, there is a foreseeable, predictable release date.

Lifers do not have that certainty. Our existence is a profoundly uncertain one. This is deeply unsettling. It is a feature of regular life that the days make sense, that they are broadly predictable. Act A prompts Response B. When you throw open the curtains in the morning, you never imagine that the Sun could be blue.

All that brings predictability, meaning and certainty to life is absent from a Lifer’s existence. The length of the sentence is open ended. Sure, there is the tariff, but only newly sentenced Lifers regard that as anything more than a target to aim at, with older hands like myself treating it as an interesting legal footnote of little practical relevance. Every Lifer knows that he may only serve a decade, or that the only release may be death.

And unlike in other areas of life, the Lifer has little control or influence over the course of the sentence. Progress towards release rests in the hands of others, the reports written by staff. This rests on the very subjective view of staff of anything and everything the Lifer may say or do. Everything is reinterpreted according to the particular conceptual lens of report writers.

We exist in a superposition of states, ten thousand Schrödinger’s Cats, each tucked away in our little concrete boxes, each waiting to be collapsed into a particular reality according to whichever member of staff peeps through the Judas Hole in the door.

All that brings a semblance of meaning to life is uncertain. Work, relationships, career, forward planning... all rest in the hands of others and are allocated or withdrawn for few discernible reasons. The food we eat, the cell we live in, the placing of pictures on our walls - none of these are within our control.

This is a profound state of uncertainty, when human beings crave some predictability to their existence. Such can be the corrosive effect of this that some Lifers take drastic action in order to gain some predictability. Some commit further crimes or acts which ensure that they will not be released for many more years. Some, in the supreme effort to regain control of something in their lives, reach the point where all they can do is kill themselves.

It takes a particular inner resourcefulness to manage a life where everything is uncertain, and hope is central to survival.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Post-Riot Woolf to Learmont

The rebellions at Strangeways, and other prisons such as Bristol, Dartmoor, Cardiff and Pucklechurch were seminal in the course of modern prison history. In the month of April 1990, five large prisons were temporarily under the control of prisoners, and some twenty other prisons suffered some type of disturbance. The nation had seen nothing like it.

There are few who were involved who do not carry some small pride in those events, regardless of the eventual outcome. It demonstrated that we could have an impact on the course of our lives and the sensibilities of our keepers; and some of us will always remember that essential point.

The rebellion was responded to by a judicial inquiry led by Lord Woolf and the Prison Inspector, Judge Tumin. Their inquiry, and the report that followed, was unique in four ways. The inquiry was held in public; the views of prisoners were actively canvassed; the explanation for the riots broke away from the prior orthodoxy; and the response of the government to the report was broadly positive.

To those who live their existence outside of the Looking Glass world of prisons, I doubt these elements seem to be unusual or unreasonable. But to insiders, they were as unique as the riots themselves. Given that disorder in prison is a perpetual feature of the system, that no previous inquiry had taken the time to ask prisoners why they rebelled should stand out as a symptom of the official mindset that helps stoke revolt. Academics were consulted, penologists and criminologists, politicians and staff; all are usually invited to the table for discussions. But never prisoners.

And inquiries never took place in public. The world of prisons is a grubby one, and maintaining control over the perceptions of prisons is crucial to the criminal justice system. Public inquiries risk exposing issues that policy-makers would rather were ignored. One example being the role of PDA branch officers attempting to bribe prisoners to riot, as happened with me in 1986. The prior inquiries that took place, in private, were usually published - but not always. To this day the private inquiry into the events at Wormwood Scrubs in 1979 remain unpublished. Why? Because it would confirm that a peaceful protest by the Lifers on D Wing was broken up by a deliberate brutal assault by screws. Hence the surprise at Woolf holding a public inquiry.

Historically, inquiries into riots invariably led to asinine conclusions, usually based upon the bestial nature of prisoners. We riot just because we can. Woolf broke from this orthodoxy, concluding that the riots had their roots in the fact that the prison service had failed to convince us that we were being treated with justice and fairness. This was a carefully worded report and it is noteworthy that Woolf did not assert that we were not being ill or unjustly treated; only that we felt as such. Woolf saw the proper and sustainable regime as being a balance between security, control and justice. This was an unexpected and welcome break from the past.

One astonishing result of the Woolf Report was a Government White Paper which mooted the idea that prison "was an expensive way of making bad people worse", and that imprisonment should be a last resort in sentencing. Coming from a Tory Home Secretary, this was nothing short of a revolution.

On the landings, there was a vague air that all was possible, that Woolf had opened the door to a myriad possibilities. A nod to increasing our perceptions of the legitimacy of the system was the creation of a formal complaints system, including an independent Ombudsman. The post-Woolf period was a strange and unsettled one, with the shackles of the orthodox past being weakened.

It was not to last. Within two years a new and desperate Tory Home Secretary declared that "prison works" and signalled a clampdown on prison regimes. Between 1990 and 1995 we saw a shift from a conditional enlightenment to a harsh system that was dominated by an all pervasive concern with security and control. Justice was trampled in the dust, a victim of the rush for populist votes. In essence, 20 years after the seminal rebellions of 1990, we prisoners find ourselves more controlled than ever, and our concerns and interests smothered under a blanket of policies, procedures and performance targets, allied to a spineless managerialist culture that always looks upwards to its superiors. What happens below is seemingly irrelevant. Until the next rebellion, of course.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Advice for Life

This was told to me early on in my sentence by another Lifer:

1 Deny everything

2 Admit nothing

3 Keep them talking until you find out how much they know

I don't know if this is any good in the outside world but it helped me to negotiate the last thirty years in prison!

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Whilst the wider world continues with its fixation on our televisions and PlayStations, the substantive weight of imprisonment as experienced on this side of the wall is completely overlooked.

One such is the dependency that prisoners are forced to experience. Such is the level of control and regulation over the smallest details of our lives, that we are engaged in a perpetual struggle to carve out areas of autonomy or choice.

This is a child-like existence, inherently demeaning to grown men. We must ask staff for everything. Soap, socks, loo paper, to unlock the door, to allow us physical movement... Everything is designed to make us dependent. Such a deliberate effort to regulate our lives may increase the systems faith in their control, but it runs a terrible risk of eroding the abilities of their charges. I've made the point before - a good prisoner is not the same as a good citizen.

Of course, there are opportunities to exercise autonomy, in many areas of our lives. And yet, these actually shift our dependency from the prison system onto others' outside.

To give myself choices in what I wear, what I eat, drink, and when; how often I can write letters, with what class of postage and on what paper; what clothing I can wear... All of these depend on money. Not being parted with too readily by the prison system, this means being in a state of perpetual dependency on others.

The depths of this schema can be illustrated by a simple haircut. How do we get this done? Some prisons employ a prisoner-barber, which is free. Even then, his capabilities and frequency of service limit the choices that we can exercise. More often, private barbers are used. These are prisoners who can wield clippers with some skill, who we pay with tobacco. Assuming you can afford it. If you have the money, the most liberty in choice you can buy is via purchasing your own hair clippers.

This is such a small example, yet it encapsulates all of the difficulties that are involved when attempting to find some autonomy from dependency on the prison. Whether the prison barber is cutting your hair, to his skill and timescale; or whether a mate is doing it; both seem near-identical and yet are fundamentally different in their meaning and importance to the individual prisoner. I have managed to buy my own clippers now, freeing me from depending on others for haircuts(thank you!).

This dependency extends, intrudes, into every area of our lives. I write on an old word-processor that could die at any moment, killing my ability to write. The ink is scrounged off a mate, who could shut up shop. The paper is nicked from official stocks as we cannot buy A4 plain paper. The envelopes and stamps used to post it to the blog Editor are bought with donations.

The Editor spends time and effort scanning, spellchecking and posting a piece each and every day. Something more interesting may come along, you never know, and this service may cease. End of Blog.

I'm wearing clothes bought by generous others, wearing a watch which was a birthday present, smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap coffee from money given to me.

My studies, such a large part of my current life and future hopes, rest completely in the hands of other people to support and facilitate.

Every aspect of life depends on others. Be it money, time, effort or simply an ear to listen to me, it rests in the hands of others.

Without the efforts and kindness of other people, I would have nothing. And this isn't a mere materialistic point, it extends to such aspects of life as friendship and sexual expression. Remember, we can't just go out and find a new partner or friend!

And yet, through this dependency on others, within prison this gives us the ability to carve out a sphere of freedom, gives us opportunities for exercising choice in an environment designed to reduce us to automatons.

This is deeply contradictory. Perhaps, importantly, it is that our dependence on other people outside helps to reduce our dependency on the prison system. If we have to be beholden and dependent, it is far better to be so to those whose motives are kind.

It is in these deep, emotional and psychological ways that prison bears its sharpest weight. Having a TV doesn't really make up for being forced to live like a child.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Recalling Lifers

A unique aspect to British life sentences is that, on release, lifers remain tethered to the State until their death. This is the Life Licence.

It allows that we can be recalled to prison for any behaviour "which gives rise to cause for concern". Note that committing a crime isn't necessary.

This is obviously highly subjective and over the years I have witnessed some truly monstrous miscarriages of justice. Those familiar with the writing of Erwin James may recall his friend, Big Rinty. Having resettled back into the community, Rinty was accused of a crime. He was acquitted in Court. And yet he remains in prison 13 years later. Such is the nature of Life Licences.

All that is required is a phone call from a probation officer to the Ministry of Justice, and police are despatched to round up the Lifer and deposit him in the nearest local prison.

A few weeks later, the Lifer should be presented before the Parole Board, who decide whether the behaviours he allegedly exhibited are, firstly, substantiated and secondly, whether they suggest the Lifer poses a more than minimal risk to life and limb.

The Lifer may then be immediately re-released. Or, like many, he will remain wandering the prison landings for some years, wondering quite what went wrong.

Of course, prison staff always hint that there is more to this than we know about, that the recalled lifer can't be trusted in his version of events. All lies, intended to serve some unspoken belief that probation officers can never be wrong. Such was the situation with a certain Prem Singh. Only when he managed to have his recall reviewed by the European Court was the full tale exposed, a travesty of baseless accusations from vindictive probation staff which led to him spending another five years in prison.

The astute will have realised by now that Lifers in the community are extremely vulnerable. One accusation after an argument, a bitter relationship breakdown, or defending oneself against a drunken aggressor can all lead to the existence that has been carefully created on release being transformed into so much dust.

The only genuine "release" from a life sentence is death.

Friday, April 9, 2010

On Children Who Kill

Children who commit horrible crimes present as special a case as can be imagined for the criminal justice system. What do we do with such people? The seemingly polar opposites of choice, between rehabilitation and punishment invite the most extreme views.

Such children provoke a response in some sections of society that is truly bestial. The awfulness of the crime can be reflected in the mindless, bestial response it provokes. The same people who march for "saving the children" can just as easily call for the most horrible punishments to be inflicted upon other children. This was recently illustrated by the children’s charity Kidscape protesting at the 'short' sentence handed down to two children who brutalised other kids. We only want to protect 'nice' kids, apparently, and the bad ones can rot in hell.

I have my own extreme view. Along with most jurisdictions in the Western world, I don't believe that ten year old children can be held fully responsible for their actions. It follows that they cannot bear the same criminal responsibility as adults.

At such a young age, I believe that few children are irredeemable and that huge efforts should be expended in order to guide their psychological development so that a reasonable adult emerges.

I also believe that those amongst us who spout hatred at such children should examine their consciences. It is because of such people - responsible adults! - that some criminals require new identities. Having whipped-up a vigilante level of mindless vitriol, it ill befits us to then complain about the expense required to keep such child criminals safe.

The decent thing would be to drop the subtext of the public pronouncements and be brutally honest. Many people do hold ten year old murderers to be fully responsible and they hate them with an energy that they rarely direct at adult killers. Some people, media barons amongst them, would dearly love to hound these criminals every day of their lives, both provoking then recording their torments for our delight. Some would openly call for their own murder, preferably after prolonged torture.

All of these statements are, I honestly believe, true and only barely masked in media reporting. Whilst parading in the clothes of moral outrage, these commentators, editorials and victims representatives are indulging in a horrific pantomime whose end is hoped to be bloody. Their hate and vicarious pleasure in rehashing the awful crime blinds them to their own sense of shame.

Our treatment of children who kill is a lens through which we can examine society. And what it is revealing is repulsive.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Riot and Reform

The Bristol Prison Riot - A Personal Reflection - April 8th 1990.

The secret burden of imprisonment is that it is a mindlessly boring existence. It is dull and un-changing, from one year to the next everything moves to the beat of the same metronomic, life-sapping rhythm. The same cell, the same neighbours, the same routine, the same staff, the same food.

This elevates any break from the routine into an event of greater significance, it encourages a hothouse of gossip and rumour - any purchase that can be extracted from the smallest of events is leapt upon in an effort to mitigate the unremitting sameness. I once overslept and, not having seen me for a few hours the rumour was generated that I'd been shipped-out for some heinous act of rebellion. There was some sense of disappointment when I appeared for my lunch.

Such deadening dullness threaded the evening of Sunday, April the 1st 1990. Except that the largest prisoner uprising in British history was underway at Strangeways prison, played out across the communal TV that we absorbed at each opportunity. The events in Manchester sent a ripple through the system, and gave a glimpse of the possibilities that lay before each of us - we need not always accept being treated as subhuman. Each new news bulletin demoralised the staff. And yet this was a media event, it involved us in some way but was also held at bay by the thick glass of the television screen.

And then there followed a revolt at Dartmoor prison. Rightly renowned for its calculated indifference, brutality and contempt, a revolt was felt as being the only proper response. Short lived though the Dartmoor revolt was, it was necessary to evacuate some of the cons. As the nearest local prison, Horfield became their reception centre.

It was the understanding of cons at Horfield that those refugees sent from Dartmoor were not those involved in the riot. Drawing up to the prison on coaches, they were taunted by their police escort and became fractious. They were placed on A-Wing, a long Victorian construction usually holding short-termers.

Those, including myself, on the long-termer B-Wing had no knowledge of the events occurring on A-Wing. At just after 7pm, wing staff began instructing us to bang-up. This was an hour early; but given the vagaries of prison life we made no efforts to resist what we assumed was some small local emergency.

Using the urinal in the Three's recess, I could see some commotion on the second floor bridge/walkway that linked A-Wing with B and C Wings. It was unclear, but that there were cons and staff involved in some melee looked to be a fair assumption. We continued to bang-up.

Being at the rear of the wing, I didn't witness the unedifying scene of B-Wing staff running away to the gatehouse at the front of the prison. If I had, it would have made little sense - we were all locked up, the wing was secure.

Only when figures appeared on B-Wing's flat roof did we begin to appreciate what was developing around us. A-Wing was under the control of cons, and a number of cons on C-Wing were also out of their cells. All of the staff had run away. These people were now on our roof and were passing down to our windows lengths of metal ripped from the landings on A-Wing. Some of them were also searching out named individuals on my wing, those said to be the worst sex-cases.

My visceral urge to join a revolt was tempered by the fact that my first parole hearing was within a few months. Should I accept the reality that parole was not to happen - or should I continue to cling to the false hope generated by the process? I had served ten years.

The decision was taken out of my hands; my neighbour smashed through our adjoining wall - "Do you want to come out?". Like it or not, with a bloody great hole in my wall, I was involved. Not that this was a simple decision; history had taught us that after the riot there could be fearsome and violent retribution from the staff. Rioting is not being cheeky to some screw, it's not punching a governor in the eye; to rebel en-masse is to grip the whole edifice of power by the throat and spit in its face. The consequences of this would never be good, leading to a mixture of fear and excitement with each step further across the boundary. Moving through to his cell, we smashed our way through a series of adjoining cells until a small group of us was stationed in one cell. Each wall we breached increased our confidence and culpability. This was the place where we would smash our way out onto the landing spur. Using metal bars passed from the roof, it took some time to smash through the double layer of brick that presented the obstacle.

Once out on the landing, we found ourselves to be in a unique position. Each spur on the wing (three spurs on each of three landings) was locked off with a gate - except ours. This gave us access to the stairs, the whole of the ground floor, and the gated hatch to the roof. Whilst some attempted to smash through into other spurs, I forayed down to the ground and the PO's office. One of our party had badly cut his hand whilst smashing out of the cells, and I wanted the first aid kit. Dick was just ahead of me; the later consensus was that he wished to obtain any paperwork that identified him as an informer-come-rapist. Whilst I took the first aid kit, Dick stole the money from the staff kitty.

Back to the Threes. Our toughest obstacle was the gate that was set into the ceiling, preventing access to the roof. Shifts of cons worked from above and below to smash the concrete housing and, hours later, we had our 'time in the open air'.
The roof was flat, as was the identical C-Wing, although the Victorian A-Wing had a steeply pitched roof. It was damp, with occasional drizzle. Near the front was a concrete 'bunker' that held the water-tank.

I wandered the roof, enjoying the vista of the city laid out before me. Behind the nick was a residential road and the locals must have caught a sense of our excitement they stood in their bedroom windows watching, some holding up their kids to wave. If they had known the nature of some of those now held back by only the perimeter, waving their kids would have been the last thing...

A deep sense of satisfaction settled upon me. Looking across the wall I could see the gathering swarm of police who secured the perimeter. Down the internal road the riot screws, still known to us as Mufti squads, massed in their shields and armour like centurions out of time - or a carpet of cockroaches, their Kevlar carapace reflecting the moisture of the night air. I knew that they would return, and I knew that we would lose, but at that moment their prison was ours.

The water-tank bunker seemed to present a good strong-point, concrete with only two access points. I organised urns of water and bread and jam to be brought from our servery on the ground floor - any hope of holding out rested on physical resources as well as mental ones.

The excitement was too much for most. The majority of the rioters were short-termers from A Wing, whose conception of rebellion only extended to breaking anything they could. Historical perspective and future possibilities were swept aside in the rush to consume all the food and water within minutes. Harnessing a spontaneous outburst of anger and resentment into an organised rebellion failed in that moment.

Wrapping myself in my lifer-coat, now embedded with brick dust and glass, I kept wandering the roof. Unlike the others, wearing some sort of mask didn't cross my mind. Increasingly improbable and desperate plans floated through my head, the maddest being to manufacture an escape. To wrap myself in a mattress, tie myself to a length of rope, anchor that on the roof and to take a running dive for the wall. In my mind, I would clear the top and the mattress would cushion me when I swung and smashed against the outside. That the road was jammed with the police saved me from even attempting that insane trick.

The riot was lost, as are all ultimately. While prisoners can take physical possession for a while, staff reinforcements mean that any physical battle will be inevitably lost. Rebellions have their power in their political resonance, rather than their physical reality. The wing dispensary was emptied and people stood on the roof swapping bottles of liquid and packets of pills. "What are these?" Don't know... "I'll take a handful, and then we'll see..." One man, Jimmy the Ponce, insensible through drinking a bottle of chloral hydrate, was taken inside and laid on a mattress, unconscious. We shouted to the nearest screw that we had a man needing medical attention; assuming that there was some way to pass him to safety.
The screw lifted his visor and looked up at us, crowded around the barred window. "We'll pick him up when we come in..." His look made it plain that he meant, don't worry, we'll pick him up when we launch our counter-assault. All Jimmy remembers is waking up three days later in a prison two hundred miles away.

This was not an organised rebellion in any sense. It was an incoherent outpouring of resentment and bitterness. Once the breakable elements of the prison had been fractured and the medicine cabinet consumed then a steady stream made their way to the screws lines. They were searched, cuffed and bundled away to other prisons. The point of origin, A Wing, was internally destroyed and uninhabitable. C and B Wings were riddled with holes, but largely useable.

What to hold out for? There was no agenda. There wasn't even a group with whom to discuss an agenda. Having exhausted the entertainment possibilities of wandering the roof and observing the activities of the police and screws, I settled down in the water-bunker. A hot water pipe threaded around its inside and I found a warm corner in which to doze, excited voices still babbling around me.

Bastards. The screws cut the power and water, leaving me freezing. It was about 4 a.m., damp and flat. Fuck it. A staunch rebellious siege was the last thought of those around me; I went back to bed and slept for a few hours on a pile of blankets, brick dust and glass.

"Advance!". As a wake-up call, the sound of the riot squad making their way along the landing isn't the most comforting. My tension was ratcheted up by my cell being right at the end of a long spur. The Mufti moved along one cell at a time, noting which was empty, which occupied, which damaged.

They reached my door. The long flap over the observation slit flew upwards and a shield was rammed against the door. Eyes met mine through three layers of Perspex - his visor, his shield, the spy-hole... "Cell insecure! Cell insecure!" Bugger, he'd noticed the hole, the rubble... "Stand up and face the window"; I was ordered to have my back to the door, put my hands behind me head. They unlocked and charged in an instant, a shield at my back and a screw gripping each arm, twisting them into joint locks. I was surprised that they were holding the locks quite loosely; I expected full-on pain control.

I was walked across the way and dumped in a secure cell, to the surprise of the occupier who had made every effort to avoid involvement in this whole episode. We were locked-down for 24 hours before being fed. Still feeling the rebellious quiver, I assumed that the Institution had taken the point and would stop treating us with disregard; a key traditional indicator of this being food. So it was a surprise to be marched down in threes to the hotplate, passing groups of screws still in riot gear, to be served corned beef, mash and beans. My natural urge to complain was muffled by the fact that the screw serving it was wearing his crash helmet and wielded both a ladle and a riot stave. One of the more surreal meals I've enjoyed.

There were consequences to the riot, though to be fair to the screws these were legal rather than physical. I was swearing blind that I hadn't left my cell, that the hole was made by people from another wing. It seems they smashed in to free me, but I refused to take part... I did this without a blush, and in the knowledge that I had been the only one on the roof without a mask. Half the city must have seen me that night.

This scheme had some success, in that I was charged under the internal disciplinary rules rather than charged with a criminal offence. I was surely guilty: a hole in my wall, a pile of bricks on my floor... But I was saved by a screw. Screws have a natural instinct to over-egg any situation, but particularly disciplinary hearings. This one read his evidence, claiming that there "were tool marks in the plaster" of my cell wall. Interesting; my solicitor noted that cell walls were merely painted brick. The adjudicators - the then BoV - trooped to my cell, to return and find me not guilty. Thanks to that verdict, to this day I had no official involvement in the riot.

Ten years on, and I was on the same wing in the same prison, looking up at the gated hatch in the roof. I turned to the screw sitting on the landing and jabbed, "It's been a while since I've seen up in there...". He squirmed in his seat, memories slowly returning to his fat-soaked brain. He squealed. "You were up there in the riot, I saw you on the roof!!!" Walking away I said, "Pity you weren’t here on the day I was tried then..."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Evolution of Shaving

The smallest parts of prisoners’ lives can reflect changes in the wider society. Like shaving.

It was once the case that we had to shave every morning, a failure to do so leading to disciplinary charges. I spent more than one period as a 15 year old in solitary confinement for this.

We were not allowed to possess razor blades. These were old-fashioned, double edged blades that had to be screwed in to the razor itself. Both were kept in a pouch by staff, to be issued each morning and collected shortly after.

A few decades on, and we are now issued disposable razors. They are crap. We are allowed to hold them in our possession, exchanging them in the office, on a new for old basis.

The richer end of the population buy Mach 3 Turbo Laser Testosterone whatever (the only way this could possibly be marketed as being more macho is to have a set of balls fitted to the handle). Packets of blades cost eight quid, making this the best argument for beards ever.

We have moved from a situation of uber-control over our shaving, and the security of razor blades, to one of a more laisez-fair disposition.

We have moved from steel, long lifed shaving kit to disposable tat. If this doesn't say something about society as a whole...

And I opted out of the whole business, having a beard since my teens.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


When you imagine a cell in your mind's eye, where do you have yourself standing? I bet that you will have yourself in the doorway, looking in towards the back wall.

When I try to describe my cell to 'outsiders', I have myself deep inside the cell, looking out towards the door.

It occurs to me that until people can imagine themselves in the cell, looking out, that there will always be a limit to how people can ever understand the prisoner’s experience. And without that, how can there be progress in forwarding any debate about imprisonment?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Prison Myths

People out there seem to have a ready store of prison myths to call upon, mostly culled from the dodgier end of the media and cinema portrayals.

Prisoners are equally prone to believing in myths. For all of my sentence I have heard fellow cons proclaim that Britain pays a fine to the European Court each year, in order to compensate for breaking the law in using razor-wire on fences and walls, and for reading our mail.

Utter tripe, the lot of it. The European Court has no power to fine, has never taken a view on razor-wire and is quite happy for a proportionate interference in our right to private life on the grounds of preventing crime and disorder (excepting our legal mail).

This myth is popular amongst prisoners, it trickles down the generations unhindered by reality. It is attractive, as it erodes the self-proclaimed moral superiority of our keepers. What else elevates a prisoner’s status faster than his jailers being law-breakers? I wish it were true...

My sentence is "to be Detained during Her Majesty's Pleasure", the life sentence handed out to juveniles. I'm still interrupted by the odd person sidling up to me and telling me, conspiratorially, that I will automatically be released when the Queen dies. Given that Brenda seems to hail from an annoyingly resilient bloodline, this isn't a great comfort. It is also completely untrue.

The latest generation of Lifers, and even ones who should know better, often share the idea that our sentence is actually one of 99 years. The origin of this myth is, unusually, easily sourced. Whichever jackass built the prison systems computer system, called LIDS, forgot to allow the field for 'Sentence' to cope with anything other than numbers. The word 'life' just burned its diodes. And so, on this system, Lifers are allocated the numerical sentence of 99 years.

The reality of the situation is cunningly hidden in the words 'Life sentence'. It allows for us to be held until death. It doesn't matter if you uncover a distant Vulcan relative and realise you will live to be 200, you won't be kicked out after 99 of them.

For many, many years it was accepted practice to allocate Lifers to a single cell. When I was briefly forced to share, screws apologised for this. This practice grew up in recognition that life sentences carried immense psychological pressures and sharing a cell merely added to the burden. And so the myth that Lifers were entitled to a single cell became embedded, it was repeated like a mantra, and even many staff believed it. No such rule actually exists and never has.

Old-timers will recall the persistent story that the prison service was offered unlimited free tobacco from the makers of Old Holborn. Utter tosh, of course, but it played into our general persecution complex. Even if they were offered free tobacco, those bastards in HQ would refuse it just to cause us grief. Like all myths, it rested on a mixture of wishful thinking, playing to our prejudices, and sounds like just the sort of thing that could happen. If only.

Waking up in the morning to find a cellmate dangling from the bars must be shocking. The myth persists that, should your cellmate kill himself, then you will be released from your sentence in recognition of the trauma suffered. When I briefly found myself sharing a cell with two short-termers (serving days and weeks), they tried to persuade me to kill myself so they could get home early. Alas, the prison service isn't as humane or generous as this myth assumes. In a classic passage from the Staff manual on Requests and Complaints, it lays out the scale of generosity to be meted out to prisoners who have undertaken extraordinary acts. The example given is a prisoner on home leave who charges into a burning building to save a family. It recommends that a single month be cut from his sentence...Dead cellmates aren't worth much in this schema.

Mythology isn't an area I'm particularly familiar with, but I note the broad themes that underlie all of these prison myths. They have a kernel of possibility, reinforce our prejudices, and either increase our relative status or degrades that of the prison service. Most importantly, they offer the possibility of hope.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Big Fish, Small Fish

One of the many things which I will have to adjust to on release is having a radically different status.

Due to my writing, politics and sheer longevity my name is known to many throughout the prison system. Now, thanks to the web, people in very far flung places know who I am. I am one of the loudest, most consistent voices amongst the small community of prisoners who openly speak out in criticism of the prison system.

Status is a fairly nebulous entity in prison, a quality that can have clearly defined characteristics and yet subject to unseen forces.

On some measures, I have some small status. People know that they can knock on my door and ask for help if they are in dispute with the institution. They also know that I can be trusted, in that I operate to Chatham House rules - what is said in my cell, stays in my cell - and dark secrets have been unburdened to me.

Whilst I tend to be the living embodiment of financial disaster, this is mitigated by my not having a history of abrogating debts or obligations. I don't run off and put myself "on protection". This stability has a value more than pounds and pence in the community.

I can be loud, critical and abrasive, refusing to either provoke conflict or wavering in the face of bullying tactics. The length of time I have served also adds a little weight to the pot.

On a personal and political level, then, I am a middle of the road, minor, 'somebody' in this prison society.

Nearly all of the characteristics which afford me status in prison will, on release, not be so much as irrelevant but will actually comprise a negative status.

I will start from being an utter nobody. Then the murderer tag will become evident, prison campaigner risks becoming the dinner party bore, and my abilities to safely negotiate the prison society will be an utter irrelevance.

It will be an interesting time, entering the world without a class label, a middle-class education, and a decidedly libertarian world view. Some people wonder what I will make of the world. I wonder what the world will make of me?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

More Education

Prison education use to be provided through the local education authorities and it was, broadly, a benign shambles. Whilst offering maths and English, there was also an eclectic mix of sociology, politics, current affairs, various arts and crafts. It was in this 'system' that Cohen and Taylor taught at Durham prison, their unofficial participant observation research making their way into a book which remains one of the penological standards (“Psychological Survival: The Experience of Long-Term Imprisonment”).

We were not encouraged to become educated, the view that an educated con is a dangerous one holding firm against the rehabilitative impulse. Nevertheless, the brightest of us used to find our way to sociology classes or whichever local variant offered the atmosphere that supported debate and reflection.

Un-standardised, bereft of targets and on a shoestring budget, the old education system provided an atmosphere of genuine learning and achievement. Alongside this, the teaching staff were unencumbered by the con-hating ideology of the prison staff and so treated us as people first, prisoners second. Education Departments were a refuge for us, a place where we could escape the demeaning culture and attitudes of the prison and be real people for a few hours a day.

And then the managerialists moved in, the bean-counters assessing, measuring and systematising every aspect of the educational experience. Along the way, they have managed to kill it stone dead.

Now, under the modern educational ethos, the purpose of education is strictly instrumental. The mantra is repeated endlessly, that prisoners generally have "low literacy and numeracy skills" (a phrase which makes me want to vomit, but sums up precisely the problem I relate), and this leads to unemployment and offending.

Ergo the whole machine, and the budget, is geared towards Basic Skills. Not basic as in GCSE's, but basic as in "do you need help doing up your shoe laces?". The qualifications on offer comprise a jumble of acronyms that, unravelled, easily spell out "low expectations".

The targets set for each prison relate solely to these basic skills, leading to managers scrabbling around to find ways to "persuade" prisoners to complete such qualifications. An attempt was made last year to have me undertake a Basic Skills Level 1 in Numeracy, for instance.

This target-driven culture has no consideration for the needs of the actual prisoner-students, it is all about the needs of the institution. With qualifications higher than basic skills not being part of any target, they are of no interest to education managers. What sort of perverse system is it that only rewards people for endlessly completing a raft of basic skills but has no time for them once they can spell their name?

If any prisoner has the temerity to aspire to dizzying heights such as A-Levels, no funding is available. We rely on a couple of educational charities to support our efforts and they bear the weight of the educational needs of thousands of prisoners.

Degrees have been available to long term prisoners for decades. The part that the Open University has played in changing the lives of so may prisoners is a subject long in need of exploration as well as celebration.

Who pays for this...? Are we benefiting from our crimes by receiving a free education? Yes and no. Educatinal charities pay for the first year with the OU and then the OU itself pays. So yes, it is free but not at the direct cost to the taxpayer. The OU treats us as if we were outside and on low incomes.

Working from a low base, it may take ten years or more to traverse the educational hurdles up to completing an undergraduate degree. What was I meant to do for the next twenty years, sit in a workshop and count nuts and bolts into plastic bags?

Post-graduate education is a wilderness for funding. The prison service has absolutely no support mechanisms, just getting sufficient writting paper out of the Education Department is a minor coup.

Again, this must be self-funded or via the support of charities. Prisoners are forbidden to access any student loan facilities. My Masters cost other people some œ2,500. My PhD runs at over œ1,600 per year for five years, a sum that is incredibly difficult to raise and which has led me to having to take time off. It will be a miracle if I complete it, more due to fundraising than a lack of suitably focused neurons.

Assuming the best, though, and I will leave prison with one of the best educational histories a prisoner can achieve, and none of it at a direct cost to myself.

I say direct cost, as focusing upon education cost prisoners dearly. If I had opted for the short-term, venal, route then I would have gone where the money is. Being employed in the Education Department guarantees receiving the lowest wage in every prison.

The workshops, though, can pay the highest. By packing nuts and bolts in plastic bags for an outside company, I could be paid double or triple the education wage. After a few years, I would be one of those prisoners who seem to live a more comfortable life, with a PlayStation, DVD player, nice clothes, and a few hundred quid in savings.

But I took the longer view. In order to have a chance of a decent life in the future and to grow as a human being, I would have to take the route that guaranteed decades of prison poverty. Whilst educational achievements of prisoners don't bear the burden of paying fees (most is borne by charities), we do bear the cost in our daily lives.

It is such a pity, though, that Education Departments have ceased to be a refuge for the brighter prisoners, a respite from prison. It has become a utilitarian machine, a conveyor belt for churning out target-completions and where one manager proudly boasted to me, "I have security running through my veins". Whatever happened to genuine education, as an end in itself?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Toilets cost jobs!

This should come under the heading of 'unintended consequences', the inevitable outcome of any prison policy.

When the Victorians built their great radial prisons, such as Pentonville, the cells were single occupancy and included a toilet. Of course, both of these were abandoned and single cells remain far from being universal.

This left us sharing cells, with all involved malevolently eyeing the piss-bucket in the corner. The smell of a crowded cell, piss-buckets, 23 hour bang-up and a hot summer really was something. It explained why a "long, hot summer" was a phrase not to be celebrated, but one which conjured up the prospect of fractious cons and riots.

In the 1990's, toilets made a return to cells. This remains problematic; taking a dump in front of other people isn't a pleasant experience for anyone involved.

But this systemic largess killed off a dirty prison habit - "shit parcels". With only a communal bucket to use, defecating in shared cells was strongly discouraged. In emergency situations, then, the turd was deposited in newspaper, torn up sheets, t-shirts, even a sock (prisoner inventiveness!) and swiftly slung out through the window. Even novices understood that dropping it straight below one's own window was a bit silly, so it became necessary to extrude an arm as far as possible through the bars to get a good swing, depositing the parcel as far away as possible.

In-cell sanitation removed the necessity for any of this. But it also saw the disbanding of the "bomb disposal squad". These were prisoners whose task was to clear up around the wings, particularly to remove shit-parcels.

In return for their disgusting efforts, they were rewarded with extra tobacco and - or only - the chance for an extra shower. This job used to be "voluntary", and gave a chance for the poorer end of the population to earn a little something. Now they are no more...

The Wombles still exist, though, the men who generally clear up the litter. But now the only parcels they handle are the ones filled with drugs and phones that are lobbed over the walls. Ain't progress grand?