Saturday, July 31, 2010

So Bloody Inconvenient

Even the simplest things can become a royal pain in the arse when your life is under the control of other people.

Yesterday I heard the dreaded POP that signals the demise of my vacuum flask. No biggie, you think.

First, I have to find the money to pay for it (thank you, Donors, truly). This would usually take about 6 weeks income. And then there's buying it. Local shop? Not a hope.

Ha! The only place we are allowed to buy a flask is Argos, about £8 for a small one. Oh yes, and Argos slaps on a £6 delivery fee for each item, even though they deliver to the prison by the wagon load. Nice earner for someone.

Such a simple little thing, it’s only a bloody flask, but it can play a central role in prisoners' lives, tea drinking being one of the Top Three activities. The other two are smoking and masturbation.

You Never Know

I have never met a fellow prisoner who has a chair that has its back to the door, or who sleeps in any other position than with his head furthest from the door.

I'm not saying we don't trust each other. But every advantage helps.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Slash and Burn

The rumour is that the Governor has to find savings of £300,000 from his budget of some £5 Million. Fast. And without firing anybody, which is the obvious solution to many of prison’s problems.

I wish that people like yourselves, who pay for this shambles, started asking hard questions about what you are getting for your £45,000 a year, per head bill.

Are you happy to spend that sort of money just for us to be kept locked in our cells? Or engaging in pointless activities?

Or do you expect something more? Do you not expect us to come back into society better equipped to settle down, get a job, be in a position to contribute?
If I was being billed on my taxes for the present service then I would be demanding answers. And a refund.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mad, Bad Probation

The Chief Inspector of Probation has tried to open a debate around risk. Such is the complicated philosophical and statistical nature of this can of worms that the media got the wrong end of the stick. Again.

The Inspector’s point is a fair one. Is it viable - economically, let alone morally - to keep hordes of people in prison on the basis that a small minority of them will go on to re-offend? He estimates that if these all these thousands of prisoners were released, there would be some 40 new serious offences committed.

The media promptly leapt on the old 'early release scheme’, where very short term offenders were released 17 days early in order to reduce overcrowding. As this scheme ended months ago, this media response is a decidedly dodo-ish one.

What the Inspector was referring to were the thousands serving Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection as we call them, IPP's. There are thousands of them, sentenced for a motley collection of crimes, many not usually meriting more than a couple of years in prison prior to the invention of the IPP sentence.
They flooded into, and chocked, the prison system. Less than 100 have ever been released. Most are now past their tariff, i.e. served the punishment phase of their sentence. And their presence has had a profound impact upon the prospects of all other 'regular' lifers.

In order to progress towards release, we must undertake psychological courses intended to end our wicked ways. But no-one funded the provision of these courses to take into account the IPP's. The result is a huge logjam, with lifers and IPP's being unable to progress solely due to the inability to access these courses.
So bizarre is this situation that a legal challenge a couple of years ago found that, through no fault of their own, these people were now being held in prison irrationally and so illegally. This was swiftly reversed on appeal! But to get such a High Court judgement at all signifies how difficult the situation has become.

These IPP's a-re now deep into the territory that caused the Inspector to wince - being detained only because they cannot demonstrate that they do not pose a risk of future offending. As the Inspector says, 40 of them do pose a risk and will reoffend in a damaging way. But which 40?

Unable to filter the sheep from the wolves, all remain in prison. The Inspector estimates that the cost of this, versus the 40 potential crimes if they were released, is equivalent to £2,000,000 per offence, per year. And he asked the question, is this a sensible use of money we don't have? Would it not be better to accept that some crime is inevitable, let them all go and trouser the savings?

The 'usual suspects' amongst victims’ campaigners, notably Mothers Against Murder, were livid. It seems that criminal justice should never have anything to do with money or budgets. Hmmm, that's an interesting idea but not one society has ever proposed previously. There aren't an infinite number of police, prisons or probation. The idea that money has nothing to do with criminal justice is just silly and to claim so is yet another reason why some victim's groups are beyond my pale.

I have a particular dislike for Mothers Against Murder and Aggression. Set up by Lynn Costello after the Bulger murder, they insist on Life meaning Life, always. Just their name gives me the willies, implying they are in opposition to all the mothers who are in favour of murder and aggression. Humph.

The Inspector raises important questions, ones that we are not used to having thrown in our faces. That we have avoided them for so long makes them no less important.

The resources available to deal with crime are limited. That's just a fact we have to live with. The honest question, then, is what are we prepared to spend compared with how much crime are we willing to accept? This has been a secretly weighed balance in the past, an area no-one wants to elucidate explicitly because it is extremely difficult to answer.

We could probably cut crime if every person was escorted by a copper, 24 hours a day. Can we afford this? Do we want this? No, and no. So we accept some crime in the name of money and freedom. Having accepted that principle, the only issue left to be resolved is where to draw the line, how much money we should spend to cut crime?

The Inspector also raises what I think is the most important ethical question currently affecting imprisonment. Having captured the criminal, should we then just confine him until he is 'safe'? Or should he be sent to prison solely to serve the time punishment meted out for the crime he has committed? Detaining people for what they may possibly do in future is a very dangerous idea.

The Inspector suggests that, if the IPP's were all released tomorrow, society would bear the cost of 40 extra crimes. In an effort to prevent these (or defer them; all IPP's will be released at some point), we spend £80 million a year. That's £2 million per crime prevented (or deferred).

Ethics aside, it is not unreasonable to raise the question if that level of expense is socially unacceptable.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Sun Rose in the West

The world as I knew it has suddenly turned a bit weird. A Justice Secretary with a downer on prisons, a Probation Inspector who thinks the odd murder is acceptable and now - at last - a policy making community which wants to get shot of the Life sentence for murder.

This is not the type of stuff we are used to hearing. It has been so surprising that I haven't known where to begin in writing about it all. The usual frames of reference have vanished.

This also seems to have been the effect on the media. Not even the Daily Mail has gone ballistic in the face of these pronouncements, as though so strangulated by outrage that they are, literally, bereft of words.

The atmosphere has a touch of the Woolf about it. After the 1990 riots and the seminal Woolf Report, all sorts of change in prison seemed to be possible. And the general tone is the same today. The fact that national bankruptcy is the motivator doesn’t bother me a jot, sorry!

But apologies, then, for my delayed response. Being faced with a coherent body of sensible policy debates emanating from our masters is a shock that I'm just recovering from.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Deliver the Goods

There must be a few Tories right now who are thinking they were right: you just can't trust a man who wears brown hush-puppies.

If I recall, when I previously mentioned Ken Clarke I characterised him as being 'mostly harmless' as a Home Secretary. This was confirmed when Michael Howard took over and promptly kicked us in the face.

The new political landscape held a little promise for prisoners but I'm cynical enough not to expect much. My threshold of hope was set quite low - all I hoped for was that whichever loony was installed as Justice Secretary would have their baser instincts tempered by their coalition partners. I expected prisoners to get a kicking, but maybe the Tories would swap their hobnail boots for slippers before they laid into us.

So Ken Clarke's newly revealed position on prisons took me, and my peers, by surprise. A Tory who doesn't bow before the gates of Wormwood Scrubs is something we haven't seen for a very long time. Only old hands such as myself can dimly recall some chap called Kurd, who declared that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse”. Nearly two decades of abuse at the hands of politicians obscures that halcyon day.

Fair do's on Ken, though. He's said his piece and survived - that was the first, most important, hurdle. Now he's got to deliver and that is going to take more than resisting the urge to bang people up.

To place this “rehabilitation revolution” in perspective, though, it should be noted that it isn't that the discourse has altered. It's just that Clarke signals that declared policy is going to be actually delivered, not merely parroted. Prison should be restricted to serious criminals, those who do pose a genuine threat of harm. Who would ever, or has ever, baldly declared that prison is the sensible disposal for shoplifters and fine defaulters? Yet such people - often women - are banged up in droves. Merely delivering, then, on the policy that prison is for the violent will be a promising beginning.

Insisting that prisons, and prison staff, deliver rehabilitation would be another step forward. The official purpose of prison has been nailed to each Gatehouse for a generation and yet there is rarely more than a sparse and sporadic effort to meet the aspiration. Political interest in prisons ends at the Gate; the only time anyone pays attention to inside the wall is when we are on the roof throwing slates. The broad idea of restricting imprisonment to those who need to be segregated from society and, whilst in prison, delivering genuine rehabilitation would indeed be a 'rehabilitation revolution’.

Clarke has demonstrated that he is able to face down vested interests out there - the Tory Right and the tabloids - and I can only hope that he can bring the same strength of will to a more dangerous enemy - the vested interests within. The lazy prison staff who suck from the taxpayers teat and do little more than bleat how dangerous their job is (it isn't), whilst refusing to address the 60% re-offending rate. Just what are they being paid for, exactly?

There are two sides to the revolving door of prison and a Justice Minister who addresses both the internal and external forces will be a political animal to be admired. And one I've yet to see.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Save Prison for the Violent

Imprisonment can cause more social harm than the crimes it punishes. It is hideously expensive. It takes whatever social capital the criminal has - family, employment - and destroys it.

Because of this, the effects of the sentence are often life-long and inescapable. This is not only a weight carried by the criminal - reformed or not - but by society in the form of a permanently reduced contribution.

The use of imprisonment should be restricted, in first instance, to those who cause significant social harm and who need to be confined to prevent them continuing to do harm.

The dirty secret about prisons is that they are overwhelmingly stuffed with people who are a bloody nuisance. Thieves and dodgy dealers, largely. Violent and sexual criminals are - and always have been - the minority.

That such social nuisances are slung in prison is a sign of utter incompetence. Not on the part of the crooks - that’s a given - but on the part of society. Can we really think of no other response to these people than "bang 'em up!"? After a couple of million years of evolution, after centuries of intellectual and political fervour and discovery, is this the best the human race can offer? Really??

Throw them out. Save the nick for people who actually need to have behind a high wall. This would see most of the people currently in prison thrown free, leaving behind the violent remnant. The issue then becomes: what should society’s response be to these other criminals?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Less is More

One of my peers surprised me by making the following suggestion. He claims that it is the first couple of weeks in prison that provide the 'shock' factor. The noise, uncertainty, confusion... after two weeks, people begin to acclimatise, the shock wears off.

So his scheme is to put people inside for 2 weeks. Long enough to shock them but not so long that their social capital dissipates. If your wife runs off in those two weeks, let’s face it, the relationship was not going well. And with a bit of fancy footwork, you could even get away with this short absence without your employer working out you're in the nick.

At the end of those two weeks - in a crappy, overcrowded local nick - only then do you begin your Community punishment. The threat of returning to prison for non-compliance remains for the duration.

God forbid that I should ever advocate prison for anyone, but I think this man might actually be onto something.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Change is Possible

Anything that could be called a 'rehabilitation revolution’ has to make a significant impact deep into the structure of prison life. It can be done, it has been done.

Michael Howard hoves into my mind's eye. Under his stewardship, the prison experience was profoundly changed, demonstrating that given the political will it is possible. Unfortunately, the effects of what I shall call - rather unfairly - the Howard Agenda were uniformly negative in terms of rehabilitation.

Notoriously, the largest cultural shift under Howard was a rebalancing of the elements involved in running a safe, stable prison in favour of 'security'. It's effects have been pervasive and often conflict with any rehabilitative policy.

The first and largest policy shift that we noticed was the anti-drugs policy. Up to the mid-1990's, prisons were riddled with cannabis. A broad staff view was that, 'a stoned prisoner is a happy prisoner’. And happy prisoners are not causing problems. The dope in itself caused very few difficulties. Nevertheless, the idea that prisoners could be enjoying an spliff with their supper bun wasn't one that sat well with Howard. Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT) was introduced and security was massively increased on Visits arrangements.

The intended policy outcome may have been unobjectionable - to cut drug use (even unproblematic drug use). The actual consequences, however, were a disaster and ramped re-offending through the roof for a generation.

There was, historically, little call for heroin in prisons. It was regarded as being a 'dirty' drug, in the main not being not socially acceptable. The mid 1990's saw a shift, not just in prisons but in the wider society. As heroin use outside increased, then the number of heroin users that came to prison also rose. And these people were faced with drug testing.

In this schema it is an unfortunate fact that cannabis can be detected by drug tests for up to 30 days after use. Heroin is out of the system in 3 days. If you take drugs then with heroin you have a far, far better chance of not being detected via a random drug test.

The combination of these factors led to a collapse in the amount of cannabis in prisons and a surge in heroin use that continues to this day. Dope smokers tend not to rob and steal in a desperate rush for the next fix, heroin users do. And these people returned to the streets to rob you.

Alongside this, the oppressive security measures placed upon our domestic visits also influenced heroin use. A small bag of heroin is far easier to smuggle than a lump of cannabis. The unthinking will, at this point, be asking why even greater security isn't imposed, such as American style visits, through glass. The counter-intuitive answer is that this raises re-offending rates. As security increased from the mid 1990's, and the prison population has doubled, then the number of visitors has halved. Our friends and families object to being prodded and poked just to share our company.

Relationships collapse and families fragment. Such a pity that one of the most important influences on re-offending is a stable home life for the prisoner to return to.

The anti-drug effort unleashed under Howard did manage to influence the prison culture. In doing so, its outcomes were to nurture a generation of heroin addicts and increase the re offending rates. This highlights the dangers of piecemeal policy-making and the failure to appreciate the power of the 'law of unintended consequences'.

There were two other 'rehabilitative' efforts that were born from the last Tory government, targeted education and psychological treatments. Education provision became a victim of managerialism coupled with simplistic thinking. Rather than being eclectic and transformational - education in its best sense - it became fixated upon 'basic skills', i.e. literacy and numeracy.

The central driver in this was the claim that prisoners are so ill educated that they are unqualified for 90% of jobs. This may well be true. The solution imposed was to ensure that we were functionally literate and numerate. All funding and managerialist targeting focused upon this, to the exclusion of all else. I seemed to be one of the few who appreciated that whilst being literate and numerate is necessary for employment, it is not sufficient.

In focusing all efforts on this policy, prisons abandoned most of the Vocational Training Courses (VTC). Painting and decorating, landscaping, horticulture, industrial cleaning, TV repair... all the skills that could make a person either employable or able to start off on their own were destroyed.

And this remains the situation, despite the fact that there is no demonstrable link between educational achievement and re-offending. It may seem obviously true that there is but, as with much criminological, the obvious need not be in any way

The final illustration of the rehabilitative efforts began under Howard is Offending Behaviour Programmes. I cannot over-emphasise how much prisoners despise these. Give any con a gun and one bullet, line up a screw, a governor, a probation officer and a psychologist - and the psychologist is the one who should be worried. OBP were introduced from North America and are based on the idea that we commit crimes because we have 'cognitive deficits'. We think differently, apparently. And so we are forced to undertake endless psychological treatments aimed at curing this mental deviation. Of course, these things are all voluntary; we just don't get released unless we do them.

These courses have led to prisons being jammed, we are detained longer merely to undergo these treatments, which can last for years. The direct cost has been over £200 millions. The indirect cost - keeping people in prison longer at £43K a year to have these treatments - has never been calculated. It never will.

The idea that criminality can be 'cured' is an ancient one and deeply attractive to policy makers. This is why, 15 years after their introduction, OBP surge onwards. The evidence for their effectiveness is, at best, slim and the wider psychological community - that does not rely on prison employment - regards them with justifiable scepticism. They suck resources from genuine schemes that could lead to reduced re-offending.

These policy details are mere illustrations intended to evidence two points. Firstly, to highlight the dangers in forcing such change as Ken Clarke seems to intend. There must be a continual awareness of unintended consequences. Prisons - and prisoners -comprise a whole, and to interfere with one aspect of functioning may harm others, to the detriment of the whole. Getting prisoners off cannabis led to heroin, divorces and increased re offending. Never, never, forget to consider the wider effects of a single policy change.

Secondly, the changes wrought by Michael Howard demonstrated that change is possible. The seeming monolith that is 'prison' is actually a fractured entity, seething with competing and vested interests. Nevertheless, with the right strength of political will, change is possible.

Ken Clarke's 'rehabilitation revolution' is not as impossible as it sounds. If he has the will, he can alter the culture of prisons so that they offer their charges genuine opportunities to reshape their lives. But this must be done with great care and consideration. Any idiot can churn out new policies - and they do - but few of our political masters have managed to do so for the general good.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rehabilitation and Prison

Can there ever be a 'rehabilitative prison'? Because prison damages, it’s what it is good at and predicated upon. It shreds your life, destroys your social capital, then spits you out with a travel warrant and a plastic sack of your possessions.

Can it ever be anything more? Is the best that we can hope for a prison which is less damaging than now? And in recognising this, limit its use to those who truly need confinement?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Turning Tides

There are moments in time which are filled with a vibrant potential, where glimpses of a different future break through the dismal fog of the present.

We are in such a moment. A combination of financial crisis coupled with new thinking (the two may be connected...) has seen powerful shifts in the policy debate. We have a Justice Minister who takes a cynically realistic view of the utility of prisons. We have a Chief Inspector of Probation suggesting that there is a balance to be struck between the impact of crime and the cost of preventing it. And now, whisper it if you dare, the Ministry is said to be turning a sunny countenance onto the idea of abolishing the mandatory life sentence.

These ideas have all been bubbling away, with varying amounts of noise, for many years. The House of Lords has been trying to get shot of the mandatory life sentence for years, and the place of imprisonment in the national psyche is a perpetual bugbear for those few of us who give it any thought.

But having these ideas originate, or at least receive tacit support, from within the policy-making circle is a startling new development. I don't much care if this shift originates in Damascene conversions or a depressing glance at the national cheque book, that these ideas are allowed to wander into the daylight is in itself remarkable.

Change is in the wind. I can only hope that a genuine debate does ferment outside of the politicians and vested interests. If change is to stick, a broad social consensus is crucial. All prisoners can do is sit back, wait and hope.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've just been handed two reports for my parole dossier. One, from a prison appointed psychologist, suggests that I suffer from 'grandiosity' because I insist that I am brighter than most prison staff. Whereas I think that's just an objective fact.

The second report is from Security, who "have recently received intelligence that Mr Gunn has a Facebook page supporting his release...".

Um, far be it for me to impugn the stellar intellects that populate Security Group up at HQ, but hasn't the Facebook page been advertised on my blog for nearly a year...?
So, am I really grandiose or are prison staff a bit, well, disadvantaged in the neuron department?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Drugs in Prison

There is a new banner-carrier for the mouthy Right wingers in Parliament, a shrill and strident voice that reveals ignorance with every uttered syllable. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you Philip Davies MP.

Obviously a Tory of the 'bang 'em up' school of mindlessness, Davies has been badgering the Justice Ministry about the quantity of drugs in prison. He seems to advocate unheard of levels of security, including closed visits, in order to reduce drugs supply.

Let us leave aside the role of crooked prison staff in this equation and follow Davies as he implements his plan...

A little known fact outside of the prison community is that the number of domestic visitors to prisoners has collapsed in the last decade. Just as the population doubles, the visitors are halved. By coincidence, this reluctance on the part of our families and friends to share our company developed precisely as new, oppressive security measures were implemented. You try holding a marriage together if the most contact you can share is a hug at the start and awkward hand-holding across a dividing table. Forget holding your young kids.

These restrictions were introduced to reduce drug smuggling. They have had an effect but not a large one. Conversely, they have done an excellent job of shattering our relationships.

And guess what? Having family support and social stability on release is one of the largest mitigators against re-offending. The very policy designed to prevent criminal activity has a direct effect on increasing it. I couldn't make this stupidity up.

You would think that, somewhere in those Government offices that cost us so much that a lone geek, stuck in the far corner of a shabby office, raised his hand and pointed this out when the policy was being debated. You'd think.

You'd be wrong. In the mountains of policy papers and regulations about preventing drugs entering prisons, the only mention our visitors get is in terms of being potential smuggler. Their role in keeping us on the straight and narrow is completely absent. Not a single word recognises this.

So, if Philip Davies gets his way, we will be forced to see our families with a thick sheet of glass between us. Just like America, and we all know how well their prison system is working out...

It would reduce drug use in prison. Which doesn't mean that the drug users will stay off drugs on release. It may cut future drug related crime. But this idea will also destroy our family structures and social support, which increases the odds of future re-offending.

This dilemma illustrates perfectly why I get extremely bored by mouthy politicians who can't resist the rent-a-quote shilling. These people tend to be ignorant, picking up half an idea but failing to think it through. It is more important to them that their quote looks just right in the Daily Mail, than actually addressing the problem.

Facile, ignorant and dangerously ambitious. These MP's, such as Philip Davies, should be mercilessly ridiculed for their simplicity until they are driven either into silencing or educating themselves.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Battle, Lost

A significant part of the War On Crime is the War Against Drugs. Another un-winnable skirmish in an un-winnable war.

And a bloody expensive one. It is axiomatic that many prisoners have committed crimes which are 'drug related'. That is, robbed from Person A in order to buy drugs from Person B.

We could see the largest reduction in crime and imprisonment in human history if we simply - simply! - made drug use legal and affordable. The latest experience in Portugal reminds us of this unpalatable fact.

Another unwelcome bite of reality comes from the fact that prohibiting a product which is widely desired will inevitably lead to criminality. In production, supply and use, endless crimes will be committed. In response, vast resources are expended attempting to limit this activity, to no appreciable effect.

Opponents of drug legalisation demand that every possible problem that could flow from legalisation be answered. Well, it can't. The laws of unintended consequences always apply. But I assert, with some evidence, that the greatest harm that flows from drug use is the social response to it.

I have an idea. Drugs are not banned because of the social harm they cause. They are banned because - bear with me here - there is an innate urge within all Governments to assert control. They just can't stand people enjoying themselves too much!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Harsh Regimes

The declaration by Ken Clarke that prisons are not particularly effective institutions has lobbed a grenade into the wasps' nest that comprises the tabloid commentators.

That's always a good thing. And watching those filled with hate twisting and turning to find some rational basis on which to build their bile is always entertaining.

One strand that I have detected amongst these big mouths is the idea that prisons are just too damn soft. Ergo, if prisons had harsh regimes, crime would be deterred. Simples...

That history reveals the effects of harsh regimes passes these idiots by. With the resources of the Net and their newspaper at their fingertips, they manage to avoid learning a single fact that may mar the pristine beauty of their prejudices. Wilful ignorance is the worst sort.

Harsh regimes have been tried. A lot. Not just in Britain but across the world. Endless number-crunching from these experiences reveals that there is no particular connection between harsh prison regimes and crime rates.

Sorry. Looks as if we are going to expend just a bit more mental effort to crack this problem.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Some, I gather, have taken the time to read what I have written, here and there, on the subject of victims of crime. And then misunderstood me. The blame for this must, largely, rest with me. After all, a writer who fails to properly convey his meaning is doing a pretty shoddy job, no?

To clarify, then. I have no inherent problem with victims of crime. They are entitled to their suffering and their opinions. It is only reasonable that their suffering should, if possible, be ameliorated. If not by the criminal, then by society as a whole. That there is a Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority is hardly a bad thing, and that Victims Support exists to guide and assist victims through the criminal justice maze is equally unobjectionable. Victims should be supported and they should be compensated.

My objections, if such they are, relate to the political activities of victims and their cultural elevation. Being a victims does not make you an expert on crime, not even the one you have suffered from. It does not give you any special insight into criminology, sociology or penology. And as being a victim gives no special insight or expertise, it follows that the vocal opinions of some victims should have no more status than, for instance, my opinions.

Despite this, the body politic and their media shadows have taken to embracing high-profile victims...that profile being determined by media interest. For every Sara Payne, there are hundreds of others who the media ignore. And so government, in turn, ignores them.

The high profile victims then set about making policy demands. They don't campaign for broad aims, they actually prescribe the minutiae of specific policies they want to see enacted. And, sometimes, they get their way. That the policies they demand may be criminological nonsense, or that they may even lead to greater crimes or injustices, is of no interest. Not to the victims, nor to their political and media sponsors.

It is in this area that I part ways with victims. No particular group, let alone an ill informed one, should determine public policy. No matter how sympathetic these individuals may be, they must not be allowed to warp the criminal justice process in their sectional interests.

Justice is a matter for the whole of society and it is a fragile thing. To attempt to warp the system in favour of one party should be anathema. So I make this argument, and I repeat it in various writings. If this is seen as being anti-victim, I must stress that it is not intended to be. All it means is that victims shouldn't get a free pass into the policy arena and that their ideas and demands should be as open to debate as any other.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Lock everybody up.

One of the strangest reasons for throwing someone in prison is the claim that whilst banged-up, they aren't committing more crimes.

Apart from being factually wrong, as evidenced by the crime rate within these walls, such a claim should raise at least one ethical issue - is it proper to put someone in prison for what they may (or may not) do in future?

It can be argued that many criminals commit more than one crime. Very true. But a large number do not commit other crimes. About 1 in 3 prisoners are not re-convicted. Throwing them all in the nick because we can't work out who will, and who won't commit future crimes seems to me to be a tad iffy. And the 1 in 3 future innocents may agree with me.

Extend the principles of the argument and it is simple to reach the conclusion that we should lock up all men between the ages of 15 and 25. These are the peak years of criminality, and most will be committed by men. So lock 'em all up. The principle is identical.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Campaign for Release.

I am immensely grateful to everybody who is taking the time to do something- anything - to speed up my release. That strangers are effected by my story is a testament to the essential decency of people.

Every time the parole board hoves into view, I gird my loins, sharpen my wits and fight for my release. When it comes to the legal test for my release - not posing "a more than minimal risk to life or limb" - then I stand with certainty and insist that I meet that test. Thirty years of non-violence is my platform.

And yet...Campaigning for my release on other grounds is something that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Most of you who believe that I should be released do so on the broad ground that I have served long enough.

This is a moral judgement, not a legal one, and it is one that brings me face to face with a question that will forever haunt me. What should be my punishment for killing another human being? None of my learning has helped me to see an answer to this question.

Perhaps there is no answer, for me at least. Perhaps that is a question that can only be answered by other people. People like yourselves.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Break prison rules, break the law..

My alleged perpetual and wicked rebellion against the prison system occasionally leads me to being charged with breaking some prison rule. For a man with an anti-authority reputation, that this may happen only once a year or so should put management's paranoia into some perspective.

The charge most often relates to my either flatly refusing to obey a staggeringly stupid 'direct order', or some other technical infringement. In this prison, I am most often nicked for breaching the rule which forbids us from borrowing or lending anything to each other. Of course, we all do these things on an hourly basis but now and the some officious screw gets snotty about it.

So I get nicked for borrowing, say, a mate's Play Station. Shock, horror! The depravity of it all..

Here's the rub. The monkeys who write reports upon me, and the parole board which passes judgement, all like to play a game of make-believe which I call "infinite extrapolation".

It goes like this. "If you are unable to comply with the prison rules, how do we know you will comply with the law on release?" So, in borrowing a Play Station, I become too great a risk to be released.

Honest to god, it's that simple. And stupid. The key to everything, the central issue for me, is compliance. Utterly mindless, robotic, unthinking compliance.

And yet I cannot. Is there not a part in every person which screams to be released, a part of the spirit which writhes when presented with some officious nobody who insists on making pointless intrusive demands on their lives?

Or is it just me?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Obeying the law

As a consequence of my aborted parole hearing back in May, I recently underwent a long interview with a psychologist.

Given my reputation as a man with anti-authority leanings, the discussion inevitably dipped into the area of obedience to the law. As with all robots connected with the prison system, my man held the view that we should always obey the law - and that my minor misfeasances over the years signify some sort of dangerousness.

I have mentioned this before, to some consternation, but I felt the need to point out that we are all law-breakers. Be it breaking the speed limit, dodging a little tax, or failing to buy a new TV licence right on time; no one complies with every law all of the time. We just don't. Prisoners don't have a monopoly on criminality. This does not imply dangerousness.

So I explained my view that laws are of relative significance. Sliding over the speed limit at 4am on an empty motorway is not the same of letting a bomb off in a shopping centre. Both may be illegal but one causes social harm, the other doesn't. And I have no objection to people who don't cause social harm, whether the actions are strictly legal or not.

This causes prison staff and the parole board some consternation. They honestly believe that if a prisoner is willing to commit one crime - e.g., speeding - then he must have a disregard for law per se and so capable of breaking any and all law. Basically, if you break the speed limit then your garden may be full of murdered bodies. Honest to god, that is their 'reasoning’ process.

I also pointed out that not all law is good. Some are oppressive and should be broken by all right minded people. And to those who believe that we should always obey the law, no matter what, I make the following observations.

Without law-breaking, women would not have the vote. India would still be ruled by the pampered sons of Eton. The United States would be a mere offshoot of Whitehall. And the Blacks in South Africa would have remained under the whip.

So, which laws should I obey?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


One of the least expected effects of this sentence is that I won't have a pension in my dotage. As pensions rely upon National Insurance contributions, I'm stuffed. The taxman was kind enough to tell me, long ago, that I could pay voluntary contributions. As the cost of stamps is higher than the average prison wage, though, this was interesting but useless information.

There are those in a worse position. These are those men who have lived a productive working life and fully paid their NI contributions - but who find themselves in prison at their retirement. The government refuses to pay them their State pension.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Petty Orders

We have a deputy governor here who has an unfortunate habit. Every time the No.l governor takes a holiday, the deputy starts issuing petty orders, if necessary overturning the orders of her absent boss. One of her senior colleagues once referred to her as Cruella DeVille. You get the idea.

This activity has three effects. It pointlessly raises the general temperature of the prison by pissing off both cons and screws; On his return, the No.l then has to deal with a line of disgruntled people; and our general contempt for management is reinforced.

This time - so far - the deputy seems to have restricted herself to pissing over only two previous orders from her boss. We expect further missives from the Fuhrerbunker but for now she has settled for ruining the World Cup and my PhD activities.

The No.l, in a fit of generous nationalism, put out the order that we could take time off work to watch the World Cup. Of course, we had to get the okay from our work supervisors and we would get our pay docked for that time off. Fairy nuff.

Now his deputy has overturned that order. Of course, I'm suggesting to everyone that they report as being ill but I bet most will shuffle of to the workshop, cursing the deputy governor. What a petty order this is, especially as prison work is both unessential and actually costs the taxpayers money. Add the fact that most of us are post-tariff (i.e., not here for punishment) then this reeks of panic - lest the media get hold of it. I haven't had any training in management theory but I suspect that panic-driven-management is probably not highly rated amongst the cognoscenti.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Understanding and Condemnation

I recall being so angry when John Major said that, "we should condemn a little more and understand a little less" in relation to some awful crime. It summed up, for me, the essence of the narrow-minded mouthy MPs who know sod-all about criminals and who refuse to learn.

Understanding and condemnation are not, of necessity, opposites. There is no reason why a deeper understanding shouldn't lead to a more soundly based condemnation.

Or perhaps Major was reflecting an unspoken fear, that in gaining a deeper understanding of crime and criminals, we are inescapably faced with individual people. And real, genuine, three-dimensional individuals are often harder to despise than some populist caricature.

But at least it would be more honest and honesty in any discussion around criminal justice is something to be nourished and protected. As it is, we wade through a travesty of representations that lead to ignorance. And that ignorance leads to shoddy policy making, which itself leads to gross social harm and increased future crime.

Major's remark made me angry because, I think, it symbolised a knowing and deliberate refusal to engage with the truth.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Saving Money

Expensive business, throwing someone in prison. There is the £40 odd grand a year direct cost. Then you should add on the loss of the prisoner’s economic activity, paying no tax, etc. Include the social costs to his family, which may now be on benefits because the main earner is 'away’.

Add in the intangibles that no accountant, let alone a government one, cares about. There is the lifetime loss that accrues from being condemned to crap jobs for being an ex-con. That's a lot less tax not being paid. Then there is the likelihood of the family breaking up and the kids being far more likely to either be taken into care or offending themselves.

All of this costs. Not just emotionally and socially but in cold hard cash. Sending someone to prison, then, should be a significant decision. As there are tens of thousands of men, and most women, in prison for non-violent crimes then it should be seriously asked if there is not a better way to allocate a due measure of punishment.

Imprisonment as punishment has only been popular for under 200 years. It can't be beyond the wit of Man to find another option or two. Or do we really have so much money to waste that we can't be bothered trying?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Banged up Ben

When you are the only person in the prison being locked up for 22 hours a day, you can't help but wonder if it's more 'personal' than 'business'.

Shepton is a Cat-C lifer prison, about as laid back in routine as is possible. Days can go by without having to speak to a screw. The daily routine is based upon 'free-flow', the ability to move unescorted within the prison, between the wings, from the wings to the workshops and the like.

But that only applies to the rest of the prison. I have to be locked up 22 hours a day, By Order of the Deputy Governor. She argues that I am 'wilfully unemployed' and so should be stuck in my kennel like a dog.

Of course, she is wrong. I have it in writing that this prison has "no suitable employment" for me, given my abilities and resettlement needs. In other words, the prison has refused to give me a job.

As punishment for the prison's failings, I'm now locked away while the rest of the prison swan around. To add to the insult, the Dep has restricted my access to the library. Bear in mind I'm one of only a handful of prisoners who have ever attempted a PhD, that I'm restricted to one hour of time in the library per week when everyone else has three days of unrestricted access gives a powerful insight into the vindictiveness that I'm struggling against.

The prison gives you a bill for £43,000 to impose this regime upon me, and when I'm unemployable on release because of their machinations, they will demand you foot the bill for that as well.

I'm trying my hardest. Pity the Governor seems determined to kick the legs from under me.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Call For Support

The Association of Prisoners is this generation’s attempt to give prisoners the voice we have long attempted to have heard.

Many other groups and organisations exist which play a role in attempting to change the prison system. Some are small and advocate abolition. Some are large, and advocate slow change. Some groups confine their work to specific subgroups of prisoners while others conduct broad based campaigns.

Along with the AoP, prison reform groups span the full width of political thought and action. The sole common ground sometimes seems to be dissatisfaction with the status quo.

This is a call to put differences aside. Prisoners need your help. In order to function, the Association of Prisoners needs the support of reform groups as well as prisoners themselves.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to help form a broad movement which could reshape the landscape of power within prisons and lead to real, positive change.

We hope that you can support us, in whichever way you can. At this moment, the immediate need is to spread the word, informing prisoners across the country that there is a group to represent their interests and which encourages them to set up unions in their particular prison.

We call on everybody to use their contacts with prisoners, individually or collectively, to pass this call over the walls.

Setting Up The Union In Your Prison

We want to build the organisation across the country. In each of prison, just one person needs to get to the library and read Article 11 of the ECHR and grasp the legality of what we are doing. Then read the PSO. It is three pages long and most of it is waffle. Ignore the negative tone, as we grow that will change.

1. Write to your Governor, informing him that you are setting up a Prisoners Representative Association under Article 11 of the European Convention. Send a copy to your solicitor as well, just to cover your back. Tell the governor that you are open to discussions as to how the association can operate in your particular prison.
If the Governor is an idiot, he will hit the roof and instantly break the law by banning the idea of an association. If he has more sense, he will accept the inevitable and, through gritted teeth, have some half-sensible things to say.

2. Ask the Governor how he intends to facilitate the Association. You will need to be able to communicate with people on other wings, put up notices and hold meetings and elections. The Governor has to work out how these things can take place.

3. Once you have informed the Governor of what you are doing, someone on each wing needs to be able to go from door to door asking people if they would like to join the Association, like to put themselves up for election as a local association leader, and whether they would like to vote for the local leadership. All legal and above board.

4. Pass your list of members to Elkan Abrahamson, Jackson & Canter Solicitors or Inside Time, or to myself.

5. Come up with a list of issues you wish to campaign about in your prison. Whilst there is a national list of issues the AoP wish to campaign over, it is important that local branches identify.

6. Watch this space.

Editor's note:

The above is a copy of the circular that is being sent around the UK prison population and Ben thought blog readers might be interested.