Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Paper Ambush

The power of paper in prison is immense. It causes far more damage than any blade or bludgeon. And staff use it with a vengeance.

Before every parole hearing, staff submit reports making their recommendations. A favourite way to screw a man over is to make a recommendation that he does some 'offending behaviour course'. It's too late to do it before the parole hearing, so the parole board will then insist the man remains in prison to complete this course. Job done, stitch-up implemented.

You may think that this recommendation for psychological treatments is not unreasonable when applied to people who have committed horrible crimes. And I would see where you're coming from.

But it is all in the timing. If a man has served, say, 15 years and been in this prison 3 years, to pull a new course out of the hat just before a parole hearing begs the question.

If he needs it, why was it not recommended before? So, were staff incompetent then, or malicious now? And this is merely one of the many ways our progress to release is frustrated.

So those who wonder how the hell I've managed to serve 30 years, may I gently suggest that a fair chunk of it results from being arsed about by prison staff.

And I am merely one amongst thousands. This is costing you lot a fortune.

The Unusual Offer, Again

Perhaps I ought to confess to succumbing to what I call "Lifer's paranoia". This involves looking for, and suspecting, a Grand Plan being formed behind the scenes by staff. It's not an affliction that I'm often afflicted with; any urge to see non-existent patterns in managerial behaviours is offset by my unfailing belief that the people who run my life couldn't organise a shag in a brothel.

And so, having had a second meeting with the relevant manager, I am actually persuaded that some small amount of goodwill may be emanating from the necessary quarters. It's been so long since that's happened that I didn't recognise it.

In principle, then, I have agreed to take the offer of doing my research "in-cell". Now the hard negotiating begins to try to minimize the part of the deal that involves me being banged-up all day. I do rather fancy seeing the sun at some point over the next few months. Gaining a PhD would have the edge taken off it if it's accompanied with rickets!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Parole Update (2)

Editor's note: Since writing this, Ben has heard he has been listed for a parole hearing on November 11th - 3 months later than promised!

Better late...

Parole Update

So, August came and went without being bothered by my parole hearing. The Parole Board are now breaking the law - the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, Sec.28.

I won't be holding my breath for an apology, let alone any explanation or compensation. Such is the contempt the bureaucracies that govern our lives harbours for the people in their care. And they have a problem with MY attitude...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Silly Games

The staff are playing games. They are unlocking us slightly later at every opportunity. This is part of their work-to-rule, a manifestation of their perpetual bitching about pay and conditions.

It winds us up. We have a limited amount of time unlocked and chipping away at it bugs us. The staff know this. It bugs us even more when, as bang-up time arrives, they want us behind our door on the dot.

Quite what they think this is going to achieve, I don't know. It doesn't bother management one bit. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the Prison Officer's Association ancient tactic - wind up the cons and hope we kick off, allowing the screws to then claim we are unstable animals and they deserve more money for doing their job?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Unusual Offer

It was a meeting described to me as looking like a conversation between a Mafia don and his mistress... that's my panama hat again!

Last Friday afternoon, sunny, warm, and sitting out around the pond in the yard. Sorry, "community garden". Why aren't we working? As a cost cutting measure last year, the "core regime" across the prison estate abandoned Friday afternoons, leaving us banged up or on association.

Leaving the Admin block, the manager took a diagonal path across the yard and approached my gaggle of mates. "Can I have a word?" We adjourned to a picnic table. I was conscious of a yard full of eyes watching us.

She made me an offer. That I do "in cell" education and get paid a tenner a week. But, unlike everyone else on in-cell ed, I have to be locked up all day. The No.l governor had already signed off on this deal.

We bantered over some details, such as access to the library, before we decided to resume in a few days time. I went back to my mates and we watched her walk away. "Definitely a thong", one groaned wistfully, "no VPL".

I bounced the offer off them and they were divided. A tenner was better than being unemployed, yet agreeing to being banged-up was a downer. None of us could unravel what was behind this turn of events.

And it is a strange and unexpected development. For two years I've been neglected, left behind my door, and any suggestion that I be employed on in-cell education flatly refused. Why, then, was this offer made? What prompted it? And why now?

Three weeks ago I applied to attend education on a very part-time basis. The application has sat in their office since then, being treated like Kryptonite. That education management don't want me in the department could be an impetus to make this new offer, essentially a bribe to keep me away. But do they dislike me that much? Possibly... Or it could be some external impetus that has freed up management thinking, maybe my university, maybe the visitor with powerful friends I've received of late. Or did I sting them with something I've written here?

This mystery will probably never be solved. Management are like the iceberg, most of their activity occurs beneath the surface and indiscernible. But without knowing the reasons for this offer, I cannot judge my bargaining power.

It is a baffling offer. Paying me to study in my cell does have the advantage of seeing me get a few shekels, and its a deal only those too infirm to attend the education department are normally permitted. So this is movement indeed. And yet; everyone else on in-cell education is left unlocked all day. Why, then, the insistence that I be firmly sealed behind my door? And given the time of year, this would see me deprived of daylight until next spring.

Should I take this deal? And if I don't, will it be spun against me?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Passing Words

My new, antidepressant-fuelled routine sees me sitting out on the yard as soon as we are unlocked in the morning. Picking a bench, I try to radiate an air of solitude.

Jug of coffee, tobacco and notebook at hand, I spend the next half an hour jotting down ideas for future posts.

At most, a dozen others are dotted around, most sitting near the pond or walking around the perimeter in a deliberate attempt to stave off the temptation to slump into a carbohydrate heavy sloth.

Those walking are either solitary and purposeful, or more leisurely in company. As they pass my bench, I catch glimpses of their conversations.

An odd sentence here and there, a few brief words before they pass out of hearing. This morning, people mentioned the plants in the pond, the increasing size of a screwess’s arse, the politics between the lads who man the wing servery, and the 'end of history' theory proposed by Francis Fukiyama.

"All human life..."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Offensive Comments Policy

The comments on this blog are, overwhelmingly, a testament to the ability of people to be thoughtful. On occasion, though, a crass and offensive comment is made. What to do...?
My view is strict. Short of libel, which could see the blog shut down, then all comments should remain as posted. Some will find this objectionable.

Consider, if the criteria for allowing a view to be aired was whether it was judged to be offensive, this blog itself would not exist. Many believe that my physical existence, let alone my electronic one, is an affront.

As individuals and as a society we progress through the clash of ideas and views. To suppress the offensive is to demean our ability to discriminate, it affords the offensive view a greater weight in our consciousness than it deserves.

So the crass, offensive and downright mad comments should remain. Let the world see them for what they are, and let readers judge them forever. The most effective way to deal with offensive views is to hold them in the light and allow the rest of us to shred them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Murder, Responsibility, Remorse

We killers tend not to talk about the effect of our crimes on ourselves. It is a private as well as a public tragedy and rarely for public display, and risks appearing self-indulgent. There are few of us who intended to kill, and even fewer who defend what they did. We can explain, but cannot excuse.

It is a perpetual burden, feeling one step away from the human community. It is a sore that cannot be healed and a wrong that cannot be righted. As only the victim can forgive, then there can never be any solace in absolution.

Each of us deals with it in a different way. Some sink into self loathing. Some kill themselves. Some spend the rest of their lives trying to hold together a fractured psyche. And some try to fill the void with external distractions, drink, drugs.

I was repelled by that part of myself and spent years trying to explore my psyche and repair it, and I outwardly challenge analogous behaviours - abuses of power. Non-violence is now a lodestone.

And yet, despite our crimes, even the most depraved of us still feels human - and maintain all human sensibilities.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thanks, Logie Baird.

You will be surprised how time can expand and contract when it is you and four walls. Trying to keep ourselves occupied was a major preoccupation, just finding any way to kill the hours and days which were, in turn, killing us. Sleeping was the main method, with adepts developing the knack of being able to sleep as much as 23 hours a day. Close behind came a radio addiction, followed by tape cassettes. Until there came that wondrous day in the 1990’s when luck and circumstance saw some televisions officially finding their way into prisoners’ hands.

Standing in the old prison shop at Horfield, we watched as a screw hoisted a whole tray of PP batteries and headed for the door. "What’s that all about, guv?". No one ever needed a rack of PP's unless you were starting a war - their reputation as a bludgeon, when inserted in a hefty sock, was legendary.

The screw confessed that he was heading for the punishment block, as they had been bought by a con on a lie-down from a power his television. The ripple of excitement ran through us; if one man can have a TV, then this is the perfect lever to move management to allow the rest of us.

And he did, without much of a fight either. We were allowed to buy battery operated Casio handheld TV’s, with a tiny screen. Only a handful did. The cost of the TV, the licence and then the expense of running it was frightening. But it broke the principle.

A couple of years later, we were allowed any type of battery powered TV and a friend of mine had a 5" coloured - coloured! - TV. I was writing lots of letters for him at the time, helping with his campaign of innocence, and in return I could borrow his telly for one night a week.

Smuggling the telly between our cells, hiding it until the screws had passed, setting it up, tuning it in...the anticipation was immense. And staying up until dawn, watching anything really, just to grab as much of this marvel as possible. I just can't pin this year down in my memory, but Spin City was one of my favourite programmes, Channel 4 evening primetime if I recall.

Ever since, TVs have infiltrated our lives, in some ways to our detriment. But filling the empty hours has become far less of a struggle.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Many moons ago, when I was welcome in Education Departments, I signed up for a class in Personal and Health Education just to round off my timetable.

Walking into the classroom, standard long prison tables and god awful chairs, I saw the doll resting on the teacher’s desk. Very lifelike, I thought, and wandered over to look closer. Extremely lifelike. I gently poked it... It was a dead baby.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Room Service

We have a prison laundry that, amongst all the institutional products, will also deal with our personal clothing. Shove everything into a string bag, along with a list of contents, and chuck it in a trolley on a set day. Next day, voila, it returns.

And I never, ever make use of this facility. One of the major reasons that I believe I may still retain a vestige of sanity and dignity is that I have always adopted an attitude of being "semi¬detached" from the institution.

One small way of doing this has been by doing my own laundry. A bucket, washing power, and a little effort is all that is needed. Drying it is a pain, but that my cell looks like a collision between a laundry and a stationers is not something I care about.

It must be far too easy to sink into complete apathy and allow oneself to lean on the prison for everything. Of course, in many things we have little choice. Even then, it is a matter of attitude. Being dis-empowered is one thing; losing the sense of that is quite another.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Just Another Day.

Since I began taking antidepressants (Citalopram) in an attempt to shake off the trough I've been in for months, my sleeping pattern has improved. Asleep by 1 a.m,, awake around 7:30.

Reach for my specs and make a roll-up. The first few moments of the day are crucial, setting the tone for the endless hours. If nothing hugely positive hoves into mind, it's best not to think ahead at all or the day could look quite bleak.
I hear a screw making his way along the landing, peeking through the observation slit. The day shift doing their headcount, just in case the night staff got too lazy to keep us all safely tucked away.

Decide to move. Wash, dress, choosing carefully in the knowledge that the building is now getting chilly and will grow colder from now.

Sit in my chair. Turn on the TV, flick across BBC and ITV for the weather and headlines, appreciating Christine Blakeley’s legs along the way. Turn the sound off, leaving the telly as a visual wallpaper for a while, a glowing companion of ultimate emptiness.

My jug of coffee from last night is still mostly full and I drink it. Stone cold. Waste not... Reach for my events diary and cover the last few days. Mail sent, received, conversation with manager, the casual detritus that falls upon our lives. Find a book of stamps within the pages, thanks very much!

The screws charge around and unlock us at 8:15. They are slightly late. People hit the showers, empty their bins, some head for the gym. Opening my window wide, the draught pulls the door open to air my cell. A combination of bedroom, lounge, dining room and toilet, a morning airing is always advisable no matter how cold it leaves the cell.

Stick my head out to take the piss out of the cleaner who is furiously hoovering the stairs. "Oi,you, there's unemployed trying to sleep up here!" Without a pause, "f off", and he carries on. Such is the social oil that smooths our daily interactions...

Bob passes, sees my door ajar and enters. Sits on the end of my bed and starts bemoaning the fact he doesn't have a mobile phone, he wants to see if the GP crash and death is on You Tube. I complain that it’s sad that no government ever passes a law requiring pretty women on telly to always appear naked. We talk about the offer management are making me regarding employment. Such is life. He wanders off.
At 8:45, the call goes out to move to "activities", i.e. work. The wing quickly empties, leaving the cleaners, retired, ill and the unemployed. The next few minutes is spent in a state of mild, bemused suspense. Will any screw take the effort to follow management’s diktat and shlep all the way up to my cell to bang me up? Today, yes. She had the decency to ask me if I "had everything", e.g. hot water, before locking me in.

I flick the TV to the Wright Stuff. It's one of the few programmes to give prison issues in the news a fairish going over. Nothing of interest, sound back to fill the next few hours behind my door.

There's a stack of mail to deal with, it's been festering and growing during my mental slump. There's a piece I'm working on about the balance between punishment and rehabilitation to be offered to the Guardian. Why do their commentators always savage me so? Odd bunch. A pile of books and papers to read and annotate. Or...write this blog post! It's now 10 am.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Twisted Thoughts

I appreciate that I do rub some people up the wrong way, sometimes by my insistence on merely existing and sometimes because I do tend to tweak the tiger’s tail. But then there are those who seem to be intent on persuading themselves to dislike me, regardless of anything I say and do.

If I express remorse, these people say I'm playing to the gallery. If I write a piece that doesn't begin with a trail of tears, them I'm a heartless bastard. If I mention victims, I'm callous. If I don't, I'm self pitying. If I started walking on water and healing lepers, these are the ones who would complain I was disturbing the fish and practising medicine without a license.

There is, then, a constituency which can't be pleased. And so I'm not going to bother to try. They do interest me, though, from a psychological perspective. Their need to keep me as the Other, to twist and turn in their own minds until they can produce a representation of me that suits them, is really quite fascinating.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Moral Relativism

Who would ever suspect that murderers would win any sort of popularity contest?

Some time ago, in one of my contrarian moods, I wrote a piece with the provocative title of "paedos are people too". This has now been noted and as a result I have recently been criticised for not disowning a mate of twenty years on realising he was convicted of rape, and for not going around beating the crap out of sex offenders in general. The point of that post was to highlight the truth that we are all more than the sum of our charge-sheet.

In my younger days, maybe I did. I know that I saw screws set some cons up to do their dirty work, pointing them towards a sex offender and turning a blind eye. Not unusually, the target was no such thing, only a poor sod who the screw hated.

As the years have passed and my appreciation of my own crime has evolved, the moral relativism between crimes has grown far more uncertain for me. I killed another human being. In what way is that better than raping someone? As a woman once suggested to me, what’s the difference between being stabbed with a knife or a penis?

As I perceive it, I'm not standing on solid enough ground to be pointing the finger at anyone. As a result, I take people as I find them. Some of my best mates committed stomach-churning crimes decades ago but today as they sit around and pass the time with me, they are decent enough blokes. If you met them in the street, you would doubtless find them to be equally pleasant. And as I've told any person who objects to the company I may keep, I talk to who I want to - you feel free not to.

Of course, I have to face the reality of people who have committed repulsive crimes. It is not possible to live with such people and continue to reduce them to stereotypes. I see people, not crimes. Those of you who have not knowingly met such a criminal can retain the ability to see only the crime, to choose to allow that to become a one-dimensional reality that is very easily despised.

This is also a matter of comprehension. I have written before about the incomprehensibility of finding kids to be sexually attractive; to most people, that just can't fit into their head, it is impossible to connect with. This may be why kiddie fiddlers are perceived to be the Other even by most prisoners.

And a note on hypocrisy...All too often I have seen sex offenders attacked. Almost always they are the weaker ones. I've seen big, muscular and capable rapists walk the landings with impunity. If you're going to hate nonces and attack them, I think it's a tiny bit feeble to just pick on the ones who won't fight back.

There was a criticism by an Anonymous to the effect that I should be attacking sex offenders right and left, who boasted that her brothers made tea for the IRA whilst in prison. Urm, in what moral universe is a rapist worse than a person who blows up civilians -including women and children?

There does appear to be a perpetual need to create structures, hierarchies, which conclude with some group being labelled the universal Other. Perhaps it is an innate and ahistorical human trait. But that doesn't make it any clearer in its conception and even less so in its comprehension.

I'11 condemn any person’s crime, quite cheerfully. But each of us is more than that and I will talk to who I damn well please.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Staff Two-Step

There are two seemingly irreconcilable strands to the work of a screw. They are instructed to get out and about, to mingle and talk with us. This is "dynamic security", allowing them to get a sense of the local temperature as well as snippets of concrete information. All they learn is noted and passed to the Security Department.

Conflicting with this is the modern bogeymen of staff, "conditioning". It seems that we prisoners are so Machiavellian than even the slightest encounter with staff gives us the opportunity to gain information that we can use to threaten, blackmail or seduce them.

So I know that when a screw stops to talk to me, he is trying to pick up information. And as I'm talking, he's trying to work out whether I'm trying to get information from him.

It is a twisted dance, with neither of us actually allowed to behave like genuine individuals. What a strange life this is.

Monday, September 13, 2010


I could just put up my original research proposal for those interested in my PhD but, in fairness, it is the dullest thing on Earth. Excuse me, then, for giving you the very short version:

There is a constituency in the field of conflict/peace studies that argues that all individuals have innate needs. Many of you will recall Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, I think? This is not the only model of needs but it should give you some familiarity with the concept.

It is argued that individuals will struggle to fulfil those needs and, if no other avenues are available, this struggle may include violence.

I am attempting to examine conflict and violence within prisons through the conceptual lense of Human Needs. Prisons, by definition and as a matter of policy, deny fundamental needs. Prisoners, being human(!), will attempt to fulfil those needs.

If avenues of legitimate struggle are not available, then this conflict could lead to violence, both against the institution and between prisoners.

So I'm having a shufti to see if this reasoning is correct and if there are avenues of struggle which are not violent and yet effective in fulfilling human needs.

And that, guys, is the very short version of my research!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What can I say??

Your response to my plea for help with funding my studies was overwhelming, the target reached in just a few days! That I caught your attention, and received your generosity, in a world full of insanity and need is very touching. It also puts me on notice that there are a lot of people who have expectations of me and I'd better damn deliver!

As always happens when my name breaks free of the confines of this blog into the wild, deep passions are stirred. One blogger, while plugging my plea and making a donation, also made the point that I should perhaps just be grateful not to have been executed! Cheers, Old H.

I do seem to be a sporadic, minor, lightening rod for the debate between rehabilitation and punishment. Some think I should spend forever in a dank dungeon living off rats, whilst others take a view that change is to be encouraged and assisted. Divining the mindset beneath these views I discern a definite pattern. Those who want me to rot are those who dehumanize prisoners, we are animals, the perpetual Other. Those who support rehabilitation see us as flawed people and "there but for the grace of God..." Neither, I suspect, will ever change their views and so I will never attempt to do so. All I will ever do is present myself as I have, as a three dimensional human being, and if some wish to refuse to see that then it reflects more on them than I.

Another interesting strand is the naivety of some people! In an age when a police can brutalise, even kill, a civilian in the full gaze of the public how can anyone believe that what goes on in my enclosed world is always above board and proper? Such faith in Authority is quite worrying to witness.

This seemed to be most often raised in relation to questioning why I have served 30 years. Surely, some say, I must be a lot more wicked than I claim? These people demand a simple, straightforward explanation when the truth is, there isn't one. The progress of a Lifer results from a thousand decisions, large and small, and to demand An Answer is futile. It's complicated.

There are those suspicious minds who refuse to believe a word I say, they want independent proof. Well, everyone was quite happy to accept my confession and plea of guilty in court; so when did I become a monstrous liar? And parading myself in the public eye should be some guarantee. The Ministry of Justice and the screws are long practiced in spreading poison and if there was serious dirt to be dished, one of these malign forces would have done so by now, don't you think?

There were a dozen reasons why some people took offence at my existence, let alone felt willing to donate, and all held in good faith. Of course, some were barking mad but sincere nonetheless. Such was the visceral hatred from some quarters that they provoked larger donations in from other people, so thanks!

And in some comments I detected an interesting authoritarian strand of frustration - insisting that I should just comply, comply, comply. It is sad, and baffling, that there are those who believe that just because some person, or institution, has a lawful authority then all they do should be immune from criticism or challenge. These people are infuriated that I argue the toss. Ho hum!

But despite these confused, genuine and malevolent constituencies there were sufficient numbers of you interested enough to donate so that my studies can continue. Seems I bring out the worst in some people but the very best in others. Thank you.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pukka Mukka

The kitchen refurbishment has been completed and the airline meals are, thankfully, tailing off. As has the asbestos seasoning of the old kitchen. The only good thing about the food of late has been the introduction of Pukka pies. This may not be world-changing but in prison, a pie that contains more than a mere scrapping of a filling is a rare and valued thing.

With the kitchen reopened, we assumed we would return to the old ways. But lo! For tea on Saturday we still have a Pukka pie. And just when you thought it can't get better than that, we have chips as well! Pie and that's pukka, mucka!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Not so Funny

That I suffer from paralysing bouts of depression is not news to me. When that frozen despair makes its way across my synapses, the pain is obvious and instant - it can happen in a matter of minutes. Wrestling with Life is one thing, having to wrestle with one's own brain is just adding insult.

But it has taken the Editor to point out that that I have been suffering a general depression for a couple of months now. It seems that this has been reflected in my posts, which have been bereft of the lighter side of life.

Sorry about that! I have long lost the ability to judge my own writing, I have little idea whether it is good or bad. All that is left for me is a sense of whether a piece has been easy to write or whether it was a wrestling match between myself, my brain and the English language. And the effort going into a piece may have no relationship with the quality of the final output.

Having been prompted to take a shufti over recent output, I'm not going to disagree with the Ed's insight. Added to the fact that I spent untold hours staring at the screen, or the floor, working through a sludge of apathy, may also be a clue that something is Not Quite Right with me of late.

And this has to happen just when I read that the effects of Prozac are no greater than a placebo. Bugger. Bear with me.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's not criminal!

The drivers who break the speed limit have been out in force again, prompted by a senior copper who pointed out that they were breaking the law - and stop whining about being busted.

It never fails to amuse me when a raft of society who break the criminal law bleat that they are not criminals. Doh! That's sort of the definition, innit?

And it is extraordinary how this lobby has had an effect. In which other area of criminality do you get the copper signposted? Big yellow speed cameras, databases of hotspots...if only burglars had that level of consideration given to them. The reasoning of these mad drivers is most interesting, in that it echoes the justifications offered by thousands of shoplifters. "It didn't hurt anyone"..."Where was the harm?"...When tattooed people from the council estate come out with this stuff, we rightly dismiss it. When drivers in a shirt and tie say it across the pages of the Mail, we are meant to pat them on the back and support their pathetic whining.

The funniest thing is, these people fail completely to see the parallel. As many a Judge has told many a Defendant - if you don't want to be punished, don't break the law.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Question Time

As a result of Ben's request for help with his PhD funding, which was reported on CiF at the Guardian, we now have a lot of new readers. Hello and thanks for joining. If any blog followers, old or new, have any questions they would like to ask Ben about himself or prison in general, please leave them in the comments and I will send them to him for his answers.

Please appreciate that we rely on Royal Mail as opposed to e-mail, so the answers may take a week or two.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Class War

I never was one for adopting a class analysis of… well, anything. It just seemed to be far too reductionist. But then...

In a time of national insolvency, the Government needs to make extra efforts to see that it doesn't dish out money to the wrong people and ensure that it collects what is lawfully due.

It is estimated that benefits to the tune of some 5 billion are wrongly or fraudulently claimed. It is estimated that tax evasion runs to the tune of at least 50 billion a year. So guess which group the Government intends to pierce with its beady eye?

It is sociologically interesting, how government and society filters criminality to the benefit of some groups but to the gross detriment of others. Yet again, God forbid these suits who break the law actually get labelled as being criminal.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Marconi Calling

For most of my sentence, the prisoners’ greatest comfort was a decent radio. A distraction, a source of news and entertainment, a portal away from the grey walls.

Not that we were allowed any old radio. It could only receive AM Medium Wave, not FM. And it couldn't incorporate a transformer, allowing it to be run from the mains.

Choosing a radio was a serious matter. Quality of reception and sound was important, it being a companion for every waking hour. And running costs. A few batteries here and there for you rich buggers outside are a financial irrelevance, but in prison they are not!

Long term prisoners often aspired to obtain a Roberts Rambler. Not for the Royal Warrant, but because the sound quality was wonderful and - crucially - it would run for months on a single PP9 battery.

This led, as all things in prison do, to a tiny tributary in the river of exchange. Guys with big radios that ran on lots of batteries, or PP9's, passed their "dead" batteries on to people with smaller radios. Needing less power, these little radios would happily run for a while… and so on.

And I bet you didn't realise that you could extract a few hours more juice by heating a battery in a jug of boiling water? Or by giving it a roughing up?

The poorest (or meanest!) bloke would have a tiny radio. Connected to this by long lengths of wire may be dozens of cast-off batteries from other people. I've seen a dozen PP9's wired to power a 3-volt radio.

The introduction of in-cell electricity and FM changed the whole culture around radios. The permitting of TVs has nearly, but not totally, killed it.

Friday, September 3, 2010


The other day I was visited by a person who had had no previous experience of prison and during the conversation, PlayStations were mentioned. He raised an eyebrow.."You have PlayStations?!"

He was terribly polite but a touch of incredulity slipped through.

Yes, numbers of us have PlayStations. But as with everything prison-related, it's not that straightforward. What privileges we are allowed is always contentious, fair enough, but people rarely appreciate the context of the reality.

Our individual privileges are determined by our level on the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme. The better our behaviour, the higher our privileges. We earn them. Rewarding pro-social behaviour is not, I think, wholly objectionable?

Once we achieve that level of privileges, we may be allowed a PlayStation. Not a PS 3, though. Don't let your imagination carry you away. Some prisons only allow us to have PlayStation One's, defunct for a decade. At best, we can have a PS2. And the games we are allowed are restricted to those below Rated 18.

Of course, telling a man he can have a PlayStation is one thing. Actually getting one is quite another! The Governor doesn't come and present it, wrapped in a ribbon. We have to buy it with our own money.

On an average wage of around £7, and with a PS2 costing at least £50 (second hand), plus the cost of games, it can be appreciated that being allowed a PlayStation and actually having one are two different things. And it is confiscated in the face of poor behaviour.

There is a constituency that would profoundly object to this. I invite them to throw in their points at this juncture.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Blatant Plug!

Ben sometimes gets asked to review a book and was so impressed with the last one that he asked me to put it on the blog.

The author is Saun Attwood and the book is entitled Hard Time:

A severe arachnaphobic reviewing a book with a cover bejewelled with cockroaches was bound to be uncomfortable...

Reading books by my fellow prisoners is often a painful and depressing experience. Lacking in self insight, or wedded to a tabloid mentality, I am rarely left informed or elevated.

Shaun has given me hope with this book. It is carefully crafted, avoiding the pitfalls of self glorification or perpetual outrage -when I would have been equally wedded to both!

How does a Home Counties boy, a stockbroker, find himself in the bowels of the insane mechanical machine presided over by the "Toughest Sheriff in America", Joe Arpaio?

By spreading the dubious joys of Ecstasy. I missed the rave revolution in the UK, and until Shaun arrived it seems the Americans had missed it also. And Shaun went about rectifying that deficit with a vengeance. Having escaped the law and retired from the party scene he returned to a quiet, professional existence only to have it shattered by the rude arrival of the SWAT.

And so began a slow descent into Arpaio's dominion. A series of institutions built of concrete but fuelled by an officially inculcated hatred and indifference. It is noted, but not stressed, that many of the prisoners debased by Arpaio are on remand - that is, innocent.

Shaun has not fallen into the trap of unleashing a Big Picture Campaign upon us in this book. Rather, he patiently details the daily life of himself and his co-prisoners and allows us to react with the obvious judgement.

It is difficult to explain imprisonment, even harder to give any outsider a genuine sense of the experience. Shaun manages to do so. From the slow, confusing and terrifying introduction that is intake processing, through daily survival and his trail.

Along the way we learn about Red Death and chemos...and the thousand small ways in which violence can be induced, inflicted or avoided. Those new to prison will be fascinated by the social structures, the gangs, the interpersonal encounters that must be managed if survival is the aim.

This is not dryly related, this time in a modern cesspit is born out of that most precious of the writer’s gifts, the ability to weave a picture out of words with such delicacy that we can close our eyes and see just what is being shown to us.

This is not the Gulag Archipelago, and the better for that. Analysis of the greatest carcerel complex on Earth has been avoided, as has any detailed dissection of the legal system in America. Shaun has delivered us a carefully crafted descriptive account of his time in Arpaio's jail, and leaves the reader to place it in their own moral framework.

Every word, each picture painted by Shaun grabs you by the hackles and holds your face up to the horrible reality of imprisonment. And you won't be able to close your eyes, whether out of morbid fascination, disgust or a passion to know the next event.

Perhaps most importantly, Shaun makes those subjected to official inhumanity - and those who have committed inhuman acts - into human beings. His ability to bring the people who surrounded him to life gives us a genuine sense of his situation in prison, and in making the prisoners into human beings rather than a reflection their situation, Shaun highlights the travesty of Arpaio's regime.

This book is a joy, on so many levels, and I hope that it entertains and informs every reader as much as it did me.

Ben Gunn "Prisoner Ben"

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


That has caused my primitive spell checker to abandon ship, and reminds me of the efforts made by the Editor to keep this in reasonable order!

I was reading The Economist the other day (not a common claim on the landings...). From March 22nd, 2008. A fascinating article on a rehabilitation programme in Texas...that in itself was worth raising an eyebrow!

To avoid easy plagiarism, and to reach the central point, it highlighted the counter-intuitive point that there are some prisoners who are 'natural' businesspeople. Drug dealers, for instance, must manage supply chains, calculate profits, out-manoeuvre competition...their trade may be illegal, but it is good commercial nouse.

This Texan scheme took these illegal traders and trained them in legitimate business skills. They also offered support on release.

The re-offending rate for these guys was a miserly 5%.

Prisoners are often natural entrepreneurs, both inside and out. They are certainly not risk-averse and often show a creative flair in their particular 'market'. It would seem to make sense to harness this dynamism and guide it into a pro-social objective.

There have been two schemes in the UK which have echoes of this Texan experience. The first was the attempt by the Howard League to operate a fully commercial design and print business in a low security prison. It is now closed. The taxman couldn't make sense of it; prisoners are not supposed to be paid genuine wages and pay taxes, so the HMRC computers just couldn't cope. And the prison staff played their usual games, not unlocking and escorting the workers to the business on time. It became impossible to run this business and it had to close.

And at HMP Erlestoke, just up the road from me, a Social Enterprise Company was set up by a nucleus of motivated and creative staff. It even won a Butler Award. Now it is disintegrating, being sidelined by the new governor.

One of the most depressing realisations about prison is the sheer waste of human talent that it insists upon. Creative, dynamic people are wilfully stifled by a management outlook that is indifferent to, and unaccountable for, changing the lives of those in their charge. No wonder I'm depressed.