Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A strange accusation

Sitting in with the prisons probation officer, she suddenly leaned aggressively across the table, stabbed her pen, and spat at me, "you pissed in Gilpin's dinner!"

I've been accused of many things during my time in prison, some large, some small. Being accused of unleashing my dong in the dinner queue and letting loose on another man's grub was one that was new.

A few days of making inquiries unravelled the prosaic reality. Gilpin was a con I disliked and it was very mutual. He stored a curry in the hotplate and, as the hours passed, the oil in the curry leached out and for all the world looked as if someone had peed on it.

Gilpin, the rat, assumed I was the deviant and grassed me up. Wing staff happily passed the info to probation, who gleefully tried to nail me. Eighteen years on, I'm still waiting for the apology.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bye bye Edukasion

The latest diktat from our Education managers is that our Open University tutors will no longer be allowed to see us in the Education Department.

The new arrangement is that we must send them a Visiting Order and see them in the course of our domestic visits.

Leave aside the utter contempt this shows for the aspirations of those trying to build a future for themselves, or the attitude of Education managers towards education.

The reality is that neither prisoners nor visitors are permitted to bring books, papers, etc into or out of domestic visits. This is a security measure.

How, then, does an academic tutorial go when no one involved has so much as a pencil or book to hand?

Already two people have abandoned their undergraduate courses in response to this stupidity. It renders the attempt to educate a nonsense.

Prison and Education

Some comments that the Editor sent me from those posted in response to my Guardian pieces seemed a bit grumpy that I have gained an education. They would much rather that I had stuck to being punished.

This does raise the issue - what should be done with prisoners whilst they are confined? Should it be remorseless (and often pointless) punishment? Or should there be one eye on the future, a recognition that "better" human beings been released are far less likely to commit future crime?

Specifically, in this context, should prisoners be denied reasonable opportunities to increase their life-chances whilst in prison? The situation at present, and officially has been for decades, is a weird mixture of the two that only serves to highlight the deep socio-political ambivalence about the importance of punishment and rehabilitation.

If the decision is made to deliberately deny prisoners the opportunity to gain an education, then it should be done with a conscious recognition that this amounts to an acceptance of increasing their risk of reoffending, along with their being consigned to unskilled jobs or perpetual unemployment. This inevitably reduces the economic contribution they may make to the nation, as well as saddling their families and children with all of the problems that accrue from having a low socio-economic status.

It is common for some to duck responsibility for this by heaping it onto the prisoner - "you should have thought about that before you committed your crime". This is facile as well as being logically improper. The criminal is responsible for his crime, but it is society which decides their response to it. Society bears the responsibility for what happens in prisons, not criminals.

Such an outcome is a shocking return for the £40,000 a year it costs to keep people in prison. If you’re going to burn people at the stake, fuelling the flames with twenty pound notes seems to be a touch masochistic.

Some have taken offence not so much at the fact I have any education, but the level I have achieved. It seems that basic literacy and numeracy are all that should be permitted to prisoners. Lord forbid we attempt to use education as a means to explore and develop ourselves, let alone increase our chances of living "a good and useful life" on release.

There is an attitude afoot that nothing good should accrue from being in prison, it should only hurt and keep hurting. That this is self defeating is a point wilfully overlooked by the punitive obsessed.

Education, for me, is not merely instrumental. It may well lead to an improved quality of life and opportunity but that is the least of it. The importance of education lies in its ability to transform the individual.

If people are going to be held in prison at great economic and social cost, it is nothing if not perverse to refuse to give the prisoner an opportunity to change.

Education is one such route and a powerful one. If through experiencing it, some prisoners become more amenable and social people then we all benefit.

Except for those who want to keep piling money on the fire at the foot of the punitive stake.

Happy anniversary?!

Shepton Mallet is claimed to be the oldest continuously used prison in the UK, about to mark its 400th anniversary. Prisoners are being asked to help celebrate this incredible waste of human life. Some will probably join in, the ones who would offer to shine your boot before you kick them with it. I despair.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Your money

Very good boys were briefly allowed to buy their own Digi-boxes as a reward for consistently excellent behaviour. Cost to taxpayer, zero.

The Ministry of Justice stopped this largess, deciding instead to install a centralised Digital system in each prison. This pumps 9 channels through to our cells.

The cost of this is about £5,000 per prison.

Economic crisis? What crisis...

Damn Lies!

The pay in the workshops is steadily decreasing. The excuse offered for this is that there is a recession, prices are falling, the value of the products is lower, hence lower pay.

When we go to spend our pittance, though, we are charged way over the odds for everything. The explanation for this is that the prices of goods outside are increasing.

Hmm, is someone having us over?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

First Haircut

It was obligatory, three decades ago, to keep our hair fairly short and to shave daily. We could only change our appearance with the governor's permission.

Shortly after my incarceration I was lined up for a haircut. Surprisingly, this was done by a screw rather than a con.

He took me to a small room which had a real barber’s chair, sink and mirror and began hacking away at one side of my head. Half way through, the alarm bell sounded. He dropped his scissors and ran out the door.

He didn't return for a fortnight, leaving me to look quite insane until he completed the job.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Prison Writers

Along with many other difficult situations, prisons seem to have the potential for fomenting great literature.

Perhaps personal distress and solitude leads to a level of reflection that is difficult to achieve when leading a happy life? It may be that only through suffering can the human conditions be best explored. Or that good writers are invariably miserable buggers.

Yet the canon of prison literature is not a large one, particularly when it is understood that many tens of thousands of people pass through the gates each year.

There used to be extremely strict efforts put in place to prohibit prisoners either writing, or getting the material over the wall. When I began, our only source of paper was either of the toilet variety or official notebooks.

These were essentially old-style school exercise books, with the addition of a list of prohibitions printed on the cover. Most pertinently, we couldn't write about ourselves or prison and, when full, we had to hand in the book in order to get a new one.

This restriction was supplemented by a strict regime of censorship. No letter left (or entered) prison without being read by staff and if they found it objectionable in any way (such as any complaints) then it would be returned to us for re-writing.

Given such restrictions, then, it is amazing that any worthwhile material managed to reach the outside world. And this isn't to consider the panoply of unofficial sanctions that could be levelled against prisoners who managed to evade the official barriers.

Officially, the situation has improved. I have listed the restrictions I must work to and they are hardly onerous and when needed, I will always be quick to challenge the legal status quo.

Today, we can buy our own notebooks and paper and no one cares what we write in them. That said, we have no privacy, our papers are liable to be searched and read by staff at any time. Being slightly circumspect is only sensible.

Censorship has been relaxed in some categories of prison, though I always write with the assumption that staff will be targeting my incoming and outgoing mail. Overall, though, it is far easier to write material and have it reach the outside.

And rather than being restricted in publishing outlets, the advent of the web should give prisoners endless channels for dissemination.

And yet... Where are all the prisoner writers? Even in the pages of our newspaper, Inside Time, the range of writers is not broad. I'm not complaining about this, as it means I get a piece published most months!

Society should be awash with prisoner-generated materials, to an unprecedented extent. That I remain the only prisoner-blogger several months after defeating the Ministry of Justice is a genuine surprise. My ego is pleased for the lack of competition but the campaigner within me deplores this situation.

Prison can be a place of torment. It reveals so much about the individual, with the years grinding away and revealing an inner strength - or weakness - that begs to be explored. It is a nexus of morality, conscience, law and politics that few other situations can offer. So why are there so few prison writers?

Thursday, March 25, 2010


A subject that annoys our families, signals our social status, reveals our financial circumstances and offers us a small window of autonomy. Who would have thought that choosing what to wear was an act that could contain so much meaning?

As part of our deliberate dependency, the prison service must obviously see us clothed, "sufficient for warmth and health". For most of my sentence this has meant jeans, T shirts, striped shirts and denim jackets as the predominant uniform. Note that this is for men only, as women prisoners have always been allowed to wear their own clothing.

Long term prisoners were generally given some concessions to break this blandness. Often, this only extended to modifying the official issue. Shortening the shirt's sleeves, attempting to bleach jeans, decorating jackets, these were all efforts expended to assert some small individuality. Or dignity; jeans that were so loose that they were held up with string were not uncommon.

As time has passed and reformist forays were attempted, we were allowed to wear some of our own clothing. This can annoy our families a touch, as in practice this means we have to persuade kind souls out there to buy stuff for us, or send us the money to buy it ourselves. At prison pay levels it would take an age to clothe oneself without such largess.

For me, clothing allows me to carve out a small area of freedom and autonomy. Rather than dressing myself in the prison-issue garb each day, I get to chose from my small selection of civilian clothing. As I hate jeans, this tends to reduce itself to a question of which trousers and shirt to select, though I could opt for the snazzy T-shirt I've been sent - it declares "Blog Off" on the front and has the blog's URL plastered across the back!

Such choices may seem incredibly petty to people living in freedom, but in a closed institution where every aspect of life is regulated then having the choice of what to wear can be a significant exercise in autonomy. It helps to maintain that inherent dignity that accrues from being able to make choices, to escape being ordered by another into a certain dress.

I extend this burst of freedom by insisting on washing my own clothing, avoiding the communal (prisoner operated) laundry service. In this way I get to decide what to wash, what to wear, to my timetable and not that of the institution.

With my trusty plastic bucket, Ariel Hand-wash powder (bought from your donations, thank you) and vigorous scrubbing, I fight a daily battle against grubbiness. Drying is more ad-hoc, my cell being transversed by washing lines. I enjoy this autonomy and hate abrogating it to the prison.

That it leaves my cell looking like a collision between a stationers and a laundry is a small price to pay.

And no, I don't overlook the irony of being dependent on other people to buy me clothing which I then use to exercise freedom. I didn't say it wasn't complicated...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

White trainers

Some prisoners wear their clothing as symbols of their status, with pristine white Reeboks or Nike attempting to declare that the wearer is not one of the hoi-poloi.

Thank God, I've never been impressed by the label-culture. Either people are worth knowing as individuals, or they are arses, and what they wear doesn't disguise which side of that line they fall.

Some status choices baffle me, perhaps revealing how long I have been out of mainstream society. Tracksuits, for instance, which some use to project an image of wealth, have never looked to me like anything more than romper-suits for adults.

At a deeper level, 'decent' clothing signals that either the prisoner has money of his own to buy them, or is sufficiently well thought of by family and friends that they will supply them. All of this goes into the mix that, finally, results in social status.

Some take this to extremes, replacing one pair of white trainers with a new pair as soon as any scuff mark mars their face. One neighbour of mine used to signal his status with toys, particularly his watch. It was a nice watch, a couple of thousand quid's worth of Omega.

But lest he got too carried away with the idea that having money made him a better person, whenever he attempted to dazzle me with this technology I used to say to him, "Pity you couldn't afford the top of the range model..."

In such close confinement with a wide range of people, it has probably stood me in good stead that we have to judge people more for who they are than their status or wealth. Being unimpressed by baubles allows me to see the person instead of his facade.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How odd...

The Ministry of Justice collates the figures for the number of assaults by prisoners on staff, but doesn't collect the figures for the number of staff assaults on prisoners. I wonder why not?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Prisoner Vote

If you think prisoners should have the vote and want to make your opinion known, visit

Underage Overage

There is a disjuncture between biological drives and legal restrictions. To pretend otherwise is just plain silly, even if a taboo subject in this age of hysteria. Men are biologically programmed to be sexually attracted to curves - hips, waist and breasts.

Biology doesn't give much thought to social or cultural norms, let alone legal ones. We may claim that a post-pubertal 14 year old girl is too immature to make sexual decisions but that is a legal assertion that history, cultural relativity and biology may disagree with.

This sheds a little light on why child abusers are so despised in prison. Most men literally don't see the sexual attraction of biological children. Without curves, i.e. pre-puberty, then there is literally no biological interest.

In this sense, the crimes of child molesters are incomprehensible. The very idea, the urge, the attraction, just doesn't fit in most men's heads.

Most crimes can be understood. Killing someone in a fit of rage or jealously; robbing a million quid to live in the sun; evading taxes to fund a better life... all are comprehensible, even if we ourselves condemn them and would never dream of committing them. Nearly all crimes can resonate with an urge, a sly wicked thought, which we have all had at some point.

But child molesters are different. For most people, nothing in those crimes chimes with anything in our own experiences or thoughts, their crimes are truly alien and incomprehensible.

So removed are these crimes from the understanding of most people that it does make me wonder as to the root cause. Is an attraction to children a brain defect, is it an actual illness? Or does it result from socio-psychological experiences in early life?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Military Drug Smiggling

When a bunch of SBS guys got busted smuggling a boat load of drugs in the late 1990's, you'd think that it would be a massive story. After all, these are the fellows who do an awful lot of counter-terrorism work, guard North Sea oil rigs and escort nuclear weapons.

So when three of them arrived, on remand, in Bristol nick there was quite a stir. Turns out that they sent their mates in the SBS who weren't smuggling to go and arrest them.

On arrival they were classified as Category -A, the highest security category, reserved for those whose escape must be made impossible due to the risk they pose to the public or the State. Cat-A's are personally escorted everywhere in the prison by screws and dogs.

So it was a bit of a surprise to be sitting in my room in the Education building and have a screw stick his head through the door. "Anyone seen a Cat-A...?" There was only one corridor and five rooms in the building, and this idiot had lost tabs on his prisoner. He was found browsing the Library.

These criminal geniuses were acquitted. They were charged with conspiring to import drugs into the UK. But their boat was stopped as it approached the Channel and they advanced the defence that they were actually going to Holland. Clever!

What still amazes me is how little media attention there was on this episode. Let's hope that drug smuggling is out of fashion with Special Forces these days, particularly given their theatre of action is now the worlds centre for heroin production.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Oranges are a Colour

Eccentricities come and go. A new one has recently crept up on me. When passing through the servery, collecting my meals, at the vegetable tray I specify what I want by colour.

This saves time trying to remember the names cabbage, carrot, cauliflower and sprouts (not offered all at once). I just say, "green stuff and a bit of the orange" and I am given cabbage and carrot.

What's that all about? And how confusing is that going to be when I finally get to attend a Farmers Market??

Friday, March 19, 2010

Defining Children

Along with "paedophilia", the term "child" has become so expanded as to risk losing coherent meaning.

In terms of child protection legislation, a child is anyone below the age of 18 years. That you can drive, have sex, get married and go to war whilst still a "child" is just to highlight our decidedly convoluted views on these matters.

Childhood was once a matter of biology. Post-puberty opened the doors to vistas of sweeping chimneys and vanishing down coal mines, proudly sporting long trousers and a waistcoat. Examine early photographs and children look like miniature adults. Some even sported pipes, and the only way to identify the father in family photos was by the walrus moustache.

In a long, stuttering reaction against the exploitation of the young, the Victorians began to redefine childhood as a legal, political and cultural artefact. It has been a bit of a mess ever since.

This reached it's apogee with the Sexual Offences Act of 2005. This busybody Act created a raft of new offences, including voyeurism and sex in public. As well as missing out on the rave phenomena, it looks as if dogging is something else I'll never experience...

Child protection wasn't overlooked either. Whilst it was previously an offence to have sex with someone under the age of 16, this Act extended the prohibition to "any sexual activity". This is much more insidious and made no allowances for the ages of all involved. School kids snogging and fumbling each other in the local park are now committing child abuse.

There is also a new offence of sexual exploitation. A prostitute aged 17 years 364 days is assumed not to have sufficient standing to make that particular career choice, all her clients are guilty of "sexual exploitation of a child". If, in her private life, she chooses to entertain the marching band of the Brigade of Guards, however, that is all fine and dandy. As long as no money changes hands, she is deemed to be fully capable of making her own choices.

The height of this absurd convolution is the following scenario. A 15 year old boy hires the services of a 17 year old prostitute. She is guilty of underage sex, child abuse; and he is guilty of sexual exploitation of a child.

They are simultaneously held to be morally developed enough to be criminally responsible for their actions, whilst being denied the moral development to make sexual decisions.

Our ever expanding definition of childhood leads to endless contradictions and insanities. A married couple of 16 can have children, yet are too irresponsible to buy alcohol. They can film themselves indulging in the most chandelier-challenging sex but can't rent a commercial porn DVD. Worse, if they circulated their own exploits amongst their other married 16 year old friends, they would be guilty of distributing child pornography.

Child protection is always a worthy aim. It would help, though, if we could return to first principles and define "child", and do so in a way which is coherent and consistent.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Go Figure

The education boss recently told me that "it is possible to be too intellectual". The irony...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Unemployment Benefits

The political Spin of the Week award goes again to the Tories, who are sweeping the board in this pre-election endeavour. Ably assisting them in this effort is the ubiquitous Tory-front group, the Taxpayers Alliance. This is a self-appointed campaign group with a never ending supply of outrage and quotes for every prison story, whose volume is only matched by its complete ignorance of the subject.

It seems that I and my peers are receiving 'benefits'. Or that is the headline. Needless to say, we don't, we are ineligible to receive state benefits. One result is an enduring scandal that older prisoners who have paid into National Insurance all their lives are denied the State pension.

This story is actually about the £2.50 a week that the prison pays us if we are unemployed due to no fault of our own. People unable to work through long term illness or past retirement age receive £3.50 a week.

As state generosity goes, this is hardly an illustration of taxpayers’ largess. According to the usual un-named prison sources (i.e. lying screws), we spend this vast sum on luxuries such as tobacco. As the smallest packet of tobacco costs £3, this reveals just how ignorant our keepers are of our lives.

Prisoners who are willing to work but who haven't been given a job by the prison have always been given a small allowance. When I began my sentence thirty years ago, this amounted to £1.10. That it has increased to only £2.50 shows how irrelevant it is to our keepers.

This money is a concrete recognition that, whilst the prison officially supplies all our necessities, there are personal costs we need to cover ourselves. It is also part of the behavioural incentives scheme, encouraging and rewarding good behaviour.

Of this £2.50, a whole £1 is promptly grabbed back by the prison to pay for our TV rental. My TV cost about £50, brand new, and so far I've paid about £520 for the privilege.

There really isn't much that can be done with £1.50 a week but a lot is expected. Whilst the prison has a duty of care to provide us with necessities, this is a very restricted definition. The prison pays for one second class letter per week; any more letters we wish to send have to be at our expense. We have to pay for phone calls. And buy the Biro to write the letter.

Prison isn't a free ride, as is perpetually implied in these types of stories. The reason we receive this unemployment pay of £2.50 is that it then absolves the prison from supplying items which are needed, such as more stamps, phone calls, stationery, pens. As the prison with the oldest average population, the money needed to be spent on items such as denture cleaner and fixative all has to come out of our pockets.

This £2.50 signals not largess, but failure. There is only work for about a third of the prison population; the prison service is incapable of providing universal employment. And when we do work, often for outside companies, the prison takes the money. Minimum wage legislation does not apply to prisons and so our labour is sold cheaply to companies, and we are still robbed by the prison.

When we come to spend our money - either prison wages or that sent it by friends or family - then we are charged high prices for the goods we buy. Both our supplier, DHL and Booker, along with the prison service makes a healthy profit from this money.

Ditto with our phone calls. Charged at 7 times the standard payphone rate, a nice living is made by BT and the prison service again.

The Tories want to make this a story about the failure of having so many prisoners unemployed, the Labour governments fault. That is quite cheeky, considering that under their government the situation was exactly the same.

And it was their last Prime Minister, John Major, who set this œ2.50 unemployment rate back in 1995 and Labour who refuses to increase it. Playing party politics is a messy business, and spinning facts in ignorance of history is a hostage to fortune.

The prison service gets a nice fat profit from prisoners’ moneys. In making us dependent on them as the source of goods we must by, in keeping us unemployed and underpaid so that we survive on donations from outside, which we then spend through the prison, they take their cut coming and going.

Here is a simple sum. Pay 80,000 cons £2.50 a week. Then add up how much money is sent in to us by friends and spent through the prison shop and on their telephones. Add up the profit they make from that - and I'll eat my hat if what they rob of us and our families fails to far exceed this £2.50.

Interestingly, whilst generating vast heat and indignation, please make a careful note of the fact that the Tories are not themselves promising to supply sufficient work to employ all prisoners, nor promising to take this £2.50 away from us.

Prison does cost money but as this is society's chosen response to crime then I'm not willing to listen to their bitching about that. But when it comes to the incidentals, the money spent on non-essential matters, the prison service screws far more out of us and our families than it throws our way.

Remember - the dumber the story, the closer the election must be. And the more he opens his mouth, the more ignorant Dominic Grieve MP reveals himself to be.

Which brings me to an incidental point. When we prisoners do get our voting rights returned, will we also be allowed to stand as candidates? "Vote for Ben as Minister of Justice"...?!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Kids and Sex

Over a century after Freud unveiled the theories based on children being sexual beings, we have developed a schizophrenic cultural view.

Simultaneously, we vehemently refuse to accept that kids are sexual beings whilst cheerfully buying primary school girls thongs and padded bras, equipping them with pencil-cases adorned with the Playboy logo.

This obviously needs some unravelling. My focus will be the age of sexual consent, which at least has the merit of having relevance to crime and punishment.

At what age are we capable of giving consent to sexual activity? The law says 16 years. Our bodies, the biology, have it that we are ready after puberty. What our individual psychology says seems to be a moot point; no one ever asks the question. Anyone who opens the door to the discussion is automatically assumed to be on the path of attempting to legitimise paedophilia.

We are held to be fully responsible for any crimes we may commit from the age of 10 years. Until the Bulger murder, the law held that, up to the age of 14, the law had to prove that the child defendant understood right and wrong and appreciated the consequences of their actions.

In the popular panic that heated society and politics around the Bulger murder, this qualification was removed. From then on, ten year olds were assumed to have the moral reasoning of fully fledged adults.

So I can be held to be capable of assuming full legal and moral responsibility for killing a person. This isn't an issue I care to deny in my own case. However, if I had decided to have sex, it would be unshakably asserted that I was incapable of making any sensible decision. After all, children can't, can they...?

Is this not problematic, both in principle and legal conception?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sexual Politics

Being in this social cul-de-sac may give me the advantage of distance from the issues of the day, allowing me to take a broader perspective without being particularly swayed by the fever of the mob. Maybe.

For decades I have been out of the swing of sexual politics and the shifts in the mores of interpersonal relationships. It has been interesting, watching the debates pass by my window, although sometimes it has been horrifying to see a social consensus develop into an unchallengeable ideology.

I absolutely detest any situation where a subject is ruled out of order for discussion. As a broad guide, I enjoy unpicking an idea, extracting the principles and putting them under a conceptual microscope.

The politics of sex is an area fraught with topics which are sacrosanct from debate. These are the areas which most attract me, in a iconoclastic sort of way. The matters most worthy of discussion are precisely those which people are too afraid to discuss.

To stick to the remit of the blog, prisons and their adjacent environs, this brings me to sex crimes.

There have been a few obvious shifts in beliefs and culture over the years I've been observing from my seclusion and seeing the knots that society, and law, has tied itself into has been bemusing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Women staff

Even after all these years, my fellow prisoners manage to surprise me on occasion.

In a recent issue of our national paper, Inside Time, a con was deploring the presence of female staff in male prisons.

I like women staff, in the sense that I'd rather look at something pleasing to the eye than suffer a perpetual vista of hairy-arsed men.

This doesn't mean that I am immune from being prompted from groaning in frustration at the rare sight of a very sexy woman on the landings. But that is normal, it isn't as if I live in fear of my urges overwhelming me and leading to wickedness.

But this isn't to deny that female staff don't complicate issues on occasion. Whereas it was a strict norm that women staff should never be subjected to violence, no matter how justified, the presence of women on riot squads makes that judgement a more fluid one.

Complications aside, even though the presence of women staff has the potential to intensify frustration, I would never dream of complaining about their existence.

More, I worry about those who do complain. It makes me wonder if they live in fear of their urges, whether they wonder if their appreciation of women may take a deviant turn.

This was played out beautifully by an incident in which an utterly gorgeous probation officer used to swan through the lifer wing wearing a miniskirt and a low cut t-shirt. She looked like Michelle Pfeiffer at her best. Most of us were highly appreciative.

A small number actually made an official complaint. All were rapists. What a way to live, feeling threatened by one's own sexuality.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Stubborn or Innocent?

The popular imagination has it that swathes of prisoners insist on their innocence. Not for the first time, the popular imagination is wrong.

There are innocent people in prison, enough to make those informed or caring enough to worry about our judicial system. But it isn't a majority disease.

Whenever someone tells me that they are innocent, I tend to let it wash over me. Maybe they are, maybe they're not, and either way their daily life is the same.

But rather arbitrarily, I take the view that anyone who is still protesting their innocence after ten years is either genuine or crazy.

By the ten year mark we all know that protesting innocence is a guarantee to a long, long stay in prison. It is long enough for those who initially claimed innocence as a trial ploy to come to terms with their guilt and admit it.

So if a man tells me, ten years in, he is innocent then I am likely to believe him. For what that's worth.

That said, though, there are isolated cases where a man's denial of the crime is a huge personal, emotional investment. He may have persuaded his family, his partner, his children, that he is innocent and that the trial verdict was perverse.

They stick with him, supporting him emotionally and financially, struggling to keep their lives normal whilst campaigning on his behalf.

These people, these guilty people, find themselves dug into a hole from which they cannot escape. To do so would be to risk destroying the whole edifice they have created around themselves. It would be to risk losing their family.

There are times when being genuinely guilty, like myself, is a small comfort.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Not a typo but a deadly piece of prison terminology. It combines "threat" and "offer".

Much of what is required of us to "address our offending behaviour" (a hideous term) is voluntary. There are psychological courses intended to help us control our anger, think more clearly and reign in our deviant urges.

They are wholly voluntary. But... if you don't do them then you won't be released. This is the essence of a "throffer".

The poor sods most sharply hit by this are the innocent. Without admitting their guilt, they rarely get released because they won't do the psych courses.

Legally, they don't have to admit guilt to gain release but readers will appreciate by now that law and practice are only occasionally overlapping.

These innocent people exist in a twilight world governed by throffers. "Admit your guilt and we will let you go... do the courses, we will let you don't have to do these things, of course, but if you don't..."

Throffer. Add it to your spellchecker dictionary. And file it next to "Kafka".

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Non Violence

Many years ago, a Governor suggested that I might be dangerous.

When I pointed out that my prison career was free of violence, he countered by suggesting that this was a symptom of being "over controlled" and so liable to explode.

My proposed solution to this was that I punch someone in the face every three months. He begged to differ.

If I'm violent, I'm damned. If I'm not, I'm damned. Get out of that one.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

You’re Still Criminals!

Having now had the opportunity to read your comments responding to my post accusing everybody of being criminal, I am astounded by some of the tortuous reasoning that some used to deny their criminality. I was also quite amused at the sporadic intrusion of self-righteous outrage.

Let us be absolutely clear. A criminal is one who breaks the criminal law, a person who commits a crime. It's fairly simple, really. My post posited that there can be very few people who have not broken the law, whether they have been caught for it or not. Hence, we are all criminals.

Why the spluttering obfuscation and outrage? Why the denial? The responses proved my point wonderfully - that we desperately need to see the criminal as 'other’. And so the whole gamut of traffic offences is dismissed as being not really criminal at all; after all, don't we all break the speed limit...? As if the universality of an act renders it harmless or non-criminal.

And then there were the straw-doll assertions, creating a relative scale of wickedness. Murder is far worse than nicking paper-clips, therefore petty theft is pretty much okay.

All of these were resilient, determined arguments. Their intellectual merits are, for the purpose of my point, irrelevant. What is interesting is the efforts people expended to persuade themselves that THEIR particular criminal acts - petty theft, speeding - were somehow different. That they were not criminal.

It is this insistence, deliberate or unconscious, that the "real” criminal is Other, different, inherently not the same as everyone else, which I find fascinating.


There are a whole raft of nicknames both cons and staff use for sex offenders, particularly those who are segregated for their own protection.

This used to be done under Rule 43, now Rule 45. Hence, a man in protection was "on the numbers". Numbers = cucumbers. Simple, innit?

Sex offenders are most commonly called "nonces". The origins of this are lost in time, though there are several plausible sources. Some years ago, in a fit of professionalism, a governor ordered the screws to stop using the term "nonce". And so the screws began to call sex offenders "stills".

I was daft enough to inquire as to why? Obvious, really, once they told me. . .
"Because they are STILL fuckin’ nonces!"

Monday, March 8, 2010

Master of Go

I have been trying to play the game of Go for twenty years. This isn't helped by my only ever meeting a handful of other prisoner who had even heard of it and only one who could actually play.

In solitary, board-games are not really facilitated and I felt the deprivation. Endless hours and nothing to fill the time.

So I decided to make a Go board and pieces (stones). The board, a 19 X 19 grid, was easily scraped on the floor. The stones were made of wads of wet toilet paper, using a biro to stain one half black. There are 361 stones in Go.

Every time I went out on exercise, the screws would sneak into my cell and scrub out the board and steal the stones. Each day I made a new set.

I didn't get any better at Go, but I did fill the endless empty hours.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

You were waiting...

Of course there is sex going on in prison. Even before female staff made their appearance, testosterone existed.

And obviously, most sexual activity is solitary and pornography-related. The thirst for sexual relief can be constant, eyes searching out the smallest glimpse of female skin to add to fevered imaginings.

It seems to be central to our identity as men, as sexual beings, that we find expressions and interests for our urges. DVD's, nudity on the TV, magazines, letters, photographs, are all harboured and savoured.

I have even heard a new girly-magazine being described in terms of being a new girlfriend! Each new page revealing something new, each new letter of 'confession' adding to the sense that sexuality is not a wholly imagined activity. When a new, illicit, porn DVD finds its way onto the landings then there is a subtle ripple of consequence, as increasing numbers search it out.

Gay encounters are varied. Many who have sporadically indulged would deny any homosexuality, the essence of their encounters being to share another’s' body - the gender becomes irrelevant in the quest for sexual communion.

Myth has it that Lifers are all sliding in and out of each other’s beds, that necessity is the mother of homosexuality. In my experience, this is not true. That said, when an openly gay man left here, we found out a rough estimate of men who had approached him during his stay. I was initially surprised but, on reflection, the numbers suggested that around 10% of men here may have had some homosexual experiences. That probably equates well with the outside world.

But, by and large, we get by with solitary porn. It used to be that visits offered furtive opportunities. The tables and chairs were just right for under the table manual manoeuvrings and, as long as nothing was too blatant or visible to kids, a blind eye was turned. One woman visitor I had spent two hours every weekend being 'entertained' by me in this way. Despite our relationship lasting a decade, this was a one-way activity and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

The new Puritanism and its concomitant labelling of prisoner’s sexuality as deviant has seen a near total cessation of such encounters on visits. Whilst this may please the prison service, the effects it can have on relationships can only be imagined.

The influx of female staff, both as screws and as civilians such as teachers, obviously increases the opportunity for encounters. These are rare, though, and my relationships with two consecutive staff gives me a near legendary status in this regard! Such is my seductive reputation that I am no longer allowed to work in close personal proximity to women. Honestly, I don't go looking for these sorts of relationships, it takes two to tango.

Such relationships are fraught with danger. A playful encounter outside that may, or may not, lead somewhere is the norm. In prison, if you make a play for a woman and you have misjudged their receptiveness, then you are sunk. You will be regarded as being a security risk, a danger to women, and at the very least you will find yourself in a new prison with many additions to your security file.

Relationships with female screws are viewed by the system as a betrayal on the part of staff, an abrogation of the Us and Them they love so dearly. They can be seen as being duped, weak and vulnerable to prisoners' sweet talk. Because the prison system can never accept that it's just a matter of not being able to choose who you fall in love with; they view such relationships as 'conditioning' or 'grooming' on the part of the prisoner, part of a diabolical plan to undermine security. Love and lust are never seen as motivators.

Being caught in homosexual activity is a legal minefield. Whilst we can be issued condoms, our cells are classed as a 'public place' and so sexual activity there is illegal. The most common response, though, is to face social mockery until the next interesting thing happens to fill in the conversational spaces.

For nearly all prisoners, though, the only sexual expression they share with other people is through letters and phone calls.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fantasy and Reality

I entered the room to be faced with an accusing psychologist. He waved some papers in my direction, "You do know this is a criminal offence, don't you?"

It was news to me. "The things written here are crimes", he went on. Back up there, sparky, I thought.

"Hang on", I say, "that is a sexual fantasy. Are you telling me that what we now think is a crime?"

He did back down from his position but along the way revealed a deeply disturbing insight into prison service mentality. Amongst the psychologists that seem to rule prisoners lives these days, it is axiomatic that fantasy equates to some future plan of action, and is therefore a cause for great concern. So it easily follows that a fantasy that includes illegal acts must mean that we are on our way to committing sex crimes. Obviously...

This is a strange and narrow view of sexuality that has no relation to reality. Of course our sexual fantasies are a tad wilder than reality. The work of Nancy Friday is an eye-opener in this regard. Her book on male sexual fantasies revealed my gender to be somewhat more depraved than even I imagined, and I am extremely fertile in my imaginings. Her work on female fantasies is equally, wonderfully, revelatory.

Sexual fantasies are just that, random thoughts that we use to turn ourselves or other people on, or to explore our own desires. They are not a statement of future intended actions. If there were, then according to Friday there are hordes of women who would like to be raped or visit the local zoo.

It was the seriousness with which this psychologist spoke that outraged and yet amused me. There are times when my keepers are just plain jackasses and their belief system is silly beyond belief. It is this reasoning that makes it positively dangerous to have pornography. Quite what they would make of a partner who introduced a 'force me' game into our play is best left to their fevered imaginings.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pornographer in Chief

All prisons have a smattering of prisoners who are the porn-merchants. These are the men who collect porn, swap it and lend it. They are a social and economic nexus.

Porn is more than merely an item in prison, it is a commodity in its own right. Porn is swapped and traded, it is a secondary medium of exchange both for other goods and for the staple of prison economics, "favours" to be called upon in future times.

For most of my sentence, I was one of these pornographers. Books and magazines, and later DVD's, gravitated towards me. Some I bought or swapped, some were donated or found. The role of pornographer is a socially useful one that provides a service to the general community. Honest. It's not just that I'm a degenerate.

This stash of filth was eclectic, from Fiesta, Escort and Mayfair through to Club, Whitehouse, Colour Climax and Private. This ranged from the benign girly-mag available in the newsagents through to foreign hardcore.

Staff knew it existed and used to watch me scuttle around the wing, bundles of mags being delivered and collected. On cell searches, or periods of boredom, they would park themselves in my cell to read my merchandise. It is vaguely disturbing to return from work to find a screw sitting in your cell, rifling through your porn for the newest additions.

Being a pornographer gave insight into the psychology of other men. In order to ask for a particular magazine or book, they had to reveal their sexual preferences. This ranged from spanking to schoolgirls, Black to White, bondage to gerontology. The whole of human life resides in our sexuality and I find its span and complexity fascinating. And it reinforces my broad belief - men really are dogs!

However, those days are long gone. The shift in the official view of prisoners and their sexuality makes it dangerous to hold any quantity of pornography. Gone is my collection of Victorian erotic novels, my stash of continental filth has long been dispersed. For a while, I did move into DVD's as they are easier to hide, but such is the wrath of the institution on discovery that I decided it just wasn't worth the effort.

The danger comes from the Psychology Department. If one is busted with a stash of porn the inevitable question arises, are you obsessed with porn? It then follows your sexuality is malign and therefore dangerous. The accusations inevitably include having a poor attitude to women and relationships, of objectification and unreasonable expectations. It returns to the familiar ground, everything prisoners do is viewed through the lense of criminogenic needs, and never as just plain human.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Prison Puritanism

The values and mores of the wider society are broadly reflected on prison landings. Despite the walls and fences, the boundary that separates us from you is a porous one. Staff, new prisoners, our visitors, TV's, mail... all of these allow cultural shifts to leak into our lives here. We may be a little behind at times, but not to any great extent.

Then there are times when a chasm emerges, a disjuncture between the prison culture and the wider society. It is even possible for a cultural current to be reversed in prison, as a matter of deliberate policy.

Matters sexual are one such area. Until a change in the law early in this century, genuine hard core pornography was not widely available in society. Of course it was there, it could be obtained, but not from the newsagents or video store. The official censors deployed the "Mull of Kintyre" test to separate the acceptable from the forbidden. If a picture of a penis had a greater elevation than the Mull of Kintyre on the map, then it became an official erection - and erections were the symbol that delineated civilisation from decadence. This may appear decidedly illiberal to non-British readers and I'll be damned if I'm going to defend it.

Whilst hardcore porn was forbidden outside, on the prison landings it was perfectly acceptable. Not officially, you understand, but as part of the dialectic of control that gravitates to mutual satisfaction. Long termers had an official blind eye turned to their hardcore magazines and some fairly strong pin-ups were plastered on cell walls.

In a complete reversal of fortunes, we are now forbidden most sexual materials at a time when the outside society is now legally permitted to purchase a fairly full range of graphically portrayed deviancy.

Why this shift? What led to this official repression of our sexuality, just at the moment when society has become far more sexualized?

A small part has been played by the introduction of female staff into male prisons. Obviously, few women would appreciate entering a cell whose walls look like a gynaecological slideshow. Fair enough, we are no longer allowed to display pictures that so much as show a nipple. Or "primary or secondary sexual organs" as an official note puts it. The prison service is lousy at talking dirty...

Let us deal head-on with one concern, largely unspoken but nonetheless powerful. Male prisoners don't assault female staff. In all my years, I can only recall one allegation of a female staff member being raped and that had all the hallmarks of a panicked allegation. If an affair is being conducted between a prisoner and a female member of staff, if they are caught in flagrante then the con is wide open to an allegation of assault.

This is overwhelmingly a non-issue. The spectre of prisoners being hyped-up by hardcore porn attempting to vent their frustrations on female staff is a myth of gargantuan proportions. And, unlike in American prisons, we tend not to rape each other either.

So why the obsession with preventing us from accessing pornography? Why the official denial of our sexuality and any expressions of it?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sexual Meanderings

I love sex and sexuality. Everything about it captivates me, body and mind, on every level.

Sexuality is, in my perception, the core of our being. It is the repository of our deepest desires and greatest fears. It is both our strongest and weakest point, the fulcrum around which we may be elevated to our greatest fulfilment or lowered to our deepest depths.

The journey of exploration that is sharing sexuality is one fraught with risk. It is a slow building of trust, a reaching out, exposing ever increasing amounts of oneself and hoping to receive a welcome rather than a rejection.

I have always found that the sharing of bodies is the least part of sex. For me, there has also to be a sharing of thoughts and feelings - and these are much harder to reveal and are more potent for that.

Perhaps this is a function of the life I have lived, which has sex being more verbal and emotional than physical. I write erotica with legendary effects, which isn't much to show for my life but at least is something. I can talk dirty to Olympic standards.

I have had three very significant relationships during my imprisonment, the longest lasting ten years. These have been life enhancing encounters, supportive, exploratory and fulfilling in their way. As well as boxes of highly charged letters, these have the legacy of helping me to become who I am today.

Even in this seemingly barren environment, then, there is the potential for sexuality to be explored and developed. Through visits, tapes, and phone calls there is a great deal of sharing that can happen and its outcome can be wonderful.

I'm lousy at flirting, though. Given the dangers involved in becoming entangled with female staff, or misreading a signal and being hammered for making a pass, I unconsciously developed a filter that screens out the signs of flirting. I just don't notice it, even if everyone around me can see what is happening. The effects of imprisonment are strange, sometimes.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

4. Gay Liberation?

In a fit of liberalism, the waiting room in Healthcare is now adorned with a box full of condoms - "help yourselves".

Interestingly, whilst forking out money to facilitate gay sex, the prison spends an absolute fortune in ruthlessly preventing straight men from doing more than holding hands with our partners.

I wonder if the ladies over at the prisonersfamiliesvoices blog have a view on this...?

3. Why Not?

Why is it are women prisoners not permitted to have sex-toys?

2. Sexual Development

Prison managers are like Victorian spinsters, equally fascinated by sexuality but wanting nothing to do with it. This explains why, having had me in their clutches since I was 14 years old, they have not said a single word to me about me sexual development. Not. One. Word.

Strange, no? For all they know, I still believe that children come from under bushes or down the chimney via stork-delivery. Or I could believe that being whipped whilst lying in a vat of jelly and wearing a gimp mask is normal on a first date.

Isn't it good to know that they take their responsibilities so seriously?

Monday, March 1, 2010

1. Stereotypes and Myths

Male prisons are sexually sterile vistas, barren save for the unfocused testosterone washing down the landings. The popular imagination fills in the blanks in their knowledge with extrapolation and myth. This isn't a criticism you understand; male prisoners do precisely the same in our imaginings of women's prisons. In our mind's eye they are one long lesbian adventure and we refuse to listen to anything that disabuses us. It is a persistent myth (I hope) that the mop-handles in their prisons are specially made, rectangular.

Showering is not a fraught experience, with large shaven headed men giving the younger contingent the eye. We don't leap on each other for want of a woman to rest upon. Honest. In all my years, I have only once been in a prison where a gay rape took place. I thank God I'm not in America.

Woman staff are not a source of perpetual lechery. Well, so many of them pose a serious visual challenge to even the most desperate of men. The prettier ones are a source of covert interest, are cautiously watched as they walk the landings and wove into a thousand fantasies. But no more. Male prisoners would, as a general proposition, protect female staff. They are more at risk from their colleagues in the Staff Mess.

We are not driven insane, reduced to acting like monkeys masturbating in a zoo, by the sight of a pert ankle or graceful neck. Whilst we appreciate beauty, we are not mindlessly captured by it. Despite this, female civilian staff are lectured on 'appropriate dress' standards. Miniskirts in prison are exceptionally rare, but always appreciated! Especially on women.

Contrary to popular perception, we are not drooling, sex starved animals, desperate to catch a glimpse of the female form or the scent of perfume left in a woman’s wake.

We deal with our sexuality in more subtle, and more base, ways that may be appreciated whilst enmeshed in a structure that characterises our sexuality in a malign way.

This week’s posts, starting below, are hoped to give a broad overview of this hide landscape. Sexuality is a powerful inherent part of each person’s individuality and it pervades our social and economic lives.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I may be one of the first prisoners to write on this subject. Even academics ignore it. I hope I don't reveal too much!

Sex Week!

Ben has written a series of blogs on sex in prisons, often considered a taboo subject. If you want to know the truth, read on...