Monday, May 31, 2010

Support Groups

Sitting in the Library, I was recently trying to help out some poor soul who felt put upon and who was seeking out information on some external group that may support him.

We found lots of general campaigning reform groups. There were groups also for young prisoners, old prisoners, women prisoners, black prisoners, gay prisoners, disabled prisoners and foreign prisoners.

But as a middle aged, healthy white man, we discovered that there was no one for him to turn to. I was as surprised as he was. He wandered away, disgruntled, and I think the BNP may have found a new recruit.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Letter re Article in the Mail on Sunday

Dear Ms Levin,

Re: Article in Mail on Sunday Review, 16 May 2010

I was astounded and deeply disturbed at several comments that you made in your article for the Mail on Sunday.

As Vice Chair of the 'watchdog' body, charged with satisfying yourselves "as to the state of the prison premises, the administration of the prison and the treatment of the prisoners", it is a pre-requisite that you have a grasp of the prison rules.

As these legal requirements are at the heart of ensuring that prisoners are not treated indecently, I fail to see how you can fulfil your statutory function when you are so clearly - and now publicly - bereft of understanding their provisions.

How can you possibly ensure that prisoners are being treated within the Rules when you don't know the Rules? This is all the more worrying given that the prisoners you are meant to be safeguarding reside in a prison with a shocking history of staff abuse and brutality.

You quote the Human Rights Act as being responsible for several aspects of prison life that you find objectionable. It is unfortunate that each of your claims is completely wrong.

You claimed that, "Due to the misguided Human Rights Act, prisoners have a right to take whatever unlawful drugs they choose."

This is a complete misunderstanding of the court's judgement and one which is common amongst prison staff. A British court found that forcing prisoners to go cold turkey without offering the palliative care that is always offered to patients in the community caused these prisoners unnecessary suffering. It did not, in any way, give prisoners any right to take illegal drugs. That you have persuaded yourself of the truth of this canard, so popular with the Daily Mail, is revealing.

Part of your duties include supervising the proper treatment of prisoners held in the Segregation Unit (punishment block). At any one moment, there will be prisoners being held there as a punishment for taking illegal drugs. Are your inspections of the Seg so cursory that you fail to notice this? Did you never wonder why, if prisoners are entitled to take illegal drugs, they were then being punished for doing so? This is extremely worrying, as the Seg was the rotten centre of the brutality previously inflicted by prison staff. As your inspections of the Seg are seemingly so shallow, how are we to be reassured that this brutality has ended? As a 'watchdog', you appear to be deaf and blind as well as toothless.

You also assert that, "as a result of the Human Rights Act, prisoners can no longer be searched internally". Prison staff have never had the power to conduct internal searches. This has no connection with the Human Rights Act and even the most cursory reading of that Act would inform you of this. It has only ever been the case, under common law, that in life threatening emergencies then a Doctor may conduct an internal search, if necessary with the assistance of prison staff. As one of the people charged by the Secretary of State to ensure that prisoners are not ill treated, that you are ignorant of the circumstances when a prisoner may be physically restrained by staff and have their orifices probed by force is quite shocking. In a prison with a history of staff brutality, it should be obvious that you should pay particular attention to any use of force by staff.

You then go on to claim that, "human rights means they have the right to decide if they want to lie in bed and do nothing all day". On the contrary, the Human Rights Act specifically exempts prisoners from the prohibition on slavery and the Prison Rules allow that we can be forced to work for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, with no pay.

That most prisoners are left locked in their cells every day has nothing whatever to do with the Human Rights Act. It has everything to do with the inability of the Prison Service to supply sufficient opportunities to work. It has been thus for at least two generations and that you are unaware of this basic penological fact is something that I find quite unsettling.

In unquestioningly accepting the Prison Service propaganda on mobile phones, I can't help but wonder what else you are willing to accept on faith when told to you by prison staff. As a 'watchdog', displaying such a trait is deeply disturbing.

You repeat the lie that mobile phones are inextricably linked to drug smuggling and witness intimidation. That a tiny minority of prisoners abuse phones in this way does not detract from the truth - that overwhelmingly, prisoners use mobile phones for the simple purpose of maintaining family relationships. You should be aware that supplying a handful of payphone landlines for the use of several hundred prisoners, coupled with charging men 7 times the usual payphone rate, makes the use of illicit mobile phones almost obvious. That you are all too willing to accept the propaganda issued by prison staff on this issue inevitably raises questions as to your willingness or ability to fulfil your official remit.

That you then claim that prisoners can simply hand these phones to staff and avoid punishment is absurd. Any prisoner caught with a phone is subject to disciplinary charges, if not criminal ones. Again, that as one of the people charged with monitoring the process of punishment and discipline, your ignorance of this reality is alarming.

Your complete ignorance of the Human Rights Act and the Prison Rules aside, what I found to be most disturbing in your article was your attitude to prisoners and their circumstance.

On a Christmas Day, you felt you had the right to pass a moral judgement on a prisoner who was missing his children. You were not troubled by a scintilla of compassion, not a single moment of understanding or humanity. If not for the prisoner, then for his children.

This attitude reached it's apogee with your comment that, "They complain endlessly about the treatment they receive when they have only themselves to blame."
I cannot over-emphasise my disgust with this statement. Prisoners are responsible for their crime, and only their crime. That society chooses to place them in prison is societies choice and its responsibility.

Once in prison, the treatment meted out to prisoners is in the hands of prison staff. Prisoners are rendered, as you recognise, largely impotent. In Wormwood Scrubs, this treatment has included staff meting out mock executions, bloody beatings and rape.

You are Vice Chair of the body charged with ensuring that prisoners are not ill-treated and yet you not only berate prisoners for complaining about their treatment, you blame prisoners themselves for that treatment.

Having read your comments, what prisoner could have sufficient confidence to approach you with any complaint? Equally importantly, any prison staff reading your comments will feel confident in their ability to mislead you, knowing that your supervision of the punishment block is perfunctory and that your knowledge of the Rules is merely illusory.

As a 'watchdog', you have revealed yourself to be judgemental, ill informed and incompetent. As a 'watchdog' in a prison with a history of staff brutality, I can only suggest these qualities mean that you are positively dangerous.

You have revealed an ignorance of the Prison Rules and the Human Rights Act, and in doing so portrayed an incorrect version of prison life. At best, this is reckless, and cannot but undermine your position. I can only suggest that you resign.

As a matter of courtesy I inform you that copies of this letter will be lodged with the Secretary of State, at whose pleasure you continue in office; with the Chair of the IMB at Wormwood Scrubs;and published on my Blog, It will also be offered to Inside Time for publication.

Yours sincerely,
Ben Gunn

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Short Memories

Various coppers are popping up on the telly, taking advantage of the political situation to complain about the time and money drained away by the bureaucracy they labour under. Cut paperwork, save money!

Oddly enough, no one explains the origins of important procedures that these coppers whine about. It was due to a generation of bad practice and miscarriages of justice, with a large sprinkling of racism and brutality.

This is why interviews are tape recorded. This is why the ethnicity of those stopped and searched is noted. This is why the police cells are monitored by people intent on ensuring no secret visits to those in custody by detectives intent on beating confessions out of prisoners.

The police brought much bureaucracy upon themselves by virtue of being untrustworthy. Each new paper trail was imposed in response to some widespread wrongdoing. To now ask that this be shredded in the name of cost-cutting is to forget this recent history. It is also to ask us to overlook the contemporary attitude of contempt that the police have developed for the people.

Any police who think it proper that they should ask for less accountability and supervision are the last ones who should be granted it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Cancer Boy Story

It continues...

Despite the undisputed fact that tumours are devouring his liver, the Ministry of Justice insists he enrols on a course with the title of "Life in the Future" before they even consider compassionate release.

For a man with only a very short life and little by way of a future, this is stunningly ironic.

Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

PS. He doesn't mind my sharing these vignettes with you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

New, Old Broom

I remember Ken Clarke from his stint as Home Secretary in the early 1990's. Perhaps the later pounding that prisoners received from Michael Howard colours my perspective, but I recall Ken Clarke as being "mostly harmless". For a Tory with prisoners at his mercy, that is as good as could be hoped for.

Now he returns as Minister of Justice. If he merely avoids the mendacity of Jack Straw then his term in office will be seen as a success.

And on the dodgy basis that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", then Ken is my new best mate because the screws are moaning like hell about the new regime. They fear for their jobs, for their power. They fear privatisation. At heart, they fear that they will be held to account for their absurd cost and tangential effects on those in their care.

Come on Ken, do us all a favour...

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell

At the end of a Drugs Awareness course, the female tutor asked if anyone had any feedback.

An innocent soul took the opportunity to offer his opinion. "Your arse is way too big for those trousers."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Idiot Box

Well, I can begin to try to relax. It is over. I knew that the second part of the Scrubs documentary would get my goat and it didn't disappoint.

As with part one, the things I saw were probably not the things that struck you. The devil was often in the gaps, the spaces where I was pleading for some context to be inserted.

Rather than de-construct the whole hour, I will just highlight a few particular events and suggest that you ask yourselves the odd question. Note that the female Block Senior Officer, so keen to hug a con on camera last week, always refers to prisoners by their surname. The Director General told staff nearly a decade ago to dignify us with the occasional “Mr” as part of the Decency Agenda - "how would you like a member of your family to be treated in prison?" Such a small thing for outsiders, but a daily reminder of contempt to us. And the power of the Prison Officer’s Association to ignore the orders of their bosses.

As was the case in episode one, the lack of explanatory context lethally undermined deepening your understanding. For instance, the man who was said to be smashing up his cell, who had torn the hatch from his door and was charged by the riot squad. You have to be an insider to know that nearly the only cells with a hatch in the door are Hospital cells. As most prisoners in prison hospitals are mentally ill, I have to wonder if setting the riot squad on someone that fragile was a sensible, let alone decent, thing to do? There was not a moment’s negotiation, no attempt to resolve the conflict. And the claim that he was "smashing up everything" in his cell went unchallenged; except by the camera, which revealed one bed, one chair and one steel toilet/sink. All intact. Did you notice this disjuncture between commentary and actuality..? Or were you lulled into a leap of faith, to become a collaborator with the Director on the assumption that you were not being misled?

And how did this man rip off his door hatch? It hangs outside the door, getting any grip on it is highly improbable. I don't doubt that he managed it; I just wonder how long it took, and what level of staff supervision allowed him the time to work it free from its mounting?

Have you ever got in someone’s' face so much that they fear you are going to take a swing at them? Have you ever provoked someone that much? Did you have five - count 'em, five - mates standing with you when you played that hard man?

As the screws did in the Block, hassling the black guy who only seemed to want to fetch his breakfast. This is a specialist skill, honed by Block screws who are mob-handed, like to feel brave, and enjoy taking down a con.

You surround him. You hassle him. You draw a circle of control around his behaviour that is so restrictive that he cannot fail to breach it. "Don't raise your voice"; "put your arms by your side"; "you will walk at my pace"... The con didn't seem in the least aggressive, he only wanted to walk to get his grub. But he was also not in the slightest intimidated - which to bullying screws, counts as a crime of aggression.

And the camera catches everything. There were even two CCTV fixed to the wall which covered the event. But, alas for posterity, the moment when he was dropped and 'restrained' by the screws is forever lost to cinematography. In prison documentaries, what is absent often speaks louder than what is clearly placed in front of you. The screw said he felt “intimidated”. What, with all of his training and five mates to back him up? He felt that the con was about to kick off.
Which means he didn't. If the con had swung, we'd still be watching the filmed re-runs. So because a screw intimidates a con and the con wouldn't bow his head, he was dropped by the screws.

Welcome, one and all, to the sly and devious world of modern prison service brutality. You surround a con as tightly as possible (get five large men to do it to you. Right in your face. Go on. Uncomfortable, isn't it?) And that stresses the con. It is calculated to. As soon as the con gets stressed, he gets agitated. Then the screws drop him - "I felt he was about to go for me." It can be done so cleverly that it can be shown to the nation - and nobody notices.

I've never had the urge to make a documentary. Now, I'd beg for that opportunity.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Nosey Buggers

The Judge who chaired my Parole Board hearing, just long enough to abandon it, has issued his official list of demands. Amongst other things, he wants "further information on Mr Gunn's blog and whether and how this is monitored".

Interesting. The test for my continued detention is whether I pose a "more than minimal risk to life or limb".

What possible connection is there between this legal test and this blog? Or is this a rare glimpse into a more sinister agenda?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Night Terrors

Having been a Good Boy and not been near a spliff in years, on my arrival in Leyhill in 2004 I decided to treat myself. I finally discovered that it is possible to get so stoned that any further inebriation is impossible.

Having fallen asleep, I awoke in the early hours needing to pee. This being Leyhill, I could open my door and stagger down the corridor to the loo. Prison loos are communal affairs, more akin to a Roman Bathhouse. A large, tiled room with urinals on one wall, closets along another, showers on the third, and rows of sinks filling the middle of the room.

Positioning myself at a urinal, I gripped myself firmly, rested my forehead on the wall, and let fly. Drifting in and out of sleep, I forced my eyes open. The room was only partly lit, the corridor light bouncing round the tiles.
Focusing on the wall inches from my face as a point of reference to aid stability, an image struck the corner of my eye. Freezing my eyes at dead-ahead, I took a long pause to translate what I thought I had seen into some sensible context.

Why was a woman standing in the corner of our prisons toilet at 3 a.m.? Nearly naked, one hand on her hip, black stockings, suspenders, tiny knickers and a push-up bra. Yummy.

I stood at the urinal, struggling to put all of this in order. Should I say anything? Would it be rude of me not to say hello? I decided it was perhaps best if I pretended not to have seen anything, and slowly found my way back to bed.

Staggering out of my cell the next morning, I found that some wag had propped up a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Kylie Minogue in the loo. I nicked it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why I'm Not A Social Drinker

During my early twenties, my 'student years', I spent an impressive amount of time getting stoned, drinking, and arguing about Marx. All pretty normal.

One hot weekend afternoon, a bunch of us were recovering from a bout of exercise by piling into a cell and sharing a gallon of hooch. As lock-up time approached, we cleared ourselves up and staggered towards our respective cells. What the screws didn't see, they didn't have to worry about. Or bother us over.

Our chilled meanderings were lanced by a deep and aggressive shout. "Come on then!!" John stood weaving in the middle of the landing, a large knife in his hand. Swiftly retreating from this vision of certain death was Roger, backing his way down the corridor and trying not to break eye contact with the knife.

We all piled in, moving towards John, some faster than others. Getting this mess sorted before the screws arrived was crucial. Our resident martial arts expert, Ree, took the knife away from John and locked him in his cell, making sure he had a drink to hand.

A brief discussion brought illumination to our sozzled bemusement. As the party broke up, Roger had taken the drink from John's hand and ushered him out. We groaned and laughed, remembering that Roger didn't know John's background.

A landlord had thrown John out of the pub at closing, taking his drink from him. Not a man to take being separated from his booze lightly, John made a crate of Molotov Cocktails and promptly burned the pub to the ground. Which is how he came to be available for our party - 8 years, arson with intent to endanger life.

A man and his booze should only cautiously be separated. If at all.

Friday, May 21, 2010


This was my third escape attempt, but no one has ever realised.

In my very early years I was kept in a special unit due to my age. This didn't have bars on the windows, our wandering off was prevented by the windows being made of a very, very tough and thick plastic.

So when I laid my hands on a soldering iron, connections began to form in my dim head...

That night I began to cut my way through a window. It was hard work but I had soon burned a half-circle through the perspex. My pulse was racing and I could taste the soon-to-be-realised air of freedom.

"Pop". That was all it took. "Pop". The melting plastic had run inside the soldering iron and blown it. Sitting on my bed in the dark, trying to sleep, it was the longest of nights.

As soon as I was unlocked in the morning I shot round to the office. "Quick, give me a fag."

"What's the rush?"

"In a few minutes you will realise something and I will be losing all my privileges for quite a while..."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Modern Prison Service

Nailed to each prison gate and scattered throughout the institution is a sign, the prison service’s Statement of Purpose: "Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release".

Ryan St George was sent to prison for theft. His sentence was 4 months. Ryan was living a less than perfect life before prison. Drink and drug use featured high amongst his problems. He also suffered epilepsy.

Prison staff placed him in a double cell, insisting that he accept sleeping on the top bunk-bed. This was over 5 feet above the concrete floor.

Remember Ryan's epilepsy? One day, he had an epileptic fit and fell from his bunk. His jerking head dropped five feet onto concrete.

Half an hour after staff were alerted an ambulance was called. Count out that time; 30 minutes. What could the staff have been doing for this eternal pause, while Ryan's brain was dying in front of them?

When the ambulance arrived at the prison gate, its entry was delayed by prison officers who were described in terrible terms by their own Governor in court. Ryan's brain was still dying.

When the paramedics arrived at the cell, the information they were given of the situation came from the huddled prisoners; not the prison staff. These paramedics described the state of Ryan as being as bad as it could be without being actually dead.

Once Ryan was in the ambulance, prison staff stood around and argued over which of them was to accompany the ambulance. Ryan's brain was still dying. Were they trying to avoid that duty, or were they bickering to see who would grab the job and the extra pay which goes with it?

Today, Ryan has such severe brain damage that he requires 24 hour care and will do for the rest of his life.

The screws are now outraged that Ryan has been awarded £4.7 million in damages, to pay for his lifetime care.

The modern Prison Service...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dumb, Dumb, Dumb

One of the staff here, now a governor, once equated sharing a cell with being married. "What's your problem? I share a house with the missus."

As ignorance goes, this is pretty standard amongst our keepers. They share a near-universal view reminiscent of a Daily Mail editorial, that is, we live the life of Reilley.

We share the same space as them for most of the hours in each day and yet they have absolutely no idea of what our lives are like, of what it means to be a prisoner. This isn't only a failure of imagination but of knowledge; they have to be wilfully blind to do their job year after year and still not "get it".

The sharing a cell conversation was a perfect illustration. Being locked in a small room with a stranger and a toilet is just like choosing to share a house with someone you love... Doh!

Depending on the personalities, cell sharing can be a nightmare of constant battles. If there is sufficient give and take, enough common ground, then it is merely a huge source of stress. But at no point does taking a shit in front of a stranger become a good thing.

Are you of different ages? Because this influences your life history and so your interests and conversation. A middle aged family man has less common ground with a single 21 year old raver. You may, literally, have nothing to talk about.

What music do you like? What TV programmes do you like? Do you prefer to have the light on, or off, in the evenings? What time do you go to sleep? What time do you wake up? How noisy are you first thing in the mornings?

You may share a cell with a person whose lifestyle is completely different from your own, where the ground for compromise is a narrow one. But even if you share many interests, the complete lack of privacy and forced company for up to 23 hours each day will slowly grind away at your nerves.

Anybody who thinks that sharing a cell is like being married is a moron. They certainly should never be allowed to govern prisoners.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Prison Healthcare

Our resident terminal cancer patient saw the Doctor because he was feeling nauseous.
She told him that it was all in his head.

What, as opposed to resulting from the tumours devouring his internals and the chemo drugs?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Authoritarian Urges

Ah, if I ruled the world... And who hasn't had that thought on occasion? I have a sneaking feeling that each of us has an authoritarian streak deep within our psyche. Perhaps my obsession with resisting abuses of power is as much a suppress of the internal as a battle against the external?

What does, instantly, irritate and anger prisoners are those few prisoners who attempt to exercise authority over their peers. This usually flows from their employment position. Storemen of various types and servery workers are most prone to this authoritarian disease.

Some can come to believe that they are "in charge" of their little sphere, a delusion which can be amusing to watch. They are as likely to be treated with contempt and dismissed by staff as the rest of us but they think that they are somehow more than the average prisoner.

Some take this to the extent of adopting the values of the staff, rather than the interests of prisoners. Of course, we couldn't fairly ask a Storeman or servery worker to issue goods or food to the extent that they put their own position at risk.

But there are prisoners in those positions who will deny their peers goods on the basis that it would be against the interests of the prison administration. A con has refused me an extra pair of socks from a shelf with hundreds of pairs, solely because the prison says I should have only one. The needs of the prison are more important to them than the needs of prisoners.

These prisoners are slightly baffling but always irritating, a source of mockery from others. They are regarded as being deluded, authoritarian and obnoxious.

I see these people as being rather sad, even pathetic. Their only status in life, their only source of self respect, comes from wielding a spatula under the supervision of staff. In being the controller of their goods, their self esteem appears to be directly correlated to how much they please their staff masters.

And yet such prisoners rarely appreciate their position or their actions. Their values are not so deformed as to become grasses, i.e. utterly incorporating staff perspectives, and so they perceive their actions as being perfectly normal.

And me? When I was a servery worker I was repeatedly sacked for giving out too much rice pudding. My attitude was that that kitchen wasn't making enough, not that I was giving too much away. And when I was a workshop Storeman I used to leave the door open, put my feet up, and let anyone wander in and help themselves. Knives, saws, drills, whatever. As long as it was all back by the end of the day, all were happy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


But let's be fair, are there not situations in life that actually beg for a violent response?

I discovered today that the psychology department doesn't allow groups of prisoners to have "brain storming" sessions, lest it upsets epileptics.

Now, they have "thought showers".

If that doesn't deserve someone being bopped on the nose, I'm not sure what does!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Wonderful Sunny Day

At last, sunshine. This led to my pottering around, on the wing, sitting in the yard, just passing the day with gossip and wild speculation. Topics covered included laptops, compensation, smelly rubbish bins, prisoners’ votes, the Open University, Parole Board, the election and - a perennial favourite - the general stupidity of prison managers.

I return to the wing for tea and bang-up, to find that the wing staff have had their usual productive workday. They all sat around a table outside of the office, tea and newspapers to hand. They had been discussing the merits of capital punishment.
Isn't it nice to know that the people in charge of our welfare actually want to see us killed?!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sex and Cereal

One of the side effects of the reduced kitchen service is that we are occasionally being issued with non-standard fare.

On the weekend I was indulged with a meat pie. Not any old meant pie, but a Pukka Pie. These differ from our usual pies in that they actually have a filling that comprises more than a smear. As it was put on my plate I could feel the weight of it.

And our breakfast changed for a few days. Rather than having some generic corn-based mulch we were handed mini boxes of real Kellogg’s stuff. We can buy these ourselves but I've never felt a part of that financial group. These were a revelation. Coco Pops and Crunchy Nut, a treat for my taste buds. It was a brief episode as we have been returned to crap but it made a pleasant change.

And sex? Mr Kellogg was a strange bloke, who invented his cereals in the name of reducing masturbation. If anyone can explain the mechanics of that...!

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Writing the pieces on sex in prison reminded me of Nancy Friday and so I ordered three of her books through the Library. They were on the shelves at another library in the County.

Alas, the Deputy Governor found out about this wickedness. That is, I was grassed up by someone. I have now been informed that these books will not be supplied.

Perhaps this is why the prison system is flooded with heroin and mobile phones: managers are too busy looking out for erotic books.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

All Change

As a broad proposition, prisoners adopt a routine and tend to stick to it. It is one way of numbing the senses, a soporific method of lessening the pains of imprisonment. Disturbances to routines can be unsettling.

And this place seems to be undergoing changes, and rumours of changes. None are good, except in the eyes of the monkeys-in-suits who rule this isolated realm.

Our kitchen is being refurbished. Did it need it? Who knows. All that is certain is that a national financial crisis would never prevent the prison service from wasting money. Just ask the wing staff whose offices now have shiny new furniture. No kitchen means a reduced service, supplied by a temporary kitchen. This happens to be sited beneath my window and its machinery - cooling? - buzzes away at intervals through the night. One of our meals is now of the airline variety. A sealed plastic effort of three compartments, allegedly comprising types of meat and veg. They are, as you will doubtless know, rubbish. All the inconvenience of air travel without the holiday at the end.

This effects all of us. A decision by the Area Manager effects far fewer but is far more illustrative of managerial attitudes. On a flying visit, the new Area Manager decreed that any prisoner with a laptop must have it removed.

That any of us had laptops takes some explaining... It resulted from a previous governor, a man now embodied in local legend as being the epitome of liberality and common sense. The screws hated him and he was hounded out of his post. But whilst here, he allowed some prisoners to buy laptops (sans modems to connect to the Net, obviously).

As the years passed, policies changed and this was no longer permitted. Those who already had laptops, though, were allowed to keep them. What with natural wastage and transfers, this only added up to a handful by the time of the Area Manager’s visit.

Thousands of pounds worth of equipment was, at two days notice, prized out of our hands. The Governor is now refusing to give compensation. This will, obviously, end up in some court or other. After all, these laptops were bought in good faith and removing them on a whim should result in some compensation.

The Area Manager also wants to squeeze a further 70 prisoners into this prison, taking the population from 196 to 266. As the facilities are already inadequate for the population -insufficient work, for example - then increasing the capacity does not bode well.

Particularly as, in order to squeeze this number into a fixed number of cells, it will mean that the majority of the prison will suddenly find themselves sharing a cell.

I just hope that one way or another, I will be moving on from here in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


The existence of the Lifer is one that is controlled by the whims of others, with endless conversations and meetings taking place behind the scenes.

In one prison the probation officer was wielding an unusual, malign, influence in these meetings. Something had to be done and so it was decided to smuggle in a Bug and spy on these meetings.

Whilst A.N.Other obtained the Bug and smuggled it in to the prison, it was left to me to plant it. Luckily the Bug was small and the meeting was to take place in the wing TV room.

Each morning, this room was dotted with cons who wanted to catch the news before work (this was pre in-cell TV). Sidling up to the TV, perched on a large wooden stand, I turned my back to the room and taped the Bug out of sight, just beneth the TV set.

Sitting at the back of the room, feeling smug, I was baffled when one con started pointing at the TV and shouting "Bomb, there's a bomb". The Bug had worked itself free and was swinging by its flexible aerial underneath the telly.

White as a sheet I shot forwards, replaced it firmly and turned to face the room. "None of you saw anything, right? Right??".

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ancient prison saying

How can you tell when the governor is lying? His lips move...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Witchcraft and Prophesy

Or as the prison and probation services call it, "risk assessments". It is the in-thing, the Holy Grail of penology and a minor Deity before which all must bow, or face heinous penalties. I kid you not, risk assessment is an industry, an aspiration and - frighteningly - an article of faith. And I mean hat in the literal sense, a belief in something which exists sans evidence of its existence.
Of course, no one wants to release a person from a life sentence who can fairly be said remains a risk to the life or limb of others. And there is the central point - how to separate out the dangerous from the benign?

You could visit Gypsy Rose Lee at the local fair. You could toss a coin. Or you could rely upon clinical or actuarial judgements.

The last decade has seen a shift amongst those who decide our futures - prison staff, probation officers and the Parole Board. Prior to this shift, these staff made decisions relating to risk on the basis of personal judgements. Or, as these were fancily termed – ‘clinical assessments’. You observe a person for long enough and his character can be discerned. Is he stable, or not? Safe, or not?
And in the case of Lifers, these judgements were accurate to the tune of about 98%, in terms of released murderers committing a second homicide. Of course, I maintain that personal judgement had bugger all to do with it; murderers rarely kill again because they just aren't like that. Whichever, the reality is that decisions about release were overwhelmingly right.

But then came the introduction of psychologists, offending behaviour courses and managerialism. This deeply toxic mix led to the abandonment of personal judgement in favour of statistical tools which were intended to measure risk. I can safely say that more people have been kept in prison unnecessarily because of these tools than for any other reason, including the incompetence of the parole board and the mendacity of the Ministry.

The most popular of these risk assessment tools rest upon actuarial measures. These are simple in conception. You gather large quantities of biographical data of criminals and see if there are features which can be used to predict re-offending. So if cons who re-offend tend to include a higher than normal proportion of those whose first offence was early in life, then this is a useful predictive item.
The statistically minded amongst you will have noticed the potential problems with actuarial data. It is static. It cannot change. If you committed your first crime aged 17, and this is linked to risk of later offending, then this is unalterable. The statistical model will give you the same odds of re-offending whether you are now 18 or 80.

Actuarial models also fail to note change. You may well have been a teen tearaway but that doesn't mean that you won't develop into a settled, dull, middle aged family man. It's just that the algorithm doesn't see it, literally.
Most importantly, though, is the fact that these models are useless when applied to individuals. It may well be the case that in comparing a million criminals with a million criminals who re-offended, the re-offenders may well have committed their first crime earlier. But you cannot apply this aggregate data to individuals in either group. Actuarial tools measure the relative probabilities between groups, they cannot and do not measure the probabilities of events between the individuals in these groups.

For instance, the actuarial group you are assigned to may give you a 50% chance of re-offending. But you either re-offend, or you don't. You can't re-offend to the tune of 50%.

This may be obvious and yet the prison and probation services use these tools with gay abandon, cheerfully labelling individuals with scores which have the patina of scientific rigour and precision but which are, in reality, utter nonsense.
A closer look at one such tool, the Risk Matrix 2000 which is applied to sex offenders, illustrates this sorry tale perfectly. People flogged by RM2000 as being High Risk have an estimated 36% chance of re-offending. However, unpicking the stats reveals that the score is actually a spread of between 28% and 45%. And extrapolating this to the individual gives a range of between 3% and 91% - that is, utterly meaningless.

The main risk assessment tool is the Offender Assessment System •
OASys. Used by prison and probation, at it's heart is an actuarial statistical algorithm called OGRS3. The OGRS3 rests on a mere 8 pieces of biographical data to churn out its chance of an offender re-offending. You don't need to be statistically literate to raise an eyebrow at that piece of witchcraft.
Worse than the inherent flaws in these risk assessment tools is the manner in which they are deployed. Without any statistical knowledge or understanding, staff deploy the scores generated by OASys against individuals. That is, wholly improperly and without any statistical basis. But if OASys says that a man belongs to a group whose odds of re-offending are 50%, they will always write, "This man has a 50% chance of re-offending...".

And the Parole Board laps it up. These tools are, literally, a new religion that no one dares to question. Their attraction is obvious, in that they offer those in charge of our lives a way to duck personal responsibility or decision making. Now, they just point to the risk assessment to justify their actions.
It is a travesty of monumental proportions, a statistical fraud and it is one of the many weeds which entangle prisoners and obscures their view of a future.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

An Uncertain Future

I spent a while yesterday morning sitting in the yard. The sun was breaking through and the wind was, for once, resting. It seemed peaceful and it relaxed me.

I was readying myself for my parole hearing later that morning and two things struck me. Firstly, that I really should admit that my waist is no longer the slim 34 inches. Even moving the button a little hadn't altered the fact that my trouser waistline was a triumph of optimism over reality.

And secondly, I felt the disjunction between the calm of the day and the fact that in a few hours time my future would be decided. Would I be at home next year? Or would I be wandering the landings for years to come, becoming increasingly hairy and snarly?

I opted to skip lunch, rightly predicting that it would have been interrupted by The Call, hiked across the prison to meet with my barrister and psychologist... and there I must draw a brief veil over the discussions of tactics. There must be some professional secrets. Except to say that we all expected a fairly straightforward hearing. The issues were, we thought, clear: either having a relationship and briefly possessing a phone were major crimes, or not. Open prison, or not.

And then my barrister was called in to confer with the Parole Panel. Three worthies, a male Judge and two female outriders. One an ex probation officer, the other an ex civil servant with the DSS.

Barrister returns some minutes later, not happy bunny, to rain on our little parade. The Panel had decided that they wanted to be furnished with a long list of further information. This stretched all the way back to any comments the Judge made at my trial and any witness statements from my crime; some elaboration of a strange omission in the paperwork from 2002; and a psychological risk assessment. There was more, but memory fails me.

In order to preserve professional decorum I won't reveal the reactions of my barrister and psychologist. I can tell you that I was absolutely livid, blood boilingly furious at this development.

All parties are issued the Dossier of materials months ahead of the hearing and at that stage the parole board are meant to call for any further information that they felt was necessary. But this Panel had failed to do so, leaving it until the big day to wave their list of demands in our faces.

Obviously, the hearing couldn't continue. The Judge made it clear that, without this extra material, the Panel didn't feel able to make a fair decision. In law, though, I could have insisted that they continue. That would have been insane, insisting on a hearing where the Judge had prophesied a poor outcome without this extra paperwork. He had put us in an impossible position - accept that the hearing be abandoned due to their incompetence, or insist they push on having told us that it would end badly if we did. We had to accept the abandonment.

Note that these Judicial demands were not being made of me or my representatives. They were being made on the Prison Service and Ministry of Justice. We were just innocent bystanders, an audience to this theatre of the absurd.

As soon as I have finished writing this, I will begin drafting my complaint to the Chair of the Parole Board. What happened today was a mess and one created by the Panel failing to do their jobs properly and call for this extra material months ago. Because of this incompetence I remain in prison, awaiting a new hearing at some yet to be determined point in the future.

This prison, of course, had to add their portion of ineptitude. It's what they sometimes do. In April, the Judge had directed this prison to have someone from the Security Department attend the hearing as a witness. Guess what? There was no such person lurking in the room. Of the two Security staff in this place, one was in Disneyland and one was on a training course. As the prison had failed to inform the Judge of this ahead of time, then this absence would in itself have ground the hearing to a halt.

I went back to sitting in the yard, contemplating a dismal and uncertain future. The clouds and wind had returned.

Friday, May 7, 2010


From Ed:

Please visit the Facebook site and look at the letter just posted from Ben's barrister to get a full explanation of what happened to Ben on Wednesday and why we so badly need a reform of the system in the this country.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Parole hearing farce

The news so far is that Ben's long delayed parole hearing was abandoned yesterday. From what I know so far, the Board made a huge error which meant the hearing couldn't continue. As more detail comes in I will fill in the gaps, both here and on facebook. When will this farce ever end? - EDITORS NOTE.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ben's Election Broadcast

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any
member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm
to others." - J.S. Mill. Find the nearest party philosophy to that and
vote for liberty!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


It was never my intention to stick my face into the public gaze and begin any sort of campaign, least of all for myself. The point of the blog was to be broadly educational and provocative, Nothing more than that.

That some people have discerned that all is not quite as it should be with my situation is a completely unexpected development. It has led to a couple of strange effects.

There are some, even those who should know better, who remain very guarded about me. The idea that I could be here, 20 years after the end of my tariff, leads them to suspect that there is more to this situation than meets the eye - that I am hiding something.

That is not unfair, I suppose, although journalists and lawyers who know me, my case and my history all agree that my prison career has been free of violence. If there was dirt to be dished, the blogosphere, print media and the Ministry of Justice would have slid it into the public domain by now. But it's not my task to persuade you; you must look at the world and make your own decisions.
I understand, honestly, that delving into the prison system and its bureaucracy is an eye-opener. If you don't ignore it, it can challenge your world-view and undermine whatever faith you have that the world is broadly fair and that government acts in a just and rational way.

Some people still believe in such things, which is quite touching! In a country where our MP's line their pockets and get legal aid to defend themselves; where policemen manhandle, even kill, protestors; where activist- comedians can be detained merely for appearing "over confident"; and where people jailed on fabricated evidence are diagnosed by prison staff as suffering from "delusions of innocence"... In such a nation, that some people still think that the Ministry of Justice, Parole Board and Prison Service act with decency and honesty is, let’s face it, a tad naive.

The Ministry of Justice has ignored the European Court judgement on the prisoners vote for five years; the Parole Board has just admitted that it has been keeping people in prison longer than they should, just to ease media wrath; and the Prison Service has just been hit to the tune of £4M because its staff deliberately obstructed an ambulance trying to attend a severely injured prisoner. And that lot is just this week’s news.

Feel free to view me with suspicion, but please don't do so because you believe that those who rule our lives are doing a decent job. That would be too depressing for words.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Parole Hearing

My hearing on May 5th will, hopefully, recommend again that I move to Open prison. This is not a decision to be taken for granted, though. The Parole Board is prevented from considering my release at this hearing as the Ministry of Justice has only referred me to them to consider the question of Open prison.

All of the reports from prison and probation staff recommend that I move to Open, despite the accusations of a relationship and a phone. For all the bluster about my being anti-authority, obviously I'm doing something right even if it's by accident.
At the hearing, a representative from the Ministry of Justice will make their views known to the Board. By rights this should be given to me and my lawyer several weeks before the hearing, giving us an opportunity to marshal counter-arguments. The Ministry has such contempt for the procedure, though, that they will only reveal their view on the day of the hearing.

And this reveals the interesting twist. The Ministry refers me to the Board for their advice on whether I should move to Open. The Ministry then presents its view to the Panel. The Panel then makes its recommendations - to the Ministry. And if the Ministry doesn't like it, it can ignore it. Some may suggest that this process is rather loaded in favour of the Ministry...

This is the trap. The Parole Board could order my release one day and the Ministry must comply. But the Board won't do so until I have been to Open prison. And the decision to move me to Open rests with the Ministry. So whilst the Ministry points to the Parole Board as being the final arbiter in these matters, the reality is that the Ministry can - and does - interfere and scupper the Parole Board.
At this hearing, I fully expect the Ministry to oppose my move to Open. Despite six previous recommendations from the Board for Open, stretching back to 1995, the Ministry has always opposed it. Every damn time.

Despite this opposition, I hope that the Board will side with me and prison staff and recommend Open. The decision will then return to the Ministry. Despite opposing my moving to Open last year, I expect them to accept the Parole Board’s recommendation. Just to add to the confusion, though, the Ministry can ignore whatever the Parole Board recommends and move me to Open regardless.

Simple, innit? Perhaps now you will appreciate why I go through life feeling pretty frustrated! And why I look askance at those who retain some faith in this insane bureaucracy.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Recent events in a Northern prison - three screws stabbed, one infamous con slashed - remind me of the malign ingenuity of prisoners when it comes to making weapons. Or as we call them 'tools', as in 'tooled up'.

The 'standard' weapons are tins of tuna in a sock - a weighty bludgeoning tool - and a razor blade melted into the handle of a toothbrush.

Even these reveal shifts in the culture of prison over the years. The standard tool for decades was a PP9 battery in a sock, a fearsome item that could stun you quickly. But the introduction of electricity and the resulting unavailability of such large batteries has seen a shift to another ubiquitous item, tins of tuna.

Of course, there isn't much that can't be turned into a weapon in extremis. If it is metal, glass or hard plastic then it can be heated, beaten or shaped into a stabbing or cutting implement. Just about my person as I write there are numerous potential weapons. The arms of my specs can be used to stab; the lenses can be broken to slice; the lighter in my pocket has a metal rim, usually used as an all-purpose screwdriver but could be sharpened to cut; and my tobacco tin, made of two pieces of steel, can conceivably be sharpened.

Depending on how desperate the individual, how extreme the circumstances, and how malign the imagination then there is little that can't be turned into a weapon.
This has always taxed the brains of my keepers and, in particular, the decrepit neuron that powers the Prison Officers Association. In the recent attack oop North, one of their members lost the use of his arm. The assault seemed to have been carried out with a broken bottle, possibly of the sauce variety.

Their response was their default, thoughtless one - to remove all glass objects from the list of items we may buy. Coffee and sauces are the main items. They also demanded that the prison be locked-down for days whilst they searched for other 'weapons' and then made a vote of No Confidence in the Governor.

It may surprise some people that we have access to the likes of glass coffee jars and bottles of HP. Why, I wonder? Is it assumed that prisoners are a seething mass of animal urges, that the only reason that we are not attacking staff and each other in a, perpetual bloodbath is for want of a weapon of any kind?

It may disappoint those raised on a diet of American prison movies, but it just isn't like that. Oddly enough, most of us potter through the days un-frustrated at our inability to slaughter the neighbours.

The POA claim an expertise amongst their members, borne out of their daily contact with prisoners. Alas, their view of us is as clouded as that of the most rabid tabloid newspaper. They really don't have a clue, preferring to portray us as barely restrained animals. And yet, in this place, where most of my peers are murderers, there may be just one single punch-up a year.

Take away the glass jars, then. Will that make a whit's worth of difference? Of course not. The next attack on staff would then come from a razor blade. So take away the razors? Then the tinned goods. Then any bludgeons, like furniture, chairs, tables...

People don't attack each other because they have a handy weapon. The weapon is merely their means to fulfil some chosen end. The question is, why choose to attack staff in such a way?

I recall the screws down the Block in Dartmoor taking it upon themselves to ensure that we had nothing that could remotely be used as a weapon. No beds, no chair, nothing metal at all. Why such extremism? Because they were bloodily and deliberately brutal and it's far safer to punch a con in the mouth when you have lots of other screws with you - and when you know the con has no weapons to even the score.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Reading Comments

I have spent a few hours re-reading the comments left both here and at other places on the web. Not a comprehensive search, just the main ones the Editor had the time to find, print and send to me. I was hoping that the passage of time may allow me to discern some pearls of wisdom in comments that I had previously overlooked.

Three things immediately struck me. Firstly, that those of you who leave comments responding to my posts here are a very reasonable and thoughtful bunch. Secondly, that this is unusual I A shocking proportion of comments left elsewhere were bereft of any actual thought, just reiterations of bile. It seems that the Web has persuaded a lot of people that they have something to say, when the reality is that they don't. It is rare to read such a collection of asinine, trite, moronic drivel and if the Web did not exist then I think these people would be the ones huddled in the corner of the pub, nursing a single pint all night, randomly spouting alarming comments that saw other patrons look at them in silent pity. Note to the World - just because you have an opinion, it doesn't mean you need to share it and it certainly doesn't mean that all opinions are equally valid. Think before you Send.

Thirdly, it is surprising how it is that inserting 'prison’ into any argument provokes even the brightest of people to check out from their wits and begin to spout utter drivel. One of the first responses to my blogging were the comments left responding to a post by Iain Dale. As this is a Big Important Blog, I expected the comments to be considered and insightful. In fairness, apart from commenters on my Blog, they were the best of the bunch. Even so, a remarkable number revealed crashing ignorance by basing their whine on the 'fact' that I have direct internet access. Doh!

Is it standard practice on the Web to comment on matters of which you know bugger all? Why is that acceptable? Reading some of the comments was like observing a child intruding into an adult conversation - it was rude, silly and slightly embarrassing. And yet people did it in droves.

The blog that took the time to criticise me first was Letter From A Tory (LFAT). Assuming that this person has some standing in the political firmament, reading his post on why I shouldn't blog was quite depressing and frustrating. He dismissed my arguments as to why I should blog out of hand and substituted his own reasoning. And in doing so, revealed a profound ignorance. LFAT complained that prison should focus on punishment, therefore I shouldn't be allowed to blog. This is to completely fail to realise that my punishment ended at the expiry of my tariff, that is twenty years ago! Which brings me back to the question - why do people feel the urge to comment on matters of which they know nothing? Why risk the embarrassment of revealing ignorance on the Web, when you wouldn't dream of doing so in face-to-face conversation?

LFAT also makes a mistake that is incredibly common amongst those who commented upon my Guardian Comment if Free pieces. This is, that they confuse imprisonment as a loss of 'liberty' with imprisonment being a loss of 'liberties'.

The punishment is the loss of physical liberty. In a famous judgement of a bygone era, Raymond V Honey, it was explicitly laid down that prisoners retain their our civic rights except those explicitly removed by law or by necessary implication. That is, we do not, as prisoners, lose all of our liberties, only our liberty. This may come as a disappointment to one commenter at LFAT, who argued that I shouldn't even be allowed to write letters as this expressed an 'intellectual liberty’. Fancy arguing from a logical fallacy that a child may make. Another lost soul with a keyboard and VDU who just couldn't be bothered researching the topic before stunning the Web with his dumb comments.

This may sound rather harsh. It is and I mean it to be. I am used to dealing with a rather more sophisticated level of debate, based on civility and knowledge rather than random spontaneous utterances. I expected better, to be honest, from people who have the knowledge of the Web at their fingertips. Perhaps I expect too much, hoping that people will be guided by knowledge rather than wayward instinct. Seems I was wrong.

I expected the most from the commenters at the Guardian online and it is with those that I am most disappointed. The quality of the comments undermined any idea that Guardian readers were well-informed.

Please understand that I'm not complaining that people disagree with me, the more the merrier in that respect. My disappointment and frustration arises from the quality of what people were passing off as 'reasoning’.

Is the level of public debate being degraded by the Web? It was once the case that only people with knowledge and bravery put themselves up before the mob. Now, anybody and everybody feels able to do so. This may seem wonderfully egalitarian but it misses an important ingredient - ridicule and reputation. In the past, these acted as filters to deter the witless from sticking their heads above the parapet. But people seem to enjoy all of the benefits of the Web - i.e. a public voice - without any of the downsides. And without taking advantage of the heart of the Web its breadth of knowledge. There is no longer any excuse for ignorance before posting a comment.

I hope I am wrong. Once I have direct access to the net then I hope that I will be stunned and delighted by the quality of the debate, that the idea of the web raising levels of knowledge is not a false one. After all, the direction our future civilisation takes will be guided by the web, and if people treat it as a mere public megaphone whilst ignoring its ability to be an endless university then we risk a future which is both extremely loud and decidedly stupid.

I'm just glad that I have excellent comments posted on this blog.