Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Association of Prisoners - National Campaign Launch

We all know that dealing with PSHQ is task for the unwitting and dim-witted. They are a slippery bunch at the best of times. But PSHQ has been causing the Executive Committee of the AoP a headache for the last year and that has meant that we have been grappling to see the best way forward.

After much drinking of tea and several ounces of Old H being consumed in endless little meetings, we have a solution to the problem. Did I mention the problem? Oh, well... When the AoP was first founded by John Hirst, Pete Smith, John Coyne and others the PS accepted the legal reality - they just couldn't stop it happening. For the first time in British penal history, HQ had to find a means of dealing with organising prisoners that didn't involve harassment or brutality. And so lines of negotiations were opened and it looked as if the PS were going to be sensible, just for once.

But no. Obviously. They then put out PSO 4480, which told governors that they could ignore us. It also created the stumbling block that has had us scratching our heads for the last year. The PS claims that we cannot have a national association, because prisoners just don't have enough common interests.

We hummed. We ahaad. We smoked, drank, argued and banged our heads off many brick walls. Until we found this solution - ignore HQ.

We don't care what HQ says. It's as simple as that. Article 11 of the ECHR says we can have an association and so we damn well will. Of course HQ doesn't want to see that happen; they have always hated the idea of cons having any sort of voice, let alone an organised one. Well, tough. We are here and here we stay.

We have written to the DG to tell him that we are going national, recruiting members and encouraging prisoners across the country to set up branches in their prison.

Instead of us wondering how to deal with HQ, we decided to act and then let HQ decide how to deal with us. And we expect a bit of grumbling, a bit of fancy footwork, and we won't be surprised if they formally ban the AoP. We would welcome the legal fight -that way we can get them into court and skewer them properly.
The idea that prisoners don't have common interests is barking mad. Whilst prisoners come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, colours and creeds, genital arrangements and so on, we all share common burdens. We are all prisoners.

The PS is a national service, not a loose collective of individual fiefdoms. We all live by the Prison Rules and Prison Service Orders. These instruments increase the weight and depth of the burdens felt by every prisoner no matter in what location or category. When the Minister of Justice has a bad day, we all feel the consequences.

That the only, the best, argument that HQ has against the AoP is a claim that prisoners don't have common interests only reveals the desperate corner that they are in. They don't get to decide if prisoners have common interests - prisoners get to decide that. They cannot stop cons organising; that is the law. As long as we don't go around trying to overthrow the system, if they ban us then they will face the legal consequences.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"I'm Spartacus”. “ No, I am Spartacus..."

The jokes, whimsy, anger, bitterness and bafflement that together comprise my posts tend to obscure the fact that I am a deeply political animal.

I often see this as a genetic curse; I am a carrier of the "martyr gene". It is all too easy for me to take a stand and go down struggling, regardless of the detrimental consequences. Pragmatism is a philosophy that I have always tried to understand but largely failed.

This is why I have spent so long in prison. I deliberate, decide whether something is right or wrong, then stick to my course. It is a moral imperative to try to do what is right, no? Granted, I should have done this before I killed my victim but I wasn't one of those precocious 14 year olds who appreciated the finer points of political or moral philosophy. That I came to it several months too late is a strong motivation as to why I have adopted such a hard line on these matters ever since.

It is both a liberator and a curse. It liberates, because for much of my life I have felt able to act in the way I thought was right with little concern for whether it would cost me in terms of physical comfort or earlier release. After all, a principle is hardly that if it is abandoned at the first whiff of difficulty.
It has helped that I am blessed, by coincidence, by a broad indifference for authority. A person may have a truncheon, handcuffs and the power of the State behind him, but that doesn't impress me one iota. Never has. I talk to Governors as I do my peers; probably with less respect..

And this is a curse, because if I see something wrong then I feel compelled to intervene. No deliberate choice has to be made here, it is my default position. If a screw, a Governor, some random stupid order is being used to beat down a fellow con then my support can be taken for granted.

Being in an institution based utterly on power, you will appreciate that any prisoner who fails to be overwhelmed by that power and who may stick his head above the parapet to point out wrongdoing is a prisoner who will spend a long time in confinement. And for no reason, really, other than the institution's unthinking urge to destroy. A prisoner who fails to show obeisance before the Leviathan is a provocation and one that cannot be allowed.

When people ask why I am still in prison, I recall a Governor who once furiously screamed in my face, " We will let you go when we have broken you." That was 21 years ago.

Which, bear with me here, brings me to the Prisoner's Union...

Monday, June 28, 2010

People Pressure

One of the joys that has come from my studies over the years is a recognition that people - just like you or I - can cause momentous shifts in established structures of power.

This is why I have a picture of Gandhi on my picture-board, stuck between erotic greetings cards. Not company he'd expect, but there you are... A skinny little bugger with an iron will who managed to defy and defeat the guns of the British Empire, without firing a shot. As Gandhi pointed out, if the people simply say 'No', then without their co-operation nothing can move forward.

The revolutions of the eastern European States were largely bloodless, as these things go, again revealing the nascent power of ordinary people who refuse to be squeezed. In quiet moments of individual decision and resolve, people decided to say, 'no'. And the structures of power crumbled.

And so I can appreciate why the Prison Service has always been very afraid of prisoners organising in any way. Our keepers appreciate that prisons (like Governments) can only function with the cooperation of the prisoners.

This is an understanding that prisoners have persistently failed to grasp. When buried beneath a pyramid of power made of concrete and steel, it can be difficult to appreciate that one has a latent power.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Censorship and Lies

Or, another normal day for the prison service and Ministry of Justice. Honestly, how can they even read that sign without chuckling? Even Orwell would find that too Orwellian.

After the row last year when the MoJ tried to shut me down and I refused to budge, I had hoped that the issue of prisoners getting their voices heard was settled. News has been trickling in, though, that demonstrates that the MoJ and prison service are quietly going to extreme lengths to crush our voice boxes.

One event which hit the papers was a con called Colin Gunn (no relation) and his Facebook page. The papers claimed that he was using it to threaten people outside, hinting that he was using an illegal mobile to post items. As ever, Jack Straw dived straight in and didn't even bother to get the facts. Colin had his Facebook account shut down.

The truth is duller, but slightly more embarrassing for the prison service. Colin asked for, and was given, permission from his Governor to post material out for friends to upload. Colin is a Category A prisoner and all of his mail and phone calls are censored. So if he posted out threats, prison staff missed them, i.e. were not doing their job. As Colin has it, though, the quotes in the media were decidedly partial and out of context. Everything he posted was given the official okay.

But as soon as the media got the story, the prison kidnapped Colin and threw him in the punishment block. Official permission or not, they were not going to be embarrassed and so take their vengeance on the nearest available target - Colin. Since that moment, he has been shifted twice, lights and sirens screaming, between prisons and the last I heard was in a London. And they haven't connected him to an illegal mobile phone.

As we share a barrister I have every faith that Colin will win his right to Facebook, one step removed. But in the meantime, he remains in the dungeons. I have also heard of three other people having their material stopped from leaving the prison for the web. Two are prisoners campaigning for their innocence (and anyone who believes there are no innocent people in prison is a moron). These men have been campaigning for years, one for decades and with the help of their supporters have maintained websites detailing their claims. All of a sudden, though, the prison service is leaning on them to sign undertakings that they will not send out material for the web and blocking their communications with friends and family.

As this is popping up across the country, it's safe for me to assume that this is a Ministry of Justice ploy. Having being thrust into the public eye by attempting to ban me, they are resorting to more devious and hidden tactics.

And I must apologise to these other prisoners. It seems that my publicity rocked the boat. The MoJ seemed happy to have material from prisoners on the web, as long as no one noticed it was there. Having my cherubic mug plastered across the Guardian's pages is a different order of profile and one that the MoJ are very afraid may lead to something.

Why are they so afraid of prisoners speaking? I appreciate that there are many people who don't want to read anything we say, victims included. So don't read it.. But this is a deeper fear, not just distaste, emanating from the prison service and Ministry. They are afraid because if prisoners’ voices became a constant in public, then you may learn.

You may learn what a rotten, pointless enterprise that prison is. You may learn that prisoners are not a seething mass of shaven headed, thick necked scum. You may learn that what the State does on your behalf is at best wasteful and at worst, repugnant.

And in an effort to prevent you learning, my fellow prisoners are being severely leaned on. It wouldn't surprise me if they came back for another attempt to shut me down. In which case, the Editor will let you know instantly and loudly. Meanwhile, I will pass on any news about this covert and illegal campaign being waged by the Ministry of Justice.

Bitching from a Backwater

Today is one of those days when I feel compelled to grab you by the collar and talk endlessly, like some Ancient Prisoner boring the pants off the passers-by.

Why? Because I need to tell you, quite forcefully, that what I tell you in my posts is but a glance at prison life, a brief dip into the shallowest pools of experience.
I can do no other but share my (mostly) contemporary experiences, and it continually haunts me that most prisoners do not get to share their experiences with the wider world. In particular, those in the high security prisons where the weight of confinement bears down the hardest and most sharply.

My voice can never be more than that. Whilst I can point to stupidities and injustices across the prison system, it can never be my place to claim some over-arching authoritative voice. You hear mine only because it is one of very few available. The voices of those who could more personally speak of contemporary harsh experiences are silent - and silenced.

And so the wider world relies on the media. The secret about the mainstream media is that they are, broadly, incredibly lazy. They will cut and paste Reuters stories, nick material from other news sources and cheerfully rehash press releases. But do they dig? Do they ask informed questions?

And so you are served up partial, half baked stories about prison, quoting the usual suspects. Very often the idiots in charge of the Prison Officers Association get their face into the story. Journalists tend to forget, or don't care, that the POA is a union and it has an agenda. It spins like a whirling Dervish on speed. As a basic mix of ingredients for a story goes, this guarantees a pile of crap being served up as if it’s a Heston Blumenthal masterpiece. And the unknowing wider world eats heartily of it.

My morose, angry and somewhat bitter mood has been prompted by news reaching me about developments in the Segregation Unit at Frankland prison. It is a situation that cries out for the prisoners voices to be heard, preferably via the web.
Frankland hit the news recently due to three screws being stabbed. It seems that a lot of staff are being assaulted by cons in that punishment block. Oddly, a high number of these attacks are, it is alleged, being conducted by Black or other minority prisoners.

The events at Frankland are much the case of "he said, she said". The screws claim they are being assaulted. The cons claim that the screws are beating them. The problem with Blocks is that the numbers are wholly on the screws side. With cons only being unlocked one at a time and escorted by up to eight screws, who in their right mind will take a swing? The odd madman I can accept but it seems that Frankland's Block is chocked with an improbably high proportion of insane cons who just want the crap kicked out of them.

Trust me here, please. My experience of Blocks is that cons rarely swing for screws, let alone when a certain kicking is the response. Only under extreme provocation does this happen. Conversely, block screws bullying their charges is a constant. It always has happened and it always will - unless strong measures are taken to prevent it. They rarely are.

In this situation, the cons can't win. If a screw assaults a con, the screws cover their back by accusing the con of assaulting them. It's the word of half a dozen screws against one con. And so the mainstream media and the POA rehash stories of mindlessly violent cons and you, who pays the bill for all of this, never find out any different.

There is one immediate solution. The watchdog body, the Independent Monitoring Board, could park one of their members in that Block, 24 hours a day. They have, by law, unfettered access to any part of the prison. Then, if the number of assaults allegedly made by cons drops, it proves the point. After all, a mad, violent con isn't to be deterred by a civilian watching. But on the other hand, violent screws just may be.

So, Frankland IMB, are you willing to grow a spine and do your job? Or are you going to remain, as ever, in the pocket of the institution?

Apologies for the angry tone of this post, but the unchallenged rottenness endemic in prisons occasionally gets to me.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Well I Never

A month in office, and the new Government has yet to introduce a
stupid, knee-jerk policy related to prisons. A record?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Oh, diddums...

People knock on my door to ask for some piece of information, or to ask that I help with some of the blizzard of paperwork that wallpapers a Life sentence.

One of these is the official complaints process. There are three forms, including appeals processes, and wording complaints can be an art. After all, the recipient will wriggle out of responsibility given any opportunity (or none). And I enjoy helping people fight their corner.

In recent days, two people I have written complaints for have been badgered by three different Governors. Their universal whine from these managers is that I word the forms with some sarcasm or level of assertion.

Well, Doh! That's why people come to me in the first place, because by the time they are reaching for an official complaint form, they have already been given a long run-around by staff.

And so they want to make their complaints in a manner which reflects their frustration and anger with the failings of staff. Nothing abusive, you understand, but worded in such a way as to leave no doubt as to which idiocy needs to be remedied. Just as I write here, in fact. This is a tone staff don't like!

I think that these Governors suffer from an old prison disease, one that afflicts all staff. They just cannot accept that staff may be wrong or that a policy is idiotic. In their Universe, such things are just not possible.

And so a complaint from a prisoner is automatically viewed as being illegitimate. A complaint written without a suitable level of obsequiousness is to present them with an outrage.

But here's an idea. Governors, stop crying over the fact that some cons are pissed off. Instead, take the time to ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, the con may be right.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New Government, Old Spin

According to the media, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has given Britain until the elections in Scotland and Wales next year to comply with the European Court judgement on the Prisoners' Vote.

That's not what the Committee said at all. The media happily and lazily went with the Ministry of Justice press release. Had they bothered to do their jobs, they would have realised that the Committee was extremely grumpy about the UK ignoring the Court for 5 years and gave Britain 3 months to sort this mess out.

A shiny new Government has already picked up old political habits - if you lie insistently enough, it becomes the accepted truth.

Just to ram home the point that prisoners are in the right on this, a bunch of us here are applying to the European Court for compensation, having being denied the chance to vote in May.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


The setting of the tariff period of a Life sentence is an exercise in placing a numerical value on the life of the victim. The tariff comprises the deterrence and retribution part of the Life sentence.

This has never sat comfortably with me. My tariff of ten years reflected my age as much as any quality of my victim. Today, in the same circumstances, the tariff would be pretty much the same.

And yet, as the news reports that the killer of Sarah Payne has a tariff reduction to 40 years (down from 50), I can't help but wonder about the value of human life. Or, rather, the value that society collectively assigns to life.

Over the past few years I have sat, baffled, as a series of hospitals have killed thousands of people through negligence and ineptitude. I'm baffled as no one has ever been held responsible for these deaths. It seems that society is reasonably comfortable with such deaths being marked by someone symbolically resigning, to take a pay-off and pension and promptly get employed elsewhere in the field.

And yet one man kills a pretty, white, blue-eyed blonde girl with a vocal, determined mother and the criminal justice system undergoes paroxysms of change.

Why, I can't stop wondering, are some lives more valued by society than others? Why is a stabbing outside a pub worthy of acres of print and buckets of outrage, when mass homicide on an institutional level is shrugged off?

Friday, June 18, 2010


After the shambles that masqueraded as my last parole hearing, I made a formal complaint to the Parole Board about the conduct of the Judge who chaired the proceedings. As I allege, it was his inefficiency that led to the hearing being abandoned.

That letter was posted a month ago. According to the Parole Boards timetable for dealing with complaints, the matter should have been dealt with by now.

And yet all I have heard is a resounding silence. Not a single peep has emanated from the Board, not even an acknowledgement. This suggests two possibilities. One is that my letter failed to leave the prison. It is not unknown for letters which are problematic to 'go astray'.

The other possibility is that the Parole Board are in such a shambles that they can't even deal with complaints made about that shambles. Oh, the irony.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


At the end of the Reception assessment I was moved round the corner of the corridor to Unit 2 - "Cairngorm". Whilst the same BM regime applied there was a dilution of the overwhelming attention from staff. With about a dozen prisoners the staff to prisoner ratio did not allow for such personal attention as listening to every word I spoke.

Free from the strange constraints of the prison regime, I was able to mentally relax and begin to reflect upon what I had done to find myself in this situation. The carapace that I had to construct - internally as well as projected to others - whilst in prison became irrelevant to this new circumstance. My original Self began to resurface.

The shock that I had initially felt when I killed my friend returned, accompanied by nightmares and a deep feeling of revulsion. I began to pick up the threads of thought - how could I have done this thing? Being fifteen and desperate for some sort of certainty, my emotions became an obvious suspect. It followed that if I had killed because of an emotional outburst, then emotions must be bad. Star Trek aficionados will see the parallel with the Vulcan belief system here... I determined to suppress my emotions. Such a simplistic solution had an appeal that I couldn't resist or de-construct into something more complex. The chain of reasoning was utterly clear - I had killed due to being overwhelmed by emotions; I must not kill again; therefore I must destroy my emotions.

It was a fraught year. The enterprise of re-engineering my psyche in an effort to render myself 'safe' was a journey which I was ill-equipped to either understand or conduct. Each eking moment was one where I was attempting to discern my emotions, and crushing them. It was pointless and frustrating, and possibly took me to the edge of madness.

A single, short book rescued me from this folly - Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. A collection of koans from the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism. They resonated with something indefinable within me. Seeing my interest, staff arranged for a local lay Buddhist to visit me and I began my practice of zazen - sitting meditation. This was a far more sensible path to resolve the knots that twisted my mind. Emotions and thoughts inevitably arise; but one does not have to latch on to them and be carried by them.

This sense of concentrated detachment was one that I practised, with varying degrees of zealousness, for some fifteen years. It gave me a control over my emotions that I craved. To this day prison psychologists look baffled when I explain how I deal with anger - I just 'let it go'. Simple.

Having being given this new opportunity, a toe-hold on dealing with my emotions, a new fear began to grip me. This was intensified by the fact that I was an adolescent amongst other male adolescents, giving rise to a fragile and nervous masculinity that often threatened violence. I was afraid that I would get into a fight, and that I would accidentally kill someone by a random blow to some sensitive, lethal point.

This was irrational. The human body is remarkably resilient and many years of prison violence amongst men has shown me that fights rarely end in any significant damage to either party, such was my fear of -killing again, though, that this became a real and daily worry.

Who would teach a murderer Karate? I doubt it was a policy decision taken in some boardroom; more likely a very local decision taken in the pub. What the hell, why not...? And so one of the staff began to instruct me in Shotokan Karate, a muscular, linear style of great dynamic power. Never having being physically adept at anything, and loathing team sports to this day, I took to this regime with vigour. I loved it; and it gave me enough ability to reassure myself that if I did ever inflict damage upon another person, it would be deliberate and no more than was necessary.

Slowly, and not always consciously, the building blocks of my future development were being embedded. A revulsion of violence, the ability to accept and not be overwhelmed by emotions, some small confidence was growing that I was rendering myself 'safe'.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Life Re-moulded

How should society respond to a 14 year old murderer? Having convicted me and left me loitering around the remand centre for six months, I was whisked away - 'allocated'.

Youth Treatment Centres were run jointly by the Home Office and DHSS and staffed with social workers and psychologists rather than prison staff. Glenthorne YTC had fearsome levels of procedural security and control, but had the appearance of a large modern children’s home. Tucked in the suburbs of Birmingham, only the 18 foot security fence differentiated it from its surroundings.

Unknown to me, my trial Judge had written to the Home Office to suggest that I serve ten years of my life sentence. What moral balance, what weighing of my life against my victims, produced that number? This is the essential difficulty with murder - it is unalterably final. What punishment is fitting for that crime? The obvious and populist answer is that the murderer should forfeit his own life. This sits quite easily on the lips but in reality misses great chunks of reasoning. The answer can only be discerned when another question has been asked and answered - what is the purpose of the punishment?

In my case, I was sentenced under a law which no longer exists - the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933. The date is slightly comforting, it reassures us that serious crime by the young is not a modern phenomena. This Act is explicit in its intent that, whilst punishment is inherent in the sentence, that sentence should also attempt to be reformative. This affords some special status to children, an acknowledgement that we are not fully formed and so capable of change. Children are redeemable in the view of 1933; this patina of decency broke down on the streets of Liverpool in 1992 as grown men charged at police vehicles carrying two ten year old murderers. The post-Bulger legal outlook shifted to reflect the populist punitiveness encouraged by Michael Howard. In the name of elevating the special status of children, that special status of children was undermined.

The existence of the YTC's suggests that at some policy making level a deliberate decision was made, after careful consideration, that young murderers were salvageable. My life was not to be written off. Not that I had any clue of this. Approaching a year after the crime, I had still not had any information about my sentence or what it “meant". As far as I was concerned, “life meant life”, although I assumed that I would be released at some point. Not that I was concerned; long term thinking isn't the preoccupation of teenagers.

Internally, it contrasted with prison. Where prison had sharp, hard edges, Glenthorne has rounded yielding ones. The furniture was foam, the doors were wood. No staff uniforms, although each had keys and a radio. In this way the physical security was less oppressive and obvious. The procedural security, the way it was run, was much more intrusive than prison. Whereas in prison I was left alone for hour after hour, at Glenthorne I was almost constantly monitored. Each ten minutes, staff physically checked my presence. I could be in the bath or on the loo - they still looked in. The depth of control was near absolute, down to the number of slices of toast I could have for breakfast.

This flowed from the nature of the regime. Whereas prison didn't actually try to do anything with us, Glenthorne's explicit aim was to change its captives. To this end, it ran a regime based on behaviour modification - I became one of Pavlov's dogs, being prompted to salivate at the merest whiff of a positive or negative reinforcement. That's punishment and reward to the psychologically untrained.

Daily life was turned on its head. Whereas in prison the majority of time was spent in forced isolation, at YTC it was spend in forced society. From breakfast time onwards we were held in the lounge, all doors leading away being locked. With a 1 to 1 staff-prisoner ratio, we were observed keenly and unremittingly. This extended to staff physically inserting themselves on the seating between us when we were talking to each other. Barely a moment passed that could be called 'private'. These were islands comprising short seconds of time; turning a corner, for instance, where staff were a few feet behind. This was often more difficult than sitting alone in a cell for 23 hours a day.

The main structured intervention in our lives was the 'token economy'. This was a system previously used most often to regulate the behaviour of severe schizophrenics. Nice... It was a simple system. We were allowed nothing unless we could buy it with tokens. Tokens were points earned through achieving behavioural targets. Points were awarded by staff at the end of each hour. At the start of each day we were issued our scorecards, listing our targets, and each hour we had to present these to staff to be marked. See, simple.

And demeaning. It was being perpetually judged like a child. That I had killed someone didn't mean that I needed to be awarded points for getting out of bed, washing and dressing. Points couldn't be earned until the end of the first hour of the day and so we didn't have any to spend at breakfast - we had to buy an extra slice of toast, a second cup of tea. To turn on our own radio, to watch TV, even to put posters up in our own room - even access to that room - all of these had to be bought with these phantom points.

As per the strictures of Skinner and Watson, this was behaviour modification with a vengeance. A moment by moment reckoning, an attempt to make us behave precisely as staff prescribed. As a murderer, one would imagine some grand target, probably based around violent behaviour, that would guide the daily assessment of my life. One would be wrong. My target was to increase my level of eye-contact during conversations. And as the following 28 years revealed, standing up and looking my keepers in the eye is not the benefit Glenthorne believed it to be.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Shiny Toilet Paper

My first cell was on the top floor of the hospital wing, facing across the front lawn towards the Gatehouse. This may have been because of my age, a governor tucking me away out of sight; Or it may have been the operation of the practice of the day, which was to put murder-remands on the hospital wing for some time. A large proportion of suicides are comprised of those charged with murder.

The cell contained what I would learn are the furniture staples - a metal bed, one chair, one locker, one plastic pisspot. A large room, ten feet in length, maybe six wide, and the window was thankfully tall. Barred, made of a metal lattice that contained small squares of glass. The door, like most hospital doors, contained a barred hatch which opened and closed with the temperament of the screw on duty. The cell was one of a row of half a dozen, one being a padded cell. Opposite was the Recess, the communal loo with slop-out sluice and bath.

Without realising it in the moment, each of these steps in the process - from entering the gatehouse to the shutting of the first cell door - shrank my horizons. Emotionally, I was severed from my previous existence by the shock of what I had done. Mentally, nothing outside of the perimeter fence entered my head. Physically, my eyes began to adjust to the reality of focusing only as far as the next locked gate.

Within the hour I had been swept up and dropped in another prison. The woman governor came to my cell and told me that she wasn't prepared to hold me in her prison because of my age and I was moved up the road to a large city centre local nick for adults. Avoiding Reception, I was allocated directly to the hospital and placed in a strip cell. This is an empty concrete box, a canvas blanket on the floor as a bed, a pisspot, and given a tear-proof canvas smock to wear. Within a few hours the hospital cleaner was opening the hatch in my door, trying to persuade me to expose myself for cigarettes.

I was left alone for a few of days, banged up 24 hours a day. Each evening a screw would come to the hatch and offer me a sleeping draught, which I always declined. Did they honestly believe that Largactyl would expunge the turmoil of guilt and confusion?

My age must have caused some minor problems, even if isolating me in a strip cell wasn't one that troubled the bureaucratic mind. They were obliged to ensure I receive a minimum number of hours of education and so for an hour or so each day a table was placed across the doorway of the strip cell, and a teacher sat on the outside. I sat there, dressed in my canvas smock - "monkey suit" - pretending to care. Not a single word or image from those sessions comes to my mind.

If only I had realised at the time, this situation held a profound insight into Prison Service mentality. It was illegal to hold a juvenile in that prison; it was unlawful to throw me in a strip cell. But despite this entire disregard for law, they took the time to ensure they complied with the Education Act. Perhaps all total institutions have this schizophrenia. After all, many of the people murdered at Auschwitz had a properly prepared death certificates, all nice and legal. Perhaps the bureaucratic mentality has a universal character, inevitably stripping away the humanity of the individuals who comprise the cogs in the machine.

After a few days, I was returned to the remand centre and back to the initial cell. At least I had clothing, a bed and a window. The rhythm of the day was simple and repetitive but contained no solace or barrier against its reality. A light was set into the wall next to the bed, and was left burning all night. At 7.30 we were awoken by a screw slamming the bolt on the door. Then slop-out; carrying the pisspot to the recess (communal toilet) opposite my cell to empty. Breakfast of porridge and toast was slid, vertically, through the barred hatch. Then you sit and wait.

For what? An empty room contains few diversions. For the next meal, the next head-count, the next... anything. In our case, it was waiting for the screws to switch on the radio. Being the hospital wing, a concession to infirmity was made by having a radio speaker set in the wall above the door. A single radio station was piped through from the control box in the office downstairs. Depending on age and interest, the day was made lighter or heavier by which station the screws selected - Radio 1 or Radio 2. At the other end of the day, huge anticipation was generated by the opening bars of the introduction to the John Peel programme. The radio was meant to be turned off at 10pm, and so if we heard the complete introduction it meant that the night patrol were doing us a real favour in leaving it on for an extra hour or so.

Such are the tiny events that become significant in the barren wasteland of confinement.

Life Story

Ben has asked me to put some extracts from what will eventually become his biography on the blog, to answer questions raised by people curious about his early years in prison. Over the next few days I shall post a selection of stories from Ben's early experiences behind bars.

blog Ed

Monday, June 14, 2010


One of my peers wandered into my cell the other day and raised the question as to whether he should begin a blog of his own.

As his knowledge of blogs and blogging was essentially zero, I had to explain not only the concept but the practicalities and consequences. In doing so, it made me think about the whole enterprise. And what I told him was:

Blogging is not for introverts. Obviously. But it has the added twist for a blogging prisoner of stripping away anonymity and the possibility of future obscurity. Most Lifers leave prison and essentially vanish, there are very few who ever intrude into the public domain. This is their choice. In blogging, though, that choice is limited. As the Web never forgets, for the rest of my days anyone can Google me and find my background. Even if I wished to retire from the public arena, a shadow of who I am remains scattered across the internet.

And so my strong recommendation to my peer was to think very carefully about what future he was planning for. If he desired obscurity then he shouldn't blog. Even with the strongest efforts at anonymity, there are those who will slowly and persistently piece together disparate fragments of information until the real identity is laid bare. The experience of Erwin James if a reminder of this. And so even attempting to blog anonymously is not a path to be chosen by the reticent.

Not only is identity for ever placed into the public gaze, but one's statements. Already, something I wrote several years ago which ended up on the Web has been used against me in one specific debate. Always remember, the Web never forgets. And an interesting Blog must, by definition, occasionally push the boundaries of thought, politics or morality and so be a source of quotes ready to be recycled by some future opponent.

Consistent output is also expected. A blog, I realise, is a commitment made to the readers and one that must be taken seriously. It was always my intention to produce one post a day with rare exceptions, I am glad to have been able to maintain that output. A mere single piece a day sounds quite simple, a matter of a few moments work. It isn't... As my blog is comprised of my original content, no guests, no posting news, then it means that I have to think of something new each and every day which I feel may be of interest to readers. I notice that I have produced nearly a novel’s worth of wordage by now and not even a year has passed.

And I strongly stressed this commitment to my inquirer. Readers are not sheep to be gathered and dispersed as a whim, there are expectations to be fulfilled and any potential blogger must realise this.

There is also the most important matter - that of having something to say. A blog which restricts itself to a diary format runs a risk of becoming quite dull. The life of the prisoner tends to be quite boring overall. Something more needs to be added, a set of lenses through which to examine both the minutiae of prison life as well as the large moral and political issues that it raises. Not all prisoners have that breadth of view.

And so I explained to my peer that blogging was a commitment both to oneself as well as the readers, was a hostage to future Fortune, and not to be began on a whim.
Having listened to my long explanation of these issues, I can rest assured that I will remain the only blogging British prisoner. At least for this week.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Parallel Lives

I am acutely conscious that my experience of prison is mine alone and only occasionally shared by other prisoners.

Whilst the physical environment may be the same, how we perceive it, the meaning we endow, is each our own. Our biographies, our world-view, colours each person’s perspective.

And the daily regime I presently live is one shared by only a minority of prisoners. Many more are enduring far worse.

Perhaps the largest disjuncture in experience is my sentence and the number of years I have racked up behind bars. My perspective is inevitably one of a Lifer.

Short-term prisoners may share some of the basic prison experience but in reality many of their concerns are different from that of Lifers.

This is by way of pointing out that you are receiving only one perspective of prison from me and this is why I wish that other prisoners would begin blogging.
In particular, the depth of imprisonment that has descended upon High Security prisons in recent years is in grave need of explaining to the wider world.

This blog is my truth, as I perceive it. But there is so much more for others to say.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bad boy, Stevie

Stevie had the hump with the wing Senior Officer. Most of us did, most of the time, but Stevie was not one to let apathy over-rule his desire to extract some minor vengeance.

The S.O. had, as screws do, nicked some of the con's food and stashed it in the hotplate to keep it fairly edible.

A curry, laid out in nice institutional order - a ring of white rice around the edge of the plate containing a pool of curry. Stevie, who obviously had 'issues', took the time and effort to borrow the curry and replace most of it with shit. And then returned it to the hotplate.

A hungry S.O. put it in the staffroom microwave. It exploded. Bad, bad, Stevie...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oestrogen and Work

Watching the men labouring to build our new yard accessories, it struck me that the work-rate of those involved was directly correlated with the prettiness of any women passing by.

As the yard is a thoroughfare to the Admin block, a fair number of females pass by each day. And I swear, if a pretty one stands near the construction area then the men begin shovelling with more vigour and the occasional shirt comes off.

And one of the worst aspects of masculinity appears - men, who don't know squat, suddenly doing lots of devise pointing and making declarations about what-goes-where-and-how.

I doubt that the men even realise that they are doing this. I wonder if the women realise their affect?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Oh, the wit...

Sitting out on the benches in the yard like three old farts. We were taking the mickey out of one of our peers who has a strong habit of hanging around any female that passes by.

“I bet he's never even had a woman", says Joe. Quick as a flash, Bob adds, "Or at least, not one that hasn't given evidence against him..."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who Am I?

Lord knows how it is done these days but way back when, the generation of National Insurance Numbers were triggered by the issuing of the last-but-one Child Benefit book.

Of course, by that time I was safely wrapped up in the malevolent embrace of the Prison Service. But to the rest of bureaucracy, I am a cypher, a glitch in the machine - I have no N.I. number.

The Tax-man knoweth me not, neither does he Benefits Agency. Every aspect of our unavoidable collisions with the State rests upon that string of digits, which I am without.

Having being in the State's dungeons for all these decades, on my release I will be in the strange position of having to persuade the State that I actually exist.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mad Dogs and Prisoners

The Burma Railway, the goldmines of Kolyma, the Volga Canal...
the bones of prisoners litter these monuments to our labours.

This prisons contribution to the pantheon of sweat and toil is a fish-pond, giant chess set and a boules pit. Great works will not be written to carry the tale of this effort down the ages. Which is a slight pity because it has afforded me the best (legal) entertainment to be had in prison - free, and involving watching other people work.

To set the scene. Our yard is a bare asphalt square, three wings and the Admin block overshadowing the whole space. It is claustrophobic and empty and yet the only open space within the prison.

And so a Grand Plan was unleashed, funded by various charities (ya, boo, sucks Taxpayers Alliance!). Railway sleepers, soil, sand and plants all came together in our yard. Not speedily, but in due course after many tea breaks and lots of discussion.

The final result is becoming clear today, as the pond is filled and plants are returned to the soil. One large pond, fish, for the use of. There has been much discussion as to quite what type of fish are to be sourced. Given the broad appetites of sections of my peers at Shepton, the consensus is that the only safe species is one that cannot be either fried or fucked.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Lifers' Paranoia

The human mind seeks to uncover connections and patterns. As a species it is, perhaps, one of our most finely honed and consistent abilities. As well as bringing us truth, it also persistently deceives us in a myriad ways. We will cheerfully insist on a connection between events which are a mere correlation, and equally insist upon the miraculousness of other events which, probabilistically, are pretty common.

Seeing patterns and connections when none exist is a strong feature in the psychology of Lifers. As our lives are so uncertain, with every aspect of our existence resting at the whims of others, perhaps the need to find order in our little universe is one way of coping. How else can a person continue through the days, if it is accepted that there really is no sense to it, that capriciousness is all there really is?

And in our eagerness to find some rationality behind the unpredictability, there is a tendency for some of us to imagine a coherence which just isn't there.

Some Lifers I have known over the years insist that staff make meticulous notes that plot our emotional cycles. This allows them to reveal our low points. At these points, they believe that staff will deliberately needle us, frustrate us and generally wind us up. All in the name of either 'testing’, or plain malevolent pleasure in inflicting extra suffering.

I don't indulge in this belief system. Of course we are analysed, our behaviours noted and interpreted. But as the prison system can't organise the proverbial, I can hardly credit them with a Machiavellian ability to deliberately mess with my head. They do that well enough through staggering stupidity.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Oh, too cynical...

Lunchtime lock up. An hour or so in which to sleep, watch TV, take a leisurely toilet break...our time, while the staff are away having their own meal.

I hear female voices down the wing. Women talking to prisoners through the locked door. Interesting. Normally, lunchtime is a period of dead silence. They inched ever closer, cell by cell, until they reached mine. A polite knock, "Mr Gunn?", then she opened the observation window. An emissary from the Inspectorate of Prisons, asking if we would like to fill in a survey form. Would I!?

It seems that most of us did. And as cons are notorious when it comes to ignoring surveys, this made me wonder.

Does the Inspectorate deliberately send pretty women to ask us to do the surveys, knowing that we are far more likely to do so in the face of feminine charm?

As a mate said to me a moment ago, "She came to my door...she was so gorgeous I nearly cried!" And yes, he filled in the survey she proffered.

Never let it be said that prison doesn't make you cynical...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Inspector Calls

There was a time, a brief span of years, when Governors paid significant attention to HM Inspectorate of Prisons. By my reckoning, that time is passed.

I believe that the Prison Service now pays far more attention to their internal targets and performance indicators. If these are good, career prospects remain safe. Unless the Inspectors issue a really shocking Report, though, then from our perspective their views carry little weight.

Which is a great pity. The obsession with performance indicators is that they become a snake devouring its own tail - the focus becomes how a task is done, rather than its effects and outputs (and shoot me if I ever use the word 'output' again).

The implication of this is that the Prison Service can view a prison as being perfectly functional, while the experience of prisoners is terrible. The 'virtual prison', the ideal viewed from the Governor's office, may be a joy to behold whilst disgruntled prisoners mutter their discontent.

It is, I hope, the job of the Inspectorate to explore that gap in perceptions, to navigate the topology of both staff and prisoners views in the hope of uncovering a 'true' picture of the lived experience.

The Inspectorate does employ a number of prison Governors seconded from the Service. These people doubtless bring a particular set of experiences to the role. It wouldn't go amiss, though, if they considered employing some (ex) prisoners. After all, the answers you receive are profoundly dependent on knowing what questions to ask.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Home or Hell?

There are prisoners who see prison as a safe place, a surrogate home. There are others who find prison such a torment that they kill themselves.

Assuming that prisoners are a homogenous mass is obviously a mistake, but a point worth reiterating. Extrapolating from any selected sub-group, or individual, is a false path to understanding.

Just because some people love it, doesn't mean that prison is okay or a soft touch.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Officially confirmed!

The official acronym for the thousand new governors in training is....GITs.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Perspective and Time

Thirty flippin’ years...that's an awfully long span of time.

When I came to prison, Michael Jackson was still black, Elton John was straight and there were only three TV channels.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Being Vegan

Through a mix of hardcore Buddhist belief and practicality, I spent many years as a vegan. That it also caused the nick problems was just a bonus.

Passing through the servery one lunchtime, my plate was ladled with precise portions of mashed potato, boiled potato and baked potato. That was my meal.

Spying a shifty looking kitchen screw, I bore down on him, my plate held out in front of me. He legged it for the exit, locking the wing gate between himself and my outrage. Leaning far out of reach, he insisted this was a balanced diet as the potatoes were of different varieties...