Monday, October 31, 2011

The Great Game

Every block in the system shares fundamental characteristics.  Each prisoner alone in their cell for up to 23 hours a day, isolated and finding ways to fill the time.

Another common thread is the perpetual attempt to pass items between cells, a prohibited practice.  Monthly, these efforts centre around tobacco and cigarette papers.

Even in isolation, cons leave their cells.  There are daily periods in the exercise pen, the shower, food to collect, clothes to change... And all of these provide an opportunity for the quick of hand to secrete an item to be picked up by the next man.

Staff try to disrupt this exchange but the reality is that the never have enough time.  With maybe dozens of men to exercise, feed, shower, then their time to search each location between uses is truncated.

This smuggling has always gone on, and long may it successfully continue.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Mad Rumour

Prison life seems particularly well suited to the generation and perpetuation of rumours.

After all, we have 2 groups - screws and cons - more than willing to believe the worst about each other, and both share a certain base cynicism of the whole edifice.

As I served lunch today I was reminded of the long-standing rumour that the staff in some notorious block who, having beaten a prisoner to death, tried to muddy the time of death by stuffing the body into the wing server hotplate to keep it warm.

I have to admit, it wouldn't surprise me.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


While sweeping out the 2 cells used for holding people just before they face disciplinary hearings, I take a brief look at the graffiti on the walls.

The dreary "X was here" litters the paint, a boring testament to a man's existence.  The occasional insult creeps in: "fuckin carrot-munching southerners"!. On this showing, I have to wonder if the government's literacy drive is wasted money.

And yet, in perfect script, stands out the surreal injunction, "Polly put the kettle on".

Friday, October 28, 2011


It's not exactly rare for a con to let fly a volley of abuse against a screw, particularly down here in the block.

One such staff victim was loudly pondering the line thrown at him earlier that day, an invitation that he should "go suck your momma".

In attempting to deconstruct the precise meaning of this abuse, he pointed out that he'd have to travel some 200 miles in order to "suck his momma".

I raised an eyebrow. "So the travelling distance is the only problem you see with that idea?!"

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Slightly Less Silent Majority

The Ed has sent me the comments left to my Silent Majority post, and I thank all of you who responded to my largely rhetorical question of who reads the blog.

It is a pleasant surprise to realise that such a broad spectrum of people take the time to pop in and read; there's no pressure at all on me to keep you entertained then...!

While it would be wonderful - if naive -  to think that anything I wrote could prompt people to abandon deeply held views, that I have nudged some of you to think more deeply about the issues I raise on the blog is gratifying.

Thanks, one and all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Censorship and Stupidity

While the old joke may have it that the most dangerous thing on earth is a gorilla with a machine gun, any prisoner can tell you that is wrong.  The most dangerous thing is a dim-witted screw armed with a prison rule.

In this instance it relates to porn, which we are not allowed.  And on that basis a screw confiscated a DVD of Superbowl Thirty.  Why? Because the title said "Superbowl XXX", and with that many X's on the cover then it must have been porn...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Decency Matters

There are those who will attack and denigrate prisoners at all costs and at every opportunity.  Some such people occasionally leave comments on the blog and one theme is the eternal question of why should prisoners be treated decently? After all, given the suffering we have caused, why should we get anything more than cold gruel and a daily kicking? I could dismiss such people as being ill-informed, neanderthal, but that would be facile.  Such people, I assume, may be suffering the effects of crime and their contempt may be genuine.  Their comments may be crude but the emotions behind them may be very real and complicated.  It would be abrogating the purpose of the blog if I were to dismiss such people as they dismiss me.

So why should prisoners be treated decently?  There are two main reasons, one utilitarian and one moral.  I don't expect either to persuade those who stew in a pit of their own hate.

In a utilitarian frame of reference, how society treats prisoners has a strong effect upon the levels of future crime.  If you prescribe punishments that include hatred and despair, if you strip away all social capital and reject the prisoner to the extent of being outcast from society, then there are consequences.  Those consequences include higher rates of future offending. It may be emotionally and politically satisfying to hurt those who have hurt us, but in doing so we create future victims.  In this sense, advocating endless punishment and degradation for prisoners is stupid beyond belief; it is the social equivalent of a toddler's temper tantrum.

Morally, to degrade prisoners is to deny a shared humanity.  To degrade other individuals reflects upon the darkness in our own souls.  It is an impulse to be resisted, not fed.  To expel prisoners from society - emotionally, socially, politically - is to expel them from being considered human. And this carries unspeakable changes to all of us.

Treating prisoners decently is often posed as being anti-punishment; it need not be.  But there must surely be limits to punishment, a defined purpose and a rational outcome.  To reduce ourselves to acting out of emotional spasms degrades all involved.

There are debates that could, should, be engaged with.  What should be the aims of punishment?  What should be the limits?  What should the daily regime of prisoners be like, what facilities should be afforded? At present these are not issues for debate but rather act as lightening rods for our basest personal emotions and political urges.  And as long as this remains the case, then society loses as much as prisoners do.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Charge of the Bright Brigade

It is a pleasure to see that (General) Lord Ramsbotham continues to grace our legislature and pepper Ministers with perceptive prison-related questions.

A man with a keen eye for the inept or unjust, Rambo is of late inquiring about the number of counsellors and therapists available to deal with prisoner's mental health.

Ha!  For an institution which is so keenly equipped to disassemble, dissect and judge us using the tools in the modern psychological armoury, the prison service has systematically neglected our mental health.  Whilst claiming that fully 3/4 of us suffer from a mental disease, the system cheerfully avoids dealing with those problems.

Of course, mental health provision in the wider community is notoriously variable and drug-centred and the expect better in prisons is but a crazy dream.

And yet, I am grateful that there are those such as Rambo who give a voice to such important concerns.  Only persistence in the face of indifference has any hope for change.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Call me Ishmael

Or Sir, Boss, Guv, Officer... Just how do you hail a screw? Not by shouting "Oi, Screw!" And no-one calls staff Sir either, which is a level of obsequiousness that prisoner culture finds nauseating.

Lately I've been hearing a lot of cons calling staff "Boss".  It grates on me, carrying with it shades of the plantation, and "Massa". And like slavery, "Boss" should be buried in history.

For me, a straightforward "Guv" (as in Guv'nor) has always served in any situation, being neither disrespectful nor obsequious.

Strangely, there is no generic equivalent for staff to call prisoners.  As a group we may be "cons", but if a screw wants to get attention of a con, he never calls "Oi, con!". Ever.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Stupid Leading the Blind

Long gone are the days when a prisoner could pass through these stygian halls to be disgorged into the daylight of freedom with little effort.  This particularly applies to Lifers.

Gaining release, and finding a bearable way of life along the way, requires deliberate effort by the prisoner.  It is required that we engage with many processes, all of them quite bureaucratic.  The most prominent of these are the Offending Behaviour Programmes, the psychology courses intended to cure us of our wicked ways.

These courses are heavily reliant on written materials and demand copious amounts of "homework".  And there lies the trap - for those with sensory impairments, low IQ's, or the plain illiterate then progress towards release is blocked.

For the illiterate, a couple of extra years may be served as the prisoner is forced through an educational programme, before starting the OBP courses. For those with impaired senses or learning difficulties there is no such obvious solution. I've met deaf prisoners who have had to fight for years just to have an induction-loop installed so that they could engage with group work.  And I've met men with learning difficulties who have wasted the best part of a decade just waiting for psychological assessments.

Such people are royally stuffed.  Unable to undertake the psychological courses that earn release they find themselves being bounced from prison to prison as each Governor finds it easier to transfer "the problem" rather than allocate any resources or brain-power to deal with it.

In this convoluted way, and through no fault of their own, prisoners with disabilities often serve many more years than their crime deserves.  They are punished for their deficiencies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Long Road

Having been cleared to move to open prison a full year ago, I'm now told that it may take several more months before a space can be found for me.

The problem? An increase in the Lifer population from 3,500 to over 10,000 without anyone thinking to increase the number of places in open prisons through which we must be released.

This is how our lives - and your taxes - are slowly but surely leeched away.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Proctology Calling

So a guy his his mobile phone in the usual place - his ass.

Having set off the metal detector he must now produce the goods in order to leave the Block. Which is the problem.

The phone has decided to migrate and explore the wilder parts of the guy's colon, and refuses to be expelled.

Is there an "app" for that?!?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

School's Out

As I watched a group of psychology undergraduates being given a tour of the block I was struck by two thoughts.  Firstly, they made me feel so old; they represented the life I never had.

More importantly, I wondered just how prison staff can ever explain the "prison experience" to such visitors? They can explain the brutalist architecture, they can briefly explain the bureaucratic processes, true enough.  But those things are not the essence of imprisonment; they are merely the external form that conceals the powerlessness and mortification that is the reality of the prisoner's life. Keeping prisoners out of this process of guided tours is to lose a valuable opportunity to educate.

That said, I did take the opportunity to plug the blog.  So, hi students everywhere!

Discrete Comments

The editor tells me that she has had to delete a comment or two posted by prisoners from their mobile phones.

Not for their origin or content, but because they contained identifying characteristics.

Doh!  Come on guys, play smart!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Human Zoo

Like the old Bedlam, all prisons are sporadically invaded by gawkers.  These tend to be various species of criminal justice professionals, magistrates, students and the like.

Here, in the Block, we can only listen as they appear whilst we are banged up.  It is frustrating, and some cons shout out entertaining allegations to these unseen visitors.

Why not introduce these enquirers to a con or two?  Staff may well be able to adequately describe the basics of the Block regimes, but only a prisoner can begin to explain the experience of isolation and bang-up.

At the very least, let the visitors bring in bags of peanuts or sticky buns to throw at us!

To the Posse

I get a few requests for name-checks on the blog, and I turn them down.

But - hi to the South Wales Che Guevara Gally and mates!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


The Screw sits in the block office, looking slightly frazzled.  "I shouldn't say this in front of you but there are times when I want to bash their brains out!", indicating the corridor of cells.

It had been a busy, fractious day with the occupants of the Block giving the staff a bit of a run-around.

A few minutes later I saw that same screw at a cell door, seemingly perfectly calm as he was faced with an irate, aggressive con.

Is this the definition of professionalism for prison staff?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Walking on Sunshine

A sunny day, a concrete path... to some, this is just an obvious invitation to jog.

Or walk quickly. The Gov had to decide on this point at a recent disciplinary hearing when a man was nicked for running.

Yer man insisted he was only walking very fast.  After some debate on the walking v. running definition, the charge was dismissed.

We now await the Notice to Prisoners laying out the official Olympic rules on when speed-walking degenerates into running.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Silent Majority

I'm told that the number of visits to the blog has settled to between 18,000 and 20,000 a month. Who would ever have imagined that? At the beginning, an eventful 2 years ago, the Editor and myself were overjoyed when a single soul popped in.

In a perfect illustration of the law of unintended consequences, the blog survived a difficult birth and was only brought to the notice of the wider world by the attempt by the Ministry of Justice to shut it down. This was resisted by Jailhouselawyer and the Guardian, and from that point the existence of the blog was assured.

Gathering readers, though, is another matter!  Occasionally I do ponder about the number of "personal" blogs in existence, their readership, and how many of them are begun in a fit of enthusiasm before being left to whither.  Is my having survived for 2 years in itself unusual?

Prior to recent times I had absolutely no idea of the extent of the blogs readership. The Editor's decision to click a few of Google's clever buttons and generate statistics was a revaluation to us both.  And a source of some pressure - which is why I always resisted knowing blog stats!

Most of you remain a mysterious presence, a brief blip of electrons in the ether.  Those of you who do comment have forged a community of strong personalities and voices, which brings me great pleasure.  But the overwhelming majority of you stay silent.

I can't help wondering...who are you?  What is your interest? What are your views?  There will never be answers to these questions but it means so much to me that people all around the world take a little time to read my waffling.

For any other writer/blogger, the loss of their audience may have a significant effect on one part of their existence.  But as I write, I never forget that without you I would be reduced to talking to myself. My world would collapse to the precise dimensions of my cell.

Perhaps in this sense you, the readers, have a far more powerful effect upon this solitary little blogger than readers of other blogs.  You are my umbilicus to a wider world than the narrow corridor I inhabit.  And your efforts have such an intimate influence on my daily life.  It is astonishing to realise that someone in Basingstoke or Adelaide is - via the donate button - responsible for the paper on which I write this, and the cup of coffee at my left hand.  How many bloggers and readers have such an influence upon each other?

Your collective presence makes me feel so fortunate.  And to be fair, I do suspect that I am getting the best end of the interaction!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Future

Having begun the process of regaining my equilibrium after my recent mental implosion, the news that I am (again) to journey off to open prison is a well-timed boost.

In truth, I shared management's view that the mobile phone affair would see the Ministry of Justice refer me back to the parole board, at a cost to me of a year or more.  I also thought that this would have been a pretty vindictive move.  After all, whatever my use of a phone says, it is hardly an indicator that I pose a "risk to life and limb".

Attempting to divine the motives behind Ministry decisions is nearly always a futile effort.  The Ministry moves with biblical levels of mysteriousness.  Yet I can't resist the urge to ponder this development.  Has someone in the MoJ decided to give me a chance of a future life? Are they giving me a rope and hoping I hang myself? Perhaps this is the Ministry making an effort to appear fair in the light of the police investigations into possible political interference with my last parole hearing? All of these are possible, and more; but we will never know.

Let's just accept the decision and try to use it.  Once I am physically moved to open prison (regular readers will know that I have been waiting for almost a year) then I should be released within some 12 months.  Along the way I will face significant challenges.  Not the ones some of you expect - the outside world - but rather the very low levels of expectations and the extremely limited opportunities offered in open prisons.  As I always chafe when being treated like a halfwit, it will fall to me to persuade managers to allow me to explore avenues to develop my future opportunities.

Staring at the walls here in a Block within a closed prison, the idea of being "free" in a year or so can seem unreal.  After all, tomorrow has all the hallmarks of being a seamless continuation of the last 31 years.  But I am cautious to avoid this trap.  Even though open prison is still prison, time there holds unique challenges and experiences and to become lazy, to take one's eye off the goal of release, is to court disaster.  That is not a mistake I intend to make.

As a year can pass by very quickly, I must look past open prison and give careful thought to my post-prison future.  Decisions need to be made.  Do I retire from prison politics and quietly sidle off into obscurity? Do I attempt to earn a living as a media tart, or as a writer-commentator? Resume my PhD and hope for some niche research position?  There are so many potential paths into the future, so many questions.

And I'm not going to be shy about asking you guys for ideas or about opportunities.  The cynical amongst you can view it as an experiment in rehabilitation.

The next year promises to be the most interesting that I have had for, oh, about 31 years...

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Handle with Care

Physical contact is rare in prisons, even in the showers!

Physical contact between staff and cons is extremely limited, only allowed when being pat-searched or when being "restrained".  Routine handling of prisoners is, apart from the above, taboo.

Contrast this with American prisons, where it seems that staff routinely hold prisoners by the upper arm.

If tried on a prisoner in the UK, in normal circumstances the screw could expect a fight.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


After a brief tabloid twitch, prisoners were banned from playing PlayStation games rated 18.  God forbid our innocence should be contaminated by Grand Theft Auto.

I was pondering this the other night, just as the 18-rated film Straw Dogs burst across my telly on a terrestrial channel.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Orderly Abuse

For generations it was generally the case that staff treated orderlies as little better than their personal slaves. In the early 1990's, when I was briefly on Wing No 1, the staff treated me as their perpetual tea and toast making machine.  I took full advantage and sold them cheese on toast at 10p a slice - the cheese being stolen from the kitchen.  I later liberated myself from servitude by selling the entire contents of their tea-room to a fellow con for £20.

I would hope that such days are largely passed.  While I'm content to wash up dirty cups as I clean the servery, it would be a daft screw who presumed to click his fingers and expect me to make his cups of tea.  As one Senior Officer recently told me, such practices constituted "orderly abuse".  But there are very tenuous and fluid boundaries, the lines drawn on a case by case, prison by prison, and orderly by orderly basis.

As I also collect and serve the meals, there lies within that access to food a far greater potential for staff to attempt to misuse me, and for me to misuse my position.  A snivelling worm of an orderly may be tempted to steal prisoner's rations and save it for staff, or help himself and leave his fellow convicts short. I take a strict view on this; every con must get his fair portion, if possible more! Then, and only then, am I content for staff to snaffle anything left over.

Although Governors have developed a new, rigid, stance on staff eating even leftover of prisoner's food. For me, if there is a load of soup or salad left over, why bin it if someone is willing to eat it?  Other orderlies will take their own view on this.

Obviously, what orderlies are willing to do beyond their strict official duties is a personal decision.  It is also a function of staff demands.  It would take a strong individual orderly to resist demands to slip into tea and toast-making ways.  This hasn't been an issue in my present position.

Prisoners can also indulge in "orderly abuse".  This takes the form of the orderly being asked to use his position to benefit the private interest of another prisoner; often by stealing goods he has access to.  In my situation, this may take the form of passing tobacco from cell to cell.  This is a very prohibited practice, as was made clear on my appointment.

That said, I always try to help out a fellow con, even if he's a total arse.  Our shared identity as prisoners is paramount.  Equally, this shared identity would prevent me from asking another cons to risk his job just to make my life just marginally easier.

Alas, not all cons share my views.  This block comprises a short corridor of fewer than 12 cells.  It is constantly monitored by the staff office and 2 CCTV cameras.  Asking me, then, to pass staff between cells, leading to certain capture and being fired, strikes me as being selfish and stupid.  That doesn't stop people from trying though.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Meeting the Man

The mystery visitor had to be important.  It isn't any old joe who would provoke the staff to dust off the hoover and blitz their office.

It turned out to be the Director General, Michael Spurr, in the company of our number one Governor.  Having spoken to the staff and a couple of guys on punishment, on their way they popped in to the servery to meet me and my number two.

The DG made some crack about my being the Ben Gunn who has his office bombarded with emails. At least we now know that your efforts are not going unnoticed; thank you!

During our brief chat I mentioned my newly certain Cat D status and pointed out how quickly he or the Governor could find me a bed in an open which point the Governor shuffled the DG away.  Humph!

If you came face to face with the Director General of the Prison Service, what would you say?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Beware, Blogger About!

Some staff are a little wary about my being in my present job.  Now, I live in the Block, notebook in hand. The Block is the most confrontational and heated place in any prison; in some prisons that atmosphere has become a breeding ground for entrenched and outright violent staff.  Obviously, having the likes of me lurking about could be problematic.

I'm not going to censor what I write, and I have always resisted censorship being imposed upon me.  But that doesn't mean that I am going to be gratuitously unfair and hint that matters are other than they are.  As ever, I shall point out the good and the bad, however and whenever they appear.

In some sense this is a slight shift away from my usual broad - and obvious - agenda, which is decidedly anti prison service.  Perhaps I am feeling rather more reflective, my academic instincts coming to the fore as my campaigning instincts take a rest.

As I judge this Block so far, it is thankfully free of the pitfall of staff entrenching themselves in aggressive attitudes.  This is always a risk.  The Block is where staff face prisoners at their worst, and where staff are most likely to face violence.  In those circumstances, an isolated shift of staff are always at risk of reaching for the steroids and hardening their attitude.  Whether this happens is largely in the hands of senior managers.  Some Blocks are notoriously violent and this is at best allowed to continue by managers, even prison service headquarters.

I have yet to detect any unusual anti-prisoner or aggressive attitude on the part of the Block staff here.  This isn't a broad nomination for sainthood.  I've overheard a few choice comments made after staff have dealt with a particularly difficult prisoner.  I'm not going to make an issue out of that type of thing if it's said "in private".  It is only human, and when a con has kept me awake half the night by banging on his door then my comments are a damn sight worse.  I may instinctively take the  corner of my fellow cons, but I'm not going to pretend that none of us can be a real pain at times.

So staff needn't be worried about my writing.  As long as everything is kosher, I'm not going to poke at it just for entertainment.

This is an interesting and unusual position for me to be in.  Literally walking the corridor with screws on one side and cons on the other, and both are making demands on me.

Strange times.