Friday, July 11, 2014

So I have an Idea....

The Big Idea – Shouting Louder

Nearly everything I have done in public over the past 5 years or so has had one conscious aim – to stimulate debate around criminal justice issues.

The blog sprang from that kernel; although to this day myself and The Editor cannot recall which of us suggested it. It seems to have worked, don’t you think? Granted, I have been neglecting you of late but the practicalities of adjusting to my new existence, earning a living, and encompassing all my other activities means that daily blogging just isn’t practical at present. Even so, for a small personal blog to attract up to 35,000 readers a month (our peak) is astonishing. Prison interests people, for many different reasons.

But the blog led to media interest. Profiles popped up in the Guardian and – improbably – The Times. A raised profile then followed me out of the gates and now I go through phases of “media tarting”, appearing everywhere from ITV Daybreak through to Newsnight. I’m still recovering from a day of 16 interviews, same blasted topic, same questions….by lunchtime I actually eyed a quiet alley in Westminster and wondered if I could grab a quick kip.

Behind the scenes, I appear to be the darling of some student documentary makers and film-makers. If one camera crew isn’t arriving, one may well be leaving. I’ve been filmed choked with tears, and looking moodily out of my lounge window, fag in hand. And drinking lots of coffee. I mean, lots.

There are far more talks in smaller enclaves. Law schools, universities, private groups, conferences, month after month I schlep around the nation banging the drum and engaging with people who have an interest in justice. These include generalists, such as the Skeptics in the Pub, to specialists such as junior barristers and forensic psychology undergraduates. Later this year I’ll be a keynote speaker at a criminology conference and addressing the AGM of the Independent Monitoring Boards.

Couple this peripatetic verbosity with three Twitter accounts, a website, this blog, a YouTube channel and two Facebook accounts, many would say I already have more than enough avenues of discussion – or dissent! – to keep anyone happy. Probation say I’m their “first multimedia Lifer”, which I suppose is true, even though embracing the new media hardly struck me as being a coherent plan at the time.

And yet… All this activity lacks something, a central core, a nexus. I could and should tie all of the new media stuff together, for example; but that would be mere technical trickery. Something more, something ephemeral, has been eluding me. Until I spoke to a friend of The Editors here in Frome, who happened to be involved with the local community radio station. As she spoke, my brain was racing away constructing complex spidergrams of all the potential in broadcasting.

I mulled. I mused. I ummed, I’ve aaaahd. I have spoken to many people. And I was undecided, but interested. Eventually I junked my pitch to the local radio station; with a local population of 18,000 all in and the technical capability to stream to a mere 150 people online simultaneously, the potential inherent in finding a berth with someone elses enterprise seems massively limited. After all, I’m a new media type of guy – global, not local.

This conceptual meandering led me and The Editor meeting a fascinating man this morning. A friend of Rubin Hurricane Carter in the day; a man who’d marched in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement and been beaten and bitten for his trouble; and more pertinently, a guy who had been in radio for decades and runs a station in the Caribbean.

His advice? Do it myself. His arguments were compelling, not least because I have advantages few such start-ups have the benefit of – expertise, and an already existing audience. Add in all my social media and blog followers and that is a minimum of 15,000 people who already “tune in” to me, so to speak. And whilst the core are in the UK and North America, my readers are global. I have a ready made audience on which to build a radio community.

My first hand knowledge of prison, coupled with my analytical bent, makes me nearly unique. Not that other Lifers in the community don’t have far greater academic depth, they do; but I seem to be the only one daft enough to be comfortable with being in the public eye. And as that gaze can often be malevolent, I don’t blame them one bit for ploughing their own, equally significant furrows. The result, though, is that out of those with the lengthy prison experience and a modicum of wits, I’m the loudest one. And when it comes to broadcasting, loud and persistent seems to be a bit useful.

And in this media driven age, where soundbites rule and controversy gets traction, is there another radio show on the planet focusing on criminal justice issues fronted by a convicted murderer? Profoundly cynical, I know.

We talked strategy, marketing, technicalities. It’s so easy to broadcast over the Net, and very reasonably priced. Initial startup may be under £1,000, and monthly running costs well under £100. Who knew…?!

And so I have an idea. An internet radio station focusing on criminal justice issues and thereabouts. As anyone who has read the blog or my tweets appreciates, this is an extremely broad field. And it can be approached in many different ways – if there’s one button that can be pushed to start a good row, its called “prison”, and we all seem to have a view. Equally, there is a more measured approach. My tweets can be sparky – 140 characters! – but I hope that, overall, my blogposts have been more thoughtful. If sharp, on occasion.

Imagine the scope. From restorative justice to victims issues, from prison privileges to probation, crime and punishment encompasses everything. Politics, law, media, prison….and most of all, it all centres on the very worst of what lies in the human psyche. It has something for everyone.

And I would make that integral to my approach. I have as little inclination as the rest of you to listen to my own voice endlessly waffling on, and that is to be avoided. Rather, each show would be topic-led and guest focused. Interviewing, news roundups, debates, emailed Q and A’s….filling an hour would actually be frighteningly simple. And the listeners would, I sincerely hope, leave each hour feeling better informed and maybe even a little more interested in how we as a society respond to those who transgress.

There are, obviously, the accompanying paraphernalia of a website, social media feeds, and the like. Because the actual radio element may be a handful of hours a week, also repeated and podcast, it will be equally important to use social media to continue or highlight the discussions and provide a platform for community building. And I now realise I’m relapsing to the language I used when I was an E-commerce strategist….

Guests I would love to have…. A head of a prison reform group; a local copper; a victims group; local politicos; the occasional prisoner via phone, ex prison staff, lawyers, psychologists, community groups, campaigners, journalists… it really can be an endless list. Having already quietly floated this idea past a handful of putative guests, I was warmed by their interest.

Assuming I can put in place the right model from the beginning, as the station settled then I would hope to forge links across the criminal justice landscape. The website, in particular, could become a portal through to the expertise and insights of others in the field

It’s early days yet, lots of pondering and planning to do, but I can see this has a lot of potential.

Thoughts, please, folks. On any aspect of this idea. Either here, Twitter @prisonerben, or for the shy via

Oh, and brace yourselves :)



Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ministerial Cancer

You know that an election is hoving near the horizon when the Parliamentary language in prison debates takes on a keen edge, each speaker winking up to the press gallery.

The Minister for Prisons, Jeremy Wright, has given his views on the recent Dartmoor palava. Two prisoners managed to scale a building and perch on the roof. As part of negotiations, they were offered sunscreeen (they declined). And the tabloid dogs of war were let loose.... The comments on the Daily Mail site beneath this story give you both an insight into the darker parts of human nature and reveals the gallery that is being played to.

Officially, this was "an incident at height". The Ministry has abolished rooftop protests as it has riots, by the simple means of never using those terms. Riots are @outbreaks of disorder" or "acts of concerted indiscipline", and miscreants scampering over the tiles are "incidents at height". These used to be extremely problematic for staff; chasing cons on top of high buildings is very dangerous for all involved. However. HMP has for several years being able to call upon specialist staff who, with ingenious use of ropes and airbags, can scale rooftops and challenge the miscreants. Alongside this muscular effort goes negotiation, via a trained member of specialist staff. Obviously, talking people down is easier than frontal assaults. All very reasonable and cogent so far, I'd have thought?

And if during negotiations some small token gestures of goodwill are bandied about - such as the now infamous sunscreen - then such is the nature of negotiation. The aim is to resolve the incident safely. Sunscreen or not, the prisoners face serious punishment afterwards.

The Minister, Wright, has a different view. I'd like to believe it is based upon a thorough appreciation of order and control in prison, on the delicate balances, and an understanding of negotiation and incident management. But let's be realistic. Wright may know how to forge a soundbite, but his knowledge of prison equals mine on the topic of sea cucumbers.

Wrights view is that no such offers of suncreen should ever be made, and as far as he is concerned the prisoners can stay on the roof until they develop cancer. This is from one of Her Majesty's Under Secretary of State's for Justice. What a class act.

Wright isn't wholly bto blame. He was challenged by his opposite number, Saddique Khan, on the story. Khan is also seemingly content to drag the whole prison debate into the festering gutter of hatred. Wright had to say the right thing, or appear weak.

But Wright had an option. He could have been a decent human being, and a passable politician, by choosing a different response. Such as,

"It ill behoves us to use the very important issues surrounding imprisonment to grub for electoral gain. Prison is a serious matter. It rests on crimes committed and harm inflicted upon innumerable citizens. We are best advised to deal with such pains with care, in order to reduce the number of future victims. We cannot do this if we trap ourselves into these unhelpful knee jerk responses, no matter5 how tempting. Depriving citizens of liberty and causing them suffering are issues that should not be dealt with solely with an eye on tomorrows headlines.

While I share (Khans) surprise at the way these negotiations were conducted, I am very aware that neither I nor (Khan) are specialists in incident management. The Prison Service has decades of experience and a depth of skill in dealing with such incidents and I am not going to be quick in interfering with such expertise; least of all for political gain. For Ministers to interfere with dangerous incidents risks such events becoming increasingly dangerous. It is best we leave the details of these matters to those who have the experience.

(Khan) will note that this incident was concluded peacefully. No staff were injured or put at risk, and nor were the services of the specialist roof squad needed. If an offer - declined, mind you - of sunscreen helps to calm a situation and resolve it quickly, cheaply, and safely then while I raise an eyebrow at the initial reports I fully appreciate and support the Prison Service and their methods of dealing with such events.

I hope all Members will appreciate that there are two ways of addressing prison issues. The first is to generate soundbites and react to headlines. The second is harder, but will mean more to victims and citizens alike - that we address prison issues with care. We owe that not just to those we as a society imprison, but to future generations of potential victims of crime."

And then he could have sat down. And not left Parliament today looking like a disgusting human being.

Money in Prison

People - by which I meant, free people - were always bemused that prisoners need money. After all, isn't everything laid on by the State? Aren't the taxpayers lavishing Playstations, trainers and TV's on prisoners? Um, no.

Prison provides the basics. After that... Imagine a simple thing, such as writing a letter. That requires pen, paper, envelope and stamp. Call that lot £2 (although its more...). If you want to use the payphone to talk to your wife and children? That's 9p a minute. TV's? Rented, a quid a week. Clothing...a biscuit...nail clippers... The list is a long one, mostly comprising those small items we out here use and dispose of with barely a conscious thought. For the interested, the full list of what prisoners are permitted is contained in (and found by searching for) PSI 13/2013. (Which is Prison Service Instruction Number 30 of 2013).

Such lists of privileges (now coyly called "facilities") have existed for decades, although in pre-Grayling times it was far more flexible and differed vastly from prison to prison. But always, prisoners had to find the money to buy any of these items.

Under the IEP Scheme - the bureaucratic framework in which privileges are "earned" - it was originally envisaged that the better the prisoners behaviour, the more positive and productive he was, then the better the regime he lived. Alas, within moments of this scheme being unveiled in 1995, the Prison Service realised that there was very little it could actually offer. By default, then, the IEP Scheme became a way for prisoners to spend their own money to buy privileges they had "earned" through good behaviour.

Let us briefly glimpse Grayling's largess. Bear in mind this is prisoners money, not State money. For Those on Basic - (officially) prisoners with poor behaviour - get to spend the grand sum of £4 of their own money per week.

Those on Graylings new privilege level can run wild with £10 per week. This is the Entry level. Every prisoner must begin on the Entry level, living a highly restricted regime for the first two weeks. Even remand prisoners - the putatively innocent. Amongst the deprivations are being compelled to wear prison uniforms. By the way, no extra money was given to Governors for these uniforms (and over 80,000 people a year move through the gates), they have to find the money for crappy mauve tracksuits by cutting other parts of their budget. During a period of several years where year on year cuts have already being demanded. The justification for the Entry level regime appears to be nothing more complex than vote grubbing.

Those on Standard level can spend £15.50 per week of their own money. And those on the highest privilege level, Enhanced, can spend £25.50.

The iniquity of this scheme is that it essentially forces prisoners to reward themselves for their good behaviour. The prison gives pathetically little. Compounding this is the reality of prisoners poverty - most criminals are feloniously rubbish; many prisoners simply do not have this money to spend. It is possible for a prisoner to have exemplary behaviour but still live a more meagre prison life than a man on Basic, simply because he doesn't have the money to reward himself.

I try to imagine being a new prisoner. Hoiked from Court to the prison, dehumanised, undergoing the cold bureaucratic mortification of "Reception", shovelled into a uniform a thousand people have previously worn, and told that - if you happen to have it - you can spend £10 over the next 7 days. Most people would want to contact their family. Phonecalls. At 9p a minute. See how far ten quid goes when you are trying to hold together the remnants of your previous life. And for those saying "So what? Scumbag convicts", then bear in mind the prisoners family, their children, are innocents. And if the family falls apart, the demands upon the social services, education and benefits system increase. As does the odds of reoffending - future victims. We are not merely talking about a few pennies; but what can be done with them, what they mean.

The rate of suicide has increased. Why? Who knows. What I do know is, taking people from the Court, shell shocked, vulnerable, and then subjecting them to a harsher more restricted regime purely for votes is a dangerous gambit.

Oh, and Playstations? Only available to those whose behaviour has earned them the highest level of privileges. They must save up their money to buy it. And nothing more advanced than the original XBox or Playstation 2. Just to clear up any other idea the tabloids may have given...

Money. Prisoners do actually need it.