Sunday, May 21, 2017

Guest Blog. Wings Clipped.
I've never run a guest blog before - but with the election fast approaching, this prison story involving an individual now closely involved with the Ministry of Justice is too significant to omit from my site...

Wings Clipped

Fundamentally, having made a cataclysmic mistake – and being (deservedly) jailed for it, prison was a life-changing experience. The disgrace within me still aches to this day. They could have sent me home on the first night – I got it as I was walked trembling onto a prison wing as a customer – back on that evening of July 25th, 2011.
Perhaps it might be an idea to show more people around prisons – young people – to maybe deter possible future errors of judgement. Just an idea.
And there lies the rub. Our prison system is so lacking in off the wall ideas within the walls. Worse – viewed from the inside, there seemed to be very little cooperation between the countless agencies working within the desultory system. “This is my bat and ball – and you’re not playing with it,” appeared to be the ethos of the day.
When the nightmare ended, the book that had kept me going – both sanity wise – and as something constructive to occupy my time – in the trade it’s called purposeful activity – I had to create my own – did, thank god, get released to the big wide world.
It’s now paying the rent, putting food on the table and clothing me.
Other than that, I don’t have a job. Haven’t had one since I got out. More of that – and why – later.
As I write this, I can feel a resident of Hexham getting twitchy.
Becoming an author made me feel like an imposter. Writing this as someone who works within the CJS makes me even more the great pretender – as I don’t. I just bang the drum a lot on the telly and the wireless about what I saw not going on – and what I believe we could be doing… Through being a non-stop pest, I have tried to up the profile on good practice in clink by visiting some prisons with the like of Russell Brand, Frances Crook, The Guardian’s Eric Allison, Derek Martin, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Lenny Henry, and both Sadiq Khan and Lord Falconer when both had Shadow Justice Minister titles.
When IN IT came out, a new Justice Minister came in. He was called Chris Grayling. He’s now something to do with the railways. For an individual not keen on the combination of books and prisoners, his staff were surprisingly interested in what I’d written from the sharp end as their house-guest and met with me. They grilled me with questions like “why doesn’t prison work?”
Michael Howard wasn’t there. He’d be cross.
Mr Grayling’s team were frightened of something called the Daily Mail. They went a funny colour when I talked to them of the pornographic channels being available on E wing at HMP Bedford.
There’s a whoppingly huge percentage of adult prisoners who are completely illiterate. When I asked Mr Grayling’s team what they were going to do about their prison education provider, a company called A4e, banning the prison approved literacy scheme – then called Toe by Toe, now called Turning Pages – in an open resettlement (?) prison they said they “couldn’t comment on a specific incident.”
Having been ordered by then Head of Education at HMP Maplins – sorry – Hollesley Bay, (tennis court and sea views) to “scrub Toe by Toe” and “there will be no Toe by Toe in this prison” I spent five minutes a day emptying a waste-paper basket – the rest of the time sunbathing. It’s something called purposeful activity.
During the last election campaign – yes, the last one, not this one – I regularly Tweeted a quote from a man called David Cameron. His sensible words were “in prison, people cannot read. They need help. It’s common sense.” My electronic social media bombardment aimed at the diversity between political HMP rhetoric and actual events in prison caused someone in Number Ten to make a phone call.
It’s called being on the back foot.
Politicians are unfailingly an odd lot. Another one got in touch. The MP for the constituency of Hexham. He was called Guy Opperman. He used to have something to do with horses. He had interest in prisons and was writing a book. The switch from nags to lags induced him to ask for my help. He was always very quick on the draw at calling me when he needed something. He came out with some belters. Referrals to “obstructive and disinterested prison officers” in an email to me made me think I was dealing with a straightforward gentleman. Someone with some integrity.
When Mr Opperman’s book came out, I arranged for Jonathan Aitken to attend the launch. Yours truly was the other ex-prisoner at the event. If you were an ex-con, you could only be there if you were called Jonathan.
It’s a small world. At said event was the head honcho of the education provider who had banned Toe by Toe at Hollesley Bay. She later sent me emails saying it wasn’t them who’d done it – but “HMPS staff, or Learn Direct staff.” When I emailed her back naming the individual who had ordered the cessation of the proven-to-reduce-reoffending-reading scheme, together with a link to the gentleman’s name from their company website, she never responded.
My amazement at the lack of holding one’s hands-up to cock-ups by people at the helm of our prison system galvanised me into a campaign of revealing the truth. A relentless slog within the media. I got there in the end when Michael Spurr, CEO of something then called NOMS, now called something else – and probably something else again when –  inevitably – Mrs May’s dust has settled after June 8, publicly declared at a Prisoners Education Trust event that “the prison education provider made a huge mistake banning Toe by Toe in an open resettlement prison.”
I still savour that moment.
One of the major aids to stopping ex-prisoners reoffending is employment. The only letters next to my name before being imprisoned were QHI – which in English means I was a qualified helicopter instructor. Friends of mine still talking to me almost man-handled me down to Gatwick Airport where those in charge of matters aviation – the CAA – reside, to explore the notion of returning to my trade. The CAA interviewed me and decreed that if people were willing to give me a positive reference – I could indeed go back to work. They asked for a list of ten people (“no ex-cons though”) who would be willing to vouch for me.
I contacted ten people. All of them said yes – they’d be happy to give me a reference. The CAA selected two individuals from the list, my MP and Guy Opperman MP.
My MP sent a reference by return of post. Mr Opperman went abruptly quiet. The CAA chased him. I chased him. Stories of “being very busy” but “quite happy to give a reference” were emailed from Mr Opperman’s office to me and copied into the CAA.
Then the bombshell dropped. Mr Opperman’s office told me “he had been told by the Chairman of the Tory party not to give me a reference.”
The CAA emailed me saying because of this – it meant something sinister and up-in-smoke my return to aviation – and employment went.
When the Justice Select Committee invited Mr Opperman to give his version of events he did indeed acknowledge that I had asked him for a reference – but he “had said no”. He failed to admit that he had said yes – both orally to me – and in writing to me and the CAA – before changing his mind.
This rather got up my nose. Some Tweets were fired off Hexham way. Mr Opperman followed me on Twitter. Then blocked me. Then he had his girlfriend ring my PR people asking me to delete the tweets “as it’s hurting Guy.”
I said no.
Mr Opperman is (currently) chief whip for the (current) Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss (the lover of cheese) at something called the Ministry of Justice.
During my very short tenure at the tiller of campaigning for prison reform – independently – we’ve seen Messrs Grayling and Gove – who spoke a lot of sense – Dr Who Regenerated into Miss Truss, who, I met in a London prison (we were both guests). On introduction, her assistant piped up “I’ve just read IN IT”. She’ll go far.
We toured the Bad Boys Bakery. Enthusiastic inmates plied the Justice Minister with cakes. I made sure they didn’t contain the wrong type of cheese.
Miss Truss quizzed me as to who I was. I piped up that I’m the fella who has made a bit of a stink about Toe by Toe being banned in an open resettlement prison.
Her reply?
“What’s Toe by Toe?”
What happens after June 8? That’s the quandary…

Jonathan Robinson.
Robinson is a former prisoner and alleged author. He served 17 in weeks in prison from a 15 month sentence for theft. He advocates for prison time to be purposeful time.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Prisoner Ben's Story"

What do I do?

Having to sit down and ponder the question, “What do I do…?” may be a little more complicated than expected. My career in freedom being less than 5 years, this has been a swift, brutal and exciting foray to the world of work (which obviously bears no relation to prison work).
I was fortunate, in that my politics and studies open avenues of possible employment that most prisoners can’t explore. Whilst regular work was an option, a vista of shelf stacking didn’t appeal to me. And prison had been my whole adult life; I not only served my sentence, I tried to change the prison, and studied it. The idea that I could wash prison off my shoes on leaving the Gate was never really realistic. Prison seems to be in my bones.

Life license

With no obvious criminal justice job around, I opted for Consultancy. And I ran smack bang into my Life License. Being prohibited from taking a job without permission, and having a client company that wanted our connection obscured for political reasons, I found myself breaking my license. And I make no apologies or excuses. I took the job, produced my output, and moved on.
The Howard League, recipient of an occasional barb thrown from my cell, took the interesting decision to take me on for a while. It was then I was hit with a realisation that here I stood, aged 47, and never having worked in an office. It was a learning curve, and I will always regret that I couldn’t quite get my mojo for the League. I continue to campaign for them, years after my contract ended.
During these initial months after release, I was drawn into a part of life that was unusual. One with different mores, expectations, rules, and structures of power. Coupled with my innate inability to live life smoothly, it could have been predicted that this transition would be far more difficult. In reality, after 32 years of imprisonment, I had two good jobs within weeks of release.

Inside Justice

Some four years on, and I have experienced a fascinating range of work. Inside Justice, which investigates miscarriages of justice, had me as a caseworker. Where else can you chat with the Mets Head of Intelligence, meet Nick the Greek in a London suburb over a murder, then find yourself at the BBC holding a castrated man’s bloody jeans? The work was fascinating. My ability to deal with being managed, how I adapt new approaches, became an issue. To think I could rework learned attitudes from prison quickly was my error that some others bore the brunt of!

The long term psychological effects of incarceration

Enough time had passed for me to briefly pause and reflect. Something wasn’t right. I began to appreciate the profound psychological effects of so many years in prison, and how they effect my work. The small talk of relationships, the gestures that weave us together in any setting, is something that often escapes me. I lived a life where Mr X would be ten feet away for the next few years. But in freedom, Mr X isn’t merely sitting still waiting for me to reappear. This matters when communication and professional relationships are at the centre of what I do, and something I continually address.
Similarly, I am not best placed in a relatively controlled structure. Many aren’t, but I have the increased resistance that is essentially a prison response to power. Telling me to sit there, do that… It’s not something that sits well. You may call these things quirks, or disabilities, but they are factors that shape my decisions.


For two years I’ve avoided long term contracts, embedded in a structure, closely managed. Rather, shorter and more eclectic work has suited me better. I play a small part in some media kerfuffles and more often exist as a background resource for media researchers and documentary makers. Universities are kind enough to ask me to lecture sporadically on penology and related areas. Smaller charities often don’t have specific expertise and it is particularly pleasing to see some input of mine having a quick effect. Somewhere along the line I found myself advising some extremely unlikely people, and chairing improbable discussions.
Which reminds me. There is a lot I can’t actually tell you. The job of criminal justice consultant ranges from high offices to very grubby alleys, with the only shared characteristic being the insistence on privacy. And this itself always has the potential to cause difficulties with my supervision. I don’t recommend it to the faint hearted!
The end of last year saw me having to deal with long neglected medical issues, which inevitably led to much reduced activity. As normality reasserts itself, I look forward to continuing to move mysteriously through the penal reform community…and beyond.

Published courtesy of Russell Webster