Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Mandela Question

Ever since I read Nelson Mandela's autobiography some questions have been floating my mind. They have not resolved themselves with the passage of time. Why did Mandela opt for a campaign of violence against apartheid, rather than follow a Gandhian path? And why was Mandela such a compliant prisoner? This latter question is the one that catches my keenest attention...

Mandela was held in pretty horrible conditions. Take that as read. Prisons ar4e the essence of State power, nakedly visceral. Being a Black anti-apartheid lawyer convicted of treason inevitable implies that time in a White States prison will be more interesting than your average prison.

The physical conditions may not be unappreciable. A cell is a cell. Slavery is slavery. There are a thousand variations on those themes, some more horrific than others, yet the core aspects of imprisonment are common across all jurisdictions and institutions. Their purpose is the same.

And all prisons have objectionable aspects. Mandela faced more complications, difficulties, in being a Black leader advocating the violent overthrow of the State which held him in prison. Every moment should - I'd expect - be an affront not only to the human dignity of those contained but also morally repellent in being part of the White machinery to oppress the Black majority/

The question, then, is why was Mandela so compliant with the prison institution? Why did he spend years being marched to a quarry to break rocks under the lash and the sun? Alongside the outrage every prisoner invariably feels, Mandela faced the heavy burden of the racial disempowerment weighing his every step. His cell, his daily existence, was the essence of apartheid.

Why, then, did he not revolt? Why did he not organise? Why did he not, for example, refuse to work as a slave in the quarry? For Mandela did none of these. Oh, there was a lot of talk. The internal machinations of the ANC were endlessly debated under the guise of football team meetings. But actual action, resistance against the institution that limited his horizons? No.

I find this incomprehensible. Perhaps I take a hard, and harsh, line on these things, an outgrowth from my own history. But any moral being faced with injustice should feel compelled to stand up. And undoubtedly so when there is a political imperative to challenge injustice alongside the bare human one.

Yet Mandela didn't challenge. This is not uncommon amongst "political" prisoners, those whose external activities challenging the State lead them to prison. The PIRA prisoners in UK prisons, for example; Animal rights activists; A whole spectrum of political prisoners actually put their feet up in prison. This is strange to me, as prison is the essence of the very State against whom they are fighting.

To comply is, to some degree, to cooperate - and to collaborate. Prisons only run with the cooperation of prisoners. That latent power is rarely appreciated, let alone realised. Yet a political. moral being - such as Mandela is proclaimed to be - should have had the insight to appreciate how potent his actions within prison could have been.

Not that utility is an argument for or against action. Moral beings challenge injustice because it is right to do so; not born of a calculated chance of success. Mandela did nothing. Of course, it could be argued that the penalties he faced for prison activism could be severe. To which I shrug my shoulders. Resisting abuses of power carries an inevitable price.

Prisoners revolted in Auschwitz. Prisoners in the Gulag revolted. All paid heavily.... In recent times, we have the likes of Michnik held by the Polish-Soviet dictatorship/ Having being imprisoned for resisting totalitarianism, he wrote from his cell to the  head of the secret police - "Is that all you've got?" Prisoners in Germany sew their mouths shut. Turks go on hunger strike. As do Californian prisoners held in solitary. Prisoners everywhere resist abuse, and all accept the cause is right and the price must be paid to have any chance of success. In this context, that Mandela may have suffered even further for campaigning in prison is not an argument that absolves his inactivity.

The question remains, then. Why was Mandela so inactive in prison activism? After all, this is a man who stared down the Death Penalty for Treason. Moral cowardice is not an easy accusation to throw around. And yet...

This may relate to some strand in Mandelas politics or personality. In response to the Governments appalling brutality, the ANC decided that their response would be a campaign of violence (let us not be diverted into the morass of "terrorism" here), and an armed organisation grew up as part of the ANC.

This decision, in Mandela's autobiography, was not the result of any great debate or moral wrangling. but almost flowed organically from the situation of the time. It does indeed seem an obvious response for an oppressed and brutalised people. However, as Mandela was fully aware, there was an alternative in Gandhian active nonviolence.

Mandela chose violence. It has to be asked if a campaign based on active nonviolence may have avoided a generation of bloodshed. Equally, it has to be asked, why Mandela ignored, cooperated with, helped sustain even, the wicked part of the apartheid State which oozed from the pores of his cell walls.

Mandela changed his nation. Without him, I doubt that a peaceful transition from Apartheid would have been maintained. His achievements are huge.  And yet....












Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Legal Persecution

My friend Farah

There are few more tormenting calls to receive than one from a prison payphone; especially for people who have been on the other side of that wall. For all that we in freedom enjoy by way of seamless and absurdly simple communication is denied prisoners. Information squeezes through the bars in sporadic fragments.

The caller was Farah. I once called her "a well dressed piranha", and when describing her tend to say "a force of nature". She is a whirlwind of obstinate positivity who sweats and bleeds to provide help and support to the marginalised, especially female ex prisoners.

To hear her talking with her words intermingled with the background echoes that comprise the soundtrack to prison life was a shock – if not a complete surprise. For Farah has been arrested for that most nebulous of crimes, "harassment".

In this case, the harassment comes from calling out a man who was pestering both Farah and her girlfriends for threesomes. The man is a husband, father of five, and a Church Warden. You can even download his homilies on the sanctity of family life from the church website...if you can stomach the hypocrisy.

Sick to the gills with his pestering and general shoddy need, Farah dropped the bomb on him by tipping the nod regarding his behaviour to his family. All is fair in love, war, and fending off pervy guy's who can't take no for an answer.

And so yer man had Farah arrested. Seems he boasts of his police contacts, the local Commanders he has influence with. Coupled with the copper in charge of the case being staggeringly stupid or malicious, this is a combination of malevolent potents.

Which may explain why, on a case of petty harassment at issue, armed police went kicking in doors across London to find Farah over a bail condition issue. In these cynical times, having a Mediterranean hue and a name like Farah hints that one should be extremely worried about being within sighting distance of a cop with a rifle.

That crisis resolved, the perjury begins to flow from our lothario's Church. One of the esteemed clergy swears blind he had a conversation with Farah on Day X regarding our letch; a conversation whose content doesn't flatter Farah. So it is provident that Farah was actually 150 miles away at the time, train tickets and CCTV nailing this smarmy vicars lies.

Farah has spent years building up her business, the services she delivers to empower women. She acts while others talk themselves into exhaustion. And now, in speaking to one of her contacts, our sex obsessed pseudo-clergyman accused her of breaking her bail conditions – no contact with matey or his family, friends, etc. The cheeky git even tried to have Farah prohibited from contacting anyone in the Church of England; the Judge thought that as ridiculous as I do.

Nevertheless, in emailing a contact to happens to know our protagonist Farah finds herself arrested for breach of bail and dumped in HMP Bronzefield. From where I received her call. It was a desperate plight – the prison decided to play their usual games and hadn't put the number for her lawyers onto the prison phone system. Meaning Farah was isolated and unable to challenge her detention.

A man who can't keep his zipper under control; a man highly respected in his congregation; and a man with good police contacts....lining up every nasty trick he can to try to deflect from the reality that he's a perv and cheat. Farah will prevail, and if this ever comes to court every sordid email and text will be held up for our mockery. The lies will be uncovered, the legalisms stripped away to reveal that far from Farah harassing her pest, this pest has found a way to use the law to harass Farah.


More anon...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Bank Thing

Having spent the morning with the Editor burying Henley and mourning, I couldn't face the empty house. Walking to the shops I bunged my card into an ATM in a vague hope I had enough for a coffee. I did. But the ATM then stole my card and told me to talk to my branch. Grrr.

Long time readers will recall the long struggle I had to open a bank account on my release. Even employed and earning, it took six months to persuade any bank to accept me. In the end it was a basic Cashminder account with the Co-op. Who now tell me that they are closing my account.

The Cashminder account has no overdraft. Good – I didn't want one. I just wanted an account to pay money in, and pay out bills. Simple as that. But then I went fractionally overdrawn 3 times in 6 months – so they closed the account.

This baffled me. I don't spend money I don't have. I spend what's in my wallet or what my account tells me I have. And it should be impossible to overdraw on an account without an overdraft. Yes...? Um, no. If a DD or SO payment is claimed but with insufficient funds, the bank honours it – and takes me overdrawn. Hmmm.

This happened three times – for a matter of hours – because I was stupid enough to use the Co-op mobile app to keep an eye on my account. Silly of me, because the numbers the app gave me often bore no relation to the numbers an ATM showed me. The lag in updating the account details on the app led me to going very briefly and very slightly overdrawn 3 times. Two of these were so fleeting I didn't actually notice. The nice man in the branch explained this to me, sorrowfully but firmly. The Co-op family, it seems, can do without such a profligate member.

It is surprising how quickly recipients of my money noticed the demise of this account. The Council phones to threaten me with the bailiffs. The water people issue a county court summons. My broadband fell silent; my Net access now rests on some dubious jiggery pockery via my mobile phone. And my landlord will be in for a shock.


This is beautifully timed to coincide with my last wage as my contract ends. Clearly I need a new full time job and more benevolent utility companies. Neither seem likely in the immediate future.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Very Fine Cat

Each time I returned home I'd call the cat as I shut the door on the world. "Henley. Henley! Idiot..." And I did just that again tonight, hustling in from the dark and rain. It took me a moment to realise Henley wasn't ignoring me this time. He was in the box I was carrying from the vet, warm but lifeless.

Henley was an old cat. No one knows how old – when he was chosen by The Editor from the rescue home they shaded the truth slightly. Or perhaps they didn't know; Henley had been rescued from a poor start in life where he was kept locked in a shed. Being liberated to live in a country cottage must have seemed idyllic. Not that he was outwardly grateful. He'd suffer a morning hug, but Henley was not one of natures tactile cats. More of a presence than a friend. But he was large and long haired, just the sort to wrap around your neck with his huge, room filling purr.

Henley was a difficult boy, but given his childhood allowances were made and understanding given. The Editor spoiled him rotten. And then inadvertently disturbed his little world by sneaking a kitten through the front door. One look at this tiny furball, Bella, and Henley turned up his tail, packed a valise and moved into the garden shed. He flatly refused to live in a house with Bella.

This was my fault. Bella was a pre-parole hearing present from The Editor to me. Alas, that hearing led to naught – except Bella. Who, as I kicked my heels behind bars, grew old enough for "a boyfriend" and produced a bunch of kittens. The last, and unexpected of which, was Jack – an improbable cat, for being a giant compared to his mum.

By the time of my release then, The Editor had a herd awaiting. Henley, Bella and Jack. Bella, a tiny classic black and white, impossibly pretty, was the psychopath. Jack was, well, slightly dim but The Editors favourite because he was definitely a pick-up-and-cuddle type of cat. And Henley.... Distant but present. To be stroked with caution. If at all.

When I left home, The Editor gave me a cat. Henley. The transition wasn't easy for either him or me. Giving some evidence to the theory he was actually a misogynist, Henley seemed to relax living with me – and no other cats. I learned that I could occasionally stroke him, without being punctured. The same immunity didn't apply to the mattress that comprised my bed at the time.

Far from being hugely aloof, as the months passed Henley grew more chilled, even sociable. And be indulged. When he took to laying across my coffee table, then my work table, I bought him his own. He ignored it, and opted to live in the laundry basket. Or the bath. And I found lots of time to make a cautious fuss of him, time and wounds teaching me exactly what he enjoyed and what he wouldn't entertain for a moment. It took months before I got the nerve to pick him up – the idea of his claws that close to my face probably drew the process out longer than necessary. But then he never did learn to sheath his claws when "playing"

As time passed, Henley even seemed to view me as a good thing, and shadowed me. If I was downstairs, so would he be. If I was upstairs, the Dark Shadow would follow. Very rarely he would even climb on me, mostly in the morning when he could easily spend half an hour laying on my naked chest as I struggled to roll my first cigarettes before getting out of bed.

I made allowances for his idiosyncrasies. Having spent most of his life using a cat-flap, when we moved in together he flatly refused to go out of the caflap. In, yes. Out, no. So I had to tie the blasted thing open, and suffered living with a nasty draft around my ankles. It took a persistent morning of bunging him through for him to make his peace with his catflap nemesis.

We'd have long, one sided conversations about his food. Raised on dry food, having my sole attention led to a series of short hunger strikes as I schlepped to and from the shops. Tins it was then, supplemented with occasional pouches. He had a bigger food budget than I did. And a weird weakness for milk – which made him crap everywhere.

Of late he has taken to extending his range. Discovering the flaw in open-plan living, a sofa near the kitchen units, he'd settle into the draining board or on top of the cooker. I'd even lured him upstairs. Previously forbidden territory at the cottage – long haired black cats and white duvets don't mix – my more, ahem, relaxed attitude to housework meant that most of my world involved tufts of black hair. Taking against the laundry basket, Henley would curl up on the chair next to the bed when I settled to sleep, his huge purr keeping me awake.

The past few days saw Henley turn weird. He took himself off behind the kitchen units for hours on end, hardly touching his food or water. Blocking off his hideaway seemed mean, so I gave him a box layered with his favourite blanket – carrier bags – and he settled next to the sofa. Obviously struggling to breath, not having eaten for days, barely hydrated, we took the Long Walk to the vet. Heart failure.

Henley kept me company, gave me joy, helped me focus on something more than my own travails. He kept me company in prison – his huge purr captured on an MP3 player lulled me to sleep. He sits at my feet now, awaiting his burial in the morning. His purr, his presence, will take a lifetime to fade.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Life For A Life

I have never understood the proposition that if one commits a murder, one should then be killed. Note I don't call this an argument; it isn't, it's a mere assertion which, when prodded with a sharp question or two, deflates into being a T-shirt slogan.

This comes to mind whenever I briefly recall that a few months ago I found myself in a position of saving someone’s life. It has no great emotional impact, I don't see it as being a seminal point in my life. What I did took no effort, it was merely the obvious actions of any normal human being. It wasn't, from my perspective, a big deal.

In a broader moral context, this is perhaps the obverse situation to being executed for murder. And just as sterile. As execution doesn't ameliorate the fact of the original murder one iota, neither does my having saved a life lift so much as one microgram of my guilt or moral stain for having killed.


We may hope, we may search, for some equivalence in a painful attempt to find some meaning in murder. But the truth is, each life is unique. Once extinguished, no number of other saved lives repairs that hole in the human fabric; and no number of executions leads to resurrection.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Relationships

A common response from everyone I have ever tried to explain the nature of prison friendships to is puzzlement.

Outsiders, those fortunate enough not to have had the gates shut behind them, sometimes imagine prison as being essentially solitary. Thousands of people confined to little concrete boxes, with a meagre interaction between them at best. This is profoundly misguided.

Prison is a rich society. Even in the deepest dungeons the State has created there is communication...shouting out of windows, through the cracks around the door, through messages left in common areas such as the shower. There are exchanges, relationships of mutual obligation... "Guv, can you pass X the newspaper?"... And these strands of common humanity may even be forged without ever actually seeing the other person. Up on the landings the society is more fluid, more laden with the potential for a myriad exchanges. Many good, some bad, but all meaningful.

And yet...even as solid bonds of friendship were forged, there is the knowledge that physical proximity is never in our control. A mindless transfer to another wing, another prison, was inevitable and sometimes sudden. Someone you had spent every spare moment with could be at the other end of the country in a blink of an eye.

This is one reason why I – and other Lifers – tended to mix with each other rather than with short-termers. With fellow Lifers there was the grapevine, the near inevitability of bumping into each other again, even with years of separation. Conversations separated by a decade could easily be continued.

I was never a social animal. Rather than lurking around a pool table, I was more likely to be found sitting in my cell with the door open on Association. People came to visit me, not I them. Poor Gerry was visiting several times a week before I offered him a cuppa – and even then he had to bring his own cup! Not that I lacked the social graces; people came to me often because I listened, if nothing else.

This disjointed, unusual social community has had it's effects. Significantly, coupled with my neurological blindspot for the passage of time, it has rendered me rather useless at maintaining relationships. Unlike prison, your mates aren't within shouting distance, there is no inevitable meeting at the hotplate twice a day. Connections have to actively worked on, maintained, repaired....

And I am rubbish at it. With the blog, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, website, email, phone, text – just how many more means of communicating does a person need – I have "met" a vast range of people over the last year or so. Gauging the depths of the connections, separating the interlinked nature of the personal and professional (boundaries are always porous to me) and maintaining, building, these connections in meaningful ways seems to slip through my grasp. And I don't just mean professionally, I mean on a personal level.


I am having to learn a new set of skills, absorb new expectations, and grapple with my time-blindness. This has been a dawning realisation and I wonder how any opportunities I have squandered, how many valued people have slipped from my life, as I make this adjustment.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sky News

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fHWhV8ewEI

Brief interview to discuss prison privileges, with a few old cell pics thrown in!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Digital Presence

Rather foolishly, I expected to be able to continue near-daily postings after my release. It has never happened; life has a nasty habit of getting in the way and my first year has been...emotional.

And I cannot deny that I have become rather taken with Twitter. But in fairness, the blog was always the core of everything and I must apologise for ignoring you guy's far too much for far too long. Whilst Twitter is excellent for many ways of communicating, it's limitations mean that I have more than once found myself embroiled in bitter arguments that were always too subtle to deal with except in a more measured, lengthy piece.

You can expect to see me back here far more often from  now, and I thank you all for your patience.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prisoners Votes Judgement

The Supreme Court hands down a ruling tomorrow on the long-running prisoners votes case, following the victory by John Hirst in 2005 in the European Court of Human Rights.

This could be one of those crazy media days, depending on the news agenda!

I'm on BBC Breakfast debating the issue at 0740, Wednesday 15th. And who knows where else my fizzog may pop up during the day...?

Lifers Struggling Through the Process

The latest article by Ben in Inside Time, the UK prison newspaper:

http://www.insidetime.org/articleview.asp?a=1581&c=lifers_struggling_through_the_process

Friday, September 27, 2013

Rape By Prison Staff - Call for Information

The blogpost on rape of women in detention has had interesting effects, mostly subterranean – as is the way with anything prison related. Information flows, in odd channels, carving its way through the cracks in the walls. The Ministry of Justice were extremely annoyed. Not at any revelation that women prisoners in their care were being raped, but by the accusation that they were indifferent to it. Good.

The blogpost was not only very personal; it was part of a deeper strategy for change. The shape of this is not for discussion; giving away that information, The Plan, would be to give the Ministry the avenues to scupper it. I am but one voice in a chorus on this issue, and powerful allies play their part in their own corners of the criminal justice landscape.

Now I call for information. As much information as possible relating to the sexual abuse of prisoners across the system. Prison staff are notoriously reticent and cliquish, but not a homogenous group. Prisons contain Discipline staff – screws – managers, teachers, chaplains, workshop staff, psychologists, probation officers, NHS medics....a range of individuals and professional groups who do not all buy into the mentality of denial or dehumanisation.

There are numerous ways in which I can be reached anonymously. Phone, blog, gmail, twitter...I am here. And we have the services of three senior QC's to defend the interests of any whistleblower, all willing and able to wield the law against the Prison Service in defence of anyone who shares their knowledge of these awful crimes. And the protection exists....

The law on whistleblowing is governed by the Employment Rights Act (ERA) 1996, as amended by the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998. The preamble of the PIDA describes it as “An Act to protect individuals who make certain disclosures of information in the public interest; to allow such individuals to bring action in respect of victimisation; and for connected purposes.”

The law is therefore designed to protect ‘workers’ (including employees) that disclose information about malpractice at their workplace, or former workplace, providing that certain conditions are met.

The PIDA establishes two tiers of protection for whistleblowers on the grounds that they have made a “protected disclosure”:
i.                    Not to be dismissed
ii.                  Not to suffer any detriment
Since the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (ERRA) 2013 came into force on June 25 2013, the existing legislation extends to protect whistleblowers against detriment also caused by co-workers as a result of a protected disclosure

When will a whistle blower be protected by the legislation?
For the whistleblowing protection to apply, the information provided must constitute a “protected disclosure”. In order to be protected, the information disclosed must firstly concern some wrongdoing (a Qualified Disclosure) and secondly, be disclosed by the worker in accordance with the statutory provisions.

1)      Qualified Disclosure
A disclosure of information will be a qualifying disclosure[4] if, in the reasonable belief[5] of the person making the disclosure, it shows any of the following has occurred or is likely to occur:

-          A criminal offence
-          Breach of a legal obligation
-          A miscarriage of justice
-          Danger to the health or safety of an individual
-          Damage to the environment
-          The deliberate concealment of information of any of the above
Due to the ERRA, for disclosures after 25 June 2013, the whistleblower must also have a reasonable belief that the information disclosed is in the public interest

 2)      Prescribed methods of disclosure
In order to be protected, a qualifying disclosure must be made via one of the following prescribed methods:

-          To the employer: PIDA encourages internal disclosure (disclosure to the employer) as the primary means of disclosure

-          To a responsible third party: If a worker reasonably believes that the information relates to a third party’s conduct or to a matter for which they are responsible

-          To a legal advisor: If made in the course of obtaining legal advice

-          To a Minister of the Crown: If employed by a person or body appointed under statute, the worker can report matters to the relevant minister

-          To a prescribed person: Parliament has provided a list of “prescribed persons”including HMRC, the Audit Commission and the Office of Fair Trading – to whom workers can make disclosures, provided that the worker reasonably believes that:
i.              The information, and any allegation it contains, is substantially true
ii.             They are making the disclosure to the correct prescribed person

-          Wider disclosure: Disclosure to anyone else (i.e. the media) is only protected if the worker believes the information is substantially true, does not act for personal gain and acts reasonably in the circumstances. Unless the matter is "exceptionally serious", they must have already disclosed it to the employer or a prescribed person, or believe that, if they do, evidence would be destroyed or that they would suffer reprisals. Disclosure to that person must also be reasonable.

The law protects those who will share their knowledge with us. The lawyers are ready to protect, you.

All that is now needed is that those who work in prisons and other places of detention take a moment of stillness, and look to their hearts.

Talk to us. Drag the wrongs from the dungeons of darkness of secrecy into the light, so that we can see, judge – and stop these monstrous abuses.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rape of women prisoners

I had seen the story. It peeked through the gaps in my life, between furious bouts of work, depression, stress and general mayhem. The rape and abuse of women detainees at Yarls Wood, run by the security company Serco. And yet, like so many of us, the story slid away from me, displaced by my own selfish concerns, other stories.

And then I had a phonecall. The conversation was long, tinged with anger, bitterness and laden with sadness. Ghosts from the past stared us both in the face and mocked inaction, silence. But be assured – this post is fuelled not by my inadequacies and helplessness, but rather charged by my deep burning anger at what I know now. About a woman who, several years ago, was repeatedly raped by a prison governor whilst she was in his charge. A woman whose sentence was three times longer than her male co-defendents. A woman who, despite the degradations inflicted upon her by the prison service and the spineless watchdog bodies, remains in the care of those who abandoned her to her horrible fate.

I do not know this woman. I know her friend. My connection with her is the intangible one that connects all who have had to fight their fear and powerlessness in prison. I know her through what I myself suffered, and what I saw inflicted upon others. There is a place in life for a due measure of punishment, do not err into thinking that is my complaint. It is not. My anger is fuelled by the abuses I saw, fought, and know still continue. My unnamed incarceree and her compatriots deserve – at the very least – that their abuse makes us angry.

Staff at Yarl's Wood are finally being investigated. Some of the complaints go back years. The mainstream media could not discuss the story, evidence from behind bars being incredibly difficult to substantiate. The high walls may be permeable to contraband, but are quite effective at blocking the flow of information and to inculcate a sense of isolation and helplessness. Finally, The Guardian and Observer managed to break the story.....or the parts its lawyers felt comfortable with. I will always be grateful to any journalist who covers a prison story, knowing the indifference that may flow from readers. Anyone who is not moved to a cold fury or sickened disgust by the knowledge that those we charge the State – and its private sector minions – to care for has, in reality, been abusing and degrading those women.

Yarl's Wood is today’s story for us. It is also tomorrows reality for the women held there. It is also an experience being repeated below the radar at Eastwood Park prison, with women being sexually abused and racially degraded by a male Governor. Action has yet to be taken.

You will not know my anger. It is not yours, although I hope there is a common humanity that connects us in our feelings for these abuses. But my anger comes from sharing their powerlessness. Ghosts from the past for me....and yet potent spirits that stir me deeply.

When we put a person in prison we strip them of all they have. Dignity, autonomy, individuality, status, home, family...all that gives meaning to our lives is taken away on behalf of the public. That's you and I. We render them helpless. The least we can demand, insist upon without hesitation, is that these people are then cared for. Not to be beaten or raped by the guards we pay to do our sordid bidding.

Why does this happen? There must be decent guards, decent civilian staff working in these prisons, NHS staff, layers of management, watchdog bodies, and ultimately the Ministry of Justice. It happens because people are afraid to speak. Maybe selfishly, maybe pragmatically, but the end result is the same. In cells across the women's prison estate male guards are raping female prisoners. The silence may be indifference, it may be callousness, but it allows the abuse to continue.

And that goes all the way to the heart of the Ministry of Justice, the Orwellian monolith that scrabbles to hold this whole mess together. In this case, the indifference can be tracked directly back to the ruthless heart of Dr Debra Baldwin. She is in charge of "Transforming Rehabilitation" for Women Offenders. And has an office, salary band staff to add weight to her position. Dr Baldwin also has previous for her contempt for both the taxpayer. At a meeting with charities whose goal was to help women prisoners, whose goal was to reduce the female prison population – overwhelmingly a non violent collection of criminality – the good Doctor began the meeting by insisting she intended to keep locking these women up. And then chuckled.

Just a few days ago one of the warrior-women I am proud to know, who now circles the criminal justice arena like a well dressed piranha, bared her teeth at Dr Baldwin during a meeting. My friend put the charges of rape at Yarls Wood squarely to Baldwin. And the woman in charge of these prisoners and their rehabilitation looked my friend squarely in the eye and said, "it's not my problem".

It is her problem. Its the problem of everyone who knows about it and does nothing. It is certainly "the problem" for those in charge of this carceral monstrosity that allows prison guards to coerce women – disempowered at our demand, remember – into sexual submission.

I am angry. I am intensely sad. But what I refuse to feel is helpless. And if the least I can do is voice this clarion call for outrage, I have done something. To do nothing in the face of this abuse is to turn your back on humanity – and the consequences of our penal obsession.

We put these women in this situation. It is our responsibility to safeguard them. But before us and our responsibility comes that of those we pay to do our dirty work in prisons – led by the indifferent Dr Debra Baldwin.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Any Questions?

Every few months whilst I was blogging from the other side of the wall I would throw up the opportunity for readers to ask me questions. Usually these were prison related, but some were profoundly personal or contained an insightfulness that would make me draw breath.

It occurs that in the 13 months since my release, I haven't explicitly given readers that invitation to ask me about...anything. Here's your chance.