Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Personal and The Political


If there is one unmissable difference between liberty and confinement, it is the distance between the individual and the State. Out in our daily lives, the State is hidden, glimpsed fleetingly as traffic wardens flit by and police cars grace our rear view mirrors. The State is there, in every corner of life, but it gives the impression of being concealed behind the façade that is life.

I am used to a more personal relationship with the State. Directly because of Ministerial decisions, recommendations by the Parole Board that I move to Open prison prior to release were overturned. Every moment of my existence was regimented and regulated, the State being personified by some miserable bugger in size 9’s slamming the cell door shut. Rarely in the “real world” do we have such proximity to government.

A large barrier to my forging any consistent relationship with the State, the gaping hole in the idea of “citizen”, is the denial of the Vote. Ten years after the Hirst judgement and government is still slithering around the issue like a snake in a vat of KY. A government insisting I show slavish obedience to the law whilst ignoring its own obligations is a matter which has, and always will, rankle with me.

Yet here I am, the new owner of a vote. And it came without any effort on my part. I haven’t had to show that I’m intelligent, educated, moral, or even interested. Whether I like it or not, I’m lumbered with the damn thing. And now I have to decide how to wield this miniscule, temporary, power over our masters.

 I could just bail out of the whole business, opting to spoil my paper or just not vote. In the face of a range of political parties all severely afflicted with prisonitis, the idea of voting on the basis of party is a dead duck. All of them can rot.

 In the absence of any meaningful political principles on offer, I have decided to ignore the national picture and rather chose to look local. As is, which local candidate fills me with sufficient confidence that they can do a decent job representing my constituency.

 Rather improbably, I have alighted upon David Warburton. He is not a career politician, which may suggest less adherence to slavish party lines in attempts to curry Party favour. Maybe. And politics is his fourth or fifth career, which has encompassed classic music through to E-Commerce and social enterprises. A person rounded by experience, then. Having popped into his office to sound him out of criminal justice policy, we found ourselves in the café having such a long chat that other appointments were shifted. Unlike a standard politician, David was happy to ask questions rather than merely pontificate.

Turns out, I’m voting….Tory!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The O'Brien Show


The O’Brien Show
On April 2nd – today or yesterday, depending on my efficiency! – I appear on the new ITV O’Brien Show. And I found the experience quite disturbing. Its made me angry enough to  surmount my writers block, so silver linings and all that. 

The call came in late last week. Would I care to pop along to Manchester to take part in a debate on the new O’Brien Show. Hmm. Daytime ITV can be a bit of a bearpit, but I googled James O’Brien and discovered that whilst he is a minor controversialist, he has stood in on Newsnight as a presenter. Clearly not of the Jeremy Kyle persuasion, I thought… 

Standard practice, train tickets arrived and I dragged myself to the station for the 8am train heading Oop North. Four and a half hours. I arrived slightly frazzled. Unlike any other media engagement, I was left standing in the rain in Manchester for an hour awaiting a car to hoof me to the studio. Such is the life of the part time media tart. 

Arriving at the media centre I was faced by what seemed to be a mix between an airport lounge and a mental health outpatients clinic. I was searched and metal detected. A first for any media engagement, but a loud clue that I missed. What sort of show needs its guests and audience searched? One that is determined to provoke conflict, perhaps… 

Herded into the studio, microphones attached – the process is like being ever so politely indecently assaulted – then seated. Next to a woman who had lost three members of her family to murder. And in front of another family of victims. The other two ex cons were similarly placed. I had a sneaking feeling that all was not going to go as smoothly as normal. 

The headline question we were dragged from all over the country was meant to be, does prison work. What transpired was that each of us ex cons was berated by O’Brien for our past crimes, with him egging on various victims to skewer us. 

I talk about my crime. I don’t shy from it. If id been invited along to talk about that, then id still have turned up – and it would at least have been an honest process. But to lure us in for our views and then use us to prod at victims who have suffered appalling loss is pretty repugnant. But all standard for this show. The ethics of using victims of crime to stir up heat for a tv show is, I suspect, not a hot topic at production meetings. 

The first ex con was set upon. A young guy, ex drug dealer, he was seated next to a woman who had lost a sibling to a drug overdose. The guy was piled into as if he was responsible. Then he laid into Stinson Hunter, “the paedophile hunter”, accusing him of being a vigilante and of responsibility for the suicide of an alleged paedophile Stinson had provided the evidence against to the police, who charged the guy.
 
Then onto me. O’Brien suggested “life should mean life”, an interesting enough topic but not the one that we were invited to address. O’Brien suggested murderers were inherently dangerous….and so I couldn’t resist asking why was he sitting next to me then?! Cheeky of me, I know, but I was hacked off with the way the show was unfolding.

 The final straw with me was when O’Brien pompously suggested that I had laughed at my crime. Nice try. Anyone remotely familiar with me will know I never view my crime with  anything less than deadly seriousness. It was a despicable trick.

 Having seen that none of us were actually being asked to address the issue of prison, having seen us being used as some sort of surrogate offender for the victims surrounding us, I unhooked my mic and headed for the door with firm politeness. It was a natural break in the recording, and O’Brien skipped across to intercept me. And I told him my problem – that having being invited along to talk about the utility of prison, all he was doing was slamming us for our past. O’Brien guided me back to my seat, making placatory noises. Then left me in the lurch as some random told me I should be executed. Right to respond? Don’t be silly.

 It wasn’t just me that felt traduced. In the first part of the show you will see me sitting next to a middle aged lady. By the end, she had morphed into a young brunette. The cause of this transformation? The lady had walked out just after me. A victim of crime, she felt this was all more heat than light and left, with tv people trying to tell her she couldn’t. Why? Continuity! And so a new person was snuck into her empty seat. The magic of television was revealed to be a grubby con trick.

 I had words with the Producer afterwards, and he seemed surprised. With a bunch of ex cons and an equal number of victims, there was a genuine opportunity to explore the issue of punishment and prison. This was squandered, deliberately, burned on the altar of what I call zoo tv.  I’d like to think they considered the victims they invited to emote and recall their loss and pain – to no good purpose. But I know I'd be wrong to believe that.

 Never again. Strictly news shows from here. Unless the jungle calls.

 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Media Tart Experience

The media tart experience

Whenever I have a camera pointed at me, I am aware of all the times I used to watch ex-cons on the telly. Often it was painfully frustrating – “tell them about X!” – and sometimes toe curlingly bad. When the little red light goes on, then, I am acutely aware that my harshest critics, the most important audience, is the one I never get to see or hear from – you guys inside. It is important that I do a good job for you, as best I am able.
I am not a spokesperson for prisoners. No one can claim that position and I’d quickly slap down anyone who claimed it. The best that any of us outside can do is try to reflect the pains of imprisonment, the concerns, to educate a wider audience. The longer we have been out, the harder that can become. Of course, I could be making a complete hash of it; I daresay someone will let me know!
The weird thing is, none of it phases me. My first media thing came a few weeks after my release. Channel 4 News with Jon Snow, responding to some silliness the Prime Minister had spewed. Evening primetime. Millions watching. My first glimpse into the world of telly! And its always a big deal. Not just because I somehow have to get to London and back from Somerset, but because if I screw it up then it gives people an excuse to slag off cons and ex cons even more than they do. Having gone through 13 parole hearings may have helped me develop a tolerance for pressure.
The process begins with an Email or phonecall from a producer. They explain the story and explore your views. If they think they can use you, the process rolls on. The news agenda is a fickle beast, though, and it is common to be told later in the day that the story had been dropped because something else more interesting had happened. There comes a point when the news agenda is settled, though, and the gig is definitely on.
Off to London I trekked, to find a car waiting for me at Paddington. I could get used to this… Whisked to the studio – I forget where! – and the Green Room. This is where guests sit around awaiting to be shoved into the studio. Channel 4 had the makeup artist in the corner, who faced one hell of a challenge. The night before I has fallen down the stairs face first, skinning a line from my chin to my forehead. I ended up with more makeup than Coco the Clown, although through the magic of TV none of this was obvious.
TV studios are strange. Some are actual sets. Some are merely concrete boxes with a couple of chairs; all the images, walls, etc are special effects. Its odd being told to look at a cross chalked on a concrete wall and told to pretend its another person. Channel 4 is pretty much how it looks on screen.
While I always know the topic being discussed, particular questions aren’t shared beforehand. This makes quick thinking essential. And a thoughtful use of language – swearing is a no-no! I think I’ve only been caught by surprise once, when I thought a co-guest, an ex copper, was advocating vigilante justice. I was all “Well I never, I’m appalled”, when what I’d usually say is “fecking muppet”…
Perhaps my best day was when Grayling announced his new horrible regime changes. Sixteen interviews around London, giving my opinion of our dear Minister. The highpoint was at Sky; I was leaving the studio as Grayling was entering. “I’ve just spent ten minutes in there giving you a kicking”, I told him. “That’s alright”, said Grayling, “I’m up next and I’ll return the favour…”
It’s been a busy couple of years. I’ve popped up on every channel and endless radio stations from here to Russia. But I don’t buy into much of it. I’m not called by the media out of kindness, and I know there is always another ex con round the corner who can become media flavour of the month. Perhaps Inside Time should take over the role, become the “go to” source for media interviews?
Courtesy of Inside Time Newspaper

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cleopatra, Coming At Ya

The death of Henley [ http://prisonerben.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-very-fine-cat.html] was a hard blow. While it appears I'm incapable of living with another person, I'm also incapable of living by myself. Two days after Henley's passing saw me becoming fractious. A house without a cat just isn't right.

I began to make inquiries. Kittens, how hard could it be to find one?! Very.... The large charities wanted a chunk of loot and to make home visits. Bear in mind I was looking for a cat, not trying to adopt a Chinese baby, I thought this was all a tad excessive. So I put the word out on the kitten black market, and was led to a small female black cat, a couple of months old.

She was laying on the floor in a chavvy corner of the region, trying to ignore the chaos around her as a dozen other animals  screeched around the house. A very cool cat, that twenty quid saw me and The Editor drive away with.

The Naming Of Cats is a very serious business. Not least to avoid standing on the doorstep calling for "Fluffy Bunnykins". With her large ears, triangular face, my new cat was obviously a Cleopatra. Not that she ever answers to it.

Many months on, and Cleo remains a dainty cat. She has developed her little quirks - crapping in my bath and nuzzling my armpit - but she is perceptive and kind. When I have a bad night, it's not unknown for Cleo to climb into bed with me and stretch herself out down the length of my spine, purring. Cleo is a Good Thing. She even has her own Twitter account, @TheJusticeCat and is a minor scourge of trolls and radical feminists.

Kittens don't remain kittens for long, and a couple of months ago Cleo began rolling around under hedges with various suitors. And then she grew fatter. And fatter. And lazier. Until a few days ago her favourite spot was on my kitchen worktop, above the fridge and next to the kettle.

Now, she is hidden away in a corner in my bedroom. The Editor and I prepared a lot of nests for her to choose from, so obviously Cleo picked a random binliner full of dirty clothes to give birth. But she was extremely clever. Early one morning, Cleo began to climb all over me and nuzzling my face. I woke and gave her lots of fuss, but she kept walking away. She did this repeatedly, with ever more determination, until I roused myself to follow her. Only when it was clear hat I knew where she was nesting did Cleo settle down to give birth.

I was more worried than she was, poor thing. Between us we didn't have a clue. Instinct kicked in, and we are now proud possessors of four kittens: one silver tabby, two black, and one that seems to be flirting with the idea of being grey. Just three days old they remain in the box I moved them to, piled in a heap or attached to Cleo. And she is very cool, only purring when I pet her, and making no complaint if I pick up one of the wriggling furballs.

One kitten will remain here, company for mum, and the rest will go to good homes. If I am fortunate, and if Cleo stops sitting in the middle of the road, we should be keeping each other company for many years.

Cleopatra. Coming at ya.


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 thebengunn@gmail.com.

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.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Slice of Prison Culture

It's instinctive, if unfair. But I rarely wholly trust any man with a thin scar down their face. Being slashed, "striped", is one of the traditional prisoner expressions of disdain for debtors and sex offenders - nonces.

Such is the prisoner subculture. Nonces are, as a matter of social policy (so to speak), the excluded, the despised and the legitimate target for the violence of other prisoners.

Except I never did buy into this. In my early years, my appreciation of the subtleties of moral criminal reletavism was not all that it could have been, and I expressed myself as forcefully as the next man in relation to sex offenders. As the years passed and my moral education deepened, I withdrew from this part of the subculture.

There were three reasons for this. Firstly, the prisoners' moral calculations were a tad askew. While all sex offences have a "yuk factor", this needn't lead to the conclusion that all sex offences were inherently "worse" or caused more harm than non sexual offences. I killed someone. Who am I to tell a rapist that he is worse than me, and beat him?

Secondly, there was the problem of "justice". We cannot demand for ourselves what we would deny others in the framework of justice. The very men who inflicted vigilante beatings to nonces would howl to the rooftops if a mob turned up at their cell door.

On the landings, though, in the grubby reality of prisoners social life, what caused me pause was the sheer hypocricy that I witnessed. Sex offenders who were wealthy, or who could seriously fight back, or - most significantly - a nonse who could supply heroin were not invariably hounded. They were often treated with more distinctions. Whereas the sex offenders who were isolated, weak, vulnerable, were invariably abused. Such bullying dressed up as a principled stance against sex offenders was, is, pathetic.

I do not condone violence between prisoners based on their crimes. Not then, not now. As well as being morally suspect, such violence only plays into the hands of prison staff. It undermines any attempt at prisoner solidarity and is utterly pointless.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Purpose of Prison

What is the point of prison? What is it we expect to happen via some mystical act of hiding someone away behind a 20 foot wall?

I wish I could point to some profound piece of law; Or guide you to a deeply insightful Parliamentary discussion that encompassed teasing out the nuances of State power, the uncomfortable realities of inflicting suffering on citizens. You will know that such debates haven't yet taken place.

The best I can give you - apart from Chapter One of any criminal justice textbook - is Prison Rule number 3: The Purpose of Prison Training and Treatment. You will appreciate how little attention is paid to this grandly titled Rule when I point out it once held the place of Rule 1. It slides down the list as time passes.

Rule 3 states that, "The purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life".

Note those words: encourage...assist...useful life.... And note the complete absence of the word "punishment". Indeed, the Prison Rules are denuded of that word, as if by its literary absence then the reality of prison is somehow more amenable. Even punishments issued as part of the internal disciplinary process are smuggled into existence by being called "awards". I "won" a few awards over the years, mostly resulting in solitary confinement. An award in prison is not one to be sought after.

Punishment, then, seems to have been forgotten in the Rules. The punitive element of imprisonment is reduced to t6hat inherent in the act of imprisonment - the loss of liberty. Not liberties, please note; but liberty. This is an error that many make. And the loss of liberty is grievously underestimated by those who have never suffered it, by those who insist that imprisonment must be accompanied by imposing harsh treatment and hard regimes.

The Rules are clear. Which makes it rather pathetic that Ministers insist on reaching down from their vast and comfortable official perches into the cells of prisoners, to tweak the penitents lives just to make them a little bit more miserable. Not out of some great penological or criminological urge to reduce crime, but in the politicians perpetual quest to grub for votes and to retain their clammy hold on power.

To take Rule 3 on its face - let's pretend? - it might be asked just what in prison life either encourages or assists prisoners to live a good and useful life? Is it the overcrowding? The meagre family contact? The forced penury? Being forced to work for the profit of outside companies? The ambivalent healthcare? Being compelled to crap in front of cellmates, strangers?

These are structural indecencies, requiring no input from prison staff. This is the way prison is designed to be - degrading and empty of significant positive purpose. An hour in any prison is enough to suggest that far from encouraging a future "good and useful life", prisons foster a sense of anger, injustice and resentment. And a 60% reoffending rate.

I have tried to imagine what a prison would look like if it did aspire to actually adhere to Rule 3. It was so far removed fromj my experience that I failed. Utterly.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Morally Ambiguous Murderers

The Right wingers who lurk in the shadier parts of our society - such as Parliament and the Daily Mail - are not known for supporting murderers. Usually. But then we have a soldier convicted of murder and suddenly the adherence to the rule of law goes out the window. And Life should most certainly not mean life....

We saw this with Corporal Lee Clegg. After a stolen car had scuttled through his checkpoint on a lane in Northern Ireland, Clegg fired at the retreating car and killed one of the kids inside. Knowing instantly that using lethal force against a car which posed no threat was wrong, Clegg pushed one of his squad to the floor and stamped on him, so that they could claim the car hit them.

Rightly, Clegg was convicted of murder. And the Tory dogs of war - fresh from Balaklava, I suspect - declared him a hero and campaigned hard on his behalf. In the event, Clegg served 2 years of a life sentence, returned to the Army and gained promotion. No lifetime firearms ban for him then, just every other lifer on licence...

And now I see an e-petition is floating around for another convicted soldier, Marine A. Some feel his conviction by a military court for murder is an outrage and he should be released. Possibly with a Mandelian parade (that's Nelson, not Peter...).

The undisputed facts of this case are not ambiguous. Two insurgents were taking pot shots at Marine A's base. An Apache helicopter gunship was summoned, and it shot the two desperados to pieces with its 20mm cannon. Marine A was sent out with his squad to check on the insurgents.

Marine A found the victim. He was grievously, probably mortally, wounded. He was disarmed. Marine A then dragged him out of direct sight of his base and shot him dead. He then turned to one of his squad who was wearing a helmet camera and declared that he'd just broken the Geneva Convention. In brief.... Marine A found a wounded enemy. He disarmed that enemy. He then killed that enemy.

A military court found him guilty of murder. On the face of the facts, not surprisingly. This was not in any heat of battle; it was not the result of some mental fuse being blown under the pressure of combat. It was cold blooded and deliberate killing of a wounded and disarmed prisoner. It would be difficult to imagine how any court could not condemn this act.

However, there are those on the Right (including the risible "Britain First" group) who are circulating an Epetition to free Marine A. They do not dispute any of the facts of the case. The sole basis of their cause seems to be that a British soldier is, by definition, a hero and must not be convicted of killing a terrorist scumbag.

Exchanges I've had in other forums only reinforce this attitude. Excuses made for Marine A include the fact that the enemy are brutal and not constrained by the rules of war. Both true.

However. We engage enemies, we send our forces, on the basis that they fundamentally threaten us and our values. To attempt to justify mistreatment of enemy combatants on the grounds that the enemy mistreats British prisoners is bizarre. The basis of our campaign is that we are better than them, that our values are better. To attempt to argue that we should act as badly as our enemies is to reduce us to the enemies level. Which would beg the question - what are we fighting for, exactly? The right to torture and murder enemy fighters?

I have every sympathy for our armed forces. But the uniform is not some cloak that endows superman status nor renders our troops invisible to the rules for the conduct of war. Soldiers who commit crimes should be - must be - held as accountable as any other citizen.

In the event, the Court of Appeal has reduced Marine A's sentence to a minimum term of 8 years. That is half the standard starting point for murder. For anyone else, murder with a firearm would result in a minimum term of over 30 years. In this framework, an 8 year minimum is a gift.

I hope that this does not lead to a repeat of the Lee Clegg episode - Tory MP's queuing up to denounce the conviction, the sole argument being childish flag-waving.

Those who proclaim an adherence to the rule of law do themselves no service by special pleading for murderous soldiers. Ignoring the monstrous hypocrisy of such pleading, it also creates its own dangers. For accepting, even arguing, that our troops should be entitled to act with the bestiality of our enemies extinguishes any moral reletavism and only hands propaganda to our enemies.

Murder is murder. Law is law. Being in public service does not, should not, result in a free pass to crime.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Books for Prisoners


Books for Prisoners

With unintended irony I begin writing this at a café in the sunshine – opposite a small bookshop. I am carrying so much tech that if war breaks out, I’ll be targeted for being a major communications hub. Smartphone, tablet, laptop, Wifi hotspot…..short of welding a satellite dish to my hat, I’m about as connected as its possible to be.

The world is at my fingertips. I can send messages via dozens of different routes, and receive through as many more. If I want to know the circumference of a gnats eyeball or the daily doings of a Chinese Emperor, its but a matter of seconds before enlightenment flits across one of my screens.  We live in a remarkable age of information.

Or most of us do. For the high prison walls do more than cast a shadow over those within their grasp. The walls are a physical manifestation of the deliberate isolation of prisoners. Not just physically, but in the very sharp sense of  cutting off prisoners from the very essence of our modern life – information.

Without the internet, prisoners are limited to ye older channels of information . Imagine sitting in a concrete box. Alone. Stripped of autonomy, control, the limits of your freedom of choice restricted to four paces back and forth from the steel door to the barred window. You have a question. How do you break free from your tomb to search for enlightenment?

In defending his policy to restrict the ability of prisoners to have books posted in from outside, Grayling claims an awful lot, but mysteriously stays silent on so much more. Perhaps he is uninformed. Perhaps he just doesn’t give a damn- vote grubbing triumphs all in the Ministry.

The two main claims made by the Ministry to justify this further restriction on prisoners accessing information are both mendacious. Firstly, it is claimed that books posted in are an avenue for drug smuggling. Potentially true, of course. Which is why all prisons have an x-ray machine and access to sniffer dogs. Perhaps prison staff just can’t be bothered doing their job? A lapse now signed off on by the Minister himself.

Ignoring these expensive security measures for a moment – as Grayling does – the other fatal blow to this silly “security” scaremongering is for prisoners families and friends to order books to be delivered direct from publishers. Or is the Ministry going to hint that Penguin and Amazon are fronts for the Medellin cartel?

In essence, the security argument is a nonsense. It only gets headspace because of widespread ignorance of the details of prison life. In the knowledge that prisons have scanners and dogs, Graylings argument is revealed to be utterly threadbare. Not a lie, but mendacious nonetheless.

Graylings second argument is that this book ban is largely irrelevant – anything prisoners need can be obtained through the prison library.  He will look you in the eye with cold sincerity and tell you this. Let’s assume ignorance rather than deceit on his part….though it is a very fine line with Grayling.

Access to the library is a statutory right under the Prison Rules. But then the Rules need to be given life by prison staff. Parliament may propose, but it’s the screw on the landing that makes it happen. Or not. Unlocking prisoners and escorting them to the library is at the top of no ones list of things to do. The library should be accessed once a week. Assuming that happens, the time is extremely limited – 30 minutes is a good run – and staff hustle you along. The staff rest room doesn’t occupy itself, you know….

If decency and the Rules actually do prevail for once, and library time is given and even fostered, the prisoner is then at the mercy of time and the library service. In this age of mangerialism, the rules and regulations that govern every minute aspect of prison life fill shelves. If a prisoner wants to look up, say, the process for temporary release, he will need several library visits merely to read that Order.

A specialist book would have to be ordered from another library. It may take weeks. Reference works cannot be so ordered, leaving the serious student bereft. The library service is not to be dismissed as a vital source of information, but its limitations are rarely recognised by “outsiders”, who are used to a more rounded library system.

These issues came to a head for me during my Masters (and later my incompleted PhD). The books I needed were extremely specialist and many only available from the university library. Under the Rules, these would have been unobtainable. It was only through the good efforts of a member of staff that I was able to complete my Masters – with the member of staff risking career and income by indulging in wholescale book smuggling to and from the university.

Access to the library is does not fill the information gap created by Grayling’s ban on books being sent in. The material and the time available is insufficient for prisoners to even read the rules governing their lives, let along anything else. Does Grayling know this? Do his advisors? Do they care?

The grand lie, the mendacious nature of this policy to deny prisoners books, is that it has nothing to do with drug smuggling nor library access. And few unfamiliar with the landscape of prisons will realise just what they aren’t being told.

To make it explicit, then. This policy of Graylings is everything to do with increasing control on prisoners. Nothing more, nothing less. For since 1995, privileges must be earned through good behaviour. In practice, this means that the higher up the privilege scale a prisoner climbs, the more of his own money he can spend – up to the maximum of £25 per week. Most prisoners do not have such money at their disposal. But what little they do have is spread thinly. Clothing, bits of food and drink, TV rental, tobacco, stamps, phonecalls….all must come from a prisoners limited monies. Throw in the cost of books, and the idea that prisoners can order from publishers becomes revealed as being ridiculous.

If families and friends were allowed to order books for prisoners, and pay for them, this would “undermine” the privileges system. That is what this policy is about. It is intended to make prisoners utterly dependent on the prison. The consequences for education, learning, self improvement, are all irrelevant.

This policy is contemptible. Inserting itself into a discourse centred on “security” concerns, it’s actual purpose is about control – plain and simple. That it cripples the already severely  limited opportunity for post basic skills learning is a matter of no consequence to Grayling.

Either Grayling doesn’t realise this, or he just doesn’t give a damn. I dread to think which. For ignorance can be as dangerous as indifference; and with free access to information, Grayling has no excuse for his lack of understanding.

Books, knowledge, information….the bedrock of our modern world. To strip these from prisoners and yet hoping they can change, blend back into society and positively contribute, is ridiculous on the face of it. This policy must not stand.

 

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....