Monday, August 22, 2016

Personal Blogging



I came to a divergence in the path - and I chose the wrong way forward.
When I began this blog I took the decision to make it personal. How else could I show prisoners, including myself, as three dimensional beings unless I shared my personal journey? And so you had an eclectic mix of blogs, the highs, the lows, and sheer inanity that is daily prison life. It was a journey that you shared.
And then came release. Four years ago today: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/22/ben-gunn-prison-blogging ...how time flies. And the blog changed. My fault for listening to advice! It was strongly impressed on me that the wider world wouldn’t be as quick to embrace me. Most pertinently, I was advised to manage my image, to show only my most professional face. I’m not known for taking advice, yet this seemed very sensible stuff.
The problem with this approach is that I feel it is slightly dishonest, as if I have shut a door in the face of readers who have shared this journey. Release and trying to forge a life are as inherently part of the journey as prison. To confine myself to trying to appear professional at all times seems deceitful.
And so I have decided to return to the eclecticism I used to enjoy, and I suspect you did as well.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

How do you Adjust after 3 Decades Behind the Door?


I assume no Lifer walks out the Gate intending to breech their licence, but I managed to do it without even thinking. Such is the perilous path we tread.
My brother filming my release annoyed the Gatehouse staff, so I left prison with the same attitude as I entered it 32 years earlier...The final jibe from staff was about my blog, which HMP never quite made its peace with. Off in the car, destination South West. Then The Guardian phoned. Could I do a piece about my release by 3pm, for 300 quid? Oh, go on then. Out for just minutes and my first job! I was still hacking away when I arrived home. Home being a country cottage in Wiltshire and my partner, Alex. Lunch in the sun under the pergola, one hand writing, the other forking. Job done, easy money, thanks!
Only then could I sit back and look around me, begin to relax into the reality. After 32 years of prison, beginning when I was 14, I was free. Wowser. 
Life had become a series of firsts. Everything I seemed to do was new. Small things, I’d never actually slept in a bed with a woman, to more lasting things such as opening bank accounts. And all the while the shadow of prison wasn’t far away. My partner, a diver, called it ‘decompression’, the bubbles of prison working their way out of my system, sometimes causing pain. Sitting at a cafe in Bath, suddenly the world around me seemed slightly alien, separated from me; did I belong here? Was this actually my world now? My partner was my bedrock through this early time, when I had horrific nightmares and woke screaming. She was my bridge, the thing that connected by bruised soul to the world I was now part of.
After seemingly being at war with prison probation officers for decades, I was now in a situation where a more flexible approach may be useful. Fortunately, my prior OM had been supportive, which helped persuade me that they weren’t all a blight on humanity. So I walked through their door with a “let’s see how this goes...” frame of mind. Having avoided Offending Behaviour Crap inside, I wasn’t likely to embrace it outside. Nonetheless, starting with an abrasive attitude wasn’t likely to lead to anything but Recall. The aim of my approach is ‘leave me alone as much as possible, please.”
Next day, check in with Probation. Supervision for me could have been a series of barriers and challenges, my view of Licence and Probation being well known. Difficulties were expected, but I let down the lads who bet I’d be recalled in a week! I had two Probation. Two! Tag teaming each other week by week to spread the load that is supervising me. 
I am fortunate that my Licence has no unusual conditions, and so expected restrictions were the usual – Work, Home, Relationships – and to be honest I lost my copy a couple of years ago now! My Guardian article broke my Licence – No work, paid or unpaid, that isn’t cleared by Probation. Oops. This point became an important one. For many years I have written about prison issues and I have never asked permission to do so. I didn’t when in prison, and I wasn’t going to on release. 
 The issue was, whether my speaking or writing in public, paid or unpaid, was “work”. I took a hard line on this. Campaigning isn’t any old regular work; it explicitly brings into play may right to free expression. Quickly, we found a workable medium- my public activities are fine, with minor restrictions. I should give my OM a heads-up as soon as possible about any media appearances, and not discuss my victim’s family. Hardly onerous, and neither restrict anything I wish to say. What could have been a point of great difficulty was handled with far more thought than I expected. 
I have to admit, my working relationship with Probation has been far easier than I anticipated, even in difficult times. When I decided to try and live by myself, Probation were not particularly jumpy. When I had a vicious stalker (a whole other story!), Probation didn’t over-react. Equally, when I hit a period of ill health, it was not noted as a negative. Overall, the attitude seems to be one of not overly interfering, with the goal being “stability”. Having problems isn’t the issue – such is life – but how I deal with them is. It is in demonstrating consistent stability and forward movement that eases Probation’s mind. Hiding issues is a bad idea.
Within 24 hours of release, I had a home, partner and a working relationship with Probation. And I deeply appreciate that these are far more than many prisoners have on release. Just being released directly home, not hostel, was a minor miracle. I had a foundation, enough support to take a brief pause, look around me and wonder - Now what do I do?!
The first real decision I needed to make was whether to continue prison reform efforts, or to melt away into obscurity and take up regular work.  I decided that reform was as important to me as it ever was, and that regular employment was unlikely to appear. So I promptly signed on! And ran into a series of hurdles in trying to engage with official bodies. I had literally no identification documents. No National Insurance Number. Nothing. It took months to chase up all that is needed to function in society, highlighted by the difficulties in opening a bank account.
I was a cypher, literally unknown to The Computers. No financial history at all. Every door shut in my face. And yet within weeks, I was in paid employment. For months, all my earnings had to go into my partner’s account, an option many don’t have. And it fried the taxman’s brain! 
My first actual work was to conduct some analysis for a technology company which has links with both NOMS and G4S. Neither the company nor I was keen on it being known we were in cahoots, and so this slid under the radar. That completed, I was facing boredom, unemployment, and the prospect of being slung onto some inane Jobseekers course.
By chance, a job advert from the Howard League was pointed out to me. Policy Officer. Hmm! I had been critical of some of the Howard Leagues activities over the years, so with no small sense of mischief I fired in my application just before the deadline. And expected it to vanish into the bin. I was a little disconcerted to be invited to the interview stage. Where I made such a mess of my first solo trip involving the Tube that I presented myself 90 minutes late and looking like a drowned rat. I made my pitch, and made it to the Top Three. Being a cheeky sod, I looked the bosses in the eye and asked, “Am I here because I’m Ben Gunn, or do I have a genuine shot at the job?” I was reassured.
I didn’t get the job. Not because I didn’t know the work, but rather because of my inexperience, particularly of office life. It hadn’t occurred to me, but of course, this was new territory for me. The League needed someone to hit the ground running, and I was an unknown quantity. The right candidate got the job! Later, at home musing, Frances Crook called and offered me a Policy Consultancy. I will always be hugely grateful for this introduction to regular work, even though I moved on after a few months to different work with Inside Justice, researching miscarriages of justice. Vitally needed work. The Outside World had a space for me, an acceptance. At a time when even opening a bank account was difficult, this gave me hope that perhaps I could build a viable future.
The process of ‘decompressing” from prison hasn’t been a simple one. Life is a journey, not a destination. What seemed to be very easy became quite difficult. Most parts of life are simple, even the new experiences. What became my weakness was relationships, and how to maintain them. In moving straight in with my partner after only 3 Home Leaves, I felt very aware that I was moving into her space, trying to weave my new existence into her established life. It became too much to unravel, I needed to find out how I was to live by myself, time and space to drop old habits and make new ones. For the moment my partner and I live separately but very close to each other. 
In my new place, myself and Henley Cat against the world! And I began to drop the many balls that life throws at us all. Bills mounted. My stress levels increased. The old enemy, severe depression, began to impact my ability to work. Within months, I found myself in front of a shrink with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety, coupled with more personality disorders than you can name! I retreated into myself, the world around me seeming to grow more hostile and bleak. It was a downward spiral that I am only now coming out of.
These difficulties may be huge, but I continued to do some public speaking. I am a regular visitor to many universities as a speaker, and the media pop up now and again. Most importantly, I have reached out and tried to connect with people in every corner of the justice system. Standing on the sidelines moaning is futile, and any opportunity that offers itself has me bending someone’s ear.
Due to astonishing luck, I have had the chance to grovel across the Ministerial carpet and timidly offer some suggestions to Michael Gove, who as I write is Justice Minister. I believe he is a genuine reformer, a man who appreciates the waste of human life and money that is Prison. Big structural changes are needed, instead of the petty and vicious meddling of Grayling (met him...Big lump!). And so, along with others, I’ve highlighted the importance of using prison sparingly, to reduce much of the Estate to Cat-C, unravel the shambles of Education and work, and to deal with the pressing problems of the IPPs. 
Gove has announced several shifts, none yet particularly effecting prisoners daily lives. Patience, I beg of you. Change is coming. Although at the moment it is ‘top down’, driven by the need to reduce reoffending and costs, no significant lasting reform can ever happen without addressing the needs of prisoners on the landings. I will remind anyone who listens of that.
Who knows how my journey will develop? Hopefully, more simply than of late! But no matter what, I always remember that whilst prison guarantees a bed, roof and food, that is pretty much as good as prison gets. Out here, you can fall into the gutter. But the possibilities to stand tall and find a meaningful life are infinite. That is compelling and exciting.
I am sitting here, coffee and fags at hand, typing away.; It could be another night of bang-up, really. But the options available to me are vastly more than yours. Prison is a stunted existence. The most important lesson I have learned is that I couldn’t have done this by myself. I stand here today only because of all the guys who were around me I during my years inside. Any idiot can serve 32 years; the trick is to be sane at the end of it! And without those staunch friends, I doubt I would have managed that. And on release, I have been propped up by many people, whose kindness and faith I have yet to begin to repay.
Most ex cons brush prison off their feet as fast as they can. For me, prison is in my bones. I lived it, studied it, wrote on it, campaign against it. And I can’t ever forget that my free life is built on the bones of my victim. All I can do is live, live with meaning, and hopefully look back and see I may have made some small difference.

Published courtesy of ConVerse magazine


Monday, July 25, 2016

Gove’s Policies 1


Those not intimately involved with the reform process will only note its beginning and its apparent ending, and the lack of change. This is not surprising. The reforms were intended to be strategic, not quick. It is only in examining the specifics of the reform agenda that we can discern how the potential outcomes could actually improve the prison system and how much scope within these changes there may be to address the specific concerns of prisoners.
Policy areas highlighted by Gove include Education, Work, Categorisation, Release on temporary license, and Autonomy. Together, changes in these areas are hoped to lead to better rehabilitation opportunities and so reduced reoffending. In this blog I explore Education and Work.
Education
The problems that have slowly been building within prison education are now self-evident, and no one supports the status quo. Education has been reduced to basic skills, rendering education a desert for the literate and numerate. Access to higher education has been decimated. It is not too much for me to say that under the current structures I would not have been able to achieve what I did educationally. This cannot be right.
Gove understood these issues, and asked Dame Sally Coates to explore the present situation and make positive recommendation. The Coates Review recommendations have been universally applauded for not only discerning the problems but for proposing workable solutions. Two of her recommendations could have a revolutionary effect, and are ideas that I suggest would never be generated from within the Prison Service. Firstly, removing the limit on Governor's  funding courses above Level 3. With ever increasing sentence lengths, prison education has become irrelevant to much of the estate, particularly long termers. Removing this limitation would again make education a viable option for interested prisoners. Prison education could become more than the sum of its current target-driven parts. The catch with this proposal is funding; no Governors have spare in their budgets to increase educational opportunities. The Treasury would have to be persuaded that investing in education would reduce reoffending costs and the Treasury seems incapable of such forward thinking. It’s a hard political reality that the Ministry must function within constraints set by the Treasury.
The present educational structure, centering on basic skills, is driven by managerial targets. It is not driven by prisoner needs. As long as this structure exists, then prison education may continue to be irrelevant. With the adoption of Coates’s recommendations, education could return to being enabling and enriching. This is a desperately needed for those many prisoners who face several years of captivity and who are presently hamstrung.
The second revolutionary recommendation was to provide some level of internet access for educational purposes. I repeat. Internet access. Everyone with any contact with the prison system is made instantly aware of the Dark Age that begins at the Gate. HMPS doesn’t do technology. It has a positive aversion to it. This attitude runs so deep that even attempting to engage HMP about technology is nigh on impossible.
The conversation inevitably runs into the mantra of all unthinking Governors, “Security!!!”. This is the catch-all concern that can be used to prevent any change, and often is. No internal review of prison education would even raise the issue of the internet; it required an outside expert to put the issue on the table. Security is, of course, a legitimate concern. However, the Norwegian prison system manages to provide Net access to all prisoners, the various restrictions based on the security category of the prison. Very circumscribed for High Security, to unrestricted access in Open prison. By comparison, the only Net access available in British Open prisons is on illegal mobile phones.
It is an absurd situation, to expect to deliver quality education in an information economy without the internet. At a stroke, most distance learning is rendered unavailable. Worse, a basic literacy in the use of the web is prohibited, when prisoners are expected to be released and integrate. This is farcical.
Had Gove asked the Prison Service to address the perceived problems in education, we can be confident that the internet wouldn’t even get a mention. The use of outside expertise was crucial just to have the issues raised.
Work
Ken Clark made an exceptionally good speech on work….and no changes followed. Gove not only appreciated the positive effects that can flow from work, but intended to break with historical practice to actually provide a new model.  The willingness to use the goodwill and experience of those like Timpsons suggested that there are possibilities to change the nature of prison work, a view I took some persuading to accept. I have, as you’d expect, seen and heard it all before. Indeed, my most intractable disputes were over exploitative work.
It can be done. Prison work can be made useful, skilled, profitable for everyone, and lead to better opportunities on release. Even a brief glance around the prison estate reveals interesting pockets of inventive solutions. The Clinks restaurants are one example, alongside the Timpsons training and employment schemes. Other small schemes, often transitory, pop up in particular prisons whilst being supported by particular staff, which then wither when those staff move on.
A perfect illustration of what is both possible, yet undermined by prison culture, was the Howard League's Barbed Design Studio. Created through public subscription, Barbed employed and trained prisoners to the standard where Barbed was undertaking design work for commercial clients. This was clearly a model with potential. The problem was, it was sited within a prison. Prison staff failed to throw their weight behind the scheme, leading to workers not being unlocked for work; and the regime did not support a genuine length working day. Commercial work cannot be undertaken in these uncertain circumstances, and despite having a trained workforce and profitable orders, Barbed was forced to close.
The lessons Barbed highlighted were that any scheme must have the full support of Governors and staff, and the institution must be prepared to be flexible on its regime in order to accommodate genuine work and training. It is not the expertise or ideas that are lacking, it’s the Prison Service attitude that undermines genuine work. The drive to fulfil meaningless targets overshadows positive change.
The solutions to the work and training issue exist in the minds of creative business people and the rare creative governor. Using the expertise and goodwill of people such as Timpson’s reveals Gove’s reticence to put this problem into the hands of a Prison Service that’s failed to address it. However, no matter how coherent and positive the business ideas, the attitude of the institutions must be made more flexible and business minded.
There are constraints to changes in prison work which must be acknowledged. Firstly, prison service managers are not businessmen, let alone entrepreneurs. The whole selection and training of managers centres, perhaps inevitably, on selecting out creative thinkers. We have shifted from the old “officer class” of Governors, ex-military, to a class of bureaucrats. This shift accompanied a broader societal move towards managerialism, exemplified behind bars by the endless spawning of regulations and targets that currently comprise “prison”. Secondly, there is the “short termers conundrum”. Will it ever be possible to find meaningful work for prisoners not in prison long enough to be upskilled?

Reforming prison work, making it both meaningful and profitable, is a strategic imperative. If this area cannot be reformed, there must be little confidence that other reforms could be implemented.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What Have the Romans done for Us?

Just how in the hell did I find myself standing alongside the Minister of Justice, taking the ire of prison reformers and wrestling the cynicism of ex prisoners? My life is indeed stranger than I expected. I’m in the position of having to persuade people that Gove was undertaking serious reform. As the most cynical guy on the wings, these are unusual waters to paddle in.
Of course, any Minister who makes reforming noises is met with rolling eyes and a sigh. We’ve heard it all before, every variation of the theme. And those ministers who have actually acted have been the malevolent, petty ones who are more concerned with increasing the misery of prisoners than making an impact on crime rates.
In the face of this depressing history, which has rightly generated a wall of cynicism, then it is hardly surprising that people are already saying “Michael who…?” And yet despite the historical portents, people who really should know better have dismissed the idea that reform can be happening. This includes criminal justice professionals as well as my fellow ex cons and campaigners. To be frank, some of the criticism has been childish denial. “He’s a Tory…..Upper class….Supports Israel…” I have lost friends over this, people whose loathing of anything Tory is so blinding that it obscures reality. Equally, if reforms aren’t the ones highlighted by prisoners, then they aren’t reforms. I have been bemused and disappointed by fellow reformers.
You may ask, why would a Tory Minister push a prison reform agenda? Motives are very important. As we saw with Grayling, a malign motivation can be toxic. Was there political pressure for Gove to push for reform? Not particularly. There was no single “crisis” event demanding immediate and public change. Essentially, Gove could have sat in his office, collected his wages and allow everything to roll on as normal. Any particular prison problems could be squarely and fairly laid at the door of Grayling and the Treasury. Gove had no need to do anything, let alone create a plan for strategic reform. And yet he promptly got stuck in.
What, then, were Gove’s motives? I have blogged before about his involvement in my case, which came from nothing more than a broad sense of justice. Make no mistake, Gove’s motivations were solidly Conservative in their basis. Prison is very expensive, and quite ineffective in reducing crime. In essence, this view is more akin to Hurd’s “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse”, rather than a Howardian “Prison works!”. Whilst not a common strand in Tory thought for over 20 years, it isn’t alien. Efficiency and effectiveness are central Tory concerns. And they can be powerful drivers for change.
This is not prison reform as prisoners and their allies would wish. Gove was not directly addressing the concerns of prisoners. And this appears to be the rub. In not focusing on prisoners, prison campaigners deny any reforms take place. It can be argued that without addressing the core needs of prisoners, then no meaningful reforms are taking place. But it would be silly to claim no reforms can happen.
Gove didn’t look at prison from the perspective of a cell, but as a policy maker concerned with the prison system as an expensive and inefficient part of government activity. His reforms were very much top-down, not bottom up. Not the approach reformers would adopt, but nevertheless a legitimate approach.
Any Minister can, and often have, meddle with prison policy. This tends to end badly, as my two recent blogs on Unintended Consequences suggest. Gove resisted any urge for quick fixes (which aren’t), nor did he rise to any tabloid bait. Previous Ministers, Straw in particular, who were weak and lacked any strategic vision were particularly prone to meddle on a nearly daily basis, to no good end. The lack of public spasms from Gove suggest inactivity; the reality was that his focus was on the long term, strategic issues. In avoiding the usual crisis management style of leadership, a broader view of the prison system and its place in society can be taken.
The methodology that Gove adopted was unusual, if not unique. Rather than merely diving into his own limited knowledge and pronouncing – a la Grayling – Gove canvassed far and wide for views on the penal problems and, more importantly, for solutions to these problems. To some degree NOMS was sidelined as expertise was sought outside the Ministry, at times from quarters who would otherwise be persona non grata with the prison system. The brief everyone bore in mind was: Prison is expensive and doesn’t cut reoffending. It needs to be “an efficient and effective” prison system. And NOMS has presided over a shambles. 
The question I had to ponder was, could the actual policies that flow from this brief lead to positive changes for prisoners on the landing, even as a secondary effect? This was, at the beginning, the Great Unknown. I had to make a serious determination – was this a reform process that I wanted to become involved with? I was aware of some others involved, such as John Podmore and James Timpson; both very serious people with significant and positive ideas. I also knew that Gove was interested in Education and Work, both issues ripe for change. After sniffing around, I made my decision – Gove seemed to have the right motivation, he was consulting people I respect and his way forward seemed politically interesting. I closed my eyes and jumped in. I must be circumspect in what I share, Chatham House Rules.
The approach from Gove that I found interesting was his use of outsiders, specialists. A political cynic might suggest that Gove selected experts who then made recommendations he wanted, but it is more subtle. Gove appreciated the problems with, for example, education and then handed the issue to an expert. In this case, Dame Sally Coates. Having outside experts making recommendations adds weight to a Minister who may have to force changes on the wholly negative and obstructive prison service. Ministers may not be able to force their changes onto NOMS, historically ministers are strongest in relation to NOMS when a serious crisis occurs. In the absence of that imperative to act, a Minister leveraging outside expertise against NOMS is creative and astute. 
This is my overview of the Gove process. I really shouldn’t need to point out that I am one of the penal reform community’s most experienced contributors. And unlike most, I suffered badly for my campaigning. Equally, I have a historical perspective that few others can match. I can even express this in the harsher terms – my activities cost me 22 years. And it is from this foundation that I say to dismiss Gove’s proposals as empty and meaningless is myopic.

Next blog – examining the Gove proposals in detail and what they can deliver. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Reform, unintended consequences 2
Prison reform is spasmodic and complex. This is part two of a brief examination of reforms which although were attractive on their face, were actually disastrous. Prison reform highlights the immutable Law of Unintended Consequences.
THE IPP FIASCO
The idea wasn’t completely improbable. A small number of criminals commit a disproportionate amount of crime and generate high levels of social misery. If these people could be identified and imprisoned, then some significant social good would accrue. The mechanism chosen to enable this was a new sentence, Indefinite detention for Public Protection, the IPP sentence.
As it implies, this was not a sentence that delivered fixed terms of imprisonment. Rather, it was an indefinite sentence. It’s important to appreciate the nature of this sentence, which is bifurcated. The first part of the sentence, the tariff, is the amount of time that the person would have served if given a fixed sentence, the punishment for their crime. This may be measured in days, weeks, months or years. Once this period of time has been served the IPP prisoner remains in prison until and unless they can persuade the Parole Board that they are an acceptable risk to release.
At the time, questions were raised as to whether we require yet another variant of a Life sentence, which is what IPP is in essence. Already available to Judges was the Discretionary Life sentence, partly used to stop an escalating criminal in their tracks. It is now realised that most IPP were never liable to get a Discretionary Life sentence, as their crimes were not serious enough.
Indeed, we were meeting IPPs on the landings that had tariffs of mere weeks. They had a legitimate expectation of timely release. Us old hands quietly raised our eyebrows, tried not to disabuse them, and sat back to see how this fiasco would unfold.
The Government predicted that some 300 people would fall into the clutches of the IPP sentence. As the numbers crept into the thousands, IPP criteria was altered so that only those who would be given a fixed sentence of 2 or more years would get IPP. That is, the minimum tariff became 2 years. Even so, the Government’s projected figure of 300 rapidly rose to 6,000, as the Judiciary responded to the harsh political tone of the time.
Capturing and imprisoning people was the initial part of the IPP plan. Rehabilitation and release was the conclusion. And this is where the IPP sentence slid from being a minor political spasm into a major disaster.
Actually getting released from an indefinite sentence is a complicated matter (as anyone who followed my blog will appreciate!). Prisoners must demonstrate a reduction in their risk of reoffending to the Parole Board. This is done by completing psychological treatments known as Offending Behaviour Programmes.
Predicting the haul of IPPs would be around 300, the Prison Service wasn’t allocated extra resources to offer sufficient places on Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBP). With some 6,000 IPP joining the lists for OBP, the system simply couldn’t cope. Prisoners with 2 year tariffs could face waits of several years before they could access the needed courses. A logjam has developed, so that now most IPPs remain in prison after their tariff not due to any actions of their own; but simply because their route to release is so narrow and oversubscribed.
The IPP sentence became a shambles. At one point the High Court declared the situation so chaotic that it ruled IPP detention to be arbitrary and therefore unlawful (a judgement swiftly reversed on Appeal).
And there the situation remains. Thousands of men are stranded in prison simply because they cannot access the routes to release. The Parole Board is overwhelmed. An attempt to capture prolific offenders has become a moral and political cancer, a festering wound on Justice with no end in sight.
EDUCATION
A report from Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit asserted – on fragile data – that most prisoners were functionally illiterate and innumerate, which has a significant impact on reoffending. The policy that followed aimed to remedy this deficiency by directing the resources of prison education to inculcating basic skills.
Prior to this rearrangement, education in prison was often eclectic. English language at one end of the corridor, politics and philosophy at the other, and all instructional ports in between. These were the days when I was able to complete my O Levels, A Levels, and my undergraduate degree.
No longer. The focus on basic skills took place at the expense of breadth. In this truncated system, education is driven by targets, and an illiterate prisoner can pretty much exhaust all offerings within a couple of years. What was a flowering tree is reduced to a fragile branch.
With a background of ever increasing sentences, the limitation of funding to basic skills has a devastating effect. Prisoners find themselves abandoned by the education system once basic competence is achieved. This flows from a logical error in the Social Exclusion Unit report, which notes illiteracy rules prisoners out of most employment on release. Whilst true, it assumes that literacy is a sufficient condition for employment. It isn’t. Literacy is necessary, but not sufficient in itself. And yet, it is at this point that educational resources become extremely meagre.
Tens of thousands of prisoners have been stranded, abandoned just when they are ready to embark upon serious education. An effort intended to increase education and better employment chances has had the unintended consequence of limiting education to those who genuinely desire it.


OFFENDING BEHAVIOUR PROGRAMMES
The search for effective means to reduce reoffending can only be a laudable one. In theory. In practice….
The mid 1990’s saw an explosion of psychologists in prison, and they quickly became the most despised of staff. The government had noted the birth of psychological treatment programmes in North America, and unveiled the “What Works?” agenda. As implied, this was meant to be a thorough examination of the potential for policies to cut reoffending. Alas, this inquisitorial approach swiftly saw the “?” fall into a chasm, with “What Works” becoming highly specific – it was decided that cognitive psychological treatments were the path forward.
A generation of forensic psychologists descended onto prisons and swiftly became the gatekeepers to release, particularly for Lifers. Courses included Thinking Skills, Anger Management, Violence Reduction and Sex Offender Treatment. Release without undertaking various courses became nigh on impossible (I never did a course, the Parole Board noting that “there aren’t any courses for being awkward”).
These courses became Holy Writ. And as such, funding them became a drain on other areas. Specifically, there was an overwhelming collapse in the provision of Trades training and courses. What was once a thriving sector spanning bricklaying to light engineering has become a wasteland. Imbuing people with useful work skills fell to the wayside, trampled by the psychology hoard.
This enterprise has so far cost some £500 Million. That’s direct cost. Indirect cost must include the thousands of extra years of imprisonment prisoners serve waiting to complete these courses.
The result of this agenda, which has been running for some 20 years now, has been negligible. The programmes continue.
It should be appreciated that reform is a complex and uncertain effort. Many good ideas are actually rotten.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Penal Reform and Unintended Consequences

Part One

There are many types of prison reform. Some efforts result from a political spasm in the face of tabloid populism. Some flows from great strategic changes following a crisis. On rare occasions, changes flow from an understanding that prison is a rather rubbish way of dealing with any problem.

And even the briefest glance at penal history reveals that all criminal justice reforms contain within them a ticking time-bomb – the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Short, Sharp Shock
The early, heady days of Thatcherism were a truly different place in many ways. One echo of our times, though, was the presence of a media created and driven moral panic. In the early 1980’s, amidst inner city riots, the popular panic was a fear of “feral youth”. Merely stepping out of your front door was bound to end with a mugging. Most likely by a Black teenager. Or so the tabloids were having it.

And Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw made the most basic of errors – he took the bait and began making justice policy as a response to media driven panics. He can’t be overly chastised for this, it is the usual pattern of Ministers with crime and justice.

The combined result of popular panic and an Old Duffer was the gloriously PR friendly “Short, Sharp Shock”. The old Borstal system was abandoned wholesale and replaced with Detention Centres. The aim seemed to be to treat criminally inclined kids with physical harshness. Education and training were replaced with gym circuits.
The end result of this policy spasm was a little empire that quickly sank into a quagmire of deliberate brutality.  It transformed indolent burglars into extremely fit young men with a grudge. And crime did not fall.

Drug Testing
On the face of it, prisoners should not be enjoying illegal drugs. I’m hard pressed to play the oppressed prisoner in the face of that simple statement. And yet...

Outsiders often fail to appreciate that each prison comprises a society, a warped microcosm of life on the Street. And drug use is a feature that permeates the walls, as drug users move in and out of the criminal justice system. For the majority of my captivity the drug culture centred on cannabis. Contrary to revisionist myth, the cannabis culture was a broadly accepted one in most prisons, with staff ignoring its consumption to varying degrees. A stoned prisoner is a happy prisoner – and a happy prisoner is one who isn’t going to present problems. A fairly benign equilibrium was in effect.

Michael Howard peered down from his office into this situation, and choked on his cuppa. Prisoners will not take illegal drugs! The policy was uttered, a big fat Manual printed, and a whole infrastructure of Drug Testing Suites, dedicated testing staff, legal procedures, laboratories... It was a bandwagon many in the Prison Service leapt upon. A quick tinkering of the Prison Act and Mandatory Drug Testing was born in the mid 1990’s.

Prisoners soon discovered the crux of the problem. Cannabis – its THC component -remains in the body to be detectable via urine testing for up to 30 days. The chances of actually continuing to use cannabis and not get caught was slim. This could have led to some interesting manouevres were it not for developments in the wider society – heroin. For many years heroin was viewed as a “dirty” drug, and its users viewed similarly. While not being unknown in prison, heroin was far from common on the landings.

As drug testing collided with the cannabis culture inside prisons, outside prisons there had been growing a larger number of heroin users. Heroin was becoming more socially acceptable (in some circles!). And these addicts were entering prisons in ever increasing numbers. Along with their cravings, they brought with them the solution to the “detectable for 30 days” problem.

Heroin can be expelled from the body in 2 days. The chances of taking heroin and remaining undetected by drug testing was a seemingly attractive one. As time has passed, the availability of cannabis has collapsed, as prisoners shifted towards heroin (and of late, New Psychoactive Drugs). The number of new addicts created is not known; nobody cares, no one asked. The crimes they went on to feed their addiction, countless.

A vastly under-appreciated consequence of this War on Drugs was a tightening of general perimeter security and, more significantly, a huge transformation in the circumstances in which prisoners received visitors and struggled to keep their relationships alive. Prior to this wave of new security measures, domestic visits often took place in reasonable conditions (considering...). Staff were not intrusive and various intimate activities were ignored and policed by prisoners (“not in front of the kids!”).

The drug war destroyed these conditions. Staff became massively intrusive, CCTV in visits became ubiquitous and it was a rare visits session where staff failed to see something suspicious and pile mob handed upon a family. Physical contact is massively restricted. The result has been that as the prison population nearly doubled, the number of domestic visits has almost halved. Needless to say, family support is one of the major factors in reducing reoffending.

For nearly 20 years the drug testing policy has actively fostered a drug culture dominated by heroin. Savagely addictive and morally corrosive, tens of thousands of new muggers and burglars have fell into its grip. And then re-entered society to add to the 10 Billion pounds a year bill and immeasurable human misery that follows reoffending.

This miserable failure of a policy continues.


Part 2 – IPP, Education and Offending Behaviour Courses

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Power of Ministers To Reform Prison

Standing on the prison landing in 1997, one of my friends was jiggling with glee at the prospect of a Labour victory. It was a wishful hope at the time that Labour would reverse or halt the privations heaped on prisoners. I was more cynical – for a year I had watched Jack Straw in Opposition try to out-Howard Michael Howard in terms of tough talk. I was sadly right.

Every leader finds themselves drawn to make comments about penal reform. Rightly, of course; criminal justice is a fundamental part of the State’s purpose. And Blair made his ringing assertion, to “be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime” – and promptly passed the whole mess to Straw. Who happened to be utterly weak. The legacy of Labour ‘reform’ was the IPP sentence, which has stranded thousands behind bars; and the order that no activity should take place in prison which doesn’t have public support – which handed the daily running of prisons to tabloid editors. The apogee of this risible outlook was the Chancellor of the worlds 6th largest economy taking time out to personally veto a pay rise for prisoners of 50p per week. This was the sum effect of Blair’s ringing declarations.

Any political fool can, and often does, mutter aspirational statements around prison reform. Quite what any of them mean by “reform” is usually left unspecified. What prisoners would call reform is usually far from any politicians view. A brief canter through the years suggests that penal reform is, at best, petty meddling and at worst blatant neglect.

It was my lot to begin my sentence at the start of the Thatcher years. Willie Whitelaw, “short sharp shock”, Detention Centres. It was a time of tabloid panics over “feral youth”, and Whitelaw took the bait. His response was to create a system for dealing with young criminals which saw them being trained to be fitter and stronger, whilst brutalising them. An utter failure by any measure.

Despite a blizzard of announcements and Criminal Justice Acts, the Tories actually propagated no policies which impacted the lives of prisoners until they were dragged to face the carceral shambles by the riots of 1990. The resulting Wolff Report was astonishing for several reasons. Most notably, the Inquiry took the novel approach of actually asking prisoners why they rioted? The Wolff recommendations were utterly sensible, and fell into the urbane hands of Douglas Hurd.

A resulting White Paper declared that “prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse”. Alas, Hurd moved on and the air of optimism – that all things were suddenly possible – quickly dissipated. Few of the Woolf Recommendations were actually implemented. A moment ripe for reform was squandered.

The vastly more robust Michael Howard hove into the Ministerial chair, and was apparently outraged at the sheer negativity of his officials. The mantra “nothing can be done” did not sit well with the Minister. The results of Howards efforts still remain – the daily regime and control mechanisms that are every prisoners lot today is essentially the one created by Howard.

Why so? Why are prison regimes been largely left unchanged in its fundamentals over the past 20 years, despite the efforts of those who followed after Howard? It was Howards  fortune to go head to head with an ever intransigent Prison Service in a period of crisis. This is hugely significant. The escape of IRA from Whitemoor and High Security prisoners from Parkhurst put HMP firmly on its back foot, and Howard used this weakness to impose his policies.

This is not to deny that Ministers can have no effect unless there is a background crisis. Labour fiddled with bits of reform, mainly of a negative type in kneejerk reactions to media criticism. Always a sign of a weak Minister, and weak Ministers get rebuffed by the criminal justice system.

A return to a Tory government  saw Ken Clarke and his emollient noises, none of which became a concrete reality. And then Grayling. Ah, where to begin...? A forceful Minister but lacking any strategic vision. Whereas Howard imposed large sweeping changes, Grayling sniped. Is it really the business of a Minister what clothing prisoners wear in their first two weeks, or how many books they have? The only lesson to be taken from the Grayling period is that imposing negative reforms is far easier than imposing positive ones.

Which brings us to the present. Unlike Grayling, Gove isn’t fiddling with the minutiae of prison life. He is sensibly leaving it to prison managers to manage. Like Howard, Gove has a broader and more significant vision- but unlike Howard, Gove’s is firmly rooted in efforts to cut reoffending.
The question I have to ask is, is it possible for a Minister to impose a programme of reform on the Prison Service when there is no immediate crisis?

Monday, March 14, 2016

My View of Michael Gove

Whenever I mention the name Michael Gove within earshot of a teacher, their universal suggestion has been to bop him on the nose. It has to be said that I don’t pay much attention to education matters, so I am not sure quite what the poor chap did to upset the teachers. But upsetting a profession is not necessarily a bad thing; recall that Consultants had to have “their mouths stuffed with gold” to accept the creation of the NHS. 

My perception of Michael Gove is somewhat different from the teachers. – and counterintuitive. Several years ago my blog caught the eye of one of Gove’s constituents who, after sniffing around, thought that my continued detention decades over tariff was perhaps a tad excessive and unnecessary. The constituent collared Gove – then at Education – and the outcome was that Gove wrote to Ken Clark wondering if my detention should perhaps come to an end?

Hmm. A Conservative Minister taking the time to look at the case of a murderer, and not even a voting constituent. This caused some minor cognitive dissonance. My whole adult life had been controlled largely by a succession of Tory Prison Ministers, and my experience told me that they were a vindictive, petty and plain malign bunch. So why would Michael Gove give his pleading constituent the time of day...?

For me, this is crucial. There was nothing to be gained for Gove in intervening in my case. None. If the tabloids had known at the time, I’m sure they could have made some hay at his expense. There was no earthly reason for Gove to touch any of this with a bargepole. Except..except...it was the right thing to do. My release demonstrated that Gove’s view of my case was actually accepted by both the Ministry and the Parole Board. At the end of this episode, all I could conclude is that Gove stuck his neck out solely because he looked at the matter and was honestly persuaded that I had, in sum, done enough time. 

For a guy who had been royally screwed by Tory Ministers for 20 years, it took some persuading but in the end all I could conclude was that Michael Gove had taken the time and risk to do what he believed was right.

This is why I don’t write Michael Gove off as “just another Tory”.  It would be childish to be so blinkered. A Minister who does “the right thing” is a rare beast and one who should be encouraged. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Riding a bike for first time in over 30 years

Beating the Stats on Reoffending

Somewhere - never to be binned - there exists a risk assessment completed ahead of my parole hearing. OASys - Offender Assessment System - is the standard risk assessment tool used by Probation and Prison services. And it is utter cobblers.

It rests on an algorythm that analyses 8 pieces of biographical information. With a statistically sufficiently large group, it can be seen which biographical factors are best able to predict reoffending rates. For instance, the age of first imprisonment is a strong indicator.

The perceptive will have already noted two major problems. Firstly, the group who shares my particular biography must be tiny, if it exists at all. And secondly, resting on actuarial data means that OASys doesn't measure change. Attempts are made to address this by including clinical data - ie, staff opinions - but this subjectivity is itself fraught.

My OASys proffered the odds of my reoffending in the first two years at 53.4%. This number has always tickled me, because of that decimal point. Here we have two criminal justice agencies checking out their collective wits in favour of a mathematical model which claims to be able to predict human behaviour to two decimal places. That is risible on its face.

More problematically, the OASys Manual makes it crystal clear that these assessments are scores for the GROUP of people who share characteristics. It may well be that people with teenage convictions have higher reoffending rates. As a group. But to extrapolate from these group scores to individual risk is both statistical nonsense and very unethical. Because 53% of a GROUP with a shared characteristic reoffends does not mean each INDIVIDUAL in that group has a 53% reoffending risk.

So I have outperformed a flawed risk assessment tool that is improperly used to assess individual risk. I could feel prouder.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Prison Smoking Ban

So. Let’s ban smoking in prisons. Simple, innit? As ever with all things prison, it’s far more complicated. Somehow these complexities are overlooked.
The sole reason I can uncover for this policy is Health and Safety – the Prison Officers Association are complaining about the foul air their members must inhale while in cells. Which are the only places in prison where smoking remains permitted – even smoking in the open air is usually prohibited (giving the lie to the health and safety rationale).
However, when the national smoking ban was introduced several years ago, and smoking was restricted to cells in prison, procedures were put in place to address this concern. Staff were meant to give a heads-up shout to prisoners as staff were conducting daily cell-checks, so that prisoners could air out the cells. Just to be very clear on this point: procedures were put in place to address staff safety, but staff have never used these procedures. There is no need for any member of staff to enter a smoky cell – unless they allow it to happen. And they do. And in the face of this lazy whine, a total ban on smoking in prisons is planned.
Unlike tobacco in the wider society, tobacco in prison plays a huge role in prisoners’ lives. Tobacco isn't merely a diversion. It is the default prisoner currency, the standard unit of trade that all other commodities are valued against. As such, banning it would have the same social effects as if Government suddenly banned the cash in your wallet or purse. Sans tobacco, some other substance will become the default currency and the only candidate is heroin.
There will, of course, be bits of tobacco smuggled in. Realistically, though, tobacco is bulky and not very smuggle-able. Especially when compared to the size and value of heroin. And the main channel of getting tobacco from one side of the wall to the other will invariably be prison staff – the very group that the Prison Service prefers to think of as whiter than white.
With the current medium of exchange prohibited, waves of disruption will flow through the social structure. Those who "baroned" tobacco – burn, snout – will be worthless, their ability to calm a stressed prison gone. In their place will rise, to a more embedded level than currently, those who deal in the "powders". But tobacco barons have always been a stabiliser, a bank, a bureaux de change, will the flow of tobacco being largely consistent. Heroin, in contrast, leads to some prisoners wielding undue influence – "powder power" – but inconsistently. Supplies of drugs are far more uncertain and temporary, leaving the suppliers in a shaky socioeconomic position and as such as likely to prompt instability as anything else.
Tobacco is also used by the Prison Service as an intelligence tool. Every Wing Manager has traditionally had a few packets of tobacco to hand, to dish out to the passing casual informers. This will now end. On a wider scale, by tracking tobacco purchases from the prison shop – the "canteen" – managers have been able to discern economic activity. This activity is often tied to broader prisoner activities and can highlight the wheelers and dealers. A non-smoker buying lots of tobacco is obviously "up to something"! Whether this oversight of prisoners’ economic activity has ever led to more substantial intelligence is unknown; what is known is that this source of intelligence will now cease.
The practicalities of the ban are yet to be made known, probably to be developed as this policy is rolled out. It begins in Wales early next year. Whatever details are developed, all have to face the reality that nicotine is one of the most addictive of substances and prison is the last bastion of smokers. And 50,000 smokers deprived of their fix will be a fearsome thing.
Obviously, the Healthcare departments of each prison (now NHS run) should be stocking up on Nicotine Replacement Therapies, such as patches. The problem with all of these poor substitutes is that they have success rates lower than a rugby player with a lion on his shirt. As for E-cigarettes; these would be a perfect medium. Alas, E-cigs require chargers, which can also be used to charge illegal mobile phones. How the Prison Service faces this challenge will be interesting. What will be offered medically will be risible and not cull the cravings of the masses.
Banning tobacco, then, will have the key consequences of instantly dismantling economic structures which have stood for decades; will destabilise the social structure; reduce intelligence; tempt staff to smuggle; and throw social power into the corrosive and unstable hands of heroin dealers.

I can't think of a more damaging policy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Whither Prison Reform - Part 1

I begin with the proposition that "prison doesn't work". This obviously presupposes the purpose of prison – a debate in its own right. However, in terms of reoffending and cost, prison fails. No other enterprise in human history with a 60% failure rate would be allowed to continue unchallenged, yet we appear to be singularly content with this monstrous rate of reoffending. And footing the bill for that perpetual failure.

Firstly, we should squarely address the issue of who we imprison, and for what crimes. Only then does the utility and cost of imprisonment become stark. In this Part, I will highlight Remand and Women prisoners.

Remand Prisoners. Over 48,000 people are remanded into custody awaiting trial each year. At any given moment, there are around 12,000 Remands (14% of the prison population).

A full 60% of these people are remanded to prison having being charged with non violent crime. Ten percent are outright acquitted, and a further 15% (15,000 people a year) are convicted but given a non-custodial punishment.

With the average annual cost of detaining a prisoner being around £40k, that we are remanding into prison so many people charged with non violent crimes must be questioned.

And where do we keep these Remand prisoners in the gulag? The uninitiated may not appreciate the varied nature of prisons, with categories going from Category A – High Security – to Category D, Open prisons. It is a matter of historical practice that the Prison Service places all Remands into Category B prisons – meant to hold people who pose such a risk that their "escape must be made very difficult". And Cat Bs are extremely secure, with escapes being rare.

But why place all Remands in such secure prisons? Because there is a direct correlation between security category and cost. Cat A prisons are the most expensive, Cat D the cheapest. Why place Remands, most of whom have comitted a non violent crime, into such a secure and expensive environment as Category B prisons? A quarter of a century ago, the Woolf Report made the recommendation that the default security Category for Remands should be Category C. Cat C prisons cost a significant amount less to run.

The Prison Service has ignored the Woolf recommendation, trampled over common sense, and continues to imprison those charged with non violent crimes in extremely expensive and secure facilities. If Remands were made default Category C, then tens of millions of pounds would be saved. The waste of the 25 years since Woolf must run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Women prisoners are another anomaly, making up some 5% of the prison population (just shy of 4,000). It is truly remarkable to note that fully 82% of women prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Nearly half of them are sentenced for theft or handling stolen goods.

It must be asked, why are we throwing non-violent women into expensive and secure prisons? If the Corston Report were ever implemented, the reality is that the number of women prisoners could be reduced by some 80 or 90% - with a resulting saving of  tens of millions.

In this first part of a series of posts I have made propositions which will save many many millions of pounds. In changing the structure of how Remand and Women prisoners are dealt with, whole prisons can be emptied, the social harms of imprisonment reduced, and the cost of the prison estate significantly reduced.

Thoughts please....