Sunday, May 21, 2017

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

Wings Clipped


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

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




Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Prisoner Ben's Story"


What do I do?

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

Life license

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

Inside Justice

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

The long term psychological effects of incarceration

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

Freelancing

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

Published courtesy of Russell Webster
http://www.russellwebster.com/prisoner-bens-story/http://www.russellwebster.com/prisoner-bens-story/

Monday, April 17, 2017

Drones and Phones


To be fair, anything involving flying stuff is inherently more interesting than “I threw a ball stuffed with weed over a wall”. Drones have a whiff of the Mission Impossible. Basic media clickbait.

And also apparently catnip to our Ministry of Justice leaders. Drones, they have declared, pose a real risk to the security of prisons by smuggling in drugs and mobile phones.

Oh, that’s a lie. You weren’t meant to notice, but even the MOJ figures place the number of drone incursions to prisons in the dozens. Not hundreds, dozens. Whilst Liz Truss indulges her Tom Cruise fantasies, drugs and mobiles pour into prisons and will continue to do so.

is a masterpiece of irrelevancy. If the problem being addressed is the smuggling of contraband, the starting point must be – How are drugs and mobiles smuggled into prison? The answer shapes the policy response. All nice and rational.

Here we sink into murky waters. There is very patchy data on how and what is smuggled into prison. Measuring covert illegality is always an interesting criminological challenge. The MOJ has comprehensive data on what staff find, but this is not publicly available…

We do know over 10,000 mobile phones/SIM are found annually. I invite you to check the weight of mobiles, the carrying capacity of cheap drones…And with under 50 drone incursions a year, any hint that drones have a significant impact on the supply of mobiles is plain ridiculous. For the Minister of Justice to make this claim is staggeringly dishonest.

Drugs pose the same mathematical challenge to the MOJ claims. Tens of thousands of drug users. The weight of drugs. The sparse number of drones. On what we do know, the idea that drugs delivered by drones has a significant impact is again plainly absurd. Its physically impossible that drones are doing what Truss claims they are. This is so obvious that Truss’ statements must either be deliberate lies, sheer stupidity, or plain incompetence.

To address the basic question – how does contraband enter prison – we must rely on deduction and prisoner experience as well as the thin data. An unsatisfactory basis on which to build a policy, but such difficulties are common in criminal justice issues.

Prisoners and their visitors are usually blamed for smuggling. Every public effort HMP makes against smuggling focuses on prisoners and their visitors. Some glimpse into what a “domestic visit” entails would inform debate here.

A prisoners visitors must be in receipt of a permission slip (Visiting Order) and sufficient identity documents. Personal possessions, sans a few quid to buy refreshments, are removed and stored. The visitor is then searched, a “rub down”; essentially, a prolonged indecent assault. Babies and nappies included. Visitors are then sniffed at by drug dogs, and then scanned or wanded – a metal detector.

Only then do they enter the Visits Room. To sit on fixed seating opposite their prisoner. Under constant staff and CCTV surveillance. I’ve been in Visits rooms where there were as many cameras as tables.

On exit, the prisoner is then searched. Rubdown, strip, squat, metal detector…

If I have given you the impression that smuggling contraband in a visits room is difficult…Its because it is. It can be very difficult indeed. How exactly does a mobile phone get through this procedure? 10,000 mobile phones?

The widely spread idea that the major route of contraband is via prisoners domestic visits collapses in the face of the visits security procedures I’ve delineated. They are so oppressive that as these security procedures were brought in, and despite the prison population nearly doubling, the number of people visiting prisoners halved. Prisoners families being the major source of contraband is a myth that needs to die in order to address the actual problem.

In contrast to the security procedures imposed on visitors, prison staff are at best subject to the occasional random rub-down search. From their colleagues. We have to end this pretence that prison staff do not pose a massive risk to security. Drones can carry gramms. Staff can carry ounces.

Anyone familiar with the experiences of (ex Gov) John Podmore will share the frustration at the perpetual refusal of the Prison Service to address staff corruption. It is a subject on which the MOJ, HMP and POA are in perpetual denial.

The most simple analysis of the contraband issue reveals that the issue isn’t drones. It flatly isn’t the problem. Staff corruption is the major source of contraband. And in focusing on drones and refusing to get to grips with the actual problem, Truss is being worse than merely ineffective.

In focusing on drones and ignoring the actual problem, our Minister Truss is condemning prisons to a future of rotten staff culture, rampant drug misuse, and predictably awful reoffending rates.

For a Minister of Justice, delivering such a future should consign them to political oblivion.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, March 31, 2017

How exactly do you pick up a conversation after four years…?

How exactly do you pick up a conversation after four years…? 

And conversation it was. For those prison years, from the birth of this blog in 2009, it was a conversation. One molested and warped by the Prison Service and its aversion to post vacuum-valve technology, but nonetheless a meaningful exchange. And in an early post I noted that any meaningful blogging was a relationship – in return for a fragment of your attention and hopefully brainpower, I regularly attempted to inform and entertain you with a perspective of the prison system no one else provided. That’s the deal. It seemed to work reasonably well, given my lack of direct net access.

Of course, the scale of the blog in our respective lives was a tad different. Apart from one spectacularly insecure Governor, no one rolled out of bed with the first thought being “check Ben’s blog!”. My waffling impinged for moments in your day, hopefully with some small reward for your attention.

From my cell the scale of the blog was large. Very large. When the environment is such that each day is born without any inherent joy or meaning, to have this opportunity, to blog, was one of the very few pillars on which my existence was propped up in a ramshackle fashion. 
The attempt to show you a part of life you cannot see, overlaid each grey prison day with a layer of interest – to share with you the experience, I was forced to pay greater attention, to think more, about the life I was living. It gave meaning to what was otherwise meaningless, even if the only meaning was to try to share the experience to those in The World. In the sterility of my prison existence, the blog, your presence, became more important to me than I can ever explain.

Having no idea about the reality of blogging, very quickly I was forced to make several decisions. One was, how personal should this blog be? Should I confine myself to abstract comment? This was both an issue of “how can I best use this blog?” and also an irreversible decision about whether I wanted anonymity in the rest of my life. Big decisions! I decided that broad comment in itself was something many could provide. And that illustrating prison issues through a more personal engagement with them would be far more interesting. The human element (the thing the Prison Service has forgotten). The mix of grand pronouncements on policy, savage analysis, and personal revelation seemed to be broadly successful?

And then came release. I knew it was highly likely months ahead, but wary of the Prison Services habit of supplying firewood then pissing on your fire, and acutely aware of those in power waiting for me to make any error, I gave no particular thought to how the shape of this blog would invariably change on release. I had an idea I would continue with comment, and continue sharing my journey through the criminal justice system (Life sentences don’t end). I gave it no more attention than that.

I had overlooked a small matter….that on release, from Minute 1, I would have direct net access and ability to blog like the rest of the world. It literally hadn’t occurred to me, I had become so used to the slower flow of information to and from the blog via Royal Mail (mostly…). The blog was no longer my refuge from prison life, it became one of many obligations in my free life.

I also walked into a massive wall of information previously denied to me, but equally the amount of time my new daily life afforded me to absorb this infowave shrank significantly from the indolent hours blogging filled in prison.

Can you imagine walking from a world without internet, to the streets of the UK in 2012? When I say wave of information, I mean having access to nearly every word generated in penological history. Not so much a wave, perhaps. More of an infinite column of data falling from the sky onto my grid coordinates. 

Simultaneously, I was trying to “do living”. I suspect that I stand in a cohort of One that began their prison sentence at 14, to be disgorged back into reality 32 years later. While I was feeling generally competent to address daily life – “7 billion do it, how hard can it be?” – I had an idea that there was an awful lot I would be experiencing for the first time. 
When I say “a lot”, I actually mean “nearly everything”. Truly, every experience outside of the Gate was a new one. From the very small – pausing for an Americano on my way home – to the lifechanging, finding myself walking into The Editors home as “our home”. This is an awful lot to absorb. And life doesn’t pause to allow you to digest what it bungs in your direction. You have to work it out whilst living it.

And at that point, my mental gears ground to a halt. I couldn’t see a way to meaningfully blog, which must sound absurd given that I was now able to blog in freedom.

Freedom, maybe, but we are not islands. What we say matters. In order to continue sharing the journey, it meant keeping the door ajar on my personal life, my experiences. And as that life was with The Editor, it meant sharing our life, not just mine. I was loath to do so. Everybody aware of our circumstances has usually accepted our wish that she usually remain obscured. Just because I was daft enough to throw myself into the public arena doesn’t mean I can drag others along. I couldn’t see past this impasse.

Whilst I do live in freedom, I remain formally constrained. I remain on Probation supervision, with a Life License with several standard conditions. As well as these formal constraints, there is the practical reality that I can be hoiked back to prison if Probation have sufficiently urgent concerns. Without breaking a law, my actions, attitudes or words can lead me into danger of imprisonment. Anything I wrote, particularly about my personal journey, would feed into my supervisors views and assessments. 

Very quickly after release I was employed in various bits of work around prison issues. Which meant I was publicly tied to various bodies, allowing the mendacious or silly to saddle my employers with responsibility for my views or, conversely, my views could irritate those paying the bills. Blogging about what I was actually doing daily became a series of challenges I failed to defeat.

These are very real difficulties that I didn’t foresee. But then, having began the first prison blog, I’m also the first prison blogger to be released and face these issues!

That said, I’m back. The journey continues.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I have seen how dangerous prison lockdowns are …

In a place whose essence is the passage of time, cell doors are the metronome. Unlocking and locking, creaking and slamming: steel doors provide the soundtrack and the structure to prison life. And when the cell door doesn’t open, when this routine is broken, a shudder of uncertainty runs through the prisoner community.
A prison lockdown is staff leaving prisoners locked behind their doors. You may shrug – after all, isn’t that the point of prison? A moment’s thought, though, suggests otherwise. Prisoners need to be unlocked to be fed. To move to work. To attend education. To see the doctor, governor, probation officer … cell doors are flung open with regularity. Without unlocking, everything stops.
You wake. You wait. Time passes by, and yet you hear no movement. Cells are not being unlocked. This is the only warning of a lockdown. And so you sit. And wait. As time passes, you may begin to worry. Will domestic visits be cancelled? Have families crossed the country to be turned away? Will mail be delivered? Will letters be sent? Lunchtime arrives. Doors must unlock: people must be fed. On a lockdown, this is done with a “controlled unlock”, a handful of prisoners at a time. Do you know how long it takes to feed hundreds of men, when only five at a time are unlocked?
A few hours locked down can provide some relief, an escape from other obligations. As the day progresses, and the prison remains silent, tensions can grow.
It may be seemingly little things, such as being short of tobacco. It may be large things, such as not being unlocked in the evening to telephone home to a partner sitting patiently by their landline.
To lockdown a prison is to increase exponentially the pressure on prisoners. And sometimes pressure must find some release. Lockdowns are dangerous, and to use them as a management tool in time of crisis only reveals desperation.
Courtesy of the Sunday Observer 

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.