The government is expected to grant the vote to prisoners at the next election – and it will be due to the efforts of two men, both lifers. One of them, John "Ben" Gunn, has been locked up since the age of 14. Now, almost 30 years later, he is the general secretary of the Association of Prisoners (AoP).
As he sits opposite me in the visiting room of HMP Shepton Mallet, Somerset, it is the first time I have met Gunn, although I feel I know him well – a feeling shared, I suspect, by many involved in prison reform. For years, he has written critiques of the system that holds him, the main theme being the abuse of power that characterises many aspects of prison life. Reform groups have given him a regular platform, and few issues of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, emerge without a piece bearing his name.
It was his predecessor as AoP secretary, John Hirst, now free, who persuaded the European court of human Rights that a high court ruling in 2001, forbidding prisoners to vote, was a breach of his human rights. The government appealed and lost, and is now proceeding with the consultation process to enable prisoners to fill in their ballot forms for the first time since 1870. Although the Ministry of Justice refuses to recognise the AoP, or any other representative prisoners' group, Gunn and Hirst are now campaigning vigorously to ensure that the government cannot cherry pick which prisoners will be allowed to cast their vote.
Gunn's efforts are constrained by the lack of access prisoners have to the media. Like all prisoners, he has no live internet access, but he has succeeded in posting a regular blog by sending his thoughts in a letter to friends, who put them online. His keepers were not amused and last month put a bar on his outgoing mail. It was only lifted after Gunn's reaction was posted on the Guardian's Comment is Free site and attracted hundreds of comments. But the authorities have refused to allow him to have a photograph taken in prison and sent out. The only photograph that exists of him is when he was a nine-year-old schoolboy, with a shock of blond hair and a haunting stare.
The transformation of Gunn – nicknamed Ben many years ago when he had a long beard – to a balding, middle-aged man has been captured in a portrait recently drawn by a fellow prisoner and sent out in the mail. The scholarly air is heightened by a short beard and Gandhi-style glasses. No surprise, then, to hear that he has used his time in prison to gain a BSc (Hons) and a master's degree in peace and reconciliation. Gunn's dedication to the cause of peace stems, he says, from the need to explore "why I had done the terrible thing that brought me to prison, and to repair the parts of my personality that had clearly broken down". His soft vocal tones still carry a hint of his Welsh upbringing.
To those who believe their fellow human beings can redeem themselves for past behaviour, in a prison setting, such quests are not unusual. What makes Gunn's journey remarkable is that it began in early 1980. Dressed in his school uniform, the 14-year-old boy gazed bewilderedly around the South Wales crown court that accepted his plea to murder. The facts were seemingly clear: on his way home from school, Gunn had fallen out with his friend and attacked him, leaving him fatally wounded on the ground. He phoned the police, waited till they arrived, and confessed immediately.
Both boys were in the care system, and both had experienced difficult childhoods. Gunn entered the care system at the age of 11, two years after his mother died. He took her death badly and began running away from home. His father warned him that if his bad behaviour persisted he would be sent to a children's home. Gunn took no heed, and the years of institutionalisation began. Ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure, he was given a tariff of 10 years and, from almost immediately after his conviction, has been classified as low risk. The fact that he is still inside is due to his refusal to accept aspects of prison regime if he feels they are unreasonable.
Did he intend to kill his victim? "No," Gunn says. "But he did die, and I pleaded guilty to murder at the first opportunity. If I had fought, who knows, maybe they would have said manslaughter. I killed him. Everything else is froth."
Gunn believes that a 14-year-old can intend to kill, but the understanding of death at that age is incomplete, and only time brings understanding of the permanence of death. How difficult it is for him to recall his thoughts and actions all those years ago? The difficulty, he says, lies in not being able to stop recalling the terrible event. He has frequent, vivid flashbacks, which used to be visual, he says, but recently have been auditory – "a perpetual replay of all the sounds".
I recall a piece Gunn wrote about remorse and ask him when he began to understand the concept. He says that, after the shock of the crime and arrest wore off, in a matter of days, he was appalled by what he had done. He describes an "overwhelming urge to disown a part of himself, to run away with the reality that I had killed".
He says that even at that stage he decided he must never do this again, and vowed to find the reasons why he had put himself in that situation. But although he grew emotionally and morally, the burden of the murder did not diminish. If anything, he says, it grows – "a perpetual reminder that I have taken a step away from society and can never fully return".
Gunn's treatment at the hands of the state was post-Mary Bell, who, in 1968, was convicted of the manslaughter of two three-year-old boys. Bell was aged 11. Britain was not used to jailing girls who had killed, so Bell spent years in an all-male special unit before being transferred to a female prison. She was released in 1980 and given a new identity.
Following the Bell case, a small number of high security units were created to deal with very young perpetrators of very serious crimes. Gunn was remanded to a young offender institution, but the governor declined to take him, so he was sent to HMP Bristol, and adult jail. Because of his age, he had to be put in the segregation unit and had to wear a one-piece "strip garment" – a gown usually worn by prisoners deemed to be at risk of self-harming.
After conviction, Gunn was sent for two years to a high security unit home, where, he believes, he had the inner strength and intelligence to begin to reshape himself. He says those two years afforded him an adolescence, without which he would have been a psychological disaster.
He was then transferred to prison, where the key to "getting on", and getting out asap, is conformity. Those who question the rules, however peacefully they protest, are seen as troublemakers. For Gunn, who had spent the first two years of incarceration trying to find himself, the transition to jail was a disaster. He says: "Within a week, I went from a situation of personalised treatment and intense education to an indifferent prison that attempted to strip me of the personality so many resources had been dedicated to shape."
No wonder, he says, he found himself down the block (segregation unit) within weeks. Since then, Gunn has made a life out of being a difficult prisoner. He has challenged the system at almost every turn and – worse still, in the eyes of his keepers – he has assisted other prisoners to cope with a system that functions through control. Throughout, however, he has protested peacefully, and the crime he committed as a schoolboy remains the sole incident of violence in his life.
Gunn is now almost 20 years over his recommended tariff of imprisonment. So why, I ask him, does he not simply keep his mouth shut and his pen still, and get the hell out of jail? A conversation follows in which we exchange examples of penal abuse we have seen or experienced, and Gunn explains why he will not, cannot, play the get-out-of- jail card. The key to it, he says, is that he sees his crime in terms of an abuse of power that he is determined never to repeat – and so he must also recoil from others abusing their power.
He says: "It is inevitable, then, that I find myself in dispute with aspects of prison policy and practice, and some individual staff – not through wilfulness, or obstinacy, or being anti-authority, but solely because I see some issues as a misuse and abuse of power. I have no choice."
When I tell Gunn he appears to be on a mission, enthused by a religious-like zeal, he smiles and tells me that for years he studied Zen Buddhism, and for the last 10 years has embraced Quaker principles and receives visits from a circle of Friends.
He describes himself as being on a "moral journey" and his current research for a PhD is into non-violent action in prison. He fears that he will never be released, but says he has to walk a narrow line between abandoning the central pillar of his personality and abandoning his future. "After all," he says, "who wants to end their life knowing the world would be a better place if they had not existed?"
with thanks to Eric Allison and the Guardian.