Thursday, October 8, 2009

Locked in a Struggle

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.


  1. God bless you Ben! God grant you grace and peace, strength and consolation. Thanks so much for your faithfulness.

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  3. You are so inspiring Ben.

    So inspiring indeed. Thank you.

    I am writing from Cyprus and I just became a “Follower” of your blog.

    I believe that soon more Followers will appear from Greece and Cyprus. You already know it, but I need to say it :

    You are not alone.

  4. On reading the article I am in disbelief that public servants in positions of such authority and power over inmates can behave in such controlling-bullying ways. I pay taxes for a humane justice system not this which by the Guardian's description resembles the kind of processes found under authoritarian regimes. Your behaviour sounds like that of someone who is reformed into a person who is responsible de-institutionalised and free-thinking. Maybe you have reformed too far and as you say become too non-conformist for people in positions of authority to be able to recognise that you are of sound mind and good character. Authority and non-conformity are mutually incompatible.

    Read Derrick Jensen's 'a language older than words' on power, authority, abuse, as fundamentals of patriarchal society, and Bob Altemeyer's work on the authoritarian personality for more insights. Alastair

  5. apparently the government are going to be releasing a whole load of prisoners early to save money.

    Ben's name should be on the list. Seems like he's more than paid for his crime and is no threat to society.

    Why is he still in prison ???

  6. I've written to my MP (Robert Walters) in the hope that something can be done.

    Of course, my action by itself is likely to achieve nothing, but if more people wrote to their MP, something might be done.

    Go to: put in your post code.

    If you want, here is the letter that I sent, simply cut and paste and send (adding your MP's name and your name)


    Dear Your MP's Name,

    I am writing to ask for your assistance in the case of a Mr John "Ben" Gunn who is currently still in prison having served 30 years for a "murder" he committed at the age of 14.

    The facts of the case as reported in the Guardian on 7th October 2009 seem to suggest that John's crime whilst terrible was as much an accident as it was murder; John having killed his friend in a fight.

    John admitted his guilt at the time and has been remorseful in prison, devoting himself to study and helping other prisoners.

    John Gunn is the General Secretary of the Association of Prisoners which I imagine has not won him any friends amongst the prisons senior management and may explain his very long stay in prison.

    The world is full of injustice and we cannot hope to fix it all, but it in this case the government has a chance to show compassion, mercy and justice to John Gunn.

    With government plans to release selected prisoners early to save on overcrowding, could John Gunn's name be added to list ?

    I don't know John or his family but I think it would be a good thing if he were released. If you could help, that would be very much appreciated.

    Yours sincerely,

    Your name

  7. No doubt power brinkmanship plays a part in Ben's case, but there is a valid human dimension in that when he is released a probation officer will have to hold his life licence - this means another fallible human taking responsibility for him in the community.

    At first it is like being allowed freedom on the end of a short piece of string by which he may be suddenly pulled up short or possibly recalled to prison for an indefinite period. Gradually, if he doesn't frighten his supervising officer, probation control may be relaxed.

    How does Ben's probation officer feel about the case? Is he/she for Ben's release, or does he/she feel anxious that with his record of independence he will prove impossible to manage?

    It is said that no male lifer will be willingly released by the Parole Board and the Minister until he has left his manhood behind in a locked and numbered safe. I think there is some truth in this. It is Ben's decision which path he will take from here.

    On a lighter note, by the way, it may be just as well there is no photograph of Ben. After reading his recent blogs I ask: would he be wearing his clothes, and on which page of the Guardian would his picture appear?

  8. Ben, I have been engrossed by your blog and read it all! I am sickened by the way the authorities have treated you, and you have my respect for sticking to your position and achieving change even while you're inside. Tomorrow I'll write to my MP and demand they pay attention. Is there anything else I can do?

    I can't start to imagine what it is like to spend your entire youth inside, but I guess that you cannot accurately envision adult life on the outside (especially if TV is your window on the world). I suspect it is better to stand strong and be freed with self-respect than to genuflect to cruel authorities and sacrifice your dignity for the sake of freedom. But this is easy for me to say from out here, so how have you remained so resolute in your struggle all these years?

    When you are released (hopefully soon), do you think you can be unwavering and confront every misuse of power in wider society?

  9. Hi Ben. I admire your strengh and I wish you the best. I will post an article about you at my english blog very soon.

    Nice to meet you here

  10. Out beyond ideas
    of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
    there is a field.

    I'll meet you there.

    - Rumi

  11. Does John 'Ben' Gunn have any words for the family of the 11 year-old boy he savagely beat to death with a table leg? So far, we have heard none. To recap. Gunn, then 14, armed with a wooden table leg, attacked the child, smashing his skull in many places. The child's arms were covered with defensive bruising. Gunn has claimed it was a 'fight' - well, he would do. A 14 year-old 'fighting' an 11 year-old sounds reasonable. In reality this was a savage rage attack in which a child lost his life. This case is well documented. The self-styled (and egocentric) 'Lifer on the Loose' has his life. As with most child-killers he has covered his tracks well. But sympathy? Sympathy should go to the little boy he killed and that boy's family.

  12. With the greatest of respect and the gentlest of intentions, what I could, would or ever may say to my victim's family is between them and myself. It is not for public consumption.

    In no way shape or form have I ever defended or attempted to minimise my crime. Which I why I handed myself in to the police and pleaded guilty to murder.

    I have never discussed the physical details of my crime for one simple reason - my victims family would hardly enjoy having the details thrown in their face. I don't deny anything you say - murder is brutal - but I will never publicly discuss it out of respect for his family. I ask you to give that some consideration.

    As a matter of plain fact, my crime was not the result of a "savage rage attack". You are just wrong.

    And, without sounding trite, plastering myself all over the web is hardly "covering my tracks".

    And I have never, ever, asked for sympathy.