Sunday, February 28, 2010

Call me Mister

Whilst presiding over the greatest wave of oppression ever to sweep over prisons, the ex Director General Martin Narey also announced what became known as the "decency agenda".

As I recall, he first mooted this idea at a conference of prison governors. He berated them for their sins, declaring that he was sick of having to apologise for the shameful state of some of their prisons. As this was in the wake of the revelations regarding the brutal regime at Wormwood Scrubs, his criticism was on solid ground. A few in the audience walked out.

The Decency Agenda is a simple idea relating to how prisoners should be treated. As Narey expressed it, ask yourself: how you would like your son or daughter, brother or sister to be treated whilst they were in prison?

A tiny fragment of this idea is that staff call us "Mister...", rather than merely our surname. The screws hate it, for the simple reason that it forces them to view us as people and not as scum.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Don't Interrupt

Some people assume that listening to music, with headphones, is a subtle invitation to be interrupted.

No matter where I park myself, no matter the obvious seclusion, when listening to music someone is bound to come and attempt to speak to me.

I have a method to deal with such people, or "idiots' as they may fairly be called. Without turning down the volume, I ask them, "Think carefully. Ask yourself if what you have to say can be more interesting than the music I am listening to?"
Remarkably, nearly all of them walk away. Even more remarkably, no one has bopped me on the nose.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Heretical Politicians

In those short moments when HP's lift their snout from the teat of the public purse, just to take a quick breath, they could turn their attention to the pertinent substance of their existence -political ideas, policies, that sort of thing.

They could, but they don't. Well, not often. But for the venal and power-hungry, the prospect of losing it all has the effect of raising their gaze from the gutters to the stars. With a startling speed, the political class begins to wobble a little in sight of a General Election, particularly one where the nation stares bankruptcy in the face.

Ideas begin to sprout in odd, un-policed, corners of their brain. Some of these even see the light of day, even if they are later muffled in platitudes and assurances of continuity of thought.

Alan Duncan, the Shadow Home Secretary, has spoken the bleeding obvious. In denouncing that the bare policy of 'prison works' is political thought worthy of a primary school attendee, he has broken faith with his party’s policy of the last 15 years. Not since Douglas Kurd declared that 'prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse' has a significant Tory given the appearance of doing anything more cerebral than echo the Daily Mail leader.

Duncan's foray into the wilderness of truth has been swiftly echoed by John Redwood. Hardly a softy in the nest of Conservatism, Redwood suggests that non-violent offenders could be more properly dealt with without the necessity of high walls, bars and a huge bill to the taxpayer.

As with Hurd, these are likely to be brief intrusions into the normal course of events, though none the less remarkable for their brief existence. It demonstrates that, in times of crisis, politicians are capable of abandoning the chase for the adulation of the mob and actually attempting to think and to lead. With some gentle encouragement, this may even become a habit.

The prospect of election victory is obviously a marvellous fertiliser for policy. However, the central force behind these latest offerings is far more likely to be financial. The nation is broke and the arms race of promises to bang up ever increasing numbers of people is suddenly unaffordable.

Should we care whether the abandonment of stagnant political thought is driven by the lust for power, financial crisis or genuine belief? The latter would be nice, but I am a realist in these things. The prospect of strategic shifts in criminal justice thinking is welcome, no matter what the impetus. Cameron can take advice from the Goblins in his flowerbeds for all I care. If it leads to change, then there is potential for positive change and this must be grabbed firmly, nurtured with hope, and let us all cross our fingers - the party most strongly wedded to imprisonment may be the one that abandons it the fastest.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oops!

Visits are hugely important for prisoners, giving us the only real way to connect with our families and friends. They are brief moments when we can touch, an isolated oasis in which we can again be a lover, father, son, brother; anything but 'prisoner'.

And so we tend to take them seriously, making sure that we dress in our best clobber. Before we had any of our own clothing, it was a case of trying to get a prison-issue striped shirt slightly tailored and ironed, along with dark grey trousers instead of jeans. We want to look our best for 'our people' visiting.

One hot summer’s afternoon I needed a pee. We only had small plastic chamber pots (piss-pots) then and mine was nearly full. Drink three gallons a day and it comes out at some point...

The only solution I could see was to empty my piss-pot out of the window, then work on refilling it. A very practical plan in the circumstances.

If only I had given it more thought. As I poured two pints of stale piss out of the window to fall three storeys, there was an instant uproar of abuse.

The lads on their way to the Visits Room were passing beneath my window, carefully dressed in their finery. Our families forgive us a lot, but not turning up stinking of piss.

At the time, no one worked out which window the deluge emanated from and so I have escaped until this day. If there is anybody who was in that crowd still around - sorry, mate!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Scum

An eternally good prison film that retains its edge, watching Scum kept me up late last night. It was a couple of hours full of resonances.

Such as the green jackets that Young Prisoners (YPs, i.e. under 21) had to wear to distinguish us from the big boys. I recall arriving at a new prison and presenting at the clothing hatch for my kit. The con behind the counter flatly refused to give me my green jacket, insisting that I could never be a YP. In fairness, even at that tender age I sported a beard that Rasputin would be proud of and looked like a middle-aged biker.

And the meeting with the Kitchen screw, who tried to excuse serving fish which was 'off' with a tale of how they were 'the new Atlantic fish'. It took me straight back to an incident when we were served sour milk at breakfast, which had the Kitchen screw insisting that the taste was due to the 'cows eating a different sort of grass'.

And, best of all, the character of Archer. It was like watching myself in a slightly distorted mirror. Archer was educated and verbally agile, with the view that the system would not break him down. And so he annoyed the hell out of the Governor by becoming a Vegan, refusing to wear leather boots, and going about barefooted. The perpetual struggle for individuality and dignity are comprised of such small efforts. It was a joy to watch.

The film was made in 1979, before I even entered prison. So many years have passed and yet it retains so many echoes of the prisoners experience. That has to be a mark of a good enterprise.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Meanderings on my Meanderings

I do seem to have abrogated my remit to entertain of late. Writing this is a difficult balance, I always intended to be educational, provocative and entertaining in broadly equal measure.

There are periods, though, when I pass through phases of seriousness, when my attention is all wrapped up in the politics of imprisonment. You have had to bear the burden of that focus in recent weeks and those of you who just enjoy prison adventure stories have been left out. Sorry.

With the election on the horizon then the prisoners vote case is taking on some urgency and that has coloured my writing. The drivel that politicians spout also takes on an added weight - these witless gits could be calling the shots on prisons for the next few years and so they are important in my little world.

And I am embroiled in my usual prison politics, debating within the small community of radicals whether my position as head of the prisoners union - and its agenda - is radical enough. That we are trying to force the government to comply with a legal judgement that they have ducked for five years is pretty important in the scheme of things, especially as we plan to screw a bucket load of compensation out of them. Your money, I'm afraid.

We did explore trying to injunct the general election, to prevent it happening at all until the prisoners votes issue was resolved but the intricacies of our constitutional arrangements stymied that plan. It is the Sovereign who dissolves parliament and sparks an election, not the government, and the Queen can't be sued. So we are looking at a compensation claim instead and after the election we will challenge its legality. There are also petitions and claims before the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe. This is something I spend a lot of time on as, apart from anything else, it's rather important that the government that locks me up also complies with the law.

End result, not very entertaining stuff for you to read! And somewhere amongst all of this activity, a campaign to shift me towards the gates a bit quicker has quietly began.

I took a decision when I began this blog that it would not be particularly focused upon me and my case. Obviously, I would intrude in the sense of illustrating some broader point through my own experience, but I was not going to start a 'free Ben blog'. It is far more important to start a wide debate about prisons than to plead my own case.

That said, a kindly soul on far flung shores did begin the Free Ben Facebook page and I am very grateful for that support! And the Ministry of Justice has had the sense to leave it unmolested. What we need now are people to fire into the Chair of the Parole Board, demanding that they give me the hearing they have been promising for months on end. But the blog will not focus on these personal things, as I fear it would then become self-serving and lose any wider relevance. So to keep an eye on how I and my progress are developing (or not), keep an eye on the Facebook pages. That said, the Editor will post short updates here and there on the blog.

The Donate button wasn't my idea either, honest! The Ministry of Justice takes a dim view of prisoners earning money (unless it is for the Ministry...) and so when it was brought to my attention that some people wanted to help me out, I avoided the issue. The Editor took a more robust line and legal advice is that, if people want to donate me a few quid, then it's all legit.

And it's very welcome. Having been unemployed for a year I'm scraping the bottom of the bin for stale bread and the like. Stamps and stationery alone cost a small prison fortune. I thank all of you who have helped in this way. Be reassured that you are not funding a perpetual party but rather my stationery, caffeine and nicotine addictions and the odd foray into indulging in a packet of biscuits on rare occasions.

I am truly grateful to all who are supporting me in their own ways, and particularly who support my release. This is all more than I hoped for when I began writing - I was just hoping that someone would read this now and then!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Institutionalisation, 2

Prisons are, considering, remarkably rich in sociological depth. Many, if not most, of the activities that take place out there have an analogue in here.

There are friends and enemies, workplaces, neighbours, an economy, a social structure. If you can function well within this social milieu, clearly you are not incapable. There are a small number of what are labelled "poor copers", and I suspect that these individuals would have difficulty coping in any situation.

Of course there are differences. I don't have to pay rent or buy two meals a day. That aside, any idea that we have no financial obligations or that our economic life can't be quite sophisticated is quite wrong. The difference in prison is, if you fail to meet your obligations the outcome isn't a rude letter from the bank, it is to get your face kicked in. Or cut open.

The essential activities of life are to have a home, a job and some social life. All of these are replicated here. Granted, we don't wander down the pub of an evening but the essentials remain.

What is institutionalisation? My perception of it is that it is a matter of attitude and perception. If cons listened to the perpetual refrain that we are somehow incapable, limited and stunted people than we may begin to believe it. Faced with the prospect of entering a modern, complex society, if you believe that you can't cope then you won't.

When I had my day out in 1995, it was just before a mate of mine did the same. He was in his forties and had lived a reasonably successful life for 30 years before he entered prison. On paper, he should have found it a doddle and I should have been the one who found it hard. As it transpired, he stepped out of the taxi and collapsed with panic and had to be brought back to the nick.

For me, then, institutionalisation isn't some organic mental process but rather a sense of self-belief.

This rather freaks out my keepers, it is officially "a problem" that I don't worry about release. I do try to explain my view but they are so wedded to the idea of prisoners being inherently incapable that they are deaf.

Of course I haven't lived an independent life outside, had a job and the whole range of social obligations. But then, no one does those things until they do them. So let's view me as, say, an average 17 year old. Except add the fact that I have listened and learned from the accumulated experiences of thousands of people who have lived long and productive lives outside.

So I will have to find a job and a place to live. Like millions of young adults have done, year in and year out. So why assume that I would find it any more difficult? Why assume that, faced with a landlord or an employer my brain will somehow go into meltdown?

This is not to say that life is going to be easy. It rarely is, but then it isn't in prison either. But to leap from that to some vague idea that I'm as helpless as an infant is a jump that I can't make. That worries Them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Victims, again.

The powerful emotions that wrack those who are victims of serious interpersonal crime have the ability to elevate or degrade. Some victims, rarely given media space, are inspirational in their ability not only to forgive on a personal level, but in their ability to use their emotions to impel them to work to reduce the harm that comes from crime.

More commonly heard of are those victims who are bitter and angry, not unusually constantly tormented by the media to cling to the grief as it poisons their spirit. These particular people are elevated in the popular culture.

Each of these reactions to some horrible loss or injury is human and understandable. Each reveals the emotional, psychological and spiritual complexity of what it means to be human. It is not for anyone to deny the pain of the victim.
However... And you just knew there would be a however! As I have pointed out in previous writing, the status of 'victim’ should not automatically be elevated to that of being a spokesperson, expert or political guru. Emotional pain endows no great insight into criminological problems.

The figure of Sarah Payne, mother of murdered Sara and now the government’s 'Victims Champion', is an illustrative nexus of the problem that comes when victims become campaigners. All the more so when the campaign is wedded to a media campaign and populist stupidity.

Her campaigning has led to dangerous political ideas, the most repellent of which is the belief that criminal justice is weighted in favour of criminals. It follows, automatically, in the popular mind, that victims are therefore being neglected.
This is a strange idea. Criminal justice isn't meant to serve either criminals or victims, it is meant to serve both. If victims have been historically been neglected - an unchallenged fact - then the solution doesn't lie in reducing the safeguards to fair trials.

This is become a poisonous idea, a set of beliefs that are constantly eroding the procedural barriers that are, rightly, intended to make it difficult for the State to place its full weight on its citizens. If history tells us anything, it is that government agents, such as the police, will happily indulge themselves in taking every advantage of a weakened safeguard.

Such a system isn't related to 'justice'. It risks being a 'conviction at any cost’ system, a set of checks and balances deliberately weighted so that it is easier for victims to carry the day. A criminal justice system should be concerned with punishing the guilty and exonerating the innocent, no more and no less.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

People love Murder

If murder is so reprehensible, why is it the perpetual staple content of all types of entertainment?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Harsh Truths

The so-called Sarah's Law, allowing random passers-by to quiz the police about the antecedents of others, is a fraud on a massive scale.

It is a scam that the population quite happily goes along with, an exercise in mass-delusion that projects the danger to children as being 'out there'.

It isn't. The next time you gather with your family, realise that it is amongst them that the greatest danger to your kids resides. Not the dodgy bloke outside, not the ice-cream seller or the sports coach, but your own friends and family.

If we really want child protection then it must follow that it is parents - and potential parents - that must be examined by the State. Everybody.

But we cannot allow that to happen. It is a soporific delusion that we buy into, refusing to see the danger as being anything other than the rare stranger. That we ourselves pose the greatest risk to kids is a fact that we just cannot allow to enter our heads. We just stick our fingers in our ears and stamp our feet, anything to drown out the shout of reason, and all the while pointing the fingers at someone else.

This is not an exercise in child protection at all. It is an exercise in self-delusion and denial, an outbreak of stupidity on a monumental scale. This is a matter more for the psychiatric profession than the criminological one.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Institutionalisation

About a century ago, some MP stood up and declared that once prisoners had served ten years, then they were institutionalised and mentally frazzled.

What the hell, random MP's spouting random thoughts with little connection to reality is a perpetual event. But this declaration has entered prison mythology, quoted by cons and staff alike as if it had the same status of fact as the gravitational constant. It provides yet another official excuse to treat us like idiots.

This is beautifully illustrated by a passage in the Lifer Manual. It warns staff that, should they take us out the prison, we may need their help to cross the road. I'm sorry, but no matter how many years you have spent inside you'd have to be afflicted with physical brain damage before you were unable to deduce that a couple of tons of metal moving at 30 mph could hurt if you stood in front of it. This is spectacularly patronising but does provide a vision of Lifers being mowed-down by the gross as they wander, dazed, through the streets.

These trips are meant to help us to keep up to date, to reintegrate us. So out of date is the prison service, though, that we are expected to visit a range of banks to get leaflets about various services. That may be how it works in the wilder reaches of Outer Mongolia, but don't people in Britain tend to explore financial services through the wonders of the Web nowadays??

I have been out and about a couple of times, on average once every 15 years. These are called Town Visits. People of sufficiently low risk get to wander around some shopping precinct with a few quid in their pocket and a screw following their every move.

My first trip was in 1995 and I went into Exeter town. As soon as the taxi stopped, I was diving into the newsagent to stock up on tobacco. We are constantly lectured on how "everything has changed, it's all different now", but the reality is that the essential activities of life really haven't changed much. Shopping, I discovered, was still a matter of selecting an item and handing over currency. The only changes from 1980 to 1995 were the increased selection of goods and the introduction of a hand-held barcode scanner. Whilst I hardly recognised any model of car (they all look so alike), that I shouldn't stand in front of a moving one was still a broad principle to be adhered to. A day spend poking around Exeter raised my pulse not a beat. The only thing that took me by surprise was that I was unable to finish the fry-up we bought in a small cafe; I'd underestimated what 'real world' portions were like.

My second trip was last year (or the year before - remember my lack of time perspective), wandering around a small local town. I won't name it, it may freak out the locals if they knew they were brushing shoulders with murderers on a weekly basis.

And in those 14 years, what had changed since 1995? Yup, pretty much nothing. Of course, commercial activities had developed. Just for the hell of it, I forked out for a tall Americano coffee in some coffee chain, and sat amazed as I drank it, wondering why anyone would pay so much when they could, for the same money, buy a jar of Gold Blend that would last a week. If it had been Kapa Luak, on the other hand...

We wandered in and out of various shops, large and small, until we ran into the self-service checkout as some supermarket. Tesco? This was my first genuinely new experience and I had to give it a go. Turns out, my escort hadn't used this before either. We joined the gaggle of determined, slightly baffled, folks who were pressing buttons and trying to look competent. All went well, though self-service checkouts may speak to the rise in shoplifting.

It seems the world hasn't changed that much, technology aside. Most of our social interactions are - I hope - still based around people. And people are still people.

Parole

From Ed: a parole hearing in May would indeed be a good thing, but if you read on, it is only a possibility. And it should have been November. A little encouragement directed at the parole board would not go amiss!

Thank you for your kind comments. I will pass them on to him.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ed's note

This blog really saddened me. Bit of a reality check on how it must be after 30 years of groundhog day. If you too are moved, and want to help, please click on the facebook link. There are lots of things you can do to support the 'freeprisonerben' campaign.

Depression

It is 11am; I have been up and out of bed since before 9. Hardly slept last night. All I can do is sit here, flicking through all of my posts to date. I'm listening to Leonard Cohen loudly through earphones, endlessly repeating 'Hallelujah' from his Live in London concert. Time after time.

Some desperado has just encroached and been sent on his way, disgruntled. He wanted to scrounge a cigarette. "Mate", I told him, "I'm trying to get by on £1.50 a week and have done for the last year. Of the 80 people on this wing, 79 are a better prospect to scrounge off than me." And he still stood there, looking sad. He finally got the hint. Today is pay day, and I will have to juggle like a clown on LSD to square everything by the end of the night.

The world looks bleak today. Last night, in the early un-sleeping hours, I had a terrible portent that I am destined to remain in this limbo forever. Near to release, never quite making it, sitting here as the years grind away and having to watch people drift away, all that is built up being eroded by perpetual disappointment. Do I deserve to be released? Not a legal or bureaucratic question, but a moral one? I have never been able to answer the simple question of "what should be the penalty for murder?"

There is not a single positive thing in my head. Looking back at previous posts, from the very beginning, I'm persuading myself that my writing is deteriorating, that it's hardly worth the trip down to the office to mail it out.

Christ knows what's for lunch. Whatever, is it worth the endless blasted queue?
Depression has afflicted me for decades. Of late it has become sharper and more frequent. It can hit me within minutes. I can literally sense the serotonin being sucked from my brain, the skin on my face tightening and my patience and calm being swamped by a profound sense of loss and anxiety.

Nothing settles me. If I have the energy I will shut my door and pace, four steps forward, four back. The steel door and ancient stone wall at either turn reinforces my perception of my endless existence. Without energy, I just sit here, smoking, drenched in misery that seeps from my very bones.

The energy to deal with people vanishes. Even the easiest person in the world to deal with becomes hard work, having to listen to their concerns and formulate responses takes vital effort best spent on balancing on some mental pinnacle, trying not to fall off.

It will pass in a day or so, it always does, leaving me feeling completely wrung out, physically weak. Until next time.

PS. It was sandwiches. Still listening to Hallelujah.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Prisoners' Votes Aren't a Trivial Cause

With Britain's standing in the small community of decent nations and the legality of the general election at stake, even the most cynical of observers may have expected the government to resolve the issue of the prisoners' vote.

As the election approaches, the sharper and more unavoidable the issue becomes. It is even possible that the failure to address the legal judgments made in favour of prisoners may render the election unlawful. The government has been repeatedly warned of this consequence by the parliamentary all-party human rights group and the committee of ministers of the Council of Europe.

Who would have thought, five years ago, a legal and political outcast called John Hirst could resurrect a debate about the nature of our democracy and citizenship that has seemingly ended with the introduction of the universal franchise?

Hirst had a particular status that endowed him with a peculiar legal status. He was serving a life sentence for manslaughter. As with all prisoners, he was denied the vote. Unlike most of his peers, he objected to this situation and challenged the law through to the European court of human rights. The government lost its argument in 2005, appealed, and lost again. The court argued that the ability to vote was such a fundamental component of a democratic society that Britain's blanket ban on prisoners voting was unlawful.

A government founded on some firm political ideology or principle would, at that point five years ago, called upon its strength of principle and resolved the issue. It may have caused short-term political difficulty, but this would have passed.

Instead, the government indulged in obfuscation and delay. It promised a consultation process, then delayed it for two years. It then sat on the results of this consultation for a year, before beginning a second consultation. Along the way senior ministers made it perfectly clear that they would not give prisoners the vote. The government made it equally clear that they would not resolve this issue in time for the general election this year. A legal and political crisis is now a real possibility.

Why has the government been so resistant, why is it willing to risk holding an unlawful election rather than resolve what should be a fairly minor matter? Rather than merely being fear of media and populist outrage, I believe that the government's stance derives in a fundamental way from the status that penal matters have in our social and political culture.

Prisons exist. They appear in the popular consciousness, with media prompting, with some regularity. However, to the detriment of our criminal justice system – and now the political process – prisons act more as a lightning rod for broad, incoherent discontent than as a lens with which to examine our understanding.

The prisoners' vote case, then, is not merely a symbolic matter. That it has led to this point of potential crisis is a reflection of the place of prison and prisoners in our national life - always there, but never meaningfully discussed.

If, in addressing the matter of prisoners' votes, a genuine debate can be fostered and the place and role of prisons in society becomes a matter of genuine consideration then we will all have benefited. It is such a pity that to reach this point has cost many years, much money and so much wasted political energy. As a society we deserve better from our political leaders and, when prisoners have the vote, we will play our small part in insisting that our leaders do engage with these complicated questions. For the good of us all.

from the Guardian Saturday 13 February 2010 16.00 GMT

Big Thank You

I visited Ben on Sunday and he wanted me to pass on a big thank you to those of you who sent in donations. The quality of his existence has improved because of it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

PS to personality disorders

Channel 4 news this evening reported official research which shows that the "treatments" forced upon prisoners suffering from this mythical illness have failed. Cost to the taxpayer... 200 Million pounds. And isn't Ben prescient?? - Editor

Personality Disorders (2)

The definition of a Personality Disorder is any set of persistent actions or beliefs which cause the individual, or those around him, difficulty.

Interesting. An "illness" which is dependent on historical, cultural and social context. This should immediately set alarm bells ringing. A broken leg is a broken leg, whether it belongs to a 10,000 BC Maori or a German plumber in 2010 on holiday in Alaska. What his family or friends feel about the leg is irrelevant when it comes to deciding it is broken.

Why do we accept mental illnesses which have such a shoddy conceptual basis? Why are we so intellectually bereft that we permit these pernicious ideas to slither their way into the popular consciousness?

So a person who holds firm to a set of beliefs which, in the eyes of observers, cause him problems in society is mentally ill. What a fatuous idea. This places Christ over the threshold to Bedlam. Every religious martyr, every person who suffered to redress some persistent systemic injustice, soldiers who die for an ideal, Suffragettes, Gandhi... this is an endless list of the mentally ill.

Under this scheme, the capitalist in a communist society is ill, and vice versa. Freegans in Clapham are clearly in Barking. Pacifists in militarised societies are, well, mad. Context, and social reaction, is everything to the diagnosis of PD.

Of course, it is a stated fact that most prisoners have at least one, and a majority, two, personality disorders. Trust me, I live with them. Some hold weird ideas and beliefs but they fall far short of being a break with reality.

This includes me. I have a personality disorder, although no one is quite sure which one (there really are so many). I "must have", otherwise the course of my life wouldn't make sense. Surely I can't stick to my core values, making my life more difficult and inconveniencing those around me, without having some illness?
And so, if I cause myself practical difficulties by resisting some abuse of power, then I must be mad. Any coherent, tested, legitimate philosophical basis that I act from is rendered illegitimate, irrelevant and even dangerous.

For me, doing the "right thing" as best I can judge it has always taken precedence to "doing anything" to get closer to release. Weird and unusual, maybe, but a mental illness?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Personality Disorders

Just when you think that the totalitarian States have a monopoly on debasing criminal justice, it is refreshing to remember that even nice, fluffy governments such as our own are not immune from oppressive urges.

In a famous case, Michael Stone was convicted of a horrible murder and attempted murder. That the evidence against him is slim to nil is not the point of this post but should none the less be noted.

The issue here is the government’s reaction. As Stone had a history of psychiatric illness, the collective urge to see that "something" should be done to prevent future wickedness was overwhelming. And the government bit, with a vengeance.

They proposed that anyone with a "dangerous and severe personality disorder" (DSPD) should be detained until and unless they were assessed to be safe. Those not yet rendered numb to totalitarianism will have noted a vital gap in that sentence: the total absence of having to commit any criminal offence before being banged up forever.

The government didn't quite make that whole plan stick, though significant elements have become very real. The first is the disease of DSPD. It is unknown to the medical profession, being discovered and defined by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Just like certain forms of schizophrenia were discovered (only amongst dissidents) by the Kremlin and treated at the Serbsky Institute during the Cold War.
DSPD is now rampant throughout the prison system, with certain prisons having units dedicated to treating those so diagnosed. This is truly remarkable.

Part of the DSPD diagnosis involves "psychopathy". Until DSPD was invented, the broad psychiatric consensus was that psychopathy was untreatable. But, lo! As soon as it was professionally "sexy", as soon as government promised funding, then the prison service suddenly declared that they had a cure. Hundreds of prisoners are now being detained solely on the DSPD criteria and will remain in prison until they are 'cured'.

A politically-created disease and a venal prison system offering a cure. Does it get more squalid than this?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Screwing the Screws

There is a tradition amongst prisoners that we will cheerfully nick anything that belongs to the system. As we say, "it's a big firm, it can afford it". For most of us there isn't even a twinge of morality involved in this.

This was beautifully portrayed by Fletcher in an episode of Porridge, where he nicked the bell off a screw’s bike. He had no need for it, no use could be made of it, but the screw left it vulnerable. He also had a roaring trade in eggs stolen from the chickens he looked after on the farm detail.

Should we be pressed then we can produce justifications. We are held against our will and so the system is our enemy. Thieving from them is seen as a militant act.
The system also ensures that we have to struggle to obtain even the simplest of things and happily overcharges us for the privilege. In such circumstances, robbing some of the kitchen's sugar (for example) is just good sense.

My greatest coup in this respect was when, unaccountably, one prison offered me the job of "Wing No.l". This is a deeply ambivalent position, involving being a screw’s tea-boy. So I spoke to the post-holder and inquired about the potential for perks. That is, what could be robbed?

This particular No.1 job had great scope. I was in charge of the wing tea-room, an old cell equipped with a cooker, microwave, kettle and stocked with pies, pasties and vast quantities of chocolate bars. Staff paid in cash.

This could be the mother lode of blags. As long as the money tallied with the stock, all was happy. My fiendish brain worked out a plan. Each morning I had to feed the screws with tea and toast for breakfast and I thought I could add some value. A mate began nicking blocks of cheese from the kitchen, which I offered as cheese on toast to the screws at an outrageous price.

This money then allowed me to dip into the stock and yet the money reconciled. It became a regular practice, my stolen cheese being sold to the screws for cash which then allowed me to sell boxes of Mars bars for dope. When the wing Senior Officer found out where the cheese was coming from he went a bit barmy. Flogging stolen goods to his staff seemed just a tad cheeky. The staff thought otherwise, their view of the morality of nicking from the Firm being as flexible as mine. A blind eye was turned and business carried on.

Perhaps the dope this scheme was funding went to my head but I got bored. The job entailed close and sustained contact with staff, which in that prison wasn't necessarily an easy situation. And so when I was approached by a con waving a £20 note requesting I prepare him some food to take on a transfer, I stuffed every pie and pasty I had into the oven!

No sooner did I deliver them than the Senior Officer (SO) began hounding me. "Who were they for?" I tried to persuade him that they were for a screw from another wing, "don't know his name guv". Being a very persistent man, the SO phoned every screw in the nick, he even put a notice on the front Gate, "Anybody bought pasties from the A Wing tea room?"

Of course, this phantom member of staff couldn't be found and that evening the SO approached me sorrowfully. "Time for you to hand in your notice, don't you think...?" What the hell, I'd had a good run and nothing was proven. One - Nil to the prisoners.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Who to Imprison?

Here is the problem: a critical mass of people believe that imprisonment is the only worthwhile punishment available. This is reflected, at its worst, by media stories that assert some crim has "got away" with their crime because they "only" received a fine, community service, or whatever. This has seeped into the popular consciousness - prison is all there is, or should be. The failure of imagination that this reveals is depressing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My DNA

It was, I recall, over a decade ago that policemen turned up at the prison to take everyone's DNA. It was made clear that this would be done "one way or another", including by force. And so there is a little bag in a fridge somewhere, full of my hair.

Government being as it is, "mission creep" has the potential to cause some problems as a result. Keeping my DNA as a crime detection tool is one thing (and one set of arguments). But what about when it is used for basic research?

The Government is quite happy to have various boffins prodding these genomes, seeking answers to questions that are laden with potential dilemmas.

For example, what if it is asserted that a particular set of genetic markers correlates, on the database, with an increased disposition to violence?

The popular media will, undoubtedly, scream that science can predict future murderers. The political pressure to make use of such information will be immense.

Already people who have committed crimes are detained longer solely on the basis of what they may do in future. A society willing to endorse that is only a short step away from detaining those who have yet to commit a crime, but who seem to have an increased disposition to do so.

Of course, as some wag long ago mooted, the way to slash the crime rate is to imprison everybody with an XY chromosome...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sleight of Hand

Yet another politico-media lie...

Some of those serving very short sentences can be released up to 17 days earlier than normal, as a measure to ease overcrowding. About 70,000 have been so released in recent years. Fact.

The Tories and the Daily Mail argue that some of these prisoners have gone on to commit crimes, including a handful of murders and rapes. QED, Labour is soft on criminals.

The sleight of hand is this. How many of these new crimes were committed within the first 17 days out of prison? Because if they were committed after that, then these prisoners would have been released anyway within the normal course of their sentence. These crimes would have nothing to do with the emergency early release scheme, turning a 'news story’ into a big fat 'so what?'

The cynical will know the answer and yet again I can claim - with weary disgust - that our political leaders will spin any lie and obscure any truth in their quest for power. And shame on us for allowing it. Lest it be thought I'm taking a swing at the Conservatives, it must be said that Labour played the same tricks in Opposition. A plague on both their Houses!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Demeaning the Meaning of "Life"


As the most serious sentence available to the State, the Life sentence should carry some weight. It should, at least, be a signal that the crime committed is one of such repugnance to society that only the heaviest sentence will suffice.
And yet... a Life sentence is mandatory for murder. It can be -and often is - argued that murder is the most serious offence and so should properly attract the most serious sentence. Well, yes and no.
Not all murders are the same. There is the wife who kills her husband after years of being degraded. There is the householder who hits a burglar one too hard as he tries to flee. There is the parent who, with the best intention, ends the suffering of a severely disabled child.
There is the drunken bloke who has a scrap outside the pub, his victim falling to hit his head. There are the jealous people who, tormented by their perceptions of their spouse, lose all control.
There are also the child killers who stalk, kidnap, rape and kill. The serial killers who repeatedly inflict horror. There are the terrorists who place bombs on buses and trains and kill dozens.
All of these fall under the heading of "murder" and all, on the face of it, receive the sentence of Life. I argue that this demeans the very idea of a Life sentence, devalues it in the popular imagination and, in part, fosters a feeling that "sentences ought to be tougher".
In the popular imagination, Life sentences can mean a mere handful of years. To this day, it is widely believed that Lifers are released around 9 years. This hasn't been the case for decades.
The confusion and misperception lies in the "tariff". This is the minimum term the Court sets when issuing a Life sentence and leads to misleading headlines. Where the tabloids scream that some deviant 'only' received say, 5 years it takes careful reading to discern that the sentence was actually Life. The 5 years is the minimum; the convict may actually serve 10, 20, 40 years.
As things stand, bog-standard domestic murderers may receive a tariff of 16 years. Kill with a knife and you are up to 20 or 25. Terrorists attract tariffs of 40 or more years. Serial killers will never be released.
This is all perfectly clear to Lifers; tariff is everything and differentiates between the different types of murderer. Tariffs have only been around for the best part of 30 years and so that there remains such widespread public ignorance only highlights the malevolent, lazy and plain incompetent role of the media in failing to educate.
The question that has troubled some for many years - the House of Lords perpetually returns to the subject - is whether Life should be the mandatory sentence for murder?
If 'murder' covers such a broad range of crimes, from the bad to the truly horrific, then shouldn't the headline sentence also reflect this range? Would this not clarify the popular understanding?
A mercy killing might receive, say, 10 years. Domestic murders 15, murders in the course of a robbery 25... and so on (these numbers are merely illustrative of scale). Reserve the Life sentence for those whose crime may merit confinement for the whole of their lives and nothing less.
There are those who argue that "life should mean life" and under the present scope of "murder" then the mercy-killer would bear the same punishment as the deliberate mass murderer. This would be a great injustice, extending the number of those who have a whole-life tariff from 30 people to several thousand.
The Life sentence is a mess. Legally tortuous, broad in its application and misunderstood by many. Rather than slowly grinding out minor changes and clarifications, would it not be better to abandon it and begin again?

Women in prison

The Government have declared that women should only be imprisoned if they are violent offenders. Out of the 4,000 odd currently detained, this means that 97% should not be there.

Following this reasoning, the government then says that it will shut 400 prison places for women. I will repeat that. Rather than closing all EXCEPT 400 places, it is closing ONLY 400 prison places.

Um, this doesn't make sense. Is it me that is stupid, or the Ministry of Justice?

Answers on a postcard to Jack Straw.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Narrow Identity

Perhaps it isn't surprising but the Prison Service has great difficulty in perceiving prisoners as other than the sum of that social construct. We are viewed as incompetent, lazy, undisciplined, devious, manipulative, untrustworthy and unstable. They teach this to new staff during training and the whole of the institutional structure reflects these beliefs.

Our particular crimes apart, our personal qualities vary. Some of us are, or try to be; good husbands and fathers (geographical restrictions permitting...). Some are excellent students. Others are steady, consistent workers. A few are incredibly creative, writing, painting, craft making and so on. We have a range of qualities but these are all disregarded and dismissed as irrelevant. "Prisoner" is the sum of our official parts and no competency is permitted to enter the official consciousness.

That is, of course, until they need something. Then, for a brief moment, they are forced to admit that we can be more than the sum of the official construction.

A couple of years ago the prison service found itself lumbered with an Action Plan supervised by the Commission for Racial Equality. This is what happens when you put a violent racist in a cell with an Asian man and a murder results. Part of this Plan involved conducting impact assessments of all prison policies and practices. As is the way, the staff screwed it up and were left with three weeks in which to re-do the exercise.

All of a sudden, prisoners weren't the detritus of humanity; we were badly needed to help management out of this hole. I was invited to come and play. Hmmm, me help management?

Obviously, I said yes... no, really, I did. It was my reasoning that improved race equality could only be a good thing for minority prisoners; if helping managers fill in a bunch of forms for HQ was the route to that, so be it. It also occurred to me that this was a chance for prisoners to play a direct part in helping to influence policy as it was being made. If we could show that we were competent, then this would challenge their perceptions of us. So helping management was merely a means to these ends, a balance I could live with.

So I formed a team, collated a mountain of policy papers and background reports and together we conducted ten surveys on distinct policy areas. Amazingly, because this was a management imperative then all things suddenly became possible. I was allowed to have a laptop in my cell; I only had to ask for a ream of paper and it was produced; access to printers in Education was unobstructed. The definition of "prisoner" was, out of necessity, expanded to include ideas of competence and trustworthiness.

The exercise was happily completed and our recommendations were largely ignored. This was always the risk but the effort was worth the attempt.

But once the exercise was over, I was firmly returned to the narrow conceptual box of being "a prisoner". Now, even though I have one of the strongest arguments of any prisoner to have a laptop in my cell, it is denied. I have to find sheets of paper where I can, because there isn't even a facility for us to buy it by the ream. Access to printing in Education is impossible, as they have disabled the USB ports on their PC's.

I won't even begin to explain how this perception affects my attempts to undertake my PhD, how the malign construct of "prisoner" is used to constrain me. In the eyes of management, it is impossible to view a prisoner as a "researcher", it is impossible for them to pause from repeating the official mantra of “unworthy, unreliable” and allow us to even try to be responsible human beings.

As someone more perceptive than I once stated, "just because we are not allowed any responsibility, it doesn't mean that we are irresponsible". Such a pity that we must function within an official culture of contempt.
PS. Rehabilitation, anyone...?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Path to Prison

So many people believe that criminal justice operates in a quite simple way. Bad people who do bad things are nicked, paraded before a Court, and then hauled off to prison. Or, if you are a Daily Mail reader, you think they receive a cup of tea from the desk sergeant and a taxi home, accompanied with a letter of apology for the inconvenience to your criminal career.

Either way, the reality is far more complicated. I visualise this as a matter of "filters", various gates that have to be passed through before prison is reached and at every turn there is a potential for a different outcome.

Whether one gets arrested for whatever misfeasance is alleged is in the discretion of the copper in front of you. How he perceives you and your offence is vitally important. A group of Black youths drinking on a street corner receives more attention than a group of Etonians swaying and singing down the pavement. Same offences, different perceptions...

Assuming you are arrested, the charge is another moveable feast. What evidence is available to support various charges is one factor. The sympathy, empathy or plain indifference of those in the police station all has an influence. The same applies for bail and its terms and conditions.

The Crown Prosecution Service then pitches in with its view of the situation. Charges may be dropped, lesser or greater ones substituted. Pretending that popular panics or political imperatives and personal have no effect at this stage is just naive.

Arriving at the Court, the competence of your Defence, the malevolence of the Prosecuting and the quality of sleep the Judge has had all play their part. The 12 members of the Jury all bring their own life experience and world view to the proceedings.

Whether you are young or old, black or white, male or female, booted and suited or wearing your best tracksuit... All of these are factors which affect how you are perceived and the sentence you finally get burdened with.

At the end of the day, you may end up in prison. You may not. The road to incarceration is littered with diversions and decisions, many irrelevant to your actual crime. These exercises in discretion warp the whole process of criminal justice and make what should be a stable entity a rather shaky, uncertain structure.

The exercise of discretion at various points is illustrated most strongly when crimes involve the powerful or those with media backing. Offenders who are supported by the Daily Mail may be less likely to receive strong sentences, for example, or are even released from Life sentences early.

When those who fiddle their benefits fall under the official gaze, they are arrested and interviewed under caution. They are subjected to TV adverts condemning their actions. Conversely, an MP who knowingly claims for non-existent mortgage payments is invited for a comfy chat with a bureaucrat and invited to apologise and write a cheque. Tax evaders are not worthy of a TV campaign.

A private citizen who, in front of media cameras, is seen to assault another can expect to be instantly arrested. A police officer who does so is confined to his desk and subject to a long investigation before there is any sign of handcuffs being produced.

Criminal justice can be a reflection of the best of a society, a reflection of its highest values. Conversely, the criminal justice system can hold a mirror up to illustrate the fractured, disinterested and corrupted nature of the polity.

Whichever holds true, the path to prison is never a straightforward, impersonal, one. More significantly, it implies that prisoners need not be the worst of criminals.

From the Ed

A number of people have expressed a wish to send Ben a few quid now and then to show their appreciation of the blog. I have added a donate button to facilitate this. It links to PayPal, so you will need a PayPal account if you want to use it. At the moment it is stuck right in the middle and is a bit too big! I am not clever enough yet to know how to move it around but when I have figured it out, I will put it on the right hand side under the photo (if anyone knows how to do this, please tell me!)

Thanks.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Oi, Grandad

People aged 60 and over are now the fastest growing age group in the prison system. Ah, the youth of today...(NOMS, Feb 2008)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The IPP Injustce

A simple tweak of the law by a desperate government has managed to more than double the number of Lifers in under ten years. Remarkable.

It was once the case that in order to receive a Life sentence you had to do something pretty horrible. Murder, obviously, got you a mandatory life sentence. Then there were discretionary life sentences, dished out for lesser crimes but where Life was a sentencing option. It had to be the case that to receive a discretionary life sentence, there had to be firm evidence that you were either unstable or on an escalating path of violence. Receiving such a sentence was a Very Big Deal.

But the government, faced with some popular panic whose specifics I forget (there are so many), diluted the meaning of the sentence whilst simultaneously broadening its scope.

These sentences are "not really" life sentences, only open-ended ones. The terminology is different but the reality is exactly the same. These are Indefinite Sentences for Public Protection - IPP.

You don't have to do anything particularly serious to receive such a sentence, which is why there are over five and a half thousand people serving one, and the number rises each week.

The pettiness of some offences which have attracted these sentences is revealed by the tariff portion of these sentences. The tariff, minimum term, equates with the fixed sentence they would have received before IPPs were invented. The average tariff for IPP's is a mere 18 months; there are those who have had a tariff of one day.

These sentences are a travesty on several levels. Their purpose is fundamentally objectionable. IPP are intended to hold people in prison on an assumption that they pose a future danger to society, hence their open ended nature. When it comes to depriving people of their liberty and inflicting upon them and their families the degradations that flow from imprisonment, I firmly hold that it should be no more than a punishment for the crime already committed.

Detaining people on the basis of what they may possibly do in the future is wholly unjust. It can be dressed up with whatever politico-legal sleight of hand available, but it remains the fact that punishing people for what they may possibly do in future is a repellent act.

Added to these principled objections are practical ones. IPP's can only be released if they can show that they have "addressed their offending behaviour". This is done by completing "offending behaviour courses" and then parading these achievements before the Parole Board.

Alas, the side effect of knee jerk policy making is to speak first, try and make it work later. With IPP's, this means that there are insufficient places on these courses for them to complete them before the end of their tariff. If your tariff is 18 months and the waiting list for the course is 2 years, there is no chance for you to demonstrate before the PB that you are fit for release.

Way over 2,000 of those serving IPP's are over their tariff and the Ministry accepts that this is not necessarily the fault of the prisoners. So bizarre and wicked is this situation, that the High Court ruled last year that, in effect, the sentence has become so arbitrary as to become unlawful.

The higher courts plugged this political problem on the well known legal doctrine of "tough shit". And so these men remain in prison. A similar situation applies to those who are due Parole hearings, their only avenue of release. The PB is so overstretched that people are not getting their hearing as prescribed by law, some serving years extra just waiting for the hearing.

The courts have ruled that this is a terrible situation but, alas, there is no one in particular to blame. And so they have now blocked IPP's from launching legal challenges to demand their right to a parole hearing. It's no one’s fault, so we are back to "tough shit".

Actually, we know whose fault it is. It is the governments fault. They invented IPP sentences and talked tough on sentencing. The judiciary responded and used IPP sentences with some vigour. The government, quick to throw people in prison, neglected to provide the resources for these prisoners to undertake their offending behaviour courses, and failed to fund the Parole Board for this doubling of their workload.

This situation reflects a profound shift in sentencing philosophy that was overlooked by legislatures and society. Rather than being sent to prison for a fixed time as a punishment for the crime committed, many are now detained not only for the crime, but on the basis of what they may do in future.

It seems obvious to me that this is a wicked injustice, a shift in philosophy that should have received a wide debate. Even so, to implement this schema without funding the mechanisms to administer it, such the parole board, strips whatever legitimacy may have existed from this shameful enterprise.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Whether to Riot - part 3

If violent rebellion on a scale seen in the past is now impractical, what is the way forward? I argue that the struggle must be broadly political and legal, with a powerful strand of active non-violence.

The status of prisoners in society must be elevated to that of ‘citizen’ and we must foster, provoke and force a genuine debate centred upon the place that prisons occupy in the national consciousness. Only when we reach a broad socio-political consensus about imprisonment can lasting change be affected, away from the capricious winds of daily political stupidity. This blog is, partly, one strand in that effort. Achieving the vote is another.

Use of the law has been a rich source of penal change in North America. There exists a vibrant community of jailhouse-lawyers in America which, for historical reasons, is far more developed than in the UK. Nevertheless, British prisoners are becoming far more legally and many significant changes have flowed from this activity. For Lifers, for instance, the whole structure of release has been wrested from the control of politicians and into the hands of the judiciary.

There needs to be a concerted effort to develop, enlarge and better equip the jailhouse-lawyer community. A consistent body of legal challenges to the status quo holds the potential to enforce significant change on the current penal landscape.

Politically, prisoners are the most marginalised of the dispossessed. We are the part of society that is the most subject to State power, surveillance and control whilst, paradoxically, rejected by society.

We must raise our voices, individually and collectively. Changes in the legal framework mean that we have the opportunity to legitimately organise, an opportunity that many prisoners are too afraid to use. This must be challenged; a confidence must be instilled in prisoners that allows us to both admit our wrongdoings whilst still asserting our citizenship. The issue of our having the right to vote is one such avenue. Others include asserting a greater role in the internal processes of prisons, the mechanisms that rule our daily lives. The habits of passivity must be overcome, both for prisoners to gain a voice and for us to become full citizens.

We must take advantage of new means of communication to confront the wider society. Why am I the only prisoner-blogger? What trepidation restrains the others? Only by challenging stereotypes, only by informing the public about the realities of the criminal justice system, can a broader shift in attitudes be fostered.

Ultimately, the balance of power within prisons is a daily dialectic. As Arendt explained, whilst the State may have the force, power rests with the people. Prison only replicates it's daily routines and existence because of the cooperation of prisoners.

This cooperation can be withdrawn. It is my contention that if legal and political means fail to bring change, then prisoners have the final option of using the strategy of active non¬violence. To steal from Gandhi, all that is needed for prisoners to refuse to cooperate and the whole edifice crumbles.

We don't need to riot. We prisoners have to accept our dirty little secret; that the prison system only works because we cooperate in its daily existence. The power for change rests with us.

Whether to Riot - part 2

Even if, as some claim, past riots have led to improvements for prison conditions, the question still remains whether riots now (or in the future) could achieve positive change.

I say no. Leaving aside the morality of using violence in an attempt to gain benefits (I take a Gandhian view of these things); I doubt the utility of violence. We are no longer in 1990. The PS has trained its staff, honed its procedures and altered the very architecture of prisons all with the aim of containing and suppressing riots quickly.

No longer will Bristol prison have to deal with a riot equipped only with one squad of 12 riot-staff. This was the case in 1990. No longer do staff withdraw and wait for us to run out of things to smash before they re-enter. As demonstrated in Lincoln in 2003, the strategy is now to re-enter the area in force as fast as possible. Luckily, no one listened when the then Home Secretary asked that the prisoners be machine-gunned.

No longer can rioting prisoners easily move between wings, or access crucial administrative areas of the prison. New barriers of gates and bars section the internal prison structures precisely to confine riots to small areas.

For all of these reasons, I have repeatedly argued that the riots of 1990 are unlikely to be repeated. Not because prisoners are now happy, contented people but because the structures that we face when we lift our fists in anger and frustration are so much stronger and more competent.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Whether to Riot

There is, amongst prisoners, a small 'political community' which comprises those of us who take a broader view of our situation and campaign for change. Before the prison service garnered itself with a fa├žade of reasonableness, we would be labelled as subversive, organisers, and anti-authority, all labels I could live with. As with any political community, debates rise and fall, with some personalities being as complicated as the issues. At times there can be as much back-biting as genuine exploration of political issues, but this only highlights the truth that politics is the same wherever you are.

My position is broadly known, equally misunderstood and I am continually challenged. For those who are new to the ins and outs of prison politics I am, amongst other things, head of the Association of Prisoners. The creation of the AoP flowed directly from the Human Rights Act, and exists as the only open prisoner challenge to the status quo.

I take a particular view of change within prisons and how it should be best affected. This does not sit well with some other prisoners and I have my critics in these matters.

It is my conviction that violent rebellion is not an effective means to force change. I don't claim that this is an ahistorical position; particular conditions apply at present which inform my position.

The largest rebellious uprising in British penal history took place 20 years ago,in April 1990. Five major riots occurred, with disturbances occurring in some 25 prisons in total. The and most well known of these was Strangeways, the riot 'began' the whole months activity. According to the official Report into the riots by Lord Woolf, the prison system came within a whisker of total collapse.

There are some in the prisoner political community who argue that the rebellions led to positive changes for prisoners and so assert that future violence may be a valid option for provoking change .

I profoundly disagree. This should be a matter of demonstrable fact, rather than empty assertion. Did the riots lead to better conditions for prisoners? Such a simple question leads down many avenues so I will restrict myself to two. The first is physical conditions, the other the new mechanisms of control that were the institutions response to those riots.

When I began this sentence, if wanted to use the toilet I either had to hope for beneficent staff to unlock me or use my piss-pot. The latter was more likely and led to hundreds of men queuing to empty their sewerage in a communal sluice each morning. It was a disgusting business. If I wanted distraction or entertainment, I was limited to a brief weekly trip to whatever cupboard passed for the library, or a small transistor radio locked to AM stations and powered by batteries only.

Today, I have a toilet just behind where I sit to write in my cell. Really, just over my shoulder. My bladder has never been so pampered. Ahead of me is a 14 inch TV, joined to an electric supply. I can hardly claim that physical conditions have not improved .

But change can be merely a matter of the passage of time. Whether, and which, changes flowed from our ripping off the roofs is a far more subtle question. The installation of in-cell sanitation did accelerate after the riots, though some scattered wings still rely on buckets in their cells.

Whether the new privileges were spurred by riot is more hotly debated. TV's only made a serious appearance in the late 1990's, with games consoles soon after. A gap of some 6 to 8 years between events weakens the argument that riot saw us being showered with goodies; I say it weakens the case fatally.

What is more obvious and, I argue, more fundamental are the layers of control that were overlaid on our daily existence after the riots. For example, all front line staff are now trained in what the PS coyly terms "Control and Restraint"; that is, the physical methods of controlling (and inflicting huge pain upon) prisoners.

Whereas it was once the case that we had all privileges automatically, losing them via disciplinary charges, it is now the case that we earn privileges through compliance. Only those on the highest privilege level. Enhanced, can buy PlayStations for instance.This is called the Incentives and Earned Privileges System, the IEPS. It is capricious, dependent on the whims and fancies of staff. It has none of the safeguards or legal standards of formal disciplinary charges and is used explicitly as an adjunct to the disciplinary system. This is officially denied, but there you are. Prisoners believe it is a daily source of injustice. We are subject to a layer of control that now impinges on every aspect of our daily lives.

The system also professionalised its Security apparatus, instituting complex information gathering systems that often rely upon recruiting prisoners to grass. Alongside this, new methods were created to deal with troublesome elements, giving the Ministry of Justice the power to place people who have committed no disciplinary offence in segregation for indefinite periods.

Thus the "depth" of control has intensified hugely since the riots, with some of these developments being explicit responses to the rebellion. One result is a fragmented prisoner population, angry yet demoralised and frustrated.

Having the TV is very nice, thank you very much. Whether it was a pacifier given in response to rioting is doubtful and whether it is a fair exchange for the imposition of a thick layer of surveillance and control is something I openly question.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Thieving Bastards

In an institution full of people afflicted with light-fingers, to leave my door unlocked when I wander about seems to be reckless.

It isn't. It is a careful judgement on local conditions. In many nicks, an unlocked door is an invitation to theft such that you receive no sympathy if robbed. These tend to be nicks where the population is highly transient, a large turnover, which reduces the opportunities to form social bonds. Coupled with an influx of heroin, then the conditions are such that there are a large number of poor, desperate men with few social connections running about seeking to finance their next fix. Thieving is just one of their options.

And yet it is a very, very risky enterprise. Getting caught "peter thieving" is a guaranteed slap (punch, kick, stab...), the end of you in that prison. Pad-thieves are social pariahs, beyond the pale in every sense. The only way to possible redemption is a transfer, but even then it is very difficult to escape one's history.

This place, having a settled population and few drugs, is almost totally free of cell thieving. There may be an incident once in a blue moon but not enough for me to worry about the safety of my possessions. I cheerfully disappear for hours, leaving my door open. I also have a vague hope that some burglar will enter my cell, see how poor I am and actually leave some goods instead of filling his pockets. Hasn't happened yet, but I'm patient.