Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Work, Work, Work

So the Parole Board and various prison staff take great umbrage at my disdain for "menial" work, and the efforts I make to avoid being lumbered with it.

I thought it may be informative to list all of the jobs that I have been allocated over the course of my sentence. That's 30 years, at a cost of around £1.5 million. What did I get for my time, and you for your money? In chronological order, from 1980, these are the jobs. I have excluded formal education and periods of unemployment.

Hospital cleaner
Landing cleaner
Stripping cables
Landing cleaner
Food server
Attaching pins to rings (lynch pins)
Screwing bolts into housings
Basic welding
Kitchen cleaner
Education Orderly
Landing cleaner
Workshop Cleaner
Storeman
Textile checker/packer
Textile cutter
Wing No.l (tea-boy)
Gardener
Storeman
Cleaner
Education Orderly
Library Orderly
E-Commerce Strategist/SWOT Analyst
Cleaner
Paper-Folder
Toilet Cleaner
Nuts and Bolts packer

This is all they think I am good for. Well, not just me, any prisoner. Along the way, interwoven with this litany of the depressing, I made the effort to pass my 0-Levels, A-Levels, BSc(Hons), MA (Merit) and now into a Doctorate. Much of this study was conducted against a background of indifference bordering upon obstruction.
Now they call me an egomaniac and "grandiose" for daring to hope for more but in truth, who would aspire to the work they have allocated me over the whole of my adult life? Who would not complain at this meagre aspiration that is forced upon us?

I curse those in charge of my life who believe I should plead for no more than a shelf-stacking job for the rest of my working life on release. Worse than that, curse them for attempting to pathologise a desire to aspire. What you and I would characterise as the innate urge to achieve, to overcome our surroundings, my keepers see as signs that I am "difficult to manage" and accuse me of thinking I'm a bigger deal than I am.

I've sweated and sacrificed, had to fight and manoeuvre, to gain my education and I'm damned if I will allow the views of my keepers to deprive me of aspiring to achieve more in my remaining years. Pushing a mop around a supermarket aisle because I have to pay the rent is one thing; doing it because my masters believe that's all I'm good for is another. And I will resist it.

Whatever I do manage to achieve in life, whatever small contribution is within my purpose, will be in spite of the efforts of the prison service and its minions.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Black Comedy

So... You take a guy with a smashed leg, dubious balance and a crutch. You then take another guy who is registered Blind. You find a small cell and put them both in it.

As some might say, "You're 'avin a laugh!".

I would call it "prison management, as per normal".

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Prison Works" - An Attractive Lie

The central plank on which the argument "prison works" rests is the seemingly obvious assertion that, whilst prisoners are locked away, we cannot commit crime. There are two problems with this edifice of thought.

Firstly, it makes the crass assumption that there is no crime in prison, that as soon as we pass through the gates we are transmogrified into paragons of reasonableness. As assumptions go, this is a pretty big one. As dumb assumptions go, it's a classic. Crime is rampant within prisons, utterly rife. Prisoners lie, cheat, steal, punch, kick, stab and murder with some vigour.

Just about the only crime that is rare in prison is motoring offences...though there is the apocryphal story of the disciplinary hearing where the Governor announced his faith in the honesty of his staff. "If my Officer tells me he saw you riding a motorbike along the landings, I'd find you guilty of unauthorised possession of petrol"... That aside, crime is as much a bane in here as out there.

Or is this assumption itself based on yet another assumption? That is, that crimes committed against criminals just don't count? If that is the case, if the rule of law ends on conviction, then can I assume that we are free to leap into bestial modes of life without any sanction from that law? Or, worse, can we then assume that we are inconsequential, a sub-species whose suffering from crime is an irrelevance?

So the first plank of the "prison works" argument is riddled with rottenness. And the second assumption? That is, that if we weren't imprisoned than we would - inevitably - be out there continuing to commit crime?

Many prisoners would. But don't allow the natural outrage against this divert you from a simple yet fundamental point. That would mean that we are locking people away not as punishment for the crime which they have already committed, but instead we are isolating them for the crimes they may commit in the future.

This is a classic slippery slope, and one that should cause a twinge in everyone who has a passing acquaintance with small concepts such as Justice and Liberty. Locking people away in order to prevent crime should be universally decried. Or at least debated.

Of course many prisoners would go on to commit crime if they were on the streets. Instead, they commit their crimes on prison landings. And around a third of prisoners do not re-offend on release (for two years, at least). So we are detaining tens of thousands of people in an effort to prevent crimes which they were never going to commit.

"Prison Works!" is an excellent slogan, fitting nicely within the confines - and mentality - of a t-shirt. Take a few moments, though, to unpick the assumptions it is woven from and the fabric of the argument falls through one’s fingers like ashes.

Random Mischief

Open prisons contain the potential for a greater range of mischief, should you be so inclined. Some have suggested that I am.

Whilst at Leyhill, I spent a lot of time loitering in the Chapel. A haven of free coffee, good conversation, and a ready audience for my brand of cynicism.

Whilst the Chaplain was on holiday, the (prisoner)Orderly decided to have some fun. Each new arrival and discharge prisoner had to undertake a 'paper chase', going around each department to have their papers signed by staff.

In the absence of the Chaplain, the Orderly pointed these befuddled prisoners in my direction, passing me off as "the visiting Rabbi". As I then laboured under the weight of a Moses-like beard, they were content to ask me to sign their papers.

I wonder just how many forms now reside in the archives, signed by "Rabbi Arbuthnot Fotherington-Smythe"...?

Friday, November 26, 2010

All Change

The life of the prisoner is an incredibly dull one. Nothing much happens. There is the institutional routine, and interspersed with that are the routines we weave for ourselves as we try to shape the existence which is least uncomfortable.

Some prisoners sink into this, allowing it to dull their hopes, their pains, their vision for their future. Every minute is corroded into sameness, a torpor. Within this certainty, within these layers of routine, a security and safety beckons. It is a false paradise.

There is a comfort in certainty that must be resisted.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Cancerist!

God forbid this becomes a "cancer blog" but the response to my dual-news of the parole board answer and cancer has been illuminating.

Lots of people have been congratulating me on my news. Most are referring to the Open prison thing, but I suspect that a couple were happier that I had cancer.

I've suggested starting a cancer sufferers club here, given its prevalence, mockingly called The Immortals. People were even less keen when I insisted on being President on the basis that I will outlive everyone else!

And when I asked the original Cancer Boy how he manages to generate the sympathy, he mocked me for the feeble nature of my cancer. "I've had bigger tumours thrown in the bin..."

Prison humour. It's tough!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Contentment

Is it possible for victims ever to be happy? Even if we are made to suffer the most bestial of torments, would that bring peace to a grieving soul?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Criminals and Victims

Why is criminal justice treated as if it were a zero-sum game, that there must be the opposed forces of criminal and victims?

It seems that for every policy that effects criminal justice, and prisons in particular, there is some call that somehow it deprives victims of something. Anything! As if a policy that seems to benefit cons must automatically take something away from victims.

Here's a thought. That it is possible to treat prisoners with decency AND treat victims with empathy and support. These are not opposing aims, the one does not detract from the other.

Unless...should victims determine the fate of those who transgress against them? As was the inclination of the last government. Or should it be accepted that criminals and victims both have an interest in Justice, even if the outcome in the individual case leaves all involved unhappy?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Disequilibrium

For a while now it has been my practice to dive out onto the yard as soon as we are unlocked in the morning. Selecting my bench, I can have half an hour to myself. It has become a brief time in which I have found some sort of internal stillness, a pleasant reminder of my Zen years.

This peace is made slightly more difficult to achieve when the weather is awful, as it was today. The worst combination of cold, rain and wind, leaving me huddled in my woolly hat, a scarf of Dr Who proportions, fleece, and gloves. As ever, there was one man striding around in a pair of shorts, making me wonder if I was a wimp or if he was a half-wit?

Today, though, I found myself unable to disassociate myself from the turmoil that has descended in the last day or so. Being handed cancer and Open prison simultaneously gives rise to a combination of thoughts and feelings that I was never prepared to deal with. One thing at a time, yes, but this is just a lot to process! Interesting times...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Grand Day Out

Some of us enjoy a day out from the nick as a break in the routine. For others, it is a disruption. I've always been slightly ambivalent. Of course it is pleasant to have a change of scenery, but when you’re handcuffed to a screw and there's three of you squashed in the back seat of a car it tends to detract a touch from the experience.

These occasions are one of the very few times that we are stuck in close proximity to screws, and they with us. Whereas on the wing our encounters are distant and fleeting, each sticking firmly to our roles, when you’re stuck with someone in a confined space for a few hours then that distance tends to narrow.

Some screws sit in silence, never speaking. Others talk to each other, ignoring the prisoner who sits in between them. Those more comfortable with themselves are able to include the prisoner in the conversation, breaking away from prison gossip and the mutual disdain for management and ranging into current affairs, TV programmes and general waffle.

In fairness to my escorts of late, the staff have ranged from being pleasantly quiet to quite chatty. They have not made the experiences worse by being, well, screws!

Being the prison service, I was handcuffed. Obviously, you may think! But no. Each 'escort’ should be risk assessed. I have had a wander around the local town, been to hospital twice recently, and all the staff recommended I could be trusted to go to Open prison at the parole hearing. And yet, there I was, wedged between two screws and in cuffs. Honestly, what were the chances of my doing a runner, hoofing it down the road barefooted with my arse hanging out the back of a hospital gown? The mind of my keepers is too murky to discern at times. Actually, most of the time...

The experience reminded me of an aspect of life that I'm going to have to get used to on release - travelling. Life in prison is compact, everything is close by. Out there, travelling more than a few hundred metres to get to, say, work, is the norm. And I dislike travel. The idea of driving for an hour is not enticing, it's dead and unproductive time. Perhaps I'm a natural candidate for tele-working?

We lurked in the hospital waiting room for an age. Nothing changes! Others people there cast sly glances at the handcuffs and I can see the urge to ask a question form on at least one set of lips. But no one says anything out loud. As I stand to follow the Doctor, dragging a screw along, I have to resist the temptation to ask, "could you remove this ugly growth I have attached to my right arm...??"

Being given a diagnosis can be difficult enough. When it's cancer, and here's a lot of information to absorb, doubly so. But being wedged in the consulting room with two screws, still handcuffed to them, it becomes something more degrading.

On my return, I obviously wanted to let those close to me know the diagnosis. The Editor was sitting by her phone, sweating and stressed. With no money on my phone account, I had to ask for an 'official' phone call, that is the use of an office landline. Two minutes was all I wanted, just to pass the news along. The man in charge of the nick that evening, the Orderly Officer, refused.

Still, it was a day out.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Turning of The Screw

Staff are beginning to notice this tiny corner of the web. Perhaps their home life is so dull that surfing is their escape, or maybe they have so little to do on duty that perusing my waffle is one way to fill the hours.

This has had consequences. After a somewhat spiky encounter a couple of weeks ago, one screw asked if he'd done enough to get a mention here? Search for "silverback" to find that answer.. And this morning, a Senior Officer paused during locking me up to take me task for always referring to "prison officers" as "screws". He was politely offended, insisting that he was a professional man, a prison officer...not a screw.

The origin of the word, screw, is disputed. The most favoured explanation is that it comes from the early Separate system. Each cell was equipped with a box with a crank handle, and the prisoner had to turn the handle so many thousand revolutions per 8 hour day. Prison staff could make the turning of the handle easier or harder by adjusting a screw...

We use the term "screw" in a not particularly pejorative way, much as staff refer to us as "cons". That is, "convicted prisoners". No insult is intended; we have other terms for screws we don't like, the most common being "a dog". And so, much though this Senior Officer doesn't like it, I'm sticking to "screw". Sorry guv!
And in passing, a manager I've cheerfully baited for the last few years mentioned that he read the blog and that I "sound quite reasonable" at times. Two things struck me about that. Firstly, it shows just how much they would really know me if they actually bothered to engage with me. And more worryingly, where have I gone wrong if Governors think I'm reasonable??

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ignoring My Own Advice

Prisoners, like myself, who are approaching a parole hearing that has the potential to make a great leap towards release can fall unthinkingly into the trap of looking too far ahead.

That is, mentally and emotionally transporting ourselves into that positive future. I always caution against this, because it can be fatal. If the desired result fails to appear, then one's emotional world can collapse inwards, the Elysian Fields being reduced to four bare walls - again.

The trick is, to hope - but not too much. As ever, I'm not taking my own advice. If this Parole Board hearing goes badly, I just don't have a Plan B!

note: Ben had a recommendation for open conditions from the parole panel but still awaits confirmation from the MoJ, who have to "rubber stamp" it before he can actually move.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Got a Spare £120 Grand?

Alec has been a sporadic visitor my cell, hoping that I could shed some light on his tangled position. It's a complicate tale that spans several years.

The prison - or the trainee psychologists who rule these days -wanted him to do a Treatment Needs Analysis. This is an examination of what further "offending behaviour work" he may be required to undertake in order to progress.

This has rumbled on for three years. They have now, suddenly, decided that Alec doesn't need to do this after all. That's three years of his life and £120,000 of your money wasted.

As well as illustrating the sheer waste of human life that is imprisonment, this tale also highlights an equally important point. That no one - no one! - in the Prison Service ever takes responsibility for their decisions. Ever. And if they are wrong and waste our lives and your money, they are never held to account. They treat us all - you as well as us - with contempt.

Note from the Ed:

Recommendation for open prison by the parole board is only the first step. Ben still awaits approval from the Minster of Justice, who will also decide how long he has to stay there before applying for release. Come on, Ken…….

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Baffling Times

We have a government facing significant challenges. Historically, the Tory response to such difficulties has included retreating to inane law and order rhetoric, which invariably led to prisoners getting a kicking.

This hasn't been happening, and I can't tell you just how disconcerting this is. Just what are they up to..? Possibly, just maybe, the financial crisis is giving a more cerebral coterie of Tories the opportunity to peddle their wares, to argue a more sophisticated view of law and order?

We can only hope. And in the meantime, brace ourselves! For every Ken Clarke or Crispin Blunt there are a hundred Michael Howards waiting in the wings, their fangs glistening.

Good News and Bad News

Ben has been recommended for open prison by the parole board. Details here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/nov/16/ben-gunn-moved-open-prison

He has also just been diagnosed with cancer. More information on the Facebook pages.

Blog Ed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Vote Thing...

My view on the Prisoners Vote issue is well known and based on two broad arguments. Firstly, that human rights are inviolate and universal - they apply to the most despised as well as those most lauded. Secondly, prisoners remain a part of society, even if tucked out of sight. I have rehearsed my views previously, over at the Guardian's Comment is Free for those who are particularly interested.

Though not many prisoners seem to be! While this issue has exercised the best political and legal minds of two governments, and they have been found wanting, prisoners sat on the sidelines, largely indifferent. The prospect of gaining the vote is merely entertaining for many of us, and an irrelevance to most. I think it's more important than we appreciate.

The Labour government bobbed and weaved in an embarrassing display of deceit to avoid facing the reality of the Court’s judgement. Jacqui Smith, their Home Secretary, admitted on "This Week" that Labour deliberately delayed. We all knew this, but they happily looked Parliament and the Council of Europe in the eye and assured them otherwise. Nothing makes prisoners angrier than being lectured on our disdain for the law by a government that treats a court judgement with contempt.

I expected the current Government to adopt a similar stance. After all, as a matter of practical politics, who wants to be the Prime Minister that gives us lot the vote?? But, politically, it was handled extremely adeptly. In blaming the financial crisis and the European Court, Cameron deflected the flack he would otherwise have received. And he was, partly, correct to do so. For months, prisoners have been filing claims for compensation with the Court for Labour’s refusal to allow us to participate in the General Election.

This was a rare opportunity to open a debate around the place of prison and prisoners in society, and it was lost. To some, it was because John Hirst became the story rather than the campaign. To others, the opportunity was squandered because the media reverted to a default position which avoided engaging with any of the genuine issues.

There will inevitably be a continuation of this battle, though. The government seem determined to restrict the number of prisoners voting to the minimum. I suspect their legal advice is telling them what everyone familiar with this judgement knows -that this will be challenged. Within the lifetime of this administration most prisoners will have the vote.

This will include Lifers and some of the bogeyman groups such as rapists and paedophiles. The legal landscape has advanced since the original Hirst judgement and, taking into account Frodl v Austria, then an almighty political embarrassment remains for the government to face up to.

Astonishing though it is that a Tory government that has done the right thing by prisoners in this, Cameron has only dealt with the initial problem. In not giving us all the vote, blaming Europe and the public coffers, he faces a second crisis when some Lifer returns to the courts and forces the government to give all prisoners the franchise.

No Prime Minister wants to be the one who gives Ian Huntley or Rose West a ballot paper. That's just politics. But it will have to be done, and avoiding this certainty for now will only make it more politically damaging later.

From where I sit, I also suspect that no Lifer will want to be the one to take this back to court and be forever known as the man who got Huntley the vote. That is also practical politics. But someone will. And that's when this story becomes a very hot topic - again. Next time, though, those of us involved in prisoners’ rights and reform should all be better prepared to take advantage of the situation and use it as a platform to crack open a genuine debate.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fighting Fog

What a strange 24 hours it has been. Yesterday, I woke up to be told that my parole hearing was in the Guardian news section. My ego was pleased but then I just had to wonder how uneventful the world must have been for my hearing to rise to significance, even if it was on page 16??

Most of my morning was spent out on the yard, sitting in the freezing drizzle, attempting to find some equilibrium for the hearing due to begin at lunchtime.

As usual, I spent a while with my barrister discussing the issues. Or what we thought were the issues! Those who have followed this saga with forensic attention will recall that I was granted a move to Open Prison about 15 months ago. And then I was busted; the prison discovering that I had been involved in a relationship with a member of staff and that I had briefly possessed a mobile phone in the previous year. As is the way, the Ministry of Justice promptly referred me back to the Parole Board for advice. This was that hearing, and we thought the issues were clear - did this new information mean that I presented too high a risk to now be moved to Open Prison?

Well...we wait to see. To my surprise, the mobile didn't even get a mention. That left the relationship. The angle that the Panel took was to accuse me of being a deceptive man. I had lied! I tried to point out that one incident of deception doesn't make me a compulsive liar across the board, but they kept hammering away at the point.

From their perspective, if I was to be managed in the community, then I needed to be open and honest with those supervising me. And so, if I am going to lie about what I'm up to, then I'd pose a real problem. I pointed out that if I'm up to no good - say, dealing in drugs, then obviously I wasn't going to admit it to my Probation Officer...and that the significant issue would be the drug dealing, not the lying about it.

Of course I lied about the relationship, what else could I do? I refuse to apologise for whom I fall in love with. The situation was wrong, the relationship was not. We had two options - to lie and allow the relationship to develop, or to stop. And stopping, when love is involved, was never an option for me. Of course I regret the situation and the need to lie.

This does not mean I'm a persistently deceptive man. I'm notorious for being stupidly honest. If I was a deceptive, manipulative man than I'd have wangled my way out the gate years ago! So I think the relationship is just one of those things, a difficult situation I dealt with as best I could. Most importantly, it has nothing to do with whether I pose "a risk to life or limb".

So, the phone and the relationship were the issues, and they were addressed. Or,in the case of the mobile, ignored. That should have been that, off to Open.

But the Panel decided to reopen my whole life, ignore everything that had been dealt with to the satisfaction of half a dozen previous Panels, and spent half the time disagreeing over the factors that led to my offence. If we can't agree on why I committed murder, 30 years after the fact, then I could be screwed.

More in Part 2…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

No Human Rights for Prisoners..?

This is a common refrain from some of the more populist political mouthpieces, as well as in the pub. It is often based upon a complete misunderstanding of human rights coupled with a profound ignorance of what the specific rights are.

What we wrote, agreed and signed up to 60 years ago was the principle that individuals have a right to insist that the State not commit certain acts against them. And that these specified rights adhere to all people, without exception. This is a fundamental point about human rights they are unearned, they accrue merely by being human. It was intended that governments would be rendered illegitimate if they attempted to single out groups that they, or the wider society, disliked and then oppressing them. Jews, communists, homosexuals, gypsies, democrats...

Rather than meander through a very long legal document, it serves the purpose to select just one of the rights contained in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

"Article 3 - Prohibition of torture.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

We can, obviously, debate the meaning of the operative words and the Courts are perpetually engaged in that discussion. But as a broad prohibition, I would hope that this prohibition is self evident and needs no justification? No government should be free to abuse its citizens.

And for those who wish prisoners to exempt from this prohibition on being misused, consider this - for every Huntley or West, there are ten thousand thieves and burglars. There are people in prison for non-payment of fines arising from not having a TV license.

Anyone who says that prisoners should not have human rights must be prepared to justify torturing grandmothers in a dispute with TV Licensing.

Anybody...?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

PhD progress.

My brain is still sweating bullets of blood from my recent supervisory session, but it seems that your donations have not been a wasted effort!

Between me and my university supervisors, we have found a way forward that somehow doesn't bring me into conflict with the prison and yet allows me to deliver the goods at the end.

My first order of business is to refine my research questions and produce my literature review. All obvious, run of the mill stuff...except I was tying myself in knots.

Every book, every paper, I read set me off on a tangent, a new line of exploration - a fatal, and common, mistake in the early stages of research. We spent a lot of time discussing this, and guiding me to retain my precise focus. Hence, tightening up my research questions.

My main problem has been to select a schema for Human Needs from amongst the several available, providing my conceptual lens. Maslow, Toch, Burton, Galtung, Azar..I didn't want to just pick one at random! So we decided that the best course would be to use two schema of Needs, one originating from Conflict and Peace studies - Burton - and one that is rooted within the sociology of prisons - Sykes.

This is just a brief note to keep you up to date with what’s happening - after all, you did have the kindness to fund me to continue with my research.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Paper

So I have a stationery fetish...not severe enough for Psychology to take an interest, but I do love pens and paper.

And paper is pretty fundamental in my life. Letters, blog-posts, my research, general musings...without paper, I am nothing.

Finding myself down to my last few sheets, I armed myself with an empty plastic folder and went on the hunt to fill it with shiny, clean, blank A4.

You would think that Education was an obvious port of call...unless you've kept up with the endless story of my travails with that department. I came away with a measly 15 sheets and a lecture on how "we have to buy this, you know!" Urn, yes, for students to use for their education!!

In the end, it was a random member of staff who topped me up out of his photocopier. Thanks, I now have a few weeks worth. And my view of the Education Department remains as it ever was...

Note from Ed: Stationery is on the approved list of items we are allowed to send in to prisoners...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Future

One of the people involved in my parole hearing has suggested that when I reach Open prison I should stop blogging and focus upon 'resettlement’. He also believes that my blogging at all is "unwise" in terms of progressing through the maze I'm trapped within. As he spent his career in the prison service, his view reflects the official ethos and outlook.

As I perceive it, writing is a powerful route to my being reintegrated into society. Behind the scenes, the blog has led to interesting developments with significant future potential. To stop blogging, then, would be to sever myself from one of the few opportunities that I have to build a future life.

And I'm so looking forward to giving you glimpses into the Through The Looking Glass experience that is open prison... And so, short of illegal interference from the prison service or ministry of justice, I will persist in intruding into your consciousness on a near daily basis!

As for this being unwise... I hope that, no matter what you think of me, the idea that anyone should be hindered on the path to release just because he expresses his opinions is one you find repugnant.

Parole Hearing

I spoke to Ben’s lawyer, who is very uncertain about the parole hearing. They put Ben through the wringer, and it’s hard to tell how they were thinking. Everybody who submitted a report or gave evidence, including all prison reports, said that Ben did not pose a risk of future violent offending. Now we have to wait up to 2 wks for their official answer!

Ed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tories and Human Rights

I never understand why anyone dislikes the general principle of human rights. That is, to create a set of boundaries between the individual and the State which limit the States ability to oppress its citizens.

What is there to object to in that? And I would have thought that the Conservative Party, philosophically rooted in particular views of the State and the individual, would be the party most aligned to the concept of restricting the State's ability to oppress individuals. Human rights should be a Tory lodestone.

And yet, almost universally, Tories detest human rights. I suspect that if you lead each individual Tory through the principles laid out above, they would hurrumph and agree. So why their practical difficulty with the reality of human rights?

There is, obviously, the issue of sovereignty. Concepts of human rights originated in the international arena - the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Or did they? The ideas underpinning human rights - that of limiting State power - are actually born out of English political philosophy. Hobbes, Locke, Mill...and expanded through the American Revolution into their Bill of Rights.

So human rights are not only philosophically at home in Conservatism, they are as British as John Bull. So we are no nearer reaching the source of the Tory distaste.

I have a suspicion that sovereignty is a large part of it. Because our constitutional arrangements make entrenching legislation impossible, placing limits on State power through domestic legislation is impractical. Any "British Bill of Rights" can be repealed by Parliament as easy as they enacted it -hardly a safeguard against an oppressive State.

We chose, instead, to help create the Council of Europe after the War. British lawyers largely wrote the Council's Convention on Human Rights and a British government signed that treaty - 60 years ago. And we seemed pretty happy with that arrangement until lately.

This is despite the fact that Britain has one of the worst records of being found in breach of the Convention by the European Court for Human Rights. Almost from the beginning, Britain found itself being held to account for breaching the very values it not only subscribed to, but gave formal written shape to.

Many of these cases involved prisoners. Those held in the bowels of the State, separate and isolated from help, are just the type of despised minority group that the Convention intended to protect. Remember, always, that the Council of Europe and the Convention for Human Rights was born from the butchery of the War.

And it has been repeatedly found that British governments routinely failed to maintain that proper perspective between the State and the individuals in its charge. Cases which have been won include prisoners being allowed access to the Courts; being able to see the full Rules and regulations which govern our custody; and removing political interference from the management of Life sentenced prisoners.

On the face of it, what Tory could reasonably object to any of these, illustrative, judgements? On what basis should prisoners be denied access to British courts? On what reasonable argument should we be refused access to the very regulations that govern us? And why, in any State that isn't totalitarian, should a politician ever have the power to decide whether a prisoner is released?

And yet...Tories still hate human rights, and human rights applied to prisoners most of all! Can this really only be reduced to a hatred of the word "European" in relation to human rights? Even though the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights are completely different and separate entities to the European Union? Could their distaste really be due to a misunderstanding?

Tories are renowned as the party of law and order, believing that the rule of law is a bedrock of a stable state. Yet they resist and bemoan having to implement a legal judgement - our right to vote. After two hours of writing, I'm no nearer to comprehending why the Tories hate human rights. All the more so when it leads them into tortuous knots where they reject their core beliefs -individual sovereignty and the rule of law.

Any ideas that would help to unravel this would be appreciated!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Therapeutic Deception

The infestation of psychologists into prisons which began about 15 years ago has had many unforeseen consequences. One of which is, if a prisoner is a fluent liar then he is more likely to be released than is an honest critic.

The cognitive psychology courses that we are forced through ("it’s voluntary" - you just won't get released if you don't do them) are riddled with psycho-babble jargon. After passing through a few of these courses, some cons become very fluent in both the jargon and in discerning just what it is the psychologists want to hear.
And so they lie. They present themselves as being 'cured' by these psychological treatments, clothing themselves in the fa├žade that the psychologists crafted for them. And they wear it well.

So well that people we know are devious, slippery bastards that we'd never live next to outside persuade staff and the parole board to release them.

And then there are people like me... I don't manipulate and I don't lie. If I did, I wouldn't still be sitting here. When I disagree, it's with good reason and I will defend my position. The price paid for this is many extra years in prison.
How can a criminal justice system become so self-absorbed, so twisted, that it conspires to accept blatant lies which please them whilst hammering the honest critic?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Crystal Balls

It has been shown, in comments relating to IPP sentences, that some prisoners have committed awful crimes after their release. This is as undeniable as it is deplorable.

IPP sentences are based on a simplistic idea - that some (many thousands) of criminals should be detained until they can demonstrate that they are safe to release. This is more than sentencing with the aim of incapacitation. This is explicitly rehabilitative sentencing, detaining people not for the crime they have demonstrably committed but for the crimes they may commit in future.

There is an obvious objection to this, though it can be dressed up in an infinite variety of sophisticated clothing. The objection is the basis for the sentence, which is a fundamental shift in sentencing philosophy. Sending a person to prison for their past acts is one thing; continuing to detain them on the basis that they MAY commit future crimes is, to me, fundamentally objectionable.

Not only is it repulsive on a philosophical level, it is also nonsense on the actuarial level. If this sentencing philosophy is to be clothed in the most meagre scraps of sanity, it must be possible to demonstrate that future offending is predictable at the individual level.

Obviously, on the aggregate level this can be done. A careful analysis of the histories of prisoners highlights factors which suggest a higher chance of future offending. More prisoners have been in local authority care and have poor educational attainments than non prisoners, for example. And so, on this actuarial level, it can be honestly said that people with those biographical attributes are more likely to end up in prison.

Yet this is a far cry from being able to pick any individual with those attributes and predict their chances of committing crime. This is an impossible prediction to make, though the prison and probation services refuse to face that mathematical truth.

IPP sentences, keeping people in prison for what they may do in future, is based on a statistical lie that attempts to mask a philosophically repugnant shift in sentencing policy.

Of course, some prisoners will commit crimes after release. This is a price individual victims pay in order to protect society from near-arbitrary sentencing. These victims bear a heavy cost, a reminder that that freedom itself must be paid for. A price also paid by thousands of prisoners, kept in prison for what they may possibly do in future.

And yet, I would argue that sentencing should be based upon the crime that a person has committed and never on what he may do in future. At the end of that punishment they should be released. Their future conduct must then be judged on its own merits.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tories Give Crims the Vote

Not a headline I'd ever thought I'd be writing, but it proves my general thesis that life is bloody weird.

Hats off to Cameron, et al., for having the stones to make the decision that the Labour government shied away from in fear of their media masters turning on them. He who lives by media management, lives in fear of it...

This was legally inevitable. Even a half witted lawyer would have known this for five years. It was coming down to paying prisoners a fortune in compensation every election, being slung out of the EU, or just swallowing a minor political spasm and give us the vote. Labour were too spineless to make the decision.

I didn't think the Tories would be any better, to be honest. And yet this government has been a bundle of surprises on the criminal justice front from the beginning. For a man who suffered the wrath of Michael Howard, this is all quite disconcerting!

An unexpected development was being collared by a screw, with way too much time on his hands, who had the opportunity to dig me out for John Hirst's celebratory video... I gather it was not a nuanced, politically adept, response to the government's announcement! Whilst I can, to some extent, appreciate the outburst of a fellow Lifer who has been jerked around by the previous Government for five years, as the head of the Association of Prisoners, I can hardly condone public drug use.

This will all blow over, it always does. For now, anyway, because this is only the first part of the battle. The government intends to limit the franchise to the smallest number of prisoners, probably those serving under 4 years.

The one obvious problem with this is that there are several thousand Lifers who are past their tariff. That is, the punishment element of their sentence has ended – so why should they be denied a vote? But of course, this group comprises a fair number of rapists, murderers and paedophiles...the group most vilified by the Daily Mail etc.

It therefore follows that these people should have the vote, no matter how politically inconvenient that would be. And the question in my mind is who is going to be that Lifer who takes this back to Court if the government decides to deny them?

This is a skimpy response to events, I know, but I have made my arguments around the vote several times over on the Guardian's Comment is Free...and I won't bore you by repeating them here.

Ed Note: There are some links to Ben’s thoughts on this issue below. Whether you agree or disagree on the issue, I think you will accept that Ben makes a compelling and very reasoned argument:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/sep/19/prisoners-vote-human-rights

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/feb/13/prisoners-voting-rights

Friday, November 5, 2010

My body isn't mine

There are very many aspects of imprisonment which are extremely difficult to explain. While the wider world focuses its sporadic attention upon the easily visible artefacts of menus and TV’s, the actual experience of being a prisoner comprises intangibles.

It is taken for granted that everybody exercises sovereignty over their own body. Hundreds of years of legal argument has honed this into a deep strand of law; assault, negligence, murder, rape, medical ethics...all stand as testament to the socio-political belief that our body is inviolate. It is ours, trespass at your peril!

None of this is true for the prisoner. Our persons are liable to be searched and examined at the whim of staff, if necessary by the use of force. It is a loss of privacy, a degradation that cannot be surpassed unless a mind-reading machine is invented.

Prisoners are searched as we move about the prison, leaving a wing, moving to work, before and after receiving a domestic or legal visit. This is often a 'pat down' search, with the screw rubbing his hands around the body over the clothes.

Less frequently, we are strip searched. Leaving visits, during cell searches, drug tests, transfers...all involve stripping naked. The screws examine your clothing and your body, sometimes to the extent of insisting we squat over a mirror, lift our testicles and pull back our foreskin.

There are various responses to this intrusion, a number of emotions evoked by this systematised degradation. Often, all parties work in silence or attempt to mask the unpleasantness with irrelevant chatter. This is determined by the level hostility which motivates the search. Some strip searches are accompanied by forthright mockery, the con waving his body at the staff and accusing them of taking a perverse sexual pleasure in the process.

Pat down searches, a rub down, are often conducted with a certain level of indifference, even irritation, as being a mere institutional requirement that amounts to a pointless interruption to the daily flow.

The loss of bodily sovereignty is merely one aspect of the loss of privacy that comes with the status of 'prisoner'. It is a degradation which can often be conducted in an inoffensive manner. But it is never accepted, it is never comfortable, and it should never become a mere bureaucratic process.

It is these intangibles, these daily experiences, which are the essence of what it means to be a prisoner. These are the strands from which our daily life is woven. To overlook this is favour of the more easily grasped physical items, such as TV’s, is to wholly miss any opportunity for understanding.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Inspector's Report

The Inspectorate of Prisons have now published their report from their inspection of this backwater earlier this year. Obviously, I disagree with large chunks of it. One particular disjunction illustrates the level of brainpower behind their analysis.

The Inspectors assert that there is, essentially, no drug problem in this prison. Not having found a spliff in years, it is with some regret that I can confirm this.

In response to this non-existent problem, they then recommend that a screw be stationed at the dispensary in Healthcare to stop us trading medication.

In an era of huge cuts in resources, it's good to know that the prison service has enough slack to be able to allocate a screw to stop a problem which doesn't exist.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Big Rinty is Dying?

Those familiar with the writings of Erwin James, either in the Guardian, his books or his blog, will know his friend Big Rinty.

Rinty served his sentence and was released on Life License. Several years later he was accused of committing another crime, but was acquitted at trial. Such is the malign nature of the system, though, that Rinty was nevertheless recalled back to prison. Over a decade later, he remains in prison, now living a landing or two below me. The injustice of his situation is enough to torment the sanest of minds.

Rinty is now wasting away. A naturally broad man, he is now visibly melting before our eyes. Erwin has written about this on his own blog.

Speaking to Rinty yesterday, bouncing around ideas for how the system could release him to die in freedom, the thought of chemotherapy came up. Pancreatic cancer is not particularly receptive to treatment, but I thought he may squeeze another few months out of life.

Rinty made what is really a blindingly obvious point. Why should he attempt to extend his life with chemotherapy, when that only means he remains in prison a little bit longer?

How can a system which has in its Statement of Purpose the phrase "it is our duty to look after them with humanity.." bring a man so low as to think such thoughts?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Staff Training...

Staff undergo regular training sessions, in everything from self-defence to diversity issues. This usually means we are locked away for the duration. And they never seem to get any better at their job!

I was tempted to type up a fake notice about the latest training day. In the light of the staff cuts and their unemployment on the horizon, I was going to suggest that this training was to explore the various ways of them asking, "Do you want fries with that...?".

Wiser heads prevailed upon me...