Sunday, May 5, 2013

Versus...Grayling


No sooner had I bitched about Grayling and the broad thrust of Tory prison policy then the man himself decided to make the nightmares come true. The first I really knew about it was when a couple of media orgs contacted me to see if I was available to comment on Graylings announcement the next day. Unlike the rest of us, media folk are given copies of ministerial waffle a day in advance, on the understanding that it is under embargo until a specific time. These were duly winged my way, and I went to sleep with a nasty taste in my mouth at what was to come on awakening.

Whizzed down to London I duly popped up on the ITV daybreak programme at the unearthly hour of 0640. A time I had previously existed only as a myth. The green room there on the south bank is populated by two long sofas and a coffee bar. The latter is the most essential item. The sparse population of guests for the programme at that hour were all seated, being shuffled between makeup, coffee and nibbles. As is the way in TV land, I was accompanying a victim of crime into the studio. Mrs X’s son had been killed in a particularly empty assault and, unsurprisingly, she had views that diverged from mine. We met in the green room and chatted quite pleasantly I was was pleased to learn that she was keen on education and training, albeit in a punitive environment, and not a dull person filled with blind hatred.

At the appointed moment we were gently molested by those tasked to administer microphones about our person and led into a corner of the studio. The presenters were about their business and, as a video tape played, we were ushered onto the sofa. A few words of greeting and straight into the questions… here’s a secret. I never prepare responses; I never try to fathom what may be thrown at me and pre plan any response; neither do I have prepared points I wish to lever clumsily into the exchange. My working theory – and its succeeded so far – is that there isn’t a single issue around prison that I haven’t spent years considering, and so my responses flow from that history spontaneously. The danger in this is that a question may floor me completely, but we shall see!

Time takes on a different meaning before a camera. I know, objectively, that the telly puppet masters are controlling the whole environment down to the last second but in the moment I somehow fail to recognise this in that I don’t try to squeeze in as much of what I want to actually say as possible. I just talk. When time runs out every guest feels slightly bereft, left knowing there was so much more to say…

I shot out of the studio like a jackrabbit, knowing a car was awaiting to scuttle me across the Thames to the BBC – Radio 5 Live Breakfast with Nicky Campbell. It was one of the grand artdeco buildings the BBC still clings to – thankfully – and I shot up the grand staircase to reception behind schedule. Radio 5…breakfast..Ben Gunn…guest…” and the guards pointed this wheezing apparition to the next floor. Where I found, in the corner, an incongruous room that leapt from grander days but was now fitted with headphones, mikes and the paraphernalia that wafts disembodied voices across the airwaves. Max from thePpolicy Exchange was already there and we faced each other across a small table. No idea where Nicky Campbell was, not even in the same county as far I ever knew. Voices of producers and presenters streamed through our headphones and we said our respective pieces. Somewhere in all of this I'm pretty sure I also spoke with Nick Ferrari on LBC. Forgive me, this was all absurdly early and very rushed!

That episode concluded, off up the stairs several minutes late to the sky breakfast studio. Shoved into a cubicle to be faced with a monitor, camera and microphones I felt slightly disembodied as Eamonn Holmes spoke to me. Item concluded, I sat for a moment…no one came. TV folk assume everyone knows what’s what but this was all new to me. Rather timidly I pulled the door open to be faced with….Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling. Yep, it was himself. And a flunky. Probably a PPS or the like, but anyone trailing behind someone I recognise carrying pieces of paper falls under the heading of “flunky”.
Grayling extended his hand and said good morning. I grinned, shook his hand and said, “Just so you know, ‘ve just given you a kicking in there.” Unperturbed he replied, “that’s alright, I’m on in 10 and will return the favour…” I shot off to the exit and the next car, wondering just what the hell I could say to him in a few brief moments that could convey the depth of my meaning.

On the pavement TWO cars awaited. Like an idiot I forsook the Mercedes for the Prius (Clarkson, forgive me…) and shuddered back to ITV for round two at the coveted 8.10 spot. Essentially a repeat of the earlier exchange, but made more interesting by the appearance of Julian Clary into the Green Room. I pondered. And couldn’t resist. Leaning around the PA who sat between us I spoke. “Mr Clary, did you ever meet Norman Lamont?” Alas “No”. And if you need the potential humour in that meeting to be explained, you’re way too young.

And here my mind begins to fade, my memories fragmenting. It was only just past 8am and I had already done 3 TV and 2 radio interviews. Something else happens here, another interview to fill an hour of my time? Because I knew I was due at Portland Place for the Beeb again at 10 till 1130. No snazzy green room with nibbles and coffee at the Beeb, just straight into a “sound pod” which made a cell seem spacious, to give 9 back to back interviews with local radio stations.

By the end of this I was in need of coffee and sleep. Or either. Instead I found myself being led into the lower levels of the building to the News 24 studio, where I bumped into my old boss from the Howard League who was also giving interviews reacting to Grayling’s proposals. In response to my bemoaning this treadmill he told he he had recently given 25 interviews in a single day. Blimey.

Without any experience of TV studios we have a mental image of how it must be. Presenters, technical people and, obviously, cameras and camera operators. All of my experience to date only reinforced that picture, until I came face to face with what I can only call a robotic studio- BBC News 24. The presenters sit in front of a glass wall with the floor of the Beeb dedicated to news hustles and bustles behind them. The circular desk at which they sit has monitors recessed beneath the glass surface. So far, not so odd. But as I was led in I noted only one other person…and four cameras whizzing around on semi-circular rails, televisual C3PO’s that popped up next to you without warning. It was weird.

After saying my piece and backing away from the robots, it was back upstairs for two further radio interviews and then to re-enter the normal world. I stood in a small alley behind the nearby church at Portland Place and felt utterly and completely drained. The alley was full of piss smelling cardboard, and I won’t deny that the idea of just laying down to go to sleep didn’t cross my mind!

Not an option…I had to catch up on a dozen voicemails and phone my long-suffering probation officer. And explain just why I wasn’t sitting in her office as per established appointment. For amongst this chaos my travel plans had gone massively awry. It’s fortunate that I have never even come close to never making any previous appointments and oil was poured upon the waters to everyone’s satisfaction.

Which still left me exhausted. So I wended my way across London to the Howard League, turning my mobile off for respite, to catch up with the bits and pieces  do there with students and youth. This gave me a few hours calm. At some point I made the error of switching my phone on, to find myself with engagements for Channel 5 News and then the Iain Dale phone-in show on LBC.

At Channel 5 I bumped into Max from the Policy Exchange again, who somehow forgot to mention that he had designed the IEP Scheme in several prisons…but a fair opponent in these debates. And as is the way when time is vital, in the car to LBC I hit every set of red lights across London. Dripping sweat I ran up the
stairs 20 minutes to late, to be welcomed by the always urbane Iain Dale. This was a phone-in, a new experience for me and one fraught with potential to be a vicious engagement. It wasn’t.

I finally staggered into bed at midnight. This was the most hectic and gruelling day I have experienced since release and if nothing else increased my respect for those celebs touring to flog us their wares. And then I had to ponder quite why I said yes to any of these things , rather than no.

This is a serious business. There are so few ex prisoners able or willing to stand in public and risk speaking, especially when that message may not be the one most popularly received. Prison is in my bones, perhaps inevitably, and whilst I no longer feel the sharp anger of the prisoner there is rarely a conversation where I don’t inadvertently say “we” rather than they. I am a prisoner, albeit on license, and I also have the outrage of any sensible person when faced with populist political interference in prison life.

The core issue at hand, whether prison life is too hard or too soft, is to be distracted from the true path. The question Grayling should be asking – if need be on the insistence of the electorate – is whether anything he proposes will actually reduce future crime.

And that is the question our politicians won’t go near, for fear of popular dissent. The assumption is that people prefer “tough” to effective”. If that is right, then the consequences fall on our heads and consciences and we should be ashamed of ourselves for swapping the pain of future victims for a brief atavistic twitch of glee rooted in prisoner-hating.

36 comments:

  1. Ben.... We all know you're a celebrity ( because you keep on telling us at every opportunity that arises); why not drop the breathless, self-absorbed look at me hyperbole and just post a comment in the latest Con-Dem headline grabber..... A few paragraphs that deconstructed the abundant failings, inconsistencies and sheer unworkableness of what they're proposing would do far more good than (another) 24 hours in the life of Ben Gunn bachelor and very minor celebrity ........

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  2. okay...i was just sharing a hectic, crazy day. you read it differently. and i dont see myself as any sort of celebrity, just a guy ion a rather surreal journey. thanks for your twisted perspective, though.

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  3. It's not twisted; just a perspective that's formed from viewing through the prism of one on the inside looking at one who's left us and appears to have forgotten who and what he is....

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    1. Elaborate on how and why arguing for prisoners rights and conditions, plus miscarriage of justice work, is somehow a shift away from my previous efforts inside?

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    1. Ive warned you that sort of comment will not be tolerated.

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  5. Oh, do tell - What did I stand for? And what do you say I stand for now? Let's see how good your insight into my motivations is, shall we?

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    1. Hmmm... What did you stand for ?
      In reality, probably nothing of any substance; you were a prisoner who served far longer than you needed to because of intransigence and a slightly delusional belief that you could " beat the system" ... The facts were though that your eventual release only happened after you started to comply with the requirements of the system, and your continued freedom is entirely dependant on "the system" granting its consent.. Based on that I'd say that what you stood for is proof that 30 odd years of prison made you an expert in how not to do your bird in pretty much the same way that 30 odd years of banging your head off a wall would make one an expert in that fruitless pursuit too!!
      As for what you stand for now...
      It's pretty hard to tell because the most obvious label has fallen off (i.e your prison number) but based on what's churned out on this blog I'd say not a great deal has changed apart from the fact that instead of hanging around with the minority of your former peers that could stomach you, you now mix with a liberal glitterati ( or twitterati mob) that believe your self-aggrandisement and " insight" might make a difference to penal policy. Sadly however, other than a lame attempt at hijacking a Canadian restorative justice scheme and proposing that it could work here (criminal justice and punishment is generally location and context sensitive by the way), we have yet to see any real evidence of benefits arising from your expertise and insight.. Apart from your for profit business to offer your wisdom to prisoners ( who can afford your fees of course)!!
      So, to get back to the original post, maybe it's time to grind out some posts that actually say something, even add to the debate ( your words) rather than telling us how lovely it is to have a choice of two cars to rush you breathlessly from one interview to another ...?

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    2. A screws perspective on Ben. Which explains why he served so long - they just don't get it, do they?

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    3. No, not a screw.. An ex con actually, and believe me I get Ben exactly...

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    4. Hate to disabuse you, but your not an ex-con. The software matches your comment with a string of others where the terminology is decidedly staff-used.

      And you don't "get me" in any way, shape or form. My motivation has always been to resist abuse of power; it's a golden thread through the blog. Only prison staff failed to get that and believed I was randomly intransigent, because staff never believe that they are abusing power - so how could I possibly be campaigning against that?!

      You have the mentality of a screw. So unless we've met and talked, you only have your own projections of my motivations to go on. And that's really not good enough.

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    5. And sorry to disabuse you too... But who ever said that someone couldn't be both an ex screw and an ex con?

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    6. That would explain an awful lot. Still doesn't mean you "get me" in any way.

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  6. To the previous Anonymous and it would appear frequent commenter, why not just stop reading...I do believe it is you that has grown tiresome. if your opinions/beliefs differ so greatly why not start your own blog instead of moaning here. Ben's blogs may be changing, testament to the journey he is on I would imagine

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  7. Personally, I found this to be an interesting and welome return to blogging form. Good to see. Keep at it Ben.

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  8. Far too self absorbed Ben. Our people are in there and going to suffer terribly. You could use the voice to are building to create a powerful platform but it's always got to bigger than "me" or us and them. What of their ridiculous policy? What of Grayling playing to the crowds and roaring for blood?

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    1. Well said Goddess..... It looks like our Ben has had his head turned by all the adulation of the chattering classes and has forgotten what he's about... Unless if course all he was about was Ben, in which case all we can expect is more of the same ....... Ho hum

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    2. Farah, pity you didn't bother reading what I recently blogged about Grayling then. And Anon - get your head out of your ass. If you're going to campaign in public, it's inevitable that you become seen and known. Doh!

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    4. I did read it. I just find this post self serving. I get asked almost everyday to do radio tv and press interviews. I decline. Actions speak lots louder than words. What are to campaigning for? What's the message? Who benefits? Where is the power?

      That you got to be a media luvvie/campaigner for a day?

      Join mumsnet.

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    5. Anyone who thinks the post was all about fame and glory is an idiot. I've already written about Grayling and the latest outbreak of Tory viciousness and couldn't see the point in rehashing it. The point of the post was to give a background of what a media circus is like from the inside. A careful reading of what I've written will suggest that I did not enjoy it, found some parts amusing, others ridiculous. But a great day out? No. Anyone who took that away from what I wrote clearly has baggage of their own to deal with.

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    6. Self serving how? Head turned, how? I spend all day having a pop at Grayling, missing a probation appointment and putting myself in jeopardy in the process, didn't promote anything I do - not once - but because I write about the media process I'm some sort of turncoat. As I say on Twitter- FFS.....

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  9. I don't think I have baggage. And if I do it's mine to carry nuh? It's a sad indictment of a narrow mind that can't allow 2 thoughts or opposite views without resorting to insult. You're a lot bigger than insults and flamethrowing. I've found nothing on any stated policy or practice here or on Mokurai I except something about how rich people experience worse prison sentences than their poorer counterparts. What on earth does that mean? If anything they have the means to limit the disruption and don't need paid for guides to manoeuvre the rocky prison pathway.

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  10. And it's downright stupid to jeopardise your freedom and safety by missing probation appointments. But we have had this discussion before. Call if you need furniture we have warehouses full.

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  11. There are different views, disagreements, and then there are those comments which just leave a rather nasty lingering taste. Some people are just so filled with what must be hate that they keep returning here solely to portray their own twisted analysis of who, what, may be. Their psychopathology is fascinating....in a rather pathetic way. I honestly struggle with this; I want to engage. but it just feel like wading in a sewer at times. Ho hum.

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  12. I don't hate you. I would not dare patronise you to hate you. Just trying to broaden the debate. I'll stop.

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  13. That wasn't aimed at you :) but one of the Anons. He knows who he is....screwsboy!

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    1. Sounds like he also knows who you are!!!

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  14. Just popped in to find that another post has been derailed.
    Can we get back to discussing Mr Grayling's madcap ideas?
    Inner-Vision

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    1. I can't do much if some people want to use everything I write as a base to launch snide assaults on my character; short of deleting all that stuff, which I don't want to do. Perhaps Grayling's innanities should be discussed under the Nasty Tories post?

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  15. Really interesting insight into an important part of policy making - the public debate itself played out in the media. What I took from this article was the need for more voices from those who have been in prison to be included in the debate. It is far too tiring for one man alone to represent so many thousands.

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  16. Well, I thought this was a good post, Ben, and it's good to see you back blogging. It's also interesting to read the inside view of what happens in TV and radio studios and the pressures involved.

    One thing I'd like to see on the blog is a link posted-up here whenever you do a TV or radio spot. Maybe you could have a YouTube channel? It would help as I find I miss most of your media work.

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  17. Enlightening post, Ben. I was exhausted just reading it!

    Anon May 6th 4 pm. The stench of jealousy can be a nauseating aroma.

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  18. I'm a recent former prisoner, what I see plainly is that there is no real Rehabilitation within the institution. I spent time in HMP Walton, Hull & Wolds & most of my time with other offenders was trying to think of ways to pass the time & do something constructive. Somehow Chris Grayling needs to understand this & assist with getting worthwhile rehabilitation programmes within the system.

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  19. Jonathan BrookerMay 19, 2013 at 9:13 AM

    Frankly, reading about your day made me happy, Ben.

    Anyone else, I might roll my eyes a little bit. You, after all those years, running free, dashing about and being listened to by the media? Yeah, that's all right in my book, and I don't mind reading about it. You did the serious polemic in the studios, far as I'm concerned.

    Rogers up there has a good idea - a youtube channel to rebroadcast some of that stuff might be handy.

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