Monday, August 22, 2016
I came to a divergence in the path - and I chose the wrong way forward.
When I began this blog I took the decision to make it personal. How else could I show prisoners, including myself, as three dimensional beings unless I shared my personal journey? And so you had an eclectic mix of blogs, the highs, the lows, and sheer inanity that is daily prison life. It was a journey that you shared.
And then came release. Four years ago today: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/22/ben-gunn-prison-blogging ...how time flies. And the blog changed. My fault for listening to advice! It was strongly impressed on me that the wider world wouldn’t be as quick to embrace me. Most pertinently, I was advised to manage my image, to show only my most professional face. I’m not known for taking advice, yet this seemed very sensible stuff.
The problem with this approach is that I feel it is slightly dishonest, as if I have shut a door in the face of readers who have shared this journey. Release and trying to forge a life are as inherently part of the journey as prison. To confine myself to trying to appear professional at all times seems deceitful.
And so I have decided to return to the eclecticism I used to enjoy, and I suspect you did as well.
Sunday, August 7, 2016
I assume no Lifer walks out the Gate intending to breech their licence, but I managed to do it without even thinking. Such is the perilous path we tread.
My brother filming my release annoyed the Gatehouse staff, so I left prison with the same attitude as I entered it 32 years earlier...The final jibe from staff was about my blog, which HMP never quite made its peace with. Off in the car, destination South West. Then The Guardian phoned. Could I do a piece about my release by 3pm, for 300 quid? Oh, go on then. Out for just minutes and my first job! I was still hacking away when I arrived home. Home being a country cottage in Wiltshire and my partner, Alex. Lunch in the sun under the pergola, one hand writing, the other forking. Job done, easy money, thanks!
Only then could I sit back and look around me, begin to relax into the reality. After 32 years of prison, beginning when I was 14, I was free. Wowser.
Life had become a series of firsts. Everything I seemed to do was new. Small things, I’d never actually slept in a bed with a woman, to more lasting things such as opening bank accounts. And all the while the shadow of prison wasn’t far away. My partner, a diver, called it ‘decompression’, the bubbles of prison working their way out of my system, sometimes causing pain. Sitting at a cafe in Bath, suddenly the world around me seemed slightly alien, separated from me; did I belong here? Was this actually my world now? My partner was my bedrock through this early time, when I had horrific nightmares and woke screaming. She was my bridge, the thing that connected by bruised soul to the world I was now part of.
After seemingly being at war with prison probation officers for decades, I was now in a situation where a more flexible approach may be useful. Fortunately, my prior OM had been supportive, which helped persuade me that they weren’t all a blight on humanity. So I walked through their door with a “let’s see how this goes...” frame of mind. Having avoided Offending Behaviour Crap inside, I wasn’t likely to embrace it outside. Nonetheless, starting with an abrasive attitude wasn’t likely to lead to anything but Recall. The aim of my approach is ‘leave me alone as much as possible, please.”
Next day, check in with Probation. Supervision for me could have been a series of barriers and challenges, my view of Licence and Probation being well known. Difficulties were expected, but I let down the lads who bet I’d be recalled in a week! I had two Probation. Two! Tag teaming each other week by week to spread the load that is supervising me.
I am fortunate that my Licence has no unusual conditions, and so expected restrictions were the usual – Work, Home, Relationships – and to be honest I lost my copy a couple of years ago now! My Guardian article broke my Licence – No work, paid or unpaid, that isn’t cleared by Probation. Oops. This point became an important one. For many years I have written about prison issues and I have never asked permission to do so. I didn’t when in prison, and I wasn’t going to on release.
The issue was, whether my speaking or writing in public, paid or unpaid, was “work”. I took a hard line on this. Campaigning isn’t any old regular work; it explicitly brings into play may right to free expression. Quickly, we found a workable medium- my public activities are fine, with minor restrictions. I should give my OM a heads-up as soon as possible about any media appearances, and not discuss my victim’s family. Hardly onerous, and neither restrict anything I wish to say. What could have been a point of great difficulty was handled with far more thought than I expected.
I have to admit, my working relationship with Probation has been far easier than I anticipated, even in difficult times. When I decided to try and live by myself, Probation were not particularly jumpy. When I had a vicious stalker (a whole other story!), Probation didn’t over-react. Equally, when I hit a period of ill health, it was not noted as a negative. Overall, the attitude seems to be one of not overly interfering, with the goal being “stability”. Having problems isn’t the issue – such is life – but how I deal with them is. It is in demonstrating consistent stability and forward movement that eases Probation’s mind. Hiding issues is a bad idea.
Within 24 hours of release, I had a home, partner and a working relationship with Probation. And I deeply appreciate that these are far more than many prisoners have on release. Just being released directly home, not hostel, was a minor miracle. I had a foundation, enough support to take a brief pause, look around me and wonder - Now what do I do?!
The first real decision I needed to make was whether to continue prison reform efforts, or to melt away into obscurity and take up regular work. I decided that reform was as important to me as it ever was, and that regular employment was unlikely to appear. So I promptly signed on! And ran into a series of hurdles in trying to engage with official bodies. I had literally no identification documents. No National Insurance Number. Nothing. It took months to chase up all that is needed to function in society, highlighted by the difficulties in opening a bank account.
I was a cypher, literally unknown to The Computers. No financial history at all. Every door shut in my face. And yet within weeks, I was in paid employment. For months, all my earnings had to go into my partner’s account, an option many don’t have. And it fried the taxman’s brain!
My first actual work was to conduct some analysis for a technology company which has links with both NOMS and G4S. Neither the company nor I was keen on it being known we were in cahoots, and so this slid under the radar. That completed, I was facing boredom, unemployment, and the prospect of being slung onto some inane Jobseekers course.
By chance, a job advert from the Howard League was pointed out to me. Policy Officer. Hmm! I had been critical of some of the Howard Leagues activities over the years, so with no small sense of mischief I fired in my application just before the deadline. And expected it to vanish into the bin. I was a little disconcerted to be invited to the interview stage. Where I made such a mess of my first solo trip involving the Tube that I presented myself 90 minutes late and looking like a drowned rat. I made my pitch, and made it to the Top Three. Being a cheeky sod, I looked the bosses in the eye and asked, “Am I here because I’m Ben Gunn, or do I have a genuine shot at the job?” I was reassured.
I didn’t get the job. Not because I didn’t know the work, but rather because of my inexperience, particularly of office life. It hadn’t occurred to me, but of course, this was new territory for me. The League needed someone to hit the ground running, and I was an unknown quantity. The right candidate got the job! Later, at home musing, Frances Crook called and offered me a Policy Consultancy. I will always be hugely grateful for this introduction to regular work, even though I moved on after a few months to different work with Inside Justice, researching miscarriages of justice. Vitally needed work. The Outside World had a space for me, an acceptance. At a time when even opening a bank account was difficult, this gave me hope that perhaps I could build a viable future.
The process of ‘decompressing” from prison hasn’t been a simple one. Life is a journey, not a destination. What seemed to be very easy became quite difficult. Most parts of life are simple, even the new experiences. What became my weakness was relationships, and how to maintain them. In moving straight in with my partner after only 3 Home Leaves, I felt very aware that I was moving into her space, trying to weave my new existence into her established life. It became too much to unravel, I needed to find out how I was to live by myself, time and space to drop old habits and make new ones. For the moment my partner and I live separately but very close to each other.
In my new place, myself and Henley Cat against the world! And I began to drop the many balls that life throws at us all. Bills mounted. My stress levels increased. The old enemy, severe depression, began to impact my ability to work. Within months, I found myself in front of a shrink with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety, coupled with more personality disorders than you can name! I retreated into myself, the world around me seeming to grow more hostile and bleak. It was a downward spiral that I am only now coming out of.
These difficulties may be huge, but I continued to do some public speaking. I am a regular visitor to many universities as a speaker, and the media pop up now and again. Most importantly, I have reached out and tried to connect with people in every corner of the justice system. Standing on the sidelines moaning is futile, and any opportunity that offers itself has me bending someone’s ear.
Due to astonishing luck, I have had the chance to grovel across the Ministerial carpet and timidly offer some suggestions to Michael Gove, who as I write is Justice Minister. I believe he is a genuine reformer, a man who appreciates the waste of human life and money that is Prison. Big structural changes are needed, instead of the petty and vicious meddling of Grayling (met him...Big lump!). And so, along with others, I’ve highlighted the importance of using prison sparingly, to reduce much of the Estate to Cat-C, unravel the shambles of Education and work, and to deal with the pressing problems of the IPPs.
Gove has announced several shifts, none yet particularly effecting prisoners daily lives. Patience, I beg of you. Change is coming. Although at the moment it is ‘top down’, driven by the need to reduce reoffending and costs, no significant lasting reform can ever happen without addressing the needs of prisoners on the landings. I will remind anyone who listens of that.
Who knows how my journey will develop? Hopefully, more simply than of late! But no matter what, I always remember that whilst prison guarantees a bed, roof and food, that is pretty much as good as prison gets. Out here, you can fall into the gutter. But the possibilities to stand tall and find a meaningful life are infinite. That is compelling and exciting.
I am sitting here, coffee and fags at hand, typing away.; It could be another night of bang-up, really. But the options available to me are vastly more than yours. Prison is a stunted existence. The most important lesson I have learned is that I couldn’t have done this by myself. I stand here today only because of all the guys who were around me I during my years inside. Any idiot can serve 32 years; the trick is to be sane at the end of it! And without those staunch friends, I doubt I would have managed that. And on release, I have been propped up by many people, whose kindness and faith I have yet to begin to repay.
Most ex cons brush prison off their feet as fast as they can. For me, prison is in my bones. I lived it, studied it, wrote on it, campaign against it. And I can’t ever forget that my free life is built on the bones of my victim. All I can do is live, live with meaning, and hopefully look back and see I may have made some small difference.
Published courtesy of ConVerse magazine