Monday, July 17, 2017

Marooned and toasted cheese


That’s how I feel right now. Marooned. Ironic for a Ben Gunn….

For much of my time in prison I had the luxury of a stable, foundational set of ideas and values. In times of difficulty, uncertainty, I could withdraw back to these and be slightly assured that I was at least attempting to move through time with some coherent direction. 

It baffles many that my chosen direction wasn’t release. For much of my sentence, release was not the goal at the top of my list. That place was occupied by “try to do the right thing”. This was a complicated reaction to my own crime, and the reality I was living in an institution resting on naked State violence. That mishmash of morality, history, politics and daily life would take a lifetime to explain; but the end result was, doing what I perceived to be “the right thing” came before pragmatic steps towards release.

This didn’t perturb me, and I hadn’t accepted never being released. I wasn’t indifferent to freedom, only that “the right thing” came first, release came second. In my forties, then, the future appeared to take shape. To complete my PhD. To then take its concepts and apply them to prison. To make the prisoners union – the AOP – an actual living body and not a legal sideline. Then to potter about and probably fall off my perch somewhere before I was sixty. There is also my cancer weaving its thread through this potential future, adding a wrinkle. 

So I knew what I was doing. I knew where I was heading. And I knew what values and ideas drove me forwards. As I now appreciate, this made me an exceptionally fortunate person. The human condition more frequently suggests blind stumbling through the days. Having a coherent structure, internally and externally, gave me purpose and strength.

And then I fell in love. That changes everything. And I knew that I would have to put gaining release at the top of my list of priorities. This made manoeuvring through daily prison life far more difficult than it had been. My broad approach had been so simple – If I saw power, then I would resist it. Regardless of the cost on my time to release. 

With gaining release as the overriding priority in my new relationship, this lodestone was gone. I had no reference points, the moral and intellectual structure that had sustained me for nearly three decades was of no use. This made prison far more distressing for me. I knew I was making deliberate efforts to walk away from all that I had been working for for so many years. To rush to release was, to me, a decision to also rush away from making a mark, to give meaning to all of those years.

My relationship became the lodestone that guided my new approach. The prison service barely noticed that I was growling slightly less frequently, leaving me grinding my teeth. Only now, years later, do I really appreciate how profound a shift this was. I had took a deliberate decision to abandon everything that had informed my life, to abandon all I was trying to achieve.
Obviously, my relationship was that important. It offered a different future to the one I was facing. And it was a future I couldn’t particularly understand, only approach with hope. Because I sure as hell didn’t have experience to guide me. We both blindly assumed that I was able to build and maintain a long term relationship…an untested proposition. 

I re-entered the World, then, in a condition of hope but pretty complete uncertainty. I had no idea how I would deal with actually living with someone else, sharing a home, a bed, a sofa…a life. I left a path of confidence and certainty and jumped blindly over a cliff.

Here we are, five years onwards, and I sit amongst the wreckage of my relationship. And have no doubt, this has been the result of my inabilities, my selfishness, my flaws. The relationship was the ship in which I was exploring life, the vessel that would carry me forward.

Having pressed the self-destruct button, I swam to the nearest rock and there I sit. This was not the plan. This is not where life should find me. I walked away from a constructive path and now find myself with nothing.

Such, I gather, is life. The emotional pillar at the centre of my being has crumbled. I find this harder to deal with because I realise that my relationship was more important than anything else, and so as I failed to build a good relationship the effort I was making diverted my attention from the rest of life.

Prison can be monastic. It flows at its own rhythm. It is a limited existence, sometimes a meagre one. In that strange environment I could vanish into Solitary and take the time out to muse on my situation and its potential. It was in that environment that I took a lengthy moral and intellectual tour in order to distil my “operating principles” of “doing the right thing” and “resist abuses of power”. And these principles gave me a certainty and solidity in the face of an otherwise overwhelmingly oppressive institution.

These parameters made sense in prison. I had killed someone; trying to do “the right thing” seems a bit of a moral imperative, the least I could do. And in an institution built on violence, “resisting abuses of power” was an imperative. These things made sense…in prison.

On release, I was too busy to reflect. Five years on and I still haven’t unpacked my prison paperwork. Only now, as rubble from my exploded relationship rains down, have I  been compelled to reflect. And realise I am bereft on every level. I have been exploring this world of freedom without the compass, the values, that guided my prison life.

I don’t know where I am going. Or why. And unlike in prison, Life out here doesn’t pause to allow me time to muse. I am told that this is all quite normal, the human condition. Perhaps I was very fortunate to have an idea of what the hell I was doing in life for so long. That doesn’t help me in this moment. I literally don’t know what I am doing here in freedom, what I should do, what I can do, and most importantly for me – why and to what end.













Sunday, May 21, 2017

Guest Blog. Wings Clipped.
I've never run a guest blog before - but with the election fast approaching, this prison story involving an individual now closely involved with the Ministry of Justice is too significant to omit from my site...

Wings Clipped


Fundamentally, having made a cataclysmic mistake – and being (deservedly) jailed for it, prison was a life-changing experience. The disgrace within me still aches to this day. They could have sent me home on the first night – I got it as I was walked trembling onto a prison wing as a customer – back on that evening of July 25th, 2011.
Perhaps it might be an idea to show more people around prisons – young people – to maybe deter possible future errors of judgement. Just an idea.
And there lies the rub. Our prison system is so lacking in off the wall ideas within the walls. Worse – viewed from the inside, there seemed to be very little cooperation between the countless agencies working within the desultory system. “This is my bat and ball – and you’re not playing with it,” appeared to be the ethos of the day.
When the nightmare ended, the book that had kept me going – both sanity wise – and as something constructive to occupy my time – in the trade it’s called purposeful activity – I had to create my own – did, thank god, get released to the big wide world.
It’s now paying the rent, putting food on the table and clothing me.
Other than that, I don’t have a job. Haven’t had one since I got out. More of that – and why – later.
As I write this, I can feel a resident of Hexham getting twitchy.
Becoming an author made me feel like an imposter. Writing this as someone who works within the CJS makes me even more the great pretender – as I don’t. I just bang the drum a lot on the telly and the wireless about what I saw not going on – and what I believe we could be doing… Through being a non-stop pest, I have tried to up the profile on good practice in clink by visiting some prisons with the like of Russell Brand, Frances Crook, The Guardian’s Eric Allison, Derek Martin, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Lenny Henry, and both Sadiq Khan and Lord Falconer when both had Shadow Justice Minister titles.
When IN IT came out, a new Justice Minister came in. He was called Chris Grayling. He’s now something to do with the railways. For an individual not keen on the combination of books and prisoners, his staff were surprisingly interested in what I’d written from the sharp end as their house-guest and met with me. They grilled me with questions like “why doesn’t prison work?”
Michael Howard wasn’t there. He’d be cross.
Mr Grayling’s team were frightened of something called the Daily Mail. They went a funny colour when I talked to them of the pornographic channels being available on E wing at HMP Bedford.
There’s a whoppingly huge percentage of adult prisoners who are completely illiterate. When I asked Mr Grayling’s team what they were going to do about their prison education provider, a company called A4e, banning the prison approved literacy scheme – then called Toe by Toe, now called Turning Pages – in an open resettlement (?) prison they said they “couldn’t comment on a specific incident.”
Having been ordered by then Head of Education at HMP Maplins – sorry – Hollesley Bay, (tennis court and sea views) to “scrub Toe by Toe” and “there will be no Toe by Toe in this prison” I spent five minutes a day emptying a waste-paper basket – the rest of the time sunbathing. It’s something called purposeful activity.
During the last election campaign – yes, the last one, not this one – I regularly Tweeted a quote from a man called David Cameron. His sensible words were “in prison, people cannot read. They need help. It’s common sense.” My electronic social media bombardment aimed at the diversity between political HMP rhetoric and actual events in prison caused someone in Number Ten to make a phone call.
It’s called being on the back foot.
Politicians are unfailingly an odd lot. Another one got in touch. The MP for the constituency of Hexham. He was called Guy Opperman. He used to have something to do with horses. He had interest in prisons and was writing a book. The switch from nags to lags induced him to ask for my help. He was always very quick on the draw at calling me when he needed something. He came out with some belters. Referrals to “obstructive and disinterested prison officers” in an email to me made me think I was dealing with a straightforward gentleman. Someone with some integrity.
When Mr Opperman’s book came out, I arranged for Jonathan Aitken to attend the launch. Yours truly was the other ex-prisoner at the event. If you were an ex-con, you could only be there if you were called Jonathan.
It’s a small world. At said event was the head honcho of the education provider who had banned Toe by Toe at Hollesley Bay. She later sent me emails saying it wasn’t them who’d done it – but “HMPS staff, or Learn Direct staff.” When I emailed her back naming the individual who had ordered the cessation of the proven-to-reduce-reoffending-reading scheme, together with a link to the gentleman’s name from their company website, she never responded.
My amazement at the lack of holding one’s hands-up to cock-ups by people at the helm of our prison system galvanised me into a campaign of revealing the truth. A relentless slog within the media. I got there in the end when Michael Spurr, CEO of something then called NOMS, now called something else – and probably something else again when –  inevitably – Mrs May’s dust has settled after June 8, publicly declared at a Prisoners Education Trust event that “the prison education provider made a huge mistake banning Toe by Toe in an open resettlement prison.”
I still savour that moment.
One of the major aids to stopping ex-prisoners reoffending is employment. The only letters next to my name before being imprisoned were QHI – which in English means I was a qualified helicopter instructor. Friends of mine still talking to me almost man-handled me down to Gatwick Airport where those in charge of matters aviation – the CAA – reside, to explore the notion of returning to my trade. The CAA interviewed me and decreed that if people were willing to give me a positive reference – I could indeed go back to work. They asked for a list of ten people (“no ex-cons though”) who would be willing to vouch for me.
I contacted ten people. All of them said yes – they’d be happy to give me a reference. The CAA selected two individuals from the list, my MP and Guy Opperman MP.
My MP sent a reference by return of post. Mr Opperman went abruptly quiet. The CAA chased him. I chased him. Stories of “being very busy” but “quite happy to give a reference” were emailed from Mr Opperman’s office to me and copied into the CAA.
Then the bombshell dropped. Mr Opperman’s office told me “he had been told by the Chairman of the Tory party not to give me a reference.”
The CAA emailed me saying because of this – it meant something sinister and up-in-smoke my return to aviation – and employment went.
When the Justice Select Committee invited Mr Opperman to give his version of events he did indeed acknowledge that I had asked him for a reference – but he “had said no”. He failed to admit that he had said yes – both orally to me – and in writing to me and the CAA – before changing his mind.
This rather got up my nose. Some Tweets were fired off Hexham way. Mr Opperman followed me on Twitter. Then blocked me. Then he had his girlfriend ring my PR people asking me to delete the tweets “as it’s hurting Guy.”
I said no.
Mr Opperman is (currently) chief whip for the (current) Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss (the lover of cheese) at something called the Ministry of Justice.
During my very short tenure at the tiller of campaigning for prison reform – independently – we’ve seen Messrs Grayling and Gove – who spoke a lot of sense – Dr Who Regenerated into Miss Truss, who, I met in a London prison (we were both guests). On introduction, her assistant piped up “I’ve just read IN IT”. She’ll go far.
We toured the Bad Boys Bakery. Enthusiastic inmates plied the Justice Minister with cakes. I made sure they didn’t contain the wrong type of cheese.
Miss Truss quizzed me as to who I was. I piped up that I’m the fella who has made a bit of a stink about Toe by Toe being banned in an open resettlement prison.
Her reply?
“What’s Toe by Toe?”
What happens after June 8? That’s the quandary…

Jonathan Robinson.
Robinson is a former prisoner and alleged author. He served 17 in weeks in prison from a 15 month sentence for theft. He advocates for prison time to be purposeful time. www.JonathanRobinson.org




Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Prisoner Ben's Story"


What do I do?

Having to sit down and ponder the question, “What do I do…?” may be a little more complicated than expected. My career in freedom being less than 5 years, this has been a swift, brutal and exciting foray to the world of work (which obviously bears no relation to prison work).
I was fortunate, in that my politics and studies open avenues of possible employment that most prisoners can’t explore. Whilst regular work was an option, a vista of shelf stacking didn’t appeal to me. And prison had been my whole adult life; I not only served my sentence, I tried to change the prison, and studied it. The idea that I could wash prison off my shoes on leaving the Gate was never really realistic. Prison seems to be in my bones.

Life license

With no obvious criminal justice job around, I opted for Consultancy. And I ran smack bang into my Life License. Being prohibited from taking a job without permission, and having a client company that wanted our connection obscured for political reasons, I found myself breaking my license. And I make no apologies or excuses. I took the job, produced my output, and moved on.
The Howard League, recipient of an occasional barb thrown from my cell, took the interesting decision to take me on for a while. It was then I was hit with a realisation that here I stood, aged 47, and never having worked in an office. It was a learning curve, and I will always regret that I couldn’t quite get my mojo for the League. I continue to campaign for them, years after my contract ended.
During these initial months after release, I was drawn into a part of life that was unusual. One with different mores, expectations, rules, and structures of power. Coupled with my innate inability to live life smoothly, it could have been predicted that this transition would be far more difficult. In reality, after 32 years of imprisonment, I had two good jobs within weeks of release.

Inside Justice

Some four years on, and I have experienced a fascinating range of work. Inside Justice, which investigates miscarriages of justice, had me as a caseworker. Where else can you chat with the Mets Head of Intelligence, meet Nick the Greek in a London suburb over a murder, then find yourself at the BBC holding a castrated man’s bloody jeans? The work was fascinating. My ability to deal with being managed, how I adapt new approaches, became an issue. To think I could rework learned attitudes from prison quickly was my error that some others bore the brunt of!

The long term psychological effects of incarceration

Enough time had passed for me to briefly pause and reflect. Something wasn’t right. I began to appreciate the profound psychological effects of so many years in prison, and how they effect my work. The small talk of relationships, the gestures that weave us together in any setting, is something that often escapes me. I lived a life where Mr X would be ten feet away for the next few years. But in freedom, Mr X isn’t merely sitting still waiting for me to reappear. This matters when communication and professional relationships are at the centre of what I do, and something I continually address.
Similarly, I am not best placed in a relatively controlled structure. Many aren’t, but I have the increased resistance that is essentially a prison response to power. Telling me to sit there, do that… It’s not something that sits well. You may call these things quirks, or disabilities, but they are factors that shape my decisions.

Freelancing

For two years I’ve avoided long term contracts, embedded in a structure, closely managed. Rather, shorter and more eclectic work has suited me better. I play a small part in some media kerfuffles and more often exist as a background resource for media researchers and documentary makers. Universities are kind enough to ask me to lecture sporadically on penology and related areas. Smaller charities often don’t have specific expertise and it is particularly pleasing to see some input of mine having a quick effect. Somewhere along the line I found myself advising some extremely unlikely people, and chairing improbable discussions.
Which reminds me. There is a lot I can’t actually tell you. The job of criminal justice consultant ranges from high offices to very grubby alleys, with the only shared characteristic being the insistence on privacy. And this itself always has the potential to cause difficulties with my supervision. I don’t recommend it to the faint hearted!
The end of last year saw me having to deal with long neglected medical issues, which inevitably led to much reduced activity. As normality reasserts itself, I look forward to continuing to move mysteriously through the penal reform community…and beyond.

Published courtesy of Russell Webster
http://www.russellwebster.com/prisoner-bens-story/http://www.russellwebster.com/prisoner-bens-story/

Monday, April 17, 2017

Drones and Phones


To be fair, anything involving flying stuff is inherently more interesting than “I threw a ball stuffed with weed over a wall”. Drones have a whiff of the Mission Impossible. Basic media clickbait.

And also apparently catnip to our Ministry of Justice leaders. Drones, they have declared, pose a real risk to the security of prisons by smuggling in drugs and mobile phones.

Oh, that’s a lie. You weren’t meant to notice, but even the MOJ figures place the number of drone incursions to prisons in the dozens. Not hundreds, dozens. Whilst Liz Truss indulges her Tom Cruise fantasies, drugs and mobiles pour into prisons and will continue to do so.

is a masterpiece of irrelevancy. If the problem being addressed is the smuggling of contraband, the starting point must be – How are drugs and mobiles smuggled into prison? The answer shapes the policy response. All nice and rational.

Here we sink into murky waters. There is very patchy data on how and what is smuggled into prison. Measuring covert illegality is always an interesting criminological challenge. The MOJ has comprehensive data on what staff find, but this is not publicly available…

We do know over 10,000 mobile phones/SIM are found annually. I invite you to check the weight of mobiles, the carrying capacity of cheap drones…And with under 50 drone incursions a year, any hint that drones have a significant impact on the supply of mobiles is plain ridiculous. For the Minister of Justice to make this claim is staggeringly dishonest.

Drugs pose the same mathematical challenge to the MOJ claims. Tens of thousands of drug users. The weight of drugs. The sparse number of drones. On what we do know, the idea that drugs delivered by drones has a significant impact is again plainly absurd. Its physically impossible that drones are doing what Truss claims they are. This is so obvious that Truss’ statements must either be deliberate lies, sheer stupidity, or plain incompetence.

To address the basic question – how does contraband enter prison – we must rely on deduction and prisoner experience as well as the thin data. An unsatisfactory basis on which to build a policy, but such difficulties are common in criminal justice issues.

Prisoners and their visitors are usually blamed for smuggling. Every public effort HMP makes against smuggling focuses on prisoners and their visitors. Some glimpse into what a “domestic visit” entails would inform debate here.

A prisoners visitors must be in receipt of a permission slip (Visiting Order) and sufficient identity documents. Personal possessions, sans a few quid to buy refreshments, are removed and stored. The visitor is then searched, a “rub down”; essentially, a prolonged indecent assault. Babies and nappies included. Visitors are then sniffed at by drug dogs, and then scanned or wanded – a metal detector.

Only then do they enter the Visits Room. To sit on fixed seating opposite their prisoner. Under constant staff and CCTV surveillance. I’ve been in Visits rooms where there were as many cameras as tables.

On exit, the prisoner is then searched. Rubdown, strip, squat, metal detector…

If I have given you the impression that smuggling contraband in a visits room is difficult…Its because it is. It can be very difficult indeed. How exactly does a mobile phone get through this procedure? 10,000 mobile phones?

The widely spread idea that the major route of contraband is via prisoners domestic visits collapses in the face of the visits security procedures I’ve delineated. They are so oppressive that as these security procedures were brought in, and despite the prison population nearly doubling, the number of people visiting prisoners halved. Prisoners families being the major source of contraband is a myth that needs to die in order to address the actual problem.

In contrast to the security procedures imposed on visitors, prison staff are at best subject to the occasional random rub-down search. From their colleagues. We have to end this pretence that prison staff do not pose a massive risk to security. Drones can carry gramms. Staff can carry ounces.

Anyone familiar with the experiences of (ex Gov) John Podmore will share the frustration at the perpetual refusal of the Prison Service to address staff corruption. It is a subject on which the MOJ, HMP and POA are in perpetual denial.

The most simple analysis of the contraband issue reveals that the issue isn’t drones. It flatly isn’t the problem. Staff corruption is the major source of contraband. And in focusing on drones and refusing to get to grips with the actual problem, Truss is being worse than merely ineffective.

In focusing on drones and ignoring the actual problem, our Minister Truss is condemning prisons to a future of rotten staff culture, rampant drug misuse, and predictably awful reoffending rates.

For a Minister of Justice, delivering such a future should consign them to political oblivion.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, March 31, 2017

How exactly do you pick up a conversation after four years…?

How exactly do you pick up a conversation after four years…? 

And conversation it was. For those prison years, from the birth of this blog in 2009, it was a conversation. One molested and warped by the Prison Service and its aversion to post vacuum-valve technology, but nonetheless a meaningful exchange. And in an early post I noted that any meaningful blogging was a relationship – in return for a fragment of your attention and hopefully brainpower, I regularly attempted to inform and entertain you with a perspective of the prison system no one else provided. That’s the deal. It seemed to work reasonably well, given my lack of direct net access.

Of course, the scale of the blog in our respective lives was a tad different. Apart from one spectacularly insecure Governor, no one rolled out of bed with the first thought being “check Ben’s blog!”. My waffling impinged for moments in your day, hopefully with some small reward for your attention.

From my cell the scale of the blog was large. Very large. When the environment is such that each day is born without any inherent joy or meaning, to have this opportunity, to blog, was one of the very few pillars on which my existence was propped up in a ramshackle fashion. 
The attempt to show you a part of life you cannot see, overlaid each grey prison day with a layer of interest – to share with you the experience, I was forced to pay greater attention, to think more, about the life I was living. It gave meaning to what was otherwise meaningless, even if the only meaning was to try to share the experience to those in The World. In the sterility of my prison existence, the blog, your presence, became more important to me than I can ever explain.

Having no idea about the reality of blogging, very quickly I was forced to make several decisions. One was, how personal should this blog be? Should I confine myself to abstract comment? This was both an issue of “how can I best use this blog?” and also an irreversible decision about whether I wanted anonymity in the rest of my life. Big decisions! I decided that broad comment in itself was something many could provide. And that illustrating prison issues through a more personal engagement with them would be far more interesting. The human element (the thing the Prison Service has forgotten). The mix of grand pronouncements on policy, savage analysis, and personal revelation seemed to be broadly successful?

And then came release. I knew it was highly likely months ahead, but wary of the Prison Services habit of supplying firewood then pissing on your fire, and acutely aware of those in power waiting for me to make any error, I gave no particular thought to how the shape of this blog would invariably change on release. I had an idea I would continue with comment, and continue sharing my journey through the criminal justice system (Life sentences don’t end). I gave it no more attention than that.

I had overlooked a small matter….that on release, from Minute 1, I would have direct net access and ability to blog like the rest of the world. It literally hadn’t occurred to me, I had become so used to the slower flow of information to and from the blog via Royal Mail (mostly…). The blog was no longer my refuge from prison life, it became one of many obligations in my free life.

I also walked into a massive wall of information previously denied to me, but equally the amount of time my new daily life afforded me to absorb this infowave shrank significantly from the indolent hours blogging filled in prison.

Can you imagine walking from a world without internet, to the streets of the UK in 2012? When I say wave of information, I mean having access to nearly every word generated in penological history. Not so much a wave, perhaps. More of an infinite column of data falling from the sky onto my grid coordinates. 

Simultaneously, I was trying to “do living”. I suspect that I stand in a cohort of One that began their prison sentence at 14, to be disgorged back into reality 32 years later. While I was feeling generally competent to address daily life – “7 billion do it, how hard can it be?” – I had an idea that there was an awful lot I would be experiencing for the first time. 
When I say “a lot”, I actually mean “nearly everything”. Truly, every experience outside of the Gate was a new one. From the very small – pausing for an Americano on my way home – to the lifechanging, finding myself walking into The Editors home as “our home”. This is an awful lot to absorb. And life doesn’t pause to allow you to digest what it bungs in your direction. You have to work it out whilst living it.

And at that point, my mental gears ground to a halt. I couldn’t see a way to meaningfully blog, which must sound absurd given that I was now able to blog in freedom.

Freedom, maybe, but we are not islands. What we say matters. In order to continue sharing the journey, it meant keeping the door ajar on my personal life, my experiences. And as that life was with The Editor, it meant sharing our life, not just mine. I was loath to do so. Everybody aware of our circumstances has usually accepted our wish that she usually remain obscured. Just because I was daft enough to throw myself into the public arena doesn’t mean I can drag others along. I couldn’t see past this impasse.

Whilst I do live in freedom, I remain formally constrained. I remain on Probation supervision, with a Life License with several standard conditions. As well as these formal constraints, there is the practical reality that I can be hoiked back to prison if Probation have sufficiently urgent concerns. Without breaking a law, my actions, attitudes or words can lead me into danger of imprisonment. Anything I wrote, particularly about my personal journey, would feed into my supervisors views and assessments. 

Very quickly after release I was employed in various bits of work around prison issues. Which meant I was publicly tied to various bodies, allowing the mendacious or silly to saddle my employers with responsibility for my views or, conversely, my views could irritate those paying the bills. Blogging about what I was actually doing daily became a series of challenges I failed to defeat.

These are very real difficulties that I didn’t foresee. But then, having began the first prison blog, I’m also the first prison blogger to be released and face these issues!

That said, I’m back. The journey continues.