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.