Sunday, May 19, 2024

Prisoner Power

I have been sharing my views on prison across every forum for decades. From printing samizdat magazines in prison to Newsnight, I have foisted my views on others by whatever means the circumstances allowed. It can be fun, it can be entertaining and it can be informative.

Which is why I don't do it as much as I used to… For the most part, it is preaching to the choir. Having spoken everywhere from church halls to universities, I can’t recall once having a hostile audience. Questioning, certainly, and challenging but never outright hostile. My audiences were either already in broad sympathy with my views, or were very willing to be persuaded. They had, after all, paid my costs to be there and rarely are people prepared to pay to listen to someone they disagree with. If they were, I’d be the King of Twitter.

Which is all very interesting. But if the purpose is to try to provoke people to think about prison, and to prompt change, then preaching to the converted is very frustrating. There are many good reasons other than that to give talks, but when there are no minds to change then it is a different experience. And above all, provoking change is my ideal outcome. Otherwise I’m just an entertainment act.

Added to being dulled by talking to those who agree with me, is the sheer frustration of prison reform. Having began my sentence in a compulsory striped shirt with an AM radio being the height of convenience, I was in my later years confronted by endless stream of cons insisting that protesting for change was pointless - while wearing their own clothes and watching a TV in their cell.

Granted, change in prison can be glacial on a large scale, even if the details are endlessly messed about with. Week in and out I see reports from the Prison Inspectorate putting the boot into some prison, in a headline that's been perennial for most of my adult life. It's so frustrating to see the same crap, endlessly repeating. That applies to everything related to prison. The issues prisoners complain about, what staff complain about, never seem to change. For many prisoners, it probably is often true that nothing much changes. Because most prisoners comprise waves of short termers, whose sentence may not straddle some fiddling around the edges. Those of us with a longer perspective do get to experience changes, slow as they may be.

I long ago decided that genuine prison reform - achieving a justice system that actually cuts crime and social harm - is never going to be delivered by either politicians or the technocrats running HMP. Which seriously reduces my interest in trying to persuade people to support such change. Rather, I argue that reform lays in the hands of prisoners.

A conversation for another day…

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Hard v Soft

One of the pleasures of General Elections is that they clarify the minds of politicians. All of a sudden, blather has to be turned into policy that they can actually sell. One of the disappointments of Elections is that Labour and Conservative will retreat into an arms race on criminal justice. Any idea that Labour are reformists was shattered by New Labour and Jack Straw, who helped lever themselves into power by being tougher than the Tories on crime. Straw led up to the election trying to out-Howard Michael Howard. Once in office, Labour created ultra harsh “two strikes” laws that the years have shown to be so disastrous that even their creators have renounced them. Labour isn't instinctively harsh on criminals, but it will never forget the electoral lessons of new Labour. The myth that Labour is soft on crime should be long dead.

The Conservatives need no electoral nudge to be bilious against criminals. It is their natural home and one they invariably retreat to in the face of elections. This rests on a view of human beings and their decision making that criminology dropped about five minutes after criminology became a field. The Tories hold to the view that people are rational actors, and as such a calculus of benefits versus punishments can influence crime rates. Harsher punishments should invariably mean criminals rationally deciding it's not worth the candle. That over a century of knowledge shows us that this isn't true is not a detail that hinders Tory splenics.

And so we return to the perennial issue of being “hard” or “soft” on crime. The Overton Window doesn't seem to allow us to see outside of this criminological dimorphism that we are sold by our leaders. And it is deeply depressing. Everyone is pretending that the rise in sentencing that has been constant for decades has seen a concomitant fall in crime. This hard v soft discourse is deeply dishonest, partly because we insist it is. Its nice and simple. And we seem to be insisting that our politicians lie to us and feed us simplistic pseudo solutions rather than tell us “this is complicated, we can't guarantee we will get this right but we will do our best”.

And so the escalation continues, the waste of lives and billions of pounds, with no reduction in crime or social harm. The question of whether a measure is hard or soft is meant to relate to crime, but in reality applies only to criminals. Being hard on crime itself would mean measures that reduced it. Being hard on criminals means inflicting harsher punishments. The two are not connected, leaving us in a spiral of increasing sentences without any effect on crime rates. An absurdity. One we seem content to support.

Abandon hard v soft. Walk away from this dead end. The only question should be - Is this policy EFFECTIVE? Does it cut crime? Most current policy does not, it is expensive and stupid. And we will continue to vote for it.



Saturday, February 10, 2024

Shouting over the wall.

I have spoken about the birth of this blog before, but for new readers the trouble is that I wrote several weeks worth of blogposts, sent them out to the Editor, and only then told the Governor that I was starting a blog that would go live the next day. He called the Ministry, who told him to stop me having any communications. This was unprecedented in prison history, and was somewhat undermined by my using my illegal mobile to phone the Guardian, who ran the story the next day. The Ministry backed down and so I began the first blog in British prison history. All I wanted to do was wind up the Governor and it sort of grew into something more.

And, you may ask, so what? Who gives a damn about just another blog on an internet full of opinions? It matters in that prisons are a closed world. One created specifically for the State to cause people suffering. That's its point. All done on our behalf, in our name, with our money. And the Government has strained with all its might to keep prisons a closed world with the minimal amount of information flow. Gaining the right to blog blew a massive hole in those efforts, which is why the Ministry reacted so stupidly to my efforts.

I had hoped that there would be many prison bloggers. I know that there are excellent writers in prison, as can be read in the prisoners newspaper, Inside Time. But I also recognise the barriers faced by prison bloggers. The practicalities themselves are a deterrent to blogging. A prisoner has no direct access to the internet, blogs must be hand written or typed, then mailed to someone outside, who can then upload them. You can appreciate that people who have served many years have very few outside contacts, let alone one willing to type up and manage blogs.

Blogging puts a target on your back for the staff, who are suddenly having to deal with the public being informed of what they do. And there are a thousand ways that staff can mess with your life, all subtle and above board. Why adopt a path that raises your head above the parapet? Given all of these hurdles and harsh prison realities, the reality is that few prisoners have the ability to write well, have the stones to open their mouth, and have people outside they can rely upon.

One who surmounted this obstacle course was Adam Mac, whose blog was interesting but short lived. In a bizarre turn of events, this prison blog was stopped in its tracks by prisoners. Adam found himself in Grendon prison, a therapeutic community where prisoners committees have a significant effect on the daily lives of other prisoners. Despite assurances that he would respect anonymity of his peers in his blog, the prisoners voted that he stop blogging. Obviously I think this is ridiculously stupid, but here we are. Visit Adam Mac’s blog for his version, before he fell silent.

And now we are left with a void. There are no prisoners blogging. The closed world has again managed to close the gates to the outside world. This is deeply unsatisfying and highlights the barriers prisoners still face in finding their voices. I hope the risk I took and the efforts I made are not wasted and that somehow, a prisoner will again blog and drag prisons into the light of public scrutiny.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Party Of Law and Order. And Stalinism.

Let me paint you a little picture of part of the justice system. Perhaps one of the most difficult parts - the assessment and release of Life sentence prisoners. More precisely, murderers.

Each Life sentence is divided into two parts. The first is the retribution and deterrence part, the punishment for the crime. We call this the Tariff. Post tariff is the second part of the sentence, where the Lifer continues to be detained until it can be established that he or she poses no more than a minimal risk to life and limb. Essentially, when he's judged to be safe to release. Tariffs can range from months to a whole lifetime, depending on the crime and the behaviour of the Lifer.

All so simple so far. Let's look at HOW the release and assessment process works. Firstly, the Lifer isn't told his tariff. He has no idea how long he is intended to serve. As the tariff expiry approaches, the interviews by prison staff begin. Everyone from the guy who unlocks your door to the Governor, taking in the Chaplain, education staff, and psychiatrists along the way. EVERYONE gets a say. They interview the Lifer endlessly and write their reports for the Parole Board.

Here's the interesting bit - the Lifer is not shown these reports. He has no idea what's being said about him. He has no way of checking or correcting anything he may dispute. The Lifer can make representations but he doesn't know what he's arguing against. These reports then go off to the Parole Board.

The Parole Board then looks at these reports and judges the Lifer against the release criteria - being no more than a minimal risk to life or limb. It then makes its decision. Release, or not to release. If not to release, the Board notes its concerns and the issues the Lifer needs to address before being released. The Board also sets the next review date, which may be a decade ahead.

Here's that interesting bit again - The Lifer isn't shown the Parole Board's answer. He is told “You aren't being released, come back in X years. Now off you go.” That's it. He has no clue whatever what the issues are preventing his release, has no idea what he needs to do to get released. This was called “Mushroom Management” - kept in the dark and fed on shit.

If the Parole Board does opt for release, this can then be stopped by a politician. The Justice Minister can overrule everything the specialists have assessed and substitute his own opinion. And as always, the Lifer Wasn't told why and left to blunder along in blind hope.

Would anyone call such a system fair and reasonable? When the Lifer is told nothing and can't argue against anything, can't defend himself against any wild claims made in staff reports? And to then have release blocked by a politician on equally secret grounds?

Well, the British courts were more than happy to uphold this system. They had no problems with it at all, at times tying themselves in ridiculous knots to defend it.

Which is where we get the European Court of Human Rights stepping in.

The ECHR stated what should be the bleeding obvious - that no, a secret system where you cant see what's being said against you isn't fair and just. And having politicians decide release was just absurd - no one should be detained for political purposes, a judicial body should control release, not a vote grabber. What supporter of the rule of law could argue against this?

The system above is, dear reader, history. It was the situation up to the early 1990s, when the ECHR rulings led to a new system. Reports were open - Lifers got to see every word written about them and be able to make informed representations. Release was decided by a three person Panel headed by a High Court Judge. The Minister had a representative there to give their views to the Panel. To all involved in these matters, it was universally accepted to be a better way. Even if it did put the brakes on prison staff's imaginative abuse in previously secret reports…

This system worked pretty well for the last 30 years. Public safety was upheld whilst a transparent due process was enforced. The rate of Lifers reoffending did not increase one iota. What's not to like?

Well, 2023 saw some opposition. Not based on any rational grounds. Tory politicians began grumbling that Lifers were being released that the public didn't want to be released. They want none released, obviously. This is a regular moan and can be dealt with by pointing to the Parole Board and saying “nothing to do with me, it's the law”.

This recent grumbling has been given an extra impetus - poor electoral prospects for the Tories. In their usual electoral spasms, they retreat to the high hill of “law and order” and start bewailing that everything is too soft, too short, too easy - the whine of politicians at every election in my lifetime.

Not that politicians were rendered completely useless under the new system. The Minister was represented at parole Panels. He had his say. And the Minister always has the ability to challenge the Parole Board in court if they thought their decision was manifestly irrational and have their decisions overturned. They never used this power.

Now, the Tories want to roll back time. They want the Minister to have the final say on release. They want to be able to override the considerations of the Parole Board and substitute their own views. These views are not constrained by the “life and limb” test. No, this schema abandons rationality completely. The Minister's criteria for release is “Will this lose me votes?”

No one should be detained in prison for political ends. No one's release should be a gamble based on electoral concerns. People's imprisonment should not be based on vote-grubbing and the whims of a politician. This is a return to mob rule - from the party that claims to be one of law and order. Lifers should be released when they have served their punishment and judged to be safe to release. Not based on the Minister's mood of the day.

While a politician grubbing for votes is hardly novel, electoral fear seems to have paralysed the political minds. As it stands, the release of the most serious criminals rests with the Parole Board. Ministers have a buffer against popular outrage at release decisions, being able to say “Nuffink to do with me Guv, it's the Parole Board.” In taking the release decision from the Board and back to the Ministry is to put a perpetual albatross around the political neck, THEY will now be directly responsible. This is a level of political idiocy that only the Ministry of Justice can think is a genius plan.

Politicians getting involved in release decisions undermines the rule of law. Which for the party of law and order is doubly deplorable. Add that to short term political panic and it's a recipe for gross injustice.


Sunday, February 4, 2024

Ho ho, Ho no.

So I thought I had retired. Not by choice, but even so. Severe heart failure, cancer and a head full of demons saw the government sit me down, pat me on the head and say “there, there, you tried, but you are too messed up to work. Here’s some money.”

And so for the last few years I have been living on PIP, whilst winding up my cardiologist by staying alive. It was a strange existence, knowing that my brain was mostly still functioning but being unable to do anything productive (or financially rewarding). I took up lockpicking as a hobby. Deeply Freudian for an ex con to become absorbed in locks…

Now, however, the government has decided that I have the health of an Olympian, and took their money back. This was something of a blow, especially as I can now add a fractured spine to my list of annoying ailments. Bemused, I’ve been through two stages of the appeals process and await a third. So far, the fact I have what we now politely call a “life limiting illness” hasn’t effected their scales of judgement.

So like Grumpy, its off to work I must go.

And there lies the problem. On my release I sidestepped the regular job market and was able to use my status as “educated ex con big mouth” to get myself work in the criminal justice third sector, with a bit of TV tarting on the side. Of course with my retirement I have neglected all these contacts, as I slowly withdrew from prison issues. I was content to try and wash prison out of my bones, after a lifetime.

The passage of time has seen this niche advantage eroded, and the reality is that another favourite ex con is always around the corner. That can no longer be my beat. The obvious avenues are touting myself around the prison-ish charities but they are surprisingly averse to ex cons. I will be trying this nonetheless. Given the secluded corner of the world I now occupy, several hours from London, finding a job there would be nothing short of miraculous (and ridiculous) and London is the centre of these things.

I peer wistfully into the Job Centre window, seeing all the casual jobs floating around. Why are they not for me? I’ve done every job from scrubbing toilets to E-Commerce strategy. Stacking shelves isn't a step down. Alas, this is where that pesky heart failure hoves back onto the stage - there are just so many jobs that I am no longer physically capable of doing. Which points the way to “working by brain rather than hand”.

Which brings me to exactly the situation I have spent so much time trying to avoid - dealing with that little box on application forms that say “Do you have any unspent convictions?” Usually tucked away on the last page. An irrelevancy for most. A mountain for me.

You’re a random officer manager, looking for a quiet administrator. Along comes an old guy with a very patchy CV, likely to fall down dead, and oh yes, he killed someone. I mean, why would you even bother when there's  a queue of other, sane, applicants stretching round the corner?

So this is a pretty difficult situation. Jacob cat is being as well fed as ever. Apart from that, everything is getting just a bit ropey and gruel is getting boring.

So I will work for food. If I fail to find work I may be forced to begin an Only Fans.

You have been warned.



Monday, October 9, 2023

Going Backwards to go Forwards

I am a great believer in prison education. After all, it was where I completed my secondary education, A Levels, BSc and MA. My PhD failed when I ran out of funds. That's a very long journey, over 32 years. My education helped shape the person I became.

But. I always have a but, I'm afraid. But what is it that I believe in that flows from education? It’s taken as axiomatic that education itself reduces offending, cuts future crime. Trouble is, I’ve never seen any research to substantiate that. If you have any, I’d be grateful to see it. Sans actual evidence, it's always been my view that the “education good” axiom actually rests on a moral belief - that educated people are inherently more likely to be “good”. This has at least a surface attraction. To be realistic, if I was some lumpen shaven headed illiterate of a murderer, my public reception would have been far less amenable.

I don’t for a moment think this proposition is actually true. Education does not have an inherent ability to make you a better person as such. Education just makes you more educated. That said, education does help you if you want to change your view of life. I know that for myself, education gave me the intellectual tools to deal with my own psychological aberrations, and a system that rests wholly on naked State power. Reading Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ in solitary confinement sharpens the understanding of legitimacy and power….

Education in itself does nothing. But education can be an open ended toolbox that can be used to transform yourself and your life, should that be the path you elect. But there is no reason whatever to think that this necessarily follows. In this sense, education could potentially reduce reoffending. Or it could give you more capable criminals. The law of unintended consequences is the burden of any prison policy. Note the number of PhDs amongst the leadership of the S.S….Education may give you the tools by which you can better discern moral choices and deal with them. It doesn't guarantee a moral decision.

Which brings me to the new Education Policy announced by the Ministry. The press release just hums with positivity. They always do. But then they call a full scale riot an “incident of concerted indiscipline”. Smaller riots are “disturbances”. You get the idea. MoJ press released have always been given the Hallmark touch.

When you take a moment to squint past the glow and interpret the words, the reality begins to sink in.

Every prison will have a Head of Education Skill and Work. Huzza!.

Of course the very same role has existed for years under the different title of Head of Learning and Skills. I’m not sure what having to reprint the letter heads and nameplate does to improve education or training, but the Ministry make it sound truly marvellous.

For the first time, there will be apprenticeships in catering and construction, in league with large name employers.

I would be all for this and have no “but”, but…

There has been a long and regrettable history of companies misusing prisoner labour. A significant part of some prisons budget comes from the Governor selling prisoners labour. And note this isn't the free market - prisoners are compelled to do this work under the threat of punishment. It is literally slavery, only actually allowed under the European Convention. And obviously any company using forced prisoner labour, at under a tenner a week wages, instantly has a market advantage. So you will excuse my cynicism when I hear of collaborations between companies and prisons.

Obviously the skills and qualifications gained through an apprenticeship could stand a prisoner in good stead on release. So long as they are not exploited by companies along the way and get a fair days pay for a fair days work. Alas, they will be misused.

There's an extra couple of million towards basic literacy, and an App to use on release. All good there, but more money is always nice.

Over 2 years, around 2000 prisoners will be trained in scaffolding, electrical, and other vital industries. This will guarantee a job interview on release.

This is where having an old “birdman” lurking at the edge comes in useful. This used to be standard across the prison estate. C&G training in painting, decorating, welding, carpentry, etc. The skills where a guy could start a small business himself and not rely on the dubious largess of employers in the face of an ex con begging a job. This was so prevalent that even I found myself compelled to learn welding. Strange times.

This was the situation for many decades, until the arrival of a new wave of managerialist control swept prisons in the early 1990s. Out went the trades, and in came the psychologists. Straight swap. It was declared that the very best way to cut reoffending was to force prisoners to undertake a raft of “offending behaviour courses”, psychological treatments that would turn the polluted criminal waters into sparkling prosecco. Two decades later and the data shows we’ve pretty much wasted several hundred million pounds. The only benefit of all this was to keep psychologists away from wider society.

Now here we are again, two decades later, retreading the old path. Only on a miniscule scale. 1000 men a year. Out of a population of 100,000. So this is not signifying a great switch away from psychological interventions back to trades, it is a passing nod to the past. This is regrettable. The insatiable appetites for degrees has seen a generation or two of workers not working, but avoiding the trades. The economy is ripe for more tradesmen. So this tiny effort on the part of the Ministry becomes even more insulting.

There will be “new” contracts to education providers, with tough “new” targets for basic literacy and numeracy.

They have existed for a decade or two. Always have. Education got flattened by the managerialist zeitgeist like everything else. And like everything driven by targets, the statistic frauds began instantly. You get the idea from the fact that I was compelled to take basic literacy and numeracy exams at every prison that had me. After gaining my BSc. And MA.

Target driven education also leads to coercing education. You are made a “throffer” - an offer wrapped in a threat. The Ministry's version of “Nice life you have there, pity if something happened to it…” The Psychology Department excel at them, but Education Depts are also not shy about leaning on a con to get him to take an educational path that he really doesn'tation want to. Just to meet some target.

You may believe, of course, that leaning on someone to get better educated must be no bad thing in the scale of things. But consider the poor bloke working away packing crap in a prison workshop. He's making 12 quid a week. His girlfriend is nearing term with their new baby, and his brother is playing up at school. He needs that workshop job and wage to pay for phone calls home. Badly. Having some self righteous manager desperate to meet a target come along and grab him is really not what is needed.

For all its bluster, these ideas do nothing significant for prison education. The ideas that have a kernel of use are flawed or too limited in scope, and changing job titles is meaningless. Not the lack of the word “internet”. In a document about education. In 2023.

I was legitimately online in a Cat-B prison, with Summit Media, in 2001. Here we are, over 20 years down the line, and prisoners still do not have internet access. With the rate of illegal mobile phones in prison being around one for every two prisoners, trying to stem the internet tide is utterly Canutish, a bizarre denial of reality.

The obsession with basic skills is overshadowing everything else that has potential. Trades should explode across the estate, not be limited to a few thousand people. Higher education, though in prison terms that means a decent GCSE, falls off the map. When prisoners are serving ever longer sentences, abandoning them once they are literate and numerate is verging on the cruel. Being literate is a necessary component of getting work, but hardly a sufficient one. It is utterly depressing to realise that under the present arrangements, I could not have taken the educational journey I did, and may not have developed into the joyous, diplomatic, subtle man I am today…






Sunday, July 16, 2023

How very Soviet


Well, I’ve finally been provoked into blogging for the first time in several years. Apologies. I am unable to balance openness with privacy, a problem that has plagued me since my release. But here we are.

The junction between politics and criminal justice is usually a messy one.

Some nations have resolved this by making them the same. The Soviet Union, North Korea, China…all the nice places just subsumed criminal justice into their ideological fortress and the political becomes the judicial. Whatever became politically necessary became judicially correct. Then you were shot in a basement.

The cynical amongst you, and long time readers, will appreciate that there were corners of British justice which were always afflicted by the same disease - politically motivated sentencing.

Life sentences were a particularly fraught, politically charged, judicially warped arena. The setting of minimum terms for lifers was set by bureaucrats. The prerequisite to release of moving to Open prison was decided by Ministers (or the paper-monkeys acting under his/her name). Release was decided by Ministers.

During all of this, the Parole Board was a factor, but in reality and law couldn't make decisions, merely recommendations. Hence the situation where the Board assessed me as fit for Open for ten years on the trot, with Ministers refusing to let me move. That cost me ten years and the taxpayer the best part of 300,000 quid.

The cost in time and money was the smallest cost of political control over sentences. The largest cost was that it distorted Justice itself.

Which brings me to recent events. A Bill is currently passing through the legislature that removes the legal processes put in place over the past 25 years to ensure release decisions are fair and rational, not centred on reflex responses to the Daily Mail front page. The party of law and order is abandoning law and order in favour of vote-grabbing. I will return to maul this travesty soon enough.

Meanwhile, a more febrile series of events occurred that illustrates the politically porous nature of the management of Life sentences and the moral vacuum that can corrode people's views.

A transgender prisoner, lets call him SAB, made a speech at a recent rally which included the phrase “punch TERFs in the face”. The crowd cheered - a disturbing development where violence against political opponents seems to becoming acceptable.

So far, so normal, in these intense culture wars. But SAB isn't your usual speaker. He is a Lifer on license in the community. He was originally given a discretionary Life sentence for kidnapping and torture, then attempted to murder a fellow prisoner. The result was that SAB served some 30 years before the Board judged him safe enough to release.

Lifers calling for violence are, to be crystal clear, absolute fucking idiots. I really can't emphasise enough how insanely stupid it is. Whether you mean it or not. And you can expect a robust response from the probation service and/or the Parole Board.

But, if you have the barest of interest in criminal justice, you expect this response to be proportional and necessary for public protection. Not driven by political motives. I cannot stress enough how corrosive it is to any system of justice to be driven by political decisions.

Information is incomplete and sporadic, but we do know that the Met police initially said there was no crime, no arrest necessary. It is reported that the Probation Service hauled SAB in and gave him a warning, but decided that his risk to the public has not reached the level of requiring a recall to prison - the ultimate sanction for a Lifer on license.

Enter the mob. Of course, in this age, it was a Twitter mob. Led by a lawyer (not criminal law) who would describe herself as decidedly TERF-ish, who felt personally at risk from SAB because SAB had suggested he would be attending a speaking event organised by said lawyer. We can call her TL, TERF lawyer.

This is not unreasonable. A man with a history of violence, who had just called for violence against TERFs, was attempting to attend TL’s event. TL was extremely unhappy at the lack of action by the police, and quickly began to threaten legal action. Many other women also made complaints to the police.

Enter the politicians. The Home Secretary, in charge of the police forces, tweeted that she hoped the Met would revisit the case. Which is, to all but the disingenuous, an instruction to the police. Oddly enough, SAB was then arrested. Then released, investigations ongoing.

In the face of no information from the Probation Service as to what was going on, TL began threatening legal action unless her needs were met - recall SAB to prison.

SAB was then recalled to prison. Despite Probation previously determining this wasn't necessary on grounds of risk, it is believed that the Minster of Justice ordered the recall. The second political interference in the situation, for solely political benefit.

I began to feel very uncomfortable at this point. The sheer ignorance of the system of those campaigning for this was as deep as it was expected. What shocked me most was the sheer visceral glee of these people at the recall of a man to prison for possibly many years, on political instructions. I stupidly expected better from someone working in the justice system.

TL went so far as to say that she would not be happy unless SAB stayed in prison for the rest of his life. Likely to be decades. At this point we parted ways…

Scratch a liberal and underneath you’ll find a Daily Mail editorial. I was still shocked at the blatant glee. Not that a possible danger was averted, but that a person from the opposing tribe was going to suffer. The joy at that was vomitus.

I begged that they at least appreciate what they had done. And the denials came thick and fact - “We did nothing, he did it to himself”. As if a Hand of God mysteriously came down and transported SAB to the Scrubs. As if their screaming at the Ministry had nothing to do with Ministers reversing two previously made decisions by Probation. This was disingenuous hypocrisy from those simultaneously cheering their success.

It is the excuse used to justify anything done to prisoners. “Well, if you hadn’t committed the crime and gone to prison, the screws wouldn't be giving you a beating. Your fault.” It's a refrain I’ve heard for decades. And its still as pathetic and immoral.

The final step from me was to point out that getting a man imprisoned was a big deal, and may not have been necessary. But no, they wanted him in prison. Period. TL especially, who was still threatening to sue Probation for not dancing to her satisfaction.

I deleted my Twitter account. I was not going to be anywhere near a mob who could turn on me in an instant and try to use political pressure to get me imprisoned. I’ve been through that already, thanks.

The final straw was the response from TL when I asked if she knew what she had inflicted, what prison is like? The response was so steeped in ignorance I may frame it for posterity:

I can’t turn on Netflix without tripping over yet another ‘behind bars’ documentary or dramatised film about men getting attacked by the Big Dog who's in with the Warden. We’ve all seen Shawshank Redemption. My dad did three days in Shrewsbury prison. Don’t come this ‘you don't know prison’ nonsense.”

Truly mind-boggling. Hatred addles the mind. Ideology can allow you to justify doing horrible things. And political interference in the justice system invariably leads to injustice.

Me? I’d have hauled him in for a chat. An official warning. And recalled him to a Probation hostel with a strict curfew and limited geographical movement. That would have negated any risk. But in their ignorance and sheer spite, safety wasn’t what they actually wanted. They wanted to see him suffer.

And if you hear my voice from the cockpit of a plane, don’t worry, I know all about flying. After all, my Grandad was in the RFC and I’ve watched Top Gun five times.


Ben Gunn




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.