Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Editor's note

Thanks to those who have offered to support Ben's research. If he raised any funds via this blog, though, it may give the Ministry a legal way to shut it down. Those who wish to support Ben, and others like him, could donate to the charities which have supported Ben over the years. In particular, the Hardman Trust and the Prisoners Education Trust. Again, thank you all.

Blogging by 'Insiders'.

Our lives are governed by the machinations of institutions, both public and private. They are inescapable. Wouldn't our lot be happier if we had a window onto the internal workings of these monoliths of power? Wouldn't our society be freer and the body politic healthier if we knew more about how and why certain decisions were taken?

This preamble is by way of wishing and hoping that the denizens of the superstructure of our society dash to the loo with their Smartphones and begin to blog away. Help us, you civil servants; enlighten us, you actuaries; inform us, you paper-merchants and insurance salesmen; teach us, you educators.

The more these people blog then the deeper our understanding into the internal workings of the systems that guide our existence. Spill the beans, people, and feel the surge of blood that comes from 'living in truth.

Obviously my bent is towards the penological, and as the only blogging British convict I would hope that along the way I could offer a window onto the prison landings. It is long overdue that society had a (fairly) contemporaneous, if partial, view of what is being done in their name and with vast chunks of their money.

But where are the prison staff blogs? Where are the Governors? And where are all the other cons? Insiders within any institution owe us ah insight to their small corner of the world.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My Accidental Education

Who would have thought that being an arrogant prick could lead to a personal transformation?

I refused to take a test of my literacy and numeracy as being beneath my dignity, and as I pompously stalked away the call from the Education Manager wafted down the corridor. "Would you like to take a degree?"

Hell, yes. And that was the start. Things have changed since then and it is more difficult to sign up.

And who has paid for my studies? My first degree was funded by the Prisoners Education Trust and the Open University. My Masters degree was supported by Quaker Peace and Social Witness, the PET, the Hardman Trust and generous individuals.

My PhD is proving to be more difficult to fund and I may have to take a few months off. But rest assured, the taxpayer had pretty much nothing to do with any of my educational progress. I still wish someone could explain to me exactly what the £35,000 a year it costs to keep us here gets spent on.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I once knew a man

A lifer woke us all up in the early hours by hammering dementedly on
his cell door. The next morning we found out why.
He had suffered a bleed in his brain as he slept, and woke up not
knowing who he was or how he came to be locked in a concrete box. As a
personal nightmare, I can't think of many that could be worse. It
raises the question- what are the ethics of continuing to punish a man
for crimes he can no longer remember?

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Along with "got a roll-up?" and "fuck off", two of the most frequently heard words on the landings are "bang up", meaning to be locked in a cell. It forms the centrepiece of imprisonment, and the frequency at which the doors are unlocked reveals the culture - and health - of each particular institution.

Prisons which have long and frequent periods of unlock tend to be more relaxed, socially cohesive and stable. In prisons where bang-up is the major activity, it signals inactivity and instability.

At the start of a sentence, as a new boy, being locked behind a cell door is an alien and unsettling experience. Vast efforts are expended attempting to get the door opened and maximize the resulting limited freedom. The door can become a genuine, as well as symbolic, focus that determines all else in the day.

For long termers, though, there is an undefined and unconscious moment when the cell changes from being an imposition of confinement to become a refuge from imprisonment. Being banged up for a few hours offers a relief from the forced metronomic existence that is the regime.

Cells can become a home, each modified by the inhabitant to best suit his needs, his way of living. Some cluttered with books and files (mine), others bare shrines to the need for space to exercise. The cell can offer the only semblance of privacy, isolation and respite from the daily grind.

For some, being slung into solitary is to be welcomed. Many prisons used to have an informal arrangement that allowed lifers to decant into the punishment block on request for a few days, just to savour the relief from forced company.

If nothing else, this suggests two things - that people are infinitely adaptable and resilient; and that prison can have unexpected effects upon you.

Open Prisons

The very words comprise an oxymoron in the eyes of the masses. "Open. Prison." It is a juxtaposition of lexicography that lends itself to a Peter Kay sketch, replacing "Garlic. Bread".

Like much else in the prison system, open prisons did not flow from some profound analysis but are an accident of history. A rising post-war crime rate co-existed with defunct military camps. The problem inevitably found the solution.

Most prisoners never see an open nick. Only two groups have a fighting chance of being dropped into these bucolic hellholes. The first and largest group are those serving very short sentences, preferably for non-violent and non-sexual crimes. The stereotype of open nicks being populated by ex-coppers and dodgy accountants has some truth to it. These people are dropped in Open because Closed prisons are expensive and unnecessarily secure.

The second group is the one that causes the local population to twitch and the tabloids to salivate - those coming to the end of very long or life sentences.

For lifers and long-termers, Open is a period of 're-socialisation' and 'testing1 after spending many years in closed conditions. On the face of it, a laudable enterprise, surely? Though the media presentation is one of murderers and rapists being free to escape and commit mayhem on the locals.

This is based on the strange idea that we commit crime just because we can. I could have killed a dozen people today, but guess what - I didn't. We are not insane; people commit crimes for a reason, even if that reason is essentially a blown mental fuse. That the local villagers do not have a fence between them and us is not exactly a genuine issue of note.

The alternative is to keep all prisoners in secure conditions - a few more hundred million quid’s worth of your taxes - and that long termers are disgorged straight from the deepest dungeons right onto your doorstep as their sentence ends.

Prisons are holiday camps

In the past year, 24,944 prison holidaymakers harmed themselves. Of those, 60 killed themselves. Twenty of those deaths were remand prisoners- innocent men and women. I wonder if Butlins has similar figures?