Saturday, October 31, 2009

One of Thousands

Being a minor egomaniac, the attention you have been giving me has been very gratifying and I deeply appreciate it. However, I would hate this to overshadow the fact that I am merely one amongst thousands. Guilty of our crimes, we still struggle against a system which is fundamentally unjust and bereft of humanity - the very qualities we are accused of.

Today I received a letter from another prisoner which reminded me of the relative ease in which I live my daily life. He is in the High Security Estate, but rules prohibit my naming him. But like me, he has attempted to send out material for the web, only to have his mail stopped.

On the back of ‘intelligence’, he is then accused of bullying other prisoners. This obviously not being sufficient pressure, further ‘intelligence’ is used to make a claim that he is a man of some influence on the landings. Because of this, he has been placed in segregation indefinitely and now faces several years of those conditions.

The Prison Service loves ‘intelligence’, because we are unable to see sufficient detail to challenge it. It has none of the safeguards of formal disciplinary proceedings and no limits on the privations that can be inflicted in its name. There are essentially no barriers against its misuse, and it is regularly levelled against those who the system fears.

Don't take the spotlight off me. Broaden it and throw illumination on more people, more abuses. Remember, if you will, that I am but one of 85,000 and many others suffer more. Remember particularly this un-named prisoner and the struggles he faces for attempting to speak to the wider world.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Pedos are People Too

If there is one thing that everybody thinks they know about

prisons, it is that there is a social system with sex offenders at the bottom. Child molesters are, it is said, the lowest of the low.

This stratification by crime has always made me slightly uncomfortable. I killed someone, who am I to point a finger at another? The air of self-righteousness that comes with this social structure is all a bit much, as if the fact that there are ‘worse’ crimes somehow reduces the culpability of the ‘clean’ crimes and criminals. There is also a strong thread of hypocrisy, in that sex offenders capable of great violence, or with a ready supply of drugs, are miraculously transformed into being one of the lads. Beating people up is only fun if it carries minimal risks of retaliation.

Sex offenders are usually separated from the 'normals' in Vulnerable Prisoner Units, wings which are kept firmly locked against the rest of us. Recent years, though, have seen some shifts in this pattern.

There are now prisons which are 'mixed', with sex offenders and 'normals' living side by side. As a general proposition,this seems to work reasonably well and without the apartheid you would expect.

This prison is one such place. Being all lifers, then a high level of stability and social coherence can be expected. As this place runs the Sex Offender Treatment Programme, then a high proportion of dubious cases find themselves here.

This has interesting consequences. I have bumped into acquaintances that I first met many years ago and whose offence I thought was 'normal' (as murders go). But here, with the prevailing attitude of 'live and let live', some of these old acquaintances have let bit of biography slip. One of my oldest mates turns out not to be a straightforward murderer at all; he first brutally raped his victim.

This did cause me to raise an eyebrow, but I made no other reaction and the revelation has never been referred to since. It made no difference to the way that I perceived this man.

Criminals are easy to despise, so long as we are stereotypes splashed across the pages of the tabloids. Sound-bite analysis obscures the reality. We are people, just like you. It is far easier to hate a one-dimensional media creation; it is far harder to hate a real person, someone you have known for years, who you then discover has a shady past. My mate’s revelation added to what I knew of him but it did not overshadow everything else. As someone once wrote about a notorious killer, he was also

"somebody's husband, somebody's son".

from Blog Editor

Your questions have been forwarded to Ben, but the postal strike may hold things up a bit.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Living in Truth

A mate of mine went off to Open prison recently, only to find himself ejected back to some crappy local nick within 24 hours. This borders on a record in itself. The reason we have heard for these events is that he took exception to having to wear prison clothes and live in a dormitory. To the uninitiated, these must sound a feeble platform for rebellion and to risk another couple of years in prison. I can't feel anything other than pride in his stance. With the carrot of release being dangled before him and the weight of the prison system at his back, he still had the fortitude to stay true to himself. Clothing and dormitories are merely the symptom of a web of untruths, and he refused to play the game and buy into the lie. Open prisons are intended to test us in conditions that resemble the community rather than prison. We are forced to stay in prison another few years solely to undergo this process. Of course, this is all untrue. Open prisons are nothing like the community and so the excuse for keeping us there is threadbare. To be forced to wear prison uniform is a step too far. Bear in mind that most long-term prisoners wear their own clothing for much of their sentence, and so to be forced into uniform at the precise juncture when we are meant to be given more responsibility and freedom is an utter nonsense. Ditto with living in a dorm. Officially, his crime will be listed on file as refusing a lawful order. In reality, though, his offence was to refuse to subscribe to a regime based on a lie. For living in Truth, for shining a spotlight on a naked Emperor, he will be made to suffer. Was he wrong? If one is a pragmatist, if gaining release at the earliest possible moment is the goal, then this is clearly a bad decision. And most people (prisoners included) adopt that line of least resistance whilst navigating the vagaries of life. That has never been my chosen path. Doing what is perceived to be "the right thing" has always been more important, but that is my particular quirk and it carries its own consequences. I never criticise others for the path they chose. And yet there is a powerful testament given by those like my mate who refuse to accept an institutional lie and be bullied. The philosophy of pragmatism has its adherents and such people make a huge contribution to life. At the same time, there are those for whom fundamental values and beliefs are paramount, regardless of personal cost. These are the people whose struggles echo through the ages and we should thank them more for the service they render all of us, for they teach us two lessons. First, that "speaking Truth to Power" is vital to making those who rule our lives pause in their machinations. And second, that standing up as a sovereign individual reinforces the human dignity that we should all cherish. Of course, our grapevine being as unreliable as it is speedy, none of the above may be correct!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Any Questions?

My inability to interact with my readers is deeply frustrating and so, as some half-arsed compromise, for the next week I throw myself open to your questions. Ask whatever you like, though I can't guarantee you will necessarily like the answers! If it's related to prisons, prisoners or myself then I'll give it my best shot. Your questions will be printed off and sent in to me and my responses will follow the reverse route. So, this week questions, next week the responses. It's the best I am able to do until the Prison Service is forced to recognise the Information Age.

I am Getting Frustrated!

I do appreciate that blogging is normally a deeply interactive activity, and living without that interaction is becoming very frustrating for me. Your comments are irregularly posted in to me and I'm champing at the bit for the opportunity to respond. Alas, the blog editor only has so much time and, relying on snail-mail, the time it would take for me to formulate responses renders them rather pointless.

I am grateful for your patience in this. But as a compromise, I offer the following post.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

from Blog Editor

Apologies for the blog being a bit sporadic of late. I am having problems with my internet connection. Engineers are working on it and normal service should be resumed tomorrow.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Prison Work is Criminal

We rob you. That's what criminals do. We steal your money, your possessions, your peace of mind, your dignity, even your life. We are then thrown in prison. What you hardly expected then was that the Government would itself pick up our thieving ways and enlist our help to steal from you all over again.

To ask, "what is the purpose of prison work?" is to ask a profound question about the purpose of the 21 century prison. The answers are neither simple, consistent, nor necessarily reflected in the daily reality of life on the prison landings.

This confusion is rooted in the broad range of demands, sometimes conflicting, that are made of imprisonment. Is prison merely a tool to inflict punishment? Is rehabilitation an aspiration? What of reducing the incidence of re-offending? Imprisonment is expected to at least attempt to deliver some measure of all of these things, and this fragmentation of purpose has undermined the formulation of any consistent and long term view of a central part of prison life - work.

The result of this confused inconsistency is a patchwork of practice across the prison estate which shares only one characteristic - that it takes taxpayers' monies and squanders them. The Prison Service has created and sustained a regime of work that neither produces a profit, nor reduces offending, nor equips prisoners with skills for their future employment.

Prison managers fully understand the limitations of their regime and yet they are forced to forge ahead with rather pointless work by the need to achieve internal targets for "purposeful activity". This requires prisoners to be out of their cells for several hours a day, and in employment. These targets, however, have no requirement for this employment to meet any standards of either usefulness or punitiveness. Individual Governors, then, have every incentive to avoid developing work regimes that have any greater purpose than simple existence.

The lack of public understanding of the prison work regime, coupled with the clashing of punitive and rehabilitative currents in the public mood, ensures that neither prisoners nor society make any gains from this activity. This is not a new realisation. It is just a failure that is not paraded for the taxpayers gaze.

To say that prison work is unskilled and devoid of any redeeming features is to bathe the reader with wordy sophistry. We need to retreat to the landings themselves to see the physical reality. Let us examine a standard prison.

Workers can be split into several groups: cleaners, orderlies, industries, education, works, stores. Each of these groups has its own benefits and pains, and the adept prisoner will attempt to gain a job in the area that best suits his temperament and finances.

Cleaners maintain the wings, and traditionally is a job which pays an average wage (£7 to £10 per week) and allows large amounts of leisure time. They stagger out of bed at breakfast time, shove a broom around the floor, then retire to their leisure. Some of their jobs can be completed in less than an hour, leaving the cleaner the rest of the day to fill with only his imagination as a limit. Being a cleaner carries the two major advantages of being left unlocked during the day, and being benignly ignored by staff. As they also help serve the meals there are certain perks as well. No one becomes a cleaner to work, nor to get rich.

Orderlies are rather posh cleaners. Instead of scrubbing the wings they fit into a smaller niche. The Library has them, as does Education, and Reception, the Works, Visits...most activities come with an orderly attached. Not only do they clean, but they are often given a measure of trust or responsibility. Library orderlies man the counter and deal with book orders, for instance, while Reception orderlies are trusted not to steal our stored property. These jobs are often quite popular because they are out of the main flow, they allow a more human relationship with their immediate bosses, and tend to come with perks attached.

Industries are the mainstay of prison work. On any given day there are tens of thousands of men sitting behind rows of sewing machines, or at workbenches, producing everything from oven gloves to bed sheets, packing screws and bolts. This is piecework. Where most of this output was once intended for internal use, it is now increasingly common for work to be subcontracted from private companies. The advantages for these companies is obvious: 35 hours work for a £15 wage is a commercial edge that cannot be gained elsewhere. The taxpayer is subsidising these firms, solely in order to get prisoners out of their cells for a few hours. Industries is the dullest work, though tends to be amongst the best paid.

Education counts as work, and is semi-popular because it doesn't involve mindless repetition but tends to be the lowest paid job in any prison. Only in the modern prison can there be an in-built disincentive to dissuade people from increasing their life chances and lower their chances of reoffending. Education used to provide a refuge of sorts, where the attitude of teachers allowed a more human approach. You could leave your prisoner status at the door. Today it is an extension of the prison, not only physically but in temperament and in its need to exercise perpetual and mindless control.

Miscellaneous Support Services. Being, essentially, a small community then there are a range of activities that must take place in order for the days to be morphed from one into the next. Someone has to cook the food, fix the electrics, mend the plumbing, sweep the yards, water the gardens...These are cared for by small departments - the Works, Gardens, Kitchens, etc, who rely on prisoner labour. The kitchens traditionally work the longest hours and receive the highest pay, plus all you can steal. The work that requires skill, such as Works services, is conducted by staff although each has a prisoner to carry the tools.

None of this work is, in itself, objectionable. Someone has to do it. But year after year? For decades? And with the only purpose being to get a man out of his cell. When the State takes a person into its care, at a cost of £35,000 a year to the public purse, it might be expected that they make the best efforts to make effective use of that money. If your child returned from Eton with that bill you would expect to see some tangible benefit for your money.

It is prisons' dirty little secret that they take in broken people with broken lives, strip them of the resources and support of their previous life, hold them for years and then release them back into the world. Not only are they in no way improved, but the lack of social support and employment means that they are far more likely than not to commit further crimes.

Prison work is the most obvious sign of this expensive neglect. You can serve decades and not learn a single useful skill. Year after year the only people who are pleased by this result are the Prison Service managers who have met their targets to get prisoners out of their cells. Once these men are released, these managers are neither interested nor accountable for the consequences of their neglect.

There are two options. You could put a man in prison and help him to repair his broken life, equip him to find his place in the modern economy. Or you can take away what little he has and send him into the world with crime being his best option for success. That people are happy for the latter situation to continue, at huge costs, is a mark of social disinterest and the ability of the Prison Service to deceive the taxpayer. If I paid taxes, I'd be livid.