Monday, November 30, 2009

My Future

One of the most depressing conversations I ever took part in occurred in Open prison. George was about to be released after serving 40 years and I was curious as to his future plans.
"A few months in a probation hostel, then see what happens." I was stunned. He'd spent the last few years in Open, a place allegedly intended to give us some future focus, and George was leaving without a single idea or skill with which to rebuild his life.
As a lifer, it is very easy to sink into adopting a very short term view. Our lives are not our own and it can be deeply depressing to attempt to plan for a release which may never come. Looking a few days ahead is as far as some of us dare go. At the moment, I am maintaining my sanity by not even looking ahead to tomorrow.
In the last decade or so, though, I have become increasingly focused upon my possible future. What do I do when I am released? Despite the strange life I have lived, I do have a broad skill set ranging from mediation through to E-Commerce. Completing the PhD will equip me with general research skills, and may even lead to a minor career in criminology.
Although I have been writing for many years for the prisoner’s national newspaper (, as well as for various campaign groups and prison magazines, I was taken by surprise when someone described me as "a writer".

Assuming my fan is correct, perhaps I could and should develop this as a way to pay the rent in my post prison future? But in what way?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Transfer Vultures

I have inherited a shiny new plastic jug to drink coffee from, and a large blue wooden box with the house number 13 screwed on the front.

Such are the spoils from people transferring elsewhere. As soon as the word spreads that someone is on their way, others begin to sidle up to him to ask what he's leaving behind. Prime items are electrical goods, stereo, Play Station and the like. If they are parted with, it is to best mates or the highest bidder.

The rest of us make do with useful odds and ends. A decent chair, handy table, lengths of shelving and the like. Even bits of string are blagged; the beginnings of a clothes line.

The plastic jug will be very useful. The wooden box is more a 'because it was there' type of thing; I'm not at all sure what will become of it. Perhaps I will put it out on the landing, where another person will find it and give it a home. We may be vultures, but like all scavengers we are also great re-cyclers.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Urinal Fishing

It could be the title of a new, rather strange, game invented by men with too much time on their hands.
It's funnier than that. A Principle Officer, £40,000 quid’s worth of prison service talent, believes a con has been grabbing a sly fag in the education loo.
Rather than dish out a ticking off, the PO decides to equip himself with gloves and evidence bags and go trawling for fag ends down the bog. This is CSI on a budget.
Surreally, when the PO then presented these at the disciplinary hearing in their little baggies (he pressed a charge), he didn't claim that any of them belonged to the miscreant. 

Perhaps he was just a little attracted to the smell of pee?  Or is there just a very strong fan base of CSI amongst screws?

PS the charge was thrown out.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kevin Went Mad

Now and then, the individual eccentricities that we develop tip into something more serious. Occasionally, one of us goes properly bonkers.
Kevin was the nick's resident artist, producing astonishing paintings with the barest of materials. His idea of entertainment was to lie in a haze of dope, making occasional forays towards his canvas. The art paid for the dope, a good portrait going for upwards of sixty quid.
His most controversial effort was a life sized mural of Princess Diana on his cell wall. She was stark naked, legs akimbo, servicing herself with a black dildo of impossible proportions. Kevin complained that it took him ages to finish as he had to keep stopping to masturbate. The screws, Royalists to a man, were livid. This may have been the first sign of his incipient loony-ness.
We were only really sure that he was mad when he took it on himself to march into the Education Department, knock on the office door and shove a copy of Fiesta Readers ' Wives in the face of the Manageress. "Is this you? Ozzie says this is you".
Ozzie knew no such thing. He was upstairs, packing his kit for a very unexpected and sudden move to Open prison. The fallout was spectacular. Ozzie found his move to Open changed into a move to Scrubs, "under investigation". The manageress was mortified. And Kevin went off to a nuthouse. The new occupant of his cell repainted the wall.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pay Day

The busiest evening of the week is pay day. A maelstrom of people running about squaring debts and collecting dues. Some are sanguine, safe in the knowledge that what they owe is safely in their means. Others move about with greater purpose, flitting from cell to cell in a rushed attempt to raise loans to cover their debts. Their faces become more drawn as the evening progresses.
I tend to be on the borrower and of the spectrum, though I don't borrow routinely or more than I can afford. Some borrowing is inevitable, due to the way we are paid. We must fill in a form ordering what we want to buy, and the order is delivered a few days later.
This system relies on individuals being able to prophesy what they will need in that following week. If you fancy a biscuit, or run out of sugar, then short of waiting until the next pay day the only means of meeting this need is to borrow it.
There is also the regular wheeling and dealing, goods and services being exchanged. This is all illegal, as the Rules prohibit us from "borrowing, lending or giving" anything to anybody. And yet this black economy runs unabated, unofficially acknowledged as part of what keeps prison ticking over from day to day. The Governor would not appreciate his days been taken up dealing with applications from us to pass cups of sugar, the odd fag paper or tatty newspaper from cell to cell.
There is a man who gives me some newspapers and it is only fair I throw him a bar of chocolate in thanks. My barber gets packets of crisps, while I collect a little tobacco in exchange for some cartons of milk. As I ran out of tobacco, I ended up borrowing half an ounce, and the bloke wants Tetley T Bags and Flora in return. A fair deal all round.
All of us engage in these little exchanges, which range from hard business to mutual favours. This cements the social system, reinforces standards of mutuality and sociability. Exchange is only economics in its smallest sense, its significance lies more in what it means to be a social being.
This week is a good one. I have my tobacco and fag papers, and even managed to treat myself to some Polos. Hurrah!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The key to happiness in prison lies in focusing upon the small things that bring pleasure.
To raise one's eyes above the horizon, to dream of the world just out of reach, is to risk subjecting oneself to that endless torment that comes from grasping for the Moon.
Today is a good day. The words have been flowing from mind to keyboard at an astonishing rate. Someone has lent me a battery to run my new MP3 player and I can allow myself to be moved by music. The paper I am printing on is a particularly pleasing shade of white. There is an interesting science programme on the TV. My beard is nicely cropped, like a Gandhi gone slightly to pot. And I replied to a pile of my mail, easing my conscience somewhat.
I am in prison. From where I sit, I can only take three steps before the walls or door halt me. I am separated from those I love and care for. I am fighting the depression that grows out of the perpetual frustration of feeling unable to make a difference to life. And I go to sleep knowing that this will be repeated again for an unknown number of tomorrows.
Focus on the small things. You will surely be happier.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Our moral guardians

So some prison staff oop north are having a little strike. This is
illegal. I wonder if they will savour this irony when they return to
the landings and show us how "to live a law abiding life on release"?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Property & Possessions

Lifers used to be notorious for the amount of property they carted around the system. Well, it was the total of our worldly goods and we tend to hand onto stuff. This went to the extent of one transfer where I and my escort were in one van, with a minibus carrying my prop (mostly books) following behind. Happy days.
Then some people tried to escape and ruined it. They were terrorists attempting to break out of a Special Secure Unit (SSU), which hold those who pose the greatest threat to society. Escape from SSU's is intended to be impossible.
These guys made it out but were captured within minutes. The official report into this episode (the Learmont Report) was a travesty, but did uncover an unfortunate fact. It was hard for staff to search the cells of these cons because of the sheer amount of property they held. One man even had a bicycle, which makes even my world-weary eyes boggle.
And so the Home Office brought out new rules on property. All we own must now fit into two smallish boxes. That's our lot. Which makes me wonder; if you are going to attempt to create and sustain a psychologically acceptable life behind bars, what possessions do you need? What is the bare minimum?
I throw this open to readers. Imagine yourself stuck in an empty concrete box for a decade or two. Start off with a bed, chair, and locker. What items would you need to psychologically sustain yourself for all those years?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Grand Plan

At the same time that Michael Howard was proclaiming that “prison works” and that our lives should be “decent but austere”, his minions were busy putting together a huge plan to reduce the rate of reoffending. This reveals the schizophrenia that comes from prisons being expected to do both punishment and rehabilitation, but there you go.
This Grand Plan was to reach back nearly a century and dust off the idea that criminals are somehow inherently different. This comes within a whisker of the old concept that criminality is a mental disease but with a modern spin.
The broad idea is that we suffer from 'cognitive deficits'. We think differently from free people. On the back of this dodgy reasoning, a range of psychological treatments were imported from North America. Collectively they are known as Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBPs) and their purpose is to help us to think in a different way.
Thus we are afflicted with courses entitled Enhanced Thinking Skills; Sex Offender Treatment Programme - Core, Extended, Modified, and Booster versions; Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage It (CALM); Cognitive Self Change Programme...and so it goes on. Each one has a future refresher or booster version and it is common for one to lead to the other.
There are several problems with this Grand Plan. The most obvious being that, after being in operation for over a decade, the research evidence that any of this stuff actually does work is extremely thin. None is peer reviewed. The level of desperation on the part of prison HQ to squeeze some hint of hope out of this was revealed by the latest research on the Enhanced Thinking Skills (ETS) course. Rather than follow the standard criminological research format - follow up cohorts of those who have, and haven't, done the course and compare the reoffending rates - the latest research confines itself to asking whether those who have done ETS feel that they may reoffend less in future. With one eye on their parole reports, to a man the prisoners swore blind they were cured of their criminal afflictions. Doh! Even if the course did work, the elephant in the room would be this - would reoffending rates be lower because the course altered criminals’ behaviour? Or could it be that the course trained us to think so much better that we plan our crimes more efficiently and just don't get caught? Just a thought...
If these courses worked, I might possibly stomach them. As they don't, they lead to wicked injustices. Lifers can't get released without addressing their 'cognitive deficits'. This leads to us spending many, many years undertaking course after course, a psychological conveyor belt of gibberish. The course are, of course!, voluntary. We just won't be released if we don't do them. So we sign up under massive pressure and go through the motions. Even if the courses could work, they would be ineffective as nobody changes on demand and under threat.
So, lifers are kept in for ever-longer periods, to complete an ever lengthening list of courses, none of which can be shown to work. After 15 years and 200 million quid, the reoffending rate is unchanged. We feel screwed over and hard done by, put upon by psychologists who know nothing and don't care to learn. To say we despise them is to be polite. They are a plague.
But it is when this Grand Plan is coupled with a kneejerk change in sentencing that the real wickedness becomes evident. The introduction of Indefinite sentences for Public Protection (IPP) has seen the lifer population approach 10,000. The average tariff (punishment period) for these IPPs is 18 months. At the end of that time, they can be released if they can show they pose little risk of future offending. This is done by completing the psychology courses. But as the number of places on courses is limited, you may have to wait years to complete them.
Policy makers failed to join the dots here, committing one of the cardinal sins that psychology claims for prisoners; a lack of consequential thinking. Thousands of men are kept in prison on open ended sentences solely because the Ministry failed to lay on sufficient courses for them to complete in a timely manner. It is deeply unjust to sentence a man with a 2 year tariff, knowing damn well it could be 6 years before he can do the necessary courses. It is inept and dishonest, at best, and downright wicked at worst. I predict that during the next wave of riots, alongside the word 'food on the banners of complaint will be the words 'courses' and 'psychology'.
That is the Grand Plan. It continues on, with all concerned pretending that it does work. That the people in charge of our lives can be so self deluding is frightening. And me? I was assessed years ago and whatever my faults may be, it is accepted that 'cognitive deficits' are not included. As more than one governor has pointed out, there is no course to address being awkward.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Instant Kharma?

"Just what do you do with a man who has so many mental health problems that he is on suicide watch, and who overslept cos of his medication?  If you are management at Shepton Mallet, you put him on a basic regime, taking away his TV, wages, and his right to associate with his peers. All for at least a month.   My having voiced my disgust at this to the Gov led the wing manager to bollock this poor sod this morning. As if punishing him for oversleeping wasn’t enough! Picking on the suicidal must make them feel really good.…welcome to the modern, humane, prison service."

from blog Editor: I saw Ben today and he asked me to relay this incident to you as he felt it was unjust, and I have passed it on in the spirit that it was expressed in to me.  The title was my own, as it made me reflect a little...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Food again

How in hell can a beefburger be cooked so tough that my knife snapped trying to cut it??

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writing Reports

Life sentences generate vast quantities of paper. Reports, risk assessments, sentence planning, parole dossiers, history sheets, daily logs, transfer reports... It is a blizzard that we must navigate in order to progress towards release.

The most important set of paperwork are the staff reports which comprise the dossier considered by the Parole Board. These reports are supposed to be written by all the staff who know us -workplace, education, healthcare, psychology, wing staff, middle management, internal and external probation, chaplaincy, Uncle Tom Cobbley...

The idea itself is a good one. Each of these staff see us in different settings, for different purposes, and each brings their own particular expertise. We all have different aspects to our personality and we each present ourselves differently according to social context. A man who seems to be benefiting from exploring his offending history with psychologists, for instance, may be obnoxious and aggressive on the wing. He may be a lousy worker, but give of himself in educationally mentoring his peers.
If the reporting process works well, then the Parole Board should receive a rounded picture of each individual. The more complete this picture, then the better the assessment they can make as to what risk he may pose if released.
As an objective framework for assessment, this should be a pretty good one. How this translates into practice is crucial and it is at this point that the system collapses. This leads to people being released who then commit horrible crimes, or those who are perfectly safe being kept in detention. No system is perfect but the present one operates particularly badly.
Psychologists rule the prison roost, and have done for over a decade. When staff write parole reports, they tend to avoid making their own judgements based on their experience. Rather, they substitute that judgement for whatever psychology are recommending. All staff have fallen into this habit.
Whilst it could be argued that psychologists are the specialists and are more likely to be correct, this is not the point (and also not true). Psychologists only see a small part of us and it is for other staff to bring their particular experiences of us to the table. To merely defer,to psychologists is to render the reporting process skewed, incomplete, and far more likely to lead to bad decisions about release.
I take quite a strong line on this. If professionals are being paid for their opinions, it is weak and fraudulent for them to merely follow the views of others. Worse, this method of report writing leads to injustice. If psychologists see a prisoner in a particular light and others merely parrot them, then what may be an incomplete or incorrect assessment becomes the dominant and unchallenged paradigm.
This leaves the Parole Board in a very difficult position. They are presented with a fixed view, one collective opinion, about the prisoner in front of them. Do they accept it? Or reject it? In the absence of a range of views which explore the full range of a prisoner’s social, intellectual, psychological, emotional and spiritual outlook, then how can they make the right decision?
This is, for prisoners, a common complaint about the iniquities of the reporting process. For society, though, it is an equally important issue. People who are dangerous may be released and people who are not may remain locked up. This is about fundamental justice, and it sits in the hands of minor functionaries who have lost any sense of the importance of their job or the standards they should strive for.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Royal Assassination Plot

On my way to grab my lunch a screw asked, seemingly in passing, if I had any plans to kill Princess Anne? I said I'd check my schedule, but that I didn't think so.

Royalty was visiting. Having destroyed a wing in the 1990 riots, a shiny, new and vastly more robust structure replaced it. And it took a VIP to nail a plaque to its wall to declare it open, Princess Anne drawing that short straw.

I was extremely indifferent, both to the Royal visit and the existence of Royalty per se. And so on the day of this Royal visitation I just wandered into work, got on with my job, and thought no more of it.

The doors flew open and a PO (Principle Officer) strode in, eyes swivelling like a Secret Service wannabe. He even had an earpiece for his radio, which we thought terribly sad in a 'secret squirrel' way. Behind him was the larger entourage, a Princess in the middle.

Princess Anne began to make her way into the workshop, weaving towards my work area. The PO jumped, pointing and I found myself staring into the eyes of a hefty screw and two civilian bodyguards. They stood around me, staring, while trying to pretend this was all somehow perfectly natural.

I missed a bit out, it may be significant. My job was a 'cutter', and I was kneeling up on a large cutting table, merrily slicing textile patterns. My work tool was a foot long electrically powered cutting blade, which could take an arm off in the blink of an eye. But still...

Anne paused and began talking to my workmate, within a few feet. I kept cutting and the guards kept leaning closer towards me. And then she was gone, off into the next building.

Later, I cornered the PO and asked what the hell that performance was all about? He said that as he caught sight of me, his heart was in his mouth and he sent the guards to section me from Princess Anne. I asked the obvious question, "If you really thought I posed a threat, why didn't you just keep me out of work today?"

I've said it before, and I will keep saying it. These people have had me in their care for most of my life and they know absolutely nothing about me. After all, if I'd have chopped Anne in half I would be laying myself open to a charge of failing to meet my work allocation.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Answers Tues 17th Nov

Anon asked-
1. Are you still in touch with your family?

No. My family is a large one, I am one of 7 siblings, but I'm the youngest by many years. When my mother died, when I was 9, I was taken on by one of my sisters but we really didn't get along and I began running away from home. They put me in local authority care when I was 11 and that was the end of any meaningful contact between myself and my family.

2. Do you have any 'proper’ or long term friends?

Relationships in prison tend to temporary and not take on the shape of relationships outside.

Even close relationships have to function in the knowledge that, at some point, you will be moved on somewhere else and the only possible contact is via mail. And we need the permission of both Governors to write to each other.

So whilst I do have a group of people around me, there must be a limit to the level of emotional investment that can be made. With lifers, though, even though we are shuffled around there is always the knowledge that we are likely to bump into people again at some stage.

And so those closest to me tend to be people outside, mostly women for some reason. Perhaps being in forced communion with men all my life has left me with a preference for the company of women, who I find more interesting. This is by way of angling for more snail-mail…

3. Does anyone visit you?

Yes, and demand for Visiting Orders has increased due to the blog.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Answers, Mon 16th Nov

1. Are you happy in life?

As a manic-depressive, that depends!

2. What is the first thing you'll do when you get out?

Doesn't every prisoner dream of a decent meal, a beer and the company of a bad woman? Not necessarily in that order.

3. And is there anything I can do to help?

My Editor is attempting to find a focus point for those who would like to press for my progression or release. The Downing Street website wouldn't host a petition, so perhaps directly harassing the Ministry of Justice is the way to go. The Editor will post details of this soon.

1. How dangerous is prison?

Like life on the street, it depends on who, what, where and when. Violence in this prison is so rare as to be a single annual event of fisticuffs. In other nicks, muggings are not uncommon. Most violence seems to occur amongst young prisoners. All that testosterone coupled with fragile ego's leads to regular punch ups.

There is research that demonstrates that the chances of being involved in violence rests on such factors as sentence length, crime, economic power, number of social allies and so on. A poor, short term heroin addict with few friends is far more likely to become involved with violence that a lifer who has mates and is financially stable.

However, there are aspects of imprisonment that can ratchet up both the odds of violence and its severity. Because it is a confined space, you either have to develop the skills to avoid or defuse conflicts or trouble brews. After all, if we have a major falling out with someone, we still have to live with them day after day for what may be years. Repairing damaged relations is important, or you end up never speaking to anybody! Or being stabbed.

2. Can people survive if they just want to be left alone?

Yes, of course, although social allies are important. No man is an island, etc, and we all accept that we live in different ways. Some are hugely gregarious, forever flitting from cell to cell being social. I am more solitary; people visit me, I don't visit them, and when they become dull I kick them out.

3. Do racial groups mix?

Yes and no. People here, as out there, tend to mix with their peers. I don't have much in common with 21 year olds from urban London, for example. But there is little social stratification by race in the sense of American prison society.

4. Is radical Islam an issue?

I wrote on this at, a piece entitled "Muslims Rule!". As general proposition, in most prisons, it isn't but there are concerns in the High Security Prisons. But then the prison service are renown for jumping at shadows.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Answers, Sunday 15th Nov


1. What's the PhD all about then? What aspects of it are you able to work on inside and what resources do you have to do this?

The short version is this: The field conflict theory and conflict resolution incorporates the idea of Human Needs Theory. This holds that all people have a set of fundamental needs, and that they will struggle to fulfil these needs.

I am attempting to apply Human Needs Theory to the prison environment. Prison, as a matter of deliberate policy, suppresses fundamental needs. My interest is in how prisoners struggle to fulfil these needs and the role that this may play in violent conflict between us, as well as between us and the institution. In riots, for example.

The aspects of this I am able to research here, and the facilities available, are a bone of contention between myself and management. Which is why I'm unemployed and not in the Education Department.

2. Do you think that there is any place for non-violent, non-sexual offenders in prison? Or where would you draw the line?

This strikes at the heart of the debate that should exist around imprisonment, in that the answer to your question rests on what the purpose of prison is intended to be.

As a general proposition, I think that throwing people in prison is a community's way of failing, or refusing, to deal with their own problems. Rather than taking responsibility for dealing with our fellow man, prison allows communities to turn their back on the problem and hand it over to the State.

There are those who are so physically destructive and dangerous that communities may not be able to deal with them. Prison may make sense in that context, although we should ask ourselves how aboriginal, nomadic societies manage to cope with such people without the luxury of prison?

However, most of those in prison are not violent or sexual predators. Rather, they are damaged people with messed up lives and little stake in their communities. Putting them in prison not only fails to deal with their particular flaws, it also strips them of what little social and personal capital they had, which helps explain why most return to prison.

There is no reason why the community itself can both hold these people to account and also support then in addressing their problems. Take drug addicts. Throwing them in prison may stop them robbing your goods but it doesn't alter their fundamental problem one bit. Prison does nothing that cannot be done in the community, with the added disadvantage of stripping them of what few good parts of their life they were managing to maintain.

Even those who do pose a grave threat, such as sexual predators, can be kept in the community safely. The Circles of Support I have previously mentioned do, if necessary, have someone with the criminal at all times in order to ensure that they don't offend.

As it is, prison allows communities to opt for a short term solution to a problem they could cope with themselves. Perhaps relying on the government to deal with every problem is a reflection of the state of our communities and relationships with each other?

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Ben was vastly amused when his visitor today passed on this question!
Whilst he prepares a longer post about prison and sex, he wanted me to post the following: he spent his first 2 years in a special unit for troubled adolescents, which also held girls. Horny teenagers are a force of nature and no level of supervision could prevent the occasional coupling. Also, Ben has had one confirmed and one suspected relationship with female prison staff.
He is a lucky, lucky boy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

More answers

2. Why did you abscond from an open prison knowing that this would put your release back several years? How long ago did this happen and is it why you wrote that you will not be considered for a move to Open before 2011?

I have never done a runner from open prison. They slung me out in 2006 for 'failing to comply with the regime'. That is, I insisted that they did their job and prepare me for release. I'm currently being considered for a move to Open. If this fails, then 2011 it is.

As a protest, I did try to escape in 1995 but that was so long
ago that it isn't particularly held against me.

3.Why are you championing other prisoners’ rights knowing that this is detrimental to your own situation?

I'm a weird soul, in that for most of my life I have believed (to varying strengths) that it is more important to do what is right, rather than what is easy or convenient. Beliefs are not worth a damn if one only sticks to them when there are no consequences. The cynical will note that it's a pity that I didn't have this outlook before I murdered. True, but I've been trying to make up for it ever since.
Rather Mockingly, more than once I have thought that I have a 'martyr gene'. Unlike some, I do find it remarkably easy to hold my ground regardless of the consequences. A few hundred years ago. someone would have been piling up brushwood at my feet and reaching for the Swan Vestas, having caught me nailing stuff to church doors.

A number of my peers seem to lack the fortitude or skills necessary to fight their own corner, and it only seems right that those of us who are motivated and equipped to do so should pitch in.

4.Is there a danger that you have been institutionalised given your young age when you were sentenced?

Nope. See my response to JackP's question. I would add, though, that spending my life in dispute with the prison system has been beneficial. I am my own man and make as many decisions for myself as possible, both large and small. I don't particularly buy into the prisoner subculture, nor have I adopted the system as some ersatz family. This independence of spirit and self reliance will be important on release.

5.Are you frightened at the possibility of release after so many years?

The thought doesn't phase me. Life is life, people are people, and the major difference between here and there is that out there,there are infinite possibilities to life. That I'm not frightened does frighten my keepers, who like us to be convinced that we need their help to cross the road. Seriously.

6.Have you a support network in the community which will help
you on release?

Yes. Amongst others, there is a Quaker network who are focused upon giving me as much (or as little) support as I need. This network is based upon the "Circles of Support and Accountability" protocol. These are remarkable schemes which should be brought to wider attention, so please excuse this slight diversion as I explain.
Circles of Support (CoS from here on in) began in Canada, a response by the Mennonite community to high risk sex offenders being released without supervision.
Each Circle comprises volunteers from the local community, plus the ex con (the 'core member’). The central idea is that the Circle protects the community from the ex con, whilst protecting the ex con from the community. Broad, yet very tailored, support is given to the ex con in order that he can safely reintegrate into the community. The Circle also challenges the ex con should he begin to slip in any way. Hence 'support’ and 'accountability'.

The concept was imported into the UK by the Quakers, again focusing on sex offenders. Their success in reintegrating sex offenders has been remarkable, with none of their charges having reoffended. Please check out WEBSITE FOR CoS for more information on this excellent scheme.

In my case, it was believed that if a Circle could deal with high risk sex offenders, then a low risk violent offender such as myself should be an easier proposition! And so a Quaker Circle was created around me, outside of the official scheme. This was nearly a decade ago and they are still patiently waiting to spring into action.

7.Other than academic skills have you been trained on basic
skills such as cooking etc? What I mean have you the necessary
skills to live independently?

Interesting phraseology you have, suggesting an underlying set of assumptions or beliefs. Do you work with prisoners or another 'client' group? I ask because of the assumption that we need to be trained in 'basic skills' such as cooking.
Honestly, how difficult is it to live independently? What are these 'necessary skills'? Most of the world’s population seem to do it with some success. How does your average, say, 18 year old cope when they first live away from home? Do they starve to death, baffled when presented with sealed tin tubes containing foodstuffs? Are they driven mad by the complexity of remembering to switch off the gas? Do they need courses in 'basic skills'?

I have railed against (often unspoken) attitudes such as those all of my life. They assume that prisoners are idiots and need their hand held, lest they are overwhelmed by the complexity of modern life.

But next time you are in the supermarket, look around. There will be a number of people for whom the shining light of intelligence is but a rumour. Yet they get through the days okay. We may be confined but we are not retarded.

8.Do you listen to advice from others?

If I'm in a weak moment then others have been known to insinuate ideas into my head, but not very often! Suggestions are made, but if they are based upon differing moral beliefs then they are not much use. I find it much more useful if people give me information, which I can then use to make my own judgements.
I'm a great believer in Bismark, who pointed out that anyone who learned only from their own experience is an idiot. Individually, our experiences are minuscule, and it is vital to learn from the experiences of many, many others.

Even so, it is important to remember that each of us must live our own lives for ourselves. What is sensible advice for you may be useless for me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Answers, cont...


Given your intellectual abilities, I do not understand why you have apparently upset so many people that your release has been blocked. How do you explain this given that I'm sure prisons are a reflection of society? Are people worried about you in this respect?

You must understand prison as a totalitarian society. Merely refusing to buy into the dominant paradigm is a crime and to actually question it is seen as a gross affront to authority.

I don't think my intellect has much to do with my progress or release, except for the odd comment about being too clever for my own good. A manager once suggested that on release I would either be a terrorist or a yuppie, with his money on the former. Charming.

There is a fundamental consequence that comes from a reasonable bright person being detained in a structure that is riddled with philosophical, political, moral and practical flaws. The bright bugger is likely to go around pointing these flaws out, which both baffles and annoys our masters.

One of the most honest encounters I ever had was with a Governor screaming in my face, "We will let you go when we have crushed you”. This is the nature of authoritarian systems, they both hate and fear dissent and their instinct is to lash out.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Answers 2

If you could make one major change to the criminal justice system
for (a) Adult and (b) Juvenile offenders, what would they be?

I would throw out criminal justice and institute restorative justice. Responding to social harm by inflicting more harm is the dumbest artefact of Western civilisation. It is the equivalent of two men punching each other in the face, to see who gives in first. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

To what extent does prison life become 'normal' over time- as in, do people just in find it very difficult to cope, and is there a risk that people at the other end of the scale (such as yourself) become institutionalised and may find problems dealing with outside life again?

We must differentiate between two concepts. There is 'prisonisation', where one picks up and learns the local culture and mores. Then there is 'institutionalisation’, which is a fairly vague concept which usually implies a loss of skills, intellect or ability.

Prisonisation is the process new arrivals undergo. This is like landing in a foreign country; initially slightly confusing, but the local knowledge allowing one to function is picked up rapidly. Some people do find it hard to cope because the change is unremitting and unavoidable.

You can get used to prison, as you can get used to any set of difficult circumstances. Human beings are incredibly adaptable. But it is always deeply abnormal. It is also not unusual for it to become less easy to cope with as time passes. I recall having terrible difficulty at the start of my second decade, leading me to try and kill myself through an extended hunger strike (43 days). These periods tend to afflict me every ten years or so. I seem to survive; some lifers don't.

Institutionalisation is largely a myth based on flawed experiments made on rats, exploring the concept of ‘learned helplessness'. I have little time for it. That isn't to say that the transition from prison to freedom is devoid of difficulty.
This isn't because we lose our abilities during the sentence but rather is a function of self-belief. Imprisonment is a perpetual exercise in being patronized, dis-empowered and de-skilled. If you persistently tell people that they are inadequate, some will begin to believe it. Those are the ones who worry about freedom, begin to believe that they cannot cope, and it a false concern.

I do find discussions around institutionalisation as interesting as they are frustrating. Everybody seems to mean something different by it, and if I try to pin them down on quite what, exactly, is meant to be difficult about daily life then the answers become evasive. Six billion people bumble through daily life okay, how hard can it be? What do you think I may have problems with?

People forget (or don't realise) that prisons are a little society and encompasses all the features of the wider world, if somewhat warped. There is a social structure, neighbour disputes, work, a complex economy… all we seem to lack is decent access to technology!

2. Also, what is the mood like? Do people try their best to get on with it, or is there a certain amount of gloom and resentment hanging around all of the time?

It's a truism that if you put more than two lifers in a room, there will be an outbreak of moaning. I think that's quite optimistic…

We do try to get on with it, trying to create and sustain an existence of sorts within which we can find some meaning. We also complain like hell about every aspect of our lives. It is more bitterness than gloom, and it lurks just beneath the surface.

As is common in all difficult situations, humour is a great defence against being overwhelmed. Prison humour is appalling, way beyond the pale of normal people and though I wish I could, I dare not share any of it with you! We make Frankie Boyle look like Norman Wisdom.

3. Are there any groups of people (such as chronic re-offenders) who the system is unable to deal with? If so, how would you protect the public from these people?

Depends what you mean by "deal with'. The system can physically contain and control any individual within its grasp. Whether it can 'deal' with making a positive difference is another issue.

The prison system can only do what society funds and mandates. There are those who are particularly difficult, in that present systems seem unable to change them for the better. This doesn't mean that other methods and systems wouldn't work, only that they are presently neglected due to political and social constraints.
There are those I have met, even some I live with now, who I would hesitate to release. But I refuse to accept that there are many of them who cannot change.
Prison is stuffed full of chronic re-offenders. But are they really socially dangerous, or are they more of a nuisance? They are often drug users, which highlights an old complaint that the prison system is asked to deal with sociomedical problems because no one else wants to deal with them. Free heroin would slash the crime rate.

Perhaps you refer to the likes of serial killers? This is a moot point, as none have ever been released yet. Can they be changed? No one knows, no one has tried. Only those who have never been caught, yet have stopped killing know the answer and they are keeping their mouths shut.

Or maybe you mean serial rapists or paedophiles? The prison service claims some success with its Sex Offender Treatment Programme. I think their research is shoddy and dishonest. That said, the re-offending rates for sex offenders is one of the lowest (murderers being lowest of all).

In a real sense I echo the view of John McVicar. Prison doesn't reform. It is up to the individual to decide to change. I suppose the best prison can ever do is create an environment conducive to that change and which supports it. Such a pity it never has.

4. What time is it?

As I write, it's 8:55 pm and we have just been locked up for the night. I'm settling down trying to listen to Jack Johnson and read a paper but the damn bell ringers in the church opposite are really going for it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Questions, Questions 2

Benn -
Top or bottom bunk?

In better days, when there was recognition that life sentences bring their own particular stresses, this was rarely an issue. We automatically had single cells. Even now, it is rare that I have to share.

When moving into an already occupied cell, it's a case of taking whichever bunk is free. Each has its positives and negatives. The top bunk is nearer to the light, whereas the bottom is in perpetual shadow. As a rabid reader, this is important. But the bottom bunk is convenient for moving about the cell. Clambering up and down from the top to use the loo at 2 in the morning is annoying.

The bottom line is, neither. Give me a single cell anytime.

How do you cope with loneliness? Do you feel lonely, in fact?

I'm not lonely. I am quite a self contained, even antisocial, person and I enjoy my own company.

That said, I have learned over the years that I need one person I can meaningfully talk to. Being wholly isolated for long periods is deeply unnatural.

Even so, I occasionally institute a 'yellow card’ system for those visiting my cell. They receive a card each time they say something stupid, 3 cards and I throw them out. Quite how I get away with being so irascible baffles me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Questions, questions...

Half The Story-
1.     How true to real life are Archer's prison diaries (I found them to be a decent read)?
Shame on you...I reviewed one of his volumes for Inside Time and I was angry enough to ask if I could possibly have his liver for my supper! Archer wrote with a complete absence of depth, with no appreciation of the meaning of anything in his situation. I was honestly shocked at his lack of even the most basic insight. It is some of the worst literature to come out of prison since Mein Kampf.
Worse, when he wrote about anyone he always listed their offence. This is what 'outsiders' do, they see us as the sum of our criminality. Whereas prisoners see each other as people first, offence is way down the list. Even those just briefly passing through get this quickly, yet Archer never did.
His prison diaries are true in the sense they explain his path through prison, though he spent most of it in Open prison. Few of us have his particular experiences and they are more significant for what they miss out.
The best contemporary prison experience can be found in the columns, and later books, from Erwin James ( when he was writing a column in the Guardian for the last few years of his sentence. If I was cheeky I could suggest my own writing...and I recommend you peruse the vast amount of prisoner-generated material over at
2.     Which prison did you like best?

Whilst all prisons share a similar structure, each is different in its culture. This fluctuates, changing with the Governor and the mix of prisoners. For me (not for everybody) a good prison is one which leaves me alone but is able to support me if I attempt positive changes.
The prison which afforded me the most opportunities to expand myself as an individual, and live the life of Reilley, was Blundeston in the late 1980's.
These were my 'student years', in my early 20's and starting my first degree. There was a group of us, all lifers, all beginning the same social science course and we used to spark off each other as we explored the finer points of monetarism and Marxism.
In the evenings we would listen to Dire Straits, get stoned, and argue political theory. This was my introduction to cannabis. On the weekends this was mixed with martial arts training and stagecraft; we were allowed to write and perform plays, during which I learned stage lighting and video editing.
It was a time rich with positive and productive activity, largely because the prison left us well alone to get on with things. I doubt whether that culture exists anywhere in the system nowadays.

3.     Which prison did you like least?

Two are bottom of my list, Dartmoor and Leyhill.
Dartmoor. Stuck in the middle of nowhere and used as a punishment prison for those whom the system took exception to. The screws ranged from indifferent to violent. If anything positive seemed to be about to happen, it was shot on sight.
Leyhill. An Open prison whose stated purpose is to prepare us for release. The reality was a litany of indifference, incompetence and plain stupidity. As I made these views clear when I was there, no wonder they threw me out.
4.     Any Governors you have encountered you think could do more?
Would you really be surprised if I thought that ALL governors could do more?
All modern Governors are managers. They oversee processes, procedures, and worry about targets. They have forgotten that their 'products' are actually people, not widgets.
Because of this, they rest content when they meet their performance targets. Whether they provide the conditions or culture that allows prisoners to grow and change (hopefully for the better) is irrelevant to them.
5.     If you could make one change to prison life, what would that be?
To increase the power of prisoners in controlling their own lives. Whilst this may sound counter-intuitive, it does work in other jurisdictions.
If we assume that many prisoners have grown used to being powerless and irresponsible, then giving them the structures which forces them to accept control has two positive effects.
On the individual level, it empowers them as people. For those who have spent all their lives at the bottom of the heap, this change helps create more rounded individuals. Give people responsibility and you will be surprised at what they can do.
On the structural level, it would create a prison system which actually focuses upon the needs of prisoners rather than managers. If a central justification for imprisonment is to 'repair1 prisoners and their lives, to increase their ability to build decent lives on release, then prisoners must be listened to.
6.     Do you think you will ever be freed from prison?
Yes. I'm a very patient man and they will get bored of me before I get bored of them.
7.     Which Home Secretary's have been considered good?
The prison system now comes under the Ministry of Justice rather than Home Office, but this is a very recent development and I take your point.
Our political masters have had a varied interest in prisons. Some paid us little attention, some meddled endlessly. Jack Straw loves to meddle, usually in a kneejerk response to a tabloid story.
This level of political interference is quite new and probably reflects a broader political change, with this government being hypersensitive to the media. In many ways, the best political master is the one who accepts his limitations and largely ignores prisons. Criminal justice should rest on social consensus and be above party politics.
Previously, it was only lifers who noticed the political winds. As our progress and release was in the hands of Ministers (until the 1990's) then a miserable Minister saw us screwed over. Under the Tories, Angela Rumbold and David Mellor were notoriously mean spirited.
As Home Secretary, Michael Howard had the deepest and most malign effect. His declaration that 'prison works' encouraged the judiciary to stuff more people into fewer places. He also set in place policies which profoundly effected our daily lives and we still march to these tunes. Howard squeezed flexibility and pockets of positivity almost out of existence and we continue to struggle to regain this lost ground.
The best, and I imply no endorsement here, was arguably Douglas Kurd. The riots of 1990 led to the Woolf Report and Kurd was the one tasked to respond. In the following White Paper, he declared that 'prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse.' If we had built on the atmosphere Woolf created and Kurd seemed to endorse, the prison system would be vastly smaller and positive practices might still be valued.
8. How would you restructure sentencing?
Sentencing baffles the hell out of people. The judge hands down a number, then you lob a bit off for parole, more for remission, more due to emergency overcrowding release... No wonder people have little faith in the system.
Answering this question depends on what you see as the point of prison. Is it a straight forward punishment, X amount of time for X crimes? This would broadly be a 'just desserts' philosophy and one that is simplest to understand. Add clarity to the sentence, i.e. make it clear in court what the minimum time in prison is to be regardless of parole, and the wider public may at least comprehend what has occurred.
One of the most confusing and unjust sentencing efforts is currently underway. There is a growing number of people being sentenced to indeterminate terms in prison. That is, they are not serving X years in response to X crime, but rather remaining in prison for many, many years longer on the grounds that they may pose a future risk of reoffending. There are people sentenced to indeterminate terms whose 'tariff', the punishment for their actual crime, may be fixed in days or weeks. Several years later, they are still here.
Not only is this confusing for the public but it is wickedly unjust for the criminal. I would abolish these open-ended sentences. People should be detained for what they have done, not for what they may do.
9.     How many prisoners are on heroin?

Depends on the nick. This backwater has a miniscule drug culture. Try as I might, years pass by without my being able to find a spliff. But many prisons have a significant heroin drug culture, which is to be regretted on every level.
This is, to some degree, a self inflicted wound by the system. The previous drug culture was based on cannabis. A stoned prisoner is a happy prisoner, and staff turned a Nelsonian eye in the common cause of an easy life.
Michael Howard took exception to this and introduced Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT). He overlooked the point that cannabis can be detected up to 30 days after use, but opiates for only 3 days. Any prisoner who wanted to use drugs and avoid getting caught was obviously going to shift to heroin. And they did so with a vengeance.
There were also shifts in society around this point. Heroin use became more prevalent outside and people brought these habits in with them.
So these two changes in drug culture, both inside and outside, led to the heroin epidemic. The prison service has never caught up in its provision of drug rehab, and with rehab places in the community grossly underfunded then the foundations were laid for a generation of increased crime.
Amazing, isn't it, what can flow from a Home Secretary getting the hump with us having the odd spliff...
10.      Are there big football rivalries in prison, or rather is football a big thing, like on ‘main street'?
Alas, people behind bars seem to care as much about football as those on the street. I detest the sport myself, and I still resent the years where the communal TV was filled with football on a majority vote!
There are two differences in here. Firstly, the gambling that goes on is based on Mars bars or % ounces of Golden Virginia rather than hard cash (although some richer prisons do bet in money). And rather than waving scarves in response to a goal, it is usual for the supporters to kick their cell doors.
Being a sensible boy, my sporting poison is Formula 1. The only Reds I support have a Prancing Horse nailed to the front.