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.


  1. Thanks for answering those questions, I found them very interesting.

    In your answer to question 8, you say:

    'People should be detained for what they have done, not for what they may do.'

    I'm assuming you would deal with people who committed a crime as a result of serious psychiatric illness (meaning they are more likely to be a danger to the public in the future than not) in a very different way?

  2. Question 7.Well Ben, we think on the same lines, and I have never served a sentence in H.M.P. It is myself, whom calls Straw 'Just A Moment, Let Me Look At Your Records, Straw'. The man is more 'winge woman' than a man. I would not leave him in charge of an empty bag of crisps, yet alone a Department of State.
    Question 8. Indeterminate? This is what your own sentence is. Both questions 7 and 8, have the same base, New Labour. None of these people of this political party stand for Democracy. When you do get your freedom, you will have to get use to the 'evil-eye' watching you, me, everyone. It is becoming 'Stazi Like' (East German 'Big Brother Watching You'). You have become a wise man Ben, I can see it 'in' and 'between' your lines you write.
    Thank goodness you don't like football! Still, it would be impossible for you to be as open minded, with a sense of justice, if you were spending your days kicking your cell door over a mire sport. You are here to get people to listen, and to use true logic.
    Thanks For Being Yourself Ben.

  3. Thanks for the reply. I forgot I asked so many questions.

    Very enlightening.

    I shall take the reprimand on Archer and seek discourse of better material to read......

  4. I am responding to the posting of the 19th November as the site (or my computer) has gone wonky.

    Fascinating regarding the influence of so called professionals in influencing lesser mortals within the prison system. Would this still apply if you had a young psychologist against a senior prison officer with loads of experience. Can a solicitor challenge the uniformity of reports? For example, I may get stressed and agitated in a certain situation but be happy and relaxed in others. I may also like one person more than another and would therefore feel less defensive with the person I liked. I must assume that people on the Parole Board are able to sift through all of this. I know that I am old enough and confident enough to form my own opinion and stand up to anyone who would seek to persuade me otherwise. It reminds me in a way of diffusion of responsibility theory!!. I hope that those at the lower end of the heirarchy are trained to write objective reports otherwise they may well just parrot phrase those who are more accustomed to presenting information? What a nightmare!

    The good news as reported in the Guardian this week relates to a diminishing role for the Justice Secretary in relation to life sentence prisoners. Jack Straw has always said he did not want to have the veto over whether life sentence prisoners should be released. The Parole Board are also calling for remaining powers - ie movement between closed prisons and open prisons to be removed too. The Board wants to become part of the Courts Service rather than MofJ. All very interesting and I await the results of all this which is to be promulgated next year. It will probably not influence your position but surely it will help many others as I understand it will relate to those sentenced from 1991.

  5. I disagree with the comments about Archer, i too read the books, (i am an ex-con) and can relate to much of what he said. There are 86,000 people or so in jail, each and everyone for a different reason, so the experiance is different for everyone. I did a short sentence, plus i am a straight goer, rather than a career criminal. Plus i had a lot of family & frinds support, others don't, that can make the world of difference too. It took me just 24 hours to cotton on to the fact that i was not there to be judge and jury on anyone, walk a mile in thir shoes.


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