Sunday, January 31, 2010

Savage Children

When our conception of children and childhood is challenged it is treated as an affront against ourselves. The result is an outpouring of atavistic hatred directed against the offending child, we re-conceive them as other than "children" and use this conceptual trick to permit ourselves to call for the infliction of heinous punishments. Arguably, a part of the pains we wish to inflict upon miscreant children is not a due measure of punishment for their crime, it is also an expression of our anger and distaste that they dared challenge our rosy view of children. We want to hurt them for not living up to our expectations.
Children who commit serious crimes against others present us with a special case. Not only do they challenge our expectations of childhood, they also present a challenge to society and the criminal justice system  -  Just what do we do with such criminal children?
It is common for the first, broad, reaction to be one of refusing to see such criminals as children at all. The level of responsibility that we expect of them, and the punishments expected to be levelled against them, are all distinctly "adult". No leniency is allowed, there is little recognition of the plasticity of children's minds and personalities, a resolute refusal to accept that children are not fully developed and fully responsible human beings.
So forceful is this rejection of their status of "child" that we unashamedly shrug off the modern obsession that is "protect the .children". While millions of adults have to undergo vetting to assess their potential to harm children, as a collective we fervently wish that the State inflict brutal treatment upon child criminals. This is a social schizophrenia worthy of Orwell's worst nightmares.
Children have always, on occasion, committed horrible crimes. The names of Bell, Thompson and Venables are firmly lodged in the popular culture. That we are affronted by child criminals is a lesson in our obsession to insist that children are inherently innocent and unblemished. The child criminal should hardly be punished for our modern insistence on characterising children in this way.
It is fortunate that the custodians of criminal justice, the mechanics who create and operate the machinery of punishment, have thwarted the popular will in these matters. Judges do give lesser sentences in recognition that children are not to be held as responsible as adults, and I hope they continue to do so despite populist outrage.
Once incarcerated, the question of how such children should be treated is central to our view of ourselves as a society. It seems that whilst we are against parental beatings of obnoxious kids, we are all in favour of inflicting the worst that the penal system can offer. We are a very mixed-up bunch.
Regardless of the mob - and the more vocal tabloids - the terms of confinement for serious child criminals has taken a fixed course for decades. This was largely a reaction to the shambolic regime inflicted upon Mary Bell, whose case forced government to consider the problems posed by such child criminals. The premise of their treatment is that they are children, distinct entities from adults, and that society should make an effort to reclaim them.
As a murderous child I experienced the regime that still stands in a handful of high security units dotted across the country. Yes, there are enough children who commit very serious crimes to require several such units. The cases which are lodged in the public psyche are merely the ones that the media bring to the fore; the others merit a paragraph or two in some local free-sheet, unheard of.
On my section of a special unit there were three Lifers; Two of us had killed, one was a serial rapist. There were four such sections in this special unit. Along with us were children who had committed lesser crimes and children who had committed no crime. The latter were those in local authority care who were so unmanageable that only very secure conditions could contain them. The youngest of us was eight years old; the oldest, seventeen
The physical conditions were precisely those that cause discomfort to some observers - very good. These units are, in effect, high security children's homes. They are not prisons, with all the physical degradations that entails. Soft furnishings, TV's, carpets, our own clothes, and so on. All of the features that allow some to characterise these units as being holiday camps do indeed exist.
Alongside these amenable conditions are the less amenable features of high security. Monitoring is constant. Whether I was in bed, on the toilet or in the bath, I was physically observed every ten minutes. Most of the day is spent under the direct observation of staff, whose ratio to children approached one-to-one. Hence the high cost of such units.
Education is a central focus of daily life. This is both a matter of legal requirements but also as a tool to foster pro-social attitudes and to encourage personal change. Without education, how do we explore the wider world and appreciate our place within it?
The physical conditions are the least important, no matter how they are a point of fixation for commentators. The essential value of these units is in their purpose, the effect they have on their charges.
Adolescence is a key period for the formation of the adult individual. This is a given. And I found that the unit allowed me the opportunity to engage with others in a facsimile of adolescence in the free world. In every aspect of my personality and social functioning I was forced to question and challenge myself, to explore how I perceived myself and others.
This period in life is when we form a central part of our personality and perceive our role in the world. With the right challenge and the proper encouragement, these units provide the environment for dangerous adolescents to develop into stable and socially useful young adults.
Some will find this offensive. Some will argue that the emphasis should be wholly upon punishment, even if the children in question are only ten years old. This is a base response and to act upon it would not only degrade our society and ourselves, but is to destroy the children.
Child criminals, particularly those who commit very serious crimes, pose a question. They challenge us to decide whether we focus on their punishment, which means writing them off as potential citizens for ever; or whether we believe that these children can be reclaimed, to become decent adults.
To date, the evidence suggests that these children can be reclaimed and that they can go on to lead successful lives that contribute to the general good. To abandon this approach merely to satisfy a temporary spasm of popular outrage would be a judgement on our criminal justice system and our society that we would regret long after the names of the children involved were forgotten.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Bad or Mad?

In the general population, 5% of men and 2% of women suffer from 2 or
more mental disorders.

Amongst prisoners, the rate is 72% of men
and 70% of women.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Prison staff hate to be called "warders". No, they insist that they are called "prison officers", a professional class.

Some of the terms they have for prisoners include: scrotes, mongs, numpties, cons, creatures, beasts, animals, and my favourite, bodies.

Professionalism. Ain't it grand?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

My Decade: Conclusion

One positive opportunity did emerge from Education, the resurrection of the prison magazine. Someone suggested I be Editor in Chief and so I organised a coup to remove the incumbent. Note for future self - meetings really do go a lot simpler if you organise the votes beforehand! He was out, I was in, and my reign of Stalinist editorial terror began.

Prison magazines are strange animals, perpetually attempting to survive against broad staff hostility and seeking a fine line between being interesting and being inflammatory. This is just the political territory that appeals to me and I had a vision to create a magazine that would actually reflect the views of the men on the landings. Whilst I couldn't expect the Governor to fund us to abuse him, it could also not ignore genuine issues and problems. And so prison magazines are more about politics than actual production.

The crew who worked with me were of mixed abilities and interests but all knew my approach to management and so had faith that I had a good plan and was determined to deliver it. Only that saved me from being lynched, as I adopted a rather firm management style. A man who whispered about democratic decision making was quietly shot.

We lasted just shy of a year but achieved a magazine with content that actually interested some prisoners; it was relevant to their situation. I still think our best piece was actually a blank double-paged spread, annotated with the comment that the intended article on the Prison Officers Association had been banned by the head of Education! Such resistance to censorship was unheard of in a prison magazine.

On the back of these efforts, I hoped to expand production numbers and increase production values, attempting to produce a magazine that could circulate in the community. It was hoped to bridge the divide between Us and Them; rather like this blog. My plans garnered a Millennium Award and I was made a Millennium Fellow. Shortly after, I was banned from Education and these garlands had to be returned. The magazine is no more.

Education banned me as a casualty in their war against the teacher who supervised us. A long campaign of workplace bullying ensued, and was terrible to witness, until the final ammunition to fire her came inadvertently, from me. Like everyone else in Education, I had loaded some free software onto a PC. This was claimed to breach the IT Protocol, implied the teacher was failing to supervise properly, and we were both shown the door.

A mere technical point was that my actions didn't breach the IT Protocol and I loaded the software when this teacher wasn't even in the prison let alone the classroom. The Ombudsman looked at my complaint but managed to find against me; he managed to do this without even looking at the IT Protocol. That man is getting annoying.

So I was out on my ear for at least six months, and the department re-wrote the IT Protocol... And I remain unwelcome in the Education department and unemployed. My last attempt to work there fell apart in a matter of weeks due to where I was sitting! Part of my research involves participant observation which, as the au fait know, can require careful positioning in order to entice the unwary to engage, and engage on the necessary topics. I selected a spot in the department which allowed me to catch the traffic of people in Education, visiting the Library, giving drug tests and popping in to the loo. The head of Education wasn't having it. My just sitting there "threatened the good standing of the Education Department and even the good order of the prison". Perhaps I radiate some plague of subversion?

A mere year overdue (but the requirements of the law don't seem to impinge much on the system) and my post-psychopath parole hearing began. Now that the heat had gone from the Rice situation, as if by a miracle the Parole Board decided I wasn't mad after all and sent me a 7 page answer that somehow failed to include any of the abuse of the previous panel. Off I should go, back to Open.

And so the decade ends as it began. I am again facing the allegation of an inappropriate relationship with a member of the Education staff. Ho hum. I can only hope that at the end of the next decade, I will be able to write that a lot of them have been spent on a beach in the South Pacific.

And having read this over, I wonder just what in those ten years suggest that I pose a risk to life and limb?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Decade 4

As the months unfolded, it became clear that the Parole Board was using any possible excuse not to progressively move people, solely as a reaction to the Rice fiasco. For over a year almost no one here was moved to Open. The Parole Board national figures for that period reveal that there was a huge drop in the number of Lifers being progressed by the Parole Board. The nature of these lifers had not changed; they were the same people they always were. But a scared Parole Board just refused to do their professional duty and opted for inaction rather than risk another media mauling.

The Board wanted me to have a full psychological assessment, including a test for psychopathy and gave me a two year knockback. Who was to pay for this? The Governor here was pulling his hair out. The Parole Board chose potential psychopathy as their main reason to screw over many who appeared in front of them in that period, leaving the Governor to foot the bill for the assessments.

That didn't excuse the nick from lying. One of the Lifer Unit staff looked me straight in the eye and swore I was top of the list and they had the money to do the assessment. Neither was true, wasting another year of my life. In the end, legal aid paid for it and I faced my last parole board with two psychologists’ reports and one from a forensic psychiatrist. That's about £5,000 to you, the taxpayer, just to persuade a fresh parole panel that their predecessors were full of crap.

Meanwhile, I had a couple of years to fill. Most of it was spent wafting around the Education Department, in a semi-detached sort of way. At one stage I was so bored that I produced a thoroughly scurrilous samizdat newsletter, the Shepton Informer, that I managed to write, print and circulate under the eyes of staff. I gather that senior management were a tad miffed but a lot of my peers were amused, so I hit both of my main targets.
Along the way, negotiations were begun to gain permission to begin my research degree. This had been on hold since I arrived at Open in 2005. This was a two stage process, whereby I had to find a university who would supervise me and then persuade prison management that they should allow it. It was a long process, some two years; before it was agreed by all that I could begin in late 2008.

At one point I did find myself in the workshop, packing various nuts and bolts for an outside company. My views on this type of slave labour are laid out at My tenure was brief, my departure following a suggestion that prisoners should place little notes in the product packets that read, "packed by rapists and murderers at Shepton Mallet prison". After all, shouldn't the consumer have full information before making a decision to purchase...?

Again, this upset a section of management.  This workshop is a large employer here and a source of a useful income to the Governor. If the outside contractor was publicly connected to slave labour it may take fright and send the work to Chinese prisons instead. That was the end of my career as a nuts and screws packer but I'm sure the world will struggle onwards.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Decade Part 3

Due to the false allegation, I had been robbed of almost 2 years. That delay also cost me my then partner, who decided that having waited 2 years was enough for any sane woman and dumped me. It still niggles me that, as we can only phone out and not receive calls; I had to pay the bill for the call in which I was dumped. Humph!

This was a massive emotional blow, one that robbed me of a potential future. I was really shaken and I left for Open prison at the end of 2005 in a very demoralised state. Nevertheless, I was determined to give it my best shot. I arrived with a plan that encompassed my education, housing on release, and job training. All of which were dismissed out of hand within weeks of arriving, by a management who shared the standard prison service view of a con with ambitions - know your place, scumbag.

A year later, the end of 2006, saw me being expelled from Open and dumped here. As is the way with these things, I was referred back to the Parole Board so that they could give their advice as to whether I was still Open prison material.

As is my wont, I parked myself in the Education Department here. This is my natural home, as opposed to some workshop which offers dull, repetitive and unskilled work. I came across a distance learning course on conflict management in the business environment, which seemed to offer a chance to commercialise what I'd learned in the course of my MA. I had the funds to pay for it and only needed the head of education to sign off on it. She refused. I appealed to the Governor, who obviously supported his underling. Baffled and mildly outraged, I sent my appeal off to the Ombudsman. He declined to uphold my complaint on the basis that education isn't a right. True; but if it is offered (and it is explicitly encouraged under the Rules) then it should be managed rationally. Three years on and I still have no idea why I was refused the opportunity to undertake this course.

This left me pottering about the Education Department with not much at all to do. Prison education focuses upon basic skills; anything above functional literacy and numeracy is not counted under Key Performance Targets and so neglected.
Such are the winds of fortune, that a Bad Man did a Very Bad Thing as the parole hearing approached. A lifer, Anthony Rice, who began his sentence as a rapist, was released and promptly committed a murder. The report into the handling of his case savaged all involved, including the Parole Board.

And so I sidled into a room to face a parole panel that was very much in the spotlight and had adopted an extremely defensive and conservative view. The Chair of the panel even mentioned the political atmosphere. So whilst I had hoped to be assessed and judged on my merits as an individual, I was being squeezed through a process that had become highly sensitive to the Daily Mail.

The Parole Board’s answer, delivered a week later, comprised six pages of abuse and concluded that I may be a psychopath. This was stunning. Five previous parole boards had recommended me for Open prison, none had ever raised the spectre of psychopathy and I had been returned from Open for disagreeing with management. Inept, maybe, impolitic definitely, but to have myself transformed from a pretty harmless pain in the arse into a raving loon was a huge shock. It merely reinforced the capricious nature of the Lifer’s existence, with reality being constantly reinterpreted in the light of social, political and media agendas that have nothing to do with us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

My Decade 2

Episode 2
Why not release? The legal test is whether I pose a more than minimal risk to life and limb and I say I pass it with ease. But the subtext of every parole answer is clear - it is broadly believed that due to the length of time I have been in prison, obviously I couldn't cope with the outside world. The answer, in this screwed up system, to my being kept in prison so long is to keep me in prison longer. Genius.

We have had this conversation in a previous post, where comments suggested that I may be overly optimistic of my ability to merge seamlessly into daily life as a free man. Point taken, it will be a bumpy ride. Change is fraught with problems. But what is being assumed is far more than that; it is believed that outside life is so difficult that I would blow a mental gasket and so pose a risk to life and limb. I cannot find the words to express my full contempt for this view. Not that my view matters a damn to those in charge of my life.

However, before I could be moved to Open prison, the prison management pulled out of their bag of tricks an allegation that I had threatened to kill one of the Governors. Whilst I do dismiss most Governors as being limited people and an evolutionary cul- de-sac, threatening to kill them is not one of my preferences. This was, at best, a misunderstanding on their part or, at worst, a blatant lie aimed at sabotaging my progress.

And so I was referred back to the Parole Board for this claim to be examined. This took until July 2004, two years. As we must be reviewed by the Board at least once every two years, a new parole process was began before we had completed the last one, a feat of remarkable ineptitude.

At the July 2004 hearing, the Judge who chaired the Parole panel insisted that the prison disclose the intelligence on which they based their claim that I was stalking a governor like some demented ninja. To their embarrassment, the intelligence produced comprised three reports. One was a complaint by probation that I didn't like him; one stated that I was unhappy with management; and the third baldly stated that I had no intention whatsoever of attacking any governor.
The Judge took one look at this pile of non-evidence and swept it down the table, stating that they were considering Open at worst and invited me to make my pitch for release. Being caught on the hop by this I largess I had little prepared and so had to settle for their recommending my move to Open. Again.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Decade

As I am one of those nerds who insist that the Millennium did not begin until the end of 2001, rather than 2000, this post may be a year premature. Still, I am overcome with the urge to have a canter through my experience of the first decade of this century. It seems to be the thing to do and I can hardly do worse than some of the columnists I've read over the last weeks.

This decade did not begin well, with my being busted for having a relationship with the prison’s Education Manager. To call this an unmitigated disaster is too strong; after all, it meant that I had a sex life. Being in her office all day, every day and emerging all hot and sweaty should have been a small clue to the situation but it still took 6 months for anyone to catch on.

Having been busted, I was immediately shipped out. First to Winson Green, which was like entering a time machine and experiencing imprisonment in the 19th century. When I applied to go to Education, a note from Security was slipped under my cell door that read, "Ha ha ha ha. No."

A few months later, off I went to one of Group 4's shiny new private prisons. One of those that Jack Straw found to be "morally repugnant" in Opposition but a Good Thing once in office. It was an interesting experience, the Reception staff calling me Mr and offering tea or coffee. Disconcerting. As the place had only been open three weeks, I had the unique experience of being on a wing of 80 only occupied by 10 men and a cell previously untouched by human hands.

Whilst everything was shiny and new, the staff were utterly clueless. I recall myself, John Hirst (jailhouselawyer) and a couple of others holding impromptu lessons for staff, attempting to explain the basic prison rules. It seems that their training centred upon customer services.

Two staff, often female and no older than 21, attempting to control 80 male Cat-B long termers... It was a delicate balance, which only worked at all due to our forbearance. Such was the perceived risk of a total collapse into anarchy that some women staff felt it necessary to recruit bodyguards from amongst the cons.

It was here that I had my first, and only, job interview in my life. Group 4 allowed an Ecommerce company to operate there and I was amongst the first intake. Between the ten of us, I think I was the only one to have even seen the Web. Still, I blagged my way in and was trained to be a strategist and SWOT analyst. Having 10 very bright, motivated men in a room 7 hours a day, all connected to the Net, was pretty much bound to end with one of us being caught circumventing the safeguards and ogling naked ladies. Dear reader, it was I.

Whilst I remain grateful for the opportunity to trawl the web and flex my brain learning new skills, I also remain resentful at the terms of employment. We were paid prison wages whilst expected to offer a fully commercial and professional service to client companies. The bosses continue to make, literally, millions off the back of prisoners.

This enterprise reveals a potentially positive aspect to private prisons. Without the institutional memories and hidebound traditions of the State prisons, private nicks are more open to novel ideas. The wing I was on was one of only 2 'college' wings in the system, intended for all occupants to be engaged in full time unsupervised distance learning.

However, the shambolic management of private nicks tends to undermine the Good Idea. No thought had been given as to where we were to find the funding for distance learning courses, resulting in only a minority of the wing actually being engaged in study.

I was one of the lucky devils. Rest easy, no taxpayer’s money was involved. This is where I began my Masters. Having wandered my way from being a thorough warmonger, via political theory, I had found myself open to wider theories of conflict. Hence my MA in Peace and Reconciliation, examining the potential role of human needs theory in prison conflicts.

The University was incredibly flexible, delivering to me a course of study which was not intended for distance learning. The tutors visited often and a supporter made regular runs to the University library on my behalf. Without these remarkable and generous efforts on the part of others, it would not have been possible.

The main intellectual result of this was my introduction to theories of human needs and the practice of active non-violence. This raised my gaze to see the potential for change within the prison system and the power that rests with prisoners. It set me on a political course that I continue to navigate.

And then I ran into a parole hearing, June 2002. This was my first of the new century, my seventh overall, and I was 12 years over tariff. Whilst staff reports noted that I could be a pain at times, it was also agreed that the factors that led to my offence (known as ‘risk factors’ or ‘areas of concern’) were not applicable. The Parole Board recommended a move to Open prison.

Editor's Note

This coming week I'll be uploading a series of posts which comprise a long piece written by Ben entitled "My Decade". It will probably be in 5 parts, and readers will need to log on each day to get the next instalment!

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Through some oversight, I have so far failed to explain the restrictions under which I write.

Now that the Ministry have shifted from their stance of trying to shut me down to one of ignoring me completely, I am able to write reasonably freely. Nevertheless, there are limits.

These are the rules on correspondence which prisoners must adhere to: I may not identify prison staff or fellow prisoners. I may not discuss the finer pints of explosives recipes, poisons or other destructive devices. And I shouldn't discuss my crime, or that of others, except in the wider context of criminal justice debate.

Apart from that, I'm pretty much able to say whatever the hell I like. Even with the above restrictions, I don't feel at all constrained. I have never written with these restrictions in mind and never will; self censorship is even more poisonous that than censorship imposed. And whilst I would love to name individual staff and parade their inadequacies before the world, that would hardly add to the sum of human knowledge and would be a mere personal indulgence.

And you can be assured that if the management did prevent my sending out any specific post, then I and my lawyers will be overjoyed at the opportunity to hoof them into court, all the while giving you all a blow by blow account.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Two prison statistics

The most common offence for which women prisoners are incarcerated is shoplifting. The average cost of imprisonment per prisoner is nearly £40,000 a year.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dixon of Dock Green

It is amazing how many people find the realities of criminal justice to be an eye opener. So many wander through life believing that policemen exist to give them directions and, God forbid, they never tell a lie.

In this wonderland, the Old Bill always get their man, and it is always the right man. They never smash in peoples teeth with a revolver to get a confession. They would never put a plastic bag over a suspects head to suffocate an admission out of them.

The Crown Prosecution Service never withhold bits of evidence helpful to the defence. Witnesses are never shepherded towards the most helpful form of words. And Judges never adopt the prosecutions role and harass defence witnesses.

We need the psychological comfort that a belief in Justice brings. To accept the harsh reality would shake our faith to the core and the world just wouldn't make sense. And so we live in a state of perpetual denial, minimizing any discrepancies out of existence.

Should you ever be stopped by a copper, though, and find yourself enmeshed in the criminal justice system, you will invariably be shaken out of your complacency. Perhaps, on that basis, everyone should be slung in prison for a few months?

Prisoner and t'Interweb

In fairness, I should begin this by saying that the two times I've been allowed near the Net, both ended with my making my way to the pictures of naked ladies. Civilisation did not collapse and the fabric of society didn't turn to dust.

The prison service has a revulsion of technology that would make even a Luddite blush. It is instinctive and pervasive. When I began this sentence we were not even allowed radio's that could receive FM or which could be powered by mains electricity. The argument was that, with FM, we could listen to staff radio communications traffic. This was a pathetic lie but they stuck to it until the national radio stations switched completely to FM.

Telephones and TV's didn't impinge on our consciousness, let alone to the extent of being a hope or dream. It took nearly a century after the invention of the phone before we were permitted restricted access. It only took about sixty years after the TV was invented before we had them. That is some improvement, surely...?!
But the internet... Just mention the word and management enter a state of incoherent brain-freeze, running around in a circle repeating the word 'security', the prison service’s all purpose soothing mantra that substitutes for thinking.
This is not to say that unrestricted internet access couldn't be used for malevolent ends. I do accept that. So the question is, can a form of net access to allowed which offers all of the benefits but minimises the potential harms? The prison service says not.

Except, of course, when it comes to using cons to make millions in profit. There is a private E-Commerce company which operates in one prison, where dozens of cons work for joke money whilst making the bosses millions in profits. They do manage to block the objectionable end of the net.

I once worked for that company whilst at the same time I was undertaking my Masters degree. Could I use the net for research? No. Would the prison install any type of net access in the Education Department? Not on your life. So for a full working week I was on the net, but when I needed it for something other than making someone money it was prohibited on security grounds. And people wonder just why I hold the system in such contempt.

Let us assume that many of the 8,000 mobile phones the prison service confiscated from prisoners in the past year were net-enabled. What wickedness has befallen our nation due to this? All I can see is that the odd jackass puts his picture on Facebook.Apart from that, nothing. No ill effects whatever.

The horrors that some people feel could flow from Net access are quite bizarre. This is illustrated by the response to my blogging from the Director of the Howard League. Whilst supporting prisoners blogging (preferably by less challenging individuals, though!) and having some net access, she said we must obviously be denied access to internet pornography.

Ummm...Why, exactly?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I have been invited to post a guest piece at jonsjailjournal, a
brilliant prison blog with an American bent. Please pop over and take
a look,both at my piece and the other contributors.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Crime

One of the criticisms I have of many prison writers is that they avoid any mention of their crime.

One day they are bumbling along through normal existence, the next they are sentenced to life. A few decades pass and a book deal later, and we can still be no wiser as to what they did.

It may be harsh, but I've viewed this as a mixture of cowardice and deceit. Parading oneself out in public and becoming accepted, whilst keeping the crime secret, always makes me uncomfortable, although I do realise that it may be sensible. This is not to say that these prison writers do not make a very valuable contribution to public debate.

I am attempting to avoid that, in that I'm not trying to persuade anyone that I'm a reasonable, fluffy sort of bloke. My aim was to present a murderer as a three dimensional, rounded, person in the hope of challenging stereotypes. You either accept me for who I am, crime included, or you don't. Time will tell how that goes.
And yet, so far, I have avoided sharing the details of my offence. You know that I killed a friend when I was a kid, so the astute reader would have worked out that he was also a kid. Apart from that, what exactly happened remains a mystery. Avid Googlers will have come up empty handed. Because of my age newspapers couldn't mention my name in their reports and so I was relegated to a short piece in a regional paper, after the sheep prices.

Why have I hesitated? It's not because my crime was particularly horrible or deviant, it was a fairly dull murder. I have hesitated partly because murder is, in a strange way, a very private and personal event. There is also my victims' family to consider. As far as I know, they are no longer in the country but the Net means that I must be cautious about throwing the last moments of their brother and son in their face.

There is also a voyeurism afoot. I call this "murder porn", a revelling in the grossest details of crimes and it permeates our culture. TV franchises, novels, true crime revelations, all feed into this base aspect of our collective consciousness. It reaches a peak with films such as Cannibal Holocaust and Hostel - the essence of the plot is the slow, shocking, brutality inflicted on
the participants. The idea of adding to this cannon makes me very uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, some people want to know. For the moment, though, they will have to make do with what I have already said. You know enough to make a broad judgement about me and so I hope you can exercise a little patience on this.

Monday, January 18, 2010

General Alarm!

Prisons have a decoration that few other buildings incorporate: alarm buttons.
These are dotted on each landing, office, classroom and outdoor area. Should staff require extra muscle, they hit the button and the call "General alarm at..." bleats from radios. Screws come a running from all directions like Pavlovian dogs.
Rarely, cons also hit these buttons. Should there be a medical emergency, for instance, we will happily hit the button. With greater hesitancy we may also hit it if a screw is being attacked and overwhelmed, but this is a morally ambivalent action.
Cons more frequently hit the alarm button out of mischief, boredom, or as an act to voice displeasure. I recall one prison where the wings were connected by a very, very long central corridor and great entertainment was to be had from arranging to hit alarm buttons at opposite ends of the nick. Watching fat, lazy screws wheezing up and down the corridor was not only entertaining but also informed staff that we were deeply unhappy about some perceived injustice or stupidity on the part of the prison.
It gives a glimpse into the nature of the struggles over power between staff and cons that a mechanism which is intended to reinforce control can be used as a tool by us to undermine it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Real Crime

I am always angered and amused, in equal measure, by claims from some body or individual that the police should leave them alone and concentrate upon "real criminals".
Most often, this whine arises from those who are busted for some traffic offence. This isn't exclusively so, but does illustrate an interesting point.
Those who commit these widespread offences have a genuine belief that they are not "criminals". Criminals are, after all, "the Other", a semi-separate species that surely does not encompass them?
It is an interesting exercise to sit and list the crimes you have committed during your life. Shaded your tax return? Failed to renew your TV licence? Car tax? Bumped up an insurance claim? Broken the speed limit? Wandered from work with an extra couple of pens and a stapler in your bag?
All crimes. I defy anyone to seriously claim that they have not committed a criminal offence.
We are all criminals. We prisoners are not a separate species. If you look in the mirror, it is us that stare back. Please consider that unpleasant point should you next be afflicted with an urge to demonise criminals.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Facebook Campaign Goes Live!

From the Editor:

One of our readers has kindly put together a campaign to release Ben, on Facebook. The link is:

Tell your friends!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Video Reps

Every nick has some haunted soul in charge of the communal video machine or DVD player. Although, these days, it is likely to be more technical. For example, here we have 9 fixed TV channels and an extra one which the 'video rep' uses to play us all the other channels. Quest, Dave and Virgin 1 seem to be firm favourites, all being quite blokey in nature.

Of course, this means that the video rep has to try to please 186 people, of mixed ages, interests, ethnicity and volatility. It is the most thankless job ever invented and I heard that ours was jacking it in after Christmas. Much as I'd love the job - just to fill the evenings with BBC4 - I'm not that daft.

Whilst our video rep is the target of disgruntled moaning (a fair bit of it mine), he has survived. I recall one nick where the selection process was more severe. Anyone could volunteer for the job, but if he ever disappointed people with his viewing selection for more than a couple of sequential days, his fate would be to have his cell set on fire.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Take a free shot at ex-cons

You and I are walking down the street and we are set upon by some modern bogeyman, say a drunken hoodie mob. Assume that we both act precisely the same, and receive exactly the same injuries.

We both apply to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for a nice payout. You get a fat cheque. I get laughed at.

Victims of crime who apply for compensation are themselves scrutinised. If you have bad character, such as a criminal record, then the State takes the view that you should receive no compensation if you are attacked.

It is nice to know that, regardless of how long I serve or when my debt is paid, I will never be seen as fit enough to receive the full benefits and protections of the law. As I asked in an earlier post - why should prisoners reform, if we are not permitted to be fully restored to society?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chemo and coffee

We have a man here suffering from terminal cancer, who spends untold hours in hospital being pumped full of horrendous chemicals.

He asked the governor if he could take a couple of quid of his own money on these chemo sessions so that he could buy a warm drink. The answer was a firm NO. There is no rule or regulation to cover these circumstances, leaving it to the governor to exercise his common sense and compassion.

Pity, there seems to be neither.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Better to Live with Nonces than Grasses

So, who would you rather share your garden fence with a bushwhacker or kiddie fiddler, or some grassing bastard?
Out there, where I suspect most of you are not up to that much that can be seen as shady, then I suppose that having to live surrounded by grasses is not much of an issue. You'd tend to be a tad more wary of the bloke with the ski-mask, duct-tape and knife.

Here, things are different. Much of what we do is against some rule or other and, coupled with powerlessness, grasses can cause huge damage. And you don't even have to be doing anything; a 'note in the box' accusing you of whatever may be sufficient to have you lifted, slung in solitary and shipped out, affecting your security categorisation and progress to release. This is why grasses are so frowned upon. They are dangerous.
Sex cases, on the other hand, pose less of a threat in here (though I'd probably draw the line at sharing a cell with a gay rapist). This particular nick runs the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP), so a large minority of cons have shady offending histories. My view is one of broad indifference - I killed someone, I'm hardly in a good position to go around passing moral judgements on others.
And so, in this Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass world, it is far better to live with rapists and child molesters than with grasses. I can only add that, not for the first time, I realise how weird prison can be.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Picking Battles

Lest anyone get the impression that I'm a thoroughly decent human being, it should be said that there have been times when I've been a nasty shit. It has to be said that this related to my treatment of staff rather than my peers. This is a distinction that cons and ex-cons appreciate.

It used to be that I fought my battles with wing staff. This was before I raised my eyes from the immediate to the abstract and realised that most of my gripes resulted from the actions and policies of management, and not the staff implementing them.

Still, when I arrived at one nick, presented myself at the wing office to be allocated a cell and was greeted with the statement, "Gunn? So you’re the c**t", I suspected that this was not a portent of peaceful coexistence.
And so I spent the next few years in that prison being a bastard. Each morning I would dive down to the office to make complaints or applications, all with the sole aim of winding up the desk-jockeys.

At mealtimes, when the whole wing was queuing in the dining hall, I'd single out a dog screw and pick an argument. This inevitably led to his humiliation in front of all the cons - I'm smart, verbally adept and a public argument with me is likely to end badly. This once had the interesting consequence of the wing staff hiding behind their closed office door, solely because I was on the warpath.

This wasn't as random or vindictive as it sounds. The aim was to ram their own rules down their throat and I focused on digging out staff who applied them arbitrarily. Prison is an exercise in coexistence and broad cooperation between cons and staff, and dog screws who threw their pomposity in our faces were fair game.

And so in retaliation, I'd throw my intellect and knowledge of the rules back at them, making their life as difficult as they made mine. And, if this is any mitigation, they did start it...

This was brought back to mind by a conversation that I had the other day with the wing manager. At some point I said, "and that's why I'm a pain in the arse". He pointed out that, actually, I wasn't. And - a rare event - he was right. When it comes to wing staff, I'm absolutely no problem at all. Days pass without us speaking and when we do, it is a fleeting, neutral exchange or banter.

In the twenty odd years between my being "the c**t" and today, my battles have become far less focused upon the immediate and the personal. Tweaking management’s tail and playing prison politics has become the strategy, in recognition that arguing the toss with some obnoxious screw is irrelevant to the overall scheme of things.

Not that they get a totally free pass. If they are particularly petty or stupid, I am still happy to go toe to toe to argue the point. But if you took a straw poll, I think wing staff would label me as "mostly harmless". Management, on the other hand, get a rare glimpse of my political manoeuvrings (but not often) and see the potential for some difficulties coming their way. I wonder how they view me? This is by way of a rhetorical question - I so don't care.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Prison Staff and the Innocent

There are a lot of innocent people in prison. I don't mean technically innocent, or subject to some prosecutorial slipperyness. I refer to those who just didn't commit the crime they are convicted of.
We - as a society - pretend that these are rare anomalies, nothing much to worry about. And the broad mass of society has the luxury of being able to do this, and I hope that they don't find themselves on the wrong end of State power.
Prison staff, though, can find themselves in the awkward position of being unable to avert their eyes. How can a screw keep banging up a man he believes is innocent? The mental contortions that allow this are beyond me but I suspect it flows from a variation of "only following orders". I'm all for personal responsibility and principle, and doing something wrong just because another person tells me to is anathema. But that's me.
Whilst wing staff only have to square their conscience a couple of times a day, at bang up, the prison probation officers and psychologists are far more culpable. They spend years delving into our heads, examining every aspect of our lives and crimes in a (vain) attempt to render us safe.
So they, of all staff, are most familiar with the file, the case, and some miscarriages of justice are so blatant that the file screams “innocent. And yet these staff will, day after day, face the con and insist that he rehashes his crime and explain himself.
It makes me shudder, that some individuals can knowingly keep others behind bars in the face of all the evidence. But this is a reflection of institutional structures based on power; no one individual has to take responsibility for their actions, none have to face the reality of their decisions on those in their charge. Everyone in the structure can absolve themselves, pointing to some superior's order, some regulation, some other centre of decision making.

Prison can coarsen the soul and render us indifferent to the sufferings of others - and this applies to staff as well as prisoners. The important difference is, staff have power over

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bad Memories

It sounds weird but I have always believed that a fair number of murderers suffer from aspects of post-traumatic stress. I say weird, because of course it is we ourselves who caused the awful event that now haunts us. But then, if you chop your own fingers off, the fact it is self inflicted doesn't reduce the pain and suffering.

There are now drugs that are able to erase painful memories. Should these be available to murderers as well as the families of their victims?

The proposition raises a range of questions, foremost amongst them being, what is the nature and purpose of punishment? Perhaps it is interesting that the first murderer, Cain, was left unmolested by God, possibly because the lifelong weight of his conscience was punishment enough.

Is it intrinsically part of a murderer's punishment that he carry the memory of what he has done? Or is the legal and moral debt to society expunged at the end of the punitive portion (tariff) of the sentence and so memories, as well as "the slate", could be wiped clean?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Credit Where It's Due

Twenty five years ago, playing cricket, I seemed to twist my back. It left me immobile and in bug-eyed agony. Staff shoved three doctors in front of me. One diagnosed a flaring appendix; the next a sprain; and the third declared I was faking.
This has left me with a dodgy back ever since. Until I hit my forties, it really didn't affect my daily life. Nowadays, though, it leaves me with a constant ache.
For the second time in a year, my lower back muscles went into spasm. And women say childbirth is painful... It took me an hour just to get dressed last week and I had to wear sandals because I just couldn't tie my shoelaces. 

Healthcare, who usually don't come high on my Xmas card list, have been on good form. The Doctor gave me valium to unfreeze the muscles and painkillers to get me by. They have now lent me a Tens machine, which I hope will offer some long term relief.
I offer this tale not in the hope of scrounging sympathy but because I want to be truthful. If I am to tell you about prison life then I would be guilty of distortion if I refused to give credit where it is due. The whole point of my blogging is to inject some realities into the public debate and, in this instance; Healthcare did what it says on the tin.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Ombudsman and Mr A

One result of the 1990 riots was the establishment of a Prisons Ombudsman to act as a final stage in investigating complaints by prisoners.

Whilst I have severe criticisms about the attitude and operation of the Ombudsman, his Annual Report reveals (to a disinterested nation) the underbelly of prison life. It is a tale of ineptitude, ignorance and plain callous stupidity on the part of prison staff. I recommend you read it ( For those who are too busy to do so, I offer the tale of Mr A, as relayed by the Ombudsman. Note that the sarcasm is mine.

Mr A was in his seventies when given a long prison sentence. On arrival in prison it was noted he suffered several chronic diseases, including arthritis and lung disease. He was later diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

He was placed in an NHS hospital with two prison staff as a guard. The governor decided that Mr A posed such a high risk that he insisted that he remained handcuffed. After all, being bedridden with lung cancer surely wouldn't prevent him leaping out of bed like an arthritic Ninja and swiftly overpowering of two of the prison services finest...

After only two days in hospital, Mr A's condition was so poor that the Last Rites were administered. In a fit of what can surely only be described as overwhelming compassion, an hour after that the governor agreed that his handcuffs should be removed. Mr A died shortly afterwards.

My adult life has been littered with the knowledge of such malign, incompetent inhumanity. I hope you will excuse me if, on occasion, my posts carry a tinge of bitterness and deep anger.

Poor Communication

From the Ed:

Some of you may be interested to know that I wrote to Jack Straw back in November about Ben.  One of his minions fobbed me off with a letter saying that as I am not a Blackburn constituent I should write to my own MP or to the House of Commons.  I was a bit puzzled by this, having sent my letter to the London address in the first place, so I contacted Lord Ramsbotham, who made a comment on the Guardian article about Ben’s continued incarceration being “unnecessary and expensive”. On his instigation, I wrote again to our Jack.  That was over a month ago. Still no response – not even an acknowledgement.  I don’t think we can blame the postal strike, Xmas, or the snow for this lack of communication.  I am now going to try e-mailing him, although the address I was given is not very encouraging: