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.


  1. I didn't know about private prisons.

    Has anyone with an interest in prison reform ever tried to do it by setting one up? Are there rules for who can start one - in particular, are excons forbidden?

    These are rhetorical questions really, but hmmmmm, I say. Hmmmmm...

  2. Well worth a hmmnnn, Wigarse, I'd have thought. But I do't know that anyone proposing to do it better would be more persuasive than anyone proposing to do it cheaper; there's the snag.

  3. you mean you wern't in the invite only "blow jobclub" run by one of the staff at summit?

  4. Wigarse, Ben wrote a piece in Inside Time about just that, "Nacro joins the prison business". He wasn't impressed by the idea!

  5. Wigarse, Ben wrote a piece in Inside Time about just that, "Nacro joins the prison business". He wasn't impressed by the idea!

  6. @anon 11:04, scandal! Tell us more! Just don't name names or the comment may have to be censored as libel...

  7. I hope the rules are clear- Ben himself cannot name prisoners or prison staff. He also cannot permit libellous comments. Anything else is welcome to be posted. Editor.

  8. Hey, Ben, this training you were offering to the Gp 4 staff - do I detect a whiff of Stockholm Syndrome? :)

  9. Jailhouselawyer may have a useful contribution here. It may be the case that teaching staff the rules is also pointing out the limits of their lawful power, and so in the prisoners interest?

  10. Ben's great, but I don't have to agree with him ALL the time ;) Having read his Inside Time article on NACRO I find this is one of those times.

    His worries about the need to make a profit and concern that NACRO avoided anything to do with the security are valid but everything else seemed to be a bit of a knee jerk response that a group aimed at helping prisoners shouldn't be banging them up. I understand why he might feel that way, but I think that's exactly where the most good can be done.

    The arguments against profit are easy to deal with - what about a not-for-profit organisation? That should also help with being able to do some serious good whilst being competitive on price.

    Does anyone know how G4S and NACRO did in the end? Are their prisons better than the government's ones?

    Bottom line is; I think discarding the idea entirely as morally wrong may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  11. Wigarse, Group 4, now G4S, have a shocking record of abuses and ineptitude in their prisons worldwide.

  12. Private prisons - is this the government's method of turning overcrowding into Someone Else's Problem? The varied incompetent incumbents have been struggling to manage penal policy since the 1950's and the post-war increase in crime (Parkhurst and Strangeways ring a few bells here). Perhaps the Prison Service having to submit Annual Accounts and a Corporate Business Plan to Parliament is making state punishment an attractive and profitable affair. What comes next? Privatisation of the CPS??


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