Friday, September 30, 2011

Suicide and Savings

One of the very few prison service initiatives that has my support is the Listeners scheme.
Some years ago it was noted that there are prisoners who, by virtue of their personal qualities, tended to be called upon by their peers to provide emotional support.

Recognising the potential of such prisoners to reduce the rates of self-harm or suicide, the prison service joined with the Samaritans to train prisoner volunteers to offer Samaritans-type support to those in crisis.  In every prison, these volunteer prisoners are available 24 hours a day to help those who need support.  These prisoners do this for no pay and at a considerable emotional cost to themselves.

There is now a rumour that the prison service would like to cut the Listeners as part of the national economy drive.  Quite how costly a voluntary scheme may be is a puzzle others are better able to answer.

The suicide rate in prison is many times higher than the comparable community demographic.  This is partly a result of a penal philosophy which is punitive and degrading.  Efforts must be made by any decent society to see that punishments do no lead to suicide.

The Listeners are a low-cost effort to mitigate the pains of imprisonment.  To reduce this service would be contemplative and signify a return to institutional indifference to the deaths of people in prison.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Goodish News

My juddering progress to the Big Wide World has taken a move in the right direction.

Having been busted over a mobile phone a few months ago, my move to open prison went into limbo whilst the Ministry pondered. And pondered.  And pondered. They have finally decided not refer me back to the Parole Board for a bit of a spanking, and that I remain fit for open prison.

This was a surprise, as all involved were assuming that the Ministry were going to take any opportunity to stiff me.  This then, may indicate a shift in how I am perceived, some final recognition that while I may be a little difficult I am largely benign.

There is a hitch though. I still haven't been moved to open prison and no-one seems in any hurry to phone for the taxi.  This looks as if it may, alas, lead to my having to take legal action to get from here - Cat C  - to there - Cat D.

Let's hope sense and expediency prevail.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dog Bites Man

Playing with a few dogs is hardly a headline in life, except the strange and empty world that is prison.

Not having played with a dog for 3 decades, I'd somehow overlooked the toothy prospects of 2 springer spaniel puppies when a tennis ball is dangled before them.  Don't be misled by the floppy ears and sad eyes, they can shift - and don't let fingers get between them and the ball.

I spent about an hour with them and a big labrador puppie and they did run me ragged.  They also gave me a chance to step out of "prison", to do something normal.  Such times are rare and to be held on to.

Many thanks to all involved!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

They Have it so Easy!

It is a perpetual risk that being an old bird-man crosses the line into being a nostalgic, judgemental old fart.  That said...

To clean the corridor in this modern era I must have a BICS certificate and am equipped with a mop, bucket, and assorted liquids.

Contrast when I first began.  Dragged from your cell and presented with a bucket of water, block of carbolic soap , scrubbing brush, dishcloth and a kneeling pad.  Yep, on yer knees scrubbing corridors by hand.

Tsch, the cons of today don't know they're born...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Man Up

My introduction to the punishment block began when I was 14.  As is my way, I was refusing to entertain some stupidity or other that was being imposed upon me.  In the block I was fed a couple of times a day, thrown some books and given a shower once a week.  Apart from that, solitude reigned.

Was it difficult?  Yes and no.  In an empty cell, how do you keep generally occupied for 23 hours a day?  For me, the time was devoured by pacing and reading.  I asked for nothing and was given nothing.  This has remained my way of dealing with being put in the block.

This is not the method that suits everyone.  While there are those who get behind their door and just "do their bird", asking for nothing but their strict entitlements and not whining, there are others who find it horrible.  They seem to be perpetually seeking the attention of staff and whining.  This is not a pretty sight.

Not that I habitually pass judgement on how any man chooses to serve his sentence.  If acting like a spoilt, whining child is what works for you, go for it.

My concern is how this appears to staff, as a group whose views of prisoners do tilt towards the unpleasant.  I have always thought that an important part of any conscientious con's job was to challenge staff attitudes and show that we are not a collection of pathetic morons.. The first way to do that is not to act-up to staff stereotypes.  It is in this context that the way a con does his time in the block is important.

Be a man, my son!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Prison Inspectors and Change

Two years ago the Prison Inspectors recommended that Erlestoke alter its procedure for getting visitors from the gate through to the visits room.  Keeping families standing in the cold and rain isn't seen as being a particularly nice thing to do.

Two years on, and the Editor finders herself standing outside for 30 minutes, with families including small children, waiting to get in.  That meant that we lost nearly half an hour of visiting time.

How fortunate for us that a Prison Inspector was lurking in the visits room, allowing the Ed and I to vent our opinion of the shambolic process.  The Inspectorate are to repeat their recommendation.

Will the Governor act this time or continue to show contempt for our families?  Anyone can nail up fluffy policy statements; it takes a decent and competent management to deliver on them.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


My trick to surviving, to remaining just this side of sanity, is to refuse to look more than a few moments ahead.  This way, I hope to avoid any angst that may arise if I accidentally lift my eyes from my mop and broom and see an unknown number of prison days ahead of me.  I'm trying, hard, to just "switch off", if only for a while.

Lost, and Found

Like any sensible con, I packed my emergency bag before I got myself nicked and slung in chokey for a week.  Having handed it to staff, it promptly vanished.

I've spent every day since hassling for it to be found.  Amongst other things, the bag contained my mini-disc player and my blog notebook - full of ideas for posts yet to be born.  I was bereft of Leonard Cohen and Queen's Greatest Hits.

Today my bag was found, just a few feet away, in the office where it had been all along! The Senior Officer who found it made a joke about my writing this up on the blog in a manner that may suggest ineptitude on their part...

I'd have been in a better position to do so if, half an hour later, I hadn't needed to hit my cell call-bell and shamefacedly confess "I've forgotten to pick up my dinner, Guv..."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Calculus of Justice

My penalty for refusing to bang-up and then walking amiably to the Block was 7 days "cellular confinement".

The penalty for a guy found in possession of a 6-inch stabbing weapon was...7 days cellular confinement.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Coffee Bean Justice

Several years ago Governors lost their power to add a few days to a man's sentence as a disciplinary punishment. Now, we are graced by a District Judge to dish out that kind of punishment, and he was here today.

This caused a mad rush by the staff to rustle up a jar of coffee.  His Honour needs a constant supply whilst faced with a parade of prisoner miscreants.  Guess who had the dubious distinctions of making it...?

I did wonder if this attention from the prison staff may soften the Judge's heart in favour of the prosecution, especially when I heard they once baked him a cake!

It warmed my heart to later hear that staff saw him as a "soft" sentencer.  Sure enough, he didn't sling anyone in the chokey this time around.  Good man! And you never know, I may one day need a Judge who once appreciated my coffee!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nearly a Misunderstanding

When an older man sidles up to you and asks it you want to see some puppies, do you hang around to hear him out?!

Luckily, I did. The Dog Handlers are training a couple of baby sniffer-dogs, and would I like to come along and play for half an hour?  Yes, please!

This is offered to me as some sort of therapy, a chance to do something out of the normal run of prison - the run of which I am thoroughly bloody sick.   When was the last time you played with a dog, or patted one?  For me it has been over 3 decades.  This offer is much appreciated.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting that people in general should hang round with strangers offering puppies...

Friday, September 16, 2011

Violence, revisited

The psychological effects of the crime I committed have been varied and life-long.

The first impact was that of shock.  To be so violent was so alien to me; it was as if I found myself disassociated from myself.  Who was I?  This was followed by fear - the realisation that I had the capacity to kill and, worse, to do so out of an uncontrollable burst of overwhelming emotion.  I not only didn't know "who" I was, but was also faced with the fact that I could not control myself completely, that my emotions could overwhelm me.

These were hammer blows to my psyche, my core identity, and for the rest of my teenage years I focussed upon an inward journey to explore, understand, and control my feelings.  Externally, I was also given approval to learn two martial arts, shotokan karate and wing chun kung fu.  Such was my worry about accidentally causing serious harm in some unexpected fight that I wanted to learn the tools so that I had a far greater chance of only causing as little harm as possible, in a focussed and controlled way.

That said, I was far from being the best student and the internal journey of self-control always took priority.

Decades down the line in this journey and these, and other,  efforts to render myself non-violent suddenly came into a decidedly sharp focus.

About a month ago I found myself facing a guy who was angry, desperate and wielding a very lethal stabbing tool.  This was one of those dumb prison events, which actually had nothing to do with me.  The moment resolved itself with no harm done.

It shocked me.  It shocked me because as the events unfolded I realised that I have completely lost my "fight or flight" mechanism.  Here was a guy ready and able to stab me and I had no rush of adrenaline, no anxiety, no pupil dilation or any of the evolutionary physiological responses.  What I was doing was reacting with my brain; rapidly calculating every aspect of the situation from my head rather than my guts.

On one level this is obviously a Good Thing. Self control is the foundation of so much of life.  And yet, to have taken this to the extreme where I have suppressed an extremely beneficial biological response to danger may itself be dangerous.  After all, there are times - knife wielding nutters being one - when an instant and instinctive elbow to the throat may be more of a necessity than a whim.

Maybe it is time to re-open the dojo.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Belated Anniversary

I have written before about my lack of any perspective on time, and the editor reminded me that the blog's second anniversary has just passed.

Thank you, every one of you who take the time out of your lives to read my outpourings.  Without your presence I'd be howling at the moon!

I only hope that, now and then, I write something that makes you laugh, cry or ponder.  Know that your comments have such effects on me.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Complicated Life

Having expended so many words when my keepers have not fulfilled my (high) expectations, it would be dishonest of me not to reveal the opposite.

Having got myself nicked just to get space in the Block in order to starve myself to death, staff could have responded in any one of several ways.

They could have ignored me, merely fed me into the bureaucracy that comprises suicide-prevention measures.  They could have adopted an entrenched position as if I was on hunger-strike.  Or they could have packed me off to become another prison problem.  And these were my expectations, based on decades of experienced cynicism.

It was a surprise then that one or two staff took the time to actually talk and listen and try to get some small grip on my threadbare psyche.  They decided that they could help me to "sort my head out", with the leeway given by senior management.

And so I find myself still in the block, but now employed as the resident cleaner.  (Hmm, manual labour!?!) The idea being that this helps give me a break from the usual prison grind that was so corroding me, time to gather my inner resources to keep ploughing on with this sentence.  Those of you who were dusting off your black armbands will just have to be patient!

There may be hope yet.  Even though staff are as constrained by the carceral machine nearly as much as I, they did manage to find a space within the grinding bureaucracy of prison to be human.

Alas, that means that you have to put up with me for a little longer...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Existential Crisis

How do you react when in a moment of revelation you realise that there is nothing in your life which endows it with any meaning or purpose?

When this crashed down on me the other day, I instantly manoeuvred myself into a minor nicking just to have the solitary respite of, well, being in solitary.

This is a battle within myself, a challenge to my existence.  People forget - or don't realise - that serving a life sentence takes effort.  It draws upon mental reserves.  And for me, realising that I'd run out of energy to continue coincides with a period during which nothing in my life brings to it any meaning.

Rather than chucking myself over the landing, I've stopped eating.  Starving oneself to death has its advantages.  It concentrates the mind like nothing else; and it takes long enough for circumstances - or brain chemistry - to alter sufficiently to make prison life worth living.  Until then, black tea is my only intake.

Wish me luck, or a lingering demise, as your instincts suggest!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Embarrassing Comparison

Prisoners in Germany strike, prisoners across the State of Georgia strike.  Canadian prisoners unionise.  Prisoners in California hunger-strike.

All those sacrifices are made in the name of change and reform.  And what are British prisoners doing?  It's embarrassing, sometimes.

Friday, September 9, 2011


As every criminologist, penologist, governor and probation officer knows, the influence of our families is one of the most important factors in our re-offending rates.

The prison service recognises this in a raft of policy statements, and family engagement is one of the seven "re-settlement pathways".

So I asked that the two people closest to me be allowed to attend an upcoming sentence plan board.

The prison, highlighting the perpetual gap between policy and practice, sent me a memo insisting that I justify the presence of the two people who will be crucial in my resettlement into the community.

I replied, asking that the prison justify their exclusion.  Watch this space to discover if the prison service exists in a cesspool of hypocrisy...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Thanks and Apologies

Six thousand pounds and three year's work; my PhD research had now ended.  It was not a peaceful, dignified passing.

Of course, this isn't an official announcement, it isn't as if management have overtly ordered this outcome.  Rather, it resulted from ineptitude and neglect.  In desperation, in July I demanded to see the Governor.  With vital notes trapped on floppy disk and the Education Department refusing to talk to me, only the Governor could break the deadlock.

In the event, his Deputy arrived and we discussed the situation.  He left, promising to discuss my predicament with the Governor and report back.  A month has passed and he never re-appeared.  That leaves it too late for me to meet my academic deadline.  My research is dead.

In my post last year I attempted to explain why my PhD was so important to me.  That all remains true.  All I know today is that the Prison Service has destroyed a potential career or way for me to make some contribution to life, and research which could have led to a reduction in the level of violent conflict within prisons.

I put in my best efforts, despite every obstruction and problem put my way.  My University and research supervisor have been beyond the call of duty.  And money - including yours - supported me financially.  These efforts are now reduced to ashes by the ineptitude of Erlestoke governors.

The best that can be salvaged is that I restart from the beginning, but that requires my finding a philanthropist with £1,400 to invest against my future potential.

I do apologise.  Failing in my studies is not natural for me, especially when my efforts are supported by the generosity of others.  If the situation changes, I shall keep you all informed.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Probation Revisited

No-one, including an academic criminologist and a working probation officer, could offer any evidence to challenge my claim that in relation to Lifers, probation have no effect on reducing re-offending.

It's not pleasant to think that all the controls and restrictions they will place on me are utterly pointless.

Does that not constitute a gross abuse of power?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Solace of Hatred

There is a comfort to be found in hatred. It is such a visceral, unthinking and monolithic emotion, a heat that incinerates all that comes near and reduces it to certainty.  Hatred has a purity that denies shades of grey, that denies calm deliberation; it provides a certainty in the face of monstrous pain and turmoil.  In experiences where life ceases to make sense than hatred is a place in which the bewildered can rest.

In the monochrome world of hate, wicked acts are only committed by wicked people.  It is that simple.  And that simplicity removes the wicked person from the human community and the reciprocal decency that entails, allowing us to encompass the most heinous punishments to be inflicted upon those that cause us pain and harm.

Perhaps hatred is, at least for a while, necessary for victims to cling to.  Perhaps it serves a purpose amongst the pain or grief.  After some time though, hatred seems to dissipate for most people.

But not for all.  For some, hatred becomes a perpetual torment unable to find relief; it becomes a state that must be continually fuelled. It can consume the individual. And to perpetuate this sate of hatred requires deliberate effort, a conscious decision to deny and denigrate those who hurt us, to strip them of the characteristics of ring fully human.  Hatred rests on dehumanising others.

Perhaps this is why we sometimes cling to stereotypes and why we struggle to demean those we hate.  If we don't, if we allow them to become human, then the hatred becomes far harder to sustain.  Ultimately, though, I believe that hatred denies as much humanity to the hater as it does the hated, observing what is best about the human spirit.  Hatred may provide some solace, some certainty, but all the while it corrodes the essence of humanity within each of us.

Friday, September 2, 2011


There are those who argue that prisoners should have no rights, that we should rot.

This raises an important question that no-one seems prepared to address in this context. That is, what then should be the limits of punishment?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Anonymous and Poisonous

We must give a warm welcome to the recent new commenters who take time out of their lives to parade their bile on the blog.  They are slick, plausible even, indulging in clever and sly distortions of the truth.

The funny thing is, the editor and I know the identities of two of the Anons and we know their agenda.  This is not your average trolley but a rather clever attempt to undermine me.  Their message is that the Prison Service are trying their best to get me out but I keep frustrating them.

They post anonymously solely to disguise the frequency and themes of their comments.  Yet I refuse to indulge in comment moderation or insist that commenters register.  I work on the assumption that most people have the courage to be identified with their opinions, as I do.  Ironically, posing corrosive comments anonymously reveals a huge amount about the moral character of the poster, don't you think?

The basis of their particular brand of poison is to appear to be knowledgable about prison life, spiced up with a few allegations made with such certainty that they appear plausible.  This is quality trolling, but it rests on bluff and the hope that others haven't the time to read earlier posts to fact check.  I mean, that's clever stuff!

Just two stated facts should suffice to make my point.  That I am always engaged in pointless arguments is one. Am I? Alas, my reputation is worse than the reality.  The only arguments I'm engaged in are over my move to Open and my research, hardly minor issues.

That I'm refusing to engage in offence-related work is a second asserted fact.  Hmmm, as I've been assessed as not requiring such work then this claim is quite bizarre.

I haven't the ability to challenge every claim made in comments, and so I ask a favour of regular readers, when someone pops up and claims I do such-and-such, could you ask them to provide some evidence? That way we nullify their poison and signpost their existence as a dissembler.

A blog is a community and where I lack the ability to police poor behaviour then I invite others to pitch in.

That said, I try to appreciate that there are people who are honestly angry and hurt by crime and who pop up to vent their spleen.  Sometimes they are difficult to distinguish from the trolls and their petty spite.  Perhaps one way to deal with both is to invite them to read more of the blog, from the start, and hope that they appreciate that whilst their emotions may be simple, the issues that lay behind them are more complicated.