Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What a washout

Senior management have removed the washing machine and drier from the Reception department. And why should you give a hoot?

Reception is where we are - surprise - received into the prison and it is our last stop before release. Reception also deals with our property, clothing, incoming parcels, and so on. Their dealings with our clothing are a significant part of their work in that they monitor the amount we have, what we can buy, and what we are all¬owed to have. At the end of our sentence they are also obliged, by law, to ensure that we are suitably equipped with clothing as we hit the street. Society is worried enough by ex-cons; releasing us naked would only increase that social angst.

Reception has a small mountain of clothing which has been donated by prisoners, for various reasons. Much of this is high quality merchandise. When a man reaches the end of his time he is offered a selection of these clothes to wear. Obviously these clothes need to be clean, hence their need for a washing machine.

In taking the machines away, Reception will now have to stop accepting donated clothing and instead will have to go out and buy new clothing to equip those being discharged. This will cost tens of thousands of quid.

This is why you should give a damn about the bizarre shenanigans of prison managers. The results of their decisions will shortly appear on your tax bill.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Question

Does anybody know of any research that focuses on the functioning and culture of  Segregation Units in the UK?

Or does my present job as an orderly give me a chance to add something new to the literature?

Monday, November 28, 2011

No blog today

Been to a funeral, normal service tomorrow!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Disappeared

Putting my feet up mid-morning I heard voices just outside my door, "...and look into the empty cells to see that staff aren't hiding anyone..." There was a small chuckle of disbelief.

Sticking my head out I discovered a gaggle of the Independent Monitoring Board.  The experienced member was explaining to two new members how he inspected the Block.

The IMB - an independent watchdog body - is often subjected to criticism but in this case the advice of the experienced member was sound.  I've been in blocks where prisoners have been so badly beaten that staff have tried to hide them in an "empty" cell, safe from the eyes of  visiting governors, chaplains and the IMB.

I explained this to the new member.  Strange things can happen in prison, after all.  It was also worth my pointing out that my presence was an indication that this Block was free of such abuses.  Only a fool would employ a cynical blogger as Block orderly if they weren't pretty sure I'd be bereft of negative material!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Third Time Lucky?

From the Ed:

Ben was told yesterday that he is to be transferred to an open prison this coming Wednesday.

Let's hope he actually makes it this time...

Friday, November 25, 2011


The dull sound of a polycarbonate riot shield outside of your cell door is never a welcome one.  It’s invariably a portent of Bad Things.

All the more so when you have just refused to be transferred. The rattling shield is the signal that the refusal is not being taken as the final word. Such was the situation with one of the guys in this Block recently.

Watching as best I could through the gap around my door, I witnessed the initial charge into the cell. Known to us as a "planned cell extraction", it involves a 3 man team (in this case, led by a woman) that charge into the cell, the shield-bearer leading the way. Having wedged the prisoner with the shield the two flanking staff attempt to secure the con’s arms in Aikido joint-locks in what is tastefully known as "pain compliance". Once "compliant" the con is moved from A to B, in this instance B being another prison.
As with all plans, this one didn't go quite as predicted. Matey squirmed and wriggled his way around his cell floor for a good 40 minutes before being firmly grasped, a period of time so long that staff involved had to be relieved half way through. This "use of force" is always a messy affair and it is a welcome development that such events are attended by a screw with a video camera. We can only hope that this reduces the scope of staff getting carried away and crossing that fine line between a legitimate use of force and assault.

Matey was, finally, “bent up" and carted away. To his credit, he was cogently and calmly complaining all through the process, rather than screaming bloody murder. Interestingly, it is not the staff who regularly man the Block who conduct these operations; staff are brought from elsewhere in the prison. I assume that someone realised that occupants of the Block can hardly have any type of working relationship with staff who may have previously been twisting them up. A rare glimpse into the prison service's single neuron in action?

I myself prefer to walk onto the sweatbox for a transfer. If I’m not happy about it, it's the receiving prison which finds out...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Hotel Catering

A wily con waved around a regulation stating that we should be provided with either 2 slices of bread or toast at breakfast.
Much staff debate followed. Now my first job of the day is to make toast for all. This didn't pass unnoticed by staff, the comment "are we running a hotel?" being most frequent.
As ever, this raises the question - what is the nature of punishment? And what should its details comprise?
Toast, or plain bread at breakfast?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Compulsory Pampers?

Walking out of my door first thing in the morning, my only thought being the logistics of toast making, my brain was slightly confused when confronted by men dressed as aliens. Paper suits, gloves, goggles...Just what had happened to the world whilst I was asleep??
Then the rolls of Biohazard tape began to be deployed, sealing off a cell and its occupant. Ah, a dirty protest. For the uninitiated, a dirty protest is rather more than the avoidance of soap and water. A dirty protest is to smear one’s cell with excrement - and to keep living in it.
In days of old this form of protest was very disruptive to all involved and within olfactory range. This bureaucratic age, though, has seen the writing of a detailed policy for everything, including dirty protests. Out come the paper suits and striped tape, and life goes on as normal. The protestor is also charged with endangering Health and Safety.
Of all the many forms of protest available to prisoners, the dirty protest is one of the more extreme and one which I refuse to indulge in. Given the procedures developed to deal with dirty protests, their utility as a disruptive force has been much muted.

Living in a box smeared with crap is a desperate ploy but, thankfully, not the method of protect chosen by many.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

More Abuse

A very unhappy con shouted through his block cell door, "You fat cow!" The female screw was outraged, having lost a significant amount of weight.  "I'm not fat".  The con, retreating from an unsustainable accusation, paused for a moment.  "Well, you're not exactly skinny, are ya?!"

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Block

It struck me that what is, to my jaded eyes, mundane and familiar is unknown territory for most people outside. How do you imagine a punishment Block in your mind’s eye? Possibly something dark and damp, populated by unwashed, starving and hirsute desperados?

Whilst not denying the existence of such places -?- -most Blocks are housed at base­ment level - the one whose floor I sweep (in between breaks from writing...) is a more humble yet modern edifice. In a previous incarnation a resettlement unit, the 10 cells line a single short corridor. The 8 punishment cells on one side, the 2 orderlies, shower and storeroom on the other. Around the corner, occupied by the main office, are the 2 holding cells,  a "special cell", the servery,  adjudication room and managers office. The whole comprises a very small building.

On paper, the daily regime is sparse and structured around the mandatory events for all Blocks. During the day a governor, medic and chaplain will visit each cell and conduct a ritualistic exchange with each Prisoner. "Any problems...?"

The captive residents are unlocked, one at a time, to collect breakfast and make appl­ications just after 8am. Cereal, toast, flask of water, tea bags. This is the main exchange with staff during each day, the moment to chase up problems or raise issues. It is also the point at which each man can subscribe to "the regime" - to elect to have exercise, a shower or use the payphone. Often, these exchanges set the tone, the level of tension, for the rest of the day.

Once all have been fed, bang-up reigns. Those who have so chosen will, always singly, take their exercise etc. The statutory visitors - governor, medic, chaplain, will make their rounds. Except for these momentary interruptions, each man is left alone behind his door. By lunchtime this activity has petered out and from lunchtime through to the next breakfast prisoners are rarely disturbed from their lock-up save to collect their tea time meal. It can be appreciated that the Block is not a place of great activity. The locked cell door and absence of visible prisoners is the hallmark of all Blocks.

Any thought that this suggests a quiet, monastic existence should be held very tentatively...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Taking the Temperature

In a quiet moment the member of staff pointed out that it had been a peaceful few days across the prison.  "That means either that there's absolutely no drugs about, or a lot of drugs about..."

Before the advent of heroin as a great force, it was a staff mantra that "a stoned prisoner is a happy prisoner".  The spliff may have been replaced by the needle, but not much ever changes.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


The creation of a nonsmoking prison on the Isle of Man has seen prisoners doing what we do best – using time and desperation to circumvent the restric­tions placed upon us. In this care, the desperate locals have resorted to boiling nicotine patches to extract the ingredients to sate their hunger for a decent hit of nicotine.
This enterprise pales into insignificance compared to a recent event here. A man managed to build a computer in his cell with illicit components.
Never underestimate a prisoner with a lot of spare time...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Progress and the Human Spirit

Is it not a central purpose of political society to wrangle the monstrous atavistic emotions that batter our modern minds and to sift them, to channel and retrain them, to re-shape them into social forces that move us forward to a better civilisation?

From the perspective of lifelong resident in the bowels of the State, it appears that every human endeavour has given birth to the greatest heights of aspiration. Literature, art, science, philosophy, politics economics...there is no field, which, while encompassing the basest of our drives, has not moved humanity onwards to new perspectives, joys, opportunities. Society has benefited from every difficult step we have taken as a society from the primordial slime.

Amidst this social and human bounty there stands a rancid edifice. It is replicated in city centres across the nation and as individuals we pass beneath the walls with indifference. The edifice that is prison stands in almost deliberate opposition to all of the advances achieved by our society.

This is not to deny the existence of change. Prison itself as a form of punishment is a rather modern development, a concrete manifestation of a shift in the nature of punishment from inflicting bodily pain to inflicting mental suffering. Does this constitute an advance, progress? Does this change in the locus of pain stand as a beacon of social achievement?

No. Imprisonment is a failure on every level. In practical terms, it persistently fails to change the individuals who are fed through the gates and subjected to the process of mortification. On a social level, imprison­ment perpetuates crime through gross reoffending levels. And on a human level, inflicting suffering upon each other degrades us all.

Why has punishment, this wilfully self-defeating infliction of suffering, remain immune from the progress that is evident in every other field of human endeavour? Why do we cling to the ancient urges to hurt those who hurt us,even when there is no benefit? And why is this debased enterprise seemingly unable to be transformed by social or political processes so that it reflects the best of humanity rather than the worst?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Time Travel

Producing the blog, at my end, has taken on hints of time travel.

For the first 18 months I resided in the 1970's, using a word-processor. For the past 6 months I revisited the scholastic Middle Ages - pen and paper.  Today, I have leapt forward to the late 19th century having finally taken possession of a manual typewriter.

I suspect that the average blogger doesn't have this experience!  And this ever shifting technology base has a real effect on my output. Writing by hand meant that the editor had to decipher and type my posts, a dedication that I could only repay by avoiding long posts.

The typewriter will be a great help but I have to wonder if the prison service will ever allow me to use contemporary technology?

Ed's note:this is a great relief as his writing is terrible!  I can now scan what he sends me into Word. A big thank you to the kind blog reader who donated the typewriter. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Shared Beliefs

My broad view of prison managers is long established.  It was a pleasure, then, to bump into a screw who shared my views.

As he put it, "I'd be a governor but I'd have to walk around with fingers in my ears to stop my brain running out..."

What a Shambles

That most toxic of combinations - media outrage and Government populism - has seen the lifer population leap from 3600 to over 10000.
Given the short-term impulses that led to this situation, the long term consequences were carefully neglected. And this is now biting me in the ass like a starving snapper-turtle.
Given that, at last, the forces that control my life appear to be content that I attain release, a swift move to open prison and a kindly Parole Board next year should have seen me off into the sunset. Alas, the open estate is choked.
With over 10,000 Lifers - easily sentenced, less swiftly released -then the demand for places in Open were inevitably going to be excessive. Our political masters failed to plan for this. The result is that I am stuck: in a queue of over 300 Lifers all competing for a move to open conditions.
The history of the Life sentence, its justification and criminological basis, is lengthy and convoluted. But never before has it come to pass that we can be told that we must remain in prison solely because the narrow path to release is oversubscribed.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Prison Essentials

There are certain core features of what comprises a prison.  Physical security is one of those features.

So, having a man break out of his cell and spend 3 hours in the dark repeatedly attempting to scale the fence unmolested must be a tad embarrassing...?!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Back to the Future

There are times when penology seems to be a perpetual circle, forever revisiting previous ideas, practices or ideologies.

Nearly a century after the crime was viewed as a "disease" - the medical model - that idea was resurrected with a twist in the mid 1990's.  Psychologists infested prisons, tasked with attempting to cure us of our criminogenic ways of thinking. Fifteen years later and hundreds of millions of £'s spent and the utility of this effort is still debated.

There was one immediate effect, though.  The provision of trade courses - bricklaying, painting, etc collapsed.  Across the whole prison system, the rehabilitative eggs were placed solely in the psychologist's basket and other avenues to shift us away from crime were neglected.

However, a conversation with the Governor today revealed that he is reinstating trade training at this prison.  It is rare for me to be able to report a positive development, but this is one.

If a prisoner wished to attempt to create a life away from crime, no psychological course or basic skills certificate is going to help.  And in a society where employing an ex-con is bottom of everyone's list of priorities, providing prisoners with the skills to enable them to earn a living for and by themselves is a good thing.

Quite where the Gov found the investment to resurrect these training courses is a mystery to me. Prisons are as poverty stricken as the rest of the nation.  To return to old practices is a bold move in these circumstances.

One final thought though.  It would be a perfect adjunct to those trade courses if the participants were also offered a course on how to start a business.  In this way, cons are liberated from anti-prisoner attitudes in their future employment.  Their future will be in their own hands - and that is real freedom.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Endless Struggle

The official criteria for priority to move to Open Prison is whether one is over tariff, and how long one has been waiting for the move.

As I'm 21 years over tariff and have now been waiting a full year for the transfer, I'd like to think that I've been put near the top of the list.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Miracle!

How is it that all murder victims are apparently incredibly wonderful human beings?

I find it a tad odd, a statistical anomaly, that no assholes ever seem to get murdered.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Non-Punishment Block

Oddly, it is not unusual that no-one held in this Block is actually serving a term of punishment.

There are several routes to end up down here, and the least common is to be punished.  Overwhelmingly, people filling up the cells are either hiding on Rule 45 - own protection -  or have been isolated for reasons of Good Order and Discipline.  That is, it is believed they are up to something but the evidence isn't sufficient for a formal charge.

Despite this, the Block runs what is officially termed a "restricted regime".  Everyone lives in bare cells, denied their privileges and locked up for over 23 hours a day.

The sign outside may now read "Care and Separation Unit", but the reality is that this is not intended to be a refugee unit or interrogation centre.  It reflects a very fuzzy thinking on the part of the prison service as to how to deal with the varied needs of people and a failure to even contemplate the nature of punishment itself.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

States of Denial

There is a group of prisoners who labour under the weight of a special acronym - IDOM.  This is bureaucrat jargon for those Lifers who protest their innocence.  IDOM means "In Denial of Murder", and it is a ticket to a difficult and lengthy sentence.

Denial works both ways, and the criminal justice system has a long and disreputable history in this regard.

Consider the numbers; some 85,000 people in prison.  If the criminal justice system has achieved the improbable level of being 95% perfect that would mean there are over 4,000 innocent people in prison.

Just who is in denial here?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Self Loathing

You could reasonably assume that murderers are broadly against capital punishment.  And you'd be right.

But on occasion I bump into a fellow Lifer whose views are worse than a Daily Mail editorial.  These people give a glimpse into that taboo area - the suffering that murderers endure because of the crime they committed.  Such emotional twists and turns are hardly welcomed in the public discourse which prefers to portray us as monochrome monsters.  Sadly, it is also an area that prison staff, such as psychologists, run away from in horror.

These emotional convolutions can express themselves in incredible depths of self-loathing, to the degree that some Lifers support a return to executions.

Whilst I empathise with their distress, I'd prefer they pick an avenue to pursue that doesn't involve those of us who prefer to remain alive!

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Courtesy of the canteen facilities in the visits room, I have discovered the joys of "cheesy chips".  You guessed it - fries sprinkled with grated cheese!

What else have I been missing??

Friday, November 4, 2011

Barrack-Room Lawyers

Barrack-room Lawyers (BRL) must surely be distinguished from Jailhouse Lawyers (JHL) who comprise an honoured and dedicated collective.

For me, a BRL is often just a pain, an embarrassment.  It is a prisoner who is forever bleating that something or other is "agaisnt human rights".  But, in constrast to the JHL, the BRL is a prisoner who has rarely even read the ECHR and whose only use for The Times Law Reports is as material for an emergency cigarette paper.

The BRL may have a dim but certain realisation that "rights" do exist, and he shares with the JHL the knowledge that the law does not stop at the prison gates.  But that is the extent of the common ground.  The BRL does, if anything, make the life of JHL more difficult on the prison landings.  By being unable to add legal substance to his vague assertions, the BRL diminishes the weight of the rules, the law, in the eyes of prison staff.

Prison regulations and the legal context within which they sit are complex and ever-shifting.  They are not shallow waters in which to paddle on a whim, rather they are a deep pool into which the earnest prisoner must immerse himself.

The Law can be a keen-edged weapon.  Misuse it, deploy it ineptly, and you dull its edge to the detriment of the next prisoner who wields it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Death of the IPP

The last Government's poisonous legacy to penology, the Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection, is finally to be buried.

Alas, the thousands of people in prison because of it can't jump for joy yet.  The Government still lacks the decency to resurrect those suffering this stupid and wicked sentence back into freedom.

This is only half a job done.  The fight to truly expunge this disastrous sentence and its effects must continue.

Rumours of Rumours

One of the odd and unsettling aspects of the local culture is the seemingly infinite willingness of a lot of prisoners to spread gossip and repeat private conversations.  In such a captive, introverted community such indiscretion can be a recipe for trouble.

I find this strange.  As a political and legal activist I am used to having conversations that remain private.  Finding myself in a situation where everything that's said is repeated out on the landing is disturbing.

Even so, I shall try to maintain my practice based on Chatham House rules - whatever is said in my cell should damn well stay there.