Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hip Hip for the Doc!

After a full hour of mind-bending tedium in the woodwork shop, the GP has rescued me from the perils of sandpapering.
It seems that I'm such a physical wreck that manual labour and I should part company for the time being. Damn...
Note to future employers: Just don't expect me to lug stuff about or dig ditches. Apart from that, I'm your man. And reasonably priced as well!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Punitive Health Care

Outside of bad porn or dim basements in Essex, being punished by a nurse is an uncommon occurrence. Except in prison.
What penalties do you suffer if you fail to attend an appointment with your GP? If you really take the Mickey, being struck off his list; but for missing the odd surgery? Perhaps some verbals from the practice manager, a sternly worded letter or two?
The NHS - repeat, NHS - staff who work in prisons have a more potent arsenal to draw upon, the privilege system. For failing to attend an appointment they can issue a formal warning under the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS).
These warnings affect our level of privileges. How much money we can spend to phone our families. How often we can receive a visit. And, at open prison, when or whether we can work in the community or have home leaves.
Even if we put aside the legality of NHS staff using the prison's mechanisms of control, the question of its ethics is something I'd really like to see justified.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

How Your Value is Judged

In your world the question, "What do you do?" is heavily loaded with socioeconomic meaning. You know that the way you earn a living can be used to judge everything from your intellect to your ethics.
This isn't the case in prison. Our employment is not viewed as a central part of our identity. We may ask each other "Where do you work?", but the response is only a small part in the jigsaw that comprises who we are and far less important in the judgement of identity than sentence or time served.
This may be a function of how prison work is allocated. The blind hand of the market plays no part - the needs of the institution and management imperatives are all important. The needs of prisoners are largely irrelevant, even though this failure to train useful skills may have very real consequences in terms of reoffending.
On a very personal level I can't help wondering about the bureaucratic mind which saw fit to allocate me to a workshop in order to sandpaper prison furniture. Having already spent several months scrubbing floors I wondered if there would ever be a point at which my keepers would consider that I may just may have abilities which could be used to make a more positive and significant contribution to prison life?
Or is this situation a reflection of management attitudes - prisoners are stupid and useless? Perhaps it is over optimistic of me to think that, in the last few months of my sentence, staff may think, "hey, he's on his way out, lets see just what he is capable of?"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Improbable Correlations

As the height of the prison perimeter fence decreases, the height of the toilet doors increase. True.
Both reflect the malign imaginations of our keepers. And so, at Open, there is no security fence, it is a redundant feature. Similarly, in Closed prisons the toilet doors are half-height, leaving you staring passers by in the eye as you sit about your business. Obviously, Devious Things would occur behind full sized doors. Obviously...
In Open, though, we are trusted to go about our toilet behind the privacy of a full sized door. 
Live and learn!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Why oh why does every other notice from management have to end with blood curdling threats of sanctions?

We get it.  Bad boys are slung out, OK?!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cast Adrift

One of the pains of imprisonment is the dependancy that the prison service insists upon. We have to rely upon staff for everything from supplying toilet paper to organising release. The full range of human activity is constrained, denied to the prisoner except through the agency of staff.

Until you reach open prison.  Sudbury has a 'do it yourself" attitude, leaving us to fend for ourselves.  This is a shock to some, an irritant for others and liberation for many.

It has its drawbacks.  Prison is prison, open or not, and there are crucial moments when we must engage with the "Administration".  This is not easy when they are nowhere to be found!

Autonomy is also at it best when it rests on sound and plentiful information. The basics, such as where to find our food through to the momentous such as when do I begin my home leaves. This places a burden on staff which is inimical to the attitude of benign neglect that of necessity shakes us out of our previous state of dependancy.

Whether the precise balance has been found here is something I'm yet as unsure of, but as I bomb about the place trying to get my life organised feel sure I'll soon find out.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

In a segregation unit far away in time and distance, the night patrol was stomping up and down the corridor in his boots, keeping the prisoners awake. This was rude in the extreme; night staff usually wear appropriately silent footwear lest they disturb their charges.

This particular fellow was being ignorant in the extreme, and was subjected to volleys of abuse, all of it unrepeatable for the civilised eye that graces this page.

Until, deep into yet another night disturbed by his footfalls, a prisoner's voice sang out from behind his door.

"Guv", he shouted, "when's Christmas?"

The screw, quick as a flash, replied "the 25th".

The impatient convict replied "No, I mean, what day does it fall on?"

The screw reached for one of the three items of equipment no screw is ever without, his diary, and began leafing through.  Much ruffling of pages later, he shouted back to the con "on a Saturday".

"Thanks, said the con. We'll make sure we buy you a present then - some FUCKING SLIPPERS"!

The Plan

Oh yes, there is A Plan! This comes in the form of a timetable of activities which must take place for the Parole Board
to release me in May next year.
It used to be that Open prisons worked to their own internal rhythm, parole board be damned, and so I expected to be stuck here for a year before release. Sudbury, bless it, has grasped the reality of releasing Lifers and offers four timetables each determined by the timing of the Lifers next parole hearing. As mine is May, 6 short months away, then my countdown to release is as follows:
In the first 2 weeks I should have an escorted town visit. A month after arrival,  I have 2 unescorted town visits and begin unpaid, unsupervised work in the community. This is the real Beginning Of The End, my first forays into the world sans handcuffs in 31 years. Am I ready? Yep. Are you..???

At 3 months in,  3 town visits, work and... home leaves!

And at 4 months after arrival, I can begin paid work.
By May next year I should be able to approach the Parole Board with a record of activity that demonstrates that I'm not a basket-case. They should then order my release.
This is all happening very, very fast.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Week 1 Part 4

My ambitions for the magazine seemed to chime with the Education Depts and I believe that they could appreciate how I saw developing the mag into a positive force and a small nexus of creativity within the prison - and as a channel with which to engage the outside community.
The words, "You're hired!" had only mjust faded when the phrase, "ah, but, ummm..." raised its all too familiar head. The job of editing the magazine is an "orderlies" position, and such jobs cannot be taken by men who have been in this prison for less than two weeks. Ability, necessity, enthusiasm, experience...all count for nothing in the face of "local policy". Neither does plain common sense.
And so at the end of my week of job hunting I fell into the clutches of the Labour Board. And they have ordained that the sum of talents and aspirations are best met by standing in the rear of the carpentry workshop, sandpapering bits of prison furniture.
I'm really, really, trying to stay positive...

Ed's Footnote: since writing this post Ben has actually started working on the prison magazine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Week 1, Part 3

Open prisons have a fondness for work that borders on fetishism. With this in mind the wise use all their spare time during the induction week scuttling around the nick trying to find a job. If this fails then the dreaded Labour Board makes the decision.
Given my various ailments, coupled with the failure to shove me in front of the GP within 2 weeks, I was handicapped in this unseemly scrabble for employment. Provisionally graded "Labour 2" (lightish duties) I found my options seriously limited. Obviously all the better jobs were filled long ago.
Relying on my more natural abilities, I began applying for jobs more likely to use my potential. The Library, the advice centre, induction, and - thanks to a quiet tipoff - the Editorship of the prison magazine.
The only door that was graced with a welcome mat was that of the Education Department; a nice change from how Education has treated me in recent years. Keen to replace the Editor who was soon to leave, and being longtime readers of my output, they were very enthusiastic at my appearance...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Week 1, Part 2

There are a range of ways in which to enter a prison, styles of adaptation, states of mind, which can profoundly effect
the way that time flows in that prison.
Although I was rather highjacked and dumped 3 hours away from my home area, given that my next Parole Board sits in a mere 5 months, I squashed every negative or arsey thought and determined to enter Sudbury with a positive outlook.
Through benign Fate, I've fallen in with a helpful and thoroughly decent bunch of people. They are full of advice, questions and - in one case - an endless supply of mischievous lies. In this respect, I've landed on my feet.
I also rolled into a double cell... The torments of this situation are vastly unappreciated by the uninitiated and it serves to ratchet up my baseline stress hugely. I am trying to write this to the accompanyment of Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Oh, the horrors! My cellmate wasn't even born when I came to prison.
Being ninth on the list for a single cell, this stress could gnaw away at me for some time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Open Prison - The First Week Part 1

The uninitiated often assume, if unthinkingly, that a move to Open prison would include something of a culture shock.
After all, there are few locked doors, no barred windows, no security fence...oh, the freedom!
I must disappoint you. Liberty is the natural, default, state and it is confinement which provides the culture shock. And never forget that Open prison remains prison. The lack of bars and fences only serves to highlight the essence of modern incarceration - it is based upon bureaucracy and managerialism. These things remain, perhaps exist in an even stronger form, in Open prison.
Open prison is also mindbendingly bloody boring. Being unlocked all of the time forces us to live an extremely long day, far removed from the fragmented days in Closed prison where we psychologically adpat to bang-up via the medium of sleep or bad TV. With seemingly little to do in these long days, boredom quickly sets in.
As culture shock goes, the psychological effects of moving to Open are no greater than being moved between two Closed prisons. Each has differences and nuances, but the dimension of physical liberty is not hugely significant.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lifer should mean Life.. .again

It never ceases to astound me just how many prisoners contain fascist urges, advocating law and order policies which might make Himmler wince.
Cornered by two such proto-fascists, I was berated ("nothing personal...") with the concept that "life should mean life" for murderers. Haven't I heard that dim-witted slogan a thousand times before? And addressed it in previous posts!
The problem with that idea is that the definition of murder is far, far broader than the common mind appreciates. No intent to kill is necessary. All that is required is an intent to cause serious harm, and death resulting. That intent can be inferred from the circumstances.
The legal conception of murder, then, encompasses old ladies who administer a lethal drug at their dying husbands request; through to the craziest of serial killers. And this is where the "life should mean life" chant begins to waver.
It turns out that, faced with these facts, what people actually mean is that Life should mean Life only for the murders that they themselves find particularly awful. And grannies bitten by the euthanasia bug are not included. Odd, that.
These glitches in the argument aside, I argue from a more heartfelt position. That no person is irredeemable. And that no amount of suffering inflicted on a murderer alters the endless fact that a person is dead.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Quote of the Day

Just to give you a sample of the wit that passes for conversation in prison, when we are sitting
around bored out of our skulls...
".. .I'm not gay. I'd never give a blowjob without wearing a condom..."

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Prison life is littered with small indicators of our status, particularly how far we are trusted - or not.
Does a screw step aside on the stairs to ensure that you aren't walking behind him? When he's talking to you, does he look over both your shoulder and his own? In these and other small ways our untrustworthy status is signalled, often to my frustration.
Open prison is the epitome of this. Some are festooned with CCTV cameras, even on the landings.  In others, the windows in the rooms don't open more than a few inches, assuming we'd be heading for the horizon if clambering out was made too easy. Not that a pane of glass hindered an escapologist but as a signal of trust, it sugg­ests that management focus more on "prison" than on "open".
Here, my window opens wide. So wide that I have to use caution not to fall out when I pull it shut. If we wanted to recreate the Greatest Hits of Colditz, circumnavigating a pane of glass wouldn't be on the list of perilous obstacles. I have a key to both my door and the one at the end of the landing. There is no perimeter fence of any significance - the one that does exist is said to be there to deter travellers from sneaking in and joining the dinner queue.
These are small things, but they signify acts of faith on the part of our keepers. Some, a tiny minority, break with that faith and they duly pay the price.
For me, these are significant signs that I am being invested with a measure of sense, that doesn't happen too often in prison.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Moving In

Reception is a low brick building that shows its age - over 60. I don't think that the local architectural society would object if I called the collection of buildings that comprise this prison 'eclectic'.
Old Receptions have a unique atmosphere, as if the walls ooze with the collective activity that they have long contained. New Receptions are sterile, the prison equivalent of MacDonald’s.
My property was searched, classified, listed, with distinct piles for that allowed and that forbidden. Overall the process was relatively painless - always a good start in a new nick.
Prisoners who smoke and those who do not are, as far as possible, not required to share cells. On arriving on the Induction wing this led to 2 non-smokers being swapped about to free up a cell just for me and my filthy habits. Each of them was in a cell by themselves and so both lost out badly in this activity. They end the night shar­ing a cell whereas I am in solitary splendour.
Rule 1 in entering a new prison - don't piss off your neighbours. Sorry, mate.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Moving on Up

Slung out of the Block for my last night at Erlestoke, I found myself on the newest wing. For a Cat-C prison it was weird, acres of steel and festooned with CCTV. Stranger still, the cells appeared to be taller than they were long, psychologically "heavy", like sleeping at the bottom of a freshly dug grave.
Twiddling my thumbs all morning waiting for my transfer, I became increasingly uneasy as the hours passed. Lunchtime came simultaneously with the wagon. Dragging my piles of books and papers I made my way between the wings to be met by a gaggle of staff waiting at the sweat box. Prison verbals were bandied between us.
My blood ran cold when I heard the escort mention in passing that we may arrive too late and so I may get dumped in another prison. The Cardiff episode lurched from my memory and I made it very clear that I'd raise hell if yet another move to Open was screwed up.
Being the only man on the wagon I was offered a choice of cubicle. The sweat-box was a new design that lacked a communal radio to while the miles away, promising a dull 3 hour journey. The seat was a tormenting sheet of horizontal plastic that made no attempt to acknowledge human physiology. After 3 hours my back was in agony.
Pulling up outside of Reception I began the seemingly endless wait as my property was unloaded and my file cracked open. At last. The escort began to unlock my cubicle, paused, then asked himself why he was reaching for his handcuffs in an Open prison...?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Beware of the Snakes

During the induction talk the staff warned me about the dangers and prevalence of "black mamba".  Lethal snakes in Derby were not on my list of potential Cat-D pitfalls...

Inquiries revealed that Black Mamba is a legal high that substitutes for cannabis and is undetectable on urine testing. Its popularity speaks for its efficacy.

I'm not tempted.  But I will now be treading more cautiously in the long grass...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Victims (yet again)

I don’t recall saying that I would avoid topics which may be uncomfortable, controversial or even offensive.  Putting the full weight of the State on a person and throwing them into prison is a profound act. It is to expel them from their community and to deliberately inflict suffering. Given the seriousness of this, then confining the debate to some comfortable island, to bow to sacred cows, or to merely bandy trite stereotypes around would be cowardly and pointless. As I have a voice, it would be pure ego to use it merely to flatter you or to polish my own image. As the only regular prison blogger in this country then I feel a responsibility to strip away the detritus that often passes for penological debate and attempt to deal with some of the difficult issues. This clearly makes some readers uncomfortable.

One of the most sensitive issues is that of the victims of crime. Those who have followed the blog from its early days will understand that I decline to be led by popular opinion on victims’ issues. At the same time, I refuse to poke at victims’ issues merely to provoke outrage. There are genuine issues to debate and I will on occasion raise them.
This may seem to be indecent and I'm not insensitive to that. People whose lives have been wrecked by crime should receive support and the utmost consideration as indiv­iduals. Human suffering should provoke our empathy.
As a collective, some victims have grouped to form a political lobby whose effects are visible throughout the criminal justice system. Individual victims may - from plain decency - be left in peace but political lobby groups are legitimate targets for debate or criticism. The alternative is to abandon policy-making to the hands of a particular group, whose agenda may not be for the good of the wider society.
Such criticism may seem unseemly. That is the price of debate. That such subjects are being analysed by a murderer seems to be plain crass or foolish, as one commenter alleges. That may be so.
As a member of a society whose criminal justice system is being warped by victims lobbying, I maintain that I have every right to join the debate. Justice should, after all, belong to all of us. As a prisoner whose daily living conditions and progress to release are affected by victims lobbying efforts, I insist that I have a perfect right to be heard. And as a man who lost his sister to a violent crime I myself am a victim and on that basis I feel it should not be viewed as improper that I have a voice. Unless only "nice" victims are allowed to speak?
In some sense I may be uniquely placed to speak on such issues. As the singular prison blogger, and as both the perpetrator and victim of homicidal crime, I may offer a bridge that could span the chasms in these debates.  And if some readers find such debate uncomfortable I can only hope that they examine their beliefs.
An uncomfortable  debate  always holds the potential  to be  a  deeply productive  one  and this blog always  prefers  to  generate   light  rather  than  heat.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Mysterious Mind of Management

A governor told me that he was looking to create a new orderly position, duties to include keeping the myriad notice boards up to date.

Negotiations were going well until he suggested the job title - "information orderly".

Was he trying to get me killed?!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Rules

Sprinkled amongst other posts across Christmas and the New Year will be a number of posts relating to the Prison Rules.

The Prison Rules 1999 are, to you, a few clicks away. It is their meaning, context and the way that they shape prison life which is absent from the prison service website -an information gap which begs to be addressed. I just can't resist it.

Although the Rules are dated 1999 in nearly their entirety they are a rehash of the Rules of 1964...which in themselves were a rehash of the Rules from the end of the 18th century. You will get a flavour of this historical continuity when you realise that the Rules relating to the death penalty were only expunged in 1999 - a full generation after execution was abolished In the UK. Bread and water existed as a disciplinary punishment into the 1980's.

Obviously I wouldn't indulge myself or abuse you with a mere retelling of the Rules. It is their hidden meaning which justifies my writing about them... And if I include the odd tale of my brushes with these Rules, well, the Festive Season is approaching and levity begins to creep in. And to stave off any who may be tempted to bleat about the influence of Human Rights legislation on the Rules, it is worth noting the provisions of Rule 34:

"...a prisoner shall not be permitted to communicate with any person outside the prison, or such person with him, except with the leave of the Secretary of State or as a privilege..."

That's my excuse for failing to deal with my unanswered correspondence - and I'm sticking to it!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bureaucracy v Reality

Is it not the hallmark of the true bureaucrat that, unless the proper procedure is followed and the correct paperwork completed, then he is able to deny the reality standing before him?
A prisoner in the block was on hunger strike. He simply refused to attend the hotplate where I daily offered the best in prison service catering...After missing three consec­utive meals this is logged by staff as an official "food refusal". Paperwork begins to be generated, procedures swing into action.
One member of staff took the view that he wouldn't log this as a food refusal because by his reckoning the prisoner was not following the "proper procedure". That the man would be just as dead in several weeks was neither here nor there, proper procedures MUST be followed. In their absence, the reality of starvation could be denied.
Is this not a sign of a lack of humanity? An indication that bureaucracy can become a reality in its own right and one that denies something in the human spirit?
And should such a corroded, misguided soul ever be given authority over the welfare of other human beings?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Just to state the bleeding obvious, prisons are not pubs. There are severe restrictions on where we can now smoke in prison; essentially nowhere except in the open air and in the sanctity of our cells. The analogy is that our cell is our home.
Those who suspect that the under-occupation of the Isle of Man prison is related to it being a wholly non-smoking institution, and therefore unwelcoming to the criminal classes, are fixating on an overly simplistic idea. All prisons for young prisoners (under 18) are non smoking and their places are wildly over-subscribed. There is no correlation between prison conditions and crime rates, for the reason that no criminal believes he will be caught before setting out to commit his wicked deeds.

Monday, December 5, 2011


The wages prisoners receive for our labours are pathetically meagre and yet must bear the weight of many demands. One of these is maintaining contact with the outside world through letters and phone calls.
This situation prompts us to save pennies wherever we can and one way is to steam off stamp? from mail received and to re-use them. This is a fraud on our inept pos­tal system that I have no great justification for save necessity.
The prison service, intent on maintaining our poverty, sinks so low as to actually scribble with a biro across stamps on incoming nail, preventing this recycling.
Is this the most menial job being done by a public servant known to Man???

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Coffee Jar

Some while ago we were prohibited from buying any goods which arrived in a glass jar.
Coffee was the most obvious casualty.
This policy - enforced across every prison - was a knee jerk reaction to events in a Block up north. It was alleged that a prisoner attempted to murder three screws by way of a broken bottle of sauce. History does not recall whether it was tomato or brown.
The prisoner has now been acquitted. Pity he can't celebrate with a nice cup of Nescafe...!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Orwell Prize

Having fallen last year as my writing attempted to leap the gap between the longlist and the shortlist, I hesitate slightly to put myself forward again.

The past year has been a difficult one, where my writing has been frequently disrupted. Throw in the loss of my word-processor and a blown central fuse and I do wonder if I have produced ten posts which are worthy of submission. Sans internet access, I also haven't a clue as to what I've written and cannot look it up. A strange situation.

The Editor will obviously have a prominent role in organising this year’s submission, although she will have to read my whole year’s output. as I did last year, I also invite readers to pop over to read the Orwell criteria and highlight any of my posts which they think may be worthy of submission.

I'd like to say that if I won, then I'd take you all out for a drink...

And as look back over the past year, I must thank you for your patience. How, and what, I write is obviously a reflection of the state of my life and the vagaries of my mental state. Neither has been at its peak this year and that you hang about reading what even the Editor has characterised as being crap on occasion, I can only count my blessings that I have the only real comfort for any scribbler - an audience.

As I regain my mental footing and refuel the fires in my belly, I hope that I may repay your patience.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Novel Resettlement Scheme

The willingness of Britain's Upper legislative chamber, the House of Lords, to continue to employ members on their release from prison warms my heart.

If only other enterprises were so open minded...