Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Holiday

The past year has been astonishing and full of change and wonder. May we all be blessed with a hopeful new year - and a thoroughly dissolute Christmas.

Many thanks for your interest, comments and support.

Back in a couple of days!

Ben and The Editor

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mobile Phones

The prison system is awash with mobile phones. In the last year, 7329 phones or SIM were discovered. Extrapolate from those found to those remaining and it can be appreciated that a serious potential problem exists.

When I say "problem", the law and order lobby may instinctively assume I am referring to the crimes allegedly committed through access to mobiles by prisoners. Such is the belief that mobiles are a nexus of wickedness that a new law has been quickly shepherded through Parliament allowing prisons to install blocking technology.

What I predict as the "problem", though is the fact that British Telecom and the Prison Service must be losing a fortune from their captive customers is so many of them are exploring the free-market and opting for mobiles over the official prison payphones. And that isn't a problem for me, prisoners, or anyone - except BT. At 9p a minute to call ones family through the payphones, the delights of mobile call-plans are hard to resist.

But to return to the essence of this post - the new blocking technology, based on arguments that mobiles are used to commit crime.

If you are to take up a chunk of Parliamentary time and effort, if you are to explore the wilder reaches of technological development, and if you are going to pressure Governors to festoon their prisons with these systems then you would think that the Ministry of Justice or the Prison Service would be able to substantiate the scare stories.

Wouldn't you? Then you would be wrong, wrong, wrong. Having lobbied for this law to install jamming technology, when put on the spot to say just how many crimes have been committed using mobiles the official response is.... "we don't know and don't intend trying to find out".

This, dear reader, is how daft laws become born and how ignorant policy makers bumble through their paltry existence. It's embarrassing.

But not as embarrassing as the fact that, in passing this Bill through Parliament, not a single legislator thought to ask the question - how much crime is committed with prison mobiles, and are we all wasting time and money on this law?

Conviction by Statistics

If you happened to be around when several people died, be afraid. Obviously you shouldn't find yourself in that situation too often, granted....unless you're a nurse like Colin Norris, caring for seriously ill elderly patients.

A brief canter through Colin's case - his conviction for serial murder and the evidential doubts - can be read here at Private Eye: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/sections.php?section_link=in_the_back&issue=1329

There are several threads in this case which are common in wrongful convictions, beginning with the very shaky scientific evidence. More disturbing was the cherry-picking of "victims". Other patients died of seemingly identical causes but were excluded from the inquiry - because Colin wasn't on duty. This leads to a beautifully symmetrical circle of prosecutorial fallibility. In excluding these other deaths, then Colin becomes a "common denominator" in the remaining deaths - conviction by statistics. Obviously, include the other deaths and an acquittal is certain....

Colin's case is one of those investigated by the InsideJustice team based at InsideTime, and I am so proud to be a part of a group of people who share an abhorrence for injustice. Including forensic specialists, lawyers, investigators and (from January) me, InsideJustice is one of the very few avenues left for those wrongfully convicted since the mainstream media appeared to lose interest in investigating this dark corner of our criminal justice system

The wrongly convicted live a shadowy existence. They not only suffer all of the pains of imprisonment that accrue to the guilty but suffer extra torments. In asserting their innocence the prison system denies them "privileges" and slows their progress towards release. The innocent pay a heavier price than the guilty.

Over the following year I will return to this theme and draw your attention to specific cases. Why? Because no one should be allowed to forget that innocent people rot in prisons, and because they should know that there are those who actually give a damn. It may be small comfort, but if it is all I can do then I should.

Colin Norris. Remember that name.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Random Abuse and Stuff

The recent influx of commentors who repeatedly insist on contaminating otherwise interesting threads has led some to suggest that I censor comments. I would rather not. But I also know that these demi-trolls can annoy other readers.

My solution will doubtless please no one at all, but this is it (at least for now): this post is the thread where general digs, abuse and other off topic stuff can be posted and read. Short of libel, if you take the time to write it then I will give you the space to post it.

But if I judge a comment on another thread to be more heat than light, more crap than wit, then it ends up being deleted.

Needless to say, any abuse on this policy should be posted here.....

Miscarriages of Justice

That the criminal justice system is quite fallible is something that we all prefer to never think about. When a person is convicted, it is a rare individual who immediately wonders if the verdict is correct.

This outlook is, perhaps, a necessary one. In a world we broadly believe to be governed by laws and reason, a mindset which doubts the essential goodness of the mechanisms of justice would perpetually face a bleak vista. To doubt the institutions which are intended to bind together our disparate wishes into a coherent social whole is to necessarily feel somehow vulnerable, as if life is far more unpredictable - dangerous, even - than these institutions should allow.

And so we bumble through life broadly, unthinkingly, assuming that all is tickety-boo. Until there are those very public moments when an injustice is so blatant, has become so cancerous in the body of Justice, that it has to be expelled - leaving a delighted, angry and bewildered person being dumped on the street outside of the Court of Appeal.

Only then do we have the courage to unblinkingly, if fleetingly, somehow admit that bad things do happen and rarely by simple "error" or "mistake". The scales of justice are weighted against defendants and tipped resolutely against the convicted - rightly or wrongly. The sight of these rare public exonerations often pleases people, as if somehow they reveal that right will ultimately prevail, that our system of Justice will ultimately hold Truth to its bosom.

I don't see it that way. Having shared anger and many cups of tea with innocent men as we navigated through the carceral archipeligo, I had the comfort in the face of difficulty to know that I was, at least, guilty. The innocent do not, and their experience can only be a living nightmare.

Juries do make mistakes. But the path to Justice usually goes badly awry long before the tainted, mis-shapen and partial evidence reaches them. And it persists long afterwards, as the Court of Appeal seemingly resolutely twists and turns to salvage a conviction that all other eyes can see has so eroded in the face of examination that it has become an empty declaration.

The resources aimed at miscarriages of justice are minuscule, though the efforts of those involved are profoundly personal and often Herculean. At times such effort must appear to Sisyphean. And yet to those who daily suffer the indignities of being shut behind bars by screws who say "happiness is door shaped", the work of miscarriage of justice groups must sometimes offer the only sliver of sanity in a life which is otherwise a construct of the insane.

We forget, to our peril, that Justice is not only blind but profoundly human - and that means fallible, venal, stupid, malicious, lazy and corrupt. And to imprison the innocent is a wickedness that we all too often ignore in our rush to condemn those who believe have harmed us.

They deserve better. Our system of Justice deserves better. And, most of all, those innocents need us all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Labour of Conviction

Good news.


Monday, December 10, 2012


What is the point of engaging with social media? Why blog, why tweet? I cannot think of anything duller than repeatedly standing up and preaching to the converted. Love you all as I do, obviously, and my giant ego always appreciates being flattered, such an exchange becomes blunted by familiarity over time.

The underlying essence of the blog was always to inform, provoke and entertain. Over the past years I hope that, in some measure, I have at least occasionally delivered on this ambition. It was, in a real sense, never intended to be about me – but I was the peg on which issues could be hung and debated. If your postman wrote a prison blog I suspect you’d not be reading it; the author is important, but never intending to be central.

By intruding into the public space I knew that there was some chance that I would be a lightening-rod for people's views on crime and justice. And in a way I hoped for that and write the occasional piece that is deliberately provocative.

The only way to change opinions is to engage with people, and that means the people whose views are most divergent from what I hold to be positive and useful. Hangers and floggers, in the broadest terms, are the people to engage with if change is to be provoked. Or even just to prompt a pause while they think.

And this is why I tend to go against advice that says to “ignore the trolls”. Well, maybe they are not trolls. Maybe they hold genuine, if barmy, ideas. And like anyone else, if you don’t engage then it is impossible to make them think. It doesn’t for a minute imply that engaging leads to thinking, but one is a necessary condition for the other.

There are limits to this, obviously. Time. Interest. And those who slyly try to dig away at me or the blog without actually considering the issues, they really don’t catch my interest. But as a general proposition, I will talk to anyone.

Ideas are formed and altered through the clash of differing constructs. Hurling abuse may be entertaining but actually grows weary very quickly. It can be a fine line, which is why I often engage.

Daft though it may be, only by talking to an idiot can he be informed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Brief Hiaitus

I am run down and plagued by post-shingles tiredness, pardon the brief break in posts for a few days.

On my return, I have more good news on the employment front....

Even if still no bank account!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Injustice 2 - The Thakrar Story

HMP Frankland – Kevan Thakrar, racist brutality, and the prison's response

It is rare that I write a blog about an individual prisoner. Whilst inside, any urge to do so was tempered by a rule prohibiting me from identifying either prisoners or staff. Now I have no such restrictions.

But I will talk about Kevan Thakrar. Keen readers will Google the name and find that he is a prisoner, and like all prisoners has been convicted of a fairly horrible crime. I don’t defend this.

But I would hope that his alleged antecedents do not excuse the staff at HMP Frankland’s Segregation Unit (the Block) from running a campaign of racist brutality that left Thakrar in fear of his life. His own unwillingness to be cowed was only made worse – in the eyes of screws – when he attempted to highlight the situation with his MP and the media, and defending his fellow prisoners.

And so the day came when a group of staff charged his door to inflict another beating. Thakrar defended himself rather too well on this occasion and stabbed three staff. He was promptly charged with attempted murder.

And Thakrar was acquitted of all charges. The all white, non criminal jury accepted his evidence of acting out of self-defence. As could be expected, the local media was hijacked by the prison governor and prison officers to portray this as an outrage. The brutality in Frankland has still not been investigated, the jury be damned.

Never willing to accept defeat, the prison service promptly dumped Thakrar in the deepest hole it could find, the Close Supervision Centre at HMP Woodhill – a dungeon within a dungeon. Their excuse for this act is the very crime Thakrar has been acquitted of.

Here is Thakrar’s own account:

"Following my unanimous Not Guilty verdict at Newcastle Crown Court for attempted murder x 2 and GBH section 18 x 3 against Frankland prison staff, by a jury of 12 white British members of the general public, I have been hearing a lot about how this was due to me suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Although it is correct to say that due to the serious gang attack I sustained whilst on remand at HMP Woodhill on 31 May 2008 that I do indeed have PTSD, the reason why I am innocent of any assault on Frankland prison staff is because I acted in self-defence.

Had I not defended myself, I would have suffered life-threatening injuries in a pre-planned racist attack. Staff at Frankland had taken exception to the assistance I was providing to victims of assault by staff in the segregation unit and decided my time was up.  How dare I report staff criminality to the police!

The actual tipping point came when I wrote to Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods.  I asked for her assistance in putting a stop to the racial attacks by staff and culture of criminality which was being covered up by a code of silence.  The help Roberta Blackman-Woods MP gave me was to send a copy of my letter to the governor of Frankland (thank you!) who then had enough.

Unfortunately I was still almost killed after I defended myself.  The Durham police have attempted to cover this up and I am yet to see any of the media report these real facts.

The Prison Service, which feels embarrassed by this whole situation, has kept me locked away in the isolation unit of the Close Supervision Centre at HMP Woodhill.  For two years now, the psychological warfare has included stopping all communications to friends and family through mail and phone, and non-stop aggression.  I am an innocent man, wrongly imprisoned in the first place, and proven to be innocent of the false allegations made by corrupt prison staff – am I really worth £250,000 of taxpayers’ money?

I am sure everyone can understand my safety in prison from corrupt, criminal prison staff is now much harder to ensure. It must be difficult for Prison Service management to find a safe location for me to progress through my wrongful sentence, so I wait with anticipation to see where they will move this innocent man to.

It is a sorry state of affairs made worse by the pathetic lies coming from the corrupt prison officers’ camp in order to increase the possibility of compensation.  Surely the time has come for the oppressors to give up with their unjust acts and recognise that the 12 members of the jury saw the truth.  The time has come to move on and learn from mistakes made on all sides; attempts to spin more lies, half-truths and misrepresentations to cover up the racist, sadistic nature of the Prison Service institution help no-one.

The jury were unanimous: I acted in lawful self-defence using reasonable threat against the threat posed.  The way forward is to seek to eliminate that threat so no other prisoners have to experience the torture and no innocent bystanders get burned by the fire which the corrupt staff continue to fuel.  A ‘rehabilitation revolution’ can never occur until an independent body is tasked with rooting out these problems and is paid for every corrupt official exposed.

Kevan Thakrar, Saturday 18th February 2012”

There are those – perhaps many – who sincerely believe that what is done in prisons is done with consideration and in a proper humane manner. I cannot criticise those who live in ignorance – even if it is wilful.

But the situation at Frankland has been known throughout the prison system for years, and exists in the face of all official regulation and the various watchdogs. Power corrupts; and the prison system is the essence of State power.

All  can ever do is drag some of these events into the light. Ignorance can no longer be an excuse for indifference.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Injustice - The IPP Hostages

The injustice that is the IPP sentence has passed much of the public by. There are few column inches dedicated to it, rarely a televised word, and only a sprinkling of legislators have given a damn. And yet over 5,000 people sit in prison for no reason other than the fact that their avenue to release has been blocked by the very institutions which put them there in the first place.
In thrall to the populist media mob the last government created a new indefinite sentence – Indefinite detention for Public Protection, the IPP. There was no legal requirement for this new sentence; Judges had the Discretionary Life Sentence at their disposal to deal with those who they  believed posed a future public danger.
This was insufficient for the government, in that Judges had the temerity to use their judgement. With the IPP sentence, judicial discretion was neutered. A defendant who fitted a set of fixed criteria was obliged to be sentenced to IPP. Government predicted that only a few hundred people would be affected. It was a calculation of monumental stupidity and instead thousands of IPP sentences were handed down.
The government threw these people into the maws of the prison service and has watched them been crushed ever since. Those serving IPP can only be released by the Parole Board. And the Parole Board will only order release if the prisoner has completed various Offending Behaviour Courses.
The government has refused to resource the prison system to supply sufficient courses for the IPP prisoners, leaving them stranded and choking up the whole lifer system.
Now, thousands of people are stranded in prison. The government has abolished the IPP sentence – at last – but offered no solution or hope to those thousands remaining in prison serving that sentence. This is not only one of the most disgusting populist measures any government has instituted; it ranks as one of the grossest injustices.
Over 5000 people languish in prison, and their families stew in anguish, awaiting a solution.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Smoke and Mirrors

With a reoffending rate at around 60 percent, deaths in custody rising and general discontent from all quarters about imprisonment, it says something profound about the nature of our polity that the Minister of Justice chooses to focus upon preventing prisoners from "getting too cosy" with each other.

That's the Daily Mail happy then. Now, what about the rest of us...?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Survival Plan

I know that I exist in a highly privileged position. Few of my counterparts have the audience that I am fortunate to enjoy, which began with the birth of the blog in 2009.

This public platform carries many responsibilities as well as pleasures. One is that I don't cry wolf on my behalf, lest people become very bored and I would loath to abuse my position.

Over the past few years I have had the need, due to dire circumstances, to broadcast some type of Mayday. And that experience has revealed that Criminal Justice decision makers utterly detest having their business hauled into the public eye. The fear of publicity is so great that the Governor of my last posting personally read the blog every day, just in case.

Shining a light on my situation in desperate times has had a significant effect on decisions. The noise made by readers has saved me from getting a kicking on at least one occasion. When I met the Director General last year he complained that I was the guy whose readers were jamming up his Inbox. Happy days....

And now there is this difficulty with Probation. A crisis averted is one less hurdle to overcome and so I squealed loudly once it became clear that a bundle of grief was poised to descend upon me. Your vocal dissent over my position has been heartwarming and effective. Backchannels suggest that any adverse decision is now being pondered and passed by the keener eyes of lawyers.

My firm legal advice is that any restriction ion my public broadcasting would be unlawful and that we would win a challenge. Equally, legal advice is to comply with any restriction until that challenge is won. I am not keen to return to prison, I have to confess. Fascinating though I find the institution and the concept,  loath the actuality and always have. Returning is not a voluntary option.

The Plan, then, is to abide by any restrictions imposed - whilst simultaneously making as much noise as possible, through third parties, and going to the High Court with all haste. The blog, at least, will continue through the efforts of my glorious and mysterious Editor. And any battle will be widely reported.

For the meantime, normal service continues then. Thanks, again, to you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dangers of Censorship

Lifers may be released from prison, but we are never free. We continue our sentence in the community, liable until death to be recalled to prison. This is a detail of our – my – existence which is rarely appreciated as I appear to be building my life liberated from the confines of bars and bolts.
The parameters of my life are determined by my Life Licence (always in my wallet) and the demands of my supervising probation officers. You can imagine the potential struggles that can arise in a fluid and complicated life. And when the Life Licence is broadly drawn and interpreted by those supervising me.

I have always campaigned for prison reform. It has been woven into my daily life for much of my adult life in various guises. From helping those suffering a miscarriage of justice, to those defending themselves against malicious staff, through to the large campaigns such as the prisoners union and the vote. One way or another, fighting for change has been the strand that has run through my life; and still does.

As well as operating in the private sphere, assisting individuals, I am one of the very few prisoners who lifted our heads above the walls and attempted to engage with the wider world. At first this was largely through the pages of Inside Time (an excellent newspaper). It was only with the launch of the blog that my voice became amplified. The Ministry of Justice was so affronted by this effort to communicate that the order was issued to prevent all and any communications from me reaching over the walls – an order unprecedented in British penal history and thoroughly illegal. Within days I had overcome this hurdle and the Ministry surrendered; the blog grew and survives to this day.

On my release in August I entered the new world of connectivity, and determined to make use of every stream of communications at my disposal. Facebook, Twitter, the blog, newspapers, television…I have engaged with them all on one prison topic or another, all with the perpetual hope of adding to the perpetual debate around imprisonment.  Hope that it isn’t too arrogant to suggest that I have a near unique perspective to insert into the national conversation.

In these efforts, my first expansion into the media came on my first day of release with an article for The Guardian. The next notable public appearance was with Jon Snow on the Channel 4 news. And it was at this point that my Probation supervisors became uncomfortable.

For I am only allowed to undertake work – paid or unpaid – with their express permission. And my recent TV appearances discussing the Prisoners Vote issue has become a tipping point in this matter. Although unpaid, this is viewed as being “work”, rather than my merely continuing the campaigning that delayed my release for so long.

In principle, speaking in front of a camera is no different than my appearing in print, on Twitter or ion my blog. If probation are to insist that I beg permission before opening my mouth or reaching for my pen then I will be denied any voice. I will suffer greater censorship than I did whilst behind the prison walls.

This situation may appear to be absurd. And it is. And yet this is the life that I live, the constraints under which I am released into society. And it makes me fractious.

I expect a formal Warning Letter to appear imminently, prohibiting my speaking in public. If I defy it, I can be returned to prison to continue my sentence.

This blogpost is my flag-waving. If I suddenly vanish from the internet, it is because I have been ordered silent. I appreciate your support and comments on this situation.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Media Tart

It was a struggle to keep a straight face when I said to the guys in the office, “I must go now, my car is waiting…”

My brief flirtation with being a media-tart is the product of a lot of thought. My giant ego is robust enough not to need to see my name “in print” so to speak, nice though it is to be wanted. But that is no earthly reason to get out of bed at dawn to hit a TV studio.

In many ways this popping up on telly to disturb your peaceful cornflake munching is a logical extension of my public perambulations from within prison. And the motives are the same. There should always be public debate around prison and its many attributes, purposes and place in our society. When the State deploys its power in such a naked and violent form then it should do so in the knowledge that it is under the closest scrutiny.

That was the initial impetus behind the blog at its conception. Casting any light, no matter how meagre, into the shadowy corners of the State is, as I view the world, not only helpful but should be mandatory. We cannot hold the State to account if we are casually ignorant of what is being done.
The periodic upsurge in interest over Prisoners Votes had the media folk reaching for their little black books and my name sometimes appears as a viable Talking Head. Not too shabby-looking, free, and able to string a reasonably long sentence together….the list of requirements is hardly a lengthy one!

And if there is any issue related to prison that I feel I can contribute more light than heat upon, then I will continue to stick my head above the parapet. There are far too few of us either willing or able to do so and I feel that is imperative that (ex) prisoners intrude as often as possible into the various debates.

If we all retired into obscurity, the debate would be left solely in the hands of the politicians. And if it means I have to get up at 5am to prevent that, just send a taxi and I will be there.

Crazy Days

The day began with rather a whimper than anything more likely to perturb the ether. This was mostly because I had slept badly, nodding off near 3am but having to be up shortly after 7 for the hellish journey into work.

The train is awful. We are crammed so close that miscellaneous sexual offences are probably being inadvertently committed. Several can go past before I have garnered enough gumption to heave myself into the indifferent mass and shuffle towards Islington and my first of many coffees of the day.

Yesterday had a twist to the routine, it being the annual conference of the Howard League’s Student societies. Universities across the nation are home to societies which subscribe to the HL aims and carry on excellent work. London, a good lunch and some expert advice from HQ followed. And so I hove towards Oxford Circus for this shindig, feeling rather apprehensive.

Not being the most social of animals – an ingrained trait rather than a new artefact of freedom – the idea of mingling with a youthful horde scared the bejesus out of me. My role was to lurk looking interesting, to be touted around the various universities like an ancient verbose tart. The idea is for me to do a talking tour around the student groups, mixing my experience with the Howard League message. Note to the interested – will go anywhere for travelling costs and preferably a drink on top!

The day was spilt into various panels, discussions and workshops, each briefly disturbed by my creeping through the doors part way through. Coffee breaks were instituted at strategic intervals, which is how I found myself in a group comprising (ex governor) John Podmore, Prof David Wilson and Katherine Grainger, Olympic Gold Medallist.

That doesn’t explain how Katherine and I ended up in the café with her recording an interview with me. And you read that the right way around – I was being interviewed by an Olympic champion. Crazy days….

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bemused and Birthdays

I had assumed that on my release this blog would somehow wither. After all, release meant the end of the story.....

What I now find is that my stats have tripled. Even a guy with an ego the size of mine finds that distinctly bemusing.

It is a tiny blow to my ego, then, to realise that the post which has the largest number of all time hits is one written by The Editor - whose birthday it is today.

The centre of my world, the unseen rock upon which this blog was built and anchored, The Editor has laboured on a daily basis to see that my mutterings reached the blogosphere. Through thick and thin, personal; stresses and strains, she has been the driving force.

Today is her birthday, A Significant Unnamed Number. Go on, take a sec to wish her the best :)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Window Warriors

Conflict is endemic within prisons. Throw together umpteen strangers in a confined space, remove their control over any part of their lives and strip them to the barest level of resources and the recipe for conflict is endemic. People will invariably attempt to exert influence and control over some part of their own life or their environment, and struggle to improve their material lot.

The forms which this conflict takes are myriad. Dirty looks, refusals to engage, rumours, all the way up to bloody murder - the forms which conflict take are only limited by the situation and imagination of the protagonists. As are attempts to resolve and reduce conflicts. One of the few aspects of my life of which I am vaguely pleased are my oft successful attempts at conflict resolution. Walking that fine line between being a non-aggressor or a victim is fraught and not always successful - but worth the energy.

Conflict, then, was woven into my daily life.Nowadays I am most often surrounded by people who are not struggling in any particular sense, and so overt conflict is not yet a feature of my life. That is until you include the Web in the definition of daily "life". And I do.

The blog has been running for over three years and during that time has been a haven of relative civility. People disagree with what I say, and I refuse to either moderate comments or ban particular commenters. Censorship sits badly with any man who has suffered perpetual attempts to silence him. Despite this freedom, the amount of abuse which has flowed from the keyboards of the world has been remarkably sparse.

That was, until my release. For some profoundly unfathomable reason, no sooner was I released than the blog became a target for some screws. They pop up now and then, as if unable to grasp the point that the argument is over - I am free of them. Yet they reappear and litter the blog with abuse, either at myself or at other commenters. Still, I refuse to censor them. History - and the blogosphere - can read them and judge them, because I just can't be bothered. The saddest thing is, these trolls hide behind anonymity.

And then there is Twitter. Where people can cheerfully roll in to your conversation and attempt to wind you up, or just resort to the same dull abuse. It is painfully boring to deal with, honestly. And then they run away and block you from responding - it is, to an outsider, like being ambushed by a malevolent, if simple, toddler. It leaves me feeling bemused, and just a little sad.

And all of these web based needlers remind me of one of the most pathetic prisoner sub-species. These are guys who shout out of their windows after lock-up, full of piss and wind, every threat under the sun at their fingertips. We call them Window Warriors. Because as soon as their door is unlocked and they are within reach of their previous targets then they have a funny habit of running away, sometimes as far as the Seg Unit on protection.

Window Warriors. I thought I had left that pathetic species behind but in truth they just exist just as sadly out here. Only they let their keyboard do the work. Sad.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Weaving A Social Web

I was never the most sociable of prisoners. Not a recluse by any means, but endowed with only limited internal resources to suffer the company of others.  It was not a significant event if I shut my door and told people to fuck off and leave me in peace.

The Editor, fully aware of my broad misanthropy, led me ever so slowly into social waters. Meeting her friends one at a time, then as couples, a dinner party, barbeque….an ever increasing frequency and aggregation of numbers of people that would not unduly perturb my inner recluse.

Out in this new world I appear to have changed. A lot. Whilst I remain wedded to the concepts embedded in “leave me the hell alone” very quickly after release I began social networking with a vengeance, as if the more I appeared across our virtual world then the more “real” I would become.

Facebook was my first step into thus digital adventure, quickly followed by Twitter. Along with the blog – which I have always seen as being a relationship and commitment to readers – these new avenues of expression opened up vast possibilities to make connections. Fleeting, profound, trite, silly….the range of these new interchanges has astonished me.

Conversations have flowed with criminologists, prison staff, entrepreneurs, campaigners…an endless variety that inevitably exists in any society. And all, in their way, enrich my existence. For a reclusive individual with a low tolerance for the inane, the net has nevertheless become an essential feature of my life. Standing outside the kitchen door sneaking a quick ciggie is now always accompanied by my Blackberry and a peek at my Twitter feed.

Virtual presence has led to real-world existence. Meeting people I have known previously only through rather vague or daft usernames has turned a rather lonely London into a more fruitful place. Coffee and the odd pizza with barristers, CEO’s of campaign groups, theatre producers and media folk has had a strange effect. Rather than draining my patience for people these have energised me for  few days.

Articles have been commissioned, talks arranged, speeches timetabled…..productivity of every type has blossomed precisely because I now have developed the inner resources to “deal with people”. A quite unexpected development; one of many in this new phase of my life.

Prison, I have always maintained, is a profoundly social society in the sense that the connections made are intense, fluid, complex and often aimed at ameliorating the pains and deprivations of incarceration. A prisoner who can serve his sentence alone is a rare beast – and probably a bloody liar.

Even so, I am astonished at the richness of my life at present, and that is due to the people who help form my social topology. Wednesday saw me having some peaceable company and good food with my hosts who put me up whilst working in London. Thursday saw me giving a speech to barristers – both Baby and Senior – and then a supper in the excellent company of fellow Twitter users and criminal justice practitioners. The list of fascinating people in my address book grows almost by the hour.

One side effect of this is that I take on a huge amount of activity, commitments and work.  There is the “real work”, i.e. my job with the Howard League, which consumes three days a week in London and work at home. There is the blogging and Tweeting. There is a monthly commitment to Inside Time and a little input at Inside Justice. There are talks and speeches, conferences and travel around the country. And then there is the more personal, fluid social commitment to friends and colleagues, along with being a resource for students of a myriad academic persuasions.

This is what I would have previously called a “social hell”. That I am actually enjoying it – even as it exhausts me – is revealing more about the effects imprisonment has had upon me. Someone recently suggested that I may be “running” – taking on all of this activity – in order to put of stopping to allow everything to sink in.

Maybe, maybe.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Back to the Future

On the surface it all seems to be going remarkably well.

Sitting in the pub with my work colleagues on Friday one of them said, I hear you have a little experience of prison?” Keeping as straight a face as I could I dryly said, “Just a little, thirty two years.” She nearly fell of her chair.

It was one of those moments when I realise the immense span of time. Thirty. Two. Years. And two months later I am sitting in the pub after work relaxing with workmates, girding my loins for what transpired to be the railway journey from hell to get home. More and more frequently I am becoming subject to “culture shocks”, moments where the immensity of my sentence and the difference between these two parts of my life yawn before me like a chasm whose edge I must stay clear of. These moments fill me with huge waves of emotion that are, thankfully, only visible to those close to me.

The pace of my adaptation has been incredibly quick. On my first day there was a commission by the Guardian to write a piece and things went from there. Developing the blog audience reach, developing Twitter and Facebook, writing articles, giving talks, helping untold students, chatting with Jon Snow on the telly and now the consultancy business. That is just the public face of “Prisoner Ben” so to speak. There is also my private life, weaving my insular ways into the complexity and comforts that come from relationships and a shared life.

All of these happened in weeks. After 32 years, my whole adult life, in prison. That is a shift that many would have doubted was even possible. Indeed, I have fistfuls of reports from prison staff justifying my continued detention on the grounds that my aspirations (university first degree and marriage) were so unrealistic that I needed to be kept in longer until I recognised the difficulties I faced. Ho hum.

Shocks of the new aside then, my attempts to rebuild my life have been going improbably well.
I have to report to Probation weekly, to discuss what I am doing and for them to probe and test. Today I was unexpectedly hit by talk of “offence related work” and having to talk about how I killed yet again. Nothing new has been added to that conversation since 1982 and yet every criminal justice professional feels the urge to delve.

On the surface I walk past you on the street as another middle aged guy, albeit with a rather snazzy hat. On the surface, my life is developing well. But scratch away at this façade and you will find that I have a rotten part to my core, a burden that comes from having killed. It is ever present; the detritus of daily life provides a cushion, a thin patina of normality that I can use to absorb the knowledge of my past. But it never expunges it nor buries it deep enough to deny.

My new life is being built at the cost of another’s life. No matter how wonderful the future may be, the past is forever present.

Identity Crisis

Running around the high street in my attempts to open a bank account and deposit a cheque; one thing strikes me.

Everyone wants a photo ID with proof of address. The Prison Service spent decades numbering, photographing and generally attributing numbers and pictures to me. They then took all of their ID's back on my discharge.

The solution to most of the current problems I am facing is to issue every discharged prisoner with a photo ID as he leaves the gate. Substitute "HM Prison Service" with "Ministry of Justice" on the top and we can all swan off into our new existence with sufficient proof of identity to begin to rebuild our lives.

It would cost pennies. And would mean I'm not sitting in the shed looking for loose change on a wet Monday.

Sounds like a good idea...?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Start The Week

It’s an unusual feeling to start a week knowing that I had a job to go to. Obviously I worked for most of my time in prison, but there are vast differences! This was a “proper” job, with someone willing to pay me real money for my efforts.

It was logistically complicated. In my prior existence getting to work was a matter of stumbling a few hundred metres whilst persuading screws to unlock some gates. Getting from base to the Howard League in deepest Islington was a matter of more substantive planning and expense.

Probation have agreed that I can spend two nights in London staying with friends; commuting each day would be impossible on any level. Even so, it means carrying a bag of kit across the country twice a week and I so wish I didn’t have to!

For my first week I arrived in London on Tuesday evening. Early evening. And promptly got lost in the nightmare that is Waterloo station. I’m more of a Paddington man. I finally arrived in wet and windy Brockley after 10 pm and surprised my host by revealing to him that he does actually have WiFi! This gave me a good rest to start my first day as “consultant policy advisor” at the Howard League, Wednesday morning sharp.

 The trip from my London base into work was short and largely sweet – except getting used to crowded trains. And I mean crowded to the extent I had to get off in order to be able to reach my mobile. Rarely have I been in such intimate contact with so many strangers. There were moments when the contact was close that I thought I’d have to declare new relationships to my Probation Officer!

At the door to the office I paused, coffee in hand, to gasp one last fag before hitting the buzzer. I was now officially “a worker”.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The New Job

Perhaps it is a sign of the age in which we live. On my arrival at the Howard League I was handed a  PC rather than a shovel, and spent a period of time familiarising myself with various internal policies and the current campaigns. Organisational and bureaucratic stuff. Nothing too onerous!

Just after lunch - my first Big Mac - I was stopped in my tracks. A folder entitled "Child Deaths In Custody". Opened, it revealed  a list of children who had killed themselves behind bars, the youngest being the age at which I began my sentence - 14 years old. I was shaken, and remained so for several hours. Leaving work I wandered the darkening streets of London, searching for.....what? Some inner peace? Awaiting a revelatory flash to put all of this in context?

I felt drenched in misery. Events from past years and past faces rolled through my mind on an unstoppable conveyor of angst and I felt a certainty of anger at the centre of my being. It was that force that kept me plodding forwards in the face of official disapproval and semi-official brutality, it was a reconnection with the visceral anger that propelled me to dissent with my captors and their philosophy for most of my adult life.

I have had disputes with the Howard League over the years; their priorities have not always been the same as mine. And yet whenever I am asked about the purpose, the point, of such organisations as the Howard League I will now always recall the moment I opened that file.

Society needs dissenters, it craves those who sit in the aisles and shouts pointed questions. When we - and we are all responsible for the policies that put damaged and distressed children in cells - are content to have a system of criminal justice whose destination sometimes ends with a frail body hanging from a cell window then it is time to speak. It is time to act.

And it is a time to reflect. I am. Can we not do better?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Prison Staff

To talk about "prison staff" is an invitation to fall into the same trap that catches those who talk of "prisoners". There is no homogeneous group to which particular characteristics can be ascribed, either when talking about staff or prisoners. Each collective comprises a disparate amalgamation of types, personalities, interests, needs and intentions.

That said.....The place of prison officers in the debates around reoffending is that of bystander. I have yet to see any mention of the role or influence of staff in the discussion, they are treated as an irrelevance. And yet wing staff - the archetypal screw - are the authority figures which have the most dealings with prisoners and so could be said have the potential to influence their charges.

Some may recall my brief appearance on the (illegal!) blog run by anonymous prison staff. in good faith I was hoping to generate debate, to tease out any strands of common humanity that may exist between staff and cons. As ever, I was challenging but never abusive, playing the argument and not the man.

This was a dismal failure. I was bombarded by abuse, banned from the site and was followed by some screws who take advantage of my anti-censorship stance to post abuse here on my blog. And even though i failed to create dialogue, the attempt was instructive in the sense of gaining an insight into the outlook and belief systems of some staff. And I stress that caveat, "some staff". Generalising from those posting on their blog is as meaningless as generalising about prisoners from my blog.

There is a mindset amongst some staff that lags somewhat behind the research.....Crime is simply a matter of free choices and crims make such choices deliberately. And it follows from such views that prison staff have no role to play in reducing reoffending; it is nothing to do with them.

Of course, such a view of criminality is far removed from the reality, where crime is committed by the stupid, desperate, addicted, drunk, mentally ill....and the selfish. To suggest that prison staff have no role is to reduce them to being very expensive turnkeys.

The divide between some staff and prisoners may be important in shaping the view that the crim has of society as a whole. As a carrier of societies attitudes, as a barometer of authority, then being dealt with by staff who believe that you are "scum" or "vermin" (as said here and on their blog) inevitably colours your view of society - and then your view of whether it is either possible or sensible to try to live a straight life.

The role of Probation staff, Education staff and Psychology staff within prisons is debated and they are attributed with a place in reducing offending. it is strange that the staff most in contact with prisoners, then, is relegated to a sidenote, a caricature, and that this is allowed to pass unchallenged.

That some staff embrace a view of indifference to any role in reoffending is an abrogation of professional as well as social responsibility. we pay the price for it, both in their healthy terms of employment and in terms of future victims.

Prison staff should be challenged, not only for any wrongful acts they commit (brutality at Dartmoor, Scrubs and Frankland are low-lights of such) but for their deliberate refusal to engage with those they call "vermin". Because they have immense opportunities to change attitudes and to encourage the exploration of new, pro social, paths in life and the neglect of this potential is itself criminal.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

First University Visit

As The Editor negotiated our entry to the campus it suddenly dawned on me – I have never previously been at a university. For a man with two degrees, that takes some doing!

Led to the lecture theatre I peeked through the door – and had a puckering moment. What seemed to be a full house, all looking in my direction. As I told them the only other time I faced a crowd as large was the riot squad in 1990- but I hoped for a more positive ending from this gathering.

Mildly panicked, I used the remaining few minutes of the countdown to sidle (flee!) outside for a last cigarette. Standing in the rain, sheltered by my new hat, I pondered. Here was a room full of young and inquiring minds. Doubtless they attended from a mix of motives, from the genuinely interested to the morbidly curious, and I had to somehow engage with them.

Talking is nothing new to me. My brief appearance on Channel 4 hardly phased me but then the cameras were easy to ignore. In the lecture theatre the shape of the room, the immediacy of the occasion, demanded quite the opposite.  Smaller group and a smaller room would have been far easier to mesmerise, particularly given my style of extemporising.

The introduction I was given was embarrassingly fulsome  impossible to live up to but very soothing on the ego. Not for the first time of late I had a glimpse of just how strange my life must seem to others’.

And so I talked for 90 minutes, sans notes, huge images of myself and my cell flashing on the wall behind me. Bless them for their patience, because I paced too and fro, sometimes almost talking to myself as I reached back into my memory. It was like living in a flashback.

My delivery was god awful. There was a mic at the lectern but  chose to pace back and forth, and I wonder now how audible I was, how cogent. Never able to judge my own performance at the best of times, self doubt niggles at the edges of my consciousness.

What did I hope for from these guys, apart from their ears? That at some point one of them would be prompted to reconsider something they believed. Maybe, just maybe, I succeeded.

I did begin a bit mean; I asked who in the room was in favour of the death penalty, “who here wants to see me killed?” t may have been a little livelier if someone had stepped up at that point!

Thanks to all who gave me time yesterday. I truly appreciate it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

To Hurt or to Heal

All of the talk of rehabilitation revolutions are inevitably futile as ,long as we continue to have our fetish with imprisonment. Prison takes people who are often damaged and – as a matter of deliberate policy – damages them further before releasing them back into an indifferent society. Well, indifferent until the next victim is generated.

Punishment is a lodestone, politically at least, of the justice system. That “punishment” may well make a bad situation worse is completely ignored. Which is one reason why the criminal justice system is held in contempt by all parties, defendants as well as victims. After passing through a brutal process, no one involved emerges either satisfied or feeling better for the process.

Prison damages. After a crime that has caused harm, our response is a process which adds further harm. It takes a person (mostly a man) and separates them from their families. They may lose their relationships, placing higher burdens on State benefits and increasing the chances of their children wandering from the path of a decent life. They lose their job, maybe a whole professional career and will find it extremely difficult to return to a productive meaningful life. The costs to the individuals is huge and the cost to society is ridiculously high. The whole machine is geared at causing harm and it does so with brutal efficiency.

Throwing the word “rehabilitation into this seems quite ridiculous. It is the equivalent of blinding a man and then handing him a map of the road back to good. It is a nonsense, and we will reap the costs of that for so long as any policy maker suggests that prison can be even remotely a positive experience. Which is not to say that there are no alternatives; only that we, as a society, prefer the government to deal with the social trash rather than getting our hands dirty.

We should reclaim our criminals, if for no other reason than the government is doing such a lousy job with them. We could render imprisonment a niche in the criminal justice system, an odd relic that we may wonder why we fetishized in the first place. As a 200 year old experiment, the evidence is in – prison doesn’t work and so communities should accept the challenge of dealing with its most difficult members.

Canadian communities found themselves thrown into action some years ago in response to a sex offender panic. The government has altered sentencing laws which meant that sex offenders served every day of their sentence and then released into the community. Without supervision. It served a populist cause but saw communities having to deal with high risk sex offenders all by themselves.

It was the Mennonite church which stepped into the gap in the first instance and created a scheme which protected the community from the criminal and the criminal from the community. This became “Circles of Support and Accountability”. Short of a new offence being detected, government was out of the loop. And this concept was such a success that the K imported it, albeit in a different legal framework, to some success
It is a labour intensive form of community response. If necessary, with the highest risk ex prisoners, volunteers accompany them for 24 hours a day, challenging their behaviours whilst also assisting them to reintegrate and rebuild their lives. It is a deal from which everyone benefits.

There is no reason why we cannot respond to all but an extreme handful of criminals in this way, retaining them in the community. Except we chose not to; we prefer to write government a cheque to deal with the problems on our behalf. Except we are not getting anything approaching a decent return for our money and communities feel divorced from the criminal justice system.

Criminals grow up in communities, they live in them and they then harm them. It is in communities that our best chance of reclaiming people lays. To shrug off our difficult members and hide them behind high walls is short sighted, expensive, and ultimately futile.

Communities should reclaim their errant members and challenge them, supervise them and reintegrate them. Criminals are not a separate species or islands apart and fracturing their tenuous connections to their communities – as imprisonment does – only subverts any hope of a future with fewer victims. We need to decide to heal the wounds of crime, not to inflict further hurt.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Happy Campers?

The suicide rate in prisons is rising. The murder rate in prisons is rocketing. And the reoffending rate is shameful. And yet what the Minister for Prisons is most concerned about is the minutiae of the prison regime. Whilst the ineffective and expensive system rots from the core, Ministers roll out of bed with their main focus being the TV’s available to prisoners.

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said:  “I want to ensure that the public have confidence in the prison system. It is crucial that they are assured that any privileges earned in prison are gained through hard work and appropriate behaviour.  I am looking closely at the policy around the incentives scheme for prisoners, which has not been fully reviewed since 1999. There may be clear and important operational reasons for this policy but I want to be clear that these incentives are pitched at the right level and that they have credibility with the public”.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2224620/War-holiday-camp-jail-perks-Prisons-Minister-Jeremy-Wright-calls-privileges-earned-hard-work-good-behaviour.html#ixzz2AhS5mR2e

For the uninitiated, the regime of privileges that determines the minutiae of prisoners lives, from the number of hours they have on family visits to the amount of pennies to spend on stamps, is called the IEPS – Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme. It splits privileges into three levels. The lowest is Basic - often used as an unofficial punishment regime outside of the formal disciplinary system – which affords the prisoner little more than the Statutory minimum of facilities. It is a regime of perpetual bang up, the opportunity to spend only £2.50 per week, and one hour a month on visits. try holding your relationships together, your family, with that level of contact – and it being known that stable family life is a major factor in reoffending.
The level above is Standard. It is the level that all prisoners begin at and affords the ability to spend some £15 per week, two visits per month and in-cell TV with 9 channels. Poor behaviour results in being dropped to Basic. Good behaviour results in being elevated to the top level of privileges, Enhanced. Again, there is an increase in the amount of money to be spent (always if the prisoner has it, it doesn’t come from the prison), more visits, access to a wider range of jobs and so on.

The idea of this scheme is that poor behaviour is penalised, good behaviour is rewarded. On the face of it not a wholly outrageous plan…. Until you look at the mechanisms for allocating privileges. This is based on “wing reports”, that is comments written by staff. This is a very, very unjust system with staff liable to be variable in their views of certain behaviours and it is a scheme ripe for abuse. During my latter time in prison I found myself demoted from Enhanced for having a slice of bread on my locker (my supper) and for failing to attend a Healthcare appointment (which I had previously cancelled). This cost me my outside job and home leaves for three months in Open prison.

The loss in quality of life that lays in the hands of staff is immense and essentially unregulated. As such, the IEP Scheme is despised by prisoners and used as a simple way to harass prisoners by lazy staff. The formal disciplinary system, deeply flawed as it is, at least carries the patina of due process and judicial oversight. The IEP Scheme is merely a screws word against a cons. The inherent danger in this is obvious to any but Prisons Ministers.

As time has passed then the privileges variously permitted to various groups of prisoners has developed. Similarly, what was for the elite in society slowly becomes more commonplace then certain privileges within prison changes. The introduction of TV’s in the late 1990’s is the obvious change and lightening rod for most comment. Prior to this, prisoners were allowed only radio’s, and battery powered, Medium wave only at that.

The issue of TV’s blinds people to the reality of cell life. With work places for only around a third of the population, most prisoners will spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells. Most have a mental illness. Many have families to brood upon. Without TV’s, just how are these people meant to occupy themselves? Map the rates of suicide and self harm against the introduction of TV’s and the importance of this medium becomes more apparent and significant. TV’s have to be earned through good behaviour and rented from the prison at £1 per week, with only 9 channels permitted.

The gap in perceptions between the reality of prison life and the ideas of some commentators is revealed by the likes of Edward Boyd, from the think-tank Policy Exchange, who says that privileges such as “free gym use (how could prisoners pay, I wonder?) and televisions in cells should be made available only to those inmates who work”.  There isn’t enough work available in prisons, because investment has never been made in the infrastructure. How can a prisoner earn a privilege through work when there is no work? I hope that Boyd provides a quick solution to that conundrum. Like any Victorian reformer, Boys attributes miraculous powers of transformation to prisoners being used as slave labour – “The cornerstone of reform must be hard work. It will make prison not only a better deterrent for criminals but also a far more successful intervention to stop future criminal behaviour.’ This has never proven to be true in any nations prisons at any time in history, and signifies a desperate scrabble to interject into a conversation without actually having any grasp of the subject.

There are dangers to this Ministerial meddling. If he attempts to remove privileges which prisoners have earned under the current system, he will inevitably face a wave of discontent for moving the goalposts. The idea of marching into 80,000 cells and removing the televisions is risible, purely because there are insufficient riot squads available.

The point of this ministerial policy burp is a mystery, unless it is pure “get tough” politics. Fine, that’s what politicians do. But when this threatens to overlook the real issues of reoffending and suicide then it reveals a Minister desperate for a soundbite but lacking any coherent vision.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Longest Day

There have been many unusual days of late.... The last one encompassed a meeting around miscarriages of justice - the first building I've needed a clip-on ID badge to wander, followed by a bite and a drink with the ex producer of Rough Justice and the ex head of the Metropolitan Police's intelligence unit. This is not to deny that interesting days never happened in prison, but the sheer variety of activities that can be found in a "free" day is so much more eclectic.

It was a long day in London and I was tired, deciding to forego my usual peripatetic use of the Tube in the evening for the train home. With an inflamed tendons in my shoulder and elbow, placing my laptop in a luggage rack as I lurked in the crowded vestibule within sight didn't strike me as being an outrageous risk.

I was wrong. Approaching Didcot I stood aside as hordes crowded the aisles to leave my view of my bag obscured. And as the train began to move again I noticed it was missing.... After searching high and low I presented myself to the train manager who made a note and managed to give me the wrong number of the transport police.

Dumped at my home station in the dark and wet I was seriously hacked off. As well as a new netbook, my phone charger and a bundle of confidential papers were in my bag. Realistically - despite being in possession of a Crime Number and a letter from Victim Support - none of it will ever be found or returned.

Of course, this isn't the first time I have been a victim of crime. You don't stagger through 32 years in prison without the occasional bump into the unpleasant. As ever, being on the crappy end of the crime stick leads to anger, frustration and a bout of contemplation.

The first, and still greatest, challenge to my views on crime and punishment was provoked by the death of my sister many years ago. Like many victims of crime, I spent an improbable number of hours dreaming up ghastly and inventive torments for her killer and that phase lasted several months. Until it dawned upon me that my hatred and frustration could corrode away at my spirit and add to my grief. It certainly didn't help me in any way.

After much contemplation I realised that all I wanted from my sisters killer was for her to recognise the enormity of her actions, to look into her eyes and know that she carried the weight of my sisters death. Sending her to prison was utterly futile.

Who stole my bag? The temptation is to alight upon the youngsters loitering in the train vestibule. hile not all of the young are criminal, a depressing amount of criminals are young. Was it an opportunist grab for an item to sell for the next bag of smack? e will never know.

If the git is ever caught, could I actually stand up in Court and help try to send him to prison? No. Whatever mess his life is in, sending him down would make it a hundred times worse, and at great expense to boot.

An apology and explanation would be nice though. And this is the strength of Restorative Justice approaches. Criminals do as they do partly because they distance themselves from their victims; justify the likes of theft by either not considering the disruption to the victim or minimising it - "the insurance covers it". With the RJ process, the crim is compelled to peel away this facile view and face the reality of the person behind their crime, the people they have harmed in whatever way. And that alone is often a remarkably powerful motivator for reflection and change.

If "my" thief is ever discovered, I would hope that the response would be to aid him to repair the harm to me, whilst simultaneously help him to sort his life out. I fear the criminal justice system just isn't that sensible.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Not the Channel 5 News!

Ed here.  Ben was invited to take part in this evening's Channel 5 News. It was a last minute rush but do-able.  The taxi turned up on time and Ben arrived at the station to buy a ticket but with not enough cash on him to do so.  The guy in the ticket office refused to accept a card payment over the phone - First Great Western.

Not wanting to risk getting on without a valid ticket Ben had to go back home. Had the Cooperative Bank not turned down his application for a bank account for no reason, had he not been refused JSA, also for no reason, and had the guy in the train ticket office not been so unreasonable we would all be seeing him again to telly this evening!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Perpetual Lie

One of the most pernicious and repeated arguments for the use of prison is the minimalist one - at least whilst crims are behind the walls, they aren't committing crimes.

This is a belief hawked around by columnists, politicians and some rather poor criminologists. And I daresay that it chimes well with a "common sense" perception amongst a swathe of the public.

The only problem is, it isn't true. there's no mental or conceptual slight of hand here, it is just a straightforward fact. Like gravity. Putting criminals in prison does not stop them offending whilst inside.

The crime rate within prisons is a dirty little secret that no one talks about. Hundreds of thousands of assaults are merely a beginning. The murder rate is skyrocketing compared to the wider community. As for thefts, most are dealt with far away from official eyes. Criminals in prison are as wedded to their work ethic as out on the streets.

Imprisoning people is a serious business. If it must be done then let it be done on sound reasoning. To do so on the basis of lies and laziness is itself criminal.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I have just received my first ever voting papers! Alas, they are for the elections for the new Police and Crime Commissioners....

I could have some fun by loudly supporting the candidate I least like - "murderer supports candidate X..." That should help the opposition, don't you think?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ancient prison saying

How can you tell when the governor is lying? His lips move...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Proper Job

I can now say that as of November I will be employed by the Howard League as a consultant policy advisor....

Will say more over the weekend. Happy Ben!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Crime, Punishment and Irony


Travelling back from London today my laptop case, including laptop and papers, was stolen off the train. This leaves me in a very bad position, as I was in the middle of projects leading to good employment.

The irony of my becoming a victim of crime is something I will deal with tomorrow! In the meantime, if anyone has a laptop they can spare to get to me ASAP, could you please contact me through the blog email - bengunn12612@googlemail.com. I will repay you from my  first cheque, due in about six weeks.

And yes, I am livid!

Monday, October 15, 2012


Bureaucracy, that oft maligned collective of processes and people upon whom civilisation rests....Is making my life just a tad awkward.

Oddly, given my cynical outlook, the only part of The Machine which is working at some level of competence is the Probation Service. As they are charged with ensuring that I don't run amok, you may say that this is a good thing. As I am without my weekend in Cornwall or Spain, I may beg to differ but outcomes aside, the process is functioning.

The other two bureaucracies that loom large in my vista are the Jobcentre and the banking industry. The Jobcentre have been awfully polite, given me no attitude but been utterly stumped by my lack of a National Insurance Number. Week after week I have been turning up and signing on but not a penny has come my way- and I regard these arrangements as being thoroughly reciprocal. They expect stuff from me, they should deliver on their part. Perhaps I'm odd but that seems fair....

Until the day that they farmed me out to some private company. The Government, bless 'em, altered their policy earlier this year so that unemployed ex-cons get shoveled onto the same schemes as the long term unemployed. I believe that I pointed out at the time, rather sharply, that the reason so many of us were unemployed was that society treated us like lepers and being forced through all of the courses in the world wouldn't alter employers perceptions. The problem isn't me, it's them.

So now my benefits rest in the hands of a government contractor. And they are equally bemused by the lack of an NI number. And so I was pointed in the direction of an office in Bristol where I was impelled to cough up every and any piece of ID available - prison ID cards, Life Licence, you name it. Nothing that couldn't be done at my local Jobcentre without taking up a whole day and a lot of money in travel. Only to be told at the end that it would take three weeks to decide whether to give me a NI number!

In the meanwhile, no money for Ben. Seven weeks on £46. Which leads me to the much maligned banking sector. As a broad proposition, banks have laughed at my attempts to open an account, again because of my lack of an identity. All this changed with a very helpful woman at a local bank who took the time to sit down, go through my meagre collection of documents, and shepherd them past headquarters. It looks as if I will soon the the possessor of a basic bank account. A start.

In my previous existence my every move depended in some way upon a bureaucracy. Food, water, light, toilet paper, visits, phone calls...all depended on  a screw doing his job. The bureaucratic machine was not at some distance removed, in the nearest town or up the road. The Machine existed in the cell doorway, up close and ugly, woven into the bricks and bars. It pervaded the very air.

Perhaps "liberty" in some modern philosophical sense, is a function of how far one is able to move in the world before one bumps into the electric fence of bureaucracy? And that, therefore, liberty is not an absolute but a decidedly relative state of existence.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


As I am now blogging first hand, it's fair to expect me to respond to comments on a more frequent and ad hoc basis. That is part of the blogging experience, is it not?

Alas, every time I try to leave a comment of my own, it vanishes. Quite what the tech problem is, I have yet to work it out. Once I do, brace yourselves!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Freedom and Censorship

Freedom is something longed for by those who lack it, yet a nebulous conception that slips through the gaps in the mind when one attempts to grasp it. Is Freedom the absence of constraints? Or a suppression of fundamental needs? Or is it more positive, is Freedom the ability to move in whatever direction one chooses?

I am driven to ponder the nature of freedom all the more now that I am "free". The parenthesis inevitably exists due to the legal nature of my freedom - Life Licence. My liberty is conditional. And this causes some difficulties, setting aside weekends in Cornwall or Spanish holidays.

Paragraph 5 of my Life License stipulates I must seek prior permission before engaging in any work, paid or unpaid. And this is causing some befuddlement among my Probation supervisors. It seems that few of their charges are called upon to "consult" for various people or organisations, or who blog, or who have the odd piece in The Guardian. That I do all of these things is the source of confusion, stretching what is usually regarded as being plain and simple "work" into new areas for my keepers. I cheekily asked as, during my last Probation chat I exchanged emails with a Guardian editor - just how many Lifers are in this situation?

The essence of the most pertinent dispute with Probation centres on my writing. I have never, ever asked permission to write a single word. And there were more than a couple of prison staff who felt that this stance was in some way offensive, as if they should hold control of my mind as well as my body. Regardless of the consequences, the subtle and not so subtle pressure, when I sat to write in my cell it was without a moment's regard for my keepers.

On the day of my release I continued this tradition. The Guardian commissioned a piece to be written that day and I obliged. A fee changed hands for this effort, a standard arrangement for any freelance writing. And in that casual, unthinking way I managed to breach my Licence within hours of release!

The latest comment piece raises the same issues. Writing for publication, whether paid or not, constitutes "work". And work must be agreed beforehand by my supervisors. I obviously think that this whole condition in Life Licences is a nonsense but in relation to writing it is dangerous nonsense.

Because what I am being asked to do (on pain of being recalled to prison) is to clear beforehand anything I may write for the public gaze. A more fraught potential for censorship I cannot imagine in a democratic society.

A Small Comparison

As Charlie the mastiff shot past me, I grabbed for his chain - and seriously aggravated old shoulder and elbow injuries. Several stone of excited dog are not something to get in front of!

After hours of suffering pain in the way only men can, the Editor dragged me to the local surgery. We had an emergency appointment and a prescription for opiate-based painkillers all in under 30 minutes.

When I had this injury back at the nick, it took two days to get Healthcare to even talk to me and the result was the standard Lazarus mixture of Ibuprofen and paracetamol.

The official line is that healthcare provision for prisoners is broadly equivalent to that received in the community. I can tell you now, with greater authority, that is a lie of monumental proportions.

The difference lays in two factors. Firstly, prison medical staff work on the assumption that we are all lying bastards just trying to pull some scam or other when we appear to be ill. And secondly, prison healthcare providers scheme with prison managers to avoid giving cons prescription drugs lest they make drug testing slightly more awkward.

Result? I sat there in miserable pain. I sit here slightly woozy but functional. This is better.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Cheese Index

In times of war, famine and other straightened circumstances there seems to be a premium on butter. The same applies in prison, although what is served as "butter" is stretching the term beyond reason.

Small square catering tubs about an inch square, filled with some vegetable derived spread of unknown constituents; these are portioned out as if they were sprinkled with some precious metal. Hence the perpetual call on the landings, "Has anyone got any butter...?" For being a hungry bunch and not fed well, buttered bread or crackers fill a gap for the night.

All of this came to me as a potent mark in my change of status as I stood in the kitchen making toast. With a full butter-dish I realised that I no longer had to spread the butter micrometers thick.

The daily life of the free man is comprised of a thousand unnoticed instances such as this.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Career Change

There are those days when time sometimes seems to disappear, vanish in the drudgery of "stuff". Today I awoke with a mental list of things needing to be done and those not involving work, money or writing stay in that part of my mind labelled "ah well, got to be done". Highlights on that list include the physiotherapist (my back) and then my weekly session with Probation. The physio tells me that I have to learn how to breath again in a different way...makes me wonder quite how I've stayed alive all these years.

Having said Nein, Nope, Never Gonna Happen, to my request for a long weekend in Cornwall then I didn't have high hopes for my plea to accept an invitation for a quiet few days up in the Spanish mountains....And I wasn't surprised by their response - "local policy" says no foreign travel in my first year. Hmmm, may take a quick legal opinion on that one! They did give me good news on whether I could take forward a job opportunity though, and I can say more about it late next week I hope.

And I left Probation with a conundrum. When is "work", "work"? Because even voluntary work I do has to be okayed by them. So when someone threw me some paperwork and asked for my opinion, (no fee!), and I unthinkingly said I'd be pleased to pitch in.....turns out I may be in breach of my Licence. Oops. So can I help the neighbours mow their lawn, or is that "work"? Or answer any of the phonecalls and emails asking for this or that, free out of my large store of opinions? Probation are getting back to me on this. Can't wait. They may get me out of some housework!

This lot having taken a large chunk out of my working day I was looking forward to getting home, logging on and being productive. Along the way I picked up a DVD player and a large raincloud which hampered my every attempt to make a rollup.

After a mile walk from the bus in the rain I found myself standing, dripping and befuddled, at my door. The key wouldn't work. Twisting and turning, jiggling and bobbing, the damn thing just wouldn't unlock. Feeling rather miffed as well as sorry for myself I rang the Editor. "It just takes some jiggling and patience", she said and so I continued to bob and weave with Chubbs finest. It was, Dear Reader, a porky - as she left, the Editor had locked the door with the secondary lock, the one I thought we had stopped using.

Hmm. Faced with a locked door and pouring rain I retreated to the pergola for a fag and a ponder. I sat dripping and smoking, with Henley the cat seeming to share my broad disgust with the situation as he sheltered from the rain under my chair. Again I called the Ed., suggesting I climb through a particular window. She was adamantly against. And I was equally certain that sitting in the rain until she returned in 6 hours time was really, really not ideal.

To the neighbours. The only person in the immediate vicinity who knows my identity, she was more than happy to cough up a ladder, knife, and assurance to back me up if someone saw me and called the Old Bill. Armed and desperate, the ladder against the wall and I assaulted the bedroom window... Have you ever tried to break into your own house but look as if you are doing something completely innocent? It isn't easy...

Prodding, poking, writhing and twisting, I finally persuaded the window to open and squeezed myself into the house and out of the rain. And decided I was far too ancient and lazy to opt for a career in housebreaking.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Hello, I'm Frances..."

Travelling across the country on a tight timetable and limited budget took some thought. Coach was the obvious solution to get to London but I didn't fancy the pre-8am service! My first "real" job interview...

Obviously I set out booted and suited. The details I left to The Editor, one of whose many roles in my life is to ensure that I don't leave the house looking like Coco The Clown. I still smuggled my bush-hat out to help with the rain... Blackberry charged, netbook swinging under my arm, off we went to catch the coach.

The last time coaches featured in my life was "on the National", the weekly movements of prisoners around the nation on hired buses. Dreary wagons, as I recalled, and the prospect of 3 hours to Victoria did not fill me with joy.That I wouldn't be handcuffed to the person sitting next to me eased my concerns somewhat. In the event, I decided I like coach travel, the modern type with loo and power-socket at least. Even if mine wasn't working...

The journey to the Big City ended at Victoria bus station which I exited and promptly got myself lost. Having dumped a foot in a puddle that would startle even Dr Foster, I retraced my steps and went on my way to the relevant Tube. Popping up several miles away I found myself late, disorientated and scrabbling to find the right bus connection. A flurry of phonecalls to inform the Editor of my progress and the Howard League of my intent to arrive, I continued, pausing here and there to ask shopkeepers the way. Bless 'em, no one sent me the wrong way!

I arrived at the Howard League looking like a drowned rat and substantially late.Hitting the entry buzzer to plead for sanctuary, Frances Crook rolled up, skipped over the pavement and let me in. "I'm Frances", she said, offering her hand. "I know", I grinned, "I'm Ben Gunn". "I know", she smiled.

The interview panel was hoiked back from whither they had wandered and put me through a brisk Q&A for about fifteen minutes. Given the opportunity to ask a question of my own, I had the temerity to ask, "Are you giving me an interview just to get me off your backs, or is this a genuine opportunity?" That was, I thought, a ballsy move if not a daft one!

The Main Man took it well, saying he was half expecting that question. Reassured that this was not a mere patina of interest, interview over I retreated back onto the mean streets of London...

Coach trips taken in the dark have a profoundly different quality to those in the harsh daylight. There is a subdued, even intimate atmosphere, with hushed conversations and careful rustling as people tried to settle for a long journey. Approaching the West, I found myself barracking the driver as he made periodic stops - "At least give us a clue where we are mate!" My destination found, I exited outside of a local pub bursting for a pee.

Barreling through their door I found myself sharing the floor with an ageing rocker wielding a fearsome guitar and apocalyptic amplifier. Loo found and dealt with, I decided against remaining for the show for fear of being blown through the wall with every chord matey struck on his axe. On the pavement outside I tried to keep warm, smoking furiously and watching the pubs windows rattle in their frames. The rain began to fall with more purpose and I wandered the road. Finding a quieter pub,I nipped in for a Fosters and sat in the warm, yet again pondering the chasm between my life a mere few weeks ago and today. Home called.

The Big Interview

I hasn't even made it home when my Blackberry buzzed - an Email from the Howard League to say that I had scraped through the first hurdle and made it through to the final round. My first reaction was, bugger, how can I afford the return trip in less than 48 hours?! My second was - get in!

My family having yet again bailed me out, I set off for London. This time, I was deeply nervous, probably more so than when I faced my last Parole Panel. This was all new and I couldn't but wonder if I could accept the position if it was offered - and whether I could do the job. It would mean staying in London 4 nights a week - and persuading my Probation officer to agree to that. Hmmm!

The journey was so much simpler by train, to Tube, to bus, to feet.... Navigating the transport system of London doesn't seem to faze me overly much, given this was only my second attempt to conquer the city by myself. My usual strategy of "if you don't know, ask someone who does" seems to be paying dividends when travelling.

I was so successful that I found myself near the Howard League building with a full hour in hand, and bone dry to boot. Still extremely nervous I parked myself in a small neighbourhood cafe and sank a few cups of coffee, resisting the fleeting thought of diving into the pub across the road for a pint to settle my nerves.

Thirty minutes in hand I wandered down the road and up to the top floor. Causing a brief consternation with my electric fag, I settled in to plot on the opposition for the job. There were two, or three...we were staggered in time and so I am no wiser. Settling into a soft, if uncomfortable, chair I briefly chatted to one of the other candidates. An impossibly pretty Bright Young Thing who seemed to provide a steady source for the Howard, I had serious doubts as to my situation - did I belong here?

The interview was split into two parts, the first being a written exercise. While all around me others had their fingers flying with frightening competence across their keyboards, I hacked in my usual fashion with two fingers. Still, I completed my task with five minutes in hand...and was called in to the interview itself.

Decorum suggests that I draw a veil over what was a private meeting, save to say that Francis herself chaired proceedings and took me by surprise in her stance on a particular issue - it was more radical than my own! As with my first interview, the talking bit was where I felt more at ease, settling into the discussion. All too soon, it was over and I took a long meandering wander in the general direction of homeward bound.

Fortunately I had the opportunity to meet friends for supper. Unfortunately, this meant negotiating the Tube during rush hour.... Despite the heaving masses, I found myself in very good company and being presented with my first proper steak. It did not survive the encounter. This being London, the meal was served on wooden squares and I had to fight the urge to ask if they needed a few quid to buy proper china?

Devoured, drank and talked, then into the night to return to Paddington. It is a constant source of amusement to the Editor that I assume that everywhere in London is but a few minutes walk away, and I am continually reminded that the city is the size of a county. And, I learned, I had transversed the lot of it, meaning a long trip beneath the surface to reach the train home.

Along the way I felt the urge for caffeine and nicotine - my main forms of sustenance - and popped to the surface at Canada Waters. It was dark, crisp, the station seemed to me to be a temple to the capabilities of modern engineering, a marvel. Alas, one that failed to incorporate a coffee dispensing service... I wandered onto the streets, my pleas for coffee being met by strangers with vague gestures pointing to distant parts...across bridges, alongside water and ducks, the vista sparsely populated. Parts of cities look so much more ethereal by night.

Still bereft of coffee I continued along to Paddington, to be met by a shambolic information screen that ordered me to "ask information" - with the Information Desks unmanned. Grrrrr. Having missed one train, my last possible transport began at 11.30 pm. And then They decided it would grind to a halt halfway home and turn into a bus service. Frantic calls to the Editor, who booked a taxi to meet me at the nearest station at my ETA - 1.30 am, yawn.

Which is where I duly presented myself, in the cold drizzle, the whole town seemingly abandoned. To be called by the taxi company, "sorry, we can't come, the driver decided to go home..." Hope he slept well, the git! More phonecalls and another taxi was found. I rolled into bed at 2.30 am.

I would have slept in but was awaiting The Call. This time, I didn't get the job. Boo! But the whole experience was fascinating and I appreciate that my many talents do not extend to having extensive experience of office life. Another "thing" is in the offing, though....

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Ho hum. The Editor and myself asked for permission to take a short break in Cornwall. Since my release we have both been pretty busy and some time together bonding in front of a log fire would be so good. Probation have refused permission.


Friday, September 28, 2012


Of course I am hardly unique in having a perspective on prison life. Each prisoner has his views and those views are shaped by his experience. And the way that imprisonment is felt by each person is different. In that sense, perhaps, my voice is unique. That I was the only one to have the gumption to blog adds another layer of uniqueness. That I was the only man I knew who served from ages 14 to 47, yet another unique feature. That along the way I developed an academic bent, yet another. But my voice may, because of this history, be unique but that should never imply that it has some special standing. As I said, each person who passes through the Gates develops his or her own view.

The weight of imprisonment, the "pains" are differentialy felt. A short term prisoner feels the eight less. If he has a ready supply of Private Cash (moneys sent in), even less so. He is able to sit back and take advantage of the improved physical conditions of prison whilst ticking down his calendar to his certain release. His world is a small one, concerned with his neighbours and his TV schedule. Whatever irks him can be endured easier because of the certainty of his release date.

The view of such prisoners is that prison has vastly improved over the past couple of decades. And physically, this is true. TV's, showers, in cell toilets, being called Mr by staff. The patina of civilisation has indeed grown thicker with the passing of time and on this surface, facile, understanding then some prisoners may be tempted to revert to a silly holiday camp comparison.

The reality for those who serve more than a passing sentence is far different, for they invariably become enmeshed within the modern bureaucracy of control that grew up alongside the improved physical conditions. The IEP system, for example, is a charter for staff bullying. Why risk a career by being violent when you are able to strip a prisoner of a meaningful existence with a few strokes of a pen? And the second great burden is Offender Behaviour Programmes, a perpetual cycle of demands without end, each course leading to further "problems" being uncovered that lead to...the next course.

There are those prisoners whose horizons fail to stretch further than their TV or toilet. They fail to appreciate, for instance, that the latter means that they eat and sleep in their own private loo. The voices of these are as pertinent as my own; though whether their insights can, or should, have as much weight is for their audience to decide.

Prison has changed. It invariably changes with the social and political structures within which it is situated. On the surface this can appear to be a genuine improvement. But the essence of imprisonment remains constant, and any who claim otherwise are speaking from blinkered ignorance.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Big Ears

One after the other my life is currently a tapestry of new experiences. Last night the Editor and I went out for dinner - at the proprietor's invitation - and spent a happy few hours spooning each other various taste sensations. A candlelit dinner was a first for me!

At a nearby table there was what I can only describe as a LoudMan, who was content to declaim on any subject from the morality of MP's to the global economy. That he did so without once managing to reveal any insight or knowledge only added to the entertainment. I daresay we all know such people?

LoudMen exist in every corner of our world, including on the prison landings. But sitting in a public place and having to listen to this guy declaim about "holiday camp" prisons was a first for me. If anyone on the landings started down that road I would cheerfully insert myself into the conversation, especially if it was a screw.

In my new life I have to suffer overhearing the half-baked and ill-informed along with the rest of you. Social convention prevents me leaning over and whispering in his ear, "mate, you're full of it...". Decorum and all that...

Yet this is the type of person that I most need to reach, to engage with. God forbid, I do believe that I need a column in the Daily Mail....

Friday, September 21, 2012

Days unlike prison

I have returned to Facebook after a brief hiatus.

I have been banned by prisonofficer.org.uk from posting there, without explanation. Obviously they are free to comment here as censorship is rather repulsive to me.

My Blackberry decided to give up the digital struggle and has joined the great mound of circuitboards in the sky, leaving me sans a mobile.

Oh yes, and I applied for the position of Policy Officer at the Howard League - and have made it to the shortlist! My interview is on Monday.

I never had days so rich in the texture of living and all of its complexity whilst in prison and the contrast still shocks me.