Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Summit, revisited

For my sins, I did spend a period working for that arch exploiter of prisoners, Summit Media. Here
is how they suckered me, and the rest of my intake.
Summit were perfectly up front about the level of their wages. However, this was said to be offset by the level of training and commercial experience offered which, in their eyes, then set us up for a good career on our release. If this was true then it was a trade off and one that didn't seem to be particularly objectionable.
The problem arises when you realise that several years may pass in the period between leaving Summit and being released. What we didn't realise at the beginning - we had literally never even seen the web at that point - is that the web changes so quickly that a set of tools useful today may well be anachronistic by the time release arrives. No jam today but no jam tomorrow either.
This is the trap we fell into. Never again! If it makes you feel better, I was the first man they fired for breaching their security to access porn. A blow for the working man if ever there was one...

Monday, January 30, 2012


Closed prisons have a psychological as well as real weight to them. Exemplified in steel and concrete, a more subtle though controlling effect is the perpetual necessity to engage with the institution. From everything from toilet paper to food, there is a panoply of daily events which demand that we are dependent upon staff. In this way we are deeply and irretrievably enmeshed by the prison.
Open is different. Or rather, this one is. Not all open prisons are the same. Here we are disengaged, self motivating and self actuating, engaging with the institution in a far less frequent manner. There is a very real sense that we are merely "passing through", whereas in closed prisons there may be a sense of "home" - a permanent settlement.
And so in closed prison, a daily conflict or challenge made to the institution and its practices may be a worthwhile effort. Any changes that result directly benefit the campaigner and his daily life. In open, the sense of being a very temporary visitor reduces the urge to challenge, it brings into question the whole point of campaigning.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ben's Big Day Out

I've been out on Escorted Town Visits before, around one every 13 years or so, and they never particularly excite me. People always assume that the world has been transformed in their lifetime and yet in so many essential ways it is as it ever was. Shops are shops, people are people. So bumbling around town with a member of staff in tow, whilst being pleasant enough, has never raised my pulse rate.
This one was different, though, because it really mattered. Which made me begin to double guess myself and all I did, which increased my stress so that the day was not as relaxing or relaxed as it could have been. Still, as the point of it was to test me, this was a Big Day Out.
And lucky old me got to travel on a train, for the first time in around 33 years. There was no handle on the door, replaced by two glowing buttons to enter or exit. The seats reminded me of a cheap coach interior but then this was a mere toy of a train, a single carriage shuttle into town.
Getting on a train at a rural platform is simple enough. Getting off at a main station was not. Gone are the days of walking through the exit, waving a ticket at a conductor who would snip a chunk out of the item. Instead I was faced with a row of turnstiles. How do I present my ticket to a damn machine? On the telly people seem to wave their cards at a sensor, which allows them passage. Of course that was London, the Underground, and Oyster cards, but it was the only clue I had as to how to progress. My escort, Mr X, had slipped through without my being able to see what manoeuvres he had performed. I approached and began to wave my ticket at the machine like Harry Potter with a faulty wand. A railworker looked at me sadly and came across to rescue me. The ticket, it seems, went into a slot. Ha, simple, innit?
Finally unleashed onto the streets of Derby, cold and pissing wet, being stuck in the station actually looked like a good option. Onwards we pressed, up into the town to explore the wonders of the shopping centre and thereabouts.
Who'd have thought that every other shop would be a phoneshop, their wares seductively drawing me ever nearer? These temptations only gave way when a food retailer needed space. Phones and food, phones and food, over and over, around each corner we turned. I just had to see what the fuss was about with the IPad and so Mr X pointed me to an Apple shop. Just to make my stance perfectly clear I marched up to the boy at the counter and told him that I detested Steve Jobs and all his works but in the spirit of open mindedness, could I play with an IPad please? The boy guided me to a counter of sleek technology and I began to brush my fingers across the surface. It took me moments to find a search function, then to Google "prisonerben". Ego-surfing is a terrible vice but this was my first opportunity to see the blog on a proper screen rather than on an old phone. I like it. Uncomplicated and uncluttered. Simple. Turning to the boy I declared "hmm, I may well be back”, using a tone that implies I had a wallet full of cash that may – just may – come his way.
How do food vendors ever go bust? A cup of tea being high on our list of urgent matters, we slid into a covered market and coughed over 90p for a mug. Break that figure down, starting with a 1p tea-bag, and either the owner was a secret millionaire or had crazy overheads. The market was blighted by booths and stalls which even the owners had abandoned, closed, for rent, futile. I could have spent hours wandering the stalls, just looking, but I felt sorry for the owners. My loitering would only raise their hopes and I didn't want to add to their disappointment.

Sloshing with hot tea, I ambled around until I found a proper tobacconist. For most of my life I have smoked Old Holborn but this seems to have been supplanted by other, feebler, tobaccos in prison. So I leapt at this chance and bought an ounce of the good stuff as a treat. Given laxer prison rules and a credit card I could have spent a while at this stall, buying tobacco tins, the odd cigar, and a Zippo lighter - all of my life I have always longed for a Zippo but prison management have never been comfortable with the idea of us having access to petrol. Tsk.
I was shown the local probation building and the police inquiries place, just in case I found myself on a future trip unable to return to the prison on time. That is something we lifers dread, missing the bus could have serious ramifications for future progress but asking a policeman is a piece of advice I sincerely hope never to have to fall back upon. Not that I saw a single copper on foot in the whole day.
The main library was an obvious port of call and I headed straight for the corner packed with PC's. No sooner had I blagged a chair that I noticed that someone had not logged off their Facebook page. That resolved itself when I guy came across to point out that he was actually using that machine. Sorry, dude... Failing to log on to an adjacent, unused, PC I was noticed by a security guard. In a library. Good grief. She helpfully pointed out that I needed to check in at the main desk to be enabled and off I went. Was I a member? Nope, just passing through... Did I have any ID? Ah, this is the embarrassing bit, I said as I pulled the only paper I had out of my pocket - my Licence to be temporarily liberated from the prison. Not an eyelid was batted and, a short form filling later and I was back online. Without the distraction of an Apple nerd I was able to relax enough to pop back on to the blog, log in and read the latest comments. And immediately faced a dilemma.
Should I write a quick post? Should I respond to some comments? The lack of interactivity on the blog is something I sorely miss and am ever grateful to you for putting up with so far. The temptation to blog "live" was a real one but also fraught. As I understand it I am allowed access to the net whilst out and about (except for social networking) but I want to have it explicitly made crystal clear that I can blog. My first day out of the prison wouldn't have been the best time to do something that may be perceived as taking a liberty, and one that would drop Mr X in the poo to boot.
Temptation resisted, I popped across to Prisoners Families Voices, which never really worked well on my mobile. Amazing site, wonderful people. And, of course, a quick foray to Jailhouselawyer. Sites look so much better on a big screen! Just wait, I will be popping up and leaving comments all over the place when I have the chance.
Declining a free cup of coffee offered in the library - why? - we returned to the shopping centre to look at clothing and watches. Being an organised man I had laid out everything I needed for the day the night before, including my watch which needs a new battery. And like an idiot, I then forgot to bring it. So we zigzagged around the concourse, pausing at a few of the stalls that weren't trying to flog phones or food, until I found a guy selling watches at a fiver a pop. How could I resist? As he rang up the sale I had to ask him about his business model. How on earth can he sell watches for a fiver? The honesty was refreshing. He explained that they were made in China, would last around 6 months, and to keep them away from water. Fair enough, I thought, I only need it to work until I get home. And if that is longer than a few months, that I have a crap watch will be the least of my problems.
Another cup of tea later - I went the extra mile and forked out 95p rather than a paltry 90p - and lunch beckoned. Not that I was hungry, but as the nick had given me £3.10 for "subsistence" I was determined to eat something. The proper cafe and coffee shops were dismissed with a the haughty disdain that grows out of poverty and found a tiny corner cafe where we both went for a plate of chips and the hottest cup of tea I've ever experienced. As is the way with shopping, the next corner we turned revealed a place which would have cost us half the price. Hmm.
A long stroll away from the precincts led us past the courts, down to the riverbank. I still maintain that my suggestion that we pop into the courts and heckle those in the dock was an idea potent with entertainment options.
Money to spare, the end of the day drawing into view, so Primark and Poundland were the places to be. That I have no concept of style is not a disputed fact, and I leave it to the Editor to ensure that my wardrobe isn't a social embarrassment. The sweatshirts and socks that I bought seem to be this side of the pale, but even Mr X was hesitant about a rack of hats I was eyeing. Similar to Bowlers, but more rakish. I lost my nerve and swooped to the biscuits shelf at Poundland instead.
As we settled onto the train for our triumphant return a man clambered on. He looked slightly down and out, unkempt, but he was sporting one of the pseudo-bowler hats. Even better, he had added a long feather. I nudged Mr X. "I told you they were coming back into fashion..."

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Tannoy is My Shepherd...

Closed prisons move to the rhythm of the Keys, our daily lives and movement being guided by how, when and where various doors and gates are being locked and unlocked. This Open prison lives without that control. We just have a Tannoy system, enabling staff in various departments to summon Joe Bloggs from wherever he may be.
In the absence of locked doors and staff, the rhythm of the day and our routine is self imposed. We know - or quickly discover - when and where we should be during working hours. We know when the dining hall opens, when the library is ready, where the visits room is.
And rather than being dependent upon staff to enable the journey to and from, we make our own way around the institution. The official activities such as work and meals provide a framework of sorts but for the rest of the time we can appear or disappear around the place pretty much at will.

This is why, in the initial week or so, it is a boring place. Before a coterie of new comrades or old friends are discovered, until the sources of ease about the place are unveiled, then activity is rendered random, aimless and unsatisfying. Once a job has been found or allocated, though, then it feels as if one is being integrated into the structure here.
Some find Open quite an easy place. Some just don't. The trite may sit in smug judgement and throw around that debased word, institutionalisation, as an explanation for this but they would be wrong. There are those - short termers as well as long - who prefer a more structured life, and that is how they arrange their affairs in the outside world as well. Until they can engage with some activity here, they feel adrift and uncomfortable.
Then there are those who arrive and fail to shake off the mentality which enabled their survival through many years in Closed prisons. This is illustrated most clearly by their interactions with the institution, the run-ins with staff, the complaints they make. Every prison (every human institution!) is riddled with flaws, shot through with issues where improvement should be a necessity. Open prisons are just as liable to these weaknesses as are closed prisons, though the specific issues may be different.
Yet to engage with the nick on that level is to miss the point somehow. Here we must give serious time and effort to looking forward, to gaining release and beginning to rebuild our lives. To be drawn in to arguments with staff over the minutiae of prison life may be a useful strategy in Closed prisons but in Open it is to fall into a trap of looking backwards rather than forwards. And that carries the risk of tripping over your own feet.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alas, poor Brenda

Despite a fortune of several hundred million GBP, I hear that the Queen is finding it hard to keep up her palaces. Bummer.
Still, it puts my worries over finding bus fares into perspective.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Smallest Minority

Out of a prisoner population of about 85,000 I can count the number of cons who are persistent
and vocal campaigners against the prison system on the fingers of one hand.
As anyone who has ever bumped into a bunch of cons can tell you, we can be the most vociferous and bitter of complainers. Surprisingly, perhaps, we are generally not the happiest of bunnies.

And yet this is very rarely translated into a public campaign or action. The majority of cons may sound off in private but that is where their urge to promote change begins and ends. This is a conundrum.
In decades past, a vocal con was one who lived a perilous existence. Leaving aside the formal mechanisms of control exercised by staff, campaigning cons were vulnerable to the unofficial retaliation of the institution. These ranged from an old-fashioned kicking; to mail disappearing; visits being cancelled; extra strip or cell searches; verbal provocations; poor job allocations; being transferred miles away from home...in an institution where the most minute aspects of life can be interfered with, then the ways in which activist prisoners could be messed about were endless.
Not that this battleground has completely changed... In recent years the prison service has
become increasingly formalised, the plague that comprises managerialism rampaging through the
veins of managers. This has not signalled any abandonment of the myriad avenues used to mess
us about but rather has placed them on a more bureaucratic footing.
Coupled with the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, every corner of our lives remains as vulnerable to interference as before, the only change being the shift to bureaucratic fetishism. Alongside these changes, which increased the "depth" of control, there have been developments which should have encouraged more prisoners to campaign, to give voice to their discontent.
The legal landscape for prisoners is far more favourable and accessible today than it has ever been. Witness the Prisoner's Votes case which, 20 years ago, would never have reached Court and probably earned Jailhouselawyer a few good beatings in the process.
Alongside the legal changes there are the technological ones. Accessing the mainstream media -who are always very reticent to examine prison issues - is no longer a prerequisite to having a voice. The availability of the Web, of blogging, affords prisoners an avenue to speak up that was inconceivable in previous years.
And yet, there are a mere handful of us who regularly write and express our broad views of the institution which contains us. Why are so many prisoners so quiet, when such a powerful megaphone has been offered to them?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Politeness Conundrum

Doors are, obviously, a common feature in all prisons. In Closed prisons, they remain under the control of staff because they are invariably locked. Moving from A to B is a matter of waiting for the screw to unlock the door, pass through, then wait for him to relock it.

Open prison is different. Without locks, doors suddenly fall within our domain. And this raises a minor dilemma of civility.
In passing through a door in Closed prison I have to give no thought to the guy behind me. The door stays open, controlled by staff, until it is locked again. Here, though, I have what I call The Tesco Conundrum. As I pass through a door, at what point am I absolved from considering the guy behind me?
I appreciate that Tesco has automatic doors, but still... when I'm passing down the main corridor, barging through the series of doors, how far behind me should I look? If a guy is a few feet behind me, holding the door open until he is closer is fine. But if he's miles away, I let the door swing shut. But where is that cut-off point? Where does civility slide into servility?
You will appreciate that the levels of civility are far greater than in Closed prisons, and I put this down to two factors. Firstly, that everyone here has been selected as being broadly "trustworthy", meaning there is a higher proportion of "sensible" people. And secondly, because Open prisons run with so few staff, we are forced to regulate most social interactions for ourselves; there's no screw standing there to keep us in line.
In such circumstances the only two options are to adopt a broadly benign and civil disposition to
all around, or to descend into a Hobbesian nightmare of war of all against all. The former option is the popular one. And that means not allowing doors to swing back into the face of the person following behind.
At this rate I'm in danger of becoming "civilised"!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Single Cell?

With the right circumstances and the right staff, being on the spot when a single cell fell vacant served me nicely. It took three weeks but at last I was by myself. Or so I thought.
It's not the smell of my new cellmate that annoys me, nor the lack of conversation. His beady eyes take getting used to, and I have to steer clear of his teeth, but what annoys me is his habit of rummaging through my rubbish bin at all hours.
There's a moos loos aboot my hoos!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The History of Defecation

My brief post on Improbable Correlations prompted a comment that the toilet habits of prisoners are a mystery to the uninitiated. This itself caused me to ponder the changing nature of prison society and how that has been reflected in our toilet habits. I can't say that this is a conceptual lens often selected by prison sociologists...

Back, so to speak, "in the day", the focus of our bodily emissions was a plastic bucket. "The day" in question being any time period up into recent years, but stretching back over a century. Strangely to modern ears, some of the first British prisons were actually constructed with full-scale in cell sanitation (Pentonville?), which was later removed.
And so crapping into a plastic container became the norm. The fortunate had an aptly brown two-gallon plastic bucket complete with white plastic lid. The less fortunate had to suffer a translucent plastic potty.
There are unspoken norms which demand compliance when using pisspots, particularly in a shared cell. The most important of these is not to use them to defecate. This stinks out the cell, and later stinks out the communal slopping-out sluice. Defecation must rather take place onto, or into, newspaper, pieces of prison clothing, plastic bags, and so on. The end product is neatly folded and flung out of the cell window, to be dealt with by the yard cleaning party (known variously as the Wombles or Bomb Disposal). These are the legendary "shit-parcels" , the despair of HM Inspectorate of Prisons and miscellaneous prison reformers.
Urination, then, should be the sole order of the day when using a pisspot. Emptying the containers first thing each morning became an opera of wretchedness. Hundreds of men would converge upon the communal washroom (known as "recess") and each empty their pisspot down a large white square earthenware sink. The stench of urine which had been left to fester in buckets for many hours was one of the defining smells of prison life. One can only imagine how much worse that would be if the prisoners had opted to crap in those buckets as well.
According to our political masters, slopping out was abolished in 1996.1 know because I recall hearing it on the radio news, just before I went to empty my bucket. Such a cognitive dissonance of reality clashing with declaration is not uncommon in prison affairs and so I barely had time to twitch into a cynical grin before joining the queue in the recess.
But this is to jump ahead, to overlook one of the consequences of the wave of unprecedented riots that brought the system to the verge of collapse in 1990. Afterwards, a deliberate effort was made to improve some of the physical conditions of prison and our sanitary arrangements were one focus of change. Cells which were judged to be large enough had a toilet bowl and sink levered into them, usually in a fetching style I call "prison service steel".
Cells which are not large enough for in-cell toilets found themselves in a twilight existence characterised by both piss buckets and toilets. Cell doors were electronically wired to a control system so that, during periods of lock up, prisoners could be unlocked for a few minutes in order to use the communal toilets. This sounds like an eminently sensible system. But that characterisation would be to overlook the prison setting.
This system works on an electronically set timer and queuing system. Hit your bell to join the queue for a pee at 9 pm and you may have to wait hours before the system unlocks your door. The obvious solution to such emergencies is to rely on a bucket in the cell.
In a shameless reversal of position, however, those desperados who are forced to use such a container now face disciplinary charges for "endangering health and safety"! This is despite the fact that there remain small enclaves around the prison system which remain bereft of either in-cell toilets or electronic access. Pisspots continue to exist, with all of the distaste that has accompanied them through prison history.
These sanitary improvements have also seen the loss of the communal toilets (recesses) in many prisons. Prior to in-cell sanitation these were the only place to defecate without having to hover one’s buttocks above the centre pages of the Daily Mail, throwing arm at the ready. A line of stalls sat across the rear of each recess, each divided from the passing population by a mere half-door. Of course, such toilets still exist but more in solitary splendour, tucked away in workshops or the education department. In Closed prisons, no toilet has a full-sized door lest it conceals some unknown but suspected wickedness.
In-cell sanitation sounds like the largest leap forward in prison conditions since the abolition of hanging, but it carries with it the traditional difficulties attending our toilet issues. In a shared cell, for example, defecation, sleeping and eating all takes place in a few square feet and each pairing of cellmates must work out for themselves issues of privacy and decency. Often there is no more that can be done than turn ones head away. The nose must take the brunt of the insult.
The circumstances in which prisoners are compelled to empty our bowels reflects the attitudes of the wider society and the guardians of the prison system. It is a story that comprises a complete lack of privacy and a century long disregard for basic decency, only to change following our largest violent uprising. Even now, the matter of attending to our waste is fraught with difficulty.
Perhaps the cynic had it right when he suggested that the only solution is to provide a pipe of the correct diameter that feeds right from our cells straight back to the prison kitchen...

Saturday, January 21, 2012


Being summoned to the Centre office is not often a Good Thing. In a prison where contact with staff is
pretty minimal, such a summons can be a malign portent.
I was met by a middle-manager who was holding a couple of pages printed off the blog. He was perturbed, asking if I had permission, who knew about it, and the like. I tried to explain the genesis and status of the blog...this man seemed unconvinced and declared that it would be brought to the governor’s attention.
This has happened, now and then, over the past two years. Some staff are caught by surprise that a prisoner blogging is legal. Some staff recoil at the very notion that any prisoner is able to voice an opinion in public. And some staff are insecure in their work and dread the thought that the prison could be held up to the public gaze.
After two years, though, I still have no answer to the question - why are prison staff still so twitchy about my blogging?

Thursday, January 19, 2012


The idea that any person who can create great art, in whatever medium, must have an essential goodness
to their nature is a seductive one. And, obviously, completely wrong. People who have done horrible things
are also able to produce great art; another illustration of the genuine complexity of human beings.
Arthur Koestler was such a complex being. Both an alleged rapist and definite author, his name is now that of a charity which encourages the creative urges within prisoners, awarding prizes, selling art and holding an annual exhibition. I can only applaud their efforts.
The depth and breadth of artistic ability amongst my peers has always astonished and delighted me, and I encourage you to visit the Koestler website.
Even the most rotten of lives may be transformed by the nurturing of a nascent creative ability and who knows what effect your support may have?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Best Notice Ever

The empty spirit of managerialist insincerity has occasionally afforded me the opportunity to share some of the moronic notices that plaster every prison wall.

I recently came across one that somehow says something profound about the nature of prison life:

"Don't shit in the showers"!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Too clever by half

As the heating system for the wings is gas fired, having it set up to shut down as soon as the fire alarm is
activated seems to be a good idea. In theory.
Those who have graced these portals will instantly realise the flaw - that cons will sometimes hit the fire alarm out of mischief, boredom or to distract staff while they pick up a parcel of illicit goodies from the perimeter. Surprisingly, no one is suggesting that maybe the governor is creeping around setting the alarms off just to save on his heating bill!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Prison Staff Gagged

I have a nasty habit of working from first principles, despite the fact that it can cause difficulties for everyone else - and myself. But if a position is right, then it's right. Which leads me to the improbable position of complaining about the gag placed on prison staff under the Rules.
"Rule 67 - Communications to the press.
(1)   No officer shall make, directly or indirectly, any unauthorised communication to a representative of the
press or any other person concerning matters which have become known to him in the course of his duty.
(2)   No officer shall, without authority, publish any matter or make any public pronouncement relating to
the administration of any institution to which the Prison Act 1952 applies or to any of its inmates."
Much though it may grieve me, I have to say that this is outrageous censorship. The same arguments that I make for myself to blog apply equally strongly to prison staff. If the aim is to generate debate and to better inform, then prison staff should have the same opportunities to do so as I do. It is strange to realise that, just this once, I am in a better position under the Rules than my keepers!
Whilst I don't know of any prison officer who blogs - even anonymously - there is a public forum run by screws over at prisonofficer.org.uk. Staff post under pseudonyms and no one seems to care about this pretty blatant breach of the rules.
The position should be regularised and the Rules revised. Prison staff should be able to blog within the confines which apply to me. That is, not to identify particular staff or prisoners, to avoid sensitive security issues, and not call for perpetual riots - or the staff equivalent.
It is grossly unfair, and detrimental to the debate, that I am able to share my perspective of prison with you but that staff are prohibited. Granted, they are privy to sensitive information and I am largely not, but this should not be a bar to responsible blogging.
Censorship is a particularly corrosive evil that fosters ignorance and lethargy, both of which are inimical to a vibrant civil society and particularly poisonous in the field of criminal justice. I reject it on fundamental principle. This applies most strongly, if possible, to views with which I completely disagree. Only through the open clash of opinions can true thought be advanced, only when the most repellent of ideas are dragged into the light can they be truly examined and dissected.
Needless to say, I fully expect to disagree with any perspective of prison broadcast by prison staff. Not out of pique, but because our experiences would be so different. Despite this, even because of this, the debate would be better if I was accompanied by a blogroll of staff and other prisoners.
Is the Prison Officers Association going to take up this cause for their members..?

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Between now and my release I will be spending increasing amounts of time in the community, working, on home leaves, etc. This inevitably raises the issue of my directly accessing the Internet. I mean, through a legit computer rather than an illicit mobile phone! I'm steering well away from the latter.
I fiercely defend my blogging. My firm and consistent advice has always been that it is perfectly legal and since they were defeated at the beginning the Ministry of Justice have not made any attempts to interfere.
A Prison Service Instruction does now exist which prohibits our accessing - directly or indirectly - social networking sites such as Facebook. The legality of this PSI is for others to decide, but blogging is specifically not prohibited.
That said, the idea that, very soon, I could blog a post directly - "It's me, live and in real time!" - is causing management to scratch its head. Is such activity legal, when I'm out and about?
Given the positive resettlement ethos of this prison then I'm loath to start any sort of fight but this is an issue that does require resolving. Hopefully this will be done sensibly and, no matter what the outcome, until I am released the blog will continue at least in its current form.
This debate reflects the increasing freedoms that will be afforded me here. Another sign of this will be the legitimate possession of a mobile phone for use outside of the prison. Only very basic models are permitted but this will, sporadically, liberate me from the onerous shackles of the prison payphones. At last I will be able to join the rest of you and decide for myself which network provider will be bleeding me dry.
Ah, freedom!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Speak Up!

There was a guy who had a chunk of his ear bitten off in a row on the landing.  His new nickname was "18 months".  I had to ask, why?

"Because he has an ear-and-a-half"!

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Those who have a passing familiarity with my career may recall that this is my second attempt to scale the
summit of open prison.
The first attempt, Leyhill in 2004, was characterised by the words spoken to me by the lifer manager - "We don't care". This led to a year of utter misery and frustration for me, leading to a further 6 years of imprisonment. The whole ethos of that prison was rooted in negativity, suspicion and endless restrictions. Lifers lived in daily fear of being "lifted", waking up to face a set of handcuffs and a taxi back to closed prison. The expulsion rate at Leyhill remains legendary, as does the pervasive management attitude of thinking of any and every reason to deny a man access to the community.
Despite this heavy baggage haunting my memory, I left the Reception building here with a heavy load of box files and an open and positive frame of mind. Speaking to other Lifers I noted an absence of the fear and misery that pervades Leyhill. They assured me that the lifer management here were efficient and took a far less oppressive role in our lives.
After three weeks I was called-up for an induction talk with a lifer manager. Where Leyhill presented a brick wall, this man offered me an open door. In confirming that my timetable of activities began with me out in the community in January, leading to my possible release in May, I was struck dumb by the positive attitude underlying this vista. Rather than having to fight for anything, it seems that all of this is there for me to lose.
This is such a refreshing attitude. While this place may be far from home, cold and a bit of a dive, when it comes to the essential point of open prison - resettlement into the community - I get the feeling that I've landed on my feet.
For once!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

By Hand or by Brain

Isn't it odd that the people who are most vocal about the joys of manual labour are those with soft hands, delivering their speech from a comfy chair in a warm office?

Or as we know them, Governors.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Great Unwashed

Whenever I bitched at Erlestoke about being dumped on a wing littered with short sentenced smack heads, some pompous ass in a uniform would berate me.  It seems that I "must learn to live with different sorts of people, like in the real world".

Tripe. Utter balls. In all of our individual lives - here and out there - the people we mix with are ones with whom we share some affinity.  Just take a shufti at your own social group.

Obviously we bump into those we would not select to deal with, be it at work or in the supermarket queue. Again. the same applies in here as out there.

But this is a far cry from being forced to live with them 24 hours a day.  So my response to these sill staff is to tell them that when they choose to take their annual vacation on the local sink estate, I will hear them out.  Until then...

Monday, January 9, 2012


A tale has reached me of a local company which was offering work for a fair number of prisoners here.  Only semi-skilled and with few prospects to advance, but regular work with fair wages.

This offer existed for as long as it took for a member of the local community to phone a tabloid newspaper, who blew it up as a scandal. The company withdrew the work.

We all fret about rates of reoffending, which we often forget are the aggregate of the sum of individual victim's suffering.  And we scratch our heads as to how to reduce this bleak future.

Here's an idea.  Stop bleating about rehabilitation and just deliver it instead.  When we finish our sentences, allow us back into society fully.

Shunning us, denying us opportunities to build a normal like, can only lead to some of us deciding that a "straight" life is just impossible.  Further crimes and victims result.

Just for once let us really try rehabilitation.  Because treating prisoner like crap hasn't worked yet, has it?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Message on a postcard to stand in Ed

Rumour has it that some management here at Sudbury want to try to stop me blogging. I will resist any such effort. If they do try, I hope that the blogosphere will do whatever they can to help resist this censorship?

False Consciousness

Bless that theoretician for mass murder, Marx, for without his phrase "false consciousness" I'd be at a loss to begin to comprehend the actions of some of my fellow prisoners.

Many prisons now have contracts with outside companies to whom the Governor sells our labour.  This work is tedious and unskilled but often pays at a rate higher than equally crap prison work.

The economics of this are simple.  The outside company gets labour that works under threat of punishment and at a fraction of the minimum wage.  The goods are then sold on the market at the normal rate, giving the company a far greater profit margin in relation to its competitors.

Whether you support this abuse of prisoners or not, it is undeniable that this is simply using slave labour for the commercial profit.

The mystery for me is how many prisoners fail to see what is staring them in the face.  Rather than appreciating this for being an abuse, many see it as an opportunity to earn a higher than usual prison wage; maybe £25 for a 35 hour working week.

So they compete for these jobs.  They willingly line up to be worked like dogs just so some private company can screw some extra profit.

I just don't get it.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Prison Rule 3

It is astonishing to realise that this Rule, headed "Purpose of prison training and treatment", is the one defining the ethos of incarceration and yet it is a mere 24 words in length:

"The purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life."
It has been noted that this once held the august position of being Rule 1 before being symbolically demoted in the latest incarnation of the Rules. This gives a hint as to the actual relevance of the Rule to the functioning of prisons.
The astute will note that the word 'punishment* is absent. Indeed, the term only appears in the Rules in the context of being slung into solitary for some internal infraction. When the odd, ballsy, Minister stands up and declares that imprisonment IS the punishment, not FOR punishment, then he is telling the legal truth. Our punishment is the loss of liberty (much under-rated by those who enjoy it) and not the further infliction of suffering behind these walls.

According to this Rule, rehabilitation has been the official purpose of prison for at least 45 years. 
I'm as surprised as you are!

The Stamp Thing

Obviously the British mail system attempts to mark stamps as they pass through their clutches, but sometimes this effort fails - and this gives the opportunity to reuse the stamp. It is to prevent this that some prison staff scribble with biro over the stamp.
This prison does not allow us to have stamps sent to us from well-wishers, making recycling even more attractive! And yes, they need glue to reattach, which really isn't beyond the Neanderthal capacity of prisoners...Doh!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Through The Glass...Fortunately

Not all glass items are banned, which makes the coffee jar embargo all the more ridiculous. And I say this as the proud new owner of a stainless steel knife, part of the cutlery we are permitted to own in open prison. But Lord forbid I get caught with a coffee jar.
And whoever mentioned resealable Kenco bags has obviously never had to live on prison wages! Kenco?! I should be so bloody lucky.

Monday, January 2, 2012


Being robbed, having one's hard earned shekels removed through threat  is always unpleasant. When it is done by government diktat it is even worse.
This government has enacted the Prisoners' Earnings Act, a mechanism by which our paid work is made livelier by having the Minister of Justice hold a knife to our throat whilst menacingly whispering "give us yer money".

Once we reach the position of holding paid work in the community, we are subjected to the various deductions that signify "citizenship". And still no ability to vote... Taxes, National Insurance, the regular leeching of the State. Such is life. But the Prisoners' Earnings Act adds to that burden. They then remove a full 40% of the remainder in our wallets, excepting the last measly 20 quid. And out of this remainder we have to pay for our travelling costs to work.
This is explicitly a "victims tax", the money being allocated to various services for victims of crime. And I don't like it one bit.
Being fined - that is what this is - is a judicial sentence, one of many at the disposal of the Courts. And having politicians inventing and enforcing additional sentences decades after the crime took place just sticks in my craw.
It also risks increasing the number of future victims under that well established principle of prison policy making, "unintended consequences". Our successful resettlement into the community is to the general good. But if we work hard and then have our money taken, what does that tell us about the benefits of honest labour, the work ethic? Perhaps the lesson is that criminal enterprises are tax free and so more likely to help us stand on our feet?
Before this pathetic grab for the tabloid vote, Lifers - myself ! - had a chance of leaving open prison having worked and earned to have a deposit for a home, or being able to support our families. Now we risk being sluing out into society with bugger all, with the added insult to the taxpayer of then being a burden on the social security system. Sentencing is the domain of the Court system, not politicians. Victims have a range of avenues to seek redress, from compensation orders to even suing their assailant. But to have all this disregarded and substituted by a grubby self-defeating political spasm makes me sick.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year

A happy new year to all our readers!

Thank you for all your messages of support and for taking time out of your day to read this blog.