Tuesday, February 28, 2012

People Say...

One of the many things that has been said to me is that I will be taken aback by the prices in the
shops. Not so. Certainly, since the introduction of televisions we are able to retain a finer grasp of
some of these changing elements in life.
That said, I still resent forking out the best part of two quid for a simple cup of coffee. It is quite irrational, I know, but it annoys me beyond reason. That people willingly pay £50 for a mobile phone is but a mere curiosity to me, as is the £50 pair of jeans. But the price of a cuppa...
And I know why. It is because I cannot help but compare it to the price and place of coffee in the prison world. I buy coffee, poor stuff, at a quid a bag. Three bags lasts me two whole weeks, and I drink ferocious quantities of the stuff out of my awful plastic jug.
Outside, then, it hurts to cough up a similar amount just for one single cup of coffee. I doubt I will ever get used to it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Financial Responsibility

Perhaps oddly, the prison service frowns upon us hitch-hiking to get to distant places. Home leaves, etc, must rest upon proper travelling plans. As I am 3 hours away from home by car, making that trip is going to be my South Pole, my Everest. At least six changes in transport, juggling between buses and trains, and hoping not to miss a single connection. While the destination looms large in my hopes, the journey there is a pit to wade through on the way.
To add some verve to the process, I have to fill in a form for financial assistance for the journey. This form is helpfully headed, in bold, with an exhortation that we should try to manage our finances so that we can pay these transport costs ourselves. This is mendacious in the extreme. On a prison wage of a tenner a week, no matter how financially astute I may be I really can't fund a journey to points south of Bristol once a month - oh, and back! Even Robert Maxwell would struggle to make those figures add up. This is where paying prisoners pocket money for their labours comes back to bite the prison on the bum. Being lectured on financial probity in these circumstances is just insulting.
In a fit of largess I have offered to contribute a tenner but, that apart, I expect the prison to pay for my travelling costs. I know the country is broke, and the prison has yet another budget cut, but these activities out into the community are a pre-requisite for release. Am I wrong to expect the prison to facilitate them?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Threat Assessments

I have always said that the things which will cause me problems as I slide from incarceration into the light are not ones that anybody can predict. Shopping, cars, all the usual canards that fly in debates around resettlement are irrelevant.
Sitting in a Morrison’s restaurant - apologies to all restaurants for using the term - I was struck by a realisation. Whilst I was digesting chips and talking, a small part of my brain was beavering away on automatic pilot conducting a threat assessment of the whole room.
Prison, people may have suggested to you, can be a violent and volatile place. One of the skills quickly acquired, then, is that of gauging the mood, the temperature, of a room or a group of people. Unexplained or discordant noises raise mental alarms, raised voices, tense faces or aggressive stances...these are all being noted by that part of the brain which functions without thought.
Except for rare riots, then the number of social situations and the size of groups of people are quite limited in prison. After thirty years of practice, I can walk into a room and smell Trouble in an instant. Out on the street, I am finding this to be impossible.
I found a part of me was remaining alert, even tense, when out and about and finally realised that it was my poor overworked brain trying and failing to get a real sense of a street full of people. Try it. A shopping avenue with hundreds of people. Quickly look around, attune your ears. Who is acting abnormally? Who is raising their voice, or in a conversation which may take a bad turn? Where on that street are the potential sources of Trouble?
Oh, you will doubtless note the obvious, the people you cross the road to avoid. That's easy. Prison, though, is more subtle, the interactions more fine-grained and it is in reading and foreseeing the small precursors to Trouble that help safely navigate the landings.
It is impossible to grasp these details on a crowded shopping street, leaving me to do the same as everyone else. Swerve the charity collectors, the drunks and the dog shit and limit my attentions to my direct concerns.
Or maybe not. Because having been honed over three decades I find that my brain won't switch off. Quietly in the background, energy is being expended to try to analyse all of the social information, the stances, tones of voice, that flood in from the environment. And it just can't be done, it is impossible.
Doubtless this will pass as I adjust. It is no big deal. I note it because, let’s be honest, who would ever have predicted or foresaw this hiccup to my tranquillity?

Saturday, February 25, 2012


There are many, many things which have escaped my judgement as I have meandered through a rather strange life. Not for any shortage of venom or praise on my part, but rather because they are not part of the broad prison experience.
Travelling is one of these newly arrived threads in my life, and I can't say that I'm overly impressed. In prison, by definition all that life requires is within a brief foray from the cell door. Confined communities are, as you may expect, physically quite compressed. The idea of having to factor in travelling time in the course of normal prison life is absurd.
Out and about, travelling time is growing to be an ever larger feature of my experience. It takes time to get from here to town, or within town to get to a particular feature. And this frustrates me.
Travelling time is dead time. Sitting in a car, a bus, a train, is an exercise in wasting my life away.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Koestler, Again

Art submitted to the Koestler competition is offered for public sale, and some remarkable pieces can be bought. Due to this, prisoner art scattered across the land, and even public authorities are known to buy these works for their public areas. This is all a good thing.
However. Of the sale price, the prisoner-artist only receives 50 percent. Of the rest, 25 percent is retained by Koestler to fund its activities, and the last 25 percent is "donated" to victims charities.
This is a relatively new development and it follows neatly in the footsteps of every other opportunity being taken to deprive prisoners of what little money we have and throwing it at victims groups.
It may be acceptable for the Courts to levy such deductions, and it may be practical politics for our wages to be hit with a 40 percent Victims Tax. But why should a charity intended to foster prisoner creativity and change - Koestler - be playing this game? Why are they taking a quarter of each prisoners sales and giving it away?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why We Need Foreign Judges

There are many points that invariably crop up in debates around human rights, one of which is the issue of "foreign judges". This is always said with an implied slur, as if we should all subscribe - obviously - to the idea that "foreign" judges clearly cannot hold a candle to our own glorious judiciary.
This jibe is an attempt to fill the spaces in the argument with unspoken prejudices and I find it indicative of the level of debate in this country around human rights. What should in essence be a deep reflexion about the limits that must be placed on state power and the inalienable rights of individuals is traduced across the airwaves by petty, spiteful exchanges that centre upon whichever bogeyman is in the popular consciousness. The nature of the relationship between the State and the individual has not moved on in the UK since the Civil War. That's 400 years, so far, of pointless wittering.
The pub-debate level of the British contemplation of human rights has led to one idea escaping serious challenge. That is, the idea of replacing the European Convention on Human Rights with a British Bill of Rights. That this is rather a fatuous proposal is revealed by the fact that, since being incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act, the European schema already is a "British Bill of Rights".
That aside, the profound flaw in a British Bill of Rights lays in our constitutional system. Parliament reigns supreme, and no parliament can bind the hands of future parliaments. In the context of human rights, what this means is that no Court can overturn a law made by parliament and, worse, any Bill of Rights made into law can be repealed just as fast as it was created. There is no mechanism in the British constitution which allows for any law to be entrenched - that is, like the US Constitution, a law which requires huge efforts and special measures to alter or repeal. The current Human Rights Act could be ripped up in an instant if the government wished it.
Any British Bill of Rights would be a hostage to populist passions and political imperatives, utterly unanchored into a bedrock of fundamental principles. It would boil down to the State saying, "trust me". In the face of political challenges the government has already attempted to institute indefinite detention without trial, indefinite house arrest, and created secret Tribunals where the accused cannot see the evidence against them. "Trust me", in the context of British politics, is a leap of faith that history strongly cautions against.
At the present time there are only two brakes upon the actions of the government. The first is the popular vote, which has proven to be little short of the baying of a mob in the context of Rights. The second is the Judiciary. Not the British judges, though, only European ones. For in our quaint, shambolic system of government no judge has the power to strike down a law no matter how monstrous. The government could enact the Nuremburg Laws tomorrow and there is nothing in the British legal system to restrain the State from a bout of genocidal insanity. Nothing.
Under our Treaty obligations to the Council of Europe, the European Court does have the power to strike down British laws which transgress against the standards of civilised nations. The Council has mechanisms to enforce the Courts judgements. And this causes outrage across the nation. Damn foreign judges...
It is about time that Britain grew up and had that awkward, bloody debate about the rights of the individual against the State. Relying on a British sense of fair play, or a sense of British justice, has proven to be a chimera in the past and promises to be a hopeless promise for the future.
It is because we shy from this debate that British citizens are largely naked against the depredations of its own State organs. And it is because of this helplessness that we need to rely on foreign judges. I can only hope that a day will come when we are mature enough as a political society to realise that unfettered parliamentary power is an affront to the rights of the individual.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mugging Murderers

Each weekend the local towns are riddled with prisoners from this nick out on home leaves, town visits or working.  Such is the nature of being near an open prison.  And, by and large, this migration takes place without note.

Legend has it that recently a bunch of guys from here were "fronted" by a gaggle of local tough guys in the city.  Perhaps they thought a small group of middle aged men were an easy touch to divest of possessions?

"You muppets, we're all Lifers out on day release from prison and 3 of us are murderers.  Are you sure?"

Having hinted at the dire consequences that could follow further aggression our boys moved on, leaving in their wake a slightly shaken and bemused gaggle of plastic gangsters.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


A fellow Lifer told me recently that he thought that it was "cruel" to put me through my current pace of resettlement, given the length of time I have been inside, etc. This is usually a type of speech I get from more dim-witted staff rather than my peers , but we can all harbour odd thoughts.
I have been out into the community three times since arrival, twice by myself (three or four times by the time you read this). And the only source of stress I have found was my worry over using buses. That has been evaporated by the experience. The rest of the experiences I have had have in no way worried or stressed me, and I put this down to attitude.
Starting from the basic premise that millions of idiots manage to get through daily life okay, then I assume it isn't going to flummox me. That said, things have changed in some aspects of life. Social mores, minor pieces of what I call "public technology" such as ticketing machines, and probably a whole range of other minor things which just haven't caught my attention yet. Despite this, I hold that the fundamentals really haven't appreciably altered. People are still people, shopping remains an exchange of goods for money, and cars will hurt if you step in front of them.

The things which have changed must make a real difference to some Lifers out and about, but I believe that attitude is everything. When I find myself approaching a situation which is new, or different, then I watch those around me and learn from their actions.

The pace I am going is only fast if you have plenty of time to spare, and being middle aged and cancerous makes me a touch impatient to get on with things. Within the next two weeks I should be beginning to work outside a few days a week and, with luck, I should be at home for a few days in March.
Other Open prisons would have stretched that lot out over a period as long as nine months. In that relative framework then I am moving fast, true. But not so fast that I am in danger of falling over my own feet.
Each Lifer is different.  Some find the resettlement process extremely stressful, some sail through it with a mere shrug of indifference. In fairness, no one really knew how it would be for me but the crucial thing was that management have given me the opportunities to find out. In other circumstances, there would have been the temptation to assume I'd find it difficult and so make this process last a couple of years - and that would have stressed me!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Wheels on the Bus...fell off!

The worst nightmare for a man about town on licence is to return late to the prison. Dire consequences follow such an event, being "grounded" the most important. In this context, being grounded doesn't equate with being sent to bed without any supper; it means a loss of movement out of the prison. In the run up to release, this is a Very Bad Thing.
My niggling stresses about public transport are behind me. Once you have been on a train or bus once, it’s an embedded skill. The only thing left is to learn the routes, for if you miss the bus...woe, woe... And so in this more confident mood I headed off to the city to check in with my oncologist. This always seems to involve probing questions and the rubber-glove experience, so the bus could take all the time in the world on the way into town.
On the way back, though, I found that I had just missed one bus and was left in the damp and cold to hang around for half an hour. The next bus duly appeared, travelled half a mile, then conked out. This is when I began to worry just a little. Without a mobile to call the nick, without a bus...this could have been a sticky situation,
Luckily another bus was but minutes behind and we piled on it. That's two bus-fulls of people trying to squeeze into one small tin container. I had to stand and hang on to a strap as the driver took a meandering route towards the nick in the snowy darkness, leaving me bereft of landmarks to ask where to get off. Just as I was asking the driver, our stop appeared.
I can't say that I will ever be happy booking myself back in to prison, but I did breath a sign of relief that I hadn't overstayed outside. It was also a reminder of how fragile is the progress for all Lifers in Open prison. One minor slip, even one outside of our control, and progress can be instantly halted.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Money and Release

So we all thought that the days of having to buy your way out of prison were long gone! Open prisons are more expensive places to live than your average nick, because there are required expenses that just don't pop up in Closed prisons. As we spend much more time in the open then we need to buy suitable clothing. The prison issue tracksuit or jeans and jumper don't really cut it if you’re working day is a long and cold one. Woolly hats, gloves and a good jacket are not so much useful as prerequisites for life.
The essential point about Open prison, for long termers and Lifers at least, is to acclimatise us back into society. To that aim we are allowed to spend increasing amounts of time in the community, working, socialising with family, organising for eventual release...and all of this costs money. The bus fare to Derby is over half a week’s wage, for instance. Lunch has to be bought. And a couple of quid in the pocket to avoid the appearance of forever mooching off friends and family is also handy.
The prison does pay for some of this stuff, some of the time, but we are quickly thrown back onto our own resources - such as they are. This leads to the situation where some people don't take all their allowed time in the community because they just can't afford it on prison wages.

You would think that being in paid employment in the community would ease this financial strain, that a more liberated lifestyle could be within reach. Ha! If a man is in paid work then the nick withdraws all financial support for reintegration. Due to the 40 percent Victims Tax this means that there are men who are permanently broke because they have to pay for everything, including rail journeys home for home leave. On a minimum wage minus 40 percent, you can appreciate that money and the lack of it is a serious problem.
Such, you may say, is life. True, true... except that the purpose of our being here is to resettle us in the community. These activities are not optional. If I don't have sufficient completed town visits or home leaves by the time of my parole hearing, then I don't get released. In such circumstances, having us fund a large portion of our resettlement activities comes perilously close to us having to buy our way out of prison. And those that can't afford it?
I realise that the nation is broke. A part of that is due to you lot being so greedy as to grab any and every bit of credit you could lay your hands on! For once, a disaster has happened and I can honestly say it has bugger all to do with prisoners. It is all the fault of the free society! One consequence of the screwed economy is that the prison system is also poor, leading to situations such as our funding our resettlement. The economy is broke but I'm damned if I can see why prisoners should carry  the can.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Underbelly

You will have the impression from what I have written that Sudbury is all Goodness and Light, the final resting place of that mortally wounded creature known as Rehabilitation. This only highlights how different each prisoner’s experience of a prison may be.
My experience, so far, is that I have managed to get into a very warm single cell, a decent job, and no obvious obstacles in the way of my resettlement programme. There is, so to speak, not much by way of a cloud in the sky over my existence here. That I get fed chips a reasonable number of times per week is just a bonus.

This, though, is my experience. From my position, Sudbury looks pretty okay. But all prisoners live their own lives and travel their unique path through a prison, Sudbury being no different. And so there are those who absolutely detest the place, who will look with incredulity as I say that I'm a happy chappy.
There are men - many men -who are stuck in shared cells. Or rather, rooms. This is as stressful a situation here as in any other nick. Try saddling yourself with a stranger in your house and you may begin to get a flavour of what this is like. Maybe.
There are wings whose heating system has a malevolent indifference to those suffering minus temperatures, only to inflict drenching condensation and dampness as an encore. This is a far cry from the well behaved system on my wing and in my room. Where my pad is a refuge of warmth and solitude, for a large number their home is a source of stress and cold.
Where I should, in the normal course of events, begin charity work soon for others - fixed sentence guys - they may have to wait, and wait, and even reach the end of their time before they have the chance to work outside.
And where I have a competent, decent, probation officer there are those whose progress rests in the hands of less able or less interested supervisors. Without this input then their ability to go onto the community is on hold, their home leaves untaken and their release delayed.
Sudbury is a prison, albeit an Open one, and it is liable to being afflicted with all of the pressures and problems that dog the rest of the prison system. That I am having an improbably smooth journey through my time here should not overshadow the fact that for others, their time here is far from pleasant.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Justice 3

Sex offenders are never a popular group or a popular cause. That invariably some people convicted of sex offences are actually innocent is not a thought that troubles the common consciousness. Just as well, if you need a good night’s sleep.
Imagine, if you can, standing in the dock. Two women, or men, stand in the witness box and claim that you sexually assaulted them twenty years ago. That is the totality of the evidence against you. Do you feel confident about your innocence being vindicated?
Don't be. There was a sensible evidentiary rule that used to lead to the judge in such cases giving the jury warning to the effect that accusations uncorroborated by any other evidence must be treated with special caution. That rule has been abolished. The fact that such an old accusation is impossible to defend yourself against is not an issue that troubles anyone's mind.
And don't imagine that you have any right to challenge your accusers. In sex cases, that right has been swept away on the basis that an abuser questioning a victim is only adding to the trauma. Of course, that is to assume that the accused is actually guilty from the beginning, a conceptual insult to the presumption of innocence that no one has bothered to question.
You may wonder why a number, say three, people would all stand together and accuse a man of a crime that they know he did not commit? If you had ever been involved in a police trawl you would know.
I spent a couple of years in care before being upgraded to prisoner status. And a lot of police forces expend an awful lot of time and money trawling around children's homes looking for abuse. Bear in mind that these investigations are not prompted by any accusations, they are sheer speculative trawls on the part of the police.
Which is how I once came to be facing two detectives, oozing sympathy and asking if I had been abused whilst in care or knew anyone who had. That's two definite No's. And that is where the extremely clever tactics involved in these trawls begin to be deployed.
It was suggested, they say, that a Mr X had been an abuser. And they had a number of other prisoners who had been in care at the time now making accusations.

I had to pause. If other people are saying this guy was a nonce then maybe he was? And it is at that precise point that the police hint about future prospects - a conviction against this man would open the door to a certain claim of negligence against his employers. Lots of moolah.
To a prisoner with no money and no prospects, the idea of lying to help convict a man they believe is a nonce is not a complex moral issue. Just sign here...Which is what I did. Firmly convinced that Mr X was guilty, I would have had no qualms about pointing the finger myself to add my snout to the compensation trough.
That was until I met his accusers. They were quite open with me, happily admitting that they knew he wasn't guilty but they wanted the money. The police had played the same game with them all - claiming that others were pointing the finger at Mr X and then dangling the idea of compensation.
Mr X, a real man, was sent to prison to serve over ten years. For a crime he did not commit. When I realised the situation I wrote to his solicitors and told them what I knew about the falsity of the claims against him, and my aborted part.
This was a low point for me, being manipulated by the police. I will forever be available to Mr X to call upon to proclaim his certain innocence.
This, folks, is how you can end up in the dock with a group of people accusing you of a crime they know that you did not commit. Still feel confident about our criminal justice system?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Justice 2

The abandonment of the double jeopardy rule is just one aspect of a trend that has been evident to all who give a damn about justice since the 1980's, a trend to make it easier to convict people. Any people; genuine guilt would be nice but is not a necessity.
As I look back at some of these changes, I cannot help but wonder how they must seem to readers in faraway places, such as the United States; places where putting restraints on the power of the government are viewed rather more seriously than in the UK.
Where else but in the UK are the police so lazy that they objected to a suspect's right to silence? Now, a refusal to answer questions can be used to "draw adverse inferences" before a jury. I take a pretty strict view on this - if you want to prove a charge against me, get off your backside and find the evidence. Why the hell should suspects be forced to make the State's case?
Where else but the UK can we seriously listen to the police whining that it is too difficult for them to give the Defence a copy of all their evidence? That happened, and now it is the police themselves who decide what material to give to the Defence. Worse, they only do this after the Defence has sent them a copy of the accused's defence.
In what other nation that claims adherence to the rule of law can we institute secret courts where neither the accused nor his lawyers can know the evidence against them?
In what other common-law jurisdiction can the accused be barred from facing his accuser, who can even hide behind a pseudonym and a black screen in court?
And what other Western nation stomach the fact that at any moment, for no reason whatever, you can be stopped on the street and searched by the police?
What other nation could even contemplate instituting these measures and still unblushingly make a claim to be a nation of laws?

And just in case this panoply of measures fails to convict, the State can always wave an accused’s previous convictions before a jury.
We have rarely taken Justice seriously in this country. The home of Magna Carta is seemingly unable to place any significant restraints on the ability of the State to prosecute. And the thin line between prosecution and persecution grows ever more threadbare.
Of course, you will doubtless persuade yourself that these things are irrelevant, they only apply to "bad" people. Surely you could never, ever find yourself being the focus of police attention? I sincerely hope that you are. Not out of any malicious desire, but because only then will you begin to see the dangerous imbalances in both State power and the criminal justice system. Because I have never met anyone who has come away from even the most fleeting contact with that system who hasn't felt that their illusions have been shattered.
And the next time you hear someone say that it is the defendant who has all the rights, that the criminal justice system is unbalanced in favour of criminals, try to pause that part of your brain that is lured by populist slogans and re-read the above. Then ask yourself if you would feel comfortable if a vanload of police turned up on your doorstep.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Why do we forget the purpose behind the rules embedded in the criminal justice system? Why are we tempted to fall into a mental cul de sac and view every aspect of courtroom drama as being either pro-accused or pro-victim? And why are we so easily persuaded to make fundamental changes that are rooted more in political opportunism then in considered reform?
These issues were brought into focus with the recent conviction of two men for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which happened some 18 years ago. This trial only took place because Britain abandoned, after several hundred years, the prohibition against "double jeopardy". In the UK, the State can now come back for a second bite.
The argument for this change was well rehearsed and went largely unchallenged. It does seem to be unjust - and unfair to victims - if a person who has been acquitted can go free forever even if new and overwhelming evidence later comes to light. I agree, it does seem to be unfair.
That there was a reason for the double jeopardy rule was swept away in the light of this unfairness. I cannot recall anyone pointing out that in a prosecution then the State has unlimited resources. It has the police, forensics, prosecutors, all bearing down upon the suspect. The state can ruin that individual’s life without even having to gain a conviction. The argument is, that with its overwhelming power then if the state was permitted to have a second, or third, or fourth, attempt at convicting an individual then that accused could be harassed by the state forever. With infinite resources and unlimited power, any state would be tempted to step on the neck of those it targeted.
Unless, that is, limits were placed on this state power, as it was with the double jeopardy rule. The state shouldn't prosecute unless it is confident it has the evidence to convict. There is no need to rush. And even less need to disregard with contempt the verdict of the first jury, who had the temerity to acquit. This was a safeguard against state persecution and prosecutorial incompetence, swept away in a spasm of social angst over a particularly nasty racist murder.
This issue was only made more complicated because it was not the state who initially attempted to prosecute Stephen Lawrence's killers. It was his family, by way of a private prosecution. And they failed. And having failed, they campaigned to overturn a safeguard against State abuse of power in their quest for personal justice.
It is often said, hard cases make bad law. And this shocking case has led to precisely that position. The Lawrence family may well feel partially vindicated at these convictions, or feel that justice has been done on the part of their son. But in doing what they have, I can't help but wonder if a greater injustice has been done to our society and to our criminal justice system.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Wheels on the Bus

The only thing that has been building up in my head as a source of stress since arriving has been the prospect of my first bus journey. Of all the activities that face me whilst out and about, quite why this one had buried its way into my head is a mystery.
It may be because bus journeys signify the beginning and end of the day outside prison, and also hold dire consequences if, for example, one is late returning. It is the first point at which the whole day can be stuffed up. Or so I thought.
Presenting myself in Reception on a bitterly cold morning I waited to sign my License - the bit of paper that authorises me to be out for a set number of hours. To then be told, "you're not going out, the Governor has forgotten to sign your license..." was a hammer blow. Of all the ways the day could go wrong, this one had never been contemplated. A bit of running about later, license signed, checked out at the Gatehouse, and I was finally freed to join the rest of the world's fools who find themselves shivering at bus stops in the early morning.
I was under the impression that I needed to have the precise and correct coins to buy my ticket. My worries had been centred on this tiny detail. What if my coins were wrong? Do I just step off the bus and return to the nick, the day a wasteland of unfulfilled hope?
And, obviously, my change was wrong!. So I poked a fiver at the driver and asked him to just burn me ticket to Location X, even if he had no change. But lo! He dumped a pile of coins and a ticket back into my hand. What had I been stressing over?
Turning to face the seats I found myself hit by a wall of eyes, a bus absolutely chocca with school kids. Doesn't every prisoner wonder if he is identifiable as such on the street? I didn't, not for one moment.
The only seat available was a jump seat near the front and I leapt on it, pushing the elderly and pregnant out of the way. Only kidding. Once seated, though, I found it difficult to find anything on which to rest my gaze. At every turn, it seemed, was a person staring at the screen of their phone and privacy was clearly not top of their list of priorities. The etiquette of this was unknown to me, but I'd think it bloody rude if someone else was peeking at my phone, and so I spent the entire journey blankly staring at the ceiling.
Hop off, a forty minute wait on a wind blasted railway platform, and then off to Derby. Even the ticketing woman on the train was familiar with Bubbles Massage Parlour. It must be good!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Successful Coup

It wasn't so much a struggle to wrest the editorial chair from the incumbent as an easy catch, as he got shot of it as fast as he could! And so now I find myself in the awkward position of having to deliver on the pitch I made for the job. Ho hum.
Prison magazines stand alone in being horribly complicated beasts. For all of the reforms of recent decades the reality is that only a minority of managers are remotely comfortable in allowing prisoners to have a genuine voice. And the result of this is that most prison magazines are utter tripe, a true waste of paper and effort. The more anodyne, the happier everyone seems to be.
Except the prisoners, who recognise rubbish when they see it. And so revamping a magazine is an uphill battle, requiring much effort to persuade managers that raising interesting or contentious issues is not the same as fomenting a riot and persuading prisoners that it is an enterprise worth becoming involved with.
When I edit a magazine I do so with one eye firmly on the inherent potential for development. It could act as a focus to develop those with an untapped potential to write, to design, to produce graphics, to organise and manage. It can be the basis for earning qualifications in everything from literacy through to NUJ membership. And, strategically, it can embed in the prison the idea that talking about difficult things is not necessarily an evil development.
When I last held this position, several years ago and before the blog, I saw the potential for a magazine as a bridge between the prison and the community. Why should prison magazines remain within the walls, why not engage the community? This led to my developing the idea and persuading the Millennium Commission to provide funding and I was made a Millennium Fellow for the effort.
Alas, circumstances intervened and I moved on and the idea died. But this did reveal that there is potential for a prison magazine to be more than a collection of stapled-together tat that pleases no-one. And it is with this potential in mind that I aimed for this position.
Of course, it was a great help that the education boss didn't know my name or have any idea of the baggage I tend to travel with!
And it strikes me that no UK prison magazine has ever been published onto the web. Mmm....

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Parole Process

There really is a system, a process, it’s not just cobbled together - no matter how it seems! The whole process begins six months before the hearing when the Secretary of State sends a letter to the Parole Board informing them to review the case. A letter then goes from the Board to the prison asking them to start writing the reports.
I was called to Lifer Unit today to read my parole dossier. Much of it is a rehash of old news, with the latest staff reports at the end. Mine were written when I was at Erlestoke and so can only give an overview of my time there but make no firm recommendations. The general tenor is "see how he does whilst at Open", but there are no issues jumping off the page to derail this last few months of progression towards the hearing itself in May.
The room in which I was parked to read the dossier was the boardroom, where the parole hearing will take place. It struck me that the table was a narrow one, so that the Judge and I will be sitting within reach. This is unusual; most parole hearings take place where the furniture is arranged so that the prisoner and members of the Board are several feet apart!
And one small edge of the large, leather topped table was quite badly worn, the patina almost scratched. I bet that this is the seat that the prisoner has. Those marks are the sweat, frustration, fear and hope of all who have passed ahead of me towards that final hurdle to release.
When my hearing is over, I hope not to have left bite marks of my own.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Talking on the payphone last week I found I was struggling to explain how open Open prison can be. Taking a quick trip from an imagined cell to the Education Department may illustrate my point?
At, say, Erlestoke - a standard Cat-C prison - a journey from cell to a distant building was a maze of gates, fences and locks. The cell has to be unlocked by staff. A gaggle of prisoners is then gathered at the entrance to the wing. That gate is unlocked and relocked to allow movement into the first compound. A gate is then unlocked to allow movement through a second compound, then a third, and into a fourth. Staff are positioned along the route. Finally, the Education building hoves into view, the final door to need unlocking.

Here, the same journey is a tad different. As our doors are not locked then I could, if afflicted by the crazies, walk to the Education building at 2 a.m.. There are no physical barriers to that, though the Governor would ensure I'd be spending the next year or two back in a Closed prison!
So I stagger out of bed around 7.30 a.m. and make a brew, starting the trip to work at 8.10. Leaving my cell I dive out of the door on the end of the landing (handily next to my cell) and wander across the nick. With no fences or gates between me and my goal I could opt for one of several routes depending on the weather and temperament, all depositing me at the doors to the Education department. Which is unlocked.
As I tried to explain on the phone, Open can be very open. If I chose I could be out of my room, off the wing, over the boundary fence, dodging sheep and being run over on the adjacent motorway in under a minute. All that stops me - and the rest - is good sense.
This is the nature of Open prison; the physical barriers to escape and mayhem are absent. Just don't ask the local village near any such prison what they think!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Murderers make the best neighbours.

Who would have thought that putting a (very mild) boot into smackheads would raise your ire? Which doesn't alter my position one whit. Smackheads are a pain in the arse to live around because their overwhelming goal in life is the next bag, or the money to buy the next bag. As I tried to make clear, drug use is a personal choice that I defend but equally I believe that anyone who opts for heroin is an idiot.
That said, for me a prisoner is a prisoner first and his personal qualities come second. When a man I don't like asks for assistance he gets the same service from me as I'd give anyone who knocked on my door.
Of course we all have to deal with people who we don't like in daily life. That, though, is a far cry from living amongst them and they are in the majority. The best neighbours are not the petty thieves, they are the murderers.
Lifers, as a demographic, differ from short termers in their age, outlook and criminal histories. We tend to opt for the quieter life, at least in public, living at a less frenetic pace. Having to face the same neighbours for years at a time also means that we have to ensure that our personal relationships are constantly tended. Where a short termer may cause ructions, upset all and sundry and then go home, Lifers have to face the consequences of their behaviour amongst their peers. And that calling to account can mean more than a stern talking to.
There is a reason why long term prisoners prefer to mix with their own kind, and it is a truism that staff prefer to supervise a Lifer Unit rather than any other. It is because we are more stable, reasonable, and broadly orientated towards a quiet life.
It may be counterintuitive but trust me. If you end up inside, try to live amongst the murderers if you prefer a bit of peace and quiet.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

T'internet reaches prison!

Well, the prison service version of the internet, which isn't quite the same. Still, it allows them to claim we do have internet access and so you should be informed as to what this actually means.
It means access to the JobCentre vacancies database. Whoohoo! At some point it is hoped that there will be access to the Open University website.
And that, folks, comprises the totality of what the prison service calls the internet, and that is in Open prison to boot - where we can legitimately access the real Net whenever we are out and about in the community.
How the prison service responds to technological change is a consistent indicator of how forward thinking they are, of how elastic and creative the corporate mentality is. And yet again, they have shown themselves to be extremely timid and completely lacking in imagination.
It needs a particular sort of bureaucracy to take an incredible opportunity and squander it so magnificently.