Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Deconstructing the ROTL licence.

The copious small print that comprises the licence for temporary release belies the seemingly casual nature of leaving the prison. To the unobservant, I just wander up to the Gate, book out, and paint the town red until I present myself back in the early evening. In reality, behind the scenes a whole bureaucratic machine has been grinding away, assessing and weighing risk long before the licence is issued to me. No Lifer gets to just wander in and out of the prison.
Each of the terms and conditions on the licence has been influenced by the prison systems view of prisoners; by political expediency; media outrage; and the bureaucratic instinct of arse-covering. It also reveals some strange twists and turns. It reads, to the cynical eye, as if it is the result of a perpetual struggle between two forces - rehabilitation and control. We can go out of the gate, but not to enjoy ourselves.
Condition 1 makes it clear that temporary release is a gift to be granted by the prison, not a foregone conclusion. This is rather odd on the face of it, the purpose of Open prison for Lifers being to prepare us to re-enter the community.
The courts have held, however, that ROTL is not automatic, even for Lifers in Open prisons. It may be strange, but it is possible to be dumped in Open prison and yet be assessed as posing too great a risk to be allowed to leave the (nominal) confines of the nick. How a man can be safe enough to be separated from the local villagers by little more than a boundary sign but too dangerous to meet them is a conundrum, one of many that the risk assessment algorhythms pop up.
Condition 4, the prohibition on meeting media folk, is drawn far wider than the normal rules on dealing with the media. I have, for instance, a couple of friends who happen to be journalists. Can I assume that I cannot meet them for a sociable cuppa? Don't be misled by the caveat, "without the governor's permission". In the context of the Prison Rules this is code for, "never gonna happen!". This is the continuing result of the prison service's profound distaste for having its affairs opened up to public scrutiny or comment. It ever was.
Condition 5 is the relatively recent "Lottery" clause. After a serial rapist won 7 million GBP a few years ago through a lottery ticket bought on home leave, the obvious way to prevent any such political misfortune reoccurring is to ban us from that exemplar of Fate's good fortune, the Lottery. Prior to this man's win, we were allowed to take part in public competitions. So, it's as long as we don't win then?! The absurdity of this is that yer man was sued by one of his victims for damages. Now that we are banned from the Lottery, none of our victims will have the opportunity to seek such valuable redress from the rest of us. A clause merely intended to save political embarrassment also deprives victims of a potential benefit. Doh!
Condition 7 is worryingly vague. Having previously only barred us from entering licensed premises, this new version appears to prohibit a far wider range of social activity. It is heavily political. Should a notorious lifer on ROTL be photographed living it large at Alton Towers, I suspect that he will be busted for having broken the detail,, "or other social venues which are not necessary to or desirable for the purpose for which the release has been granted." As the purpose of these forays into the community is at least in part to reintegrate us into the proper social habits and mores, then joining in when others are having fun seems to be perfectly defensible. To a political eye, though, this would carry unreasonable risks. And the end result of such machinations is Condition 7 - which may as well read, "enjoy your day out, but not too much, and don't get caught by The Sun on a water-slide."

Condition 9 is one of the oldest and most beloved - by the governor! - of all the conditions. This is an absolute ban on our consuming alcohol, with the threat of being breathalysed on return. Zero tolerance applies. This has always baffled me. No one knows how I handle alcohol, having tried to keep me away from it all of my adult life. Surely it would be handy to know if I turn into a nutter after a few pints? And would that information be better discovered now, before I am released? But no. The bureaucracy would rather put the public at potential risk rather than allow prisoners to imbibe under controlled conditions. Again, this is the outcome of the rehabilitation vs. control struggle, with the control lobby winning.
Conditions 10 and 11 prohibit us from wandering into a pharmacy and buying such items as cold and flu remedies. Many of these contain exotic chemicals, such as pseudoephedrine, which test positive in the Mandatory Drug Testing process back in prison. It is not unknown for people to find themselves in deep trouble for testing positive for amphetamines after using these Over The Counter drugs.
Condition 12 is a quite scary insight into the omnipotence our masters believe they exercise. As if any prisoner on temporary release stood atop the cliffs of Dover and forsook a moonlight flit to Tahiti because he glanced down and noticed Condition 12 on his licence-Condition 14 has a patina of reassurance. Don't be misled. If we are late back to the prison, we are charged with a disciplinary offence. The reason for lateness may be completely outside of our control, yet we are nicked.  Which is why I got a little worried last week when my bus broke down. That could have led to a nicking, which would have cost me my single cell, my job, and saw me grounded for a minimum of 5 weeks. Phoning the prison to let them know you may be late returning due to volcano, fire, flood or the apocalypse won't help you.
Special Condition 5 is, perhaps, the most obviously politically motivated condition. That the whole point of resettlement is to reintegrate us back into society, and that much of society now communicates via social networking, is blatantly trampled in the stampede to ensure that the cheap media can't generate a feeble story. As I am already, legitimately, all over the web then creating a Facebook account is hardly here nor there. But that particular pleasure will have to wait until release.
This brief canter through a temporary release licence, sadly perhaps, reveals the perilous hold that rehabilitation has in even the most positive of prisons. This is not a local issue; these conditions are not dreamt up by the governor. They are imposed nationally, a diktat that emanates from that level in the headquarters hierarchy that seems to exist solely to save political embarrassment.
The good news is that, on release, most of these conditions will cease to exist. Then I will have a shiny new licence, one without an expiry date and, I can only hope, include a more flattering photo.


  1. Dear Ben
    Firstly I would like to say congratulations. Your blog is very interesting and inspiring. As a psychology & criminology student intending to go into a rehabilitation organisation for ex-offenders after graduation, it makes me grateful that you speak out publicly about your experiences. It is important that the public know what prison is really like, instead of this notion spouted by ignorant folk claiming prisoners have a cushy existence.
    I wish you all the best, and hope that you will continue writing long after you have been released.

  2. Ben, have you ever been in a pub? and have you ever had an alcoholic drink (excluding prison hooch) ?

  3. From what you said, you have not had any alcohol, and seeing that you were from South Wales, you would of been barred from the stuff as a boy, anyway. Welsh folk, use to be quite stricked in the past.
    I doubt that you would become evil, if you had a drink? As you are a "Thinker", the effect would be "non-stop chit-chat", I suspect?

  4. CT, many thanks! Anon@03:41, yes, I spent time living in a pub and sneaked the odd drink. Ben.


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