Monday, April 30, 2012

It Sounds Stupid...

But the way women chat is quite different to the way that men do. You all know this, of course, but I have been stuck away from gaggles of women and didn't quite realise. It's all a bit like a soap opera. And I have always preferred the company of women to that of men, an appreciation which has grown in my current workplace.
I think that this comes firmly under the heading of being one of those things that everyone knew - except me. I wonder how many more of these blindingly obvious things there are lurking in the world for me to rediscover???

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Sometimes I travel to work on a prison minibus crowded with others, and sometimes by the local bus.
Either way, there are a gaggle of my peers around me all jabbering into their mobiles. The minibus is worst for this, with no hope of speaking so low as to be un-hearable. Which is something of a pity, because the other day the guy behind me was having phone sex at 8am...quiet as he was, my toes were curling in embarrassment.
There is fun to be had in observing these travels to and fro, most usually from some of the youngsters who will try to chat up just about any woman who sits next to them. Listening to their efforts is hysterical. That they invariably all strike-out only adds to the fun.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Back To Life...

Tomorrow I return to the nick after a five day home leave. Five days of living a normal life, to normal mores, has reinforced one simple lesson that goes to the heart of prison life.

It is weird and profoundly unnatural. Quite why we expect it to teach people how to be "normal" is beyond me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fanny Cradock

Cooking, prison style, is one of the many aspects of this life that lead, through necessity, to invention. We can cook with just about anything, the most basic set up being an old tin of Marvell and tapers of newspaper or loo roll.

The sporadic introduction of microwaves was a revelation. Not that anyone forked out for a microwave cookbook; we threw stuff in and nuked it, trial and error. We seem to get by, in the limited sense that no one has yet died.

It was with some hesitancy, then, that I told the Editor that I would have some supper ready when she came in from work. Cooking, especially with gas, was a proposition I had previously had little to do with. When there are two cats sitting and watching every move it only adds to the pressure.

Scrambled eggs, beans and toast. Not a mixture to shake the foundations of the House of Blumenthal, but I've lived on worse. The cats were the most disappointed. Such is the beginning of my training in domesticity.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Mental Shift

Being out and about working four days a week, and a possible Town Visit on Sunday, means that I am spending longer outside than inside. The stress that accompanied parts of my early days out has largely dissipated and been replaced by a form of stress that I didn't foresee.
Coming back and being stuck in the prison for a couple of days in the week irks me, it chaffs and irritates. Those two days are riddled with things of a prisonish nature to deal with or, as I see it now, "prison shit". There are some who have to put up with this for a year or more, each day switching their head between inside and outside, fighting the natural urge to become slightly more complacent. God knows how they do it.
Thankfully, I should have only a matter of weeks left to go before "inside" becomes history. No date has yet been firmly fixed for my parole hearing but it is scheduled for May. Roll on.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dai the Taxi

Part of my home leave journey was by taxi and the driver had no illusions as to my general identity: "To the prison, my man, with all speed!", slinging my kitbag on the seat beside me. And we began talking. Once we had established I'd been on home leave, done decades of bird and  "seem to be a bright man", it was interesting to be asked what I thought could be done to make prisons more workable (so to speak).
I had to pause and ask my own question - the answer to improving or altering prison depends, obviously, on what you want prison to deliver? Do you just want harsher punishment? Or do you want to reduce the future crime rate? And what if the two are incompatible, what if treating men like crap only increases the future chance of offending?
In our short journey there was only time to scratch the surface, to begin to bridge the chasm between prisoner and freeman. And yet I found it to be one of the most enjoyable chance encounters I've had for quite a while. I daresay Dai's views and mine would rarely overlap, but it was the fact that he was asking questions, that he was thinking and trying to engage with the issues which I found so enjoyable. I can only hope that he took up my suggestion of peeking at the blog now and then, and that he continues to think - so few people do, especially about criminal justice.
He also made me ponder a deeper point, one that strikes at the heart of much of my activity and the purpose of the blog. That is, how do prison campaigners such as myself engage with the broader mass of people, such as Dai?
I try to keep abreast of the many activities of what may broadly be called the "prison reform lobby". This is a wider spectrum than you may first think, encompassing radical anarchists through to mainstream politicians. And yet I am all too aware that this can sometimes be a closed loop, a circuit of endless conferences where the guest list is a repeat of the last, a collective of likeminded souls all preaching to each other - the converted. On the basis that a con can be lured anywhere with the offer of a cup of coffee and a biscuit then I fully expect to take my place in this collective.
And yet... it is not others within this movement that need to be engaged in debate. The most important activity must be to somehow engage with the concerns of the wider community, to talk with the masses. Bless 'em, they deserve a more nuanced analysis than that provided by the Daily Mail.
This is why I made a deliberate decision to, in some small way, make this blog "personal" and not shy away from the issues that appear to fire up people the most. Issues about the nature of murder and murderers, about the purpose and limits of punishment, about... you get the idea. Talking about these in the abstract is all very well but there is an added sharpness, a new avenue of engagement, when the guy doing the talking is himself an (ex) murderer. If nothing else, my existence shows that stereotyping criminals is just plain lazy and deceitful.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Devil Boy

The power of the media to leave an imprint, an aftertaste, of an event in our group consciousness is immense. Popular heroes and popular devils can be created in an instant and that forever sets the tone of our public debate and understanding.
Killing one's mother and faking an attack in an attempt to cover it up comes pretty high on the shock stakes, particularly when the guilty party is a mere 14 years old. This crime is thankfully rare. As expected, the less evolved media have begun to whip up the mob, inescapably assisted by the judge who was stupid enough to allow them to publish the boy’s name.
As ever in these cases a decision must be made. Should we - as a society - write off this boy as being irretrievably wicked? Or do we believe that people are rarely irretrievable and take the advantage of these formative teenage years to help to reclaim him to be a good member of society when he is eventually released in his 30's?
The boy seems to be very bright, which is in some ways helpful. For no matter what "the system" does to him (and I mean to, not with) in the name of rehabilitation or development, it will be through his own private reflections that determines whether he changes or not. I hope that, even if it is inadvertently, he is given the supportive environment that he will need to examine and change himself; not because it will be demanded of him, but because he (belatedly) has a moral re-awakening.
Given this guy's age I cannot help wondering about the course his life will take, whether much has altered since I trod that particular path. And whether he will have the psychological strength to form his own personality in the face of an overwhelming pressure from his keepers to become only what it is they want him to be - passive, compliant, obedient.Given the rotten nature of the Administration I would be a fool to think that lessons will have been learned from experience such as my own. Perhaps he could use a mentor who has trod the road that he is now learning to walk..?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Work, Work, Work

Obviously, I had to begin my charity work on the very day that the place was in upheaval - delivery day. Endless sacks of clothing and knick-knacks to be unloaded, piled, opened, sorted, re-bagged and re-piled. Organised chaos at its best, with a mountain of donated stuff being sorted through by the end of the day.

I was interested to learn how things were sorted, for although people can clearly be generous in their giving, the items they donate need not be saleable. Clothing, the staple of charity shops, is essentially reduced to two piles - those that are saleable and those which are not. The damaged or otherwise unsalable are sold to textile recycling merchants, so the charity receives some income from even the most threadbare of goods.

I just had to ask the Boss, "What's the weirdest thing you have ever found?" as we tore open more sacks. "A vibrator from the 1970's". I didn't dare ask how she was able to date it so precisely. Fashions change... Perhaps oddly, it is men's clothing which is in the shortest supply. Men's shoes in particular. Please bear this in mind when you are next moved to donate some clothing to charity - shirts and shoes people, shirts and shoes!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


When the same Government who support a move away from "European" human rights towards "British" rights suddenly appear on my TV insisting that they should have the ability to trawl and record all electronic communications made by 65 million citizens, it must make some of us pause.
For a smaller - but far more significant - number of people such an monstrous outrage must prompt the question -  just what does a government have to do to its citizens before the people have a justifiable urge to wage war upon that government?
I cannot imagine this disgusting proposal for total State surveillance being made in any other Western democracy without the proposer either being fired or laughed away. In Britain, though, we give this proposal headspace and media coverage. Nobody takes to the streets.
Having got nowhere in the Orwell Prize this year I must quash my misery and point out what George told us so many years ago. "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -forever".
We get the government we deserve. And given the British people's incredible ability to become mere suspects for State surveillance whilst simultaneously believing in "British freedoms" then the government they deserve is just the one that abuses them in such a way.
This is one of those political moments which will shape the course of my future life and attitudes. I am deeply angry; not just at the government but at the apathetic voters who will allow this contemptible policy to become real. I'm not quite sure which party I find more deserving of challenge - the policy makers or the saps who sit back and allow them to weave their web.
Shame on us. Shame.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Introductions

I have now began working outside of the nick four days a week and as previously promised I won't be telling you precisely where or for whom. Let's just say that for four days a week I am working in the charity retail sector somewhere in England.
The initial introductions were mercifully brief- "this is John..." - ah, dammit, I failed to firmly squash that in favour of Ben, so now the number of people who know me as John has tripled at a stroke. It will take some getting used to, having only three people previously calling me John in decades.
I have nothing against "John", there is nothing inherent in the name that offends me. And yet it feels like a name that belongs to someone else, a label from a previous existence that I left behind many, many years ago. "Ben" arose out of the ashes of my teenage years where I sported a fearsome beard and attitude. It is quite probable that this was a staff invention, "Treasure Island" not being a popular perennial on the landings.
And it seemed to fit, and seemed to stick. My attitude to it had no impact. The only advantage I saw at the time was that it stalled any staff who wished to imply that we were on a first name basis; my pseudonym allowed for the impression of a pseudo relationship. I seemed to grow into it, and Ben is who I forever became.
Now, as The End is Nigh, I really should give some consideration to my future identity. The part of the world who gives a hoot knows me as Ben Gunn. My official paperwork knows me as John Gunn. Actually, I have to add the caveat that I discovered Legal Aid for changing names by Deed Poll as a teen and had a brief existence as, would you believe, Mokurai Yoritomo... mostly because it used to piss off the Censor as he tried to work out who the hell that was.
Outside of the prison system, though, I am the Man With No Name. Not only do I not possess my National Insurance Number but one doesn't exist to give me. I am a tabula rasa for the whole raft of Government agencies who, soon, I will have to persuade of my existence.
And at this point I could formally change my name. I could quietly cease writing and drift out into the world in a completely new and unknown guise. I've always fancied trying Arbuthnot Aloysius Fotherington-Smythe.

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Life

Is it all about challenging power for me? Is that the infinite drive which powers my activity? Or could it be that my drive is actually to try and change whatever small corner of the world in which I live; which, being prison, inevitably then involves challenging power?
What does this mean for me after release?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Revelation

Working in the charity shop means that I am handling clothes like never before. I joke that I've never had my hands up so many skirts. And the vast differences between men's and women's clothing have led to the following theory.
That is, clothing reflects the nature of genitalia. Women's clothing is ornate, even the simplest of garments made more complicated by folds, frills and pleats. Men's clothing is straightforward and rather simple.
Just a thought. And I don't know where transsexuals fit into this theory yet...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Blending In

Aeons ago, just after my Zen Tukai Jokudo ordination, I was having a fierce argument in a corridor with a
governor about whether I could wear my token kesa. This is a token robe, essentially a two inch strip of
black cloth worn hanging from the neck. The Gov wasn't having any of it, even if I wore it beneath my
"It will make you stand out!", and he wasn't having such flamboyance perturb his uniformity. As he spoke, a Sikh walked past, sporting the most fluorescent yellow turban in the land. The governor and I stared at each other in the unspoken common knowledge that we had both seen this apparition and it made utter nonsense of the Gov's declaration.
I'll give him his due. He didn't bat an eyelid. Or retreat a single inch. It is this level of shamelessness in the face of reality that is the hallmark of the modern prison manager.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Shadows and Echoes

How long after release will seemingly normal activities be overshadowed by the meanings given to them by my prison life?
On home leave I could have gone to the cinema but the instant the Editor raised the suggestion I felt a great resistance. It swiftly dawned on me why. It is because communal screen-watching in prison, exemplified by the old TV rooms, were not only places for shared activity. Oh no; the darkness gave rise to sudden attacks by blade or boiling water as well as a chance to watch EastEnders.
It was this distant memory of darkened rooms being a source of potential danger that rose from my guts at the thought of going to the cinema.
And that makes me ponder the insidious effects of imprisonment, and wonder what other unexpected shadows may rise from within in the future?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Another Basic Point

What change in the individual, what socially acceptable outcome, do we want prison to provide? It is simple enough to cry that prison should be for punishment, but that is to jump ahead of the thought process - what is the purpose of that punishment? Just what process do we want to occur behind the high walls that lurk, unnoticed, in so many cities?
To punish is obviously a legitimate purpose, at least if the aim of that punishment was socially positive. Or do we want to hurt our fellow Man in a blind spasm of revenge for the offence he committed against us? Do we want to inflict punishment solely as an end in itself? Or do we endow that punishment with a purpose, be it reformatory, rehabilitative, or transformative?
Punishment for its own sake, a socially agreed and rather more sophisticated version of a childlike "he hit me so I hit him back" is, I contend, unworthy of us as adult human beings and as a society.
If we must inflict suffering on fellow Men, let that suffering have some legitimate social purpose in its agenda. Hurting in retaliation merely gives us temporary satisfaction and that obscures the fact that such hurt may actually cause more social harm, harm that far outweighs the original transgression.
If you are persuaded by this line of reasoning, then we find ourselves in deeply difficult territory. What is it that we want punishment to do? If we want imprisonment to do more than be painful or destructive (to both the prisoner and society) then we need to find some positive purpose within it.
At the basest level, it is oft claimed that throwing a crim into the slammer puts a brake upon his ability to commit crime. Senior politicians of all parties will cheerfully make this wild claim and I cannot stress strongly enough that it is a lie. Not a malicious lie, granted, more based in ignorance than malice, but it is a lie even so.
The crime rates within prison are astonishingly high. In fairness, this reality takes some effort to uncover as figures are not collected for "crimes committed in prison". The truth of the matter is dispersed across several sources of information beginning with disciplinary proceedings. Some of these are analogous to crimes, some are purely prison offences. Other sources include medical data (for head injuries in particular) and survey data from researchers and the Inspectorate. The sum total of knowledge, then, about crime rates in prison is quite weighty. Amongst other matters, it reveals that young prisoners - under 18 - have a 1 in 10 chance of being assaulted each and every month.
Putting criminals in prison does not cut crime, it displaces it. So what, you may cry? These are just crims after all, it is their just deserts to become victims themselves. As a populist, late night in the pub reaction I will give that space. As a serious point, though, I have only on response. And that is to beg you to be cautious of a principle which reduces the right of people with criminal records to live free from fear of crime. With several millions of people convicted of motoring offences - yes, crimes one and all - then the chances are you could be inviting the local burglar into your home. After all, you criminal, its only what you deserve isn't it...?
If reducing crime is not one of prison's strongest claims to positivity, then what else can be offered? To what end do we subject people to incarceration? Do we want to reform people, to turn them away from crime? Or do we not care about the results, all that we really desire is the satisfaction from comes from hurting those who hurt us?
Are we really that stupid?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Basic Point

Any discussion about imprisonment, if it is to avoid the descent into blather, has to be rooted in some firm conceptual soil. Need I say, it just isn't?
Perhaps we should return to address the core issue - what is the purpose of imprisonment? Just what is it that society - including criminals and victims - wants to happen through the use of imprisonment?
Oh, I know there are the textbook responses to this question. Prison is meant to punish, to rehabilitate and act as a deterrent.  We resolutely avoid the difficult issues, though, leaving prison as a dumping ground for the wasters as well as the wicked, a non-optional refuge for the dispossessed, the desperate and the mentally ill. If we designed the system from scratch, according to firmly rooted principles, I'm sure that we would not happily accept the result if it mirrored the present situation.
This is absurd, and an indictment on all of those who pipe up about prison in public but who wilfully shy away from grappling with harsh truths. The first, for me, is to accept that imprisonment often causes more social damage than the crime the prisoner committed.
Prison eagerly grasps the miscreant and locks him away from societies disinterested gaze. That is not contested or denied. What is deliberately avoided are the secondary consequences of this. The prisoner will lose his job. He may lose his home, his wife and his children. At the end of his sentence, having being stripped of all that brought meaning to his existence, he is then vomited back into a hostile society with a few quid and a plastic sack of belongings helpfully emblazoned "HM Prison Service".
Is this what we want or expect from the use of prison? If a judge stood in the dock and actually read out the full breadth of the consequences of a prison sentence, would we at last begin to wonder if that cost was disproportionate to the crime committed. And wonder if there was not some more sensible response to crime.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Magazine

Through sweat and tears I have produced four different editions of the prison magazine. Each version attempts to match the censoring demands of management. Despite my unusually compliant attitude to this, not a single one has yet been allowed to move into print.
I have never, ever, faced such a level of touchiness or censorship during all my years of involvement with prison magazines.
My bet is that, should I be released in a couple of months, I will have been the editor of a prison magazine which never actually gets printed!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

War Games

For most of my sentence I have taken it as being a failure of sorts on my part if the Governor doesn't know my name within days of arriving. I like being a big blob on management Radar.

A new approach has had to be developed here, where the overwhelming aim is to gain release in a very short space of time. This is also to recognise the exceptionally twitchy outlook of many staff and managers, who believe that the best way to deal with anything is to issue an IEP Warning. God forbid they deign to sort out a problem by that evolutionary miracle, the power of speech.
Habitual tugging of management's tail, then, has been relegated to being almost non-existent (blogging excepted...). The game isn't worth the penalties, and release is way more important than my choices of entertainment.
The name of the game here, at this point in time, is to stay as far off the Radar as is possible, to slide through the resettlement process without a murmur or wave of perturbation, leaving not so much as a damp footprint in the wet sand that comprises management’s consciousness.
Obviously there is my reputation to consider. The idea that I could pass through this nick without anyone noticing is a futile one; especially as the prison’s magazine editor. Being a vocal little bugger doesn't quite square with anonymity.
The best that I could hope for in these circumstances was to appear on the Radar for the right reasons. "Right" in this context meaning positive and cooperative. Or, at the very least, not being a pain in the arse. It seems to be working.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Challenging Perceptions

A boy goes to prison at the age of 14. He serves 32 years.

Let's be honest, there is a large constituency, both professional and lay, that would look at that background and have very serious doubts as to the now middle age man's ability to function in society. I chuckle - now - at the reports in my file where Governors baldly state that my ambitions to go to university and get married were "highly unrealistic". At the time I tried to explain how incredibly stupid such a view was.
Yet here we are, faced with the reality that I can bumble about in the world, sans supervision, both in the local town and at home without any discernable problem whatsoever.
Any explanation for this blatant challenge to the myth of "institutionalisation" gratefully received.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


A curse that disproportionately afflicts Lifers, where we can all too easily connect diverse events and see a malign pattern of decisions or events amongst our keepers - aimed at us. This is mostly the result of an absence of information, an outgrowth of powerlessness.
But the day after I arrived I went to pick up a letter. Before I'd even reached for my ID card, the screw in charge said, "Here you are, Mr Gunn."
In a nick with a population of over 500 and mere hours after arrival, the mail screw knew my name and my face. Worrying.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Consumer Rights

There are many avenues that are available to Governors who are struggling to deal with an awkward prisoner. One is to transfer them, to make them someone else's problem. That sounds a little cowardly, but there you go.
There was a period of some 15 years where I didn't pack my own kit for a transfer. Rather than being regular transfers, each move in this period was an official kidnapping where staff hoiked me away and then packed and sent on my property. Sometimes they didn't even trash it first.
Few men moved in such circumstances arrive at their destination with a sunny disposition. No problem has been resolved, merely transposed to a different prison. And in order to arrange such moves, it wasn't unknown for the Governor desperate to get shot of a pain in the arse to lie to those prisons he was attempting to sell the prisoner to. "He's not that bad...".
The introduction of a new computer system, P-NOMIS, has put a dent in this transfer market. Rather than staff writing comments on a prisoners file - an actual paper file - this information is now entered into P-NOMIS. And data on P-NOMIS can be accessed by other prisons. This severely limits the extent to which a Governor can lie about any prisoner in order to dump them onto his colleagues.
Even when the lies succeed, there is the fallback position of a con being sent "sale or return". The prisoner is accepted by another prison on the understanding that if he is too large a problem then he can be returned to the original nick.
The first time this happened to me, I was mildly outraged. After all, even my worst enemies would grant me the status of "human being" and being treated like a pair of Marks and Spencer underpants added to my sour disposition.
Still, if I was unhappy then you can imagine how the Governor felt. Having got rid of me once, I returned a short while later, twice as annoyed. Happy days.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Smoking Ban

Having stopped us from smoking outside, I took a few moments to read the full Smoking Policy. Such waffle is truly the domain only of prison nerds like myself.
It was interesting to see the differential between ourselves and staff in this document. If staff are caught smoking, his is to be dealt with "informally" in the first instance. If we are caught smoking, we are hit with an IEP warning.
Equally, under the heading of "Consultation", the policy explains just how staff and their unions were involved in discussions over this policy. The word "prisoner" is completely absent.
But then, we only make up 95% of the population of the prison, so why should any manager give a crap what we have to say?

Sunday, April 1, 2012


The issue of the privileges that we are afforded in prison is one of the favourite bugbears of the wittering classes, who latch onto the existence of TV's and pool tables as if these items held the secret to a successful prison policy.
What is completely overlooked is that privileges don't exist to smooth off the rough edges of incarceration. Privileges, since 1995, exist solely in a framework whose explicit purpose is to enhance control over our daily lives.
There is no part of a prisoner's life, no matter how small, which escapes the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme. Privileges ceased being a positive and instantly became a burden, a thread of control that is viciously insidious and unjust.