Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Man, The Mule

Has it always been the place of men to carry around all of the necessities that women require? Women have handbags, men have pockets. It is a woman's mission to render her bags redundant by getting the man to carry as much of her stuff as possible.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Last Day

The last full day of a home leave is a strange one. The day is overshadowed by what tomorrow will bring - prison - and interrupted by packing, arranging travel, etc.

To be sitting in a place of ease and beauty and yet be preoccupied by prison is one of the many emotional strains that are both unexpected and profoundly unpleasant.

Whilst the prison professionals focus on work, timekeeping, etc, it is these deeper emotional waters that are the real story of the road to release.

It's a lot harder than you'd think!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Little Things

It isn't the big things that strike me as odd or cause me difficulties. This is a poke in the eye to penologists but of scant interest to me and the Editor. It is the small, unpredictable, things which have the potential to sow the seeds of discord.

This was brought home to me yesterday. A two hour drive back from the seaside (yes, I am sunburned, doh!) made the Editor feel uneasy. The problem? That I had sat there in utter silence as a passenger.

Given that my usual methods of transportation for 32 years have been prison cars and sweatboxes, I had unconsciously exported a bad habit to the home front. When wedged in a car between two screws the conversation is usually sparse to non-existent. We sit for hours in complete silence. That is normal.

Well, "prison normal". But not normal for the free world, where chatter is the order for driver and passengers. Anything else is plain weird.

This realisation caught me unawares. Yet another illustration of what I have always claimed - that it is the unforeseen and unpredictable events which cause difficulties in this transition to freedom.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


The bureaucracy has finally spewed out a date for my parole hearing - July 23rd. A mere eight weeks to my probable release.

I never thought that I would ever be able to say that.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Home Alone

I have just arrived home for my third home leave, and so will be posting live for the next few days.

The sun is scorching and I am tucked away in the garden wearing a ridiculous hat (the curse of avoiding a burned baldie head) wondering where the hell all the cats have gone. They usually crowd my appearance, knowing that an extra meal could be forthcoming.

I hope all of you have some moments of simple happiness today.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crime Is What We Make It

Given that crime is a social construct, a divination of a popular consensus of what should be controlled (or whatever the most powerful groups in society can impose) then it would hardly be a surprise if what constitutes a "crime" differs somewhat across cultures, societies and time.
Except - and tell me if I am wrong here - I have a sneaking feeling that all societies across all of history classify theft and murder as crimes. True?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Daily Life

Well, who could see this coming? The professional Runes and cod-psychologists predicted that I would find the outside world difficult to deal with. It transpires that the opposite is true - the wider world is easy, but it makes returning to prison and dealing with this particular twisted reality much more difficult than I ever expected.

In some ways, having been here all of my adult life, prison should be my natural habitat. And in a sense it is - I am expert at negotiating its complex territory. But I have never made the grievous error of seeing prison as "home", or as being normality writ large. Prison has never been easy, simple or relaxing for me; it took on the shape of being a battleground. And one that I was intimately familiar with. But still, a site of struggle and not of repose.

These psychological undercurrents have been highlighted by my frequent forays into the wider world. Returning to prison, every bit of nonsense becomes starker, more real. I am finding prison much harder to "do" than ever. Anyone predict that?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crime Statistics

Criminologists love the crime stats, largely because they can be deconstructed into the utter tripe which is their essence. Police stats, insurance stats, survey stats...there are endless sources about the levels of crime and all are pretty lousy.

This situation was never helped by some odd police practices. One was for the CID to pop into their local prison with a sack of tobacco and a list of unsolved crimes and invite the incarcerees to confess. No charges followed, but it did wonders for the "solved" rate. And significantly altered the prison economy that week.
Criminal statistics. Handle with caution.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Credit or blame?

If I pop out of the end of this sentence into the world as a "reasonable man", can the prison service claim
credit for doing such a great job in rehabilitating me?
Or is it, as that old soldier Rab once said to me in the months before his death, "Prison doesn't reform you. It just makes you older."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

It’s no secret that, as a rule, I'd never encourage anyone to fork out good money to read the pearls of wisdom that passes for any Prison Governor’s thoughts. I find myself astonished, then, to read this analysis of the prison system by recently "retired" Governor John Podmore and find myself nodding in agreement with almost every page.
Podmore was a real governor, not one of the Matalan Army who plague our lives. Amongst others, he was the No 1 at both Belmarsh and Brixton. He was a Very Senior Governor. And such men rarely talk in public, let alone write a critique of the system that even I'd be pleased with. This book is the rarest of beasts - an excellent read written by a man who knows the inside of prison management and who pulls no punches. I can't recall any previous books from this genre.
Prisoners may not be surprised to learn that Governors live in a state of near paralysis, forever dancing to avoid a bollocking from Headquarters. This mindset encourages stagnation, a fear of change, an avoidance of radical thought - in sum, prison governors are stuck in a bureaucracy which attempts to squeeze out any sense of positive purpose. This alone could explain why prisons are colossally expensive failures. Podmore's career is, in a sense, shaped by a battle against such constraints.
Not that this book hangs in the air, suspended in a miasma of management waffle. Podmore gets down and dirty on the details, highlighting the failures and the sheer waste of many policies that have come to govern prisoners' lives. One such is the CARATs programme. That has cost £150 million but no one has ever bothered to check whether it does any damn good. Equally, the near impossibility of importing genuine work and pay into prisons is a point which Podmore has run aground on several times in his career.
There are very few areas of prisons which Podmore doesn't discuss, even if tangentially. And uniquely he examines aspects of the system which we rarely consider. From High Security through to Open, from Offending Behaviour Programmes to the work of charitable foundations, Podmore neatly dissects the prison enterprise. And all too often he discovers the waste of time, money, talent and sheer potential to create something positive and meaningful. Unsurprisingly, his view of the politicians who interfere with prisons for short term headlines is a very dim one.
The book is enlivened by the swipes Podmore takes at his bugbears, one of which is the plague of ex-prison staff who claim to have been a "governor". I know, and you know, that there are governors and then there are Governors. But to the outside world, these junior upstarts, middle managers, wave their tatty M&S pinstripes around as if to claim that they were a Big Deal whilst in the job. We know better and, hopefully, this book will skewer these minor bureaucrats in the public eye.
The overriding sense left by this book is that prisons are frustrating. Not just for prisoners but for those Governors who have the ability (or curse) to see beyond what is and envisage something more. In searching for an explanation as to why prisons remain so crap, this book has helped me to understand the pressures and constraints on such Governors. And why so few exist at all.

Towards the end of his (foreshortened) career, Podmore resided in the dim corridors at HQ, attempting to come to grips with pervasive staff corruption, a much neglected area. Not neglected through oversight; but neglected through deliberate policy. The Suits just don't want to know about staff corruption and Podmore found himself ousted from his anti-corruption role. Without a prison to run, he opted to take early retirement. Thankfully for us, he then chose to write instead of adjourning to the golf course. For anyone who wants some insight into the minds of those who control our lives, this book will remain the standard for a very long time.
Podmore is a Governor worth listening to. And just writing that makes me feel very, very weird.
John Podmore, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", Biteback Books

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Prison Work, again

So Ken Clarke wants to increase the amount of work that prisoners do for outside companies. This is a far cry from his last Green Paper which introduced the Rehabilitation Revolution (which I'm still awaiting some distant evidence of).
Employing prisoners is a commercial no-brainer for any company which is happy to use forced labour to increase its profit margins. They pay us what could be the Minimum Wage for a few hours work outside but then receive a 38 hour working week out of us. They don't even have to worry about compelling us to work - the prison management deals with that unpleasant side of the arrangement, allowing these companies to deny that they are in any way responsible.
The latest proposals are an admission of defeat for the Rehab Revolution. This suggested that we be engaged in real work with real pay, which was then clawed back by the nick under various guises. Now, even this idea has died. Instead, outside companies are being encouraged to engage with prisons on the current terms - forced labour for pocket money wages.
Quite how is this an improvement? Forcing a man to work for a pittance is hardly likely to increase his appreciation for the "work ethic"; it is just as likely to nudge him over the line into believing that crime is a far better path to riches.
Yet again a proposal which included some meritorious thinking has been slaughtered and offered as a lump of votive meat to populism. Cutting crime and reintegrating prisoners into the community comes a long way behind pleasing the Tory backbenches.
Look at your political leaders. And look carefully at the proposals which you support or vote for. And then ask yourself if I'm off the mark for suggesting that you have the reoffending rate that you deserve.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Dilemma

What if the use of imprisonment actually causes more harm than the crimes to which it is a response? What if this punishment actually prompts future crime and social dysfunction?
In facing that question we are forced to wonder about what is more important to us as a society -reducing future crime, or hurting the criminal? It is rarely pointed out so starkly that some punishments may actually cause great social harm than the initial offence, and that should cause us to wonder why we prefer punishment that leads to future crime?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Magazine is Born

There can be few editors of any publication who have such an easy existence. The prison mag takes a couple of weeks to put together, then three months for management to ponder upon the content and wield their blue pencil. And at no point do these Suits even have the decency to come and talk over any issues with me.
I nearly took my name off the list of credits, such has been the level of censorship, and in previous times would have fought long and hard against such interference. This time, though, the purpose of the magazine differed from my past forays into publishing.
Previously, I viewed all prison magazines as being a vital avenue for prisoners to have a voice. In those circumstances, censorship is anathema and I resisted it at all costs. Here in Open prison, the political context is vastly different.
The truth is, no one cares. With the prisoners firmly divided into those set on the fastest release and those who seek the fastest way to druggie oblivion, then the place of prison politics is relegated to near non-existence. This positions the existence of the prison magazine in unclear territory and editors of a mind such as myself are quite redundant. Any semi-literate monkey could produce an acceptable effort.
And to my shame, I did!

Monday, May 14, 2012


Being fired from work whilst in prison is usually an achievement to be aspired to. Stuck in a lousy workshop and being paid a pittance is often a situation that gives birth to a struggle of will between the institution and the poor convict. Managing to manoeuvre to the stage of dismissal in those circumstances is usually a minor, if significant, victory.
But I have never, ever, been sacked from a "real" job. Until last week. Returning from home leave I found that my charity shop placement had given me the elbow. Not in person, but via the nick.
Pity. It was a nice placement, and the people were mostly quite chilled. The only problems for me were the claustrophobia - the whole place consisted of two rooms - and the backpain resulting from my being bent over a steamer for most of each day.
Hints of my possible demise came just before home leave, when I was told not to come in because there were two new deputy bosses covering that period. One refused to work with a Con, and the other refused to work with male volunteers. All a bit rum.
I now have a new placement in a much larger charity enterprise, being there five days a week. The only shock to the system is that this placement involves my having to get out of bed at 6 - yes, six! - AM every morning and getting back to the nick at 6pm.
Who was it said that hard work never killed anyone?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Weird Habit

Using a mobile in prison is a fraught and secret affair. One of the ways in which I lessened the odds of being caught was to wrap a hand over the mouthpiece and my lower face, attempting to muffle any conversation I was having from the ears of passing screws.
Ah. Old habits... Out and about with the Editor whenever I make or receive a call on a mobile I stand there, hands cupping phone to mouth, looking rather daft. I wonder how long it will take for me to realise that I can talk without this muffling?!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Tired of Life...

So. London. Big. Noisy. Crowded.
I imagined being a visitor from some far flung corner of the Empire coming face to face with these vast buildings, seemingly impermanent, the embodiment of Empire. No wonder we pulled off that trick for so long!
This was not my first trip to London. As a boy I spent an improbable amount of time running away and tradition had it that I should head for London.
Tired and hungry, I decided to hand myself in to the police. And at Scotland Yard at that. The copper out front was having none of it. "This is just an admin centre, we don't even have any cells..." he explained, making me stand and wait for a van from Paddington to come and fetch me.
I wonder if the tea and pies they serve at Paddington now are as sweet as they were to that cold eleven year old?

Contempt of Parliament

On home leave I was invited down to London for a meeting and afterwards we took a wander. The Editor was rather keen to take a picture of me in the lobby of Parliament, but I had forgotten to wear my prisonerben t-shirt!
As we circled past the Mother of Parliaments (a blatant lie!) I found myself becoming quite upset, with waves of emotion rushing up from the deepest part of my political soul. Was this a response to the majesty of Westminster, or in wonder at the beauty of the British democratic tradition? No. There is neither majesty nor wonder in Westminster, either in its concrete form or in the ideals which weave the lie of democracy or freedom and that tiny Guy Fawkes that resides in the spirit of all thinking people when faced with political power was stirring in my guts.
The feelings that wracked me were anger and contempt of such a power that even I was surprised. For why? Because I had a vision of my being in the lobby and collaring some political minion to ask one simple question. Where is my vote? In honesty, in my mind this was closer to "Where is my fucking vote you stinking hypocritical bastard?" You can take the prisoner out of the prison, but...
Such was my anger that I refused all efforts to get me to set foot into the precincts of Parliament. The level of my contempt is immeasurable. How dare these sanctimonious bastards sit in judgement upon us all, lecturing us on our duties and laying down penalties for refusing to abide by whatever law they prescribe? The relationship between the citizen and the State is a fragile and mutual one. I'm inclined to sue for divorce.
This Parliament refuses to abide by the judgements of a Court under whose domain it willingly comes. Why should we, then, not take this lesson to heart and treat the law as an interesting idea whose existence we only acknowledge when it suits our needs?
Contempt for this institution and its occupants oozes from every pore in my body.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Deja vu All Over Again

Those stalwarts who have followed the blog from the beginning will know well the less than complimentary relationship that exists between myself and the Parole Board. Much of my dislike is rooted in their seeming inability to do their job in an efficient manner, a pre-requisite for a body whose timings determine my continued imprisonment.
My parole hearing has been scheduled for this May for over 18 months. As of today, we still have no firm date, meaning that we have slipped into June already.
Perhaps this didn't matter so much when I clearly wasn't going anywhere. But this time, release is the Grand Prize and I bitterly resent the wheels of bureaucracy grinding exceeding slow.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Herod the Babysitter

Search the news archives under "prison riots" and the word "Strangeways" will surely appear. Strangeways prison was the Alpha and Omega of the wave of unrest which almost brought the British prison system to total collapse just over 20 years ago. The ramifications of these riots were deep and profoundly shape the topology of power and control in today's prisons.

The analysis of these riots, the Wolff Inquiry, had the unique attribute of actually asking prisoners why the riots occurred. Although flawed, the resulting Wolff Report attributed the rioting to a basic lack of perceived fairness within the system. Punishment is one thing; arbitrary abuse and contempt is quite another.

Those were strange days indeed. A Tory Home Secretary even declared that "prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse". Out of this maelstrom came an official effort to bolster the perceptions of legitimacy, that central pillar of any power-relationship that hopes for longevity.

One of the concrete manifestations of this was a complete overhaul of the way in which prisoners could complain about aspects of their treatment or conditions. After all, men whose concerns are seemingly taken seriously are less likely to adopt more robust methods of expressing their dissatisfaction.

At the pinnacle of this system was the creation of an independent Ombudsman, an office outside of the control of the prison service who had the ability to adjudicate upon complaints. The government of the day promptly attempted to limit the likelihood of the Ombudsman disturbing the status quo by appointing a retired naval Admiral to the position - assuming that such an Establishment insider would be unlikely to lead a charge in favour of better treatment for prisoners. Alas for the State, Admiral Woodhead became a highly respected Ombudsman who had no qualms in sticking it to the prison service when he felt it necessary.

Two decades on and the position of the Ombudsman is far less luminary. The Ombudsman himself spent a chunk of his career working for the prison service he is now tasked to hold to account. Many of his staff also worked for the prison service, although the Ombudsman flatly refuses to say what percentage have this unfortunate employment heritage.

Deficits in legitimacy, the appearance of fairness, are a crucial factor in maintaining basic order within prisons. That was the lesson learned from the riots, and an independent channel to deal with complaints was one part of the response. And yet, twenty years later, these lessons have been forgotten to the extent that the Ombudsman and his staff have such deep links with the prison service as to undermine any faith that prisoners may have in that office.

And when the voiceless realise that they are mute there is the risk that they will express themselves in other, more physical ways. The Government’s efforts to render the views of prisoners as irrelevant for short term ease contains within it the seeds of the next generation of prisoners who may look upwards to the roof as a platform for dissent.

Monday, May 7, 2012


This period of transition from prison to the community would invariably lead to my accumulating more "stuff". When shifting into new roles and responsibilities, moving further geographically, then new Stuff is needed. Quite what I have found that I need is a slight surprise.
Shoes. Prison is the bastion of trainers, which is fine, but for work and less casual purposes then a half decent pair of shoes is a must. Quite when prisons ceased issuing shoes is a moment in history which passed me by but the stores are empty. Life was simpler when I flatly refused to adopt any other position than bare feet.
Jacket. Prisoners live the fortunate existence of Indoor Man. The weather could become a torrid nightmare and it effects us not a jot - we don't need to go out in it. Or rather, that is the case in Closed prisons but not so true in Open ones. So I have acquired a very nice jacket - French Connection -which is both padded and waterproof, of which I am inordinately proud. But as the weather improves, such lavish tailoring is not only unnecessary but inappropriate. A lighter jacket is called for. My sartorial model, I realise, is Jeremy Clarkson.
Netbook. The process of writing is a complicated one, at least half psychological as anything else. If one's writing environment is wrong, words remain a nascent wish deep in the brain, never to be unleashed upon the screen or paper. At home I have yet to discover this method and place of ease where I can write because of the competing demands of being out of the way but not quite isolated; a place where I can smoke furiously, dropping ash onto the keyboard; not too far from hot water for coffee or the loo; and with a chair that doesn't provoke my overworked lower back. The solution - under the pergola or in the garden shed - is not ideal, but a basic level netbook seems to permit the freedom to wander the house, garden and nearby coffee shops until I know I have found The Spot where words flow.
Electronic Cigarettes. A wonder of the modern age, the pinnacle of addiction - a fake fag that delivers a happy hit of nicotine without leading to my being chased with air freshener and disapproving glares from the Editor. Coupled with the netbook, electronic cigarettes are surely a solution to most of life's problems.
Is his all "more stuff"? Or is it a reflection of the necessities of the transition from a prison existence to a community one? And will I junk most of what I have accumulated during my prison existence, or will that find a place - utilitarian or psychological - at home? And just when do I take my Jug home...?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Freedom and Locks

As I rushed to stuff my pockets on my return to the nick from home leave, it struck me that the more
freedom I had, then the more keys I have to carry.
Back in Closed prison we may have one or two keys, for a locker and a courtesy lock, at most. Now I have those two keys, plus a locker at work, then my house key, and am an occasional custodian of the car keys.
I was unconsciously assuming that "freedom" implied an absence of locks. Wrong. It means that I have the keys to even more locks than I could have imagined.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Compassionate NHS Staff

As is the counter-intuitive nature of prison, it took me five minutes to book out to go on home leave but over half an hour to book back in. As part of the bureaucratic web, I had to present myself to Healthcare to be certified "fit" on return, as I was certified fit on release. Unsurprisingly, this gives rise to the uniquely prison word, to be "fitted". This is not the same as to be "fitted up"!
Standing at the hatch in Healthcare I declared myself broadly fit, but asked for some Ibuprofen for my aching back. The nurse turned to her colleague and said, "You keep working, so we can keep giving these lads free stuff".
"Urn, excuse me", I said, "but we are prohibited from bringing back any medicines from home leave. And as I have cancer, I have free prescriptions for life anyway."
"Well done" said the nurse, and threw me a pack of pills.
I haven't put in a single complaint since I arrived at this prison. This is a record for me but I have bit my tongue. Having nurses spewing their bilious attitude is one issue which I am seriously considering not letting go.
A big fat official complaint to her NHS bosses may well be in progress. Am I right?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lost In Translation

Occasionally, someone gets the idea into their head that their chances before the Parole Board may be increased if I wrote their Representations. No pressure! Such people have a profoundly misplaced view of the power of words, as if I can weave a literary spell over the Board that will, magically, reduce the importance of the crime and appalling prison behaviour and lead the Board to adopt the miscreant as a lost son and order his release on the spot.
There is an entertainment value to this exercise, namely in the transmogrification of what the con honestly tells me into a phrasing that is acceptable to the Parole Board. Here are a few brief translations...
"I had fuck all to do with the crime but, as you won't release me if I said that, then this slippery form of words is what I have to peddle to you." In the Reps, this becomes, "I am profoundly sorry for the part that I played in causing the death of X..."
"My current probation officer is a waste of space who has done nothing useful in the past twenty years. I hope he falls under a bus and that my new one is more sensible." Translated: "I hope to build a positive and constructive relationship with my future supervising probation officer..."
"My prison career has admittedly been imperfect..." Or, the naked truth, "yeah, I know I shouldn't have stabbed that governor back in '02. Sorry. "
"The last Parole answer was a disappointment and caused me to re-examine my behaviour..." in reality means, "Screw you and the horse you rode in on! Muppets."
"There seems to be a misunderstanding on the part of some staff reports..." actually hides the rather more realistic "They are all lying through their fucking teeth and they know it."
I do take a perverse pride in being able to take the most outrageous truths and moulding them into a form of words which isn't quite obfuscatory but hardly the naked truth either. Not that I claim any success with this, but it seems to keep some people happy that I will take the time and effort to try to recast their life in a more positive light.
Needless to say, this was never the approach I took when I wrote with my own Representations. If only! No; I had the awful habit of writing hefty Reps that explained at great length just why the prison service was misconceived and why the parole board were so bloody wrong... Now, by mutual agreement with my legal representatives, I no longer write Reps - just to make their job of fighting my corner easier!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Charity Wars

Working in the charity shop is an eye opener to parts of life which have so far passed me by. It took a couple of days for me to realise why that workplace felt different -I have never worked in a majority-female situation before! The gossip is far more interesting!
And I stumbled into the "donation bag wars". Would you believe that some people will go around and steal the bags of clothing generously left outside homes, selling the goods to textile merchants? And I mean that this is done on an organised scale, not by chance opportunists, with men in vans circling residential streets looking for charity bags. That is pretty low.
But not as low as local councils, who sometimes insist that charities buy a license to collect from houses -and then demand a cut of any profits made. Recession or not, that is grubby behaviour of a type that makes even criminals blush.