Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Brand Ben

I have now launched a new company - Mokurai Consulting Ltd

Take a peek, spread the word. I've three cats with expensive tastes in food.


Monday, February 25, 2013

The Great Debate

The trek to Nottingham was not the most pleasant, but the prospect of debating against Philip Davies MP made the strain more than worth it. I had a low opinion of the man, not for his abilities as a parliamentarian but for his habit of being an easy quote for the more rabid tabloids whenever a prison story appeared. Not that having an opinion is problematic….But knowing what the hell you're talking about should be a prerequisite for commentators on a public salary. And legislative power.

As is the way, I lurched up to the doors of the lecture theatre, peeked in, and promptly went to change underwear. Seemingly endless rows of students, a packed house to the extent that people were being turned away due to fire regulations. And I had never had to stand before such a vista. Twitter and nicotine were my crutches.

Taking my seat at the front I tried to hide my nerves as I gazed upwards through the masses. Shortly after my co-debator, David Perry QC, arrived and I had the pleasure of his urbane company for the next hour or so. Not in attendance were the opposition, the proposers of the motion that “life should mean life”. The vagaries of the railways and Nottingham town centre had temporarily defeated them. Why they didn’t have the wits to engage what I call “a taxi”…..Which somehow signposted the intellectual weight on offer from the other table.

Philip Davies finally arrived, weilding a suitably firm Tory law and order handshake. Greyer than his profile pics, I briefly wondered if he was about to unleash an insightful, complex argument. He didn’t. Speaking first, he wove together the most visceral parts of Daily Mail editorials, being unhindered by any lack of consistency or rationality.

Within moments, Davies had lost the proposition by deciding to argue that not all murderers should receive life sentences at all. This was an attempt to avoid the weakness of the "life should mean life” proposition, which is that murder encompasses a wide range of circumstances from the most horrible serial killings through to mercy-killing. We didn't allow that to pass unchallenged; altering the definition of murder was a different debate for another day.

Davies did spend a lot of time working two themes. Firstly, that sentencing was dishonest and often opaque. In this he had some merit, although the complexity of sentencing lays at the door of legislators including himself. And secondly, he indulged in a prolonged bout of shroud-waving.  Those of us – and most of the audience – who permitted killers to be freed to commit further crimes were, it turns out, condoning child-rape. Hmmmmm.

But in his arguments solidly for the proposition on the table, not much came along. Yes, some Lifers do get released and do kill again. But this is to the tune of maybe 1 or 2 percent. When challenged that keeping 99% of lifers in prison forever to prevent this may be, well, unjust, there was no response. Davies simply could not see that detaining people for what others may possibly do in future is a morally dubious proposition indeed. Added to the fact that those judged dangerous are not released – maybe never – then the debate was, I'm afraid, rather bereft of intellectual substance.

I’d happily tell you what I said in my time at the rostrum, if I could remember. I do recall raising the point that weighing the value of a human life is essentially impossible. Why did I receive a 10 year tariff, why not a 50 year one? How do we even begin to make such judgements? And, more importantly, what would be the point of a whole life sentence across the board? Does it raise the dead?

Davies arrived low in my opinion, and managed to leave lower. But not as low as some of his supporters. One sat directly in front of me, telling me sotto voce during the debate that I should have been hanged. The morality of executing children is an issue I left him to ponder. Such was his clearly visceral feeling for the topic that I insisted he be given the mike during the Q and A session. And it transpired that he knew a murder victim’s family and the pain they endure.

But as I could only reply, would executing me bring a victim back? Would dipping me in acid resurrect the dead? Would any punishment actually undo the pain that follows murder? No. It is an irretrievable act and a full life sentence wouldn't alter a thing.

He was genuine in his feelings; fair enough. But his compadre was tweeting with vicarious thrills that they would now have to run for it afterwards, having told me I should be executed. Yes, mate, because I fill my spare moments plotting to kill everyone who disagrees with me….. The idea that murderers kill at the slightest bruise is pathetic. Clearly, a lot of educating is needed for some people.

We won the vote. Obviously. Twice; both at the start and again at the end the proposition that life should mean life was trounced.

It is a proposition that appeals to the darker, desperate part of our human hearts. The idea that we should hurt those who hurt us is a deeply, unthinkingly, held one. But put to test, when it is demanded that this policy would actually offer more than illusory benefits or a sop to our horror, the idea collapses.

What is said in private should, of course, stay there. But I have to say that in the bar, David Philips talked as much gibberish as he did at the podium.

It was a great night….

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Live Debate

The debate mentioned in the previous post will be streamed live on http://www.nutsonline.org/ this evening from 7 p.m.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Civilised Demise.....

When the Howard League asked if I was interested in taking part in a debate organised by the HL student group at Nottingham University, I girded my loins for a long trek. When they told me the opposition was to be Philip Davies MP, and the topic was "life should mean life", then I instantly offered to start walking....

A quick search of the blog reminded me that I have said some pretty harsh things about Davies. And they were justified. People really shouldn't blather on about prisons unless they have some vague idea what the hell they are talking about - an idea anathema to some MP's, who will bleat in public about damn near anything just to hear their own voice.

The views of Philip Davies are, so I'm told, a reflection of those held by his constituents. Ah, democracy in action. Except that I expect political representatives to inform, educate and occasionally lead their constituents rather than allow them to fester in a cesspit of ignorance and bile. But perhaps I ask too much from our political class.

I will be extremely pleased to patiently disassemble the chant that "life should mean life", as I have done so on the blog several times. And as I am representing the Howard League, I will do so with the utmost civility.

But this will still be a massacre. For people who hold extreme views tend to paint themselves into a conceptual dead-end, and spend their time either defending the indefensible or retreating inch by inch from their absolutist position. And it is only then that the real debate can begin.

Me. Philip Davies MP. Nottingham University. Tuesday eve. Bring it on.....

Monday, February 11, 2013

Prison Blogger Censored

I mentioned before that a prisoner blogger has sprung out of the cesspit that is Frankland prison. I also mentioned that he was being heavily leaned upon to stop writing. Such is the nature of Her Majesty's Prison Service and their fear of free comment aligned with their utter contempt for law. The blog can be found at http://voiceforcons.blogspot.co.uk

I have been contacted by his facilitators on the outside, prisoners being disallowed direct internet access. The latest development is that prison staff are refusing to allow our correspondent to post material out, and withholding supporting material that has been posted in. The illegalities in this situation just pile up on top of each other.

In a response to a "letter before action" demanding an explanation from the prison, some very junior cog in that machine says that because the blog may tarnish the reputation of Frankland (notorious for staff for brutality and racism...) then they refuse our man permission to post his material.

This is illegal. I won't even try to be subtle about it, for there are no shades of grey here. It was established when I began blogging from the other side of the wall that the only restrictions were those applying to correspondence. To wit, neither staff nor prisoners can be directly identified, nor can sensitive security matters be discussed. Using the blog to plan escapes is, well, frowned upon. Outside of these restrictions anything can be said. As readers of my travails within the prison system may recall, I said it all myself. Possibly not wisely, but perfectly legally.

I will keep you informed of the situation, which only adds to my contempt for my ex-keepers and their very vague interest in maintaining the law.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Grayling's Riot Recipie

Not giving a man something is one matter. It can raise disgruntled feelings and frustration, but these are usually kept in check by that blanket of apathy we call the status quo. It is a different matter altogether to set up a procedure, a set of hurdles, strict behavioural standards by which prisoners can earn a number of privileges, allow them to achieve these dizzying heights for nearly 20 years - and then one day tear up that mutual agreement and remove all of those privileges.

Such arbitaryness is inherent in the latest mutterings of the Minister of Justice. Chris Grayling has expressed the urge to remove and restrict a range of privileges from prisoners, ones which have been woven into the fabric of carceral life since 1995. For obedience to certain behavioural standards, compliance and so forth, prisoners earned these privileges. And prisoners know that Grayling isn't working from some great penological insight, he isn't attempting some great experiment. Prisoners know that when the screws come through the cell door to remove their duly earned and bought goods it will solely be because of a punitive and unthinking spasm has afflicted their political master. And if there is one thing which excites a prisoner's blood, it is unfairness and arbitrary abuse of power.

It appeals to Greyling to strip prisoners of their civilian clothing. Let us ponder this. There were days, not outside of my memory, when prisoners were compelled to wear uniforms. Jeans, or grey trousers, striped shirts, denim jackets....if you have seen Porridge, you know. And then cons were, slowly, allowed to wear some of their own clothing. It began with underwear, then trainers, until by now it is possible to step onto the landings head to toe in Armani.

Well, legend would say that, but I never witnessed it. My constant companion was the Cotton Traders catalogue. Which brings us to the nasty little detail that is always overlooked in the privileges debate - prisoners have to buy these clothes. And they must buy them from whatever moneys they can earn in prison workshops (average weekly pay less than £10) or from the very limited sums allowed to be sent in by friends and family (adding to the pressures on prisoners families). The Prison Service seemed to get a good deal out of this; no longer were they bearing the cost of clothing prisoners. And now, having saved and bought their trainers and sweatshirts, Grayling wants these removed and exchanged for something more drab. I hear rumours of grey jumpsuits. The sartorial objections to this are the least concern, for I assume that having allowed prisoners to buy these clothes and then deciding to remove them, Grayling will not be in any rush to compensate cons who earned this privilege through good behaviour. Prisoners may well feel aggrieved at this situation. And rightly.

Grayling also wishes to restrict prisoners' canteen privileges. For the uninitiated, the Canteen is the prison shop, where cons can spend their wages. Not a physical location within a prison but rather a paper-based order and delivery service contracted out to DHL and Booker, the Canteen list is the prisoners last toehold into consumer society. And where he buys his tobacco, stamps, tea bags and writing paper. To what end, to what possible purpose is this ability to be restricted? None that is cogent and, again, this strikes at the very heart of prison culture and legitimate expectation. The Canteen has existed since the first penological brick was laid. To restrict it out of nothing more than a fit of Ministerial pique will anger prisoners in a way few other issues do.

Except, perhaps, one. And that is Graylings desire to restricting prisoners' access to in-cell TV's.This is the pinnacle of privileges, the one cons most desire - and, of course, the one that imposes a subtle blanket of control. Whilst cons think that TV's were an unalloyed joy, the more strategic thinkers amongst us realised that TV's would also become so adored that their loss through some protest or other would be such a threat as to render swathes of the prison population docile and impotent in the face of outrageous actions by the prison service.

When most of the prison population is locked behind their door for most of the day, and with illiteracy rates shockingly high, then the loss of the distraction that is mindless TV is bound to have a serious effect on mental health and good order.

These things may appear to be trifles to us in our comfortable lives. They are, I assure you, not. These things lay at the heart of what it means to be a prisoner, confined in an environment with few options for even tiny sparks of autonomy, where all resources are deliberately kept scarce. I can tell you that getting out of bed in the morning and having the ability to choose which trousers to wear is important. Knowing there is the opportunity to be able to buy a packet of biscuits to ease night-time hunger is important. And feeling connected to the world, society, events, through the TV is important.

These things are far more significant than I could ever explain to people who have never tasted the loss of freedom, of choice, of autonomy. For they are thin threads of decency, of meaning, that signify some remaining connection to the human community and what it means to be a human being.

And to molest them in the arbitrary way that Grayling proposes reeks of unfairness, of ignorance and of a contemptible disregard of what it means to be a prisoner. If I had to mix you a recipe for a riot it would be this. To institute a scheme to earn privileges, for prisoners to adhere to those terms and spend their pitiful wages in meagre ways to bring small comfort - and then to arbitrarily strip them of all of this out of political spite.

I'm not usually one to keep an eye on the weather. But I have a sudden hankering for a long, hot summer.....

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Freedom you gave away.

So I was out of the loop for a while. I say a while, I mean 32 years. In that time politics rolled on, nations came and fell, new empires were born, and laws rolled off the production line like tins of beans. Things changed whilst I was away.

Not that these changes pass prisoners by; imprisonment is not a Rip Van Winkle experience. Through newspapers, TV, radio, staff, visitors and - mostly - through the perpetual influx of new prisoners who obviously bring cultural shifts along with their Court Warrant through the gates. Being out of the way needn't mean being out of touch.

And yet....There are parts of prison culture which are unalterable. One of these is a complete lack of privacy. At whim, staff can descend upon you and insist you undress, peel back your foreskin and squat over a mirror. Every item in your possession can be pawed over, read, copied, every letter censored, every phonecall recorded. Being a modern prisoner is to live in a fishbowl that sits on the desk of the Secretary of State.

Such freedoms as privacy may be circumscribed out of necessity in prisons, although even that argument has had to take on a nuanced hue. Letters across most of the estate are no longer routinely censored, though the right for staff to do so remains. Every word whispered across a table in the visits room is not listened to, because there are not enough staff to position one at each table. In these ways, although the right to privacy has been lost, the practicalities of intrusion limit the malign effect of that.

Privacy is but a useful illustrative point. I could be referring to any of the rights which individuals assert as the legitimate limits of State power. And during the years I was subjected to that power I resisted in every sphere of my existence. Devouring political theory and history, which was then honed in the daily machinations of prison life where State power is at its most naked, I have slowly become something of a libertarian. Essentially, there should be strict limits on State power to intrude into the private sphere.

However, as I was busy fighting to create a personal sphere in prison, and struggling to escape prison for "freedom", you lot were all busy signing away all that had been fought for since, at least, Magna Carta. I have been released into a society which not only fails to appreciate its freedoms but which has forgotten the most important lesson of history - governments may indeed be necessary, but they are to be treated with suspicion and scepticism. Like prison governors, in fact.

At what point did we think it was a good idea to get rid of a suspect's right to silence? If the State wants to throw a person in prison, why do we equivocate over the idea that they should damn well prove their case? When did we find it acceptable that the local council can install hidden cameras and set spies upon us over our school choices and bin over-filling? When did it seem a clever idea to institute secret courts, with secret evidence? And detention without charge or trial?

These are but mere examples of the intrusion, not just into privacy but physical liberty itself, which society blithely surrendered. As important, but more subtle, is the censorship of thought and speech which has inveigled its way into the dominant discourse.

It is utterly repugnant that unpleasant, offensive ideas cannot be discussed. It is an outrage that society swapped the freedom to speak for the right not to be offended. And it is disgraceful that society has abandoned the idea of challenging horrible or dangerous ideas by argument or ridicule and instead turned to the State to enforce this pathetic demand not to hear anything we find distasteful.

Perhaps it takes a man who has been without freedom for most of his life to appreciate the very concept. Because those of you who have enjoyed it all along have treated the very idea of freedom with contempt.