Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cleopatra, Coming At Ya

The death of Henley [] was a hard blow. While it appears I'm incapable of living with another person, I'm also incapable of living by myself. Two days after Henley's passing saw me becoming fractious. A house without a cat just isn't right.

I began to make inquiries. Kittens, how hard could it be to find one?! Very.... The large charities wanted a chunk of loot and to make home visits. Bear in mind I was looking for a cat, not trying to adopt a Chinese baby, I thought this was all a tad excessive. So I put the word out on the kitten black market, and was led to a small female black cat, a couple of months old.

She was laying on the floor in a chavvy corner of the region, trying to ignore the chaos around her as a dozen other animals  screeched around the house. A very cool cat, that twenty quid saw me and The Editor drive away with.

The Naming Of Cats is a very serious business. Not least to avoid standing on the doorstep calling for "Fluffy Bunnykins". With her large ears, triangular face, my new cat was obviously a Cleopatra. Not that she ever answers to it.

Many months on, and Cleo remains a dainty cat. She has developed her little quirks - crapping in my bath and nuzzling my armpit - but she is perceptive and kind. When I have a bad night, it's not unknown for Cleo to climb into bed with me and stretch herself out down the length of my spine, purring. Cleo is a Good Thing. She even has her own Twitter account, @TheJusticeCat and is a minor scourge of trolls and radical feminists.

Kittens don't remain kittens for long, and a couple of months ago Cleo began rolling around under hedges with various suitors. And then she grew fatter. And fatter. And lazier. Until a few days ago her favourite spot was on my kitchen worktop, above the fridge and next to the kettle.

Now, she is hidden away in a corner in my bedroom. The Editor and I prepared a lot of nests for her to choose from, so obviously Cleo picked a random binliner full of dirty clothes to give birth. But she was extremely clever. Early one morning, Cleo began to climb all over me and nuzzling my face. I woke and gave her lots of fuss, but she kept walking away. She did this repeatedly, with ever more determination, until I roused myself to follow her. Only when it was clear hat I knew where she was nesting did Cleo settle down to give birth.

I was more worried than she was, poor thing. Between us we didn't have a clue. Instinct kicked in, and we are now proud possessors of four kittens: one silver tabby, two black, and one that seems to be flirting with the idea of being grey. Just three days old they remain in the box I moved them to, piled in a heap or attached to Cleo. And she is very cool, only purring when I pet her, and making no complaint if I pick up one of the wriggling furballs.

One kitten will remain here, company for mum, and the rest will go to good homes. If I am fortunate, and if Cleo stops sitting in the middle of the road, we should be keeping each other company for many years.

Cleopatra. Coming at ya.

Friday, July 11, 2014

So I have an Idea....

The Big Idea – Shouting Louder

Nearly everything I have done in public over the past 5 years or so has had one conscious aim – to stimulate debate around criminal justice issues.

The blog sprang from that kernel; although to this day myself and The Editor cannot recall which of us suggested it. It seems to have worked, don’t you think? Granted, I have been neglecting you of late but the practicalities of adjusting to my new existence, earning a living, and encompassing all my other activities means that daily blogging just isn’t practical at present. Even so, for a small personal blog to attract up to 35,000 readers a month (our peak) is astonishing. Prison interests people, for many different reasons.

But the blog led to media interest. Profiles popped up in the Guardian and – improbably – The Times. A raised profile then followed me out of the gates and now I go through phases of “media tarting”, appearing everywhere from ITV Daybreak through to Newsnight. I’m still recovering from a day of 16 interviews, same blasted topic, same questions….by lunchtime I actually eyed a quiet alley in Westminster and wondered if I could grab a quick kip.

Behind the scenes, I appear to be the darling of some student documentary makers and film-makers. If one camera crew isn’t arriving, one may well be leaving. I’ve been filmed choked with tears, and looking moodily out of my lounge window, fag in hand. And drinking lots of coffee. I mean, lots.

There are far more talks in smaller enclaves. Law schools, universities, private groups, conferences, month after month I schlep around the nation banging the drum and engaging with people who have an interest in justice. These include generalists, such as the Skeptics in the Pub, to specialists such as junior barristers and forensic psychology undergraduates. Later this year I’ll be a keynote speaker at a criminology conference and addressing the AGM of the Independent Monitoring Boards.

Couple this peripatetic verbosity with three Twitter accounts, a website, this blog, a YouTube channel and two Facebook accounts, many would say I already have more than enough avenues of discussion – or dissent! – to keep anyone happy. Probation say I’m their “first multimedia Lifer”, which I suppose is true, even though embracing the new media hardly struck me as being a coherent plan at the time.

And yet… All this activity lacks something, a central core, a nexus. I could and should tie all of the new media stuff together, for example; but that would be mere technical trickery. Something more, something ephemeral, has been eluding me. Until I spoke to a friend of The Editors here in Frome, who happened to be involved with the local community radio station. As she spoke, my brain was racing away constructing complex spidergrams of all the potential in broadcasting.

I mulled. I mused. I ummed, I’ve aaaahd. I have spoken to many people. And I was undecided, but interested. Eventually I junked my pitch to the local radio station; with a local population of 18,000 all in and the technical capability to stream to a mere 150 people online simultaneously, the potential inherent in finding a berth with someone elses enterprise seems massively limited. After all, I’m a new media type of guy – global, not local.

This conceptual meandering led me and The Editor meeting a fascinating man this morning. A friend of Rubin Hurricane Carter in the day; a man who’d marched in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement and been beaten and bitten for his trouble; and more pertinently, a guy who had been in radio for decades and runs a station in the Caribbean.

His advice? Do it myself. His arguments were compelling, not least because I have advantages few such start-ups have the benefit of – expertise, and an already existing audience. Add in all my social media and blog followers and that is a minimum of 15,000 people who already “tune in” to me, so to speak. And whilst the core are in the UK and North America, my readers are global. I have a ready made audience on which to build a radio community.

My first hand knowledge of prison, coupled with my analytical bent, makes me nearly unique. Not that other Lifers in the community don’t have far greater academic depth, they do; but I seem to be the only one daft enough to be comfortable with being in the public eye. And as that gaze can often be malevolent, I don’t blame them one bit for ploughing their own, equally significant furrows. The result, though, is that out of those with the lengthy prison experience and a modicum of wits, I’m the loudest one. And when it comes to broadcasting, loud and persistent seems to be a bit useful.

And in this media driven age, where soundbites rule and controversy gets traction, is there another radio show on the planet focusing on criminal justice issues fronted by a convicted murderer? Profoundly cynical, I know.

We talked strategy, marketing, technicalities. It’s so easy to broadcast over the Net, and very reasonably priced. Initial startup may be under £1,000, and monthly running costs well under £100. Who knew…?!

And so I have an idea. An internet radio station focusing on criminal justice issues and thereabouts. As anyone who has read the blog or my tweets appreciates, this is an extremely broad field. And it can be approached in many different ways – if there’s one button that can be pushed to start a good row, its called “prison”, and we all seem to have a view. Equally, there is a more measured approach. My tweets can be sparky – 140 characters! – but I hope that, overall, my blogposts have been more thoughtful. If sharp, on occasion.

Imagine the scope. From restorative justice to victims issues, from prison privileges to probation, crime and punishment encompasses everything. Politics, law, media, prison….and most of all, it all centres on the very worst of what lies in the human psyche. It has something for everyone.

And I would make that integral to my approach. I have as little inclination as the rest of you to listen to my own voice endlessly waffling on, and that is to be avoided. Rather, each show would be topic-led and guest focused. Interviewing, news roundups, debates, emailed Q and A’s….filling an hour would actually be frighteningly simple. And the listeners would, I sincerely hope, leave each hour feeling better informed and maybe even a little more interested in how we as a society respond to those who transgress.

There are, obviously, the accompanying paraphernalia of a website, social media feeds, and the like. Because the actual radio element may be a handful of hours a week, also repeated and podcast, it will be equally important to use social media to continue or highlight the discussions and provide a platform for community building. And I now realise I’m relapsing to the language I used when I was an E-commerce strategist….

Guests I would love to have…. A head of a prison reform group; a local copper; a victims group; local politicos; the occasional prisoner via phone, ex prison staff, lawyers, psychologists, community groups, campaigners, journalists… it really can be an endless list. Having already quietly floated this idea past a handful of putative guests, I was warmed by their interest.

Assuming I can put in place the right model from the beginning, as the station settled then I would hope to forge links across the criminal justice landscape. The website, in particular, could become a portal through to the expertise and insights of others in the field

It’s early days yet, lots of pondering and planning to do, but I can see this has a lot of potential.

Thoughts, please, folks. On any aspect of this idea. Either here, Twitter @prisonerben, or for the shy via

Oh, and brace yourselves :)



Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ministerial Cancer

You know that an election is hoving near the horizon when the Parliamentary language in prison debates takes on a keen edge, each speaker winking up to the press gallery.

The Minister for Prisons, Jeremy Wright, has given his views on the recent Dartmoor palava. Two prisoners managed to scale a building and perch on the roof. As part of negotiations, they were offered sunscreeen (they declined). And the tabloid dogs of war were let loose.... The comments on the Daily Mail site beneath this story give you both an insight into the darker parts of human nature and reveals the gallery that is being played to.

Officially, this was "an incident at height". The Ministry has abolished rooftop protests as it has riots, by the simple means of never using those terms. Riots are @outbreaks of disorder" or "acts of concerted indiscipline", and miscreants scampering over the tiles are "incidents at height". These used to be extremely problematic for staff; chasing cons on top of high buildings is very dangerous for all involved. However. HMP has for several years being able to call upon specialist staff who, with ingenious use of ropes and airbags, can scale rooftops and challenge the miscreants. Alongside this muscular effort goes negotiation, via a trained member of specialist staff. Obviously, talking people down is easier than frontal assaults. All very reasonable and cogent so far, I'd have thought?

And if during negotiations some small token gestures of goodwill are bandied about - such as the now infamous sunscreen - then such is the nature of negotiation. The aim is to resolve the incident safely. Sunscreen or not, the prisoners face serious punishment afterwards.

The Minister, Wright, has a different view. I'd like to believe it is based upon a thorough appreciation of order and control in prison, on the delicate balances, and an understanding of negotiation and incident management. But let's be realistic. Wright may know how to forge a soundbite, but his knowledge of prison equals mine on the topic of sea cucumbers.

Wrights view is that no such offers of suncreen should ever be made, and as far as he is concerned the prisoners can stay on the roof until they develop cancer. This is from one of Her Majesty's Under Secretary of State's for Justice. What a class act.

Wright isn't wholly bto blame. He was challenged by his opposite number, Saddique Khan, on the story. Khan is also seemingly content to drag the whole prison debate into the festering gutter of hatred. Wright had to say the right thing, or appear weak.

But Wright had an option. He could have been a decent human being, and a passable politician, by choosing a different response. Such as,

"It ill behoves us to use the very important issues surrounding imprisonment to grub for electoral gain. Prison is a serious matter. It rests on crimes committed and harm inflicted upon innumerable citizens. We are best advised to deal with such pains with care, in order to reduce the number of future victims. We cannot do this if we trap ourselves into these unhelpful knee jerk responses, no matter5 how tempting. Depriving citizens of liberty and causing them suffering are issues that should not be dealt with solely with an eye on tomorrows headlines.

While I share (Khans) surprise at the way these negotiations were conducted, I am very aware that neither I nor (Khan) are specialists in incident management. The Prison Service has decades of experience and a depth of skill in dealing with such incidents and I am not going to be quick in interfering with such expertise; least of all for political gain. For Ministers to interfere with dangerous incidents risks such events becoming increasingly dangerous. It is best we leave the details of these matters to those who have the experience.

(Khan) will note that this incident was concluded peacefully. No staff were injured or put at risk, and nor were the services of the specialist roof squad needed. If an offer - declined, mind you - of sunscreen helps to calm a situation and resolve it quickly, cheaply, and safely then while I raise an eyebrow at the initial reports I fully appreciate and support the Prison Service and their methods of dealing with such events.

I hope all Members will appreciate that there are two ways of addressing prison issues. The first is to generate soundbites and react to headlines. The second is harder, but will mean more to victims and citizens alike - that we address prison issues with care. We owe that not just to those we as a society imprison, but to future generations of potential victims of crime."

And then he could have sat down. And not left Parliament today looking like a disgusting human being.

Money in Prison

People - by which I meant, free people - were always bemused that prisoners need money. After all, isn't everything laid on by the State? Aren't the taxpayers lavishing Playstations, trainers and TV's on prisoners? Um, no.

Prison provides the basics. After that... Imagine a simple thing, such as writing a letter. That requires pen, paper, envelope and stamp. Call that lot £2 (although its more...). If you want to use the payphone to talk to your wife and children? That's 9p a minute. TV's? Rented, a quid a week. Clothing...a biscuit...nail clippers... The list is a long one, mostly comprising those small items we out here use and dispose of with barely a conscious thought. For the interested, the full list of what prisoners are permitted is contained in (and found by searching for) PSI 13/2013. (Which is Prison Service Instruction Number 30 of 2013).

Such lists of privileges (now coyly called "facilities") have existed for decades, although in pre-Grayling times it was far more flexible and differed vastly from prison to prison. But always, prisoners had to find the money to buy any of these items.

Under the IEP Scheme - the bureaucratic framework in which privileges are "earned" - it was originally envisaged that the better the prisoners behaviour, the more positive and productive he was, then the better the regime he lived. Alas, within moments of this scheme being unveiled in 1995, the Prison Service realised that there was very little it could actually offer. By default, then, the IEP Scheme became a way for prisoners to spend their own money to buy privileges they had "earned" through good behaviour.

Let us briefly glimpse Grayling's largess. Bear in mind this is prisoners money, not State money. For Those on Basic - (officially) prisoners with poor behaviour - get to spend the grand sum of £4 of their own money per week.

Those on Graylings new privilege level can run wild with £10 per week. This is the Entry level. Every prisoner must begin on the Entry level, living a highly restricted regime for the first two weeks. Even remand prisoners - the putatively innocent. Amongst the deprivations are being compelled to wear prison uniforms. By the way, no extra money was given to Governors for these uniforms (and over 80,000 people a year move through the gates), they have to find the money for crappy mauve tracksuits by cutting other parts of their budget. During a period of several years where year on year cuts have already being demanded. The justification for the Entry level regime appears to be nothing more complex than vote grubbing.

Those on Standard level can spend £15.50 per week of their own money. And those on the highest privilege level, Enhanced, can spend £25.50.

The iniquity of this scheme is that it essentially forces prisoners to reward themselves for their good behaviour. The prison gives pathetically little. Compounding this is the reality of prisoners poverty - most criminals are feloniously rubbish; many prisoners simply do not have this money to spend. It is possible for a prisoner to have exemplary behaviour but still live a more meagre prison life than a man on Basic, simply because he doesn't have the money to reward himself.

I try to imagine being a new prisoner. Hoiked from Court to the prison, dehumanised, undergoing the cold bureaucratic mortification of "Reception", shovelled into a uniform a thousand people have previously worn, and told that - if you happen to have it - you can spend £10 over the next 7 days. Most people would want to contact their family. Phonecalls. At 9p a minute. See how far ten quid goes when you are trying to hold together the remnants of your previous life. And for those saying "So what? Scumbag convicts", then bear in mind the prisoners family, their children, are innocents. And if the family falls apart, the demands upon the social services, education and benefits system increase. As does the odds of reoffending - future victims. We are not merely talking about a few pennies; but what can be done with them, what they mean.

The rate of suicide has increased. Why? Who knows. What I do know is, taking people from the Court, shell shocked, vulnerable, and then subjecting them to a harsher more restricted regime purely for votes is a dangerous gambit.

Oh, and Playstations? Only available to those whose behaviour has earned them the highest level of privileges. They must save up their money to buy it. And nothing more advanced than the original XBox or Playstation 2. Just to clear up any other idea the tabloids may have given...

Money. Prisoners do actually need it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Slice of Prison Culture

It's instinctive, if unfair. But I rarely wholly trust any man with a thin scar down their face. Being slashed, "striped", is one of the traditional prisoner expressions of disdain for debtors and sex offenders - nonces.

Such is the prisoner subculture. Nonces are, as a matter of social policy (so to speak), the excluded, the despised and the legitimate target for the violence of other prisoners.

Except I never did buy into this. In my early years, my appreciation of the subtleties of moral criminal reletavism was not all that it could have been, and I expressed myself as forcefully as the next man in relation to sex offenders. As the years passed and my moral education deepened, I withdrew from this part of the subculture.

There were three reasons for this. Firstly, the prisoners' moral calculations were a tad askew. While all sex offences have a "yuk factor", this needn't lead to the conclusion that all sex offences were inherently "worse" or caused more harm than non sexual offences. I killed someone. Who am I to tell a rapist that he is worse than me, and beat him?

Secondly, there was the problem of "justice". We cannot demand for ourselves what we would deny others in the framework of justice. The very men who inflicted vigilante beatings to nonces would howl to the rooftops if a mob turned up at their cell door.

On the landings, though, in the grubby reality of prisoners social life, what caused me pause was the sheer hypocricy that I witnessed. Sex offenders who were wealthy, or who could seriously fight back, or - most significantly - a nonse who could supply heroin were not invariably hounded. They were often treated with more distinctions. Whereas the sex offenders who were isolated, weak, vulnerable, were invariably abused. Such bullying dressed up as a principled stance against sex offenders was, is, pathetic.

I do not condone violence between prisoners based on their crimes. Not then, not now. As well as being morally suspect, such violence only plays into the hands of prison staff. It undermines any attempt at prisoner solidarity and is utterly pointless.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Purpose of Prison

What is the point of prison? What is it we expect to happen via some mystical act of hiding someone away behind a 20 foot wall?

I wish I could point to some profound piece of law; Or guide you to a deeply insightful Parliamentary discussion that encompassed teasing out the nuances of State power, the uncomfortable realities of inflicting suffering on citizens. You will know that such debates haven't yet taken place.

The best I can give you - apart from Chapter One of any criminal justice textbook - is Prison Rule number 3: The Purpose of Prison Training and Treatment. You will appreciate how little attention is paid to this grandly titled Rule when I point out it once held the place of Rule 1. It slides down the list as time passes.

Rule 3 states that, "The purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life".

Note those words: encourage...assist...useful life.... And note the complete absence of the word "punishment". Indeed, the Prison Rules are denuded of that word, as if by its literary absence then the reality of prison is somehow more amenable. Even punishments issued as part of the internal disciplinary process are smuggled into existence by being called "awards". I "won" a few awards over the years, mostly resulting in solitary confinement. An award in prison is not one to be sought after.

Punishment, then, seems to have been forgotten in the Rules. The punitive element of imprisonment is reduced to t6hat inherent in the act of imprisonment - the loss of liberty. Not liberties, please note; but liberty. This is an error that many make. And the loss of liberty is grievously underestimated by those who have never suffered it, by those who insist that imprisonment must be accompanied by imposing harsh treatment and hard regimes.

The Rules are clear. Which makes it rather pathetic that Ministers insist on reaching down from their vast and comfortable official perches into the cells of prisoners, to tweak the penitents lives just to make them a little bit more miserable. Not out of some great penological or criminological urge to reduce crime, but in the politicians perpetual quest to grub for votes and to retain their clammy hold on power.

To take Rule 3 on its face - let's pretend? - it might be asked just what in prison life either encourages or assists prisoners to live a good and useful life? Is it the overcrowding? The meagre family contact? The forced penury? Being forced to work for the profit of outside companies? The ambivalent healthcare? Being compelled to crap in front of cellmates, strangers?

These are structural indecencies, requiring no input from prison staff. This is the way prison is designed to be - degrading and empty of significant positive purpose. An hour in any prison is enough to suggest that far from encouraging a future "good and useful life", prisons foster a sense of anger, injustice and resentment. And a 60% reoffending rate.

I have tried to imagine what a prison would look like if it did aspire to actually adhere to Rule 3. It was so far removed fromj my experience that I failed. Utterly.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Morally Ambiguous Murderers

The Right wingers who lurk in the shadier parts of our society - such as Parliament and the Daily Mail - are not known for supporting murderers. Usually. But then we have a soldier convicted of murder and suddenly the adherence to the rule of law goes out the window. And Life should most certainly not mean life....

We saw this with Corporal Lee Clegg. After a stolen car had scuttled through his checkpoint on a lane in Northern Ireland, Clegg fired at the retreating car and killed one of the kids inside. Knowing instantly that using lethal force against a car which posed no threat was wrong, Clegg pushed one of his squad to the floor and stamped on him, so that they could claim the car hit them.

Rightly, Clegg was convicted of murder. And the Tory dogs of war - fresh from Balaklava, I suspect - declared him a hero and campaigned hard on his behalf. In the event, Clegg served 2 years of a life sentence, returned to the Army and gained promotion. No lifetime firearms ban for him then, just every other lifer on licence...

And now I see an e-petition is floating around for another convicted soldier, Marine A. Some feel his conviction by a military court for murder is an outrage and he should be released. Possibly with a Mandelian parade (that's Nelson, not Peter...).

The undisputed facts of this case are not ambiguous. Two insurgents were taking pot shots at Marine A's base. An Apache helicopter gunship was summoned, and it shot the two desperados to pieces with its 20mm cannon. Marine A was sent out with his squad to check on the insurgents.

Marine A found the victim. He was grievously, probably mortally, wounded. He was disarmed. Marine A then dragged him out of direct sight of his base and shot him dead. He then turned to one of his squad who was wearing a helmet camera and declared that he'd just broken the Geneva Convention. In brief.... Marine A found a wounded enemy. He disarmed that enemy. He then killed that enemy.

A military court found him guilty of murder. On the face of the facts, not surprisingly. This was not in any heat of battle; it was not the result of some mental fuse being blown under the pressure of combat. It was cold blooded and deliberate killing of a wounded and disarmed prisoner. It would be difficult to imagine how any court could not condemn this act.

However, there are those on the Right (including the risible "Britain First" group) who are circulating an Epetition to free Marine A. They do not dispute any of the facts of the case. The sole basis of their cause seems to be that a British soldier is, by definition, a hero and must not be convicted of killing a terrorist scumbag.

Exchanges I've had in other forums only reinforce this attitude. Excuses made for Marine A include the fact that the enemy are brutal and not constrained by the rules of war. Both true.

However. We engage enemies, we send our forces, on the basis that they fundamentally threaten us and our values. To attempt to justify mistreatment of enemy combatants on the grounds that the enemy mistreats British prisoners is bizarre. The basis of our campaign is that we are better than them, that our values are better. To attempt to argue that we should act as badly as our enemies is to reduce us to the enemies level. Which would beg the question - what are we fighting for, exactly? The right to torture and murder enemy fighters?

I have every sympathy for our armed forces. But the uniform is not some cloak that endows superman status nor renders our troops invisible to the rules for the conduct of war. Soldiers who commit crimes should be - must be - held as accountable as any other citizen.

In the event, the Court of Appeal has reduced Marine A's sentence to a minimum term of 8 years. That is half the standard starting point for murder. For anyone else, murder with a firearm would result in a minimum term of over 30 years. In this framework, an 8 year minimum is a gift.

I hope that this does not lead to a repeat of the Lee Clegg episode - Tory MP's queuing up to denounce the conviction, the sole argument being childish flag-waving.

Those who proclaim an adherence to the rule of law do themselves no service by special pleading for murderous soldiers. Ignoring the monstrous hypocrisy of such pleading, it also creates its own dangers. For accepting, even arguing, that our troops should be entitled to act with the bestiality of our enemies extinguishes any moral reletavism and only hands propaganda to our enemies.

Murder is murder. Law is law. Being in public service does not, should not, result in a free pass to crime.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Books for Prisoners

Books for Prisoners

With unintended irony I begin writing this at a cafĂ© in the sunshine – opposite a small bookshop. I am carrying so much tech that if war breaks out, I’ll be targeted for being a major communications hub. Smartphone, tablet, laptop, Wifi hotspot…..short of welding a satellite dish to my hat, I’m about as connected as its possible to be.

The world is at my fingertips. I can send messages via dozens of different routes, and receive through as many more. If I want to know the circumference of a gnats eyeball or the daily doings of a Chinese Emperor, its but a matter of seconds before enlightenment flits across one of my screens.  We live in a remarkable age of information.

Or most of us do. For the high prison walls do more than cast a shadow over those within their grasp. The walls are a physical manifestation of the deliberate isolation of prisoners. Not just physically, but in the very sharp sense of  cutting off prisoners from the very essence of our modern life – information.

Without the internet, prisoners are limited to ye older channels of information . Imagine sitting in a concrete box. Alone. Stripped of autonomy, control, the limits of your freedom of choice restricted to four paces back and forth from the steel door to the barred window. You have a question. How do you break free from your tomb to search for enlightenment?

In defending his policy to restrict the ability of prisoners to have books posted in from outside, Grayling claims an awful lot, but mysteriously stays silent on so much more. Perhaps he is uninformed. Perhaps he just doesn’t give a damn- vote grubbing triumphs all in the Ministry.

The two main claims made by the Ministry to justify this further restriction on prisoners accessing information are both mendacious. Firstly, it is claimed that books posted in are an avenue for drug smuggling. Potentially true, of course. Which is why all prisons have an x-ray machine and access to sniffer dogs. Perhaps prison staff just can’t be bothered doing their job? A lapse now signed off on by the Minister himself.

Ignoring these expensive security measures for a moment – as Grayling does – the other fatal blow to this silly “security” scaremongering is for prisoners families and friends to order books to be delivered direct from publishers. Or is the Ministry going to hint that Penguin and Amazon are fronts for the Medellin cartel?

In essence, the security argument is a nonsense. It only gets headspace because of widespread ignorance of the details of prison life. In the knowledge that prisons have scanners and dogs, Graylings argument is revealed to be utterly threadbare. Not a lie, but mendacious nonetheless.

Graylings second argument is that this book ban is largely irrelevant – anything prisoners need can be obtained through the prison library.  He will look you in the eye with cold sincerity and tell you this. Let’s assume ignorance rather than deceit on his part….though it is a very fine line with Grayling.

Access to the library is a statutory right under the Prison Rules. But then the Rules need to be given life by prison staff. Parliament may propose, but it’s the screw on the landing that makes it happen. Or not. Unlocking prisoners and escorting them to the library is at the top of no ones list of things to do. The library should be accessed once a week. Assuming that happens, the time is extremely limited – 30 minutes is a good run – and staff hustle you along. The staff rest room doesn’t occupy itself, you know….

If decency and the Rules actually do prevail for once, and library time is given and even fostered, the prisoner is then at the mercy of time and the library service. In this age of mangerialism, the rules and regulations that govern every minute aspect of prison life fill shelves. If a prisoner wants to look up, say, the process for temporary release, he will need several library visits merely to read that Order.

A specialist book would have to be ordered from another library. It may take weeks. Reference works cannot be so ordered, leaving the serious student bereft. The library service is not to be dismissed as a vital source of information, but its limitations are rarely recognised by “outsiders”, who are used to a more rounded library system.

These issues came to a head for me during my Masters (and later my incompleted PhD). The books I needed were extremely specialist and many only available from the university library. Under the Rules, these would have been unobtainable. It was only through the good efforts of a member of staff that I was able to complete my Masters – with the member of staff risking career and income by indulging in wholescale book smuggling to and from the university.

Access to the library is does not fill the information gap created by Grayling’s ban on books being sent in. The material and the time available is insufficient for prisoners to even read the rules governing their lives, let along anything else. Does Grayling know this? Do his advisors? Do they care?

The grand lie, the mendacious nature of this policy to deny prisoners books, is that it has nothing to do with drug smuggling nor library access. And few unfamiliar with the landscape of prisons will realise just what they aren’t being told.

To make it explicit, then. This policy of Graylings is everything to do with increasing control on prisoners. Nothing more, nothing less. For since 1995, privileges must be earned through good behaviour. In practice, this means that the higher up the privilege scale a prisoner climbs, the more of his own money he can spend – up to the maximum of £25 per week. Most prisoners do not have such money at their disposal. But what little they do have is spread thinly. Clothing, bits of food and drink, TV rental, tobacco, stamps, phonecalls….all must come from a prisoners limited monies. Throw in the cost of books, and the idea that prisoners can order from publishers becomes revealed as being ridiculous.

If families and friends were allowed to order books for prisoners, and pay for them, this would “undermine” the privileges system. That is what this policy is about. It is intended to make prisoners utterly dependent on the prison. The consequences for education, learning, self improvement, are all irrelevant.

This policy is contemptible. Inserting itself into a discourse centred on “security” concerns, it’s actual purpose is about control – plain and simple. That it cripples the already severely  limited opportunity for post basic skills learning is a matter of no consequence to Grayling.

Either Grayling doesn’t realise this, or he just doesn’t give a damn. I dread to think which. For ignorance can be as dangerous as indifference; and with free access to information, Grayling has no excuse for his lack of understanding.

Books, knowledge, information….the bedrock of our modern world. To strip these from prisoners and yet hoping they can change, blend back into society and positively contribute, is ridiculous on the face of it. This policy must not stand.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Mandela Question

Ever since I read Nelson Mandela's autobiography some questions have been floating my mind. They have not resolved themselves with the passage of time. Why did Mandela opt for a campaign of violence against apartheid, rather than follow a Gandhian path? And why was Mandela such a compliant prisoner? This latter question is the one that catches my keenest attention...

Mandela was held in pretty horrible conditions. Take that as read. Prisons ar4e the essence of State power, nakedly visceral. Being a Black anti-apartheid lawyer convicted of treason inevitable implies that time in a White States prison will be more interesting than your average prison.

The physical conditions may not be unappreciable. A cell is a cell. Slavery is slavery. There are a thousand variations on those themes, some more horrific than others, yet the core aspects of imprisonment are common across all jurisdictions and institutions. Their purpose is the same.

And all prisons have objectionable aspects. Mandela faced more complications, difficulties, in being a Black leader advocating the violent overthrow of the State which held him in prison. Every moment should - I'd expect - be an affront not only to the human dignity of those contained but also morally repellent in being part of the White machinery to oppress the Black majority/

The question, then, is why was Mandela so compliant with the prison institution? Why did he spend years being marched to a quarry to break rocks under the lash and the sun? Alongside the outrage every prisoner invariably feels, Mandela faced the heavy burden of the racial disempowerment weighing his every step. His cell, his daily existence, was the essence of apartheid.

Why, then, did he not revolt? Why did he not organise? Why did he not, for example, refuse to work as a slave in the quarry? For Mandela did none of these. Oh, there was a lot of talk. The internal machinations of the ANC were endlessly debated under the guise of football team meetings. But actual action, resistance against the institution that limited his horizons? No.

I find this incomprehensible. Perhaps I take a hard, and harsh, line on these things, an outgrowth from my own history. But any moral being faced with injustice should feel compelled to stand up. And undoubtedly so when there is a political imperative to challenge injustice alongside the bare human one.

Yet Mandela didn't challenge. This is not uncommon amongst "political" prisoners, those whose external activities challenging the State lead them to prison. The PIRA prisoners in UK prisons, for example; Animal rights activists; A whole spectrum of political prisoners actually put their feet up in prison. This is strange to me, as prison is the essence of the very State against whom they are fighting.

To comply is, to some degree, to cooperate - and to collaborate. Prisons only run with the cooperation of prisoners. That latent power is rarely appreciated, let alone realised. Yet a political. moral being - such as Mandela is proclaimed to be - should have had the insight to appreciate how potent his actions within prison could have been.

Not that utility is an argument for or against action. Moral beings challenge injustice because it is right to do so; not born of a calculated chance of success. Mandela did nothing. Of course, it could be argued that the penalties he faced for prison activism could be severe. To which I shrug my shoulders. Resisting abuses of power carries an inevitable price.

Prisoners revolted in Auschwitz. Prisoners in the Gulag revolted. All paid heavily.... In recent times, we have the likes of Michnik held by the Polish-Soviet dictatorship/ Having being imprisoned for resisting totalitarianism, he wrote from his cell to the  head of the secret police - "Is that all you've got?" Prisoners in Germany sew their mouths shut. Turks go on hunger strike. As do Californian prisoners held in solitary. Prisoners everywhere resist abuse, and all accept the cause is right and the price must be paid to have any chance of success. In this context, that Mandela may have suffered even further for campaigning in prison is not an argument that absolves his inactivity.

The question remains, then. Why was Mandela so inactive in prison activism? After all, this is a man who stared down the Death Penalty for Treason. Moral cowardice is not an easy accusation to throw around. And yet...

This may relate to some strand in Mandelas politics or personality. In response to the Governments appalling brutality, the ANC decided that their response would be a campaign of violence (let us not be diverted into the morass of "terrorism" here), and an armed organisation grew up as part of the ANC.

This decision, in Mandela's autobiography, was not the result of any great debate or moral wrangling. but almost flowed organically from the situation of the time. It does indeed seem an obvious response for an oppressed and brutalised people. However, as Mandela was fully aware, there was an alternative in Gandhian active nonviolence.

Mandela chose violence. It has to be asked if a campaign based on active nonviolence may have avoided a generation of bloodshed. Equally, it has to be asked, why Mandela ignored, cooperated with, helped sustain even, the wicked part of the apartheid State which oozed from the pores of his cell walls.

Mandela changed his nation. Without him, I doubt that a peaceful transition from Apartheid would have been maintained. His achievements are huge.  And yet....

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Legal Persecution

My friend Farah

There are few more tormenting calls to receive than one from a prison payphone; especially for people who have been on the other side of that wall. For all that we in freedom enjoy by way of seamless and absurdly simple communication is denied prisoners. Information squeezes through the bars in sporadic fragments.

The caller was Farah. I once called her "a well dressed piranha", and when describing her tend to say "a force of nature". She is a whirlwind of obstinate positivity who sweats and bleeds to provide help and support to the marginalised, especially female ex prisoners.

To hear her talking with her words intermingled with the background echoes that comprise the soundtrack to prison life was a shock – if not a complete surprise. For Farah has been arrested for that most nebulous of crimes, "harassment".

In this case, the harassment comes from calling out a man who was pestering both Farah and her girlfriends for threesomes. The man is a husband, father of five, and a Church Warden. You can even download his homilies on the sanctity of family life from the church website...if you can stomach the hypocrisy.

Sick to the gills with his pestering and general shoddy need, Farah dropped the bomb on him by tipping the nod regarding his behaviour to his family. All is fair in love, war, and fending off pervy guy's who can't take no for an answer.

And so yer man had Farah arrested. Seems he boasts of his police contacts, the local Commanders he has influence with. Coupled with the copper in charge of the case being staggeringly stupid or malicious, this is a combination of malevolent potents.

Which may explain why, on a case of petty harassment at issue, armed police went kicking in doors across London to find Farah over a bail condition issue. In these cynical times, having a Mediterranean hue and a name like Farah hints that one should be extremely worried about being within sighting distance of a cop with a rifle.

That crisis resolved, the perjury begins to flow from our lothario's Church. One of the esteemed clergy swears blind he had a conversation with Farah on Day X regarding our letch; a conversation whose content doesn't flatter Farah. So it is provident that Farah was actually 150 miles away at the time, train tickets and CCTV nailing this smarmy vicars lies.

Farah has spent years building up her business, the services she delivers to empower women. She acts while others talk themselves into exhaustion. And now, in speaking to one of her contacts, our sex obsessed pseudo-clergyman accused her of breaking her bail conditions – no contact with matey or his family, friends, etc. The cheeky git even tried to have Farah prohibited from contacting anyone in the Church of England; the Judge thought that as ridiculous as I do.

Nevertheless, in emailing a contact to happens to know our protagonist Farah finds herself arrested for breach of bail and dumped in HMP Bronzefield. From where I received her call. It was a desperate plight – the prison decided to play their usual games and hadn't put the number for her lawyers onto the prison phone system. Meaning Farah was isolated and unable to challenge her detention.

A man who can't keep his zipper under control; a man highly respected in his congregation; and a man with good police contacts....lining up every nasty trick he can to try to deflect from the reality that he's a perv and cheat. Farah will prevail, and if this ever comes to court every sordid email and text will be held up for our mockery. The lies will be uncovered, the legalisms stripped away to reveal that far from Farah harassing her pest, this pest has found a way to use the law to harass Farah.

More anon...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Bank Thing

Having spent the morning with the Editor burying Henley and mourning, I couldn't face the empty house. Walking to the shops I bunged my card into an ATM in a vague hope I had enough for a coffee. I did. But the ATM then stole my card and told me to talk to my branch. Grrr.

Long time readers will recall the long struggle I had to open a bank account on my release. Even employed and earning, it took six months to persuade any bank to accept me. In the end it was a basic Cashminder account with the Co-op. Who now tell me that they are closing my account.

The Cashminder account has no overdraft. Good – I didn't want one. I just wanted an account to pay money in, and pay out bills. Simple as that. But then I went fractionally overdrawn 3 times in 6 months – so they closed the account.

This baffled me. I don't spend money I don't have. I spend what's in my wallet or what my account tells me I have. And it should be impossible to overdraw on an account without an overdraft. Yes...? Um, no. If a DD or SO payment is claimed but with insufficient funds, the bank honours it – and takes me overdrawn. Hmmm.

This happened three times – for a matter of hours – because I was stupid enough to use the Co-op mobile app to keep an eye on my account. Silly of me, because the numbers the app gave me often bore no relation to the numbers an ATM showed me. The lag in updating the account details on the app led me to going very briefly and very slightly overdrawn 3 times. Two of these were so fleeting I didn't actually notice. The nice man in the branch explained this to me, sorrowfully but firmly. The Co-op family, it seems, can do without such a profligate member.

It is surprising how quickly recipients of my money noticed the demise of this account. The Council phones to threaten me with the bailiffs. The water people issue a county court summons. My broadband fell silent; my Net access now rests on some dubious jiggery pockery via my mobile phone. And my landlord will be in for a shock.

This is beautifully timed to coincide with my last wage as my contract ends. Clearly I need a new full time job and more benevolent utility companies. Neither seem likely in the immediate future.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Very Fine Cat

Each time I returned home I'd call the cat as I shut the door on the world. "Henley. Henley! Idiot..." And I did just that again tonight, hustling in from the dark and rain. It took me a moment to realise Henley wasn't ignoring me this time. He was in the box I was carrying from the vet, warm but lifeless.

Henley was an old cat. No one knows how old – when he was chosen by The Editor from the rescue home they shaded the truth slightly. Or perhaps they didn't know; Henley had been rescued from a poor start in life where he was kept locked in a shed. Being liberated to live in a country cottage must have seemed idyllic. Not that he was outwardly grateful. He'd suffer a morning hug, but Henley was not one of natures tactile cats. More of a presence than a friend. But he was large and long haired, just the sort to wrap around your neck with his huge, room filling purr.

Henley was a difficult boy, but given his childhood allowances were made and understanding given. The Editor spoiled him rotten. And then inadvertently disturbed his little world by sneaking a kitten through the front door. One look at this tiny furball, Bella, and Henley turned up his tail, packed a valise and moved into the garden shed. He flatly refused to live in a house with Bella.

This was my fault. Bella was a pre-parole hearing present from The Editor to me. Alas, that hearing led to naught – except Bella. Who, as I kicked my heels behind bars, grew old enough for "a boyfriend" and produced a bunch of kittens. The last, and unexpected of which, was Jack – an improbable cat, for being a giant compared to his mum.

By the time of my release then, The Editor had a herd awaiting. Henley, Bella and Jack. Bella, a tiny classic black and white, impossibly pretty, was the psychopath. Jack was, well, slightly dim but The Editors favourite because he was definitely a pick-up-and-cuddle type of cat. And Henley.... Distant but present. To be stroked with caution. If at all.

When I left home, The Editor gave me a cat. Henley. The transition wasn't easy for either him or me. Giving some evidence to the theory he was actually a misogynist, Henley seemed to relax living with me – and no other cats. I learned that I could occasionally stroke him, without being punctured. The same immunity didn't apply to the mattress that comprised my bed at the time.

Far from being hugely aloof, as the months passed Henley grew more chilled, even sociable. And be indulged. When he took to laying across my coffee table, then my work table, I bought him his own. He ignored it, and opted to live in the laundry basket. Or the bath. And I found lots of time to make a cautious fuss of him, time and wounds teaching me exactly what he enjoyed and what he wouldn't entertain for a moment. It took months before I got the nerve to pick him up – the idea of his claws that close to my face probably drew the process out longer than necessary. But then he never did learn to sheath his claws when "playing"

As time passed, Henley even seemed to view me as a good thing, and shadowed me. If I was downstairs, so would he be. If I was upstairs, the Dark Shadow would follow. Very rarely he would even climb on me, mostly in the morning when he could easily spend half an hour laying on my naked chest as I struggled to roll my first cigarettes before getting out of bed.

I made allowances for his idiosyncrasies. Having spent most of his life using a cat-flap, when we moved in together he flatly refused to go out of the caflap. In, yes. Out, no. So I had to tie the blasted thing open, and suffered living with a nasty draft around my ankles. It took a persistent morning of bunging him through for him to make his peace with his catflap nemesis.

We'd have long, one sided conversations about his food. Raised on dry food, having my sole attention led to a series of short hunger strikes as I schlepped to and from the shops. Tins it was then, supplemented with occasional pouches. He had a bigger food budget than I did. And a weird weakness for milk – which made him crap everywhere.

Of late he has taken to extending his range. Discovering the flaw in open-plan living, a sofa near the kitchen units, he'd settle into the draining board or on top of the cooker. I'd even lured him upstairs. Previously forbidden territory at the cottage – long haired black cats and white duvets don't mix – my more, ahem, relaxed attitude to housework meant that most of my world involved tufts of black hair. Taking against the laundry basket, Henley would curl up on the chair next to the bed when I settled to sleep, his huge purr keeping me awake.

The past few days saw Henley turn weird. He took himself off behind the kitchen units for hours on end, hardly touching his food or water. Blocking off his hideaway seemed mean, so I gave him a box layered with his favourite blanket – carrier bags – and he settled next to the sofa. Obviously struggling to breath, not having eaten for days, barely hydrated, we took the Long Walk to the vet. Heart failure.

Henley kept me company, gave me joy, helped me focus on something more than my own travails. He kept me company in prison – his huge purr captured on an MP3 player lulled me to sleep. He sits at my feet now, awaiting his burial in the morning. His purr, his presence, will take a lifetime to fade.