Monday, October 9, 2023

Going Backwards to go Forwards

I am a great believer in prison education. After all, it was where I completed my secondary education, A Levels, BSc and MA. My PhD failed when I ran out of funds. That's a very long journey, over 32 years. My education helped shape the person I became.

But. I always have a but, I'm afraid. But what is it that I believe in that flows from education? It’s taken as axiomatic that education itself reduces offending, cuts future crime. Trouble is, I’ve never seen any research to substantiate that. If you have any, I’d be grateful to see it. Sans actual evidence, it's always been my view that the “education good” axiom actually rests on a moral belief - that educated people are inherently more likely to be “good”. This has at least a surface attraction. To be realistic, if I was some lumpen shaven headed illiterate of a murderer, my public reception would have been far less amenable.

I don’t for a moment think this proposition is actually true. Education does not have an inherent ability to make you a better person as such. Education just makes you more educated. That said, education does help you if you want to change your view of life. I know that for myself, education gave me the intellectual tools to deal with my own psychological aberrations, and a system that rests wholly on naked State power. Reading Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ in solitary confinement sharpens the understanding of legitimacy and power….

Education in itself does nothing. But education can be an open ended toolbox that can be used to transform yourself and your life, should that be the path you elect. But there is no reason whatever to think that this necessarily follows. In this sense, education could potentially reduce reoffending. Or it could give you more capable criminals. The law of unintended consequences is the burden of any prison policy. Note the number of PhDs amongst the leadership of the S.S….Education may give you the tools by which you can better discern moral choices and deal with them. It doesn't guarantee a moral decision.

Which brings me to the new Education Policy announced by the Ministry. The press release just hums with positivity. They always do. But then they call a full scale riot an “incident of concerted indiscipline”. Smaller riots are “disturbances”. You get the idea. MoJ press released have always been given the Hallmark touch.

When you take a moment to squint past the glow and interpret the words, the reality begins to sink in.

Every prison will have a Head of Education Skill and Work. Huzza!.

Of course the very same role has existed for years under the different title of Head of Learning and Skills. I’m not sure what having to reprint the letter heads and nameplate does to improve education or training, but the Ministry make it sound truly marvellous.

For the first time, there will be apprenticeships in catering and construction, in league with large name employers.

I would be all for this and have no “but”, but…

There has been a long and regrettable history of companies misusing prisoner labour. A significant part of some prisons budget comes from the Governor selling prisoners labour. And note this isn't the free market - prisoners are compelled to do this work under the threat of punishment. It is literally slavery, only actually allowed under the European Convention. And obviously any company using forced prisoner labour, at under a tenner a week wages, instantly has a market advantage. So you will excuse my cynicism when I hear of collaborations between companies and prisons.

Obviously the skills and qualifications gained through an apprenticeship could stand a prisoner in good stead on release. So long as they are not exploited by companies along the way and get a fair days pay for a fair days work. Alas, they will be misused.

There's an extra couple of million towards basic literacy, and an App to use on release. All good there, but more money is always nice.

Over 2 years, around 2000 prisoners will be trained in scaffolding, electrical, and other vital industries. This will guarantee a job interview on release.

This is where having an old “birdman” lurking at the edge comes in useful. This used to be standard across the prison estate. C&G training in painting, decorating, welding, carpentry, etc. The skills where a guy could start a small business himself and not rely on the dubious largess of employers in the face of an ex con begging a job. This was so prevalent that even I found myself compelled to learn welding. Strange times.

This was the situation for many decades, until the arrival of a new wave of managerialist control swept prisons in the early 1990s. Out went the trades, and in came the psychologists. Straight swap. It was declared that the very best way to cut reoffending was to force prisoners to undertake a raft of “offending behaviour courses”, psychological treatments that would turn the polluted criminal waters into sparkling prosecco. Two decades later and the data shows we’ve pretty much wasted several hundred million pounds. The only benefit of all this was to keep psychologists away from wider society.

Now here we are again, two decades later, retreading the old path. Only on a miniscule scale. 1000 men a year. Out of a population of 100,000. So this is not signifying a great switch away from psychological interventions back to trades, it is a passing nod to the past. This is regrettable. The insatiable appetites for degrees has seen a generation or two of workers not working, but avoiding the trades. The economy is ripe for more tradesmen. So this tiny effort on the part of the Ministry becomes even more insulting.

There will be “new” contracts to education providers, with tough “new” targets for basic literacy and numeracy.

They have existed for a decade or two. Always have. Education got flattened by the managerialist zeitgeist like everything else. And like everything driven by targets, the statistic frauds began instantly. You get the idea from the fact that I was compelled to take basic literacy and numeracy exams at every prison that had me. After gaining my BSc. And MA.

Target driven education also leads to coercing education. You are made a “throffer” - an offer wrapped in a threat. The Ministry's version of “Nice life you have there, pity if something happened to it…” The Psychology Department excel at them, but Education Depts are also not shy about leaning on a con to get him to take an educational path that he really doesn'tation want to. Just to meet some target.

You may believe, of course, that leaning on someone to get better educated must be no bad thing in the scale of things. But consider the poor bloke working away packing crap in a prison workshop. He's making 12 quid a week. His girlfriend is nearing term with their new baby, and his brother is playing up at school. He needs that workshop job and wage to pay for phone calls home. Badly. Having some self righteous manager desperate to meet a target come along and grab him is really not what is needed.

For all its bluster, these ideas do nothing significant for prison education. The ideas that have a kernel of use are flawed or too limited in scope, and changing job titles is meaningless. Not the lack of the word “internet”. In a document about education. In 2023.

I was legitimately online in a Cat-B prison, with Summit Media, in 2001. Here we are, over 20 years down the line, and prisoners still do not have internet access. With the rate of illegal mobile phones in prison being around one for every two prisoners, trying to stem the internet tide is utterly Canutish, a bizarre denial of reality.

The obsession with basic skills is overshadowing everything else that has potential. Trades should explode across the estate, not be limited to a few thousand people. Higher education, though in prison terms that means a decent GCSE, falls off the map. When prisoners are serving ever longer sentences, abandoning them once they are literate and numerate is verging on the cruel. Being literate is a necessary component of getting work, but hardly a sufficient one. It is utterly depressing to realise that under the present arrangements, I could not have taken the educational journey I did, and may not have developed into the joyous, diplomatic, subtle man I am today…

Sunday, July 16, 2023

How very Soviet

Well, I’ve finally been provoked into blogging for the first time in several years. Apologies. I am unable to balance openness with privacy, a problem that has plagued me since my release. But here we are.

The junction between politics and criminal justice is usually a messy one.

Some nations have resolved this by making them the same. The Soviet Union, North Korea, China…all the nice places just subsumed criminal justice into their ideological fortress and the political becomes the judicial. Whatever became politically necessary became judicially correct. Then you were shot in a basement.

The cynical amongst you, and long time readers, will appreciate that there were corners of British justice which were always afflicted by the same disease - politically motivated sentencing.

Life sentences were a particularly fraught, politically charged, judicially warped arena. The setting of minimum terms for lifers was set by bureaucrats. The prerequisite to release of moving to Open prison was decided by Ministers (or the paper-monkeys acting under his/her name). Release was decided by Ministers.

During all of this, the Parole Board was a factor, but in reality and law couldn't make decisions, merely recommendations. Hence the situation where the Board assessed me as fit for Open for ten years on the trot, with Ministers refusing to let me move. That cost me ten years and the taxpayer the best part of 300,000 quid.

The cost in time and money was the smallest cost of political control over sentences. The largest cost was that it distorted Justice itself.

Which brings me to recent events. A Bill is currently passing through the legislature that removes the legal processes put in place over the past 25 years to ensure release decisions are fair and rational, not centred on reflex responses to the Daily Mail front page. The party of law and order is abandoning law and order in favour of vote-grabbing. I will return to maul this travesty soon enough.

Meanwhile, a more febrile series of events occurred that illustrates the politically porous nature of the management of Life sentences and the moral vacuum that can corrode people's views.

A transgender prisoner, lets call him SAB, made a speech at a recent rally which included the phrase “punch TERFs in the face”. The crowd cheered - a disturbing development where violence against political opponents seems to becoming acceptable.

So far, so normal, in these intense culture wars. But SAB isn't your usual speaker. He is a Lifer on license in the community. He was originally given a discretionary Life sentence for kidnapping and torture, then attempted to murder a fellow prisoner. The result was that SAB served some 30 years before the Board judged him safe enough to release.

Lifers calling for violence are, to be crystal clear, absolute fucking idiots. I really can't emphasise enough how insanely stupid it is. Whether you mean it or not. And you can expect a robust response from the probation service and/or the Parole Board.

But, if you have the barest of interest in criminal justice, you expect this response to be proportional and necessary for public protection. Not driven by political motives. I cannot stress enough how corrosive it is to any system of justice to be driven by political decisions.

Information is incomplete and sporadic, but we do know that the Met police initially said there was no crime, no arrest necessary. It is reported that the Probation Service hauled SAB in and gave him a warning, but decided that his risk to the public has not reached the level of requiring a recall to prison - the ultimate sanction for a Lifer on license.

Enter the mob. Of course, in this age, it was a Twitter mob. Led by a lawyer (not criminal law) who would describe herself as decidedly TERF-ish, who felt personally at risk from SAB because SAB had suggested he would be attending a speaking event organised by said lawyer. We can call her TL, TERF lawyer.

This is not unreasonable. A man with a history of violence, who had just called for violence against TERFs, was attempting to attend TL’s event. TL was extremely unhappy at the lack of action by the police, and quickly began to threaten legal action. Many other women also made complaints to the police.

Enter the politicians. The Home Secretary, in charge of the police forces, tweeted that she hoped the Met would revisit the case. Which is, to all but the disingenuous, an instruction to the police. Oddly enough, SAB was then arrested. Then released, investigations ongoing.

In the face of no information from the Probation Service as to what was going on, TL began threatening legal action unless her needs were met - recall SAB to prison.

SAB was then recalled to prison. Despite Probation previously determining this wasn't necessary on grounds of risk, it is believed that the Minster of Justice ordered the recall. The second political interference in the situation, for solely political benefit.

I began to feel very uncomfortable at this point. The sheer ignorance of the system of those campaigning for this was as deep as it was expected. What shocked me most was the sheer visceral glee of these people at the recall of a man to prison for possibly many years, on political instructions. I stupidly expected better from someone working in the justice system.

TL went so far as to say that she would not be happy unless SAB stayed in prison for the rest of his life. Likely to be decades. At this point we parted ways…

Scratch a liberal and underneath you’ll find a Daily Mail editorial. I was still shocked at the blatant glee. Not that a possible danger was averted, but that a person from the opposing tribe was going to suffer. The joy at that was vomitus.

I begged that they at least appreciate what they had done. And the denials came thick and fact - “We did nothing, he did it to himself”. As if a Hand of God mysteriously came down and transported SAB to the Scrubs. As if their screaming at the Ministry had nothing to do with Ministers reversing two previously made decisions by Probation. This was disingenuous hypocrisy from those simultaneously cheering their success.

It is the excuse used to justify anything done to prisoners. “Well, if you hadn’t committed the crime and gone to prison, the screws wouldn't be giving you a beating. Your fault.” It's a refrain I’ve heard for decades. And its still as pathetic and immoral.

The final step from me was to point out that getting a man imprisoned was a big deal, and may not have been necessary. But no, they wanted him in prison. Period. TL especially, who was still threatening to sue Probation for not dancing to her satisfaction.

I deleted my Twitter account. I was not going to be anywhere near a mob who could turn on me in an instant and try to use political pressure to get me imprisoned. I’ve been through that already, thanks.

The final straw was the response from TL when I asked if she knew what she had inflicted, what prison is like? The response was so steeped in ignorance I may frame it for posterity:

I can’t turn on Netflix without tripping over yet another ‘behind bars’ documentary or dramatised film about men getting attacked by the Big Dog who's in with the Warden. We’ve all seen Shawshank Redemption. My dad did three days in Shrewsbury prison. Don’t come this ‘you don't know prison’ nonsense.”

Truly mind-boggling. Hatred addles the mind. Ideology can allow you to justify doing horrible things. And political interference in the justice system invariably leads to injustice.

Me? I’d have hauled him in for a chat. An official warning. And recalled him to a Probation hostel with a strict curfew and limited geographical movement. That would have negated any risk. But in their ignorance and sheer spite, safety wasn’t what they actually wanted. They wanted to see him suffer.

And if you hear my voice from the cockpit of a plane, don’t worry, I know all about flying. After all, my Grandad was in the RFC and I’ve watched Top Gun five times.

Ben Gunn