Saturday, February 10, 2024

Shouting over the wall.

I have spoken about the birth of this blog before, but for new readers the trouble is that I wrote several weeks worth of blogposts, sent them out to the Editor, and only then told the Governor that I was starting a blog that would go live the next day. He called the Ministry, who told him to stop me having any communications. This was unprecedented in prison history, and was somewhat undermined by my using my illegal mobile to phone the Guardian, who ran the story the next day. The Ministry backed down and so I began the first blog in British prison history. All I wanted to do was wind up the Governor and it sort of grew into something more.

And, you may ask, so what? Who gives a damn about just another blog on an internet full of opinions? It matters in that prisons are a closed world. One created specifically for the State to cause people suffering. That's its point. All done on our behalf, in our name, with our money. And the Government has strained with all its might to keep prisons a closed world with the minimal amount of information flow. Gaining the right to blog blew a massive hole in those efforts, which is why the Ministry reacted so stupidly to my efforts.

I had hoped that there would be many prison bloggers. I know that there are excellent writers in prison, as can be read in the prisoners newspaper, Inside Time. But I also recognise the barriers faced by prison bloggers. The practicalities themselves are a deterrent to blogging. A prisoner has no direct access to the internet, blogs must be hand written or typed, then mailed to someone outside, who can then upload them. You can appreciate that people who have served many years have very few outside contacts, let alone one willing to type up and manage blogs.

Blogging puts a target on your back for the staff, who are suddenly having to deal with the public being informed of what they do. And there are a thousand ways that staff can mess with your life, all subtle and above board. Why adopt a path that raises your head above the parapet? Given all of these hurdles and harsh prison realities, the reality is that few prisoners have the ability to write well, have the stones to open their mouth, and have people outside they can rely upon.

One who surmounted this obstacle course was Adam Mac, whose blog was interesting but short lived. In a bizarre turn of events, this prison blog was stopped in its tracks by prisoners. Adam found himself in Grendon prison, a therapeutic community where prisoners committees have a significant effect on the daily lives of other prisoners. Despite assurances that he would respect anonymity of his peers in his blog, the prisoners voted that he stop blogging. Obviously I think this is ridiculously stupid, but here we are. Visit Adam Mac’s blog for his version, before he fell silent.

And now we are left with a void. There are no prisoners blogging. The closed world has again managed to close the gates to the outside world. This is deeply unsatisfying and highlights the barriers prisoners still face in finding their voices. I hope the risk I took and the efforts I made are not wasted and that somehow, a prisoner will again blog and drag prisons into the light of public scrutiny.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Party Of Law and Order. And Stalinism.

Let me paint you a little picture of part of the justice system. Perhaps one of the most difficult parts - the assessment and release of Life sentence prisoners. More precisely, murderers.

Each Life sentence is divided into two parts. The first is the retribution and deterrence part, the punishment for the crime. We call this the Tariff. Post tariff is the second part of the sentence, where the Lifer continues to be detained until it can be established that he or she poses no more than a minimal risk to life and limb. Essentially, when he's judged to be safe to release. Tariffs can range from months to a whole lifetime, depending on the crime and the behaviour of the Lifer.

All so simple so far. Let's look at HOW the release and assessment process works. Firstly, the Lifer isn't told his tariff. He has no idea how long he is intended to serve. As the tariff expiry approaches, the interviews by prison staff begin. Everyone from the guy who unlocks your door to the Governor, taking in the Chaplain, education staff, and psychiatrists along the way. EVERYONE gets a say. They interview the Lifer endlessly and write their reports for the Parole Board.

Here's the interesting bit - the Lifer is not shown these reports. He has no idea what's being said about him. He has no way of checking or correcting anything he may dispute. The Lifer can make representations but he doesn't know what he's arguing against. These reports then go off to the Parole Board.

The Parole Board then looks at these reports and judges the Lifer against the release criteria - being no more than a minimal risk to life or limb. It then makes its decision. Release, or not to release. If not to release, the Board notes its concerns and the issues the Lifer needs to address before being released. The Board also sets the next review date, which may be a decade ahead.

Here's that interesting bit again - The Lifer isn't shown the Parole Board's answer. He is told “You aren't being released, come back in X years. Now off you go.” That's it. He has no clue whatever what the issues are preventing his release, has no idea what he needs to do to get released. This was called “Mushroom Management” - kept in the dark and fed on shit.

If the Parole Board does opt for release, this can then be stopped by a politician. The Justice Minister can overrule everything the specialists have assessed and substitute his own opinion. And as always, the Lifer Wasn't told why and left to blunder along in blind hope.

Would anyone call such a system fair and reasonable? When the Lifer is told nothing and can't argue against anything, can't defend himself against any wild claims made in staff reports? And to then have release blocked by a politician on equally secret grounds?

Well, the British courts were more than happy to uphold this system. They had no problems with it at all, at times tying themselves in ridiculous knots to defend it.

Which is where we get the European Court of Human Rights stepping in.

The ECHR stated what should be the bleeding obvious - that no, a secret system where you cant see what's being said against you isn't fair and just. And having politicians decide release was just absurd - no one should be detained for political purposes, a judicial body should control release, not a vote grabber. What supporter of the rule of law could argue against this?

The system above is, dear reader, history. It was the situation up to the early 1990s, when the ECHR rulings led to a new system. Reports were open - Lifers got to see every word written about them and be able to make informed representations. Release was decided by a three person Panel headed by a High Court Judge. The Minister had a representative there to give their views to the Panel. To all involved in these matters, it was universally accepted to be a better way. Even if it did put the brakes on prison staff's imaginative abuse in previously secret reports…

This system worked pretty well for the last 30 years. Public safety was upheld whilst a transparent due process was enforced. The rate of Lifers reoffending did not increase one iota. What's not to like?

Well, 2023 saw some opposition. Not based on any rational grounds. Tory politicians began grumbling that Lifers were being released that the public didn't want to be released. They want none released, obviously. This is a regular moan and can be dealt with by pointing to the Parole Board and saying “nothing to do with me, it's the law”.

This recent grumbling has been given an extra impetus - poor electoral prospects for the Tories. In their usual electoral spasms, they retreat to the high hill of “law and order” and start bewailing that everything is too soft, too short, too easy - the whine of politicians at every election in my lifetime.

Not that politicians were rendered completely useless under the new system. The Minister was represented at parole Panels. He had his say. And the Minister always has the ability to challenge the Parole Board in court if they thought their decision was manifestly irrational and have their decisions overturned. They never used this power.

Now, the Tories want to roll back time. They want the Minister to have the final say on release. They want to be able to override the considerations of the Parole Board and substitute their own views. These views are not constrained by the “life and limb” test. No, this schema abandons rationality completely. The Minister's criteria for release is “Will this lose me votes?”

No one should be detained in prison for political ends. No one's release should be a gamble based on electoral concerns. People's imprisonment should not be based on vote-grubbing and the whims of a politician. This is a return to mob rule - from the party that claims to be one of law and order. Lifers should be released when they have served their punishment and judged to be safe to release. Not based on the Minister's mood of the day.

While a politician grubbing for votes is hardly novel, electoral fear seems to have paralysed the political minds. As it stands, the release of the most serious criminals rests with the Parole Board. Ministers have a buffer against popular outrage at release decisions, being able to say “Nuffink to do with me Guv, it's the Parole Board.” In taking the release decision from the Board and back to the Ministry is to put a perpetual albatross around the political neck, THEY will now be directly responsible. This is a level of political idiocy that only the Ministry of Justice can think is a genius plan.

Politicians getting involved in release decisions undermines the rule of law. Which for the party of law and order is doubly deplorable. Add that to short term political panic and it's a recipe for gross injustice.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Ho ho, Ho no.

So I thought I had retired. Not by choice, but even so. Severe heart failure, cancer and a head full of demons saw the government sit me down, pat me on the head and say “there, there, you tried, but you are too messed up to work. Here’s some money.”

And so for the last few years I have been living on PIP, whilst winding up my cardiologist by staying alive. It was a strange existence, knowing that my brain was mostly still functioning but being unable to do anything productive (or financially rewarding). I took up lockpicking as a hobby. Deeply Freudian for an ex con to become absorbed in locks…

Now, however, the government has decided that I have the health of an Olympian, and took their money back. This was something of a blow, especially as I can now add a fractured spine to my list of annoying ailments. Bemused, I’ve been through two stages of the appeals process and await a third. So far, the fact I have what we now politely call a “life limiting illness” hasn’t effected their scales of judgement.

So like Grumpy, its off to work I must go.

And there lies the problem. On my release I sidestepped the regular job market and was able to use my status as “educated ex con big mouth” to get myself work in the criminal justice third sector, with a bit of TV tarting on the side. Of course with my retirement I have neglected all these contacts, as I slowly withdrew from prison issues. I was content to try and wash prison out of my bones, after a lifetime.

The passage of time has seen this niche advantage eroded, and the reality is that another favourite ex con is always around the corner. That can no longer be my beat. The obvious avenues are touting myself around the prison-ish charities but they are surprisingly averse to ex cons. I will be trying this nonetheless. Given the secluded corner of the world I now occupy, several hours from London, finding a job there would be nothing short of miraculous (and ridiculous) and London is the centre of these things.

I peer wistfully into the Job Centre window, seeing all the casual jobs floating around. Why are they not for me? I’ve done every job from scrubbing toilets to E-Commerce strategy. Stacking shelves isn't a step down. Alas, this is where that pesky heart failure hoves back onto the stage - there are just so many jobs that I am no longer physically capable of doing. Which points the way to “working by brain rather than hand”.

Which brings me to exactly the situation I have spent so much time trying to avoid - dealing with that little box on application forms that say “Do you have any unspent convictions?” Usually tucked away on the last page. An irrelevancy for most. A mountain for me.

You’re a random officer manager, looking for a quiet administrator. Along comes an old guy with a very patchy CV, likely to fall down dead, and oh yes, he killed someone. I mean, why would you even bother when there's  a queue of other, sane, applicants stretching round the corner?

So this is a pretty difficult situation. Jacob cat is being as well fed as ever. Apart from that, everything is getting just a bit ropey and gruel is getting boring.

So I will work for food. If I fail to find work I may be forced to begin an Only Fans.

You have been warned.