Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Death in Custody (Guest Post)

The latest in a series of guest posts for this blog is a new poem written by Patrick C. Notchtree. Patrick is the author of a ‘fictional biography’ - a trilogy now published as The Clouds Still Hang (2012) - as well as Apostrophe Catastrophe And Other Grammatical Grumbles (2015). His previous poem for this blog, The Visit, can be found here.

At a time when suicides and self-harm in our prisons have reached an all-time high, it is vitally important that we recognise the terrible impact of deaths on prisoners' families and loved ones. This poem expresses just a tiny fraction of the pain and sorrow that lie behind the routine Ministry of Justice statements that 'every death in custody is a tragedy'. This is a timely reminder that every death in prison is actually the loss of a human being and that the pain goes on hurting.

Patrick is currently raising money in memory of Stephen to support the work of the PDSA. Anyone who would like to contribute is invited to click on this link: PDSA - Stephen Quinnell

Death in Custody

In memory of Stephen Quinnell (aka James Phillips) 1981-2016

They called my name, approach with care
Why have they come, do they care?
Two sad faces with the news I dread
My love, my friend, at his own hand – dead!
They take their time, let the news sink in
A fight in my head, I struggle with reality
Will I never again have the joy of
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you?
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

Condolences come from far and wide
Friends, both real world, and online too,
Our solicitor, even, who knows us both well.
And flowers from those who the visits provide.
But all I can feel is knowing that I
Can’t have again
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

Police on the phone, coroner too.
So much grief but so much to do.
In a way it helps, it keeps you still there
Somehow ‘alive’, your short life to share
Just thirty-five, not really got started.
I’m pleading, begging, that I might yet view
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

Why did you do it? I know only too well;
A lifetime of grief from that childhood abuse.
And may that man, still free, yet rot in hell.
Your own errors too, compounding the damage
I weep and I cry, but what’s the use?
Despite all I could do, it wasn’t enough
I know I will miss, however tough,
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too loving, the touch of you.
And I so crave as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

I set it all down, five pages long
The trials of your life that led to this end.
From shattered boyhood you tried to be strong,
But the nightmares remained, but even your friend
Was not enough and you did reoffend.
You never hurt anyone, I know that is true,
But that terrible legacy was the downfall of you.
My life goes on but from now on without
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too loving, the touch of you.
And I so crave as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

They sent me the letters, written that night,
That you left me, re-living your pain.
Long letters, page after page
Outpouring of grief, torment and rage.
So hard to read, but they show you were sane,
‘Balance of mind’ intact, it’s quite plain.
But now I must live without, for an age,
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too loving, the touch of you.
And I so need as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

I went to the prison to visit your cell,
The place where you ended your private hell.
I had imagined it Spartan and white,
But the reality was far from bright.
Rough plaster, painted dark grey,
Small and drab. Like an underground cellar.
A pigeon hole for a human being.
I sat on your bed, where you used to lay
But which you then used, on end, for the noose.
Your only way out from the torment of abuse.
I picked up your glasses, so personal, so you
That’s when I cried, despite the accompanying screw.
Was this the last place that ever had known
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too much, the touch of you?
In there I could sense
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

They held a short service in memory of you.
You had said they would, with prisoners there too.
You’d asked me to go, so how could I not.
A Christian service, as no doubt you knew
Which would have amused you, as you believed not one jot.
But is was warm and loving with many kind words
The prisoners spoke well of you, their pain seemed real too
I spoke about you, with words well received
About childhood abuse and the legacy it leaves.
Then I went away, they back to their cells
Unlike me though, they won’t miss
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And oh so much, the touch of you.
And I mourn for as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

I wanted to see you, they offered the chance
To see you again, a final chance.
Steeling myself I entered the room
Curtained, quiet solitude, I held my heart numb.
As I got closer I saw your dear face.
As always the sight of you made my pulse race.
But then I was by you, and you were so still.
I stroked your hair: “Wake up!” I wanted to shout
I thought you just might and brush me aside
“Gettoff me hair”, and give me a clout.
Your hands were so cold, and I saw your slim chest
Misshaped under clothing, where post mortem had messed.
I realised again that despite this last look
This was the last I ever would see
The sight of your face.
No sound of your voice,
And cold, too cold, the touch of you.
No trace now forever.
No scent of you,
No taste of you.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
I sorted your funeral, as I knew I must.
As next of kin, it’s all mine to do
I did my best, to honour you.
More people came than I thought might
I hope you think I got it about right.
As the curtains closed round with you in the coffin
I tried not to think of the coming cremation
As the shell that was you met its conflagration,
Knowing that now, never again
Will I ever again have the joy of
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
The warmth, the love, the touch of you.
And I try to imagine
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

It seems unreal but I must face
In my life there is an empty space
I have my family, in which I am blessed
Unlike yours, who left you bereft.
I have the ground ashes, all left of you
I will take time to think what to do.
Maybe the stadium where your loved football team play
Some for a ring perhaps, so I’ll always have you
Perhaps on the Med, where we spent such happy days.
But whatever I do, I will always love you
And do my best to remember
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
Loving and kind, the touch of you.
And I’ll keep in my heart
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

© 2016 Patrick C Notchtree

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Kicking Off… Why Prison Riots Happen

In the aftermath of Friday’s events at HMP Birmingham I wanted to share a few thoughts about prison riots and why they occur. The main reason for the delay has been the fact that I’ve spent so much time explaining many of the same things to journalists who are also trying to make sense of the situation.

HMP Birmingham: 'The Green'
In writing this post, I think it is important to make a distinction between prisoners who protest about poor conditions or mistreatment by refusing to return to their cells or by organising sit-downs or by going on the wire netting that is stretched between landings and those who riot with the intent of destroying the fabric of the prison or else attack staff or fellow inmates. The events in Birmingham on 16 December were, by any measure, a major riot. Had the rioters managed to reach the prison roof, as some tried, then it might have gone on far longer than 12 hours. Mercifully there were very few injuries and only one prisoner required hospital treatment. Staff on the wing could have been taken hostage. That they weren’t may also say something about the aims of the rioters.

Although I’ve previously blogged about the weasel words that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) uses to describe riots in our prisons – ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents of concerted indiscipline’ (see blog post) – mass disorder on the scale seen at HMP Birmingham has actually been fairly rare, at least until recently. However, when they do happen, there is often a very considerable cost, both financial and human. Early estimates of repairing the damage to the fabric and security systems at Winson Green are already running into the millions of pounds for embattled G4S which holds the contract to run the prison.

Cold showers & riots?
Predictably, some sections of the media – especially the red top tabloids – have been peddling the misleading narrative that prisoners at The Green (as it is widely known in prison circles) went on the rampage because the showers were cold or due to a failure of the in-cell TV system. Neither claim is factually true as an explanation, although such issues can easily play a role in lighting the spark that sets off the powder keg. However, the mass media does have a tendency to try to attribute serious prison problems to seemingly minor or even silly causes – such as the death of an inmate’s pet hamster.

In reality, prison riots usually occur in very troubled prisons that have an extended history of poor management, as well as inmate discontent and frustration. It is rare that one single incident or decision by a governor leads directly to an explosion of rage by prisoners. There is almost always a whole series of issues and complaints that have gone unaddressed for weeks or even months.

There has been widespread speculation that the riot at HMP Birmingham was solely due to staff shortages. Having too few officers on wings definitely doesn’t help to diffuse tensions. If prisoners’ complaints and written applications are being ignored or it takes staff weeks or months to answer, then inevitably frustrations and a sense of grievance can flourish unchecked. When angry men feel that they are being ignored, some come to believe that only by smashing up the environment around them will their voices finally get heard. I think it is safe to say that the whole country is now aware of the situation.

Not such a warm welcome?
Of course, leaving prisoners locked up on their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day – due to staff shortages or lack of activities – can also play a major role in fuelling tensions. Some of the specific complaints made about the daily regime at Winson Green include the regular cancellation of exercise periods and access to the gym. Perhaps small issues in themselves, but they do add up over many weeks and months.

Very similar grievances sparked off the riot at HMP High Down back in 2011 when protesters described themselves as being ‘banged up like kippers’. When eleven of these prisoners were charged with the serious offence of prison mutiny and went on trial in 2014 with the prospect of an additional ten years on top of their sentences, the jury heard evidence from the governor of the appalling conditions at the prison and duly voted unanimously to acquit them all (see blog post). The verdict was a very serious humiliation for the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. This case should be an important lesson for his successor to bear in mind as she continues to threaten dire retribution against the Birmingham prisoners.

In many of my recent media interviews I have also tried to draw attention to the high prevalence of mental illness among prisoners, much of which goes untreated and unaddressed in our dysfunctional prisons. Long days of cellular confinement tend to seriously exacerbate mental health problems as does a lack of opportunities for productive activity and association with others.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss' statement
HMP Birmingham has a troubled recent history. Just reading recent reports prepared by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) and other official bodies such as HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) highlights many concerns over how the prison was functioning in the months running up to the latest incident (see the IMB report here). Questions also remain unanswered about why the MoJ and its ministers – Secretary of State Liz Truss and Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah – failed to react to the IMB report on HMP Birmingham delivered a few months earlier and at least ensure some urgent remedial action was instituted. In the event, it seems that neither did anything at all - a state of affairs that appears to have troubled even some Conservative back benchers.

The problems identified at The Green have now become common across much of the prison estate. Easily availability of drugs of all kind, particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS), certainly plays a role in fuelling violence between prisoners, as well as unpredictable behaviour from some of those who use ‘Spice’ and ‘Mamba’. However, my own view is that the sheer poverty of daily existence at The Green and the frustrations of what sounds like one long lockdown probably played at least as great a role in the recent trouble as drugs did.

HMP Birmingham - aerial view
Even at the best of times, Cat-B local prisons (usually grim Victorian red brick piles in major cities) are highly volatile places. They receive prisoners straight from court – both on remand and convicted – as well as people on recall for breaching their licence conditions. Many of these men are still in the grip of addictions or living with serious mental health crises. Even those using prescribed medications for their medical conditions can find themselves deprived of these for days or weeks until they have been assessed by the prison healthcare team. It also often takes far too long to identify those newly arrived inmates who require a place in a secure hospital.

Some prisoners in a Cat-B local will be merely passing through or serving ridiculously short sentences of a few weeks or even days, during which nothing meaningful in terms of support for their drug habits or mental health conditions will be on offer. Others coming in from the dock will just be starting to come to terms with very long sentences that stretch out before them like a train track into a very dark tunnel. Many will be scared or disorientated and a lot will be very angry, at themselves and at other people. Some will self-harm and others will commit suicide. None of this makes for a very safe or predictable environment and those are just some of the reasons that Cat-B locals tend to be so troubled and potentially explosive.

HMP Ford in flames (Dec 2010)
In contrast, Cat-B and Cat-C ‘trainers’ (prisons that cater for more settled prisoners at different stages of their sentences) often appear to be much calmer and less prone to mass outbursts of violence or destruction. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. Even an open prison like HMP Ford can succumb to serious trouble, as at New Year’s Eve in 2010 when large parts of the prison went up in smoke when some prisoners rioted over alcohol testing. It’s worth noting, however, that on that occasion other prisoners tried to stop the rioters or at least tried to extinguish the fires.

And this is an important point. During most prison riots there is almost always a significant number of prisoners who aren’t involved. Some try to stay safe in their cells or hide from others who are intent on doing as much damage as possible. In fact, it can be a very dangerous environment on wings for those who don’t want to get involved. They run the risk of being branded collaborators or ‘screwboys’ who aren’t loyal to their fellow inmates.

There have also been other, much more serious prison riots than at Birmingham since the infamous episode at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways back in 1990. As recently as April 2009 HMP Ashwell in Rutland suffered such a catastrophic disturbance that whole wings had to be abandoned and the costs involved were so astronomical that they were never rebuilt. The whole complex eventually had to be abandoned and it is currently used as a film set for prison movies.

Prison riots can be terrifying
How the prison authorities behave in the aftermath of a serious riot is also very important. Damage to the security systems at The Green and the fact that an officer’s keys were seized by prisoners have led to full scale lockdown for nearly a week, even for those prisoners who were on other wings where there was no trouble.

Reports are coming out of these prisoners not being allowed out of their cells, of poor food, of delayed medication, of being denied access to payphones to call their families and of mail not being handed over. This is starting to appear to be a form of ‘collective punishment’ on those who weren’t involved in Friday’s riot and risks fuelling tensions among other inmates. Insiders are now pointing to signs of recent trouble among prisoners on C-wing, one of those areas unaffected by the rioting.

So far, over 500 of The Green’s 1,450 inmates have been transferred to other prisons. Some of these men have been literally carried onto secure vans, most have left without any of their personal possessions and may be taken to jails many miles away from their families just before Christmas. A few have even smeared themselves with human excrement (a ‘dirty protest’) in a bid to halt, or at least delay, their transfer. Upon arrival at other establishments – such as HMP Hull and Bullingdon (Oxfordshire) – there have been reports of continuing resistance and further minor disturbances. Almost all of these receiving prisons are themselves reported to be on a knife-edge and there is a very real risk that G4S is merely exporting its disgruntled prison population across the country, with the result that more trouble could follow.

It is a truth well known to both prisoners and staff alike that most prisons can only be run with the tacit cooperation and involvement of a majority of the inmates. Prisoners do many of the essential day-to-day tasks required for the running of any jail - from cleaning and working in the laundry to preparing and serving meals - and on a wing with just two or three officers there is no way to compel the obedience of 150 or more adult men. However, this truce can be fragile and the longer a lockdown is imposed on prisoners who didn’t participate in the riot, the more likely that they will withdraw their cooperation. G4S is currently playing with fire at The Green.

'Sweat boxes' waiting for transfers
I wish I could propose a quick fix for the underlying causes of riots like we have seen recently at HMP Lewes (October), HMP Bedford (November), HMP Moorland (November) and now at HMP Birmingham, but I really can’t. This prison crisis has been years in the making and no government – Labour, Coalition or Conservative – has had the courage to address the fact that the prison population in England and Wales has more than doubled since 1993 when it stood at around 40,000. Of course, budget cuts of £900m since 2011 and a cut in the number of frontline prison staff by 2,500 since 2013 alone have made a desperate situation far worse.

Stepping up the recruitment of more prison staff is a start, but in reality retention of new officers is extremely poor and, in any case, most of the 2,500 new frontline staff promised by Ms Truss will not be recruited, trained and deployed until much later in 2017 or even 2018. Meanwhile, the crisis is set to continue.

The most obvious solutions, such as cutting the prison population by reducing significantly the number of unconvicted prisoners held on remand (between 10,000-12,000 at any time), by speeding up the release of prisoners serving the now abolished Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) who are years over their minimum tariff and by reforming sentencing in our courts to eliminate the use of custody for non-payment of fines, as well as most petty or non-violent offences, do not seem to appeal to our political leaders. Neither do proposals to create secure care facilities for elderly or severe disabled offenders, both groups that place a severe strain on staff resources and prison healthcare, as well as on local hospitals.

All prisoners are categorised by dynamic risk. Arguably, those who are considered to present a ‘low risk’ of reoffending, shouldn’t even be held in custody. Keeping most short-sentenced, non-violent prisoners accommodated in Cat-D open prisons is also probably a waste of taxpayers’ money. Better to focus scarce resources on the containment and rehabilitation of those who actually do pose a continuing risk to the public. However, in order to push such reforms through, real political leadership will be required, especially at the MoJ. Unfortunately both Liz Truss and Sam Gyimah are lightweights, far out of their depth. They need to go. Now.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Review of The Clink Restaurant (Guest Post)

The latest in our series of guest posts is by Jonathan Robinson, an ex-prisoner and alleged author. He campaigns – independently – for prison reform ( 

The Fish is Freshly Caught – So’s the Staff…

The late Michael Winner – film director and I-don’t-take-no-prisoners – ever – Sunday Times restaurant reviewer – visited HMP High Down’s Clink Charity fine dining eatery in 2011. He raved about it. Sensible man. Mr Winner was absolutely charming – but a terrible name dropper.

The author outside The Clink
The last time I visited HMP Brixton’s Clink I was in the company of Justin Welby – also known as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bish liked The Clink. Sensible man.

Before arriving for my latest visit I had that morning been interviewed on Good Morning Britain by Piers Morgan – he wanted to know why I thought our prison system is not doing very well. I told him. He nodded. Sensible man.

As I told Mr Morgan on the telly-box of our horrendous reoffending rates – and the lack of purposeful activity in our prisons, Bob Neil MP – Chairman of the Justice Select Committee – sat next to me nodding. Sensible man.

The Clink, Brixton (exterior)
Most of my diatribe to our Piers was how on earth does a prison system expect its customers to come out the other end of their sentence as reformed individuals when the majority of them are
banged-up (that’s a prison phrase – it translates as banged up – think about it) 23 hours a day watching Jeremy Kyle? (punishment in itself).

During his tragically brief tenure as Secretary of State for Justice, I hear Michael Gove MP was a regular at various Clink eateries. He saw the light – and potential – in getting prisoners working – and chucking encouragement at them – whilst they were serving time. Sensible man.

The Clink, Brixton
I’d been in HMP Brixton about a month before my latest Clink visit. Our current Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss MP, gave a speech on the virtues of prison education. After she had concluded said propaganda, she, her personal private secretary and I walked around the prison grounds. Yours truly stopped her outside The Clink’s front door and asked her if she had visited any of their-proven-to-reduce-reoffending establishments yet? “No”.

The Clink’s philosophy is to take on inmates and train them on every aspect you could possibly think of in the restaurant trade – from washing up and preparing veg to front of house duties all the way up to actually cooking what’s on offer – and believe me – the food is great. No, it’s not – it’s historic. I am not alone in my judgement – Trip Advisor now rates The Clink Brixton as number 12 out of 17,372 competitor restaurants in London. Who says prisoners cannot do a good job when tasked – and trained – with good (innovative) ideas?

Slow-braised British beef
Our current reoffending rates are off the Richter scale. More than half of the individuals who have schlepped along the HMP conveyor belt are re-convicted for further offences within a year of release from prison.

Folk who have been through Clink’s scheme have a collective reoffending rate of only 6 percent. Have I got your attention yet? Food for thought?

Tronçon of turbot chowder
As I tucked into my starter – game terrine with damson chutney and elderberry syrup (£5.95) – taking in the atmosphere, I could well have been in the Dorchester or the Savoy Grill except the prices are far more easy on the pocket. My main course (chestnut and tarragon stuffed chicken breast, lollypop wing, dauphinoise potato with seasoned [delicious] vegetables with thyme jus) was on the menu at £13.50. The upcoming Christmas menu – which is stuffed with traditional festive fare – offers lunch at £29.95 per person and dinner at £34.95 per person.

Goat's cheese & beetroot ravioli
The previous Chief Inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, used to say if you want to know what’s going on in a prison, “ask a prisoner.” Sensible man. After lunch, I got chatting – in the kitchens – to some of the guys working (bloody hard) to get their thoughts…

Comments from the potential future Jamie Olivers ranged from “It’s brilliant. I’m out in two weeks and they’ve got me a job” to “I’ve learnt so much. It’s sorted me out. I’m so grateful.”

Blackberry & plum clafoutis
Seems to me that whilst serving time – getting prisoners serving thyme (and similar) isn’t the daftest of ideas. Like the food, the whole concept is completely stunning. If you haven’t been to a Clink – please – I implore you – go and see for yourself. You’d be very sensible.

As well as HMP Brixton, The Clink Charity restaurants can be found in Cardiff (ranked by Trip Advisor number 3 out of 887 local restaurants), Cheshire (ranked by Trip Advisor number 1 - !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! – out of 63 Wilmslow restaurants) and the previously mentioned High Down (ranked by Trip Advisor – yes you guessed it – number 1 out of 120 restaurants in Sutton).

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Being Gay and in Prison (Guest Post)

One of this blog’s most avid readers has kindly contributed a guest post on his own experiences as an out gay man serving a prison sentence. Hopefully this account will provide useful information for anyone facing time in prison in similar circumstances. 

“You’re looking at between 3 and 5 years.” Those few words changed my life. Forever.

Bad news from the QC
It was during a conference with my QC, barrister and solicitor that, after a legal battle lasting several years, it became apparent that I had no defence in law to a business-related offence and I was going to prison.

I had no idea of what to expect inside. I had never been inside myself, nobody I knew had been inside. All I knew was from TV (Porridge and the like) and violent US movies. I was terrified. Also, to add to my concerns, I’m gay.

My first few days inside were actually rather relaxed. After a long legal process, straight from court, I was oddly glad when the cell door closed behind me for the first time and the ordeal was over. For my first few nights I was in a single cell, I was able to put the legal turmoil behind me but I didn't know at that stage what the length of my sentence would be.

Being on an ‘induction’ wing I had no contact with any other inmates, no time out of my cell other than to collect food, no exercise, no showers, no TV, no kettle, no reading material, no personal possessions, no access to telephones and none of my prescribed medications were available. The prison was only able to provide smoking materials, for which I would have to pay over the coming weeks.

A few days later I was moved into a cell to share with somebody I’d never met, but whom I was well aware of. My legal team had worked on his case. He was a recently convicted fairly high-profile murderer.

Sharing a prison cell
We spent four weeks, 23 hours a day together in a small cell but we never really talked. I was certainly not going to ‘come out’ to him. Then, in a conversation with my solicitor some weeks later he referred to him as ‘Big Gay Nick’. It seems we did have something in common after all.

I was then moved to a pretty grim Victorian Cat-B prison where I was known due to local press coverage of my case. There was no way I could hide my sexuality, everybody seemed to know everything about me. I had nothing to hide, I’m not ashamed in any way whatsoever, but I’d rather tell my own story in my own time.

My experience there was incredible. Stories of dropping the soap in the showers, random rapes etc etc simply did not happen. Prison wings are very strange places. Keeping testosterone-fuelled, sex-starved men in very close confinement is a recipe for disaster. Coercive sexual encounters and even rapes do happen, but it is rare.

"Sex in prison is rife..."
Chris Grayling once stated that sex doesn’t happen in prisons. I have to admit to sniggering when I heard this idiotic comment. Sex in prison is rife. Being gay is probably easier than for the ‘straight’ guys inside. There were other gay inmates, some quite open, others not. Some in relationships, inside and outside. Indeed one couple entered into a civil partnership in a ceremony held within the prison walls.

There’s also the phenomenon of the ‘prison gay’. Straight in the ordinary world but anything goes in prison, given the choice between enforced celibacy or a little ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ sexual contact and relief.

More worrying is the issue of safe sex. Sex does happen in prison. Generally not safely. Condoms are available through healthcare. Whilst this is supposed to be anonymous there’s always an officer listening in on every conversation between an inmate and a nurse.
Condoms in prison: yes - and no!

Sex between inmates is banned, anybody suspected of having sexual contact will be separated, however, two inmates sharing a cell quietly indulging in consensual sexual activity maintains peace on the wing. Condoms are only available to those in a sexual relationship (which isn’t allowed) and so difficult to get hold of. Regular cell searches (pad spins) could reveal possession of condoms and clearly indicate the relationship between cell-mates. It wasn’t my finest decision to have unprotected anal sex with a recovering heroin addict in a prison cell. Prison does strange things to your thought processes.

Prison officers usually want nothing more than an easy life so such behaviour is often ignored. I recall one particular occasion when I was very much caught in the act and not a word was said by the officer concerned.

As previously mentioned I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of prison. Just prison alone, aside from my sexuality. I had to be openly gay but I never heard one single bad word said about me. Every single day there was blokey banter but nothing nasty.

Diversity and Equality in prison
The prison diversity department arranged monthly meetings for a couple of hours for gay and bisexual inmates. It was a chance to chat openly without fear of any retribution. They even arranged a buffet for us near Christmas. Admittedly it was only the usual dire prison food but it was served on a platter rather than in a carrier bag.

My time in prison was grim, it was unpleasant, it was – to be frank – horrible. However, I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. Several are very good friends to this day. I would never want to return but I can't thank the justice system enough for giving me the most amazing experience.

Nobody can appreciate the issues of incarceration unless they’ve been there. It’s horrible yet intriguing. I’ve met friends through work and the outside world, but I don’t think I’ll ever meet friends as important as those I met inside.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold

In this blog post I am going to discuss the issue of deaths in custody, especially cases where prisoners have taken their own lives and I apologise in advance if some readers find these subjects distressing. I know that I do. In the specific case that I deal with towards the end of this post I have been careful to withhold details that might lead to the identification of one particular young man – someone I knew personally – in order to protect his family. Details of this case are particularly graphic and involve a violent sexual assault, so please be warned before reading further.

Amid the escalating crisis in our dangerous, dysfunctional prisons the death toll continues to climb. Recent figures issued by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) indicate that by August 2016 a total of 321 people had died in our prisons in England and Wales – up 30 percent over a 12-month period.

MOJ: damning indictments
Of course, not all those deaths are self-inflicted. As our prison population ages due to a combination of longer sentences, more lifers and a rising number of very elderly men in custody (often imprisoned for historical sex offences), we will inevitably see more deaths from natural causes such as old age or as a result of deteriorating health due to advancing years. In some cases, as inquest juries have ruled, inadequate healthcare in prisons may have played a contributory role in hastening death.

Then there are deaths in custody in which the use of illicit drugs – particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS) such as Spice and Black Mamba – may also have been a factor. Possession of NPS in prisons and the trafficking of these drugs into prisons have only been criminal offences (rather than disciplinary issues) since May of this year.

NPS: Spice is one brand
Recently, there has been a much-needed focus on deaths in custody. At the end of last week the Prisons and Probations Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, announced during a speech he delivered that such drugs had played a role in at least 58 deaths in prisons in England and Wales over a three-year period between June 2013 and June 2016. In some cases inmates have taken their own lives due to enormous debts run up to other prisoners for the supply of NPS and other drugs, in other incidents fatalities had been caused by violence linked to the drug trade.

However, in this particular post I want to focus particularly on the issue of suicide in custody. Self-inflicted deaths in our prisons are now at their highest level for eight years. In the 12-month period between June 2015 and June 2016, a total of 105 prisoners had taken their own lives in jails in England and Wales.

Some establishments have much worse records than others. For example, at HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes, there have been eight deaths in nine months, the most recent a death by hanging at the end of August. Not every case at this prison was self-inflicted.

Not enough staff to prevent suicide
Some prison staff and reform campaigners blame the marked fall in the number of frontline officers for the rising death toll. For example, earlier this month the governor of Glen Parva Young Offenders Institute in Leicester, Alison Clarke, told a coroner’s inquest into the death of a 19-year old that she simply did not have enough staff to keep prisoners in her custody safe. She told the jury that a “lack of resources from the Ministry of Justice” prevented her from keeping inmates safe from self-harm and suicide - a particularly shocking admission.

However, there are also serious questions about whether proper measures are taken when inmates are believed to be at risk of self-harm or suicide. At a separate inquest earlier this week, a jury hearing evidence about the death by hanging of New Fathers 4 Justice activist Haydn Burton at HMP Winchester in July 2015 concluded that prison staff “more likely than not” had known that Mr Burton had made a noose in his cell before he took his own life, yet appropriate action in line with national procedures was not taken. The jury verdict was particularly damning of failures at the prison. As the coroner noted, this was just one of the four deaths at HMP Winchester during 2015.

HMP: unable to cope with the crisis
It has been clear for years that the Prison Service is in deep crisis. Too few frontline staff to run prisons safely, ill-advised MOJ policies that have seen experienced prison officers pensioned off, poor recruitment and worse retention levels of new staff, some of whom simply don’t last long in post because they can’t cope with the lousy conditions or the stress of the job. When you add serious overcrowding at many prisons into the toxic mix, the results can be explosive and tragic.

Yet, these are not the only contributory factors behind the rising death toll in our prisons. How many grieving families are going to be told that their loved one will only be coming home in a coffin? How many kids left without a parent or grandparent, or an older brother or sister? How many parents will have to bury their own child?

That question is really for you, Liz Truss. You have previously said publicly that you believe that prison should be - and I quote - “tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable.” Should that also include an unspoken death sentence due to negligence or staff shortages?

Please only read the following paragraphs if you are prepared to be made very angry as a result of institutional callousness, negligence and failure to provide appropriate care to the most vulnerable in our prisons. All names have been changed, but the facts are exactly as I witnessed them.

Tom was barely out of his late teens. He was on recall at a Cat-B local as a result of getting into a fight with a family member while he was on licence after an earlier stint in a YOI. When he appeared on a wing of about 180 adult men, he looked about 15. He was very quiet and slight of stature. He knew no-one at the prison and spent much of his free time leaning on the handrail looking up and down the landings of the vast Victorian pile.

Victorian Cat-B local prison
Within a few days, Tom had run out of money. He was a heavy smoker, one of the ways he tried to control his anxiety and stress. He ran out of rolling tobacco and was reduced to begging pinches of ‘burn’ or dog-ends around the wing with the promise that he would return the favour on the next canteen day. It’s the oldest story in the book and the prison equivalent of “the cheque is in the post”. There are generally few takers for these hard luck stories.

Such vulnerability does not go unnoticed in our prisons. These situations provide valuable business opportunities for the unscrupulous and predatory low lifes that can be found on almost every wing.

A ‘friendly’ fellow inmate in his 30s, a married man with his own kids and serving a long sentence for drug offences and violence, ‘befriended’ Tom and offered him small amounts of tobacco and other luxuries such as instant coffee. Needless to note, these were not gifts. Despite warnings from his older cell-mate who tried to offer him advice and support, Tom continued to associate with the man who was supplying him with goods on tick.

Burn: one cause of debt in prison
Predictably, Tom missed his first repayment deadline on canteen day. No problem, he was assured, although of course the interest due would have to increase to take account of the delay and the risk he might be transferred to another jail. Tom agreed readily and left his creditor’s cell with a small bag of coffee – added to the rising debt, naturally. This is a scenario that plays out in every prison in the land, whether it involves tobacco, coffee or drugs.

Eventually – and inevitably – Tom couldn’t make repayments. He had a prison job that paid around £8 a week and his family wasn’t in a position to send him much money. The debt quickly spiralled out of control. Then things started to turn nasty.

Tom started to hide from his creditor in other cells during association periods. He tried to avoid the man during ‘free-flow’ – the times when prisoners are out of their cells and are being escorted to and from work or education.

Of course, wing tobacco and drugs barons rarely get their own hands dirty. They employ thuggish minions who enforce collection of debts and hunt down deadbeat debtors. Two were duly dispatched to find Tom and bring him up to the fours (the top landing) to face the music.

There were just too few wing officers around to notice the slight, boyish figure being escorted up the staircase furthest from the office by two tattooed bruisers. He was taken up to the cell and the thugs stood guard while Tom was raped, first orally and then anally, by the man to whom he owed his debt. He had blood on his grey prison-issue jogging bottoms as he staggered back down the stairs, utterly broken.

Typical prison cell from inside
However, that did not go unnoticed and two of us – fellow inmates, both Insiders (peer mentors) – saw that something was very wrong. We visited Tom in his cell, but he wasn’t ready to talk, except to confirm he was deep in debt.

We were sufficiently concerned to ensure that members of the wing staff were made aware that Tom was in serious trouble. I also spoke to the chaplain. Of course, we didn’t at that stage know the full story, but soon details started to circulate around the wing in whispers.

The head of residence, a female officer who had a very poor reputation among both her staff and prisoners, spoke to Tom and demanded that he tell her if he was being targeted and, if so, by whom. By now he was too terrified, desperate and ashamed to tell anyone anything other than that he was ‘being bullied’. Despite his blood-stained jogging bottoms, he didn’t tell her – or any other staff member – that he had been the victim of a very serious sexual assault. He also refused to name names. Having an aggressive female senior officer barking at him was not likely to encourage disclosure.

Tom was by now too terrified to leave his cell. He didn’t report for work and was duly downgraded from Standard level on the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme to Basic. His older cell-mate who had provided support and advice was moved out of their shared cell as Tom was to be punished alone. His small portable TV – rented from the prison at 50p a week – was also removed, as were most of Tom’s few personal possessions. Thoughtfully, however, the two wing officers left the coaxial cable for the television in his almost empty cell.

In-cell rented TV set: not on Basic
Tom was left on Basic for about a week, confined to his cell for around 23 hours a day. He had previously been on what is known as the ‘ACCT’ (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) monitoring system as it was suspected that he might self-harm or be suicidal when he was recalled to prison. However, that was not taken into account when he was placed on Basic.

During association periods Tom remained locked in his cell. He was often unable to shower or even telephone his family on the wing pay phones as duty officers sometimes ‘forgot’ to unlock his door. Nevertheless, his creditor – the rapist – could be observed hovering around outside his locked cell warning him through the observation window to keep silent about his ordeal or face much worse punishment for ‘grassing’.

Coaxial TV cable
Tom died alone in his cell. After the evening roll check on a warm summer night he rigged up a makeshift gallows by tying his little table to the top bunk using torn bedsheets. He used the TV coaxial cable to make a noose and, just to be sure he wouldn’t survive, he also used a prison razor blade to cut his femoral arteries. Had he not died of asphyxiation, he would have bled out. He intended to kill himself.

His body was not discovered until the following morning roll check. We were kept locked up for most of that day, but I could see what what happening in his cell as it was opposite mine. It took the industrial cleaning team two days to clean out the cell once the police had finished making their enquiries.

That is not the end of this appalling case, however. The fact that two of us had alerted staff to Tom’s plight before his death was written out of the official record. Neither of us was interviewed by the local police. We were also not called to give evidence at the subsequent inquest many months later.

In fact, the institutional cover-up went far higher and deeper than that. Shortly after Tom’s tragic death, the man most responsible for the awful train of events was permitted by the head of residence to organise the collection among prisoners to buy a wreath for the lad’s funeral. He was then designated to read the lesson in the prison chapel during the memorial service. Finally – and most disgustingly – he was given special permission by a governor grade to write a personal letter of condolence to the dead boy’s mother in which he claimed that he had been Tom’s closest friend on the wing. If that alone doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach, then I don’t know what will.

A day or so after the memorial service at the prison I put in an application to speak to the governor. I was called up to see a recently arrived deputy governor grade who interviewed me together with the wing governor. I explained my concerns over Tom’s death and the way in which it was being handled. During the conversation it became clear that they both knew not only that this young man had been subjected to a horrendous sexual assault, but they also knew the identity of the rapist. The wing governor named him during our discussion, not me. Yet this entire meeting was off the record. It was never mentioned at the inquest or to the police.

PPO: no response to letter 
I was then asked by the deputy governor whether I intended to do anything further. I told them that I had already written to both the HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The two governors exchanged glances. Within a matter of days I and the other prisoner who had reported our initial concerns had both been ‘ghosted’ to other prisons. The cover-up was in full swing. Neither the HMIP or the PPO ever replied to my letters, although I have kept copies.

I heard from fellow inmates that the prisoner who had assaulted Tom was moved about a month later to a dangerous and severe personality disorder unit (DSPDU) at a high security prison where I believe his remains to this day. However, this fact was also never referred to at Tom’s inquest.

To this day, Tom’s family are totally unaware of the true circumstances of his terrible, lonely death in custody. I have obtained a copy of the inquest report. It is a whitewash and an utter disgrace. Members of the prison staff who gave evidence told blatant lies to the coroner and the jury, although ultimate responsibility must rest with HM Prison Service. Tom was supposedly in its care and he, and his family, were let down at every stage.

In the light of recent events concerning suicides in our prisons, I now feel obliged to share this story with readers of the blog. Hopefully, I have ensured that the details given above are vague enough to prevent identification of either the prison or any of the individuals involved, other than myself. There are some things you leave behind when you leave prison. This is not one of them.