Prison

Prison

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Telling Tales out of Jail

We’ve recently had a spate of ‘inside’ exclusive stories in the media about celebrity prisoners and their alleged doings in the nick. Although such leaks and gossip in the red top tabloid press are nothing new, these articles – sometimes entirely bogus or exaggerated – often offer a highly distorted view of prison life and, inevitably, this has an impact on public perceptions of what goes on inside the walls.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been treated to some ‘celebrity’ gossip concerning our current national hate figures Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall. It’s to be expected that fallen idols who were once central figures in the world of popular entertainment for decades continue to fascinate some sections of the general public, especially when the individuals concerned have been banged up for something very ‘naughty’ (to use a term common among cons for sex offenders or ‘nonces’). 

Oscar Wilde's trial in the Police News
Tales about how one or other of these elderly prisoners supposedly got spat at in the jail chapel or had a row with a family member during a visit or even – allegedly – chucked his wedding ring in the prison pond have become staple tabloid fodder, especially in the Daily Mail which never seems to tire of giving cons a good kicking. Of course, this is nothing new. 

The Victorian tabloids – ‘penny dreadfuls’ as they are sometimes called – were just as bad. They enjoyed a particular feeding frenzy when the celebrated playwright, novelist and wit Oscar Wilde was sent down for two years’ hard labour in 1895. The scandal was front page news and none did it better than the Police News.

Having been convicted of gross indecency with other males, he fitted very definitely in the category of ‘celebrity nonce’, even back then. These days Wilde would probably have ended up on what is called a Vulnerable Prisoners’ Unit (VPU), known to generations of cons as ‘going on the numbers’ (a reference to Prison Rule 45, formerly Rule 43: Removal from Association) for his own protection from those fellow cons anxious to show their disapproval by dishing out a good bashing.  

The wider question is how all this gossip and tittle-tattle gets out into the public domain. Occasionally, a prison officer or other member of staff will get his or her collar felt by Inspector Knacker of the Yard on charges of misconduct in public office, which usually involves an allegation of having supplied confidential information to a journalist in return for cash payments. More of these cases seem to have been coming up recently as a result of police investigations into some of the dubious practices of the UK newspaper industry. 

There is some fuzziness around the edges of this particular legislation because the law doesn’t really provide a clear definition of who is a ‘public officer’. The relevant case law seems to suggest that it is the nature of the duties involved, as well as the violation of public trust, that is more important that the holding of a specific office. In theory, it seems that a ‘public officer’ doesn’t necessary need to have been formally appointed or even paid from public funds to fall under the jurisdiction of the law on misconduct. This might be considered rather surprising in view of the fact that the maximum penalty is a life sentence!

Daily Mail: loves a con story
What is pretty clear, however, is that any prison official (whether a governor, screw or civilian member of staff) who flogs gossip and other inside information to the media will be breaking the law. Such breaches of trust can have serious implications for both serving prisoners and for ex-cons whose time in custody might be of interest to the readers of the tabloid press.

Celebrity cons – regardless of what they have been sent down for – are particularly prone to the leaking of such inside information, as are those prisoners who have been convicted of particularly heinous offences. Even some very commonplace or minor incident inside the nick – such as a heated argument or an inmate getting put on a charge for breaking the rules (getting ‘nicked’) – can make a juicy tabloid headline. And even if the tale isn’t true, well never let the facts get in the way of a good tabloid story.

Lord Archer, convicted for perjury in July 2001 and sent down for four years, was a popular target for negative media coverage while he was inside. In fact, this led to him being shipped out from a Cat-D (open prison) back to the joys of HMP Lincoln (a Victorian Cat-B local) for a few weeks following one particular media-generated scandal involving his alleged social activities when he had been granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL). In the end it was all revealed to have been a storm in a tea cup – actually a lunch plate – fuelled by the media and he was subsequently returned to another open prison for the rest of his sentence.

Lord Archer: fitted up
Causing any kind of embarrassment to the Prison Service when you are either a celebrity con or a notorious ‘name’ is never looked upon kindly. In fact, for those who are in an open nick it can be a sure-fire way to get a one-way ticket back to closed conditions, even when the media has grossly over-exaggerated an incident, real or imagined.

To be fair, not all inside stories originate from the screws or civilian staff. Quite a number are peddled by fellow cons anxious to make a quick buck on the back of any celebrities they may – or may not – have actually bumped into on wing landing. Sometimes these are just recycled rumours or idle gossip. Groups of cons can gossip away like schoolgirls in a playground. If I had a quid for every story told or retold by fellow inmates that started with “apparently…” I could probably afford to retire early.

It can be dangerous to try to sell tip-offs or gossip about fellow prisoners while the would-be vendor is still in custody. Contacting the media without prior permission is strictly against the prison rules, specifically Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 37/2010 - Prisoners’ Access to the Media. Sometimes hot stories about other cons can be repeated to family and friends during a social visit with instructions to go and try to flog the information to the tabloids.

However, once a con has been released it’s almost impossible to gag them. For an ex-prisoner who has just been kicked out of the main gate with £46 discharge grant in his or her pocket, the temptation to try to make a wodge of extra cash by phoning around tabloid news desks can prove just too strong to resist. Just knowing – or inventing – a bit of ‘hot’ gossip about a fellow con who is either a celebrity or else infamous for their crime could be the only saleable thing they have to offer, particularly if they need some quick cash to fund a drugs habit or other addiction. 

Where's the nearest tabloid editor?
That’s just one of the reasons that famous, or infamous, prisoners need to be very choosy about who they associate with inside. Your best jail ‘mate’ can easily turn out to be a real snake in the grass and, well, go on to ‘grass’ you up to the gutter press as soon as he or she gets out of the nick.

It’s not just stories about famous or infamous cons that get leaked to the press. General ‘shock, horror!’ tales of idle prisoners living lives of luxury at the taxpayers’ expense, including state of the art gyms and Sky TV on giant flatscreens also do the rounds from time to time. These articles seem to be deliberately calculated to outrage retired Army majors in Bognor or the blue rinse brigade from Tunbridge Wells. Needless to observe, almost all of these prisoner-bashing tales are fabricated and fictional.

The Sky TV subscription story has done the rounds for a few years now. No public sector prison has ever permitted prisoners to have subscription channels on their rented in-cell TV sets. The rules are absolutely clear: a maximum total of nine freeview channels, including BBC 1 and 2, ITV and Channels 4 and 5, plus a few others. Anything else is pure fantasy, as any con who has done time in a public sector nick will confirm. 

Believe it or not... No Sky in prisons
The seemingly unquenchable media thirst for celebrity gossip neatly mirrors a general societal obsession with sending people to prison, whether they really are a threat to the community or not. Sometimes it seems that almost regardless of the actual offence, the red-faced retired majors and their blue rinsed ladies (not to mention the tabloid editors) are only really happy when reading in their morning paper that every criminal up before the beak has been sent down for a goodly stretch. 

When these twin fixations come together in the form of a media splash about how a fallen idol or famous person is having a torrid time in the slammer, everyone wins. Except, of course, the prisoner and his or her family and friends. Moreover, I doubt that many victims of the crimes of these cons feel too chuffed about seeing such stories splashed across the tabloid front pages day after day.

It’s always worth remembering that many of these celebrity prison stories are entirely fictitious, having been cooked up by either a fellow con in a bid to make a quick buck or else by a dodgy member of the prison staff keen to do the same. Of course, for governors, screws and civilian staff the stakes can be much higher than for inmates who blab. When rumbled, members of staff can face the loss of their career, a criminal trial and, if convicted, are liable to find themselves on the wrong side of a heavy steel cell door. In the end, no-one really likes a grass, whether in prison uniform or dressed as a screw.  

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Harry Roberts Saga Continues

This week we’ve been treated to a real ‘blast from the past’ in the form of the impending release on parole licence of Harry Roberts, a lifer who has served 48 years in prison for the murder of two police officers in 1966. As with the release of any particularly notorious con, there has been a media feeding frenzy and – as you might expect – the Daily Mail has really milked the case for all it’s worth.

Harry Roberts
Mr Roberts is an ex-Borstal boy and former British soldier who, by his own admission during rare media interviews, opted for a life of crime when he returned to civvy street following his military service in Malaya during the period of the insurgency against the colonial power led by the Malayan Communist Party. His chosen ‘profession’ was as an armed robber, although to be honest not a very successful one.

In August 1966, three police officers, Sgt Christopher Head, DC David Wombwell and PC Geoffrey Fox, went to investigate what they thought, rightly, was a suspicious van in London’s Shepherd’s Bush in which there were three men, including Mr Roberts. He shot and killed two of them, another robber shot and murdered the third officer. Following this, Mr Roberts went of the run for three months, living rough in a forest in Hertfordshire, until his capture following a massive man-hunt. 

I am too young to remember the initial crime, but I do recall Mr Robert’s name from my own childhood. Like the Moors Murderers and a few other high profile cases, his is one that has lingered in the public consciousness.

Convicted at the Old Bailey and sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 30 years, Mr Roberts narrowly escaped being hanged, since capital punishment for murder had been abolished the previous year. However, the trial judge did observe that: “I think it likely that no Home Secretary, regarding the enormity of your crime, will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you on licence.”

And Mr Roberts has been banged-up ever since, a kind of relic of the 1960s still wandering prison wings nearly half a century on. However, because he was not given a ‘whole life’ tariff, his eligibility for release on a parole licence has been quietly ticking away like an ancient unexploded bomb waiting to go off underneath some unsuspecting Secretary of State. Now it finally has.

During the police hunt for Roberts
The angry response of the Police Federation over the release of Mr Roberts is entirely predictable. However, by publicly attacking the Parole Board, the organisation is in danger of politicising the case, while undermining public confidence in the Board, which is an important and integral part of the criminal justice system. This in turn raises questions about the rule of law that police officers are supposed to be committed to uphold. All too often, the Federation does seem to give the impression that its members are above the law, or indeed hold certain aspects of the our legal system in contempt, a perception that I believe is contributing to the erosion of public confidence in policing.

At a time when public trust in the police is at an all-time low in the UK, it might be better for the Federation to focus on putting its own house in order. Its public reputation remains shockingly poor, particularly amid the continuing fallout from the ‘Plebgate’ affair, as well as questions over its own financial business, including ‘secret’ bank accounts and its ability to manage its regional branches in a professional manner.

Earlier this year, an independent review panel chaired by a former Home Office Permanent Secretary, Sir David Normington, concluded that the Police Federation required “fundamental reform”, having lost the confidence of its own members, as well as the general public. One of the most telling criticisms was that the Federation had embarked on various political campaigns, targeting its critics and perceived political opponents. All very nasty for a body that is supposed to be representing the forces of law and order. 

Media coverage in 1966
While it is easy to understand the animosity of police officers towards prisoners such as Mr Roberts, the ongoing public vilification of the Parole Board in the media following its recommendation concerning Mr Robert’s release on licence, both by the Federation’s officials, as well as by senior police officers, really does the Federation no favours at all. Respecting the rule of law in a democracy also means not openly attacking or undermining bodies such as the Parole Board for purely partisan or ‘tribal’ motives. 

Unlike some cons or ex-cons who regard Harry Roberts as some kind of ‘hero’ because he murdered police officers during his criminal activities, I don’t. His case is an example of the bogus mystique of ‘professional’ criminals – such as armed robbers – that is encouraged to some extent by the media and especially in ‘gangster’ films and novels.

This in turn boosts their egos and leads them to regard themselves as some sort of prison ‘aristocracy’, when often they are little more than ignorant thugs and violent bullies who treat fellow prisoners – and often the staff – like dirt. I’ve met people in prison with this mindset throughout my sentence and dislike them intensely.

In the eye of the media storm
That said, as I’ve noted above Mr Roberts was not given a ‘whole life’ tariff (although he almost certainly would have received that sentence had his offences been committed in the 1970s onwards). As part of its review of his case, the Parole Board will have considered the reports of Probation, prison staff and other people who’ve worked with Mr Roberts directly, so his risk is now considered manageable in the community. 

At the age of 78, I doubt that he will return to a life of crime and, in any case, he will be on a life licence and under intensive Probation supervision which means that he will be liable to immediate recall to prison for the rest of his life on the slightest suspicion of any non-compliance with the conditions of his licence or in the event he is suspected of committing a further criminal offence, or even doing anything that might increase his level of risk to the public. 

I expect he’ll end up living in a very bare and basic room in approved premises – some local hostel for ex-cons – under tight curfew and with hourly reporting conditions to begin with, while living on the basic old age pension. For some former prisoners, particularly those who have experienced a couple of years in a relaxed Cat-D (open) prison, life on parole licence supervision in the community can be much more stressful and controlled than being back in the nick. I know several ex-cons on licence who have told me they would rather be in an open prison than living in approved premises.

Under supervision
It can also be a desperately lonely and empty experience, particularly for an older person who may no longer have close family ties or friends from outside the world of prison. He is also unlikely to be permitted to associate with any other ex-cons outside the confines of the hostel, so his social circle may be pretty restricted. 

Giving his high media profile over the past 48 years, Mr Roberts is likely to be the focus of much negative attention when he is back in the community, so his daily life is hardly going to be free and easy. His every movement and comment will be monitored and analysed, probably for the rest of his natural life. In some respects being released on life licence, with the risk of immediate recall by the Ministry of Justice hanging over him forever, could well prove to be a new chapter in his continuing punishment.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Why Jonathan Aitken is Wrong

Following the publication of the annual report of HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) this week there has been a commendable level of concern expressed over what Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, has called the “terrible toll” of recent prison suicides (read the full report here). The HMIP findings confirm what the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), Nigel Newcomen, has been flagging up in his own recent reports: our prisons are becoming less safe places.

It is clear that the interlinked issues of deteriorating safety, inadequate staffing, a shortage of mental heath care and poor conditions inside our prisons are now on the agenda and the national media – including The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian – is following each development as it happens. While I don’t think that the prison suicide rate, as such, is going to be a significant issue in the forthcoming general election, it does mean that the repeated denials that there is any crisis in our prisons coming from both Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling and the new Prisons Minister Andrew Selous really cannot be taken seriously by anyone who has considered the objective evidence.

However, just highlighting the crisis and its consequences will not be enough. Urgent solutions need to be found. 

Jonathan Aitken
One of those making such a suggestion is former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken. In case anyone has forgotten, Mr Aitken was convicted of perjury in 1999 and sentenced to an 18-month custodial sentence, of which he served seven months. He later wrote about his time inside in an interesting memoir entitled Porridge and Passion (2006). 

Writing in a letter published this week in The Guardian, Mr Aitken makes the following proposal: 

One practical suggestion that might ease the problem would be to extend the responsibilities of “listeners” in our jails so that they also become “watchers”. Establishments have a group of inmates, trained by the charity Samaritans, to listen to the anxieties of fellow prisoners who might be potential suicides. These listeners, who often work closely with wing officers, are widely credited with preventing some self-inflicted deaths which might otherwise occur. Prison staff, in my experience as a former listener, work hard to minimise suicides. They hold a list of high-risk self-harmers or worse. Those on it are kept under observation by officers using the peepholes in cell doors.

The cut in prison staff numbers by 10,000 over the past three years may mean that some officers reduce the frequency of their observation of high-risk inmates. So it would be a good idea to utilise the services of the existing listeners to support the efforts of prison officers in keeping watch over potentially suicidal inmates in their cells. A policy of giving such extra responsibilities to trusted prisoners would be in accord with the government’s approach of using offenders in the field of rehabilitation. Such a move would need an amendment to the Prison Service Instructions rulebook, but it would surely be a well-supported initiative to help prevent prison suicides.

Listeners' prison poster
At least Mr Aitken does have some practical, first-hand experience of both prison and of the Listeners scheme. This operates in most UK prisons, having been launched back in 1991. According to the Samaritan’s website, there are an estimated 1,200 trained Listeners working across the prison estate at the moment. They provide a 24-hour service to fellow inmates and the aim is to achieve a ratio of around one trained Listener to every 50 or so fellow prisoners.

Although I never worked or trained as a Listener myself – mainly because Insiders (peer mentors) are not supposed to combine such roles in order to maintain a clear demarcation between the giving of practical advice and information by Insiders and the non-directional, listening role of the Listeners team – I have the greatest respect for the invaluable work they do. The scheme can truly offer a life-saving service to people who are in deep distress, some of whom often consider suicide or serious self-harm as their only viable options.

However, Mr Aitken’s well-meaning proposals above are fraught with dangers, not least for those prisoners who have volunteered to train and work as Listeners in our prisons. One of the key issues is accountability. All prisoners are in the custody of HM Prison Service and as the Service’s own mission statement makes clear: 

Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Its duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.    

That responsibility – and the legal duty of care that goes with it – cannot be delegated to fellow prisoners, no matter how well-trained or well-meaning the prisoner concerned may be. Using inmates as “watchers” – as suggested by Mr Aitken in his letter above – is essentially to re-task Listeners to provide suicide watch cover ‘on the cheap’ because the Prison Service simply lacks sufficient staff to do the job. In fact, the Samaritan’s code of conduct for prisons expressly excludes the use by the Prison Service of Listeners as ‘baby-sitters’ for other prisoners, precisely for that very reason.

A Listener's cell on a prison wing
Mr Aitken’s suggestion risks blurring the responsibilities and legal duties of the prison staff, while extending a range of responsibilities of a small group of volunteer prisoners for the lives and safety of their peers. In my opinion, any move in that direction would be potentially dangerous at a variety of levels and simply cannot be right.

What would be the legal implications for any prison that used such “watchers”? How would inquest juries view those prisoners and the role that they had been fulfilling in the place of paid, professional prison officers? 

What of the question of legal liability? Could Mr Aitken’s “watchers” even be exposed to potential legal action from deceased prisoners’ distressed families in the event of a suicide? Could they be legally indemnified? No-one knows because, at the moment, serving prisoners are not given such formal roles or responsibilities for the lives of other inmates for very good reasons. 

And what of the psychological impact on these prisoners in the case of a suicide or attempted suicide on their ‘watch’? I’ve written in a previous blog post how I and other cons felt acute guilt over the deaths of fellow prisoners that we’ve known. Given the serious shortage of mental heath care and support across the prison estate, what could the Prison Service offer to distressed ‘watchers’ who have been in close proximity to the dead prisoner, perhaps got to know them and then have feelings of guilt over their deaths? In reality, the answer is probably somewhere between very little or nothing. 

Listeners: available 24/7
And then there could well be a requirement, as there is upon serving prison staff, to attend and give evidence during Coroner’s inquests into deaths in custody. Prisoners who discover cell-mates or other inmates after their deaths are often already made to attend these hearings to give their account of events leading up to the discovery of a body. HM Coroners have the legal power to issue summons to relevant witnesses under common law (Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and Coroners (Inquests) Rules, 2013).

For a prisoner summonsed to appear at an inquest, the whole process can be highly disruptive and demeaning: being repeatedly strip searched, having to be taken in handcuffs in prison transport, sometimes moved between prisons to be closer to where the inquest is taking place, perhaps waiting days or weeks for a transfer back thus cancelling booked family visits. All of this can also disrupt paid prison employment, education courses etc.

Those volunteers would be left high and dry with their own psychological issues and all the resulting stress. No serving prisoner should be expected to take on such a stressful role when they are still in the midst of serving their own sentence in prison. It’s not as if they can go home at the end of the day and unwind with their own loved ones for emotional support. Mr Aitken’s idea, however kindly meant, would be both cruel and inhumane.

Safer custody?
While I am all in favour of urgent measures to reduce the rising suicide rate in our prisons, this should be done through the provision of appropriate numbers of trained frontline wing staff and qualified mental heath professionals. It should not be done by using – and potentially abusing – fellow prisoners in the custody of HM Prison Service to carry out roles that they shouldn’t be doing, even in a volunteer capacity. 

The ‘Safer Custody’ strategy at the heart of Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 64/2011 – Management of prisoners at risk of harm to self, to others and from others (Safer Custody) – requires that governors take certain mandatory actions to implement the Assessment and Care in Custody Teamwork (ACCT) process. This includes the identification of prisoners considered to be at risk of suicide or self-harm and the procedures that are to be used in order to manage, monitor and review the measures required to support these individuals.

The ACCT strategy can be labour intensive, requiring commitment of staff resources – particularly for those severely distressed prisoners who need constant watch 24 hours a day – and the current staff shortages in many establishments must inevitably call into question whether these obligations set out in PSI 64/2011 can be adequately delivered in many of our prisons. The evidence highlighted in the latest reports from HMIP and the PPO would indicate that this system is coming under intense strain and is, in some cases, failing to provide the required monitoring and management of suicidal prisoners or those who are in serious distress and have resorted to self-harming as a coping mechanism or as a cry for help. 

However, making use of other prisoners to fill these staffing gaps would be neither legal nor appropriate. What would come next in Mr Grayling’s cut-price prisons being run on the cheap? Giving ‘trusted’ cons a bunch of cell keys so they can unlock the wings? Where does this end? So Mr Aitken, thank you for a well-meaning suggestion, but it is one which must be firmly resisted by the Samaritans, the Prison Officers Association, the Prison Governors Association – and by all prisoners acting as Listeners themselves.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Prison Letters: a Spark in the Darkness

As I’ve written before on this blog there is a ‘long littleness’ to life inside prison. Almost anything that breaks up the mind-numbing monotony can be a welcome break and receiving a positive letter filled with news or kindly words from your family or friends can make an enormous difference. A good letter can be a little glimmer of light in an otherwise dark world.

A light in the darkness
Officially, prisoners are encouraged to keep in contact with their families and friends in order to maintain morale and as part of the reducing reoffending agenda. It has been long recognised that cons who have strong family support on the outside are less likely to reoffend than those inmates who are released through the gate to nothing and no-one. However, the rising costs of keeping in touch do present a potential barrier to inmates who don’t have prison jobs or financial support from home.

All prisoners in UK establishments are supposed to be able to send at least one ‘weekly letter’ free of charge. These A5 folded sheets of lined writing paper come complete with an envelope and will be sent out by 2nd class post, subject to the usual checks by the prison censors’ department. In some nicks the weekly letter is pushed under each cell door, while in others it can be collected from a wing office as required. Being a wing letter orderly can be a nice, easy little job for a retired prisoner who wants to keep active by walking round the landings delivering the blank paper and envelopes to his fellow cons.

Official free weekly letter
I’ve been in prisons where the number of free letters an inmate can write and send each week is determined by their status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. At one Cat-B nick a con on Basic level (effectively in solitary confinement) was permitted to send one free weekly letter, while a prisoner on Standard could post out two. Those on the highest level, Enhanced, received three weekly letters. It was a small privilege, but for some cons with no source of income, it could make all the difference.

According to the rules, trying to post out more than your permitted weekly allocation of free mail could get you into trouble. However, to be honest, I never came across anyone who actually did get caught and weekly letters could be traded as low-value items by those who didn’t write (or who couldn’t) to other cons who did like to do so.

No more stamps from families
Prior to the introduction of the revised – and hated – IEP system on 1 November 2013, many prisons allowed families and friends to send in writing materials to prisoners, including either books of stamps or stamped addressed envelopes. This was effectively banned by the same rules that block inmates from receiving books and clean clothes from their family and friends. 

Now, if you want to post a letter in addition to the free weekly one, everything needs to be purchased from the canteen sheet: writing paper, envelopes and, of course, a stamp. For people who are having to survive on as little as £2.50 a week as unemployed prisoners or £3.50 a week as retired or disabled inmates, the proportion of their tiny income that a single letter represents can be a massive sacrifice. Perhaps the more humane wing screws recognise this and turn a blind eye to cons who are penniless sending out a couple of extra free weekly letters.

Nevertheless, in a prison system that purports to value the maintaining of close family ties by prisoners as part of the strategy for reducing reoffending and encouraging resettlement, these mean IEP restrictions appear to run counter to supporting these objectives. Ironically, it also probably means that more prisoners will turn to the free 2nd class service rather than using their own stamps and writing materials. It would be interesting to know whether the overall costs of prison-funded postage have risen since prisoners’ families were blocked from sending in stamps and envelopes.

Half of all prisoners lack literacy skills
Being able to write letters yourself is another major bonus inside the nick. A fair number of prisoners do have serious problems with literacy and they can face serious disadvantages in trying to keep in touch with their families, especially if they lack money to buy telephone credits for the wing payphones. 

In fact, recent estimates suggest that around 48 percent of inmates have literacy skills at or below Level 1 (what would normally be expected of an 11-year old child), with as many of 75 percent having some problems with writing ranging from poor spelling right through to functional illiteracy. Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising when you realise that around half of all adult prisoners have been excluded from school when they were kids.

Before I ended up in prison I rarely wrote letters by hand anymore, although my generation still learned proper handwriting at school and all my exams throughout my education (including at university) involved writing the entire papers by hand in ink. I have been personally shocked at how limited the writing skills of some undergraduates can be these days. I suppose that computers and the electronic submission of essays and coursework have played a part in this.

Writing by hand: can it can be read?
When I was a prisoner I was determined to write extensively to family and friends. At times, I wrote at least one letter a day, at other times more. I found that many of my friends were genuinely fascinated by my prison experiences, given that none of them had any personal experience of being banged-up. I found that I really had to relearn how to write everything by hand again following years of typing. I rediscovered the familiar ache of writer’s cramp that I’d been so aware of as a student and I found that I really needed to learn afresh how to write long letters legibly, even though my normal handwriting isn’t usually too bad.

Writing – letters, my daily diary, short stories, chapters of a future book on the anthropology of prison – occupied much of my free time, particularly when I was in closed prisons. It helped me pass the time during long hours of bang-up, particularly when my various cell-mates wanted to watch the football or other programmes that I wasn’t really interested in watching myself.

Receiving letters from true friends
Of course, this wasn’t just about writing letters. It was also about receiving them and I was lucky that I received at least several a week throughout the years of my sentence, sometimes a lot more. Being in prison is when you do discover who your true and loyal friends and relatives really are. Sadly, for quite a high number of prisoners a week or a month or even a year without a letter is the norm, particularly when their family has broken up or moved on, or else their loved ones have died – an increasingly common situation for many of our elderly inmates.

As I moved between prisons, I continued to stay in touch with friends I’d made by writing to them. They responded with bits of news, gossip and information about changes to the regime at their nick. Sometimes they updated me on their appeals (if they had one), on their progress towards parole or their plans after release.

There seems to be little or no restriction on sending letters between prisoners in different jails unless they are co-defendants or subject to special controls on their communications. Some prisons do have a formal approval system for inter-prison letters, but I never experienced any problems in writing to mates in other nicks. 

As an Insider (peer mentor) I was also often asked by fellow prisoners to read letters that they’d received to them or to help them write a letter themselves. In some prisons cons who are literate can make a little unofficial business out of charging a small fee in kind – maybe a thin roll-up cigarette or a bar of cheap chocolate – for their ‘services’. Fortunately, since I had a decent prison job and some cash coming in from home, I never needed to ask. Sometimes I actually felt it was a privilege to be trusted enough by my fellow cons to help them deal with very personal and difficult family problems in their letters.

Looking beyond the prison walls
The process of writing and receiving letters offers many prisoners the chance to look beyond the walls that confine them, especially if they don’t have money to make calls from the wing payphones or their families live so far from the prison that they can’t have regular visits. Communications from family and friends, especially around Christmas and family anniversaries, can make them feel connected to the real world, as can the occasional family photograph. Prison cells across the estate have hand-drawn pictures stuck on the walls that cons have received in the post from their young kids.

On the other hand, receiving a bad letter – full of hatred, condemnation or severing ties – can be absolutely traumatic, as can letters containing tragic news: a death in the family or information about a serious illness. At times you can see broken men sobbing on their bunks as they read a letter that tells them that their world is collapsing around them, along with all their plans and hopes for the future. Some prisons do ask families to let them know of such news in advance of the letter arriving so that anti-suicide measures can be taken, but sadly many nicks just don’t have sufficient staff to monitor these situations effectively.

Writing can free the mind in prison
When I left prison earlier this year I took with me a large bag of letters and cards that I’d received when I was inside. They cover the whole period of my sentence and document all the highs and lows that pretty much every con will be only too familiar with. In fact, I’d say that these letters, as well as my daily diaries, are the most important items I still have from my time in prison. Every one means something to me.

Prison can be a hard and demoralising experience for many prisoners. That’s why a loving, kind or funny letter being slid under your locked and bolted cell door or handed out by a wing screw can make all the difference. Pity those who have no-one to write to them and no spark of light in their darkness.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Chris Grayling: Cooking Up a Prison Crisis

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I refer in many posts to the ongoing crisis in our prisons. In my view this is attributable to three key factors: substantial budget reductions, serious overcrowding in many establishments and shortages of frontline staff. This sad state of affairs is, of course, denied by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). They prefer to use the weasel word ‘challenging’ and pretend that all is well in our nicks. 

Now add a dash of moral panic
Whichever way you choose to look at the problem, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny the facts. We have too many people in prison (many of them non-violent offenders or unconvicted people held on remand) and too few staff to manage them. This dangerous combination of factors is creating a highly toxic mix.

I must admit that I rather like my cooking metaphor, so let’s examine how you set about creating a prison crisis using Chris Grayling’s experimental recipe for disaster. Forget Gordon Ramsay’s cooking Behind Bars, this is more a case of Heston Blumenthal’s worst – and potentially most explosive – nightmares, combining various volatile and dangerous elements.  

HMP Shepton Mallet: closed 2013
The first ingredient has to be to have more prisoners than the existing system can reasonably cope with. This can be achieved in various ways, but closing a significant number of public-sector prisons without making any provision for a rising prison population is always a good start. Shutting down a prison is much easier than opening a new one, so once they’re gone, they’re usually gone forever. 

You can also create loads of new populist, knee-jerk criminal offences that carry custodial sentences, but don’t forget to make sure that Legal Aid is almost impossible for many defendants to get. These measures can be relied on to raise the prison population to historically high levels and will significantly aid the overcrowding you need to ensure the success of your prison crisis.

HMP Ford on fire in 2012
Next, make sure that your main ingredients are well stirred-up and highly volatile before you really get going. Raise the temperature by cramming two, three or even four prisoners – often very temperamental or disturbed individuals – into a tiny cell space designed by our Victorian ancestors for just one convict. Then bang up the cell doors for 23 hours per day, cancel activities, work and education because of chronic staff shortages and allow the mixture of resentment and misery to simmer until serious violence or an epidemic of self-harm bubbles to the top. (Warning: there could be explosions of anger and people could be injured or even killed).

If you can also reduce the availability of any form of mental healthcare or treatment for addictions to negligible levels, then this should also help in destabilising a large number of individual cons. Even if they aren’t driven to self-harm or suicide, then they could turn violent against others, including prison staff, thus raising the temperature even further.

The next key ingredient in making your prison crisis is to slash operational budgets and encourage large numbers of experienced staff to take early retirement or redundancy. This may reduce expenditure in one budget line, but don’t forget that provision will need to be made for bussing staff in from other regions and putting them up in hotels at a cost of £500 per week. Mrs Beaton would certainly not have approved this profligate waste of public money, but she’s not the Secretary of State for Justice, is she?

Prison wing after a major riot
Just as reducing is an important part of cooking, if you want to achieve a real prison crisis then reducing your frontline staff is always a vital ingredient in the mix. Personnel cuts have left prisons in England and Wales dangerously under-staffed. According to the latest report prepared by the Howard League for Penal Reform, using the MOJ’s own figures, the number of prison officers at public-sector prisons has been cut by 41 percent in under four years (see here). 

These statistics reveal that there were just 14,170 officer grades at the end of June 2014, compared to more than 24,000 at the end of August 2010. According to the report, a total of 1,375 frontline staff posts went as a result of the closure of 15 public-sector prisons. However, if you are going to make a real humdinger of a prison crisis that will by talked about for years, then these are the sort of reductions that will be essential. Remember, crushing staff morale is absolutely essential in your prison crisis recipe. 

Prisoners on roof during a riot
When you have your overcrowded, highly volatile cons on one side and your demoralised, understaffed screws on the other, the next phase is to mix the two together and stir vigorously. A great way to get cons to kick off is to introduce a revised and politically-motivated Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system that even most prison governors reckon is unfair and undermines respect. Confiscating a con’s personal possessions that they have saved up for over many months or even years is a really great way to ratchet up the tensions.

It always helps if you throw in a good measure of drugs (legal and illegal), improvised weapons and mobile phones. Also, there’s nothing like a generous dash of potent prison-brewed hooch to get a really good riot (sorry, ‘localised disturbance’) going a treat.

Screw the lid down and wait
Not all of your cons will initially want to get mixed into a prison riot, but you should ensure that even those who aren’t normally badly behaved are softened up by some long periods of bang-up in their cells, added to regular cancelling of activities, exercise, work, library visits and education. For a really big bang, an inventive chef can always cancel prisoners’ family visits without notice on the actual day, leaving their loved ones angry and disappointed. That rarely fails to set off an impressive chain-reaction of anger, resentment and hatred.

Once the vast majority of the cons in the toxic mixture are completely disaffected and rebellious, then you know that you will be well on the way to achieving your prison crisis. Screw down the lid on your pressure cooker environment and sit back until the inevitable explosion occurs and blood has been shed. Then be sure to look astounded, deny that anyone ever warned you, blame everyone but yourself and, above all, make sure that you leave someone else to clean up the mess.