Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Curious Case of the Media Silence

This blog post follows on from yesterday’s review of the acquittal by a jury of the ‘High Down 11’ on all charges of prison mutiny. As regular readers will be aware, these eleven prisoners were involved in a protest against poor conditions and very restrictive regimes at HMP High Down, a Cat-B establishment in Surrey.

During the course of this important three-week trial at Blackfriars Crown Court, much relevant evidence was called by the prosecution on the background to the prisoners’ protest which took place in October 2013. This included explanations of how the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has imposed national benchmarking on prisons and how the so-called New Ways of Working system has impacted on staffing levels, regimes and prisoners’ access to amenities such as showers, gym, exercise, association and payphones, as well as reducing opportunities to participate in work and education at the prison.

HMP High Down: airbrushed out?
As I mentioned in my last post, even High Down’s governing governor, Ian Bickers, ended up in the witness box explaining to the judge and jury how government-imposed changes implemented in September 2013 had impacted negatively on his establishment and its inmates. He observed that governors have lost much of their autonomy over daily regimes and also included a very candid admission that the MOJ has admitted that it might have ‘got it wrong’ over low staff numbers at High Down.

This, in itself, could be considered a pretty ground-breaking state of affairs, because in effect, many aspects of the impact of New Ways of Working could be said to have been on trial. Was the prisoners’ protest – which wasn’t violent (at least not until the Tornado Team were called in to break it up) – a legitimate and justified way of complaining about conditions that were becoming intolerable? Certainly the jury’s unanimous not guilty verdict might suggest that it was, in their eyes at least.

In common with most readers, I consider this information – much of which it should be remembered was given as evidence on oath in a major criminal trial – would have been of public interest, not least because it is the taxpayer who is picking up the bill for Chris Grayling’s flights of ideological fancy and Daily Mail headline grabbing efforts. Yet to date, the only newspaper to have covered the story – and its journalists have done it brilliantly – is the local Sutton Guardian. There hasn’t been a whisper about the case anywhere else other than on blogs and social media. Why?

The only media reporting the trial
Had the eleven cons been convicted last week of prison mutiny, they could have expected to receive hefty additional terms on top of their sentences of up to a maximum of ten years each. I’d say that in itself was newsworthy at a time when there is mounting public concern over the way in which UK prisons are being run. Whenever there has been a serious assault at a prison, it seems to make the news whether the alleged victim has been a screw or a con, yet a mass trial – perhaps it wouldn’t be unfair to dub it a ‘show trial’ – involving eleven prisoners gets passed over in almost complete silence. 

Not even The Guardian, which has a decent prison and probation section, as well as several ex-cons writing regularly for it, has managed to publish a single word to date about the High Down 11 trial, the important evidence called, the acquittals of the accused on all charges and the wider implications of the jury’s verdict for the way in which the Prison Service handles non-violent protests by prisoners whose repeated and often justified complaints are simply being ignored. Frankly I find it astonishing that media titles that are normally falling over themselves to highlight the latest gaffs and policy disasters to engulf Chris Grayling and his dysfunctional MOJ remain silent over this case. 

Grayling: silence is golden
The Daily Mail, which is normally quick to give cons a good bashing at every opportunity, has also been conspicuous by its silence. There have been no snide editorials about the High Down trial or complaints over the acquittals and the risk of further disturbances in prisons. It is almost as if the entire event, from protest to trial, has been airbrushed out of history, no doubt much to the relief of Mr Grayling, the government and the Prison Service, not to mention the Crown Prosecution Service.

Of course, it is just possible that all the national media titles and news channels completely missed the story and have failed to appreciate its much wider significance for penal policy in the UK and the right of prisoners to engage in legitimate protests. Occasionally big stories do slip through the net or under the radar, particularly when trials take place months after the original incident. I accept that this omission could just be a massive cock-up, but I’m not convinced about it.

Or has some form of D-notice been issued to silence everyone in the mainstream media (other than the brave little Sutton Guardian) just in case wider protests by cons against poor prison conditions are encouraged and the safety of the state endangered? I don’t know about you, but I think we should all be told.

Monday, 24 November 2014

What the High Down Acquittals Mean

Although the case of the ‘High Down 11’ hasn’t achieved much national media coverage, their acquittal by a jury on all charges of prison mutiny is likely to prove a major headache for embattled Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling. In fact, it seems as if the jury decided unanimously to give Mr Grayling and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) a rather pointed wake up call over his repeated denials that there is a serious crisis in our prisons.

HMP High Down: no mutiny here
The eleven defendants involved in the trial had been prisoners at HMP High Down, a Cat-B establishment at Banstead in Surrey. All had allegedly joined in a prison mutiny in October 2013 when they protested about the new, restricted regime imposed at the jail and initially refused to return to their own cells before barricading themselves into one cell. 

They were all charged with “engaging in conduct intended to further a common purpose of overthrowing lawful authority at High Down prison” – tough stuff, not least because the offence of prison mutiny can carry a maximum penalty of ten years’ imprisonment on top of an existing sentence. Seven or eight years for this offence isn’t uncommon, as previous protestors at HMP Ford and HMP Moorland have discovered after they were convicted of mutiny, although a few cons ended up with a hefty nine years when several wings at Moorland, a Cat-C near Doncaster, were trashed during three days’ of rioting in November 2010.

The actual offence, under Section 1 of the Prison Security Act (1992), is committed “when two or more prisoners, on the premises of any prison, engage in conduct which is intended to further a common purpose of overthrowing lawful authority in that prison. The offence is aimed at behaviour intended to make a prison, or part of prison, ungovernable.”

Prison landing: ungovernable?
In fact, the criminal charge is rarely used because the prison authorities have other internal disciplinary procedures available and more serious incidents can be referred to an Independent Adjudicator (a visiting district judge) who can add up to 28 days to a prisoner’s existing sentence. As the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) notes in its legal guidance to prosecutors: “in many circumstances, confirmation of disciplinary proceedings will make a prosecution for prison mutiny, or other substantive offences, unnecessary.”

On this occasion, however, the CPS – in its infinite wisdom – decided to charge the eleven cons, presumably to make an example of them lest other prisoners, irked by Mr Grayling’s so-called prison ‘reforms’, are tempted to follow their example. It was a case, no doubt, intended to deliver an object lesson by punishing severely any further attempts to protest against deteriorating conditions in our prisons. Thus the trial opened at Blackfriars Crown Court and ran for three weeks.

The basis of the prosecution case was that when the accused prisoners were told to go into their cells they responded: “Fuck off, we want our association, we are not going behind our doors”. They then barricaded themselves into one cell for over seven hours.

Blackfriars Crown Court
Part of the prosecution case was a note that the prisoners pushed out from under the cell door. It apparently read: ‘The reason for these capers is we are not getting enough food, exercise, showers or gym and we want to see the governor lively’. The note added that they were ‘not getting any association and [were] banged up like kippers’. 

The protest then assumed something of a surreal tone when the men barricaded together in the cell offered to end their protest if they were given ‘mackerel and dumplings’ to eat. Much of the discontent focused on the way the prison regime had deteriorated significantly, as well as the way in which complaints were being ignored by senior management. 

When a senior officer (now known as a ‘custodial manager’) tried to speak to the lads holed up in the cell, she was told: “We don’t want to speak to the monkey, we want to speak to the organ grinder” – presumably the invisible number one governor.

Tornado Team: riot-busters
After some hours of fruitless negotiations – and the apparent trashing of the cell fittings and fixtures – a riot-busting Tornado Team of 40 specially trained officers was called in to end the protest. Even then, as the prosecution asserted, the protesters did not “come quietly”. All in all it seems to have been something pretty close to a mini riot in all but name. 

Helpfully, the prosecuting counsel offered an insight into the events that led up to the alleged mutiny. He observed: “During 2013 a scheme known as New Ways of Working was introduced in the prison driven by prison service management in line with Government austerity measures and was a requirement for all prisons in the UK. It came into effect on 1 September 2013, some six weeks before the incident.” Nice timing, it would appear.

Next the prosecution barrister explained what New Ways of Working really involved: “The purpose was to make High Down prison more efficient from a government perspective, a significant reduction in the number of staff and a more restrictive regime for prisoners. There were fewer staff to carry out day-to-day activities. Staff shortages and a revised timetable led to changes in the core daily timetable and meant prisoners were locked up for longer periods during the day.” 

The jury has spoken: not guilty
This is where we get the real crux of the matter. Cuts in frontline staffing and a consequent increase in more time spent banged-up in cells, with less activities – such as showers, opportunities to telephone home, have association or exercise, access to the gym – and, according to the cons, food shortages. All the hallmarks of the ongoing prison crisis that have been described at length in numerous reports issued in recent months by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and various Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) across the prison estate in England and Wales.

Even the Governor of High Point, Ian Bickers, seems to have conceded in his evidence before the court that it was the government’s imposed changes that had led to the staff shortages, the deterioration in regime and – ultimately – the prisoners’ complaints and eventually this incident. As he told the jury from the witness box: “Prison governors to some degree have less discretion about what they can do and when. They follow a standard process and every prison is benchmarked against another. The core day is 7.30am to 7.30pm. Less prisoners are actively involved in work or education and they spend more time locked up.” 

Other changes involved the ending of two hot meals a day, with packed lunches being substituted for one of these. He also observed that the MOJ had accepted that they may have got it wrong and were trying to recruit additional staff. Hmmm… I wonder how much longer Mr Bickers will remain in post after last week’s acquittals. His admissions in his evidence about the internal problems caused by government policies appear all together too candid for comfort. I suspect that if the national media pick them up he will be doomed.

A major misjudgment by the CPS?
According to the defence case, the eleven men were protesting legitimately over poor prison conditions. To be honest, I’m not sure on what legal basis the defence argument was made out as the prosecution case did seem pretty cut and dried, but the good old English jury – God bless ‘em – appears to have decided in this case to give Mr Grayling, the Ministry of Justice, the Prison Service, and their proxy, the CPS, a damn good bloody nose. 

Despite hearing all the evidence about naughty, disobedient cons refusing to obey lawful orders like good little lads, the members of the jury voted to acquit. It might almost be what is known in the trade as a ‘perverse verdict’ in which the jurors take a moral stance against the prosecution case regardless of the evidence given. One can only imagine the apoplexy that has greeted the ‘not guilty’ verdicts down in Westminster, particularly after having poured taxpayers’ money down the drain in a bid to get some exemplary convictions in defence of Mr Grayling’s Daily Mail-pleasing crackdown on cons. 

It is difficult to conceive of a more provocative outcome for the Prison Service, since this verdict will almost certainly undermine any further use of the prison mutiny charge for such show trials unless a whole establishment really goes up in smoke, with staff being injured. Clearly, from Mr Grayling’s perspective, English juries cannot be trusted to convict cons who protest against what are being seen as increasingly inhumane and unacceptable conditions in our prisons.   

"Legitimate protesting" by cons
It has also led to an embarrassing public washing of the Prison Service’s dirty linen and, as the jury’s verdict shows, the general public isn’t liking what it sees. As one of the defence barristers, Andrew Jefferies QC, observed after the trial: “By its verdicts, the jury must have accepted that the defendants may have been legitimately protesting rather than intending to overthrow the prison authority.” 

He also added the rather pointed observation that: “During the trial, the jury heard about the independent monitoring board report and the growing complaints within the prison, particularly since the implementation of the cuts in September 2013.” Oh dear. The crisis cat appears to have been let out of the prison bag. 

The next question is when and where will the next prison protest take place? No doubt there has been censorship across the prison estate over the outcome of the ‘High Down 11’ trial. What’s the betting that any issue of the monthly prison newspapers Inside Time, Converse or Jail Mail that reports the case will be banned?

I suppose that it’s not entirely surprising that the MOJ and Mr Grayling have remained conspicuously silent about the very unwelcome result from Blackfriars Crown Court. The only wonder is that the national media has been so slow to spot the implication of the jury’s verdict: prisoners who mount protests over poor conditions might actually not be guilty of prison mutiny. Result: Prisoners 1: Grayling 0.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Perils of the Celebrity Con

Although there has always been a tendency to romanticise certain types of crime – and those who commit these offences from Robin Hood to the Great Train Robbers – the cult of the ‘celebrity con’ is a rather newer phenomenon, at least in Britain. Unfortunately, their brief prison experiences – and thin memoirs – often give a dangerously skewed snapshot of life inside the nick that overlooks many of the real scandals and horror stories.

Robin Hood: first celebrity blagger?
In part, this is because there has been a major change in the type of prisoner who achieves celebrity status. The traditional pattern was that the British public developed a sneaking, and often misplaced, admiration for what were seen as clever or daring crooks, especially those who nicked large sums of cash or valuable jewels.

The late Ronnie Biggs was considered classy in some circles because he had been part of an audacious robbery against the state – and had then managed to escape from HMP Wandsworth by climbing over the wall using a rope ladder, making the security arrangements look pathetic. He then remained at large for 36 years, cocking a snook at the British establishment while playing the role of the playboy ‘blagger’ in Australia and Brazil before old age and infirmity got the better of him.

In 2001 he returned to Britain, accompanied by a predictable blaze of media publicity, to face the music and another eight years in the slammer before he was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 and later died in a care home in 2013. However, Biggs’ fame came about because of his criminal activities; he wasn’t a celebrity who ended up in jail.

Andy Coulson: not your average con
The recent release on licence of former News of the World editor and Downing Street spin doctor, Andy Coulson, has spawned the usual media commentaries about how he will find life after having served five months of his 18-month prison sentence for conspiracy to intercept voicemails (aka phone hacking). Our old friend (and fellow ex-con) Denis MacShane has been quick to pen a piece for The Guardian, in the form of an open letter, about how life after prison will be for celebrity cons like Mr Coulson.

When I read this piece of classic media puffery, I will admit that I laughed out loud. No doubt ex-Labour minister Mr MacShane will think I’ve got it in for him in some way. I really don’t. As I felt obliged to disclose in a previous blog post review of his slim volume of a prison diary – Denis MacShane... Boo Hoo Poor Me! – I actually did some media work with him years ago when he was a backbench MP and I found him to be a very decent bloke. It’s just that his literary output since he was released after serving just six weeks – yes, that’s right, six weeks (not months or even years) – in prison following his 2013 conviction over his parliamentary expense claims continues to amaze me.

In the space of a few paragraphs in his latest missive, Mr MacShane manages an impressive range of name-dropping including fitting in a post-release lunch with both Tony Blair and Labour’s worse than useless former Home Secretary David Blunkett – he who launched the catastrophic Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) that has left thousands of cons in limbo after serving sentences that have turned out to be many years longer than their minimum tariffs. I hope Mr MacShane told Mr Blunkett a few home truths about the real human cost of his inhumane, tabloid headline-grabbing IPP policy, but somehow I very much doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if our former Labour minister for Europe really can’t tell an IPP from a PPI.

Denis MacShane: IPP or PPI?
Then he tops it all off with a splendid piece of self-indulgence that I can’t resist repeating here, just in case any blog reader missed it. Writing of his time on Home Detention Curfew (HDC) or ‘tag’ Mr MacShane writes: “I just organised loads of tag dinners at home and MPs, ambassadors, editors, judges, writers, other friends and family came round with wine and good cheer. They knew the truth and were pleased for the first time in their lives to have someone to report first-hand on Belmarsh and Brixton.”

I’m sure that all these luminaries were thrilled to be in the company of a real-life ex-con who could regale them with tales of bang-up and wicked inmates. And all condensed into a mere six weeks. How very clever of him. He then goes on to observe: “I wouldn’t have missed Belmarsh for anything in the world.” Hmmm. I doubt that Belmarsh – aka ‘Hellmarsh’ – and its long-suffering cons feel so nostalgic about Mr MacShane.

HMP Belmarsh: celebrity status
As an ex-prisoner myself I think that one of the problems with this kind of journalism is that most of the ‘celebrity’ cons – mainly former politicians or journalists – who take up the pen about their prison experiences have rarely served a sentence of more than a few months (or even a few weeks, like Mr MacShane). Jeffrey Archer is a rare exception to this rule since at least he did a longer stretch than most (half of a four-year sentence for perjury).

They are also all determinate sentenced prisoners who serve a fixed term. Because of this type of sentence they never experience the stresses of parole hearings, rejections (‘knock backs’) or the issues raised by repeated transfers across the prison system that disrupt education courses, work and family visits. They aren’t likely to get bullied into trafficking drugs or paying protection money (‘taxing’) to the wing bullies or gangs.

Unlike the legacy cases left by the now totally discredited IPP sentence, these celebrities don’t find themselves still serving time nine years after having been given a minimum tariff of nine months or less, yet still have no real prospect of being released owing to a shortage of appropriate courses and a risk-adverse Parole Board. They aren’t ever likely to experience the mind-numbing and soul-destroying existence of 23-hour a day solitary confinement on the Basic regime because they are suffering from mental illness and can’t cope with the rigours of prison life. At least if Mr MacShane had done a stint on Basic, he might have had something useful to tell his well-heeled dinner guests about our failing penal system.

Moreover, most celebrities are sent to a Cat-B local nick for a few weeks and then to a Cat-D (open prison). This means that their experience of the prison system is usually extremely limited and, although they may perceive that they are being treated ‘unjustly’ (Mr Coulson being kept at HMP Belmarsh a bit longer than might have been expected) there is no denying that most prison staff avoid mistreating them precisely because they don’t fancy seeing their names splashed all over The Guardian or in a slim volume of prison memoirs a few months down the road.

Lunching with cons
Since your average con has problems with reading and writing, and in any case isn’t likely to be having lunch with Tony Blair or a judge or ambassador anytime soon, giving them a hard time on the wing doesn’t carry any real risks. A prisoner from a powerful and privileged background doesn’t just check in his or her social, economic and educational advantages when they go through prison Reception.

Fallen politicians and media types still have the power to cause trouble for screws and governors, so they tend to be treated with kid gloves – whether consciously or subconsciously. A sense of entitlement does tend to work both ways.

What I really don’t see much evidence of in the output of these celebrities is any appreciation of the terrible human cost of prison, particularly during the current crisis in which overcrowding and understaffing are driving up the rates for suicide and self-harm. Violence – against staff and inmates alike – and the easy availability of drugs and mobile phones seems to be regarded as ‘collateral damage’ amid Ministry of Justice cost-cutting.

Steel guitar strings: ban dropped
Real efforts to support rehabilitation were never taken that seriously even prior to Chris Grayling’s wilful destruction of the Prison Service, now it’s seen as nothing more than a bad joke, like the ridiculous ban on steel stringed guitars (now lifted) or the absurd limit of 12 books per prisoner (now also dropped). Presumably when you’re only doing a proverbial ‘shit and a shave’ sentence of a few weeks or a couple of months, these issues don’t impact much on your daily life, even if they can prove life-changing and deeply demoralising for cons who are facing years or decades inside.

Pretending that former politicians, hacks and other celebrities are treated just like any other con, whether by staff or fellow inmates, is ludicrous and, deep down, I think we all know it. Well-educated, socially privileged and with powerful friends outside, their prison experience bears little or no relation to the reality of hard time behind bars for tens of thousands of other men and women, innocent or guilty.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Self-Harm: the Unseen Prison Epidemic

The rising number of prisoners who commit suicide whilst in custody in our prisons tends to be making the news headlines at the moment. The main reason is that this statistic – with all the human misery and pain that lies behind it – is sometimes considered to be a barometer of the escalating crisis within our jails. However, in my view it is the far, far higher number of inmates who resort to self-harm that represents the real epidemic.

Self-harm: a coping mechanism
This week saw yet another damning report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. This time it is HMP Hewell in Worcestershire that is under fire for its high level of violence, and as usual where there is violence, there is often a serious underlying drugs culture on the wings. And thus it is at Hewell, according to the inspectors. Nothing new there then.

While the latest statistics for deaths in custody – one murder and six suicides since the last visit by HM Inspectorate – it was another, equally awful observation that caught my attention: the fact that self-harming is seen many prisoners to be only way they can get “access to basic amenities” at Hewell. If ever there was a stark indictment of the reality of life in our prisons today, I’d say that observation would encapsulate it.

This particular Cat-B establishment, in common with so many others, is both overcrowded and understaffed, according to the Inspectorate, and this, I suspect is what lies behind a significant amount of the self-harming that is going on, just as it does in other prisons up and down the land. So why do many prisoners feel it necessary to injure themselves – usually by cutting their own flesh with disposable razors or other cell-made sharp implements?

A tool for crisis management
Cons know that owing to the current staffing crisis inside the prison system they are likely to be routinely ignored if they follow normal procedures – that is, by submitting written applications, whether these are for major issues, such as transfers to jails nearer their families, extra pin-phone credits so they can contact family members in an emergency or complaints about victimisation or bullying – or more mundane matters, such as property lost in the laundry or a request to speak to their internal probation officer (offender supervisor). Because of scarce frontline staff resources and current overcrowding, the ‘app’ (application) system is often the first area where things simply cease to function, or else go so slowly that nothing ever appears to be happening.

Cutting up, however, cannot be ignored because it involves filing reports and the likelihood that the person injuring themselves will need to be placed on the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) system which is used to monitor prisoners deemed to be a risk to themselves. Put crudely, self-harm is used to get the attention of staff, particularly senior officers on the wings. It is a symptom of the extreme stresses within what is now becoming a highly dysfunctional type of crisis management.

In itself, this is nothing new as any cons or screw will confirm. Every prison has a problem with self-harming because some prisoners rely on hurting themselves as a method of managing stress. Others become addicted to the practice whilst in custody, although a fair number of people who end up inside actually started self-harming in some form or other prior to coming into custody – often in childhood or youth as a response to abuse or other trauma.

A common sight on prison wings
As the lyrics of the haunting song Hurt by Nine Inch Nails put it so eloquently: “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain, The only thing that’s real.” Self-harm can sometimes be seen as a means of exerting control over practically the only thing a person has left: their own bodies. For these reasons, there will probably always be some degree of self-harm going on in our prisons, even without the current crisis.

What is much more disturbing at the moment is that – as the inspectors have found at Hewell – the many problems impacting on the effective management of the Prison Service now seem to be institutionalising the practice as a means through which prisoners manage their own everyday lives. Self-harm is becoming one of the marks of the powerless to gain the attention of those in positions of authority. At the very least, a self-harmer gets a face-to-face interview with a safer custody officer, usually a wing manager. Crude, but seemingly effective.

When I was in prison myself, I came across this in practice mainly in relation to accessing mental healthcare. In some establishments getting an appointment to see members of the mental health team has become virtually impossible unless there has been a major ‘incident’ – usually involving self-harm or at least a credible threat of suicide that has generated a written report by staff. 

As I have noted before in posts on this blog, I’ve assisted fellow prisoners with written applications to have urgent appointments with mental health professionals only to get negative replies back of the “computer says no” variety. However, once a wrist has been slashed with a razor blade (or even just scratched to the point blood has been drawn), the prisoner is taken to healthcare to be patched up and they almost always get an appointment with someone from the mental health team. This practice is quite simply the result of woefully inadequate resources.

More than sticking plaster required
Back in September, Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling pledged to improve mental health services in the prisons in England and Wales. In a speech on the subject, he promised to “get to grips with the challenge of mental health in prisons”. Sadly, it’s all pie in the sky at the moment, despite the high proportion of inmates within our prison system who have mental health needs that are often undiagnosed. Everything comes down to budget and resources, particularly too few experienced staff.

Moreover, all too often, erratic or bizarre behaviour by cons is dealt with as a disciplinary issue – sometimes punished by solitary confinement or similar means which can make a bad situation much worse – rather than seen as a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. Without any effective screening system these problems usually go unrecognised unless experienced wing staff spot the warning signs and make sure reports are made to the right professionals in healthcare. While we have acute staff shortages across the prison estate, the risks of serious cases slipping under the radar – at least until it is all too late and someone has either committed suicide or harmed themselves very severely – are much greater. 

Based on my own experience inside different prisons I believe that current levels of self-harm represent a much more accurate indicator of the serious problems afflicting our prisons than the headline suicide figures alone. In many cases, mild incidents of self-harm are quite literally a cry for help or assistance by men and women who are in crisis, but who are being ignored by those who have a legal and moral duty of care. However, when a prisoner resorts to cutting his or her own flesh as an institutionalised means of accessing prison services or amenities – as HM Inspectorate has reported at HMP Hewell – then we really do have a major crisis on our hands, while Mr Grayling and the senior management of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) all have blood – quite literally – on theirs. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

A Life-Shaped Hole

Although I’ve known a number of people who have died – some of them at their own hand in prison – the recent death of my father has been the first bereavement in our immediate family for over 25 years. It’s a strange feeling, not having him around even though, like many fathers and sons, we had our differences over the years.

Father and son
I have a confession to make. My father, who in his mid-80s was getting more and more confused as his dementia progressed, never actually knew I’d been sent to prison. He was so used to me being based abroad with my work and only visiting on the infrequent occasions I was in the UK that he really didn’t notice my absence. Even when I was in jail I always managed to send him birthday, Christmas and Father’s Day cards, so I gather from other family members who did know the truth that he wasn’t any the wiser about my involuntary stay as a guest of Her Majesty.

Once I was in a Cat-D (open) prison during the last year of my sentence, it was even easier. I used to phone him from a local payphone in town when I was out on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) or from my home phone line when I was out on resettlement leave for a few days each month. To be honest, I felt that he had quite enough to worry about without my predicament making the situation any worse. 

Since I had already emerged – physically, at least – unscathed from three nasty civil wars out in Eastern Europe, I don’t suppose that he would have been overly concerned for my personal safety while I was locked up. However, I really didn’t feel that it was necessary to inform him. I sometimes used to tell myself, without much conviction, that I’d explain everything once I’d been released. In fact, I never did. Was it moral cowardice on my part? Perhaps it was, if I’m being honest.

Keeping up the contact
By the time I’d been released – very unexpectedly, as well as eight months early – the opportunity just didn’t arise. By the time I’d reached his hospital bedside some months later, it was all too late to explain anything anyway. He was barely conscious and although there were flickers of recognition, we knew that the end would be just a matter of hours or days away. 

On balance, I think I’m glad that he never knew I’d been in the slammer. As I look around the room in which I’m sitting at the moment, there are framed photographs of various members of the family, including an embarrassingly high number of me at various stages of my life. Me as a baby, then as a young child, next at school, followed by university graduation portraits and then as a young, recently commissioned Army officer (as a Navy man, my dad wasn’t very enthusiastic about that, to be honest). I was his blue-eyed boy even though, like many men of his generation, he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, and I’m sure that the thought of me having been a prisoner would have weighed heavily on his mind in his final years.

When I started clearing out some of his paperwork last week – including a cache of household bills from the 1960s – I even discovered a dog-eared paperback copy of a book I’d published some years ago. I hadn’t even realised he’d ever read it. Yet here it is, a blast from the past, heavily annotated in his handwriting. Sometimes our own parents never cease to surprise us.

"I've got something to tell you, dad."
If I had been able to speak to my father face to face about my time inside, I’d have told him how much I’d learned, both about myself and about the prison system, not to mention sharing in life-changing experiences with some of my fellow cons. I’d have wanted to tell him that I think I have become a nicer person as a result of being banged up. I’m much more willing to listen to other people, as well as being less judgmental, particularly about the faults and failings of others.

I’m not sure that he would have understood everything, but I do believe that I’d have been able to convince him that imprisonment has provided me with a rare opportunity of experiencing the system from within, as well as allowing me to give others an insight into the escalating crisis inside our jails. Perhaps, if he had lived long enough to see my future book about the social anthropology of prisons in print, he’d have worked his way through it with a pencil, highlighting questions and observations.

Funeral rites
On balance, however, I think I was right in not burdening him in his final months with what might well have been an inexplicable situation for him to grasp. During our telephone conversations over the past year or so he was aware that I was in good shape and at least he wasn’t worried about me as his own health declined. Sometimes the truth can be unnecessarily harmful and destructive, even if we convince ourselves that honesty is always the best policy.

During the planning for his funeral over the past week, I’m just very conscious of the fact that I – unlike so many fellow cons who suffer a bereavement while they are inside – have been able to participate in arranging the ceremony and preparing to say goodbye in an appropriate way. There will be a large photograph of him, from many decades ago, looking dashing and handsome in his naval uniform, my choice from the many pictures that chronicle his life. I’ll also be delivering the final address myself, something that I’m sure wouldn’t have been possible had I still been a prisoner at the moment. 

Given the current staffing crisis in our prisons, I very much doubt whether I’d have been granted ROTL on compassionate grounds to attend the funeral had I still been banged up, especially in a Cat-B or Cat-C where such escorted visits are now becoming a rarity due to ‘operational’ constraints. I really feel for any serving prisoners who find themselves in a similar position and won’t be there with their families to say goodbye together. So, all in all, I have very much for which I should be grateful, even at a time like this.