Prison

Prison

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Strange World of Apps and Comps

For anyone who hasn’t served a stretch inside the UK prison system, the terms ‘apps’ and ‘comps’ are unlikely to mean very much, particularly since for most people outside jails ‘apps’ are things you download to your smartphone or your tablet. However, for prisoners applications and complaint forms are an everyday part of life as they are the main ways in which they interact with the prison’s management. 

One of the coalition government’s main arguments for severely restricting prisoners’ access to external legal remedies, such as judicial review, is the assertion that the internal prison complaints system – which operates at three different levels – backed up by the office of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, as well as each establishment’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), is more than sufficient to address almost any grievance. The sub-text of this is that cons are inveterate whingers – the Daily Mail’s ‘moaning murders and muggers’ – who are always trying to wring  taxpayers’ money of out the system as undeserved compensation for trivial issues. 

IMB: really effective?
I have extensive experience of the application system across six establishments and a fair knowledge of the complaints system (although, funnily enough, I rarely made complaints on my own account).  In my capacity as an Insider (peer mentor) who also worked in prison education departments and coordinated the Toe by Toe adult literacy scheme, I probably filled in more apps and comp forms on behalf of others than most prisoners ever get to do, even serial complainers. 

General apps are pretty neutral forms. They can be requests for almost anything, from a prison transfer or a replacement mattress for a bed to an application for a prison job or education course. Once completed, in some establishment they are handed to wing staff at a set time of day – usually in the morning after unlock – or else they can be submitted at the wing office. Apps are supposed to be logged a ledger by the duty staff and then passed on via internal post to the correct person or department.

Although there is usually only one type of general app form, there are three types of complaint form supposed to be available on prison wings. I use the term ‘supposed’ because in some nicks trying get a comp form can require a visit to the wing office and an interrogation by a suspicious screw as why you want one. That’s not supposed to happen, but it definitely does. I’ve had the experience myself on a number of occasions. 

Once completed by hand, the complaint forms are posted in designated metal post boxes (usually yellow) on each wing. The boxes are locked and the post is supposed to be collected and sorted daily, Monday to Friday. 

Comp 1 form: the start of the complaints process in prisons
The Comp 1 is the usual starting point for most complaints, although prisoners are also sometimes advised by staff to use them for enquiries involving off-wing issues. Once a response has been received to a Comp 1, if the con isn’t happy with what has been written in reply, then he or she can fill in a Comp 1a. This takes the issue to the next management level for a review and a further response.

The pink Comp 2 form is something rather more weighty, at least in theory. It is supposed to come with its own official brown envelope addressed either to the governor or to the deputy director of custody (the regional boss), depending on the issue. This system is known as the ‘confidential complaint’ and is primarily intended to give any con direct access to the top levels of management when they wish to allege assault, bullying or victimisation by members of staff, uniformed or civilian, or they wish to raise a serious issue that they don’t feel able to with their own wing officers.

Again, in theory at least, these sealed envelopes are supposed to go directly to the governor’s complaints clerk in his or her office. This is aimed at preventing wing staff from intercepting them, reading them or even destroying them before they get up to the governor or the deputy director. Of course it doesn’t necessarily always work as intended. The critical issue is often which member of staff is designated to open the boxes on each wing daily.

Comp 2: confidential access to the Governor or Deputy Director
The IMB, which operates in every prison, also has its own post box – usually dark blue – and a yellow complaint form. However in general the IMB members will only initiate an investigation into a grievance once other channels, such as the Comp 1 and Comp 1a routes have been tried and exhausted. 

In my experience there is a serious disconnect between the mechanics of the present app and comp system as operated in our prisons and the literacy levels among a majority of cons since around half of all 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. For these reasons a written app and comp system is always going to seriously disadvantage the average prisoner who lacks either the ability to write cogently or the confidence to put pen to paper when it comes to approaching officialdom. 

Many prisoners can't write
In many respects, I’d attribute this to a failure of imagination within the prison bureaucracy, which is top-heavy with internal memos and reports of every kind. Most of our modern communications systems are completely dependent on users being literate. Illiteracy, by its very nature, tends to exclude those who are already marginalised socially and economically. In prison this experience of exclusion often continues. 

It is also important not to overlook the exclusion of those for whom English is not a first language, or who perhaps don’t even speak English at all. I once shared a cell with a Polish prisoner who had recently been sentenced. He spoke no more than a dozen words of English and wasn’t particularly literate in Polish either as he had been working as an unskilled labourer. It so happened that we did share a mutual language: basic Russian, his learned in school during the Communist era, mine during my time in Army, so we could communicate at a reasonable level. 

However, how could we really expect someone who has never written (or perhaps spoken) a word of English to cope with the prison apps and comps system? This becomes even more acute when it is almost impossible to communicate verbally with staff or fellow inmates. In this case, my Polish pad-mate spoke in basic Russian, aided by a dictionary from the library, and I translated into English and then wrote up his apps or comps for him. Clearly, this would not be the situation in the average prison cell. In effect, this lad would have been excluded from participation in the entire administrative system had he not had my assistance. Wing staff also relied on me interpreting for them.

Writing for others: a profitable skill for some prisoners
Although English-speakers (whether mother tongue or as a second language) have an obvious advantage over those who speak little or no English, they can still be effectively excluded by functional illiteracy. In fact, they can also be exploited by other prisoners who charge for their ‘services’ in writing apps and comp forms for other cons. In some establishments this can be a profitable cottage – or cell – industry for more literate inmates seeking to get canteen goods such as tobacco or chocolate as payment for their assistance. Of course, most of this passes under the staff radar.

In some respects, the old system of Governor’s rounds when he (no female governors back then) was accompanied by the Chief going cell to cell was probably more effective and fairer. The application was made verbally, recorded in the ledger by the Chief and often the answer – even if it was “application denied” – was quick and clear. Cons at least knew that the Governor had heard their request. Paperwork didn’t get lost. The verbal system also didn’t disadvantage the illiterate. 

Apps: filed in the bin
Even for prisoners who have a reasonable level of literacy, there are other factors to consider. There is a widespread perception that many apps or comps never get further than wing offices. I’ve actually seen wing staff screw up apps from cons against whom they have a personal grudge. These never get logged in the system and just end up in the office waste bin. Some screws think this is funny as they know the frustration this can cause, especially when the app is for something significant. 

I’m sure that governors would like to believe that all their uniformed staff would be above such petty and vindictive behaviour. However, most also know that this sort of practice does take place on occasion. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I suspect most of them have had to try to sort out complaints and conflicts that have had their root causes in these unprofessional practices.

Another key problem is that more than a few uniformed staff, at least in the lower operational grades, aren’t all that good with writing themselves. I’ve even known a custodial manager (senior officer) who really couldn’t write a sentence to save his life. He was a nice bloke, but a functional liability in a system that relies so heavily on the written word. He eventually ended up in the Offender Management Unit (OMU) where his inability to write reports or update online records led to dozens of complaints by prisoners.

Again and again, prisoners receive apps back covered with unintelligible scrawl and an anonymous squiggle as a signature. A response that can’t be read from someone who can’t be identified is yet another potentially fatal flaw in the whole architecture of the app system.

Where cons suspect their comps go
The comp system is another story. As readers will no doubt be aware, prisons are institutions largely built on mutual mistrust, both between staff and inmates, as well as between cons. I’m not sure that it hasn’t been ever thus. 

Many prisoners genuinely believe that their comps will be intercepted and read (and often destroyed) by wing staff, particularly when the complaint is about staff misconduct or bullying. As it happens, I don’t really share this suspicion, but this widespread perception is enough to severely impact on the functioning of the entire system. 

This lack of trust extends to Comp 2 forms, despite the provision of dedicated envelopes. Many prisoners are wary or even fearful of making complaints because they fear retribution or victimisation as a result.

I will give just one example that might be illustrative of these concerns. I once wrote a Comp 2 concerning what I believed to be a very serious dereliction of duty in relation to a safer custody issue. It was particularly significant because the prisoner it concerned subsequently committed suicide in custody. Imagine my own surprise when my confidential Comp 2 form was returned from the governor’s office to be replied to by – yes, you’ve guessed it – the very safer custody manager whose misconduct it concerned! Not a great result or one that was calculated to inspire confidence in any prisoner. 

I was lucky that I just received a scowl every time she saw me on the landings. It could have been much worse.

Curtailing governors' powers
Another critical issue in the present climate is that governors’ discretion has been significantly curtailed by NOMS. All sorts of matters that might have been dealt with locally are now effectively out of governors’ hands. I’ve discussed this problem rather candidly with governor grades who have explained that they now have to justify specific decisions to regional managers. Yet among prisoners generally, there is still a perception that every Number 1 is ‘a pope in his own parish’, even if the reality is very different. 

This can raise unrealistic expectations among prisoners as to what any individual governor grade can actually achieve or action. My own experience of prison is that almost everything comes down to managing expectations. A failure to manage expectations – and consequent disappointments in prisons – can lead to tensions and even violence or disorder. 

I hope that events at HMP High Down, as described in the recent trial by Governor Ian Bickers, will offer the Prison Service what I believe is now known as a ‘learning opportunity’. Ignoring apps and comps – which is what I gather was happening owing to staff shortages – as well as a general failure to manage expectations about regimes through effective communication – ended badly with protests. 

Usually due to 'operational reasons'
Based on my own experiences, most prisoners are fairly reasonable if they understand the reason for operational decisions. If activities have to be suspended or cancelled because of staff shortages or some specific emergency situation, then as long as that is explained clearly, tensions and resentments can usually be managed. It’s when cons feel that they are being kept in the dark and not treated like reasonable adults that they start to feel justified in behaving unreasonably, if only to get their message across.

In relation to apps and comps, the above observation really suggests that clear, timely and fair responses can defuse potential conflicts. However, telling a prisoner that he can’t attend his father’s funeral a day after it has actually taken place (a real case in which I was involved as an Insider) really doesn’t do anyone any favours. In that case, the app was passed from desk to desk for a week before a response was forthcoming. If the answer had to be negative on security grounds, then it would have been better to have dealt with that in good time. 

Tornado Team: the riot squad
Personally speaking, had I been the Number 1 Governor, I’d have asked to see the lad in question myself, sat him down and explained face-to-face that his request to attend the funeral couldn’t be approved and why. That might have prevented a cell being smashed to bits, a cell-extraction and some time spent by the con in question mourning his dad down the Block (segregation unit). I suppose that 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, but to be honest, I think most people could have seen that one coming like a freight train.

My own view is that the current written apps and comps system really isn’t fit for purpose, particularly in view of the large proportion of prisoners who have problems with literacy, language or, indeed, with mental health conditions that impact on their ability to communicate in writing. These inmates are effectively silenced and their voices often go unheard, leading to frustration, anger and even self-harm and, in extreme cases, suicide.

If our prisons had sufficient frontline staff and the personal officer system actually functioned, then prisoners who are currently marginalised or excluded from the written bureaucracy might stand a fair chance as they could make requests verbally or with the assistance of staff who have time to spend listening and assisting them. Sadly, given current staff shortages and the toxic policies of the Ministry of Justice, I don’t think this will happen anytime soon.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Three MOJ Monkeys to Perform

On 2nd December we are going to be treated to an early Christmas special courtesy of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Parliament’s Select Committee on Justice is going to be hearing evidence during its session on Prisons: Planning and Policies from three key figures responsible for the current crisis in our prisons: Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling, the new Prisons Minister Andrew Selous MP and the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Michael Spurr. What a treat that is certain to be, so make sure it’s in your diary: the performance starts at 10.15 am.

Select Committee on Justice: taking evidence from the MOJ
The main role of the parliamentary select committee system is to oversee the work of government departments and agencies. In the case of the Justice Committee it is tasked with examining the expenditure, administration and policy of the MOJ and its associated public bodies, such as NOMS. This will be an important opportunity for our elected MPs to hold Mr Grayling and his team to account. We shall see.

MOJ Monkeys to perform
Hopefully, the members of the Justice Committee are going to ask some very candid questions of these three gentlemen about why they continue to maintain the fiction that there is no prison crisis, including why NOMS’ strategy for slashing budgets – grandly titled New Ways of Working – has left our jails dangerously understaffed to the point that there is a real risk to life and limb of both prisoners and staff. It will be fascinating to hear the answers from the ‘Three MOJ Monkeys’: see no prison crisis, hear no prison crisis and, above all, admit no prison crisis. 

If the members of the Committee are on the ball, they will have had their researchers collate all the HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ reports issued since September 2013, as well as the parallel findings provided by the office of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if they also had some very specific themes drawn from the reports issued by each prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), as these will often back up the findings of the periodic visits by HM Inspectorate. I’d suggest the following:
  • Drugs: are the rising figures for the availability and use of substances (legal and illegal), as well as the linked issues of debt, bullying, violence and the blackmail of inmates’ families to smuggle in contraband linked to massive reductions in the number of frontline staff, both on wings and in security departments?
  • Suicide and self-harm: what impact has staff shortages, combined with many prisoners spending much greater periods locked in their cells, had on the rising rate of suicide and self-harm in our prisons? Is there an identifiable link to reduced provision for mental health support?
  • Rehabilitation: successive rounds of budget cuts have seen many (if not most) prisons close down their dedicated resettlement offices. What impact has this had on the rates of reoffending? Since issuing its National Action Plan in 2004, NOMS itself has identified seven recognised ‘pathways’ to reducing re-offending. These are:
• Accommodation
• Education, Training and Employment
• Health
• Drugs and Alcohol
• Finance, Benefits and Debt
• Children and Families
• Attitudes, Thinking and Behaviour

What are the current objectives?
What has been the impact of the closure of the resettlement offices on achieving the goals set down in the National Action Plan? In effect, have the MOJ and NOMS abandoned these ‘pathways’? If so, what is to replace them, if anything?

Another specific avenue of enquiry could be the link between staff shortages and the erosion of education and vocational courses in prisons. One of this government’s declared aims has been that prisoners should be engaged in ‘purposeful activity’, whether this is education, work, vocational training or offending behaviour programmes, rather than lying on their bunks watching daytime TV or “sleeping through their sentences” (a telling phrase used back in 2011 by HM Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. However, with many understaffed establishments now running very restrictive day-to-day regimes that can include up to 23-hour bang-up for large numbers of cons, the idea of ‘purposeful activity’ seems to be something of a pipe dream. Has this political objective been kicked quietly into the long grass? If so, what impact is it having on rehabilitation?

Not for prisoners anymore
And then we have the vexed question of disorder and even protests by serving prisoners in reaction to regimes that are being seen as vindictive, inhumane and often arbitrary. One of the government’s main arguments for restricting prisoners’ access to external legal remedies such as judicial review is the claim that the Prison Service has a perfectly adequate internal complaints system, backstopped by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman when all other internal levels have been exhausted. 

However, as was made clear during the recent trial – and acquittal by a jury – of the ‘High Down 11’, protesting prisoners who had been charged with prison mutiny, one of the causes of this incident had been the way in which HMP High Down’s senior management had effectively ignored complaints submitted through the usual channels – ie the written application system. It wasn’t clear from the evidence given on oath during the trial whether this was due to staffing problems, administrative incompetence or simply because the MOJ-imposed New Ways of Working directives made it impossible for the prison governors to address these grievances. 

Perhaps the members of the Justice Committee could review the transcripts and written statements of this important criminal trial at Blackfriars Crown Court – which appears to have been completely airbrushed from history by the national media – in order to analyse what led up to the prisoners’ protests about deteriorating conditions. They might also reflect on why a jury of twelve ordinary citizens voted unanimously to acquit these men of those very serious criminal charges. 

Banged-up for 23 hours a day
Was the evidence about prison conditions called by both prosecution and defence so compelling that no reasonable jury would be willing to convict? The jury heard at length about the negative impact that MOJ policies and budget cuts were having, both from the prosecuting barrister and from High Down’s governor, Ian Bickers, as well as from the defence counsel, before they reached their verdict. 

If the evidence was so strong that it convinced a jury that the protest by the eleven cons was justified and reasonable, rather than an attempt to overthrow the “lawful authority in the prison” or make the establishment “ungovernable”, then this could represent clear evidence that there is a serious crisis in our prisons and that further disorder, protests and, potentially, even full-scale riots could be the result. Surely that would be a very legitimate line of enquiry for the Justice Committee to explore with the three men more responsible than any others for managing the Prison Service?

Turning his back?
To be honest, I doubt that we will get any major admissions from any of the three MOJ Monkeys. Mr Selous is a part-timer in his role of Prisons Minister and hasn’t been in post very long. I suppose he could play the role of ‘see no crisis’, mainly because he hasn’t been getting around our prisons that much to actually see for himself what is really going on. 

Logically, Mr Spurr would be ‘hear no crisis’ because he is effectively the bureaucrat who emerges from the shadows only to claim that NOMS is ‘learning lessons’ and ‘improving’ each time some particularly toxic HM Inspectorate report lands on his desk… which seems to be about twice a week at the moment, the latest being on HMP Bedford and HMP North Sea Camp, if my memory serves me correctly.

The leading role in the forthcoming performance should be reserved for Mr Grayling himself – ‘admit no crisis’ – simply because he is at the root of the present prison crisis although he persistently denies that there are any serious problems at all. Regardless of the mountain of criticism and negative official reports, he is the face of government refusal to acknowledge anything that doesn’t fit within his very limited ideological frame of reference. If it doesn’t serve his own political interests, then it either doesn’t exist at all or else it is some form of left-wing conspiracy to damage his mission to ‘reform’ the criminal justice system. Perhaps ‘Crisis’ Chris will bottle it at the last moment and leave Messrs Selous and Spurr to face the Justice Committee, and the music, alone.

Next Tuesday’s session will be worth watching if only to see the inventive ways in which denial and blame for the present crisis in our prisons is neatly packaged and passed from MOJ Monkey to Monkey and then back to almost anyone else other than themselves. I just wonder who will be left holding this toxic parcel when the music stops… Oh, I forgot, it will be the British taxpayer – as usual.

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.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Beautiful People… in Prison

A post with this sort of title might seem strange, particularly over a weekend during which the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has promised to introduce tougher penalties for prisoners who assault staff. Of course, as anyone who knows anything about prisons will be aware, this belated attempt to deal with the rising number of violent incidents inside our crisis-ridden jails is nothing more than a bit of window-dressing by embattled Justice Secretary Chris Grayling who is so completely out of his depth it is now a national source of embarrassment. 

Does he really give two hoots?
The latest move won’t convince anybody – screw or con – that Mr Grayling really gives a damn about what is going on in our nicks while he is in charge. However, it does seem that the rising tsunami of public criticism – from just about every direction, including the Daily Telegraph – is goading him to act tough at a time when tensions inside our prisons are reaching boiling point, mainly as a direct consequence of his mismanagement. 

To be honest, prisons are full of people who tend to make bad choices (and not only the cons, for that matter). They also accommodate a fair number of men who have serious anger management problems. When current chronic frontline staff shortages result in such people being locked behind their doors for up to 23 hours a day, the result of cancelled work, education, gym sessions and even healthcare appointments, then it is unsurprising that volatile blokes kick off. I’m actually amazed it doesn’t happen more often.

Being fair, working as a screw isn’t a job I’d choose personally. It sometimes mystifies me why some of the decent officers I’ve got to know well have made what is a very strange career decision to spend their own working lives behind bars – often serving more time in the slammer than your average murderer. Of course, they do get to go home at the end of their shifts, but it’s still a pretty grim environment, especially at the moment when everyone’s morale is at rock bottom.

Working behind bars
I wouldn’t fancy telling some very large bloke with a very short fuse that he isn’t getting out of his pad (cell) because of staff shortages, or that his medical appointment has been cancelled at the last minute… or even – and this is the killer – that family visits have been called off. That’s usually when you hear the baying for blood and the sound of breaking glass on wings.

Funnily enough, some years ago when I was a university student one of my fellow ‘inmates’ was none other than our own Mike Spurr, currently the head of the dysfunctional National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which is supposed to be running our prison service. As the current crisis gathers pace, I sometimes wonder whether he ever regrets his choice of career.

Back then, when he still had a serious acne problem and a very unfashionable haircut, Mike and I used to play darts together in our tiny college bar and, over a few pints of 80/- real ale at 50p a pop, I did my best to convince him that going into prison management as a graduate trainee wasn’t the brightest thing he could do with his life. Of course, he didn’t listen and look where he is now... sitting on top of the NOMS volcano.

Mike: regretting his career choice?
Since I gather that Mike does follow this blog from time to time, it would be interesting to know if he remembers our little chats in that smoky, pokey little bar in the basement just before we embarked on our respective career paths. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into one another at some conference on penal reform and laugh about how things have turned out, although I doubt it.

Having painted such a grim picture… of prisons, rather than college bars… it may come as a surprise to read that in my experience there are some very decent people serving time in our jails. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I believe that some of these blokes are innocent and have been wrongly convicted, while plenty of others are guilty as charged but have genuine remorse about the impact upon others of the crimes they have committed and want to change for the better.

I chose this title for my blog post after having had time to do some reading during this period following my father’s death, but before his funeral. The famous American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – best known for her analysis of the various stages of grief following a bereavement – once made some observations that I find both interesting and thought-provoking. 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
She wrote: "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have know defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."

Funnily enough, I was immediately reminded of some of the people I’ve met in prison who fall into that category of Kübler-Ross’ ‘beautiful people’. There are men who have lost everything that they could conceivably lose – family, home, careers, good name, reputation – and yet they still manage to find time to listen to the problems of others. Some volunteer to work as Listeners (Samaritan-trained peer support), others as Insiders (peer mentors), while some don’t take on formal roles, but are just there when you need them.

When you are a prisoner – no matter what the offence or sentence – sometimes you really need a kind word, a friendly smile or a good mate in whom you can confide without fearing that your particular problem or anxiety will be all over the wing before tea-time. In my experience, every prison wing has at least a few of these folk. Without them, prison truly would be a much darker and more dismal place.

Comforting others
The prison experience can affect people in different ways. Some are completely broken and destroyed by the impact of incarceration, but others seem to find themselves in a way that might mystify outsiders. They grow as human beings and turn their own experiences of loss and rejection into an inner strength that not only enables them to survive a spell in the slammer with their own humanity intact, but they can also find sufficient inner reserves to offer support to others who are less able to cope. 

I well recall an incident at a Cat-D (open) nick when a female member of staff was attacked from behind in the dark in a car park within the perimeter. She was quite badly injured, but it was a con who saw what had happened and chased off the attacker, before protecting her, while another raised the alarm and got medical help. Her status as a member of staff was irrelevant to those prisoners. They acted instinctively to help someone who was terrified and had been injured – with humanity.

I genuinely believe that this sense of concern for humanity is one of the reasons that daily life in our prisons during the current crisis is able to continue without a degeneration into widespread violence and an explosion of frustration. Of course, I can’t predict how long the present situation can endure before individual establishments reach breaking point and control is lost, but at a time when resources inside prisons are very scarce, it’s often the unseen support that prisoners offer each other that is preventing the rising rates of suicide and self-harm from rocketing much higher.

When you have a few decent, level-headed cons on a wing, the atmosphere can be more positive. Experienced screws know this and a fair few do appreciate the invisible support and counselling networks that develop among the prisoners, not least because these can go some way to reducing the number of violent incidents, including self-harm. Although levels of violence inside the nick are getting worse, fuelled by tensions caused shortages of staff, believe me the situation could easily be far more volatile if it weren’t for those influential cons who are doing their best to keep a lid on the boiling pressure cooker.

So when you next read in the media that there has been some terrible act of violence in one or other of our prisons – whether against staff or fellow inmates – it might be well to reflect on the fact that the overwhelming majority of cons weren’t involved. The Daily Mail and its ilk love to portray all prisoners as evil, worthless, violent monsters. They never mention those who are called on to use their humanity and skills to pick up the pieces in Chris Grayling’s increasingly dysfunctional prison nightmare, often showing much greater humanity and real concern for others than he ever could.