Thursday, 29 December 2016

That Was The Year That Was - A Thank you

2016 has been an interesting year. 

I started blogging.  I was completely clueless but knew that I wanted to try and make a change. During my first week of incarceration I witnessed a young man kill himself in front of me. He slit his wrists open in a shout for attention as no one would listen to him. I swore that upon my release I would shine the light of attention on this and never let his life be meaningless. He is the reason that I do what I do; his memory will live on in every piece that I write.

I have spoken with some you and you now know me. I am honoured that you seek me out and ask for my opinion on the issues surrounding the prison estate and the crisis that this country now faces.  I posted a blog recently with my voice in it. Not for egotistical reasons but I wanted you to truly understand my passion to get things done; to affect a change in the way the government runs our prisons and the way that the public perceives them.

To those who I haven’t had the pleasure of speaking with, remember that you are also in my thoughts and have my gratitude.

I sit here looking at my twitter thingy and see that as a I write I have 900 + followers. That may not seem like a lot to you but it is more than I could ever imagine. Humility is not something that came easy to me in my previous existence as an arrogant, self-centred buffoon but now it brings a tear to my eye with an emotion so full of joy that I have rarely experienced. Thank you all, you wonderful, lovely (obviously very bored) people.

To Alex Cavendish of @PrisonUK; you took me on this journey and pointed me in the right direction. You showed me what to do, how to do it and for that, I owe you a debt that can never be repaid. You are what a good journalist should be, a thorn in the side of the administration. You are there to show them the error of their ways and to remind them that we are watching them. May your light never be dim; shine it on those who feel they can get away with treating our prisoners as animals and releasing them back into a society who would rather shun them. I say “Yay Thee! Alex Cavendish”

To Faith Spear; you just hold your head high. You have been treated so badly by the very organisation that you swore to uphold. Yet when you spoke out (which I am known to do) you were slapped back down. Well shame on them, Faith. Shame on them! Their loss is prison reform's gain. There will always be a place in society for those as scrupulous as you. I say “Yay Thee! Faith Spear”

To those of you that have followed my blogs, read them and thought of them and the questions they raised over the year, thank you. I write exactly how I speak. I use humour in everything because if you don’t laugh, you cry. The state of our prisons is in such a dire state that one can only deflect the anguish that one feels with humour, sarcasm and a dash of irony. I am passionate and I know you understand that. I want and I need to affect change.  I say “Yay Thee! Twitteratti”

To those of you that have helped me along the way. There are far too many to mention, but you all know who you are. Your guidance has been priceless (apart from Ian Dunt at whose price is a large Latte with extra foam). Without your help I am nothing

To the legal bloggers whom I respect so very much for giving us an insight into their world, thank you. But please will you just stop doing it so well? It diminishes me into a quivering wreck; assuming the foetal position asking for my mummy  and makes me want to take up knitting. That’s right I am talking to you,The Secret Barrister, Matthew Scott, Nicholas Diable, just stop! To @jaimerh354 for your blog called The Robing Room Table;  you gave me my voice. This piece was written with such passion, I am but a simple mimic. Truly the best thing I have read in years. You have a talent; unequalled. Thank you.

To the rest of the bloggers, writers, commentators on prison reform, I sit in awe and wonderment at the passion you show. Together, we will make a difference. Thank you.

To those new friends on LinkedIn, welcome to my world of irony, humour and rants. I am humbled that you deemed me interesting enough to listen to what I have to say.

I need and I want people to sit up and take notice of what we “bloggers” write. We don’t do it for the hell of it, we do it because we know of no other way on how to get the government of the day to realise that the very people that put them in their powerful positions are not happy with them. We, who are a mixture of those involved in the criminal justice system, have come together for the betterment of society. We, who care not of the transgressions of our past, look to the future. A future where prison is used as a last resort; not as an easy option. Society must only remove those who are so terribly dangerous to it. It must not remove those who would better off in treatment for their ails.
Someone recently asked, why I write what I do and why I send messages out on twitter / social media. The answer is that I want the subject to be raised and discussed. Not only in the corridors of power but at the dinner tables of the voter. I don’t write for people to quote The Tartan Con; I write because I want people to debate, to argue, to have compassion for those worse off than they. Perhaps, one day someone who has read my offerings will ask of their MP, “What can we do to take better care of those that we jail? How can we better rehabilitate those who could be released as our neighbours?”

I had no clue if my voice would reach you and more; if you would listen to what an ex-con had to say. It has and you do. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

As 2016 comes to an end I leave you with this

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
The sun shine warm upon your face,
The rain fall soft upon your fields.
May the hill rise behind you,
And may the mountain be always over the crest;
And may the God that you believe in
Hold you in the palm of his hand.

Slainte maith, h-uile latha, na chi 'snach fhaic!

Friday, 23 December 2016

My Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

My name is The Tartan Con, I don’t think you remember me as you haven’t visited me for a few years. It could have been that I wasn’t staying at my normal home and if you and your reindeer had flown over my, then residence, you might have been mistaken for a drone.

However I am back now, and I thought I might write you a letter about what I wanted for Christmas this year.  Don’t worry, Santa, I don’t need anything delivered to my house. I have absolutely everything that I could ever need in the love of my wife and good friends. Oh Santa, she is the best present you ever gave me.

This year, could you visit Liz Truss and install into her a sense of humanity for those worse off than she? Could you tell her that her prison officers need her? Could you tell her that the men and women incarcerated in her prisons need her? People are dying in her prisons, Santa and for every life lost due to the crisis in her jails, the light goes out in that family’s collective heart. 

Could you visit her prison minister and tell him, that we know that every man is born with goodness in his heart but sometimes it is so difficult to see? Leave him a sense of duty, Santa, if you will. Leave him a note to tell him that he needs to listen to those slightly more experienced than he. After all, one learns a lot more from listening that talking.

Visit the members of the Justice Committee (yes all of them) and leave them a louder voice. Tell them that they are our voice and that they must use that it as it was dictated in times of old. Tell them “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops.” Their voice must be heard Santa, please.

Could you visit all those involved in the criminal justice system and leave them a special dictionary? Leave only the words that they should live their lives by; Compassion, Good will, Forgiveness, Peace, Justice and above all ,HOPE. Make it a magical dictionary that appears every time they voice their thoughts on the prison system, about those that work in it and those that live in it.

Visit all of the families of those incarcerated and tell them that their loved ones will be home soon. Tell them that we know that “Every Saint has a past and every Sinner has a future” Tell them that they need to celebrate this festive time with joy in their hearts. Tell them that prisoners need to know that they are out there celebrating. It is us who have transgressed the law, not them. If we think that they are sad then that is an extra punishment for us.

Visit all those who work in the prisons and offer them our thanks for keeping our loved ones safe and for helping them on the way to a better life.

Visit all of our loved ones that are in the prisons and give them hope. Make them understand that there is a better life waiting for them out here and that in the meantime, we will do our damnedest to make their current conditions better.

Oh and some chocolate would be nice.

I’ll leave some hot cocoa and cake out for you just in case. After all one never knows, do one?

Wishing you all a heartfelt, Merry Christmas.
The Tartan Con

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Prison Utopia: An ex-inmates vision for the future

This Article first appeared in The Free Think Tank in November of 2016.

I write a lot of articles on what I, as an ex-prisoner, see wrong with the prison estate in the 21st century. I wail with despair when I read that over 750 people have taken their own lives in the last 10 years whilst in custody. I recoil with horror when I learn that this year alone there have been over 36,000 reported cases of self-harm in our prisons. I fear for the well-being of the prison staff when it is reported that there has been an increase of 40% in assaults on staff.

But this article is not for that. The state of British prisons has been in the news a lot recently and I thought I would take this wonderful opportunity to give you a view of my utopian prison. They should be centres for reform not places of punitive punishment. The punishment one is given is the loss of liberty. Society sends us to prison if we transgress the law so severely that the judiciary feels we need to be removed from it and be rehabilitated.
"It is my, perhaps rather, naive belief that no person is born bad."
If I am that person, then I want to go to a place that will aid me in learning the error of my ways and help me become a better person. It is my, perhaps rather, naive belief that no person is born bad. Every child is innocent. Whatever happens along the way, to make them take the road less travelled, I believe that we all strive to be a better person. Prison, therefore, should help give me the tools to become that person. A sort of place where one can press the CTRL ALT DEL keys in one’s brain, if you will.


Staff Issues

More staff in our prisons is needed, of that there can be no doubt. But it is needed now not in 2 years from now as is the current plan. They should be staffed by those types of people who want to affect that change. The staff needs to be trained on how to deal with some of society’s lost souls. Nothing can replace experience when it comes to this and I, personally, do not believe that an 8 week training period can cover that. Before they graduate from their prison academy they should meet and talk to ex-prisoners, not just learn how to tie them up in case there is a fight. Our prisons need to be staffed with ancillary staff that is trained in managing prisoner’s expectations. There are many in prison with mental health issues, our prisons need to spend money on hiring more specialists trained in trying to find out the root cause of a patient’s problem, rather than just awarding a healthcare contract to the cheapest bidder. Quality, not quantity would be the ethos of my utopian prison.

Obviously, officers need to be disciplinarians; every community needs its police force to maintain order. I doubt anyone would object to that. Make no mistake; prisons are just that, they are communities. However, the difference being that I have met very few people during my time in prison that actually want to be there, so tensions will run high. However, I found that if I behaved myself and was respectful to all then I never saw the disciplinary side of the prison estate.

My Prison

My prison would not lock me in a cell 10x12ft for 23 hours per day. My prison would not expect me to eat my evening meal 2 ft away from an open toilet. My prison would not put me in a cell with 2 others when it was designed for one person. My prison would not allow me the choice of either bathing or telephoning my family; it would allow me to do both. My prison would not deny my progression through my sentence due to its errors of denying me access to the offending behaviour courses because of budgetary cuts. My prison’s management would understand that they are not there to judge me on my past; it would recognise that the judiciary has already done that and their mandate is to rehabilitate me.
"My prison would be staffed with the type of people who want to make a difference in my life."
My prison would treat me the way that it would want to be treated. My prison would understand that the bedrock of family life is so very vital to me as I try and rehabilitate. It would be respectful and understanding of my family’s predicament of me being in prison and recognise that they are suffering as well. My prison would be staffed with the type of people who want to make a difference in my life. My prison’s staff would treat me as a human being and with respect and in turn, I would respect them. My prison would give me the opportunity to better myself by learning a trade or increasing my education level. After all, if I am to be released back into society a better person than entered and on the road to rehabilitation, then I need to be “au fait” with modern technology and be able to read and write to a decent level. My prison would release me at the half way point of my sentence but its contact with me would not stop there. My prison would keep in touch with me. After all, I have created a trust in my personal officer over my sentence and that officer knows me best. My personal officer would be there to help me when I need a comforting word or a kick up the backside.

When I left prison, there were many officers that impacted my life and I owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. These are the people that would staff my utopian prison and I would leave it a better person.

Monday, 28 November 2016

What Am I Doing?

(If you wish to hear a recording of this blog I have recorded it Here, click on the "What Am I Doing" Tab.)

I sit here at my antiquated lap-top (connected to you via the Internet by an asthmatic mouse on a tread wheel), with despair.

I have been silent over the last couple of weeks; both on my blogs and on social media. I wanted to take stock of what other people were saying. I wanted to better understand the viewpoints of mi’colleagues, my peers and those so much more knowledgeable on the issues surrounding the prison estate than I. I bow to these people and I urge you to read their blogs/websites, follow their time lines and interact with them. They are the Einstein to my Lou Costello.

I have read  many reports over the past few weeks from organisations that I respect so very much, The RSA paper on Prisons, The Howard League for Penal Reform, The Prison Reform Trust, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, The Harris Review, Dame Sally Coates Paper, etc. I have read disastrous papers of such tripe that my knuckles are red from smacking them down on the table with anger. What would drive me to such an act, you ask? Yes, you guessed it The Government's Paper on Prison Reform.

I sit and wonder, and I want to be honest with you. However, I worry that you will think less of me. I worry that you will take my rant as just that; a rant from an “ex-con” who just has an axe to grind. So before I go off on this one, please dear reader, do not be insulted by about what I am about to say. I mean no disrespect to anyone, it is the last thing I would do, but I need to vent, I need to say how I feel. I offer my opinion and I hope that just one of you, just one of you, gets it. John Milton once said “Opinions in good men are but knowledge in the making”. Knowledge can be used to affect change and to not do anything with that knowledge.... well... who was it that said “For Evil to flourish, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing”?

Now I don’t want to go off on a rant here but;

I have tried to read all the recent reports on Prisons, and I have, I believe achieved that goal. I read from those so better informed than I. University Professors, Journalists, Barristers, Prison Governors, Prison Reformers all write with aplomb, quoting statistics from memory, I am sure. They write with such knowledge on what is wrong with prisons today, the cause and effect of recidivism, the rehabilitation of a prisoner and the resettlement needs of them. They issue warnings to the government of the day of the dire state of our prisons. They bang their drums loudly from the rooftops. These are intelligent people, people much cleverer than I. Money has been donated to the charities that write some of these papers, money from people perhaps who can ill afford to do so but have goodness in their hearts. 

And yet, and here is the crux of the thing, what is done about these papers? What is implemented as a result of the publishing of these papers? Lamentably, the answer is plain for all to see who read the newspapers or watch the news. Nothing! These papers have some great ideas wrapped inside them but I don’t ever recall seeing anything from them coming into effect.

You know I was a serving prisoner, right? Well I had heard of The Howard League and The Prison Reform Trust before I entered prison, but I never heard anything about them whilst I was IN prison. Are these wonderful organisations not there to help prisoners during and after custody? Why doesn’t the Estate recognise the good work that these charities try and do?

I read with utter desolation a tweet yesterday from Frances Crook (The Chief Exec of the Howard League for Penal Reform) that her team were trying to get a young lad escorted to his dying mother’s hospital bed before the doctors switched off life support. The prison refused citing staff shortages. 

OH COME ON! At what level of Dante’s inferno have we as a society reached when a boy is refused seeing his mother for the last time? 

Why do we have to voice our outrage on social media when something like this happens? It just shouldn’t happen in the first place. I tell you this, if the staff had asked the people on the wing where that boy was resident in if they minded being locked up in order that he could be escorted, I say with hand on heart that not one of them would have refused. Did the management even think about that for one minute or did they just use an excuse for not going the extra mile? Shame on them!!  May a member of their family never pass away alone.
What’s the point people? All the reports say the same thing. “Our prisons are in crisis, we need to lock up less people and we need to rehabilitate those that are” And what heed is taken from them? I mean what chance to do we have when the Secretary of State for Justice deigned the Harris review beneath her to read prior to her first attendance in front of the Justice Committee? 

So what effect do all these papers have on the prisoner they so eagerly want to help? The answer is nothing, nada.

I am humbled that my blogs and writings attract your interest, I really am. Hopefully, they ring true in your hearts and minds and I know that you want to affect a change. I know you don’t want to just sit there and tut and say “Oh this is terrible, OK, what’s for lunch?” But what do WE do?

A couple of weeks ago there was a #prisonstorm arranged for twitter. A sort of cry to arms as it were. It was to be a podium for those who wanted to debate prison reform. It was well attended and many good ideas were floated. Do you know what the Mi contributed to the debate? They stuck a link up directing people to the White Paper. Look I have written enough about that piece of trash, save to say 2,500 officer’s immediately, REALLY? By 2018 is what was stated in the paper but Phillip Hammond confirmed in his recent speech that they would be on line by 2020. They are needed now not 4 years from now! 

If the establishment won’t heed the warnings from those intellectuals so qualified to do so, are we then really supposed to get up in arms when there is another prison riot, another self harm or suicide or when Prison Officers just stop and say “Enough! We’re not going back in until it’s safe for us AND them”. The government’s answer was to take them to court and force them to go back to work. Here’s the thing that the media never reported...How many riots happened after the strike (oops not a strike) was called off? NONE. You see, the prisoners, I believe, understood the frustration the staff felt and in an indirect way supported them silently. 

All of this does not change a thing. The government gets mileage from issuing what they call a white paper of prison safety and reform. The mainstream media lap it up and the secretary of state goes on the milk round of TV interviews (which quite incidentally proved to be a car crash). But the paper’s contents do not come into effect for two years. Meanwhile people dying in our prisons. Over 750 people have committed suicide in the last 10 years; there has been in excess of 34,000 reported issues of self harm this year alone. Why are we allowing this to continue? Why are we sitting idly by and allowing this to go on?

Me? What Am I doing about it? I am as guilty as the next man/woman/person/budgie/ whatever. I write articles for publications, I rant, I tweet and then I put my light off at night and go to sleep. The next day I get up and do the same. Wasn’t it Einstein who said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results? Then colour me “crazy."

I try to offer guidance to those in power in how to deal with prisoners and how to help them through their time in custody. I offer to help new members of staff see things from a prisoner’s point of view.  But I am a wimp, every time they knock me down, I stay down for that bit longer.

I sit in awe at the guts of some of my peers. Faith Spear blew her whistle at the inefficiency of the Prisons Independent Monitoring Board and was subject to a barrage of bullying and intimidation by her colleagues that resulted in her facing a disciplinary hearing this week. Yet there she is standing by her morals and scruples and shouting. We can learn a lot from this woman.

I am but one voice in a million and am getting so very hoarse.

What do we do people, what do we do? Do we just sit and bleat until we are blue in the face whilst people die in our prisons and hope that those in power take notice or do we just pick up our toys and leave the sand box and go home?

I despair of our society sometimes I really do.

Of course this is just my opinion I could be wrong.

If you wish to hear my plea I have recorded it Here, click on the "What Am I Doing" Tab.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Shame on Us!

Yes, it’s me again!

 “What?” you say, “So quickly? But we just heard from you.” I know but I have read, over the past few days, some very sickening and upsetting articles that I felt something had to be said. I don’t ask much of you dear reader, I really don’t. I am just humbled and honoured that you take the time to read my ranting. But this time, I really need your help. If you agree with anything I am about to say then I beg of you; copy, paste it, send it to your MP (get them to ask questions) or send it to the Ministry Of Justice, send it to Liz Truss and / or Sam Gyimah and demand a response. Tweet it, Facebook it, do whatever you want with it, but please do something.

Now I DO want to go off on a rant here.

A few months ago, I ranted (for that is my thing is it not?) on the issues of self harm in prison (Oh Captain, My Captain) and I mentioned three cases that came to my attention.

I have recently read three more stories over the last two days about men that have committed suicide in Prison and the findings of the Ombudsman & Coroner.  In all of these cases it was found that the suicides could have been prevented by those very authorities that were charged with the duty of care for that individual.

In a shocking case; Haydn Burton was found hanging in his cell after being remanded into custody on an assault charge. (For further info click here). It was recognised that Mr Burton suffered from mental health issues but Winchester Prison was found wanting in following up on his mental health issues. A jury “criticised the care offered to him and concluded there were missed opportunities to assess or reassess Mr Burton's risk of self-harm or suicide.”  The court heard that “poor communication between officers and managers, and between officers and healthcare teams, contributed to his death.”

 Read those last 4 words again, please. CONTRIBUTED TO HIS DEATH!  

 I think one of the most shocking parts of this inquest was when the Jury said that, it was "more likely than not" prison staff had been informed the inmate had a noose.” I wept with despair when I read this. The Prison knew that he had a noose and yet did nothing?

The second case that I wish to highlight is the case of Paddy Kelly who committed suicide in Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland. (For a more concise report on his death, click here). The Prison Ombudsman stated very clearly in his report that “His overdose was "foreseeable" and his death "preventable".  Again, as was the case with Mr Burton, Mr Kelly was known to have had mental health issues. He had on a number of occasions informed staff that he did not want to run the risk of keeping his medication in possession. This request was followed for a few days then for some unknown reason he was given his medication to keep. Mr Kelly then overdosed on his medication and died in hospital 2 days later. Even the nurse who "most probably" took the decision to return the drugs told investigators she had no recollection of doing so”. Oh come on! She had no recollection of doing so? Take notes, for God’s sake. I am sorry, should I be sympathetic to the nurse who contributed to Mr Kelly’s death? The report says that working in prison healthcare is difficult. I get that, I really do, I witnessed some of the abuse that the healthcare workers face when I was in prison. But it’s their job to care and provide healthcare services for those under its care. If you can’t do the job, don’t do it.

The third case is that of David Smith. Mr Smith arrived at Highpoint Prison in Suffolk back in May of 2014. He was stressed upon arrival an asked to speak to a Listener. A listener is a prisoner trained by the Samaritans to talk to prisoners on a confidential basis. It is a great service when provided properly. The Prison rules require that a Listener is present in reception but in this instance Highpoint failed in its obligation to provide one. He asked to speak to the Samaritans, as there is a dedicated telephone held on every wing for this very purpose. The phone wasn’t there. They couldn’t find it. Mr Smith attempted to hang himself that night and died the following day. (For Further Information click here).

These are only 3 cases of the 256 reported cases of suicide since the beginning of 2014 (information from I am not saying that all these cases were preventable, I am sure they weren’t but if one life is lost in prison due to the negligence of a staff member then shame on it and shame on us for allowing it to continue.

How many of you that have read these articles have read the standard response from the Prison Service media department “We will continue to learn from these such incidents”? LEARN from them? They shouldn’t have to learn from them because they shouldn’t happen.

We do not inflict the death penalty in the United Kingdom but for these three individuals listed above, their death was preventable and caused by the failures of the service that has a duty of care towards them. The blame lies at the feet of both the Prison Service and their Healthcare providers and they should be ashamed. 

Look; I am not asking you to judge those who are in prison, I am not asking you to pass judgement on their crimes and  I am not asking you to pass judgement on the morals of suicide. I am asking you to sit up and take notice that people are killing themselves in our prisons. In the three cases I mentioned above the prison / healthcare staff were alerted to problems, they just chose to ignore it.

On the Justice Website, their statement of purpose states c that “Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.”  (MOJ). 

I am not a harsh critic of the Prison Service, per se. By that I mean that I sympathise with the staff and the hardship they face. I understand the chronic understaffing that faces the Prison Estate and have witnessed some of the terrible assaults inflicted on these good people. I have ranted on many occasions about the need for extra staff. A lot of credence is given to the victims of crime and indeed a lot of work with offenders is undertaken to have them understand the victim’s point of view. I ask now, are not the families of these men, whose deaths have been deemed preventable not victims themselves? If so, what is the prison service doing to rehabilitate itself?

Read that phrase from above again “People are killing themselves in our Prisons”. We as a society jail people that have transgressed the law. That is their punishment. Their mental health issues should be addressed just as they would be addressed if they were in the community. The society that jails its citizens has an obligation and a duty of care to that citizen. He should feel safe in his environment, be able to live a healthy and law abiding lifestyle (free from harm and bullying) whilst receiving the treatment he needs in order to rehabilitate himself. These are his basic human rights. We are a modern day society; we have compassion for our fellow human being. If we are the reason for removing a person from our society so should we be the society that ensures the above.

I said in my article for last week that any life that is lost in prison due to the lack of staffing should be noted on a wall inside the Ministry of Justice lest we forget who is to blame. I stand by that.

The death of any individual brought about by the mismanagement of another should be lamented. Just because they are prisoners does not make them any less of a human being.

I can only hope that the tortured souls of Messrs Burton, Kelly and Smith have found peace.

Of course, as always, the above is just my opinion, I could be wrong. But in this instance I do hope that even one of you may feel the same way.