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.