Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hippos all

The Audio File of this blog is  Here

Are We all Hippopotami?

It’s been a while since I have written /ranted/ blogged / pontificated. Did you miss me?

This is the first of two blogs. In this first hotch potch of writings, I promise to be gentle with you. A sort of easing back into the machinations of my mind, if you will. The second (out later this week) will let forth like the storms of Thor in a full-blown rant.

Look there are no right or wrong answers, here, it is to be food for thought. Digested and discussed over a cheeky little Martini or an Irn Bru  (a far better option, if you want my opinion).

So, onto the topic of this post.

I am new to the world of the soap opera, and purely for research you understand, I have watched an interesting program over the last few weeks called EastEnders. Anyone heard of it? It’s ok, if you want to admit it, no-one’s listening (or probably reading for that matter). The entire premise of this show seems to be that the world is a rotten place and everyone is up to something “dodgy” and if we don’t end up in jail then we end up dead, alone, unemployed, the parent of a child who is a murderer or some equally disastrous fate. What we won’t end up is happy.

Then we switch channels and see something called HolyOaks. Same thing, different accent. Then there is that wonder of Coronation Street; same thing “differenter” accent. Emmerdale; same thing more sheep! Oh, whatever happened to Benny in Crossroads?

So why this trip down the Points of View memory lane?

It leads me into telling you about the sitting back and watching I have been doing on Social Media recently. I haven’t posted much of interest latterly and for that I don’t apologise. It was really a self-imposed exile more than anything else.

I have looked at the postings of most across the criminal justice system and my particular area of in-expertise – that of prisons.

What I have noticed is the outright condemnation of the state of our prisons by those who deem themselves to be authoritarians on the subject. Quite rightly so, I say, the prisons are an absolute mess and the way the country treats my former cell mates is degrading and inhumane.

I have watched everyone decry the state of justice in our country, complain that nothing is getting done and things are only getting worse. To a certain extent that’s indeed the regrettable case.

However, (there is always a “however” isn’t there?) I wonder if we, as a nation, enjoy wallowing in someone else’s quagmire of problems? WE watch these soap operas by the millions and seem to revel in the desperation of what new fate has fallen upon the characters since we last caught up with them 24 hours previously? Did X really kill Y? Did A rip off B? I could go on but I fear I might lose the ever waning will to live that I have now after watching these programs.

Do these programs mirror real life, albeit in a rather more fluid motion than we are accustomed to?

Do we watch them for escapism? If so, what are we escaping from that makes the life of a fictional TV character seems more appealing than ours?  If they are not more appealing then the answer must be that we do indeed watch them to “enjoy” their misery.

I then follow that thought through to those involved in the “Penal Reform” movement. If (granted it is a huge “if) all was well within our prisons and everyone was being rehabilitated and everyone that wanted it had their own cell with a closed off toilet, staffing levels were up to standard, we didn’t jail people for the most idiotic length of time or reason for that matter… (wow, long list) what would these people then do?

I find a lot of people like to moan, myself included, and if there was nothing to moan about in my chosen subject; would I then move onward to find something new to decry?

When something idiotic happens in our prisons, or something catastrophic occurs, we all reach for the twitter button and shout and scream. “Oh, how stupid” we say. “When will they listen to us” we cry. “When will they change things” we wonder. Quick question… who do WE think THEY are? If WE think THEY are politicians then are We that naïve to believe that THEY will change a thing for the fear of losing an election?

Over the last year, I have worked in a number of establishments. I just plod away, trying to make a small difference in prisoner’s lives. I have witnessed some sheer and utter idiocy by some staff, governors and above that it would make your hair stand on end and reach immediately for the TV remote control and tune into that day’s episode of HolyEastCoronationFarm.

But I have also witnessed dedication, innovation, empathy, sheer random acts of kindness from all of those that I berate above. I have read reports of good work, solid work, work that helps change for the better those that we incarcerate. But what I don’t witness is the rejoicing of this. You may have a bad opinion of our jails and of course you are entitled to your opinion.  I have fought and continue to fight for your right for just that. But what I fail to understand is that when something good comes out in the media about the state of A prison and perhaps that prison’s dedication to try and change; it is met with a silence so quiet that I can picture a tumbleweed passing through my screen. Why?

Is it because we don’t, really want our prisons to improve because if they do then what can we gripe about? It is an interesting conundrum, isn’t it? I know that some of those that are reading this are thinking “balderdash” but I ask you to dig deep down and ask yourself the question.

We want “reform” but what is “reform?”  What I may deem to be a reformation you will not. Why? Well, because I have a personal experience that some do not? So, when I ask for the basics to be changed, you may not understand that. There was much too made of the announcement this week of prisoners being able to cast votes. Lovely idea, wonderful. Let the prisoners all vote for; oh, I don’t know, perhaps a candidate that stands for human rights. Let them cast their vote and go back to their cell where they can eat their dinner 3 feet from where they defecate. Excellent idea. 

The only time things will change overall is when the entire populous demands it. Not just a few thousand of us. Reformation is a long drawn out process that is driven by politics. Revolution, on the other hand, is not (just saying).

I moan like the rest of you, I despair with the masses, I pull my hair out so often when doors are slammed in my face that I am starting to resemble one of those bald chaps in EastEnders. But, and there is a but, I like to read about the good things that happen in prison. I care not if it is a prison in which I have worked or had that door slammed in my face. I just like to hear good things. Why don’t you?

So, as I end this little ditty, I ask:

Are we not all hippopotami that like to wallow in the bog of human disparity? Do we not need/want/like something to moan about? After all, if we have nothing moan about, isn’t life then just dandy?

Let’s do this, can we not celebrate the good things that are going on in our prisons? Just a little tweet that says “Just heard that HMPXXX is doing this.... good on them”

As always just my opinion, I could be completely wrong.

Tickety Tonk.

The Audio File of this blog is here

Friday, 28 July 2017

THE WEEK THAT WAS or TW3 for those of us old enough to remember

I am angry

This is a piece written out of frustration and aguish more than anything else. Frustration because our prisons are still in decline. Anguish because I have been there and witnessed first-hand what these damning reports mention.

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

I spent a long time in prison. I didn’t stay a few weeks/months and then purport to be a font of all knowledge of prisons, what goes on in them, what is wrong with them and how to fix them. I spent just short of 4 years in them. You know what? I am still not a font of all knowledge, I don’t know what goes on in them today (granted I am in them every day but I am NOT a prisoner in them) and I have no idea how to fix them but I do know that every man, woman and child locked up by society is an individual in their own right. I do know that most violence in prison is caused by issues that the person involved has or has learnt about from outside. What must be investigated is the root cause for the violence.

Oh, and on a side issue:

Governor’s: Don’t use the words VIOLENCE REDUCTION when a prisoner comes into your custody for the first time, you are admitting to him/her that you have a violence issue that needs to be reduced. Just use “Safer Custody”, thanks.

I know that there are good things that come out of being in prison and sometimes, just sometimes it works. I am a prime example of it.

I am not a prison reformer, I am not a criminologist, I am not an academic, I am not a motivational speaker. I am an ex-prisoner that feels the pain of both staff and prisoners alike.

This week we have had a damning report on HMP Bristol, an “incident” at HMP / YOI Aylesbury (excellently reported by @prisonuk on Twitter), another incident at HMP Hewell, an “interesting week” at HMP Leicester, a terrible report on HMP Bedford and it isn’t even the weekend!

I am in anguish because I need you to think about the men/women/children who are in prison; who want nothing to do with the riots, the bullying and the fights. These are petrified people. I was one of them. The media talks about the “lags riot” crap but no one thinks about the souls behind the door who just wants to do their time and get out.

Governors:  In your SMT meetings after these incidents; do you wonder how the people are that were not involved or are you just thinking how to ship out the culprits? Be honest, not with me, I don’t need it, but to yourself. What if it was your son in the jail?

I am frustrated, people! Frustrated because nothing is changing. There are still no staff to man (or woman) the places, there are no courses run that address the offending behaviour without running the risk of turning the people into recidivists!! (ok granted a slight exaggeration). We are locking up these people sometimes for more than 20 hours per day allowing them the option of making a call to their family OR having a shower. EITHER / OR. That’s right!

I interact with people on social media who are demanding a change but yet no change happens. Why? Because no one is listening, that’s why. Yet still they shout “reform” and the response is deafening in its silence.

Well, you know what? I give up. I do.  That’s it. I refuse to continue to bang my head against a brick wall. Who was it that said the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again expecting different results?

More people are killing themselves every day in our prisons, more people are self-harming, there are more incidents of staff assault and even more incidents of prisoner on prisoner assaults. Every damn year this figure goes up and what do those in power do? Nothing!

The Ministry of Justice releases pre-prepared statements saying that they will employ a further 2,500 prison officers by 2018 (that’s not eighteen minutes past eight, you know).

Mr Liddington & Mr. Gyimah; Here’s a thought, why don’t you try and keep the staff that you have got instead of letting them run through the gate to go and treated better by working McDonalds? Well trained and well respected experienced staff are worth their weight in gold. I should know, I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for my personal officer. Your staff retention is pathetic.  So, what do you decide to do about it? You hire graduates, kids of 19 years of age that if a prisoner said boo to them they would jump out of their skin and run home to mummy. They say they will not allow violence, drones, phones, drugs in our prisons and that those caught will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They don’t look at that root cause I mentioned before.  They say that they will learn from every death in custody and yet they don’t because the number rises every year. It has got that bad that the POA say they want their officers to carry Tasers for God’s sake! The PGA just says, “give our members more responsibility” but the MOJ won’t allow anyone of their governors to make a decision on how to better their prison never mind buy a memory stick that doesn’t cost them £95.00.

What do we do? Those involved with the CJS? We gripe and moan our little heads off like some petulant child refused his toffee apple. We bleat like sheep that things must get better. But when they don’t, what do we do? We write terrible comments (no more than 140 characters) and say, “this is ridiculous”. Then we go and buy our café lattes at a cost of more than a prisoner is fed on per day and sit back and suck our teeth.  We make fun of those who are in power, we complain when they don’t publicly engage with us. Then we sit down to a bowl of spag. bol! I do give Martin Jones, who is the Chief Exec of the parole board, kudos for being the exception to the rule (@jones_martinw). You, sir, are a fine example of a communicator.

Let’s just cut to the chase here, people! Nothing is going to change. Not for as long as the prison system is run by politicians.

Me?  Well I will continue to do what I do. I will work for the betterment of those in custody and try to make their experience more like mine. I will continue to meet with prisoners and talk to them about how to better their time in custody.

But what I won’t do anymore is gripe about it. Because you know what?  It achieves nothing.

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

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Time for Quiet Reflection is over!!

Now for a Rant!

I have been quiet for a while as I sat back and looked at the state of the Criminal Justice System and my particular interest; the state of our prisons.

Well sit, back, pour a cup of tea (or perhaps you will want something stronger!) and hold onto your chair or loved one, because here it comes!

Nothing has changed

The prisons are still full – if not over crowded.  The Prison’s minister still doesn’t engage with the public when it comes to the issues of prisons today (even his social media profile omits to tell us he is the prison’s minister). The government has decided to build a few more mammoth prisons (even though the larger the prison the higher the failure rate). There is a new Secretary of State for Justice (whom I shan’t lambast because I haven’t really heard him speak about prisons save for the usual “we’ll be tough” rhetoric of every one of his predecessors; however, his parody account is simply outstanding). The government has decided to spend millions on tackling the drone issue by having them barked at by some lovely dog called Shep, Lassie or something; despite there being less than 50 reported incidents this year. IPP prisoners ae still being held beyond their tariff (this despite the sentence being found unlawful). Magistrates are still jailing people for the most heinous of acts such as begging, being homeless and that most awful of crimes – not paying one’s television licence. We are jailing women who have been abused and become addicted to narcotics through necessity rather than desire. Oh!  Even better, according to a recent inspection we have decided to lock up children for 23 hours a day without giving them the chance of bettering themselves.

Then the last straw, the final straw (can you hear the camel’s back breaking?); we mandate that certain types of offenders go on a course. Some of us who have been in prison just love sitting in a classroom again, don’t we? The course, it says, is to help you overcome certain issues that may have caused you to offend and to help you prepare for a law-abiding life. However, recent studies (by those far more intelligent than I even claim to be) have discovered that the rate of reoffending by those who have completed the course is higher than those who haven’t. SORRY WHAAAAAAT????? Look, I am not naïve enough nor inflammatory enough to go as far as some others and say that this course is causing people to reoffend but I am bold enough to say “Have you lost your minds?" to  HMPPS/ MOJ ?” This surely will open the doors for solicitors and their ilk to seek redress from HMPPS, will it not?

Let me site a couple of conundrums for you to ponder:

1.     Prisoner A, last year was refused parole and was told by his parole board that he needs to complete this course  (let’s just call it SOTP, for the sake of ease) in order to be considered for release. He puts his name down to attend (those of us in the know, understand that such waiting times can be in ordinate). Just as he is about to start the course it is stopped by the prison due to the information they received. Now; here’s the rub… What happens? Is the prisoner then being punished and denied release because HMPPS have pulled a course? One could argue that HMPPS will replace the course with a “like for like” but then he must wait longer to get on it.

2.    Prisoner B goes out into the community and reoffends in the same manner as he/she did before. But wait they have been on a course that has now been labelled as “could increase the chance of reoffending” What wants to mitigate that in front of a judge?

Answers on a postcard to………

All this and legal aid has just been reintroduced for those incarcerated. TURN THE FLOODGATES TO OPEN PEOPLE!!

I despair of this type of monumental cock up, I really do. When I started these rants, back in the world of black and white, I said that I wanted to highlight the sheer and utter inane red tape and bureaucracy that HMPPS and the MOJ sometimes present us with. Thank you to both fine organisations for giving me the fodder for my many rants.

It’s the same with some of the education providers as it is with some of those organisations that provide the courses in prison (the 3rd party providers, I believe they are called).  Some of them are fantastic, marvellous saintly like people; but some others??? There is a phrase in Latin that poses the question “Cui Bono?” “Who Benefits?”  We all saw that program a year ago showing some people sitting in the education classes colouring pictures in, because there was no work to do. Do the providers get paid for attendance or do they get paid for results? Why don’t they get paid for the amount of people they get through basic literacy and numeracy skills? Why are people still leaving our jails illiterate? Why are people still leaving our jails not having a vocation, a skill never mind a job?

Oh, that leads me onto “Through the gate.” There is no gate for those recently released only a brick wall. Why after I left prison was I faced with an uphill battle to deal with a person that had never spoken to me previously, who couldn’t house me because I didn’t meet the emergency criteria, who couldn’t point me in the right direction for medical care or even to a job centre? Because I wasn’t a priority; that’s why.   Why did the prison that I was in refuse to help people who were from the town that the prison was located? Why? Because it was a London resettlement prison. If that person was from the same village as the location of the prison they would have to transfer out to another establishment.

I am thinking of starting up a revolving door company to sell them to 120 prisons. Anyone want in?

What can I do to change all this? Absolutely nothing! Until you, dear reader, get up in arms to speak to your MP about the nasty subject of prison, nothing will ever change. Monumental screw ups will continue on a regular basis. Has anyone else heard that the algorithm they were using for the fabled “prison league tables” was so fatally flawed that the MOJ has now shelved the idea completely? All this, after the massive press drive extolling its benefits.  No-one wants to talk about prisons save for those wonderful people on twitter with whom I interact regularly. Wonderful that you all are, and you all have my respect, we are but a small group and unless more attention is brought to the plight of prisons and those incarcerated in them; things just can never get better for those whom society has decided are the scourge of it and need removing from it.

I, for one, decided that it was better to be inside the tent   ….ing out rather than the opposite. I wrote about that in an article for Russell Webster. (The Tartan Con's Story). I work in an area where I have so much passion, dedication and concern. I am determined that all prisons in the United Kingdom shall offer a safe, well informed transition into custody. I am so very fortunate that 2/3rds (figure that one out) of the private providers have taken me up on my offer of help. I am lucky, I now have a proven track record in what I do to help my “friends” behind the door.

It’s strange, though, I am more at ease talking to prisoners than staff. That’s not to insult the people that I work with. On the whole they have been marvellous and more than welcoming. Even those who weren’t when they first met me seemed to have understood that I am just there to help. It’s just that I feel at ease with the prisoners. When I talk to them or about them I say “we”. It is something that I hope I never stop doing. I had a discussion with someone with whom I hold in the highest esteem, recently, and I said, “You may pay my wages, but I don’t work for you, I work for the men behind the door.” I meant no slight to this person I just wanted him to “get” what I was about.

You see, I have an experience that these staff or governors can never have had (and hopefully never will). I see things from behind the door, I have witnessed first-hand the futility of what happens to prisoners and prisons when the government intervenes and does not let those who know the job better (The Governors, their staff and the families of those incarcerated) get on with it. In saying that I had one Governor who told me that “rehabilitation is not on the list of my priorities.” Bless ‘im. “Tim nice but Dim” springs to mind!

On another occasion, I was talking to a prison about trying to help them and the report that came back about me was that they had never met someone so passionate about what it is they do. I could not ask for a more humbling accolade. If you are reading this, then Thank you.

I guess what I am trying to say here people is this, if you want to change things remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. I knew that I could not turn around the entire prison crisis in my lifetime, so I chose one part of it. One part that for me is the most important. For you, it might be something else.  Education for example. Start trying to change the way our prisoners are educated (or not if you ask me). It might be meals, you might think that £1.87 per day to feed a man is a bit too low (perish the thought), so get on that. It might be that you feel the whole sentence plan thing is in disarray (see previous parenthesis), so start tackling that. Believe me when I say I can point you in the right direction in all of this, but I just can’t do it on my own.  Baby steps. Together we can make a difference, but we just need to pay heed as to how.

I am turning into a greater fan of the Howard League after really listening to what it is they do for those in custody. What they are doing in the background is not to be diminished in any shape or form. They have the ears of the people that can mandate a difference. I simply walk in the shadows of all of these fine organisations.

And that’s it, people, there it is, I walk in the shadows. I seek nothing other than to help, to better serve those who are in custody. And that’s what I do; I serve them.

And I am honoured to do so.

Rant over for now,

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