Sunday, 6 March 2022

The Fourth Estate - Should it print the truth ?


Hello! It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Some of you who follow me on twitter will know that I had a small tumble recently and that has laid me up for the last few months. I would love to tell you that I was scaling a burning building to save a poor distressed animal from an incendiary sticky ending. Regrettably, I cannot. Shall we just leave it that the centre of the earth decided to pull me towards it at great speed? In essence, I fell into a pothole and ended up breaking my ankle, fractured a few bones in my foot and bashed my nose. My modelling career is over before it started!

Now I don’t want to go off on a rant here but, there are a couple of things that I want to get off my chest. As is my wont!

Firstly, is the recent flurry of press releases surrounding the opening of HMP Five Wells. The attendance of the Secretary of State last week has created a huge amount of column inches in both local and national press, not forgetting the MOJ’s own press release which can be found by clicking here.

What amazes me is not only the massive factual inaccuracies in every one of the articles, but my astonishment at the “journalists” that report such salacious articles, whose only reason to report is to inflame the readers.  I think the Daily Mail’s headline of “Inside HMP Woke” is not only pathetic and damaging to public perception but it is just bad journalism.

So let me just put a few things straight.

  • The prison is not run by Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation service as a member of the Ministry of Justice was quoted to say when she said “a really proud moment for HMPPS”; rather it is run under a contract by a private operator; G4S. This was awarded to them after a long, drawn-out bidding process that will have included bids from all other private operators in the UK. Now before some of you start decrying that the running of our prisons should be run by the state; part of me agrees with you. I do not believe that all prisons should be private, nor do I believe that all should be public. However, as someone who has been resident in both private and publicly run prisons, hold your horses there! Private prisons have a decent track record in the UK. Yes, we can recall the issues surrounding HMP Birmingham but that was one prison out of 16. Private prisons do not appear anywhere in the bottom 50% of prisons when it comes to safety statistics. Added to this is that HMP Five Well has a controller’s team (these are people employed by HMPPS to ensure that they adhere to the contract). I have had the pleasure of knowing the controller, now situated, at Five Wells for a few years and I know that she will be keeping her eye on the prison.
  • The media will tell you that there are no bars on the windows. This is worded in such a way to make you think the prisoners can just open their windows and make their merry way to freedom. WRONG! The windows don’t open. There is a small air vent to the right of the window, covered by a grill, that will allow fresh air in.
  • The media again reports that the staff will use “room” instead of cell. Whoop de bloody do!! It’s a cell to a prisoner and you will find that the people arriving at the prison will refer to it as such. If there isn’t a handle on the inside, it’s a cell.
  • The media says that a new way of calling prisoners “residents” will be introduced. This is not new, most of the private sector prisons have been calling their resident residents for years. Added to that there was once a governor at HMP Berwyn (a public) prison that started doing this back in 2017. Those of you who sound off on this as “too cushy” need to move on. There are bigger fish to fry. Oh, and here’s the thing, I will let you into a wee secret here; we, as prisoners couldn’t give a rat’s a^^e what you call us whilst we are inside. Although the name “con” does kind of stick in our throats (I feel the irony given my pseudonym).
  • Oh, and WOW! It will have pool tables, table tennis tables and a gym. STOP the press! This is so very innovative…. Oh, wait there have been pool tables, table tennis tables and gyms in prisons for possibly the last 30 years. This isn’t new!
  • The Daily Telegraph goes so far to say that The Governor has been renamed the director. Bollocks! (Sorry for the sweary word but I really am getting quite annoyed here!) Private Sector prisons have always named their people in charge as Directors (That shoddy article can be found here. It’s behind a paywall; save your money for something that really matters).
  • They call Five Wells a “super” prison. Och move on, the fourth estate!

What shocked me to the core was the statement by Mr Raab that “prisons must punish.” Absolute tripe! The loss of liberty is the punishment. We do not carry out corporal punishment anymore. He would do well to remember that.

Look ! It’s simple, most if not all of the new residents (see what I did there?) at Five Wells will be released one day. Indeed, they could be your next-door neighbour. Do you want them locked up like caged animals for 23 hours a day and then have them released them back into society? What do you think will happen?

If we can give them a trade AND somewhere to live (more on that later), then we will help them on the road to being productive members of society. It really is that simple.

Think of this, if it was a member of your family that was in custody then how would you want them to be treated? Before you say, “well that just wouldn’t happen as none of my family would ever break a law”, know this, most of the people that I have had the honour of meeting in prison are there for a rash 5-minute decision, whether that be through a moment of bad temper or to feed an addiction. If we can help them realise this and realise that the world can be a decent place, then surely, we have a moral obligation to do so.

One last thing on HMP Five Wells, the director is one of the most decent, empathetic individuals I have ever met. John McLaughlin runs his jails well and wants to give everyone under his custody a second chance in life. Yes, there will be some people resident in his jail who will try to break the rules (as there is in any community) and I have no doubt that they will find that he suffers no fools.

Ok, that’s that then. What else has irked me recently?

We come back to the Daily Telegraph again with this wonderful headline:

Belmarsh inmates invited to advise governor on improving prison’s ‘sense of community’

The sub header is:

Community of equals approach’ at high-security jail for Britain’s most notorious criminals will ‘baffle the public’, say opponents

I haven’t been able to see anywhere in the article where these “opponents” are quoted. They do mention a man with whom I often disagree, but respect enormously, Ian Acheson. However, knowing Ian as I do, I can with a modicum of certainty say that Ian’s quotes have been taken out of context. Ian well knows that a prison would not be “ceding more and more power to prisoners” under any circumstances by consulting with them.

What this article refers to is something called prisoner councils. These have been around in our prisons for 30 + years and again are nothing new. So why use the salacious headline?

 Remember this, the staff to prisoner ratio in most jails, when fully staffed is 1:30. This means that the staff are drastically outnumbered. Does the name General Custer ring a bell?  Our prison staff are not armed with anything more than a baton (well, some have an incapacitant spray – not going into that here). There is an often-misquoted phrase that when used in error states, “prisons run with the consent of prisoners.” That quote is wrong as prisoners don’t consent to be there. What it should say is that “Prisons run with the ASSENT of prisoners.” That is to say, the prisoners’ assent to be there and if you treat them decently and keep them safe, they will allow the rules to be enforced.

Move on Daily Telegraph, move on.

I think the media grossly underestimate the intelligence and empathy of the public. Look, as I have said before, I am not abolitionist. I believe in the need for prisons. There are some people that are so very dangerous that they need to be removed from society. But I do not believe for one minute that is the case for all 80,000 people who are locked behind doors of which they cannot get out; as I type this.

I also believe that prisons can help people to get on the road to being a better member of society. I am one of them. I left my prison cell a better person than entered it. Did the prison rehabilitate me? No, it did not, but the people within it; both staff and prisoner alike, gave me the faith to realise that I could be a better human being.

What annoys me is the media. The media who will taint every man, woman, and child behind bars as scurrilous individuals and “sine die” them for eternity.

Look, to quote my literary here (O. Wilde) from his wonderful De Profundis;

“Society takes it upon itself the right to inflict appalling punishments on the individual, but it also has the supreme vice of shallowness, and fails to realise what it has done.”

Regrettably the media do nothing other than to attempt to inflame the public’s opinion on those who are less fortunate than they.  My dear readers you would do well to read any article written or broadcast about prisons with a pinch of salt. I give you this invitation; if there is anything you want to know about our prisons, reach out to someone who knows. Whether that be me or someone more knowledgeable than I, please do so. We may not always agree but at least you will be in possession of the facts, not the fiction that I have read over the last few weeks.

Ok, I am about to shut up, I promise, but let me have just a few minutes more of your time.

The last thing that had me reaching for my brandy (well, I don’t drink but you get the intention) was an article written by Danny Shaw, he previously of the BBC, in his blog titled “Street talk”. (A link can be found here).

Danny writes that he has had sight of a document issued by the Ministry of Justice that runs to 44 pages entitled “Prepare for your future: Empower yourself for release.” Although I have not had sight of this, I have known Danny for a few years and have no reason not to accept what he says is contained in that booklet.

It, allegedly, contains a section headed “Accommodation “and “practical tips” for those who are to be released homeless. It talks about picking a building or outside spot. It gives “handy” tips on finding some cardboard, newspaper etc to keep warm (perhaps they could use those newspapers that I have quoted from in this article as that is all they are good for!) and recommends that “if you look clean, you might find it easier to use toilets in restaurants or department stores”. You should also “smell like you are not homeless.”

To use an acronym that the young ‘uns use a lot these days “WTF?”

If this is not an admittance of failure, then I know not what is. Listen, people, it’s quite clear, we should not be releasing anyone from prison, homeless. Plain and simple. Not only will it reduce the rate of reoffending that every government pledges in their manifestos to do, but it is the decent and right thing to do.

When society decided to remove a person from it and lock them up, it at some point says that the person is free to re-join it. Yet it does nothing to help that person back into its fold.

To follow on from that quote from dear old Oscar:

“When the man’s punishment is over, it leaves him to himself: that is to say it abandons him at the very moment when its highest duty towards him begins. It is really ashamed of its own actions and shuns those whom it has punished, as people shun a creditor whose debt they can not pay or one on whom they have inflicted an irreparable, an irredeemable wrong.”

I applaud all the wonderful organisations out there who work with former prisoners on gaining meaningful employment upon release. I really do. But there is one thing that, in my opinion, is far more important. That is; give them a roof over their heads. The problem is that local housing associations don’t want to talk with the probation service or the prison service. Society doesn’t want to talk about those who have transgressed its rules and it’s like there is almost a blanket ban on understanding that to reduce crime and reduce recidivism there are two things that are vital: Housing and employment. You can’t have one without the other.

It is a stain on society that we take people from their prison cell and just push them out onto the street knowing that there is very little prospect of them never returning. We must do better.

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

If you care to hear my dulcet tones, click Here