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.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Story of Sisyphus

This article first appeared on the wonderful Russell Webster's website and can be found in its original format at:  Russell Webster

A tragic motivation

When I was approached by Russell to write a little something about the struggles I encountered when I was released, I had to ask how many words he wanted me to write. The article could have gone on for pages and pages and been a sure-fire cure for any insomniacs out there.
Luckily for me; Russell only wanted information on the issues I found with the work I do surrounding the criminal justice system. So sit back, relax and grab some tea, this shouldn’t take long at all.
Whilst I was in prison a young man of 24 came in. He had never been in custody before. He asked the staff for help and was more or less ignored with the all too common “I’ll get back to you” response to every question he raised. His helplessness was devastating to watch and he took the horrifying and sad action of committing suicide the next morning when no one bothered to get back to him.
I swore there and then that I would try my hardest to ensure that those coming into custody would not face the same degradation, humiliation and feeling of helplessness ever again. I was not there to judge them as criminals (after all I was one); I was there to help them as fellow human beings.
I started on devising several different Induction into Custody programmes that would ensure that these souls did not fall through the ever widening gap in the prison estate when it came to caring for the men in their charge.


So we fast forward a few years and I am released from prison. What to do with myself? I started writing about my times in prison, about what I saw to be the sheer unadulterated bureaucracy of it all.
I had found a passion. Something that was missing all during my working life and I felt that I could perhaps make a difference. I wanted the prisons to reform, I needed the public to sit up and take notice what was happening in our jails. Most of all I needed people to understand that those that are in prison are indeed human beings and we have a moral obligation to try and help them. To quote one, recently moved on, Executive Governor:
the men being released from custody today could be your next-door neighbour tomorrow.
I wrote and wrote and humbly attracted a few followers both on my blog site and on twitter. I used a pseudonym because I didn’t want my name or my past to be the topic of conversation. Rather I wanted the subject of my articles to be what was discussed at the dinner tables of the nation.
But writing a blog can only bring so much interest to light. What to do? Here’s a thought…why not try and develop what I had done in prison and bring that into the limelight? Why not get prison governors to understand that the best person to advise them on their reception procedures would be someone that has gone through those very same processes? Of course, the staff would know about the rules and regulations surrounding induction but I could show them what a prisoner actually needs to know and more importantly how best to impart that information onto them.

No rehabilitation from the prison service

So after much discussions on the name of the new venture, off I went. Into the world of HM Prison Service, the National Offender Management Service or HMPPS if you will.
I would contact governors on twitter or on LinkedIn and I would ask them if they needed help. I would explain my rather unique vantage point and ask them to read some of my blogs to get a decent feel of where I was coming from.
One of these governors came back to me fairly quickly and asked to chat on the phone. How strange it would be to be nervous about talking business again after so many years.
He was delighted with what I was doing and as one of the newly branded “Reform” prisons was anxious to be innovative. His issue was the public’s perception on HMPS paying an ex offender for advice. “What would the public say?”  he asked. I responded that wasn’t it the mandate of the prison service to assist ex-offenders back into employment and how better to be innovative than to bring in an ex-prisoner to help? I was devastated that this forward-thinking person was back tracking quicker than a mouse on a reverse treadmill. It was the image he was concerned about; not the good that could be achieved. I was to come across this many times in the forthcoming weeks but my determination stayed strong. We agreed to try and figure a way out.

No rehabilitation from the voluntary sector

I reached out to a few people who had much better knowledge than I and we came up with the solution of having one of the charities that trains some prisoners pay me for my involvement. A sort of 3rd party agreement (I couldn’t afford to do all the work for free. I needed to at least cover my costs). They seemed amenable, as what I was trying to do fitted in nicely with their programmes in prisons.
Off I went to London to meet them. Regrettably, the meeting was more like a grilling. It felt distinctly that they thought I was treading on their toes. The bonhomie of the telephone calls swiftly went out the window to be replaced with a barrage of negativity. “I don’t think they will go for it!” was the resounding comments from both the Chairman and a director. Not exactly what I had hoped for; I was looking more for the “Let’s see how we can help” response. They did, however, have the impudence to ask if I was in contact with any other Governors that could use THEIR services! Yet, when I set up a meeting for them with the Governor of a new prison they declined by saying they had a “staff meeting.” I sometimes wonder how these people even get past the front gate. Manners, I was told by my father, cost nothing. These people ran a constant over draft!!
My steely determination was not to be diminished however. Off I went to HMP XXXXXXX to meet the head honcho.  Suddenly, he wasn’t available and his wing governor would step in. Now, I had spoken to this gentleman before and felt a chill through the phone line that could have frozen the dead sea. However, I was suited and booted and  had my presentation ready on how a former prisoner could best advise them on ensuring that the men coming into their care could be better served.
The meeting was to start at 14:00. It ended at 14:03! The first thing this gentleman said to me was:
You are an ex-con, what can you possibly do for us?
I was proud of myself here people, I didn’t use my command of the English language to wipe the floor with him and his supercilious attitude, I simply said:
With that attitude, Sir, I can do nothing
I got up and walked out.

Was this what I was to expect from now on?

I could go on. I could tell you of the new prison that were happy enough to provide them with free training but back tracked on the promise of employment when they ran scared of public perception again. I could tell you of two national charities who responded to my offers of helping expose there services further responded with “Why do you want to help us?” And “You couldn’t possibly help us.”
It was at times like this I was reminded of the phrase:
Some People Try to be Tall by Cutting off The Heads of Others

Rehabilitation from the private sector

Barriers at every turning  until….
I wrote an article about my idea of a utopian prison. What a prison should look like, in my eyes.
A week after publishing the article, a message came to me from the Director of Operations for a private prison provider. I called him and never told him my name. The first words out of his mouth were “I don’t care about your past, we need your help”. That was it folks, the response I so desperately needed.
I now work for them redoing their induction processes for all their prisons. It is hard work and I have been at it for 5 months. They took all my suggestions on board and have re-issued a national policy on induction. The first day we implemented it, it worked! It saved someone from going over the edge.
Every one of the people I have encountered in this contract have been welcoming, open and just plain delightful. From the Director’s PA, to his deputy, to the Directors of all the prisons and the staff; not once have I felt inferior to them. They welcomed my experience and my input. Humility is the order of the day for me.
Say what you will about the private estate but they took a chance with me and I am forever grateful. I can only hope that the public sector will put away their pre and mis-conceptions and understand that there are some ex-prisoners out there who genuinely want to put back into the system that saved them.
My advice to any ex-offender who wants to work in the CJS is; you WILL have people who want to knock you down a peg or 6 but if your cause is just and pure you will win out. I am so very lucky that with the backing of my family and their constant advice not to give up, my desire to help has never wavered.
I am happy I have taken all the slights thrown at me over the past year or so, it has made me stronger.
I wish you all nothing but the best of luck.