Prison

Prison

Sunday, 18 September 2016

HMP Lincoln: the Sound of Silence

Something happened at HMP Lincoln on Thursday 15 September, but it seems clear that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) doesn’t want anyone to know what really occurred at the prison. An information blackout appears to have been imposed. That should worry us all.

HMP Lincoln: media lockdown
It could have been, as some tabloids are claiming, a serious riot in which a prison officer was taken hostage and beaten by prisoners. Or it could have been a bit of disturbance involving a few rowdy inmates on one wing that was quickly resolved. The truth is, we really don’t know very much. Yet.

For those of us who have first-hand experience of the MOJ and its way of working this does not come as a surprise. Rather like George Orwell’s infamous Ministry of Truth in the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the MOJ makes vigorous efforts to ensure that the English language is distorted and manipulated in order to avoid any negative reporting of the prison crisis that continues to fester and escalate on its watch. Thus any incident is now recorded officially as ‘concerted indiscipline’, regardless of how serious it may have been. A media lockout ensures that there is no independent or objective means of verifying or challenging the MOJ’s official narrative.

Putin: "You're welcome in my prisons."
Of course, we have been here before. The unlamented former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, was notoriously averse to any real engagement with the media. As journalist Amelia Gentleman, who writes for The Guardian, famously observed, during the Grayling era it was easier for the media to gain access to high security prisons in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it was to obtain permission from the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to visit a jail in England and Wales. So much for the culture of openness in government once promised by David Cameron.

After a brief period of glasnost under Grayling’s successor Michael Gove, during which journalists were permitted to go inside our jails – and even make a warts and all television documentary at HMP Wandsworth – the iron curtain appears to have fallen again down in the ministry’s HQ in Petty France. Beyond a brief admission in response to media questioning that there has been a ‘disturbance’ at HMP Lincoln, the silence from the MOJ is almost deafening.

Wing at HMP Lincoln
Early media reports suggested that prisoners on A-wing had rioted and taken a wing officer hostage. Via telephone calls from inside the prison – presumably made on illicit mobiles – a prisoner was claiming that some fellow inmates were attempting to access the roof of the building. However, another contradicted these claims and stated that prisoners on the wing had smashed the glass observation panels of their cells in protest against having spent several days on lockdown without running water, while in-cell toilets were becoming blocked.

We were also told that there was no unlocking of prisoners for meals during this period. Food was being ‘thrown’ through doors into cells by staff. As yet there has been no official clarification of what caused the ‘disturbance’ or to what extent any or all these claims might be true or false. However, the ministry did issue a terse statement to the effect that no prison staff were being held hostage. But had an officer been held earlier? We don’t know.

What is clear is that the police were called out to the prison (confirmed in a Lincolnshire Police press release), while according to local newspaper reports a number of custody transport vehicles (‘sweatboxes’) appeared at the jail, presumably to ship out a number of prisoners to other establishments. One eyewitness account by a local journalist outside the prison posted on Twitter (@earivir) referred to inmates banging and shouting inside these vans as they were driven out of the main gate. Visitors who had travelled to see prisoners were informed that all visits had been cancelled.

Prison 'sweatbox' to transport prisoners
Prisons tend to be vast rumour-mills and at times even a minor disturbance can be exaggerated into a full-scale riot. However, by shipping out a significant number of prisoners to other establishments, the HMP Lincoln management do appear to be responding to something that went beyond a few recalcitrant inmates making a racket.

Presumably we shall have to wait until the MOJ sees fit to release more information. When there have been other serious prison incidents, as at Cat-B HMP High Down in Surrey in October 2013, details of what occurred only really came out during the ill-fated court case when prosecutions for prison mutiny were brought against 11 prisoners by the CPS. Having heard evidence of the appalling conditions at the prison, the jury voted unanimously to acquit the men of all charges, a massive slap in the face for Chris Grayling (see my blog report here). As the media noted at the time, it was Grayling’s prison regime that ended up on trial. And it was effectively found guilty.

HMP Lincoln has a troubled past. A typical old-style Victorian red-brick Cat-B local, it houses a mix of around 600 remand and convicted prisoners, some coming in from court. Most are there for a short time, although a few linger on the wings for years.

HMP Lincoln following the 2002 riot
Back in 2002 there was a real riot (by any definition) in which whole wings were totally trashed after around 140 inmates took control for some hours. Part of the jail was set on fire. However, more recently it has been slated for poor physical conditions, infestations of vermin and for being awash with drugs, especially new psychoactive substances (NPS).

In May 2013 Lincoln’s newly-opened segregation unit was badly damaged by prisoners during another ‘disturbance’ and rendered inoperable. Amazingly, the MOJ and NOMS managed to suppress all mention of this serious – and costly – incident by the media until the following year when graphic details were provided in an annual report by the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB).

The prison management has also been finding it challenging to recruit new staff to fill vacancies, leading to problems operating a normal regime. A matter of days before the latest incident, the Governing Governor, Peter Wright, also departed.

Liz Truss: not much to smile about
It is fair to say that the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, has not had an auspicious start to her term in office. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the recent event at HMP Lincoln is that the MOJ’s previous policy of imposing media silence appears to be back in operation, presumably as part of a bid to limit the amount of negative reporting of the ongoing prison crisis.

However, simply remaining silent and pretending that all is well inside our troubled prisons is not an option, especially in an era when illicit mobile phones seem to be in more ready supply than frontline prison officers. This weekend we have been treated to mobile footage of a prisoner allegedly cutting £1,000 worth of cannabis resin in his cell at a London prison. It can only be a matter of time before someone talks and the truth of what happened on HMP Lincoln’s A-wing leaks out into the public domain. Then the MOJ will look to be even more in denial of what is really going on behind prison walls, while the bill for the prison crisis is footed - as usual - by the taxpayer.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Cons and Conjugal Bliss

I’d like to thank Philip Davies MP for providing the inspiration behind this blog post. I rarely have anything positive to write about Mr Davies and his grim obsession with punishment and trying to imprison virtually anything that moves, but on this occasion he has proved helpful, albeit unintentionally.

Trussed-up as Lord Chancellor
Last week the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, appeared before Parliament’s Justice Committee and made a complete nitwit of herself. I’ve already written a pretty scathing review of her appalling performance for Politics.co.uk (read here), so I don’t propose to repeat myself. However, I do want to explore one particular exchange between Ms Truss and Mr Davies on the subject of conjugal visits for prisoners.

Sex in prisons seems to be one of Phil the Punisher’s personal fixations and this is not the first time he has raised the issue. On this occasion he enquired of Ms Truss whether her views on prison reform extended to emulating “the Danish model” in which serving inmates are permitted to enjoy conjugal visits with their partners? Perish the very thought.

No sex, please, I'm Grayling
Reassuringly for the Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells tendency, Ms Truss assured Mr Davies that she wasn’t “entirely in favour of the Danish approach.” By which, I think we can safely say, she means that there will be no officially-sanctioned nookie for cons on her watch, a position she shares with her unlamented predecessor but one, Chris Grayling who railed against the idea of any sex in his prisons (including masturbation, which he effectively banned in 2013). Upon hearing this marvellous news, Mr Davies harrumphed his obvious satisfaction, while Ms Truss gave a wry little grin.

However, listening to this bizarre exchange raises the question as to why Conservatives in particular (and most British politicians in general) are so opposed to the very idea of conjugal visits in prison, given that there is widespread acceptance of the idea that maintaining strong family ties can play an important role in reducing reoffending? Particularly for prisoners serving long sentences, it can be very difficult to keep intimate relationships alive across the decades when physical contact is either limited to a quick kiss at the beginning and end of a closely supervised visit, or else is prohibited altogether.

Family Days: more child-friendly
Prisons in the UK do acknowledge this and many already provide so-called ‘family days’ when visiting takes place in a much more relaxed environment than usual and privileged prisoners are permitted to wear their own clothing, as well as move around the visits hall and play games with their children for most of the day. Some prisons even lay on a buffet lunch. However, this is still a very far cry from permitting any kind of sexual contact between prisoners and their partners.

Occasionally some form of illicit sexual activity does occur during visits in closed prisons and then there are the predictable headlines in the tabloids voicing outrage, while trading on their readers’ appetite for titillation. However, for the vast majority of prisoners any kind of sexual relief occurs back in the cell when they are on their own, despite Mr Grayling’s misguided efforts to impose chastity by regulation.

Chris Grayling's preferred solution
Yet across the world, the very idea of denying prisoners conjugal visits seems absurd. Both Australia (limited to two states) and Canada have permitted such visits for years. South Africa is currently debating the issue in a bid to reduce the prevalence of rape in prisons.

As Mr Davies rightly observed, Denmark also permits conjugal visits. However, so do Finland, Norway and Sweden, so why the Danes were particularly singled out by Phil the Flogger is unclear. Perhaps he just subconsciously liked the rather suggestive phrase ‘Danish model’.

Moreover, France, Germany, Spain, Romania and Russia all permit some categories of prisoners to enjoy conjugal visits by spouses or partners, as do India, Israel, Turkey and even Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (in the three last cases for married heterosexuals only). Further afield, Brazil and Mexico also allow for such visits, although in the USA only a handful of states permit conjugals (while no federal penitentiaries do). In the vast majority of cases such visits are offered as a privilege that must be earned through good behaviour. In Canada, those inmates who qualify are offered up to 72-hours of family life in a special apartment within the prison walls every couple of months.

The current prison policy
In November 2014, a report undertaken by the European Prison Observatory (a project funded by the Criminal Justice Programme of the European Union) reviewed the issue of conjugal visits for prisoners across EU member states. It recommended that those countries where such facilities are currently banned should consider providing them. Needless to note, such liberal ideas were ridiculed by the rabid tabloids and rejected swiftly by politicians in government.

Doubtless one of the main concerns would be how to sell such a radical shift in prison policy to the general public - the so-called acceptability test. The current Conservative stance appears to be driven in part by a fear of seeming to be soft on prisoners and part by a general resistance to allowing those in the state’s custody to behave like normal adults, rather than naughty children. There is probably also a sizeable dollop of faux morality and prudishness over anything and everything sexual. Hence Grayling’s Victorian-era attitude to masturbation (and any other type of sexual activity) in our prisons.

Ideal solution for a conjugal ROTL
Of course, back in the UK open prisons (Cat-D) do – effectively – allow some serving prisoners to have sex, but this occurs when they are outside the prison boundaries having been granted a period of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL). Inmates on day ROTL sometimes check into local hotels or B&Bs with their spouses or partners for a few hours of intimacy. One enterprising wife used to collect her husband at the prison gate in their camper van and head off to a secluded rural location for the day.

Those prisoners allowed three or four days of home leave can obviously avail themselves of the comforts of their own beds, shared with their spouses or partners. All of which can play an important role in strengthening family relationships, as well as preparing an inmate for an eventual return to normal life on release. The value of home leave for family members, who will also have to make major adjustments to their own lives often after many years of separation, should not be overlooked either.

Conjugal visit cell, Ohio state prisons
While I was in Cat-D, one of my own room mates (no cells in open conditions) had a young son who had been conceived during the single day release he had received before being returned to closed conditions earlier in his sentence. He was serving an indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) and was already six years over tariff on a 24-month minimum. The fact that he had a child by his girlfriend had changed his life.

Now he was back in open conditions for a second attempt. As he told me, he now had a family and a future that was worth living for. Had he had neither, he confided that he might well have opted for suicide given the open-ended nature of his sentence. (He has since been released as a completely free man, having won his appeal and seen his ludicrous IPP quashed by the Court of Appeal).

Shaking the nets in Tunbridge Wells?
So could conjugal visits ever take place within prison walls in the UK? The obvious answer, of course, is yes, although it seems unlikely that such momentous reform would be initiated by a Conservative administration, particularly one as deeply divided as Theresa May’s government. It would take a combination of bravery and common sense to broach a sensitive subject that would doubtless cause the window nets of blue-rinsed matrons and red-faced colonels to shake from Tunbridge Wells to Bognor Regis.

In view of the current crisis in our prisons fuelled by overcrowding and under-staffing, there would also be resourcing issues to consider. If there aren’t sufficient prison officers to escort prisoners to work, exercise, education or the library, what chance of establishing special units equipped for conjugal visits? And what of the risk of drugs and violence?

However, the benefits in British prisons could be significant. Firstly, one of the main criticisms of the current Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system is that even the highest level – Enhanced – offers little genuine incentive to behave. However, if one of the privileges on offer included the prospect of occasional conjugal visits, then gaining and keeping Enhanced might become a real incentive for many prisoners, especially those serving longer sentences.

Physical intimacy: rehabilitation
Secondly, beyond the simple issue of incentives, there are other positive advantages, as repeated studies of prison systems in other countries indicate. There is evidence that conjugal visits do support rehabilitation. Other countries seem to recognise that maintaining family ties means far more than weekly phone calls, letters and even face-to-face visits across a table in an enormous, noisy visits hall.

It can also involve physical intimacy, shared confidences in a safe environment, discussions of difficult issues involving children or in-laws, sharing a joke, cooking a meal together and reconnecting as human beings who plan to live a shared life again after release. These are tangible things that can all contribute to the successful rehabilitation of ex-offenders and their reintegration back into the community at the end of a custodial sentence.

Rather than sniggering in front of the Justice Committee and laughing at Mr Davies’ ‘Danish model’ quip, Liz Truss might do well to consider what she really means by ‘prison reform’ and rehabilitation. At the moment there is a very real suspicion that she just doesn’t have a clue. Treating the incarcerated – and their partners – as human beings, with a range of normal human needs, including a desire for sexual intimacy, would be a very good start. It would also doubtless drive Phil the Flogger ‘apoplectic’ (his own word) and that would be fine too.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Visit (Guest Post)

The latest in a series of guest posts on this blog is this poem written by Patrick C. Notchtree. Patrick is the author of a ‘fictional biography’ - a trilogy now published as The Clouds Still Hang (2012) - as well as Apostrophe Catastrophe And Other Grammatical Grumbles (2015).

Patrick C. Notchtree
The Clouds Still Hang is described as a ‘sometimes terrifying life story... of love and loyalty, betrothal and betrayal, triumph and tragedy.’ Writing of his books, he observes that ‘Telling my story, good and bad, warts and all, was the main aim.’

Prior to publication, one literary agent told him that his trilogy was ‘too hot to handle.’ Owing to its content, it is unsuitable for those under 18 years of age.

Patrick now lives in the north of England with his wife, and close to his son and other family members. He is a regular visitor to prisons and the observations and raw emotions he expresses in the poem below will doubtless be all too familiar to anyone who has visited a loved one or a friend in a custodial environment.

Patrick is also a critical commentator on prison issues and the urgent need for reform. He can be followed on Twitter: @pcnotchtree.


The Visit

I drive alone, glee mixed with fear
Along the now familiar way
I foresee your smile, your joy at seeing me
I fear your gloom, your basic misery.
What crisis has hit you?
What illness attacked you,
left by an uncaring system?
As I drive, my mind is full;
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
Perhaps all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I know I will miss
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

The buildings squat low among the fields
As though the huge site tries to conceal,
The depravity of its existence.
As I get near, I sound the horn
Our special code, in case you can hear
To lift your mood, your love is now near
My gaze tries to penetrate
The wall that incarcerates.
In the car park I pause, I am still free,
Empty my pockets, just coins, ID and a key.
Soon I know I will have
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
Perhaps all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I know I will miss
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

The electric doors take me in too,
But they bring me closer to you.
Search, rub down and then I’m through.
Look down the room, are you there yet?
Then to the shop hatch, I know what to get;
Lots of chocolate and very sweet tea.
(That’s for you, much less for me.)
Along the big room I carry the tray
To where you are sitting, it’s now our day.
And now so briefly at last I have
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And yes I do miss
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

You smile your smile, I sense your love
But kept under wraps in this public space.
Other cons, and screws watch this place
Not to mention the lenses above.
We talk, catch up, where is the letter?
Written last week, still not arrived.
Despite complaints, that gets no better.
But now for a time, so long deprived,
At last I have
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
I really do miss
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

My eyes take you in, the pallor of your skin
Fed on so little, under two pounds a day.
Not surprising you look so thin.
The chocolate bar is pushed away.
It’s now too rich, too much to eat,
On the edge of malnutrition,
More and more less of a treat,
I’m scared for your condition.
But just for now I have
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
I long to have too
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

My eyes take you in, your hair to your toes
You are still there, despite being clad
In the blue prison clothes.
This respite from your pad.
We ask how can I help you,
Trapped in the prison of your past,
So you never see another screw,
And make you truly free at last?
But just for now I have
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

You live in the moment, I know
Your defence for the torment inside,
On release, where can you go?
But we manage a laugh, a joke beside.
Then comes the call, “Finish off now.”
The pain of knowing that now we must part.
I’ll keep on coming, I made that vow,
I’ll hold these memories deep in my heart.
But now I must leave
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I so want as well
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

I walk to the door, go through the check,
I turn and look back, to see if you wave.
You’re at the far end, I’m craning my neck
You get that last glimpse; you’re being so brave.
Then I am out, into the sunlight,
Empty my locker and walk back to our car,
I sit for a moment, my tears out of sight.
Then the drive back, so near and so far.
As I drive, my mind is full;
The sight of your face,
The sound of your voice,
And all too briefly, the touch of you.
And I know I will miss
The scent of you,
The taste of you.

© 2015 Patrick C Notchtree

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Choudary Conundrum

It seems to be an unhappy coincidence, but recent news of the conviction of Anjem Choudary, the British Islamist radical leader, on charges of ‘inviting support for a proscribed organisation’ (namely so-called Islamic State) has come at around the same time as the Ministry of Justice announced its new plans to segregate extremist leaders in prisons in order to reduce the risk of other prisoners becoming radicalised and inspired to commit acts of terrorism. So what are the chances that this new strategy can deliver?

Anjem Choudary
I have blogged before on the impact of radicalisation in our dysfunctional prison system back in 2014 and 2015 (read posts here and here). In the intervening period little or nothing appears to have been done to address this issue, although the previous Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, did commission a report on the matter. This was prepared by former prison governor Ian Acheson and a summary of his findings – although not the whole report – was released on 22 August.

When compared with our bloated and overcrowded prison system, the actual numbers involved look relatively small. We currently have around 85,100 people in custody in prisons England and Wales. Of these, only 137 are Muslims convicted of terrorism-related offences. However, those who identify as Muslims within our jails number around 12,600 and the overwhelming majority are either serving time for a very wide variety of criminal offences other than terrorism or are being held on remand.

Sir Humphrey... a Civil Service master
It is this population – along with hundreds of young, impressionable or vulnerable non-Muslim inmates – that presents would-be radical recruiters with an audience that contains at least some individuals who are ripe for recruitment or conversion to the most extreme interpretations of current Islamist thought and practice. To date, as Mr Acheson’s report acknowledges, HM Prison Service has not been “effective” in tackling extremism within the prison estate. He is obviously a master of the traditional Civil Service gift for understatement. Sir Humphrey, the star of Yes Minister, would be so very proud.

During my own time inside between 2012 and 2014 I was very much aware of just how little most prison staff were aware of what was going on under their noses when it came to radicalisation (and this applied not just to Islamist extremists, but far right groups too). However, even when it was clear that some pretty severe bullying and aggressive proselytisation was going on across the wings, many staff members seemed at a loss what to do about it. I sensed an all-pervasive fear of getting involved with anything that might be interpreted as interference with, or obstruction of, religious practices or even racism.

Might be useful for staff
Having previously lived and worked in several Muslim countries, including Dubai and Iran, I was probably much more attuned to what was going on than most uniformed staff members. I served my single sentence in six prisons and during that time I am certain that I never met a single member of the frontline staff who was a Muslim or who spoke Arabic or any other relevant language such as Urdu, Pashto or Persian. Of course, it is possible that the prisons’ security departments were keeping tabs on those who were involved in ‘grooming’ younger, more vulnerable inmates, but if so I saw little or no evidence of anything being done on the wings.

I also met other prisoners who had fallen foul of radical gangs in different prisons and, rather than break up the tight cliques that effectively took control of spurs (small corridors) or even entire wings, governors and custodial managers appeared more willing to transfer the non-Muslim prisoner to another establishment rather than actually challenge dominant groups controlling large swathes of territory in the prisons under their charge. I certainly gained the impression that as long as radical gangs were not openly disrupting the daily regime or engaging in open violence, especially against staff, there was a tacit approach of leaving well alone.

Perhaps a major part of that was due to the current policies that deal with equality and non-discrimination in our prisons. As a peer mentor I worked closely with other inmates who were equality and diversity reps and it seemed that rank and file officers were often unwilling to challenge Muslim radicals (or some other very visible groups that had the advantage of numbers on the wings) because of a fear that they might face formal accusations or complaints of harassment or racial discrimination. Even if entirely unjustified, such allegations can be both stressful and time-consuming to contest via internal prison channels.

Distinctive Muslim dress in prison
A general lack of knowledge about Islam and its central tenets among prison staff certainly didn’t help matters. I lost count of the number of occasions officers who queried specific practices or activities were told by prisoners: “It’s my religion, guv!”

There is no doubt in my own mind that in quite a few cases inmates were manipulating and even intimidating wing staff who actually had no idea whether what they were being told was true. A few did refer issues to the part-time Muslim chaplain, but to be honest this involved yet more bureaucracy and paperwork, by which stage the original issue was often long forgotten. It was easier to give the benefit of the doubt when it came to unfamiliar religious issues or demands.

However, beyond these more practical questions, there was a wider concern over what these tightly-knit groups or gangs were discussing behind closed cell doors or in informal meetings outside of formal organised prayers led by Muslim chaplains. Where there was a critical mass of prisoners from specific countries or regions, language could be used as a badge of separation. I was in one Cat-B prison where perhaps 12 or 14 prisoners regularly communicated among themselves in various dialects of Arabic, completely unintelligible to those who didn’t speak the language, including other inmates and the entire wing staff.

Instrumental music is banned
In most group structures there was also evidence of dominant or influential leaders who set the tone for the behaviour of the other members of their circle. In some cases the level of influence or control was quite significant, encompassing issues such as listening to instrumental music (considered haram or forbidden as ‘un-Islamic’ by many radical Sunni Salafi sects), sharing prison cells with non-Muslims (‘kuffar’), issues of modesty in the communal showers and even associating on friendly terms with other prisoners. I saw various books and pamphlets being circulated within these groups, often in foreign languages that I was sure no member of the prison staff could possibly have read or checked.

In one prison, Muslim prisoners sought to take control of specific corridors (including the small wing kitchens and shower blocks) in order to bar entry to non-Muslims. This was justified by reference to the need to keep kitchen equipment ‘uncontaminated’ and suitable for the preparation of halal food. By excluding non-believers from the shower blocks, standards of Islamic ‘modesty’ could be imposed. This level of segregation was entirely self-imposed by members of the group.

Drugs found in prisons
Against this background, it is easy to understand the concerns that have been highlighted in Mr Acheson’s report. There can be no doubt that in some cases the gang culture also embraces a range of criminal activities such as drug trafficking and supply to other prisoners, especially non-Muslims. This is a specific area where particularly vulnerable prisoners, such as weak or addicted young men, can be groomed and brought into the orbit of the dominant group or gang.

There is also a very real risk of individual members of prison staff – uniformed and civilian – being threatened, intimidated or drawn into compromising situations by well-organised gangs of extremists. This is a specific security problem that is rarely mentioned or acknowledged, but given the recent number of prison staff convicted of misconduct (a total of 10 in the past 14 weeks, usually for smuggling contraband) it cannot be ignored. I attribute the easy availability of prohibited mobile phones and SIM cards in most of our prisons to porous security, too often aided and abetted by corrupt members of the prison staff, both uniformed and civilian, who supply smuggled items in return for cash payments outside the prison walls.

So will the latest proposals being brought forward by Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Justice, address the threats posed by radical leaders – so-called ‘emirs’ – in our prisons? At one level, containment of the problem is probably the best that can be achieved. By introducing small, specialist units that isolate known or suspected radical leaders and recruiters their direct influence on wings may be reduced, if not entirely eliminated. By creating a number of such units in high security prisons, it may also allow governors to move such inmates around the estate regularly, thus disrupting groups of prisoners that they may create or lead.

Separation in special units
The wider issues will remain, however. A significant number of prisoners arrive in our prisons bringing radical, anti-establishment ideas in with them. Periods in custody do little or nothing to combat ideologies or religious fervour. In fact, it is usually quite the opposite. Bored and disgruntled, some inmates seek solace in regarding their incarceration as a form of ‘martyrdom’. Christians and adherents of most other major world faiths have gone down a similar path for millennia, so it is unlikely that Islamists will not do the same.

Imprisonment, particularly in harsh conditions, is very unlikely to persuade radicalised inmates to abandon their views and come to love the British state and its institutions. Our prisons have been dubbed ‘hate factories’ for a very good reason. Almost all of these individuals will eventually be released back into the community and many will emerge even more radicalised and filled with hatred for ‘the system’ than they were when they were sent down.

Claimed solutions – such as offending behaviour courses or even radical ‘deprogramming’ – are very unlikely to work with most extremists of whatever persuasion. In any case, these interventions are very costly and require levels of specialist staff that HM Prison Service simply doesn’t have. Given its past track record of failure, I think it is very unlikely that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) will be able to resolve a crisis situation that it has allowed to develop and fester across our prison system for many years.

The MOJ: too little, too late?
Moreover, creating a new unit within the MOJ headed by an anti-extremism ‘tsar’ seems to smack of the usual ‘Something Must be Done-ism’ that all too often dominates political thinking when it comes to our prisons. It is likely to be a costly bureaucratic response to a problem that would be better served by recruiting more frontline prison staff, including qualified specialists capable of strengthening the intelligence and security departments of specific prisons where radicalisation has been identified as a serious threat. If such prisons don’t have staff members who can read and understand Arabic and other key languages, as well as understanding current Islamic faith and practice, the intelligence battle will be already half lost.

So how will Mr Choudary fare inside the slammer? Having already firmly established his persona as a leading ‘public enemy’ via the ever-helpful British media, the likelihood is that he has already settled into his new role as an Islamist ‘martyr’, oppressed by the infidel, godless UK state he claims to loathe so much. This is his golden opportunity to fight his own personal jihad from the relative comfort of a prison cell. Even in the comparative isolation of one of Ms Truss’s specialist segregation units he will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to take the leadership his tiny flock of like-minded individuals, spreading hated and mistrust as he goes round the prison system.

As a well-educated and articulate former solicitor he will almost certainly become one of the best prison cell lawyers and then run rings round the prison authorities, while causing the unfortunate governors and managers no end of time-consuming trouble and voluminous paperwork. I’d also be amazed if he doesn’t take the government to court sooner to later over the restrictive conditions in which he will be held. And, above all, he will no doubt find a way of smuggling out his sermons and fatwas as a rallying call to his remaining supporters outside the prison walls. If anyone thinks they have heard the last of Mr Choudary and his dangerous ideology, I fear they will be very much mistaken.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Porridge... Attack of the Drones (2016)

The following parody on the much-loved BBC classic Porridge has been contributed by Jonathan Robinson, author of In It and On It, two books about his own experiences in prison and after. No infringement of any copyright is intended.





Porridge: Attack of the Drones (2016)

A parody by
Jonathan Robinson

(with love, respect, admiration and apologies to Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais)


(Prison Interior Cell. Evening. The Door is unlocked. 
Godber enters. 
Fletcher is sat at the table reading the paper)

GODBER
Watcha Fletch!

FLETCHER
Hmmm...

GODBER
Not the normal bonhomie then... What’s bothering you? What you looking at?

FLETCHER
Catching up on the news on the outside my son. One’s got to keep abreast of the situation, innit?

GODBER
Oh, page three.

FLETCHER
You mind your insolence you nerk. I’m reading the news. This is important. That Justice Minister who was making a stink about prison education has been booted out.

GODBER
Gove’s gone goodbye?

FLETCHER
Gove’s gone goodbye Godber.

GODBER
Great. That’s my level three qualification out the window then.

FLETCHER
Maybe not.... I’ve had an idea... Have it come through the window.

GODBER
(sitting down – enthusiastic)
Yeah? How?

FLETCHER
Drones.

GODBER
Drains?

FLETCHER
Drones, you nerk. In the old days we’d get stuff in and out through drains. Now they use drones.

GODBER
Drains – like in Shawshank?

FLETCHER
Yes, but them days have gone down the drain. Now it’s drones. We’re gonna use our noddle – or rather my noddle – and get Grouty’s Flying Corps to airlift in your level three paperwork.

GODBER
Grouty’s Flying Corps?

FLETCHER
Grouty’s got more drones flying in and out of here than you can shake a stick at. The skies over this nick are busier than Heathrow Airport. He’s even selling landing slots now. D wing has been earmarked as Terminal 5. Richard Branson’s terrified.

GODBER
What do they bring in?

FLETCHER
Spice my son. Grouty’s got more spice than David Beckham’s record collection.

GODBER
Oh, the old spice.

FLETCHER
Old spice? That was Henry Cooper and Barry Sheene mate. This stuff is what the youngsters crave these days. Splash it all over. Then they go berserk. Evil stuff.

GODBER
What about the screws?

FLETCHER
What screws? Haven’t you noticed there aren’t any – or hardly any left? And those that are herearen’t
interested – apart from Mackay and Barrowclough.

GODBER
Suppose not.

FLETCHER
I’ll have a word with Grouty...

(Fade out on Fletcher looking thoughtful)
(Prison Interior. The Landings. Evening. Fletcher is walking to the end cell. Prisoners stand about talking. Lukewarm taps Fletcher on the arm)

LUKEWARM
Ooooh. Hello Fletch. Are you going to come along to my evening class? Lots of lovely men have signed up.

FLETCHER
Not now, thanks Lukewarm – but I’m glad it’s going well. Nice one, my old son.

LUKEWARM
The prisoners love it, the little dears. My Graham says he’s very proud of me.

FLETCHER
Yeah, that’s great Lukewarm, but I’ve got to trot along – I’m in a hurry see? I’ve got to go and see
Grouty.

(Snap-cut to Mackay who has been observing this conversation)

MACKAY
FLETCHAAAAAAAAR! Don’t moooooooooooove.

FLETCHER
Oh, gawd.

MACKAY
What are you two undesirables plotting? What hideous devious criminality are you discussing during
your overlong undeserved association time?

LUKEWARM
We were discussing my evening class Mr Mackay. That’s all.

FLETCHER
Yes, Mr Mackay. We were discussing Lukewarm’s evening class. You should go. All prison officers
should go. You’re perfect for it.

MACKAY
(Real sceptical Mackay look and flinch)
What class is that? Knitting lessons?

FLETCHER
No, it’s Turning Pages. Teaches illiterates how to read. Like I said – perfect for prison officers.

(Snap-cut to Mackay’s Looks-Could-Kill reaction. Fletcher makes his escape. 
Lukewarm grins) 

(Fade)

(Prison Interior. Cell. Evening. The Door is unlocked. A heavy stands guard. Fletcher knocks)

GROUT
(off camera)
Enter.

FLETCHER
(entering)
Evening Grouty.

GROUT
Oh, Fletch. How very nice it is to see you. What a pleasure. For you, of course.

(Grouty’s cell is decked-out with luxuries – as per the 70’s series – but up to date items: flat Screen TV, DVD player, iPlayer stereo etc. A poster of Prime Minister Theresa May has pride of place above the (four-poster) single bed. On the back of the cell door is a poster of Jeremy Corbyn – it has a dart board covering the middle of his face. By the desk, adjacent to some books, is a framed picture of Michael Gove, the glass in the frame has recently been cracked. 
Above the lavatory is a photograph of Chris Grayling)

FLETCHER
Yes, well, I just thought I’d pop along and have a chat... you know...

GROUT
Fletch, in all the years I’ve known you, whenever you ‘pop along’ to see me, it’s because you want
something...

FLETCHER
Oh, dearie me. Am I that fickle? Apologies, Grouty. I’ll try and make my appearances more regular. Like the food in this place does to us.

GROUT
Wouldn’t know. I have a hamper delivered each week from Harrods.

FLETCHER
Oh nice. Very nice.

GROUT
What do you want Fletcher? I’m very busy. I’m about to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones.

FLETCHER
Oh, right. It’s amazing who crops up in that, innit? Can I sit down?

GROUT
No.

FLETCHER
Right then... well, it’s about your dro.... (checks himself – doesn’t want to incriminate himself – or cause aggravation) ...about your... er... aerial delivery services...

GROUT
(closing up a file on his desk which says DRONE DELIVERIES on the front)
Nothing to do with me Fletch.

FLETCHER
No. No, of course not Grouty, of course not. But you being the main man in this nick, you know – the
kingpin – apart from the governor of course...
(Snap cut to evil look from Grout)

FLETCHER (Continued)
...well of course he looks up to you too, don’t he? So yeah, that does make you this prison’s kingpin don’t it? Yeah.
(Snap cut to delighted look from Grout)

FLETCHER (Continued)
...so you being numero uno – and all that – I wondered if you could use your influence – and get something in for me, via your dro... via your aerial serv... via the aerial services that someone else is running in this nick.

GROUT
(smugly – butter wouldn’t melt)
Aerial services? Is that how stuff is getting in these days? There’s a notion.

FLETCHER
Yeah. Drones.

GROUT
Really? Drones? What will they think of next?

FLETCHER
Yeah, hundreds of them. I hear there’s so many coming and going that plane-spotters have started
hanging around outside this prison.

GROUT
Oh Fletch, you’re always so witty...

FLETCHER
So I wondered if you could arrange... if it could be arranged... for something to be brought in?

GROUT
(highly suspicious)
What exactly?

FLETCHER
Paperwork.

GROUT
(leching)
Smutty paperwork?

FLETCHER
Oh no – NO – we get that from the screws. And Channel Five. This is educational material – for the lad – you know, young Godber. He wants to do his level three qualification – and as you know; no way is that happening in this nick – or any other nick, come to that.

GROUT
Yes, our education in prison is a disgrace.

FLETCHER
There’s no hope for the youngsters in clink – even the ones who want to engage with the system. The head of education here goes about banning stuff – even the good ideas – and I want to help give young Lennie Godber a leg-up. He’s got potential that lad. Naffing system does naff all to encourage it.

GROUT
You know Fletch, I wonder if we’d been educated properly on our first stretch – whether or not we’d have kept coming back...

FLETCHER
Yeah, good point Grouty.

GROUT
How many stretches you done Fletch?

FLETCHER
Dunno. Lost count. More stretches than a yoga instructor.

GROUT
Very droll Fletch. Very droll. Leave your request with me and I’ll see what I can do.

(Fade)

(Prison Interior. The Landings. Evening. Fletcher is walking back to his cell. Prisoners stand about talking. Prison officer Barrowclough is standing mid-landing with (new) prison officer Selous. Fletcher spots them, rolls his eyes and approaches...)

BARROWCLOUGH
And this, Mr Selous, is our notorious long-time resident Mr Fletcher.

FLETCHER
Evening Mr Barrowclough. Showing the new-boy the ropes?

BARROWCLOUGH
Yes, Fletcher, this is officer Selous. He unfortunately lost his old job, so he decided to become a prison officer. Isn’t that nice of him?

FLETCHER
Oh, very charitable. Well, Mr Selous, welcome to our world.

SELOUS
Really impressed by the vision and dedication of officers and staff.

FLETCHER
Pardon?

SELOUS
Really impressed. Very high standard of furnishing and a great lifestyle for all the residents here.

FLETCHER
I’m sorry?

SELOUS
Pleased to see the improved regime.

FLETCHER
(to Barrowclough)
Does he always talk like that?

BARROWCLOUGH
He’s only just been trained.

FLETCHER
How long is the training for our new officers now Mr Barrowclough?

BARROWCLOUGH
Still only a number of weeks – but some minister or other increased it by 14 days.

FLETCHER
Oh, that’ll make all the difference then, won’t it.

(Fade)

(Fletcher makes his leave and we track him walking to the prisoner phones. 
He looks around to make sure he is not being watched or listened to and picks a phone up. 
He put the receiver to his ear and begins to dial in a number...)

(Prison Interior Cell. Evening. The Door is unlocked. Fletcher enters. 
Godber is sat at the table) 

FLETCHER
Well I think – think – young Godber, that I may have cracked it for you to get your level three qualification sorted.

GODBER
Oh, thanks Fletch. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
(Fletcher climbs up to his bunk – but doesn’t answer. Godber realises something is on Fletcher’s mind so continues his enthusiastic thanks)

GODBER (Continued)
...I mean I’m just a lad from Smethwick. Mucked up. Ended up in nick. I want to improve myself. I don’t want to come back here... but the system doesn’t want to help... it’s only because of your help that I might be OK. Thanks Fletch...

(No response from Fletcher)

GODBER (Continued)
...Did you hear me Fletch?

(No response from Fletcher)

GODBER (Continued)
Fletch, are you alright?

(Fletcher sits up on his bunk. Makes a heavy sigh)
FLETCHER
Yeah, I’m alright... it’s just something Grouty said has made me realise something.

GODBER
What did he say?

FLETCHER
He said he wondered if us old cons had been educated properly when we first came to stir – whether that would have straightened us out – and stopped us coming back.

GODBER What did you say?

FLETCHER
Nothing. But I think he might be right. If I’d got my head down when I was in nick when I was your age... if the system had let me get my head down... I wonder whether I’d be here now... what a waste...

(Tap on door. Fletcher and Godber look up. 
Bunny Warren (the illiterate prisoner) is at the door – grinning)

WARREN
Evening lads.

GODBER
Hi Warren.

WARREN
(entering)
I’ve got a message for you Fletch. From Grouty. I memorised it from his note.

FLETCHER
Memorised it? You can’t read you nerk.

WARREN
Wrong, Fletch.

FLETCHER
What?

WARREN
(grinning)
You are wrong. Incorrect.

GODBER
What do you mean Warren?

WARREN
(proudly)
I’ve learnt to read. With Lukewarm. And Turning Pages. I’m intellectual now.

FLETCHER
God preserve us.

GODBER
Well done Warren!

FLETCHER
What did the note say?

WARREN
I dunno – I couldn’t read his handwriting. So he just told me to tell you to be at your cell window – making sure it’s open – tonight at 1030. Make yourselves very obvious – wave or something and flash your telly on and off...

(Fade)
The next day...
(Interior governor’s office. Hasn’t changed much since the 70’s series – but a new bar graph has appeared on the wall behind his desk headed Self Harmers – it shows a huge increase in numbers over the last 12 months.
The governor is sitting at his desk. He is ticking some boxes.
Off Camera we hear Mackay’s voice (loud) and he, Fletcher and Godber enter shot...)

MACKAY
Two prisoners for adjudication to see the governor! MOOOOOVE YOURSELVES. One-two, one- two, one-two.

(Fletcher and Godber march up to, and halt, in front of the governor’s desk. 
Fletcher panting, Godber looking highly agitated)

MACKAY (continued)
One, two! HALT!!!!!! Face the FRONT!!!! Stand STILL! Prisoners Fletcher and Godber on adjudication SAH! Charged with operating DRONES in and out of the prison SAH!

GOVERNOR
This is very serious. Very serious indeed. What happened Mr Mackay?

MACKAY
Six – SIX – robotic aerial drones, or the remains thereof, were discovered outside these two prisoners’ cell window. Crashed – and smashed to SMITHEREENS. It’s a downright liberty and I’ve got you bang to rights Fletcher. Copious quantities of spice packets have been found STREWN across the courtyard.

GOVERNOR
Where outside their cell window?

MACKAY
In the IMB carpark sir. Four Volvos have been irretrievably damaged – they are beyond repair.

FLETCHER
It’s nothing to do with me or the lad, sir.

(Snap cut to Godber: wide-eyed and terrified)

MACKAY
NONSENSE! Don’t come it with me Fletcher. It’s been like the Battle of Britain around here recently. Your aerial blitz is OVER!

FLETCHER
If they were ours Mr Mackay, why was our window not open when you came blasting into our cell?

GOVERNOR
Their window wasn’t open?

MACKAY
(realising his case has just collapsed).
Er... No... No sir, it wasn’t.

FLETCHER
(to Mackay)
And where were we both when you came crashing in to our humble abode?

MACKAY
(to governor – woefully – the battle is lost).
They were both standing by their television sir, Godber was changing the channels. Repeatedly.
Fletcher was jumping up and down.

FLETCHER
It’s called channel hopping.

GOVERNOR
If their window wasn’t open – they don’t have a case to answer to Mr Mackay. The good news is that the awful drones won’t be bothering us anymore. Fletcher and Godber, you are dismissed. Thank you Mr Mackay.
MACKAY
(Livid)
SAH! Right you two, ABOOOOOOT turn! QUICK MARCH! One two, one two, one two...

(Fade)

(Prison Interior. Corridor outside the governor’s office. Morning. 
Mackay (furious), Fletcher and Godber (who can’t believe they’ve got away scot-free) stop. 
Mackay spins on his heel and confronts Fletcher)

MACKAY
Fletcher, we both know that you’ve been up to something. You may have got away with it – again – but I’m going to stick like glue to you now.

FLETCHER
I don’t know what you’re talking about Mr Mackay.

MACKAY
Yes, YOU DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

FLETCHER
Mr Mackay. Instead of berating me and the boy, you should be happy that there’s no more drones
droning around your prison.

MACKAY
(with the Mackay flinch)
I – without any doubt whatsoever – KNOW you were something to do with this. I’m now going to
(Mackay exits)
inspect the wings...

MACKAY
(Off camera)
IVES... GET YOUR HAIR CUT!!!!
GODBER
I don’t believe this. You set Grouty up so his drones would crash into our window – to stop spice coming in.

FLETCHER
(smugly)

Might have...

GODBER
You’re a flippin’ marvel Fletch. Didn’t get my naffing level three paperwork though. FLETCHER
Yes, you did.

GODBER
Eh?

FLETCHER
I made a phone call yesterday.
(Fletcher removes envelope from inside his jacket)

FLETCHER (continued)
I arranged for your naffing paperwork to be posted in. Arrived this morning. Barrowclough just gave it to me. With all the drone palaver, no one could be bothered to check what was in it.
(Fletcher passes envelope)

FLETCHER (continued)
You’re up and running, lad. Level three here we go. The skies the limit for you... but not for Grouty no more...

GODBER
Fletch. You haven’t changed a bit.

FLETCHER
It’s still us and them, lad. Us and them. And buck the system...

(Fade. Titles)