Tuesday 13 October 2015

The Brave One (Guest Contribution)

This is the first in a planned series of guest posts from those contributors who have personal experience of different aspects of our criminal justice system. Jonathan Robinson is the author of two books about his own prison experiences - In It and On It - and he is an active campaigner for prison reform. He highlights the urgent need for a focus on education, literacy and vocational training in our prisons as central elements in rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.

Jonathan Robinson
When in prison (as a customer) I was always amazed by the good manners exhibited by most fellow inmates towards members of the fairer sex. Recently on a prison visit with the (proper) author Martina Cole, as a number of us journeyed outside pathways within the establishment, we passed a group of inmates traversing in the opposite direction – and very jolly they were too. Lots of elegant “welcome Miss” and “thank you for coming” demeanour flew around the acoustics. Frankly, the manners displayed were unquestionably better than the pristine occupants of Westminster during the fundamentals of Prime Minister’s Questions.

I stopped and chatted to one of the friendly mob. He grinned a pure swashbuckling Colgate smile – and having no idea that he was conversing with an ex-prisoner – remarked that I was a “brave one” in that I actually engaged in conversation with a (shudder) “serving prisoner”.

A brave one? I think not. I just like chatting with inmates – especially those who want to engage – get their teeth into rehabilitation; capitalise the time they are serving with productivity. The partial quota within that division is larger than you can possibly imagine.

Bravery is something that I wish (in spades) upon our new Justice Minister, Michael Gove. For in order to significantly sort out our dismal prison system he’s going to have to rip-up a lot of the existing stuff (not) going on – which inevitably is going to essentially significantly cheese someone off, some salutary organisation – or some tabloid paper – you know, the ones that invariably refer to prisoners as ‘lags’.

Michael Gove: reformer?
Fact of the matter is though – England and Wales’ daunting current re-offending rate is blighted bottom of the statisticians’ E.U. league and hefty reform is needed now to address this. Mr Gove has incomparably made more than all the right noises insofar as acknowledging all is not well – as is – dans Porridge land and that he intends to fix it.

I have – for an awful long time now – been assuredly banging on to politicians, routinely mumbling dissatisfaction about the lack of purposeful activity in ensconced clink, making a complete nuisance of myself with a barrage of whys and wherefores... The same politicians who all to a man emphatically invariably see the recalcitrant prison issue as “an election loser” – the request to reverse that notion and make our fundamentally awry lamentable prison system something we can all be proud of – and Mr Gove’s initial toe in the water has been widespread welcomed by the rejuvenated prison reform mafia. The community who drone-on about fixing our primitive prisons of late has a potent spring in its step with the refreshing rhetoric coming from Mr Gove’s direction. Long may those atmospherics continue.

Be of no doubt however, that Mr Gove is going to need to be really brave in his reforms – for whatever he does – inevitable criticism is going to head his way. I hope he bites the perilous bullet – rides the storm – and stirs up a wayward disastrous system that for far too long has been asleep at the wheel, falling long short of its brief to rehabilitate its houseguests.

If he manages to hold-out – and insists on change – no matter who whinges; then that’s bravery...

(The author of this guest post, Jonathan Robinson, is a former prisoner turned author. His website and more information about his books and prison reform campaigning work can be found here).


  1. I always find it astounding that people who work within the justice and penal systems rarely if ever actually bother to engage with the service users (i.e. the cons) in any meaningful way let alone see them as possessing any semblance of humanity. Most cons and ex cons I've met know full well why they committed crime(s), what would have stopped them and what they need to prevent them from doing so in the future. let the last thing anyone in any position of authority (prison officer, probation officer, OB course facilitator) actually does is ask the offender. Many studies (usually at taxpayer's expense) are conducted to find the best way of solving the massive reoffending problem we have in this country yet no-one actually bothers to engage with the offenders. As Jonathan also says, when someone does, it's met with something of incredulity because it's such a rare event. I am surprised though that he was able to walk round a prison and engage with the inmates as whenever any visitors came to any of the prisons I was in we were all locked away for the duration apart from a few carefully selected inmates who could be trusted to trot out the party line. Apparently criminality is catching so HMP needs to ensure that no visitor comes into contact with an inmate as they will suddenly run out and bash a little old lady over the head or some other ridiculous thing. It's either that or the inmates are locked away from visitors in case, god forbid, someone actually finds out what its really like in prison.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that there is a great deal of talking at prisoners (or other people in the criminal justice system) but not very much listening to them goes on, especially inside prisons!

      I reflected on this when I was once invited to give a presentation to regional governors about peer mentoring by prisoners when I was still an inmate myself. They were politely interested and chatted to me before and after I did my talk, but I definitely had the impression that most of them had never actually spoken WITH a prisoner, as opposed to talking AT one.

      Prison security departments are paranoid about outsiders smuggling in contraband (esp drugs and mobile phone or SIM cards), but while this is a legitimate concern, I believe far more smuggling goes on by staff members (including civilian workers and contractors) than is publicly acknowledged. Kitchen staff in particular are notorious for a two-way traffic into and out of prisons!

      I would like to see far more people having access to prisons, including journalists, researchers, politicians and those working in other areas of the criminal justice system, particularly magistrates. We need to demystify prisons and I could also see value in having open days for the general public and school groups. Obviously there would need to be supervision and control, but keeping prisons in the shadows and allowing myths and misconceptions to flourish really doesn't help anyone.

  2. "the service users"

    Oh dear!

    You mean like Roy Whiting and Ian Huntley, for example... those "service users" ?

    Do you have The Guardian delivered, or do you pop along to the paper shop and pick it up yourself?!

    1. 'Service users' is the official term used by probation!