Thursday, 22 December 2016

Kicking Off… Why Prison Riots Happen

In the aftermath of Friday’s events at HMP Birmingham I wanted to share a few thoughts about prison riots and why they occur. The main reason for the delay has been the fact that I’ve spent so much time explaining many of the same things to journalists who are also trying to make sense of the situation.

HMP Birmingham: 'The Green'
In writing this post, I think it is important to make a distinction between prisoners who protest about poor conditions or mistreatment by refusing to return to their cells or by organising sit-downs or by going on the wire netting that is stretched between landings and those who riot with the intent of destroying the fabric of the prison or else attack staff or fellow inmates. The events in Birmingham on 16 December were, by any measure, a major riot. Had the rioters managed to reach the prison roof, as some tried, then it might have gone on far longer than 12 hours. Mercifully there were very few injuries and only one prisoner required hospital treatment. Staff on the wing could have been taken hostage. That they weren’t may also say something about the aims of the rioters.

Although I’ve previously blogged about the weasel words that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) uses to describe riots in our prisons – ‘disturbances’ or ‘incidents of concerted indiscipline’ (see blog post) – mass disorder on the scale seen at HMP Birmingham has actually been fairly rare, at least until recently. However, when they do happen, there is often a very considerable cost, both financial and human. Early estimates of repairing the damage to the fabric and security systems at Winson Green are already running into the millions of pounds for embattled G4S which holds the contract to run the prison.

Cold showers & riots?
Predictably, some sections of the media – especially the red top tabloids – have been peddling the misleading narrative that prisoners at The Green (as it is widely known in prison circles) went on the rampage because the showers were cold or due to a failure of the in-cell TV system. Neither claim is factually true as an explanation, although such issues can easily play a role in lighting the spark that sets off the powder keg. However, the mass media does have a tendency to try to attribute serious prison problems to seemingly minor or even silly causes – such as the death of an inmate’s pet hamster.

In reality, prison riots usually occur in very troubled prisons that have an extended history of poor management, as well as inmate discontent and frustration. It is rare that one single incident or decision by a governor leads directly to an explosion of rage by prisoners. There is almost always a whole series of issues and complaints that have gone unaddressed for weeks or even months.

There has been widespread speculation that the riot at HMP Birmingham was solely due to staff shortages. Having too few officers on wings definitely doesn’t help to diffuse tensions. If prisoners’ complaints and written applications are being ignored or it takes staff weeks or months to answer, then inevitably frustrations and a sense of grievance can flourish unchecked. When angry men feel that they are being ignored, some come to believe that only by smashing up the environment around them will their voices finally get heard. I think it is safe to say that the whole country is now aware of the situation.

Not such a warm welcome?
Of course, leaving prisoners locked up on their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day – due to staff shortages or lack of activities – can also play a major role in fuelling tensions. Some of the specific complaints made about the daily regime at Winson Green include the regular cancellation of exercise periods and access to the gym. Perhaps small issues in themselves, but they do add up over many weeks and months.

Very similar grievances sparked off the riot at HMP High Down back in 2011 when protesters described themselves as being ‘banged up like kippers’. When eleven of these prisoners were charged with the serious offence of prison mutiny and went on trial in 2014 with the prospect of an additional ten years on top of their sentences, the jury heard evidence from the governor of the appalling conditions at the prison and duly voted unanimously to acquit them all (see blog post). The verdict was a very serious humiliation for the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. This case should be an important lesson for his successor to bear in mind as she continues to threaten dire retribution against the Birmingham prisoners.

In many of my recent media interviews I have also tried to draw attention to the high prevalence of mental illness among prisoners, much of which goes untreated and unaddressed in our dysfunctional prisons. Long days of cellular confinement tend to seriously exacerbate mental health problems as does a lack of opportunities for productive activity and association with others.

Justice Secretary Liz Truss' statement
HMP Birmingham has a troubled recent history. Just reading recent reports prepared by the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) and other official bodies such as HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) highlights many concerns over how the prison was functioning in the months running up to the latest incident (see the IMB report here). Questions also remain unanswered about why the MoJ and its ministers – Secretary of State Liz Truss and Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah – failed to react to the IMB report on HMP Birmingham delivered a few months earlier and at least ensure some urgent remedial action was instituted. In the event, it seems that neither did anything at all - a state of affairs that appears to have troubled even some Conservative back benchers.

The problems identified at The Green have now become common across much of the prison estate. Easily availability of drugs of all kind, particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS), certainly plays a role in fuelling violence between prisoners, as well as unpredictable behaviour from some of those who use ‘Spice’ and ‘Mamba’. However, my own view is that the sheer poverty of daily existence at The Green and the frustrations of what sounds like one long lockdown probably played at least as great a role in the recent trouble as drugs did.

HMP Birmingham - aerial view
Even at the best of times, Cat-B local prisons (usually grim Victorian red brick piles in major cities) are highly volatile places. They receive prisoners straight from court – both on remand and convicted – as well as people on recall for breaching their licence conditions. Many of these men are still in the grip of addictions or living with serious mental health crises. Even those using prescribed medications for their medical conditions can find themselves deprived of these for days or weeks until they have been assessed by the prison healthcare team. It also often takes far too long to identify those newly arrived inmates who require a place in a secure hospital.

Some prisoners in a Cat-B local will be merely passing through or serving ridiculously short sentences of a few weeks or even days, during which nothing meaningful in terms of support for their drug habits or mental health conditions will be on offer. Others coming in from the dock will just be starting to come to terms with very long sentences that stretch out before them like a train track into a very dark tunnel. Many will be scared or disorientated and a lot will be very angry, at themselves and at other people. Some will self-harm and others will commit suicide. None of this makes for a very safe or predictable environment and those are just some of the reasons that Cat-B locals tend to be so troubled and potentially explosive.

HMP Ford in flames (Dec 2010)
In contrast, Cat-B and Cat-C ‘trainers’ (prisons that cater for more settled prisoners at different stages of their sentences) often appear to be much calmer and less prone to mass outbursts of violence or destruction. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. Even an open prison like HMP Ford can succumb to serious trouble, as at New Year’s Eve in 2010 when large parts of the prison went up in smoke when some prisoners rioted over alcohol testing. It’s worth noting, however, that on that occasion other prisoners tried to stop the rioters or at least tried to extinguish the fires.

And this is an important point. During most prison riots there is almost always a significant number of prisoners who aren’t involved. Some try to stay safe in their cells or hide from others who are intent on doing as much damage as possible. In fact, it can be a very dangerous environment on wings for those who don’t want to get involved. They run the risk of being branded collaborators or ‘screwboys’ who aren’t loyal to their fellow inmates.

There have also been other, much more serious prison riots than at Birmingham since the infamous episode at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways back in 1990. As recently as April 2009 HMP Ashwell in Rutland suffered such a catastrophic disturbance that whole wings had to be abandoned and the costs involved were so astronomical that they were never rebuilt. The whole complex eventually had to be abandoned and it is currently used as a film set for prison movies.

Prison riots can be terrifying
How the prison authorities behave in the aftermath of a serious riot is also very important. Damage to the security systems at The Green and the fact that an officer’s keys were seized by prisoners have led to full scale lockdown for nearly a week, even for those prisoners who were on other wings where there was no trouble.

Reports are coming out of these prisoners not being allowed out of their cells, of poor food, of delayed medication, of being denied access to payphones to call their families and of mail not being handed over. This is starting to appear to be a form of ‘collective punishment’ on those who weren’t involved in Friday’s riot and risks fuelling tensions among other inmates. Insiders are now pointing to signs of recent trouble among prisoners on C-wing, one of those areas unaffected by the rioting.

So far, over 500 of The Green’s 1,450 inmates have been transferred to other prisons. Some of these men have been literally carried onto secure vans, most have left without any of their personal possessions and may be taken to jails many miles away from their families just before Christmas. A few have even smeared themselves with human excrement (a ‘dirty protest’) in a bid to halt, or at least delay, their transfer. Upon arrival at other establishments – such as HMP Hull and Bullingdon (Oxfordshire) – there have been reports of continuing resistance and further minor disturbances. Almost all of these receiving prisons are themselves reported to be on a knife-edge and there is a very real risk that G4S is merely exporting its disgruntled prison population across the country, with the result that more trouble could follow.

It is a truth well known to both prisoners and staff alike that most prisons can only be run with the tacit cooperation and involvement of a majority of the inmates. Prisoners do many of the essential day-to-day tasks required for the running of any jail - from cleaning and working in the laundry to preparing and serving meals - and on a wing with just two or three officers there is no way to compel the obedience of 150 or more adult men. However, this truce can be fragile and the longer a lockdown is imposed on prisoners who didn’t participate in the riot, the more likely that they will withdraw their cooperation. G4S is currently playing with fire at The Green.

'Sweat boxes' waiting for transfers
I wish I could propose a quick fix for the underlying causes of riots like we have seen recently at HMP Lewes (October), HMP Bedford (November), HMP Moorland (November) and now at HMP Birmingham, but I really can’t. This prison crisis has been years in the making and no government – Labour, Coalition or Conservative – has had the courage to address the fact that the prison population in England and Wales has more than doubled since 1993 when it stood at around 40,000. Of course, budget cuts of £900m since 2011 and a cut in the number of frontline prison staff by 2,500 since 2013 alone have made a desperate situation far worse.

Stepping up the recruitment of more prison staff is a start, but in reality retention of new officers is extremely poor and, in any case, most of the 2,500 new frontline staff promised by Ms Truss will not be recruited, trained and deployed until much later in 2017 or even 2018. Meanwhile, the crisis is set to continue.

The most obvious solutions, such as cutting the prison population by reducing significantly the number of unconvicted prisoners held on remand (between 10,000-12,000 at any time), by speeding up the release of prisoners serving the now abolished Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) who are years over their minimum tariff and by reforming sentencing in our courts to eliminate the use of custody for non-payment of fines, as well as most petty or non-violent offences, do not seem to appeal to our political leaders. Neither do proposals to create secure care facilities for elderly or severe disabled offenders, both groups that place a severe strain on staff resources and prison healthcare, as well as on local hospitals.

All prisoners are categorised by dynamic risk. Arguably, those who are considered to present a ‘low risk’ of reoffending, shouldn’t even be held in custody. Keeping most short-sentenced, non-violent prisoners accommodated in Cat-D open prisons is also probably a waste of taxpayers’ money. Better to focus scarce resources on the containment and rehabilitation of those who actually do pose a continuing risk to the public. However, in order to push such reforms through, real political leadership will be required, especially at the MoJ. Unfortunately both Liz Truss and Sam Gyimah are lightweights, far out of their depth. They need to go. Now.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Review of The Clink Restaurant (Guest Post)

The latest in our series of guest posts is by Jonathan Robinson, an ex-prisoner and alleged author. He campaigns – independently – for prison reform ( 

The Fish is Freshly Caught – So’s the Staff…

The late Michael Winner – film director and I-don’t-take-no-prisoners – ever – Sunday Times restaurant reviewer – visited HMP High Down’s Clink Charity fine dining eatery in 2011. He raved about it. Sensible man. Mr Winner was absolutely charming – but a terrible name dropper.

The author outside The Clink
The last time I visited HMP Brixton’s Clink I was in the company of Justin Welby – also known as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Bish liked The Clink. Sensible man.

Before arriving for my latest visit I had that morning been interviewed on Good Morning Britain by Piers Morgan – he wanted to know why I thought our prison system is not doing very well. I told him. He nodded. Sensible man.

As I told Mr Morgan on the telly-box of our horrendous reoffending rates – and the lack of purposeful activity in our prisons, Bob Neil MP – Chairman of the Justice Select Committee – sat next to me nodding. Sensible man.

The Clink, Brixton (exterior)
Most of my diatribe to our Piers was how on earth does a prison system expect its customers to come out the other end of their sentence as reformed individuals when the majority of them are
banged-up (that’s a prison phrase – it translates as banged up – think about it) 23 hours a day watching Jeremy Kyle? (punishment in itself).

During his tragically brief tenure as Secretary of State for Justice, I hear Michael Gove MP was a regular at various Clink eateries. He saw the light – and potential – in getting prisoners working – and chucking encouragement at them – whilst they were serving time. Sensible man.

The Clink, Brixton
I’d been in HMP Brixton about a month before my latest Clink visit. Our current Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss MP, gave a speech on the virtues of prison education. After she had concluded said propaganda, she, her personal private secretary and I walked around the prison grounds. Yours truly stopped her outside The Clink’s front door and asked her if she had visited any of their-proven-to-reduce-reoffending establishments yet? “No”.

The Clink’s philosophy is to take on inmates and train them on every aspect you could possibly think of in the restaurant trade – from washing up and preparing veg to front of house duties all the way up to actually cooking what’s on offer – and believe me – the food is great. No, it’s not – it’s historic. I am not alone in my judgement – Trip Advisor now rates The Clink Brixton as number 12 out of 17,372 competitor restaurants in London. Who says prisoners cannot do a good job when tasked – and trained – with good (innovative) ideas?

Slow-braised British beef
Our current reoffending rates are off the Richter scale. More than half of the individuals who have schlepped along the HMP conveyor belt are re-convicted for further offences within a year of release from prison.

Folk who have been through Clink’s scheme have a collective reoffending rate of only 6 percent. Have I got your attention yet? Food for thought?

Tronçon of turbot chowder
As I tucked into my starter – game terrine with damson chutney and elderberry syrup (£5.95) – taking in the atmosphere, I could well have been in the Dorchester or the Savoy Grill except the prices are far more easy on the pocket. My main course (chestnut and tarragon stuffed chicken breast, lollypop wing, dauphinoise potato with seasoned [delicious] vegetables with thyme jus) was on the menu at £13.50. The upcoming Christmas menu – which is stuffed with traditional festive fare – offers lunch at £29.95 per person and dinner at £34.95 per person.

Goat's cheese & beetroot ravioli
The previous Chief Inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, used to say if you want to know what’s going on in a prison, “ask a prisoner.” Sensible man. After lunch, I got chatting – in the kitchens – to some of the guys working (bloody hard) to get their thoughts…

Comments from the potential future Jamie Olivers ranged from “It’s brilliant. I’m out in two weeks and they’ve got me a job” to “I’ve learnt so much. It’s sorted me out. I’m so grateful.”

Blackberry & plum clafoutis
Seems to me that whilst serving time – getting prisoners serving thyme (and similar) isn’t the daftest of ideas. Like the food, the whole concept is completely stunning. If you haven’t been to a Clink – please – I implore you – go and see for yourself. You’d be very sensible.

As well as HMP Brixton, The Clink Charity restaurants can be found in Cardiff (ranked by Trip Advisor number 3 out of 887 local restaurants), Cheshire (ranked by Trip Advisor number 1 - !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! – out of 63 Wilmslow restaurants) and the previously mentioned High Down (ranked by Trip Advisor – yes you guessed it – number 1 out of 120 restaurants in Sutton).

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Being Gay and in Prison (Guest Post)

One of this blog’s most avid readers has kindly contributed a guest post on his own experiences as an out gay man serving a prison sentence. Hopefully this account will provide useful information for anyone facing time in prison in similar circumstances. 

“You’re looking at between 3 and 5 years.” Those few words changed my life. Forever.

Bad news from the QC
It was during a conference with my QC, barrister and solicitor that, after a legal battle lasting several years, it became apparent that I had no defence in law to a business-related offence and I was going to prison.

I had no idea of what to expect inside. I had never been inside myself, nobody I knew had been inside. All I knew was from TV (Porridge and the like) and violent US movies. I was terrified. Also, to add to my concerns, I’m gay.

My first few days inside were actually rather relaxed. After a long legal process, straight from court, I was oddly glad when the cell door closed behind me for the first time and the ordeal was over. For my first few nights I was in a single cell, I was able to put the legal turmoil behind me but I didn't know at that stage what the length of my sentence would be.

Being on an ‘induction’ wing I had no contact with any other inmates, no time out of my cell other than to collect food, no exercise, no showers, no TV, no kettle, no reading material, no personal possessions, no access to telephones and none of my prescribed medications were available. The prison was only able to provide smoking materials, for which I would have to pay over the coming weeks.

A few days later I was moved into a cell to share with somebody I’d never met, but whom I was well aware of. My legal team had worked on his case. He was a recently convicted fairly high-profile murderer.

Sharing a prison cell
We spent four weeks, 23 hours a day together in a small cell but we never really talked. I was certainly not going to ‘come out’ to him. Then, in a conversation with my solicitor some weeks later he referred to him as ‘Big Gay Nick’. It seems we did have something in common after all.

I was then moved to a pretty grim Victorian Cat-B prison where I was known due to local press coverage of my case. There was no way I could hide my sexuality, everybody seemed to know everything about me. I had nothing to hide, I’m not ashamed in any way whatsoever, but I’d rather tell my own story in my own time.

My experience there was incredible. Stories of dropping the soap in the showers, random rapes etc etc simply did not happen. Prison wings are very strange places. Keeping testosterone-fuelled, sex-starved men in very close confinement is a recipe for disaster. Coercive sexual encounters and even rapes do happen, but it is rare.

"Sex in prison is rife..."
Chris Grayling once stated that sex doesn’t happen in prisons. I have to admit to sniggering when I heard this idiotic comment. Sex in prison is rife. Being gay is probably easier than for the ‘straight’ guys inside. There were other gay inmates, some quite open, others not. Some in relationships, inside and outside. Indeed one couple entered into a civil partnership in a ceremony held within the prison walls.

There’s also the phenomenon of the ‘prison gay’. Straight in the ordinary world but anything goes in prison, given the choice between enforced celibacy or a little ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ sexual contact and relief.

More worrying is the issue of safe sex. Sex does happen in prison. Generally not safely. Condoms are available through healthcare. Whilst this is supposed to be anonymous there’s always an officer listening in on every conversation between an inmate and a nurse.
Condoms in prison: yes - and no!

Sex between inmates is banned, anybody suspected of having sexual contact will be separated, however, two inmates sharing a cell quietly indulging in consensual sexual activity maintains peace on the wing. Condoms are only available to those in a sexual relationship (which isn’t allowed) and so difficult to get hold of. Regular cell searches (pad spins) could reveal possession of condoms and clearly indicate the relationship between cell-mates. It wasn’t my finest decision to have unprotected anal sex with a recovering heroin addict in a prison cell. Prison does strange things to your thought processes.

Prison officers usually want nothing more than an easy life so such behaviour is often ignored. I recall one particular occasion when I was very much caught in the act and not a word was said by the officer concerned.

As previously mentioned I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of prison. Just prison alone, aside from my sexuality. I had to be openly gay but I never heard one single bad word said about me. Every single day there was blokey banter but nothing nasty.

Diversity and Equality in prison
The prison diversity department arranged monthly meetings for a couple of hours for gay and bisexual inmates. It was a chance to chat openly without fear of any retribution. They even arranged a buffet for us near Christmas. Admittedly it was only the usual dire prison food but it was served on a platter rather than in a carrier bag.

My time in prison was grim, it was unpleasant, it was – to be frank – horrible. However, I met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. Several are very good friends to this day. I would never want to return but I can't thank the justice system enough for giving me the most amazing experience.

Nobody can appreciate the issues of incarceration unless they’ve been there. It’s horrible yet intriguing. I’ve met friends through work and the outside world, but I don’t think I’ll ever meet friends as important as those I met inside.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold

In this blog post I am going to discuss the issue of deaths in custody, especially cases where prisoners have taken their own lives and I apologise in advance if some readers find these subjects distressing. I know that I do. In the specific case that I deal with towards the end of this post I have been careful to withhold details that might lead to the identification of one particular young man – someone I knew personally – in order to protect his family. Details of this case are particularly graphic and involve a violent sexual assault, so please be warned before reading further.

Amid the escalating crisis in our dangerous, dysfunctional prisons the death toll continues to climb. Recent figures issued by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) indicate that by August 2016 a total of 321 people had died in our prisons in England and Wales – up 30 percent over a 12-month period.

MOJ: damning indictments
Of course, not all those deaths are self-inflicted. As our prison population ages due to a combination of longer sentences, more lifers and a rising number of very elderly men in custody (often imprisoned for historical sex offences), we will inevitably see more deaths from natural causes such as old age or as a result of deteriorating health due to advancing years. In some cases, as inquest juries have ruled, inadequate healthcare in prisons may have played a contributory role in hastening death.

Then there are deaths in custody in which the use of illicit drugs – particularly so-called new psychoactive substances (NPS) such as Spice and Black Mamba – may also have been a factor. Possession of NPS in prisons and the trafficking of these drugs into prisons have only been criminal offences (rather than disciplinary issues) since May of this year.

NPS: Spice is one brand
Recently, there has been a much-needed focus on deaths in custody. At the end of last week the Prisons and Probations Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, announced during a speech he delivered that such drugs had played a role in at least 58 deaths in prisons in England and Wales over a three-year period between June 2013 and June 2016. In some cases inmates have taken their own lives due to enormous debts run up to other prisoners for the supply of NPS and other drugs, in other incidents fatalities had been caused by violence linked to the drug trade.

However, in this particular post I want to focus particularly on the issue of suicide in custody. Self-inflicted deaths in our prisons are now at their highest level for eight years. In the 12-month period between June 2015 and June 2016, a total of 105 prisoners had taken their own lives in jails in England and Wales.

Some establishments have much worse records than others. For example, at HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes, there have been eight deaths in nine months, the most recent a death by hanging at the end of August. Not every case at this prison was self-inflicted.

Not enough staff to prevent suicide
Some prison staff and reform campaigners blame the marked fall in the number of frontline officers for the rising death toll. For example, earlier this month the governor of Glen Parva Young Offenders Institute in Leicester, Alison Clarke, told a coroner’s inquest into the death of a 19-year old that she simply did not have enough staff to keep prisoners in her custody safe. She told the jury that a “lack of resources from the Ministry of Justice” prevented her from keeping inmates safe from self-harm and suicide - a particularly shocking admission.

However, there are also serious questions about whether proper measures are taken when inmates are believed to be at risk of self-harm or suicide. At a separate inquest earlier this week, a jury hearing evidence about the death by hanging of New Fathers 4 Justice activist Haydn Burton at HMP Winchester in July 2015 concluded that prison staff “more likely than not” had known that Mr Burton had made a noose in his cell before he took his own life, yet appropriate action in line with national procedures was not taken. The jury verdict was particularly damning of failures at the prison. As the coroner noted, this was just one of the four deaths at HMP Winchester during 2015.

HMP: unable to cope with the crisis
It has been clear for years that the Prison Service is in deep crisis. Too few frontline staff to run prisons safely, ill-advised MOJ policies that have seen experienced prison officers pensioned off, poor recruitment and worse retention levels of new staff, some of whom simply don’t last long in post because they can’t cope with the lousy conditions or the stress of the job. When you add serious overcrowding at many prisons into the toxic mix, the results can be explosive and tragic.

Yet, these are not the only contributory factors behind the rising death toll in our prisons. How many grieving families are going to be told that their loved one will only be coming home in a coffin? How many kids left without a parent or grandparent, or an older brother or sister? How many parents will have to bury their own child?

That question is really for you, Liz Truss. You have previously said publicly that you believe that prison should be - and I quote - “tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable.” Should that also include an unspoken death sentence due to negligence or staff shortages?

Please only read the following paragraphs if you are prepared to be made very angry as a result of institutional callousness, negligence and failure to provide appropriate care to the most vulnerable in our prisons. All names have been changed, but the facts are exactly as I witnessed them.

Tom was barely out of his late teens. He was on recall at a Cat-B local as a result of getting into a fight with a family member while he was on licence after an earlier stint in a YOI. When he appeared on a wing of about 180 adult men, he looked about 15. He was very quiet and slight of stature. He knew no-one at the prison and spent much of his free time leaning on the handrail looking up and down the landings of the vast Victorian pile.

Victorian Cat-B local prison
Within a few days, Tom had run out of money. He was a heavy smoker, one of the ways he tried to control his anxiety and stress. He ran out of rolling tobacco and was reduced to begging pinches of ‘burn’ or dog-ends around the wing with the promise that he would return the favour on the next canteen day. It’s the oldest story in the book and the prison equivalent of “the cheque is in the post”. There are generally few takers for these hard luck stories.

Such vulnerability does not go unnoticed in our prisons. These situations provide valuable business opportunities for the unscrupulous and predatory low lifes that can be found on almost every wing.

A ‘friendly’ fellow inmate in his 30s, a married man with his own kids and serving a long sentence for drug offences and violence, ‘befriended’ Tom and offered him small amounts of tobacco and other luxuries such as instant coffee. Needless to note, these were not gifts. Despite warnings from his older cell-mate who tried to offer him advice and support, Tom continued to associate with the man who was supplying him with goods on tick.

Burn: one cause of debt in prison
Predictably, Tom missed his first repayment deadline on canteen day. No problem, he was assured, although of course the interest due would have to increase to take account of the delay and the risk he might be transferred to another jail. Tom agreed readily and left his creditor’s cell with a small bag of coffee – added to the rising debt, naturally. This is a scenario that plays out in every prison in the land, whether it involves tobacco, coffee or drugs.

Eventually – and inevitably – Tom couldn’t make repayments. He had a prison job that paid around £8 a week and his family wasn’t in a position to send him much money. The debt quickly spiralled out of control. Then things started to turn nasty.

Tom started to hide from his creditor in other cells during association periods. He tried to avoid the man during ‘free-flow’ – the times when prisoners are out of their cells and are being escorted to and from work or education.

Of course, wing tobacco and drugs barons rarely get their own hands dirty. They employ thuggish minions who enforce collection of debts and hunt down deadbeat debtors. Two were duly dispatched to find Tom and bring him up to the fours (the top landing) to face the music.

There were just too few wing officers around to notice the slight, boyish figure being escorted up the staircase furthest from the office by two tattooed bruisers. He was taken up to the cell and the thugs stood guard while Tom was raped, first orally and then anally, by the man to whom he owed his debt. He had blood on his grey prison-issue jogging bottoms as he staggered back down the stairs, utterly broken.

Typical prison cell from inside
However, that did not go unnoticed and two of us – fellow inmates, both Insiders (peer mentors) – saw that something was very wrong. We visited Tom in his cell, but he wasn’t ready to talk, except to confirm he was deep in debt.

We were sufficiently concerned to ensure that members of the wing staff were made aware that Tom was in serious trouble. I also spoke to the chaplain. Of course, we didn’t at that stage know the full story, but soon details started to circulate around the wing in whispers.

The head of residence, a female officer who had a very poor reputation among both her staff and prisoners, spoke to Tom and demanded that he tell her if he was being targeted and, if so, by whom. By now he was too terrified, desperate and ashamed to tell anyone anything other than that he was ‘being bullied’. Despite his blood-stained jogging bottoms, he didn’t tell her – or any other staff member – that he had been the victim of a very serious sexual assault. He also refused to name names. Having an aggressive female senior officer barking at him was not likely to encourage disclosure.

Tom was by now too terrified to leave his cell. He didn’t report for work and was duly downgraded from Standard level on the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme to Basic. His older cell-mate who had provided support and advice was moved out of their shared cell as Tom was to be punished alone. His small portable TV – rented from the prison at 50p a week – was also removed, as were most of Tom’s few personal possessions. Thoughtfully, however, the two wing officers left the coaxial cable for the television in his almost empty cell.

In-cell rented TV set: not on Basic
Tom was left on Basic for about a week, confined to his cell for around 23 hours a day. He had previously been on what is known as the ‘ACCT’ (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) monitoring system as it was suspected that he might self-harm or be suicidal when he was recalled to prison. However, that was not taken into account when he was placed on Basic.

During association periods Tom remained locked in his cell. He was often unable to shower or even telephone his family on the wing pay phones as duty officers sometimes ‘forgot’ to unlock his door. Nevertheless, his creditor – the rapist – could be observed hovering around outside his locked cell warning him through the observation window to keep silent about his ordeal or face much worse punishment for ‘grassing’.

Coaxial TV cable
Tom died alone in his cell. After the evening roll check on a warm summer night he rigged up a makeshift gallows by tying his little table to the top bunk using torn bedsheets. He used the TV coaxial cable to make a noose and, just to be sure he wouldn’t survive, he also used a prison razor blade to cut his femoral arteries. Had he not died of asphyxiation, he would have bled out. He intended to kill himself.

His body was not discovered until the following morning roll check. We were kept locked up for most of that day, but I could see what what happening in his cell as it was opposite mine. It took the industrial cleaning team two days to clean out the cell once the police had finished making their enquiries.

That is not the end of this appalling case, however. The fact that two of us had alerted staff to Tom’s plight before his death was written out of the official record. Neither of us was interviewed by the local police. We were also not called to give evidence at the subsequent inquest many months later.

In fact, the institutional cover-up went far higher and deeper than that. Shortly after Tom’s tragic death, the man most responsible for the awful train of events was permitted by the head of residence to organise the collection among prisoners to buy a wreath for the lad’s funeral. He was then designated to read the lesson in the prison chapel during the memorial service. Finally – and most disgustingly – he was given special permission by a governor grade to write a personal letter of condolence to the dead boy’s mother in which he claimed that he had been Tom’s closest friend on the wing. If that alone doesn’t make you feel sick to your stomach, then I don’t know what will.

A day or so after the memorial service at the prison I put in an application to speak to the governor. I was called up to see a recently arrived deputy governor grade who interviewed me together with the wing governor. I explained my concerns over Tom’s death and the way in which it was being handled. During the conversation it became clear that they both knew not only that this young man had been subjected to a horrendous sexual assault, but they also knew the identity of the rapist. The wing governor named him during our discussion, not me. Yet this entire meeting was off the record. It was never mentioned at the inquest or to the police.

PPO: no response to letter 
I was then asked by the deputy governor whether I intended to do anything further. I told them that I had already written to both the HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. The two governors exchanged glances. Within a matter of days I and the other prisoner who had reported our initial concerns had both been ‘ghosted’ to other prisons. The cover-up was in full swing. Neither the HMIP or the PPO ever replied to my letters, although I have kept copies.

I heard from fellow inmates that the prisoner who had assaulted Tom was moved about a month later to a dangerous and severe personality disorder unit (DSPDU) at a high security prison where I believe his remains to this day. However, this fact was also never referred to at Tom’s inquest.

To this day, Tom’s family are totally unaware of the true circumstances of his terrible, lonely death in custody. I have obtained a copy of the inquest report. It is a whitewash and an utter disgrace. Members of the prison staff who gave evidence told blatant lies to the coroner and the jury, although ultimate responsibility must rest with HM Prison Service. Tom was supposedly in its care and he, and his family, were let down at every stage.

In the light of recent events concerning suicides in our prisons, I now feel obliged to share this story with readers of the blog. Hopefully, I have ensured that the details given above are vague enough to prevent identification of either the prison or any of the individuals involved, other than myself. There are some things you leave behind when you leave prison. This is not one of them.

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 (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.