“An Overdue Update”

22/11/2016

There’s been quite a gap in my postings here, and I thank those who’ve been asking after me. By any normal measure I’d be lying if I said it was because I’ve been too busy.   In truth, in my situation there should always be time to write, as my evenings never contain any structured activity beyond 7pm. Admittedly, I’ve had quite a lot of Listener calls recently, often at distinctly unsociable hours, but I’ve still had more nights off than on, so to speak. Partly I’ve told myself I’ve been waiting until I had some interesting things to say, and I never quite reached my own arbitrary threshold for that. The Internet is full of the writings of people who haven’t really got anything to say, so sometimes I feel reluctant to add to that background noise. It’s perhaps a good thing that my day-to-day life seems to contain no more (or less) that’s of interest than that of someone who is not incarcerated. As I think I’ve suggested before, in many ways my life is probably not unlike yours.

All of this got me wondering why it is that people with apparent time on their hands don’t get round to doing things. In my own case, over the last few months I’ve had a continuing series of vaguely creative tasks that I needed/wanted to complete – in some cases by a specific deadline. In such a situation I feel a bit like a computer whose desktop is apparently clear of running applications, and yet seems reluctant even to open Word.   If you listen carefully there’s a faint but somewhat insistent chuntering of the hard drive as it performs background tasks – useful or otherwise – which seem to keep it sort of distracted.

I suspect I’m not alone in this experience. Sometimes it’s not just time I need, but space in subconscious background working memory. In the absence of any ability to upgrade my RAM, it’s often easier for me to get lost in reading (I’ve been grateful to have been sent a few surprise books recently), or doze in front of a BBC wildlife documentary, and let my background tasks do their thing while I remain outwardly unproductive and sedentary.   Perhaps I’m just making excuses for myself …

So, I’ll give you a bit of an update on what I’ve been up to. Firstly, after well over a year working in the Chapel, my tenure officially came to an end at the beginning of August, and I chose to move to the Craft Workshop. In the past, I’ve made many things from wood, and it’s something I’ve found quite satisfying. I sometimes wonder if the new owners of my house – whomever they ended up being – are enjoying my various Danish-oiled creations, or if they’ve ripped them out in favour of Ikea flatpack minimalism. In any case, I feel quite philosophically unattached to these things – I enjoyed the process of creating them, and while they were mine I enjoyed their form and utility. So, while I have the opportunity for essentially free tuition, I decided I’d like to have a go at some more traditional joinery.

There’s a well-trodden path of learning in Workshop 13, starting with a functionally useless but educational frame comprising mortise-and-tenon, haunched mortise, half lap, and dovetail joints. After this, we must build a small box with dovetailed sides and a hinged lid inlaid with a design of some kind (I chose an ‘impossible triangle’ formed from three different hardwoods). I’m now working on the larger ‘shoeshine’ box, which is a traditional design with a drawer and a removable tray. I’ve been learning the use of quite a range of manual and power tools, including a router, which I’ve decided is on my must-have list once I’m in a position to start building things in the outside world again.

It’s not simply an educational workshop, but takes commissions from departments in this and other prisons, as well as local organisations. At the moment there’s a small production line for exceptionally high quality hardwood benches. For the time and attention to detail each individual part receives, I don’t imagine they could be sold economically if they were produced outside, but when each of the workers is paid only £10.60 per week, the cost of materials becomes the dominant factor. Some people in the workshop are highly skilled, and importantly seem able to work in a mindful way. It can be a peaceful place to work in all aspects except the literal – there’s no real time pressure, and an emphasis on quality over productivity, but I spend most of my day wearing ear-defenders …

In other news, it became clear over the summer that nobody else was going to volunteer to write the Christmas play, so I’ve put together another slightly unorthodox skit, which I might share with you at some point. Rehearsals seem to be going well now, and our new managing Chaplain required only relatively minor edits.   If I had a free hand, the whole thing would be much darker and more surreal, but I accept the need for it to be essentially ‘panto’ in its silliness. I’ve made it clear that it’s somebody else’s turn next year … even though it’ll be my last Christmas in prison (is that a faint light I can see at the end of the tunnel?).

The Listeners celebrated 25 years of service this year, and I’ve been working as a volunteer for over a year now. While the last few weeks have been busy, we’re all braced for a sharp uptick in general stress levels in the next couple of months, because finally it looks like the smoking ban will actually be implemented. I haven’t said much about this lately, as we had a number of false starts and shifted deadlines, but this time it really seems to be happening. As of last week, nobody has been able to buy any tobacco products here, and from 5th December all smoking requisites will become contraband items.

Already members of staff are banned from smoking anywhere on the site, and five of the fourteen blocks have gone smoke-free. People’s purchases were monitored for signs of stockpiling, and fairly harsh standard tariffs have been drawn up for possession offences. Indications from other prisons that have already taken the plunge are that internal adjudications (known as ‘nickings’) are likely to rise three-fold. This is not just from people being found with tobacco, but also because of an increased level of scuffles and general unrest. There are potentially interesting times ahead in the run-up to Christmas.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the ban, but for those who are less keen, in addition to the ‘stick’ of adjudications, the prison appears to be offering at least a little carrot. When tobacco disappeared from our weekly shopping list (known as the ‘canteen’), the range of other available items suddenly increased by more than 50%. I’m now very pleased to be able to easily get hold of peppermint tea, mango chutney, and olives, to name but a few. I have also heard fairly strong rumours that it may not be all that long before we’re allowed to wear our own clothes all the time, which would be quite a step forward for HMP Arbitrary.   I’ll believe it when it’s happened though.

The Psychology Department has recently been subjecting me to a series of interviews and psychometric tests, which has been informative. All along I’ve been told that my risk of re-offending is too low for me to qualify for any rehabilitative programmes, but after I nudged them quite a lot they agreed to assess me. They’re now essentially trying to build a business case to justify funding my course. Conclusions so far include that the results of three different Baron-Cohen screening tests for Autistic Spectrum Disorder indicate that I might be on the spectrum, but a formal diagnosis is ‘not clinically appropriate at this time’. The results of my IQ assessment have been dangerous fodder for my ego, so I keep reminding myself that there are around 15,000,000 people in the world who are cleverer than me and that nobody likes a smart-arse.   I await their final conclusions, and hope that they’ll finally give me the opportunity to formally work through the reasons I ended up here.

Finally, I’ve decided to write very little about either Brexit or Trump. Both have significantly dented my faith in humanity, and it’s all rather troubling.   Two questions though: what would happen if we took the EU poll again having seen some of the difficulties it’s already causing? (I’m not sure, but it would be interesting); and, how on earth can the US have such an absurd system of presidential election whereby one candidate can get significantly more votes, but the other one gets in?  Seriously world, I go to prison for a few years and look at the mess you end up making …

 

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SHADES OF SEPTEMBER

27/08/2016

This year’s fractal clouds seem closer;
something’s subtly shifted,
lifted – though the mist’s still drifting.
I think of you, and can’t say why
the sweep of skies is wider
out beyond the wire horizons.
Out there the wind still sighs
through tops of trees
whose trunks I never see;
the bees tell me the world’s the same,
that nothing’s changed
unless it’s me.

A wider world is hard to hold
in mind
when mine’s so small –
for all the ways I fill my time.
And when I try,
I find the details clog my head.
But still, you’re always somewhere there –
a thread that’s loose, abstract,
yet fast attached.

And floating
down the microscope, you’re there,
a pair of tiny rings
somehow holding everything you’ll be
in four small clumps of light and shade
that flowing years have billions made
to build familiar lines in eyes
or soft reflect a pensive smile
that I’ve not seen in so much time.

Yet, I can smile,
when your faces find me
through early morning August air;
when sunrise stillness holds a promise
of blackberries and drifting leaves
in chestnut scenes,
and I believe you’re finding joy.
Yes, I can smile,
when I see you in shades of September.

“Voting Rights and Wrongs”

16/06/2016

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with David Cameron, and it’s partly due to one of my strong disagreements with him that I’m writing this now. I don’t know about you, but personally I was sick of the EU referendum debate before it even officially started. For that reason, I shall attempt to keep this concise. However, as I’m (il)legally prevented from participating in the democratic process (in contravention, ironically, of an EU ruling), I wanted to do something to have some kind of voice. You may recall that the idea of giving prisoners the vote makes the PM feel “physically sick”, so I hope in some small way that my writing this may contribute to his digestive distress.

I’ll set out my stall from the beginning: I want unequivocally for Britain to remain in the EU.   Yes, that’s right DC – if you’d let me vote, I’d be using that vote to agree with you. It’s confusing, I know. To be honest, it’s upsetting me a bit too – I don’t like simultaneously feeling that someone can be so horrifically wrong about one thing and yet completely right about another. Like when St Paul wrote that beautiful passage describing the nature of love in his first letter to the Corinthians, and followed it up in the next chapter with a rant about women remaining silent in church and being in submission to their husbands. But then, in a way, that’s exactly what giving prisoners the vote is all about: people are complex mixtures of good and bad, right and wrong, and everything in between. A prisoner may have transgressed against some aspect of society’s rules, but that should not define him as someone whose opinions are all therefore invalid. So here I am, giving mine.

Unusually for me, I’m not going to go into fine details or ‘facts’ about how many thousand pounds we’ll be better or worse off, nor how many jobs we’ll gain or lose, nor how much money is wasted or well-spent.   All of these things can be bent to suit whatever position you hold, and the truth is that nobody really has any idea about any of them, whatever their claims to the contrary. We’ll only find out all of that when it’s already too late, either way. Claims and counter-claims fired back-and-forth like mortars between entrenched positions have, I suspect, so far served only to engender distrust and cynicism. I realised that the whole debate had finally descended into the absurdity of a YouTube comment thread when Boris Johnson started making comparisons to Hitler (see: Godwin’s Law).

My own argument is a fairly simple matter of principle. Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I believe in the idea of people working together for the common good.   I’ve heard it said that patriotism is the erroneous belief that your own country is the best, just because you happened to be born in it. Nationalism and separatism often boil down to the simplistic dualism of ‘us’ and ‘them’, about which I’ve previously written at length. All the lines of separation we draw are arbitrary. I’ve yet to hear a list of ‘distinctive’ British values that any other European – or indeed any citizen of a post-industrial democracy – wouldn’t be likely to claim as his own. Western Europe has so far seen over seven decades of peace after centuries of intermittent war, thanks to the ever-closer co-operation of nations working together to understand and resolve their differences. This is not something to be discarded lightly.

Some people talk about laws being handed down from Brussels as though they were the diktats of some distant Caesar over whom we have no influence. The reality is that there is no ‘them’ in Brussels: we’re represented there as much as any other EU nation, and we give due input into the passing of all the statutes. Of course, in this way, we are only one fish in a large pond. But this is a fair representation of our true place in the world. To pull up the drawbridge in sociopathic self-interest is to be the petulant child who stomps off, declaring “I’m not playing any more!”, just because he couldn’t always get his own way.

What problems there are with the administration of the EU surely just give all the more reason to continue working to make it better, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As a species, we are likely to face much bigger challenges in the next century than whether there are too many Polish people taking the jobs that no Britons seem prepared to do anyway. Shortsighted parochialism is only going to hinder global efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, slow the spread of oppressive ideologies, or mitigate the effects of climate change. Separation is always going to be a retrograde step that will increase divisions and amplify perceived differences.

I don’t have a vote in the EU referendum, but if you’re reading this then maybe you do. Perhaps you weren’t planning to vote, because you’re not too sure either way.   If that’s the case, then I’d like to ask a favour: don’t waste your vote, but give it to me. Go out on June 23rd, and vote to stay in the EU, as I would if my rights were being upheld. Whether you’re a fan of the PM or not, this is your opportunity to simultaneously please and annoy him …

 

 

 

 

Visitor

9th June, 2016
VISITOR

I think you’d love me better now
(not that you could, or should).
I’ve been working on sides that I
was hiding (from)
like a polygon
cautiously probing the third dimension.

I didn’t believe in emotions
because they don’t make sense
(but in their defence,
neither does wave-particle duality),
and in my recent reality
I still don’t believe in salad
(though I know it exists),
but I eat it, now and then.

And again, there are things I
accept
(‘believe’ is too strong)
that I said I never could (I was wrong).
Like uncertainty, unprovability,
and things bigger than me
(like mice, or most things really).
Though of course (being me)
I still have to approach
tangentially.

Now I’ll seek (like a leech)
to feed on emotion
and find empathy with the troubling notions
of minds unconnected to mine
(so far I’ve not told myself why);
and sometimes I’ll let myself cry
at the predicted progression
of a plot full of holes
while I silence (and softly console)
my inner voice of derision.

But now don’t mistake me
(as I have, and I do, time to time);
I can still be the one
(calculating and cold)
who weighs and measures all with dispassion
(disregarding all feeling and soft intuition)
who, untroubled, would photograph tears newly cried:
because all data is sacred.

Still, I think now I see
(at least, more often)
that there’s more to the data than information:
areas that aren’t found by integration;
spaces between certainties where something’s just ‘right’,
the places between pixels
where love meets light.

Then I’ll wake
(in the dark)
in a haze of joined-up-thinking
and comprehend, for a moment,
the whole of something.
Like,
where my life has left yours.
I can’t live there for long,
but now I can visit.

“Populist Politics and the IPP Problem”

Date of writing: 11/05/2016

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. I’ve sat down a few times now with the intention of starting to write this post, only to be interrupted by the continuous sine-wave tone of the cell bell (a very slightly flat F, I’ve established), which has of late mostly been the prelude to my receiving a guest in some degree of distress. I don’t know if the season has anything to do with the sharp increase in the frequency of my Listener calls – I had expected Christmas to be busy, but it turned out to be fairly quiet. Personally, I tend to find Spring somewhat wistful in the way some others seem to experience Autumn, while I am filled with a kind of sentimental joy as the mists of September set in. However, I suspect this is my own uncommon quirk, and the more usual statistical explanation of the clustering inherent in a Poisson distribution is more likely (see: buses all coming along at once).

A brace of attempted suicides on consecutive days within my own block has left me a little troubled. This prison has a comparatively excellent record on suicide prevention, though across the country there’s been an alarming overall increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody in the last few years. The root causes of this rise are hotly debated, but I note that it began suspiciously coincident with the tenure of Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary, and thus a number of highly unfortunate ‘reforms’ coupled with funding and staff cuts. It would, however be crass to simply blame one man – sociopathic as he may appear – for this unsettling situation.

Without breaking any confidences, my own recent experiences have given me an insight into why at least some prisoners might try to take their own lives. As I sat and listened, and watched over the course of hours a cherry stain from a thickly bandaged wrist grow and darken to plum, it came to me that it must be difficult for a person to hold on to hope when there is no end in sight for their incarceration. When someone has languished for a decade inside, with repeated anticipations and setbacks, but no real sign of getting any closer to release, I can see why he might consider reaching for the emergency exit.

While I’m fortunate enough to know exactly when I’ll be stepping through the gates, around 45% of people in this prison don’t have any date set for their release. The United Kingdom as a whole has something in the region of 14,000 indeterminately sentenced prisoners. To put this into perspective, that’s more than all the other 46 countries of the Council of Europe combined. Although this is an extremely troubling statistic in itself, within this number we also have a unique and fairly recent problem: while the majority of these people are ‘traditional’ life-sentenced prisoners, a little over 4,500 are serving sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection, or IPP.

Introduced by David Blunkett in 2005, IPP was intended to be reserved for those who posed a “really serious risk” to the public. However, the concept appeared to be interpreted very broadly. In effect, IPP is a life sentence by another name, with a minimum term to be served (the ‘tariff’), and release only by approval of a parole board. However, in the first three years after its inception, many sentences were handed out that on the face of it were very un-life-sentence-like; tariffs as low as six months were not uncommon, indicating the (relatively speaking) minor nature of the offences. With such a tariff, you might expect release after maybe a year – or two at the most. This is where the system started to fall down: many of those sentenced with tariffs measured in months in the 2005-2008 period are still in prison today, some over a decade later.

The theory was that during their time in prison, IPP prisoners would undertake Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBPs) in order to reduce their (alleged) risk to the public, and be released once it was considered they no longer posed a threat. Herein lies a major difficulty: the need to prove a negative. In reality, it’s surely near impossible for a person to prove that they will not do something in the future. In an increasingly risk-averse society, the bar for release is set almost unreachably high. This, coupled with a scandalous lack of availability of places on the necessary OBPs, is what has led to the current situation. People who have long ago served what would be considered an appropriate sentence for their original offence are now effectively serving time for what they might do in the future, which sounds distressingly close to something form a dystopian sci-fi.

In July 2008, some of the madness of the situation was curtailed by the introduction of the requirement for the original offence to deserve a tariff of at least two years. In addition to reserving the sentence for more serious offences, in theory this should also have meant all people sentenced to IPP would spend enough time in custody to complete the prescribed OBPs within their tariff, ready for post-tariff release. However, the shortage of available places persisted, meaning that 1 in 3 have still not completed a single course, yet 77% are beyond their tariff expiry date.

IPP was finally abolished in 2012, after being ruled a violation of the right to liberty and security by the European Court of Human Rights, and was labelled as ‘arbitrary detention’ in the two cases it heard. None of the changes to IPP has however been retrospective, so thousands still suffer what could well one day be ruled wrongful imprisonment. And yet still the Lord Chief Justice continues to refuse IPPs leave to appeal their sentences.

While all these facts and statistics can tell you the bare history of IPP, the reality of it is brought home to me nearly every week. I hear the frustration, the anger, and the despair; I see the arms that bear fading parallel scars alongside fresh cuts, and I anticipate the day when I hear that for once, they got to someone just that little bit too late to cut him down.

Of course, day-to-day, most IPPs are just getting on with it, like the rest of us. But with each passing year, their continued imprisonment under such terms looks more and more unconscionable. I’m not suggesting we simply release all of these people; many have committed serious crimes, and many angry and damaged victims remain. I argue only that all prisoners should be treated fairly, and that in the wake of the ECHR ruling, each case of IPP should be re-examined on its own merits. David Blunkett himself recently expressed that the very strongly regrets the way in which the sentence ended up being applied, and that the resulting situation was never his intention. But politicians’ intentions rarely seem far-sighted when it comes to appearing to be ‘tough on crime’.

The very same bill that abolished IPP also included a section that imposes a mandatory life sentence if a person is convicted of any one of a set of specified offences for a second time: a so-called ‘two-strike’ system. This almost completely removes a judge’s freedom to use experience and discretion in their sentencing of such cases. Don’t misunderstand me – I’ve no illusions about the infallibility or dispassionate fairness of judges (partly from personal experience) – but at least they aren’t motivated by the need to be re-elected. Sentencing based (albeit indirectly) on outraged Daily Mail headlines is unlikely to be objective.

On Wednesday 25th May, the families, friends, and supporters of IPP prisoners will be meeting at 11 am in the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster, to demand a retrospective change in the law. They will then be marching on to the Ministry of Justice for 3pm. If you’re around, perhaps you might join them. But whatever the ultimate fate of those left with the legacy of IPP, the real problem as I see it is the continued interference of politics on the work of both the judiciary and the prison system. Though politicians make the law, that’s where their influence should end. Judges should be free to continue building on the long history of British case law, and the prison system should be managed through evidence-based policies that reduce re-offending and promote re-integration, without being forced to bend to the punitive demands of a fickle electorate. Until this happens, damaging mistakes such as IPP will continue to be made.

SOMNIS VERITAS

05/04/2016

I’ve been travelling again;
through the woods, along strange paths.
Bare earth and worn winding roots:
I squeeze through wire on wooden posts.
Crawling the convoluted stairways of the exhibition,
and wondering why I’ve three pairs of shoes,
but no socks.

Sussurations of smiling strangers
while my rucksack’s unpacked:
the captives run the system now.
Past the flimsy signal box
over miniature tracks long buried in mud,
my bare feet avoid the manure.
But then,
awake.

 

“How Soon is Now?”

 

Date of writing: 13/02/2016

Much of my recent writing has been simple reportage of the fairly mundane day-to-day realities of life in this prison.   Taking a step back, I’ve realised that – for the moment at least – there’s very little by way of drama for me to write about. But this is a good thing. Maybe I’ve started to lose touch a little, but it seems there’s a general sense of normality here that those only familiar with dramatic portrayals of prison might find disorienting. I like to believe that many aspects of my life are not so dissimilar from your own;   I’m just working within a slightly strange framework for living.

I’ve come a long way from the intensity of my early days in a local B-cat prison. That was much closer to what you see in medium-budget BBC dramas, but even there it was less threatening than you might imagine. My memories of the first two weeks – which were spent on a general wing housing upwards of two hundred petty and career criminals – are of noise and shouting, rapidly shifting alliances, illicit deals, and an underlying simmering tension. Keeping my head down and my eyes open – and steering clear of any kind of dealing – meant I never had the slightest scuffle. The one time trouble found me, it was sadly down to the actions of a corrupt officer, but that’s another story. In that instance, I was quickly moved wings, and barring my previously documented chessboard contretemps I suffered no further incidents.

Now, I’m among a much more settled population, where to a large degree we’re left to our own devices in an almost ‘free range’ enclosure.   We’re returned to our coops each evening, but during the day I largely roam unaccompanied in the acres of our compound as a trusted prisoner. I’m rarely searched or challenged, and I feel safer that I would in a provincial town centre of an evening. I can’t recall the last time I witnessed an argument with raised voices, let alone saw anyone throw a punch. I hear about the occasional scrap, but if anything that’s far less often than I’d expect among any community of 800 or so men. On my current wing, I even find myself leaving my door unlocked as I wander about well out of sight of it, which is a first.

Once a person has shelter, warmth, food and security, the rest is just living life. I’m now in that mid-sentence time where I’m mostly being ignored by the system, such as it is, and what I have is time. If you’ve read many of my recent posts, you’ll probably have a reasonable idea of how I fill my days. I work in the chapel: I make coffee, I wash cups, I move chairs around, I vacuum and tidy.   I repair things, and sometimes get to play with the soldering iron. Occasionally I’ll take on a small project like re-designing the wiring of the sound desk. I attend a disproportionately high number of religious services, considering that anybody who closely examined my philosophy would conclude I can’t really be called a Christian. I sing, I make music, I have interesting conversations. I sit with and listen to the recently bereaved, the depressed, the lonely, and the suicidal, and it’s strangely uplifting.

What would you do with your time, if each evening you were confined to a small but fairly comfortable room, with no telephone, no internet and a limited selection of television channels? Perhaps belatedly, this is a question I asked myself a few months ago. It’s easy to while away the time fairly aimlessly, watching programmes that are just a the threshold of maintaining interest, reading, tinkering on the guitar, or simply sleeping too much. This year though, now the acute phase of my emotional adjustment has passed, I’ve been trying to use my time more constructively. Since early January, I’ve been spending around an hour each day studying German – a language I’ve dabbled with in the past, and have long wanted to learn more thoroughly. It was always going to be ‘some day’, but now I have quite an opportunity to catch up on some of the half-hearted promises of self-improvement I’ve made myself over the years.

Of course, it’s not always easy to maintain motivation for the grand goals we set ourselves. But I don’t want to waste these years simply whiling away my time looking ahead to my release date, as though I’ll suddenly be able to start ‘living’ when they let me out. Do you have a ‘release date’? I think we all do it to some degree – waiting for a new job, getting married, having ‘enough money’, retirement … it’s an illusion that’s easy to believe;   my situation is just a microcosm.   Yeah, I still waste time, and plenty of it – although a good friend of mine would say that no time is ever wasted.   Nonetheless, to try to nudge myself, I’ve written a sign in large friendly letters and stuck it on the inside of a cupboard door that I open every day. It says ‘If not now, when?’. It’s a question that’s always worth asking.