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”


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 …






9th June, 2016

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
(‘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

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.
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.



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,


“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.




“Christmas and All That

Date of writing: 31/12/2015

Well, I’d probably say that it’s been the most entertaining of the three prison Christmases I’ve had so far. The quality of the musical performances was certainly many times better than last year’s anyway. We had an audience of about 150 for the carol concert, with various senior staff, and outside guests which included a local deputy Mayor and a Suffragan Bishop (a kind of Bishop’s assistant – like Debbie McGee to Paul Daniels, but with fewer sequins). The bulk of the crowd was however made up of prisoners who’d probably signed up just to get a free mince pie, (which, as it happens, turned out to be an Eccles cake due to a mix-up at the kitchens).

We managed to get the biggest gaffe out of the way in the first few seconds, when our soloist listened carefully to the first three notes of Once in Royal David’s City (helpfully provided by a Salvation Army trumpeter), and then proceeded to start singing somewhere above all of them.   From there it was an agonising 25 seconds while he continued inexorably – and apparently oblivious – towards what should have been a moderately high D on the word ‘Mary’, but was in fact probably closer to a just-out-of-reach G#. His attempt was valiant, albeit after the kind of brief, uncertain pause taken by a cat as it carefully misjudges the distance between widely separated pieces of furniture before becoming yet another clip in a YouTube compilation.

Thankfully, mobile phones are banned in prisons, so this particular fail will soon be just an amusing anecdote as it fades from the memories of most. What was actually quite heart-warming was the response of the audience, who took it up again from the beginning and sang it through a capella in strong voice as if to say “don’t worry – we can all do it together!”. In a way, I think it did a good job of setting a festive mood: a bit of sympathetic laughter can be a good warm-up act, it seems.

By the time it came to my Christmas skit I think people were in the mood to be entertained. I’m hoping that (with the help of consultant technical editors) you should be able to download the script of Mister Jimbo from here ….   Mister Jimbo

In any case, it was well received.   The simple things seemed to get the big laughs (such as the entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present as he struggled to get through the stage door in his oversized, wrapping-paper-covered box), while Jim’s mini-soliloquy on existential self-loathing actually got a small cheer. The errant soloist redeemed himself as Brian Blessed in the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and I like to believe I was a passable Narrator and singing barber. Overall, I think it was the careful casting of Jim that held it all together. The über-Bishop was sat in the front row, and I’m told he was seen to laugh genuinely at the worst of Mary’s lines, so I feel I’m in the clear with the Church at least. The Governor however, was apparently on edge from the beginning when she realised the plot centred around the brewing of illicit alcohol. Her speech at the end included the word ’controversial’, but I figure if I’m not upsetting the Governor at least a little bit then I’m not doing it right. In the valedictory round of conversation, congratulation and consumption of Eccles cakes, she seemed to completely blank me, but I haven’t ended up on the Block, so she can’t have been too troubled.

Other highlights included the ‘Catholic’ band (of which I’m a part, despite being more of an agnostic existentialist Zen Quaker) singing a four-part rendition of O Holy Night, and an impressive saxophone solo during one of the choir pieces. I think we managed to use most of our technical gear simultaneously, and aside from needing to re-solder some lighting cables before it all started, everything actually seemed to work properly, which was a surprise. Almost disappointingly, nobody fell over and nothing caught fire and/or exploded. Still, there’s always next year.

After all that, Christmas Day itself was almost an anticlimax.   I shaved my beard off on Christmas Eve, just to remember what my chin looks like. Then I remembered having no beard makes my nose look big (although I’m told that in fact, “having a big nose” is what makes my nose look big).   Whatever – I’m growing it back already ‘cos my chin’s cold.   I digress… …Oooh – suddenly it’s 2016! Happy new year! I don’t know what you’re doing to celebrate, but I’m sitting here sipping peppermint tea and eating gingernuts spread with peanut butter (don’t knock it ‘til you‘ve tried it).

Where was I? Ah yes, Christmas day. The assistant Bishop was with us again, and the most entertaining part of his morning service came during his sermon. By way of seeking volunteers to come and stand holding pre-printed signs while wearing Christmas hats (to demonstrate something or other that now completely escapes me), he said “I’m looking for three wise men”. At this point a quick-witted congregant called out “If we were wise, we wouldn’t be here!”, causing the rest of the congregation to be lost to laughter for the next few minutes. I don’t suppose Bishops are used to being heckled.

Christmas lunch was moderately good, comprising actual turkey, traditional pig/blanket combination, stuffing, ‘roast’ potatoes, and Brussels sprouts among other things. I included toast to the list to mop up the gravy, which I would recommend as an unconventional addition. The Christmas pudding (with brandy-free brandy sauce) was actually rather good.   After a few slightly bizarre rounds of Bingo (which some took exceptionally seriously) the afternoon proceeded with what passes for a party, in Deaf Dave’s pad.

Some may consider Dave’s epithet offensive or politically incorrect, but he seems comfortable with it, which is what matters.   On a slight tangent, this wing houses the majority of the prison’s sign-language-using Deaf community (there can’t be more than as dozen altogether), which is proving to be an education. A couple of months back, I got into a largely gesture-based conversation with one of these chaps on the subject of ‘what unusual animals have you eaten?’ (don’t ask me how that started), when I attempted to convey the concept of a dog – by barking. At a deaf person. Rapidly realising my error, I became the subject of some ridicule for those within fully-functional earshot. Since then, Dave has been helping me learn some British Sign Language, and I now have a book to help me. Interestingly, Dave is a fellow ‘Listener’ for those with BSL as a main language.   Perhaps ‘Watcher’ might be a more accurate description.

Anyway, seven or eight of us brought various food and drink to Dave’s place in time for the Queen’s speech. Kettle Chips, pretzels, sour cream and onion crackers (‘distributed exclusively in Australia and New Zealand’, according to the packaging), Jaffa cakes, Skittles, Christmas cake, and (actual) mince pies were washed down with Orangina and Pepsi, as we all stood and loudly sang the National Anthem.   It was an odd gathering, but a fun one.   As I may have intimated before there are many amusing things I wish I could relate here, but can’t, for fear of incriminating myself or others, or at least impeding opportunities for future high jinks. Perhaps I’ll write of these things after I’m out.

For evening lock-up, we were provided with a buffet-style selection of items comprising a pork pie, sausage roll, boiled egg, cheese sandwich, passable coleslaw, and a salad with identifiable and edible contents, as well as Christmas cake and another mince pie (not Eccles cake). With a bit of pickle and judicious use of condiments it made for a fine platter.   I can only assume that the prison pushed the boat out significantly beyond our normal daily food budget of £2.07, for which I’m grateful. Thus feeling pleasantly uncomfortable, with slight indigestion, I retired to a fairly sound if flatulent sleep.

Suddenly, it was 2 am and there were two officers in my room speaking what appeared to be Greek. When I eventually regained the ability to process speech, after having been woken from what I imagine must have been the deepest phase of sleep, I asked them to repeat themselves in English (which they assured me they had been speaking all along), and they duly did. Gradually, as my logic circuits came back online, I remembered that I was the duty Listener for the evening. Christmas has been a moderately busy time for us, but I was happy to spend the early hours of Boxing Day doing something useful. Especially as I had the chance of a good nap in the afternoon.

Christmas Day being on a Friday this year, the usual round of weekend services flowed straight after it unabated, and I spent the Bank Holiday catching up with the chapel cleaning jobs that had slid during the season. Festivities are set to continue tomorrow afternoon, with a number of us playing for a Christmas singalong.   This has the potential to be cringe-makingly dire or strangely compelling, but will likely be a mixture of both. As I said at the start, it’s been entertaining. After what’s seemed like a long December, I look at 2016 with a cautiously optimistic eye, and wish you all a happy new year.