Recently I received an email from one of the producers for Channel 5 News asking if I would be prepared to do an interview. Obviously, I jumped at the chance but the Ministry of Justice very quickly put a block on it.
The reasons for them blocking it are not yet clear, but similar blocks have been challenged through the courts on a number of occasions in both this country and in Strasbourg. Moreover, the main cases of this type have all been ruled in favour of the prisoner and the broadcaster. In fact, judges have even emphasised that prison services should show deference to broadcasters in determining not just the content of interviews, but the most appropriate medium and format for broadcast too.
Unfortunately, by the time I manage to challenge this decision in the same way, it will already be too late on this occasion. However, I fully intend to chase this up so that, if the grounds for refusal are not genuine and reasonable, it will open the door to future opportunities and make it clear to the relevant decision makers that they should ensure that they keep in line with the relevant case law.
In the meantime, I have received a number of questions which since I will be unable to answer them on film, I will take the opportunity to answer here.
What do you think about restorative justice – where the victim of a crime meets the perpetrator in prison?
I’ve heard quite a bit about this and have known a few prisoners who have taken part in it. In some cases it really works but the aims definitely need to be clearer. It would be a completely legitimate aim to set up meetings with the objective of showing criminals the effect of their actions on others and, hopefully, to elicit an empathetic response which would feed into that criminal’s rehabilitation, but the success of that objective completely depends on the type of person you are dealing with. If you ask someone who is mentally unable to feel or demonstrate empathy, wouldn’t it just leave the victim feeling worse about the experience? On the other hand, if you go into the process focusing entirely on how the experience will be for the victim and without paying due attention to the after care of the perpetrator (which is how most prison rehabilitative programmes are handled) then it is inevitable that some offenders will react badly. The risks here are tremendous. Some will become resentful, others dejected and perhaps even suicidal. I’ve seen all these effects myself in people who have been involved in restorative justice and, in my opinion, the process needs to be completely geared towards making the victim comfortable during the process, and almost entirely focussed on ensuring that after care is provided to the perpetrator afterwards, so that it has a positive effect on their rehabilitation rather than an ineffective or even negative one.
Have you ever been involved in restorative justice yourself?
Unfortunately not. I would have loved to have the chance but I’ve never been offered it. For a long time I thought about the possibility but, since I had never been asked, I was hesitant to suggest it myself in case the suggestion was taken badly or perceived to be disingenuous. However, about two years ago I had a parole hearing and received a victim impact statement. I was genuinely shocked at how much my victims were still affected by my actions even ten years on and I decided I needed to do something. I wrote a letter to probation asking if they could discuss it with the victim liaison officer and then, only if they both thought it would benefit the victim, perhaps we could look at it. She said she would investigate but she never got back to me. It’s a shame really, but I have to trust that they are doing what’s right for the victim and they haven’t just let it slide. At least that’s what I hope.
Do you think offenders are rehabilitated in prison?
Rehabilitation depends on two things; the will to change and the ability to change. If a prisoner doesn’t have the will to change, no amount of prison courses will ever make him do it and, unfortunately, most prisoners I have known have no desire to change whatsoever. Those people will never be rehabilitated. Then there are those who have the will to change but don’t have the ability either because of learning difficulties, poor personal insight and understanding or a lack of support. Prison courses can help these people. They can provide ideas and tools to increase insight and understanding. But they tend to be poorly handled. A prime example of this is how prison rehabilitative courses are delivered. Usually they will take place only in the mornings because it is recognised that psychologists who have to listen to in depth descriptions of offences and other traumatic experiences need a debrief in the afternoons in order to prevent any significant effects on their own mental state. The same is not offered to prisoners who take part in such courses. After spending a morning dredging up some of their most distressing memories and shameful experiences, they are often expected to return to the wing, attend for work for the afternoon, and demonstrate impeccable behaviour all the way. So, yes, some people can be rehabilitated in prison, but current efforts are unreliable and, in many cases, counter productive.
What do you think the biggest problem is for prisoners in prison?
There are a few big problems. The biggest problem in terms of the negative effects it can have on prisoners is one I have experienced myself. To put it simply, rehabilitation in prison is measured as change between starting a prison course and finishing that course. The problem is, many prisoners like myself go significant periods of time without access to such courses and do a lot of changing off their own bat whilst they’re waiting. That makes it near impossible to demonstrate a reduction of risk when we are eventually given access to a course since we start the course already having changed and therefore being unable to demonstrate improvement as the course progresses. The effect of this on prisoners serving life or indeterminate sentences is that it becomes extremely difficult to obtain parole, resulting in extensive periods of time spent in prison unnecessarily.
On the other hand, the biggest problem in prisons in terms of the number of people affected by it is completely different. The Ministry of Justice publishes a full range of Prison Service Instructions that provide for a system that (in theory) runs smoothly and effectively. They protect the rights of the public, of prison staff, and of prisoners themselves. They let everyone know what is expected of them and exactly how things should be done. The problem comes when these rules are ignored and prison staff make up the rules for themselves. The procedures are there for a reason and sure, some of them are inconvenient at times, but refusing to follow them gets no one anywhere. It just creates confusion and resentment. The truth is that prison does work, right up until the screws get involved. Then it falls apart.
Do you think there is a lot of institutionalisation in prisons?
Without a doubt. I’ve known a few people who have suffered from this including one who has recently been released and wrote us a letter to let us know how he was getting on. He said that he just doesn’t feel like he has a place in society any more. He feels lost and directionless. In his case, I don’t think he’ll come back to prison because he now has a young daughter who he doesn’t want to let down, but if even his little girl can’t stop him feeling ‘homesick’ for prison, what hope do prisoners without families have.
It has often been reported that prison life is easy with prisoners having access to TV and computer games. What is your experience of this?
I’ve been inside for twelve years and have spent time in a variety of prisons from juvenile establishments, to young offender’s, all the way up to the high security adult estate. In all my time in prison I have only ever come across two wings that provided free access to computer games. One was a prison for under 18 year olds serving long term sentences, and the other was a wing specifically designated for the best behaved prisoners. In the juvenile prison it made total sense to provide games consoles. It cut self harm amongst some of the most vulnerable prisoners in the system and it was an earned privilege, never a right. In the other example, the computers supplied on loan were again an earned privilege, but they were also paid for by the prisoners themselves. No taxpayer money was spent on them, they were donated by prisoners who had paid for them out of their own money but no longer wanted them. Isn’t it right that good behaviour, above and beyond what is expected, is encouraged with added privileges?
There are many more prisoners who are allowed access to computers bought from their own earnings, but even then, it is restricted to those prisoners who have earned a place on the highest regime through exemplary behaviour. As for TVs, even these are restricted. Anyone who misbehaves and finds themselves demoted to a lower regime loses their TV altogether and, as long as prisoners have a TV in possession, they are expected to pay a pound a week for the privilege. That might not sound like a lot but when you look at the detail it isn’t quite as bad as some newspapers would have you believe. For starters, it’s only since the digital switchover that we have gained access to any more than channels one to five. Now the rules state that we can have nine channels, all approved by the Ministry of Justice. This whole claim about prisoners getting subscription only Sky Sports super duper best package is nonsense. I’ve never seen a single prison that offered that. Even claims about the TV sets themselves are completely unfounded. We don’t get large or flatscreen sets at all. We get standard 14” CRT sets which cost no more than £30 when bought individually. I dare say that the Ministry of Justice arranges a significant discount for buying in bulk. But let’s say that they pay as much as £20 per set, within six months the prisoner has paid the cost of that himself! In my whole time inside I’ve had two TV sets break on me, not because I’ve mistreated them but because of general wear and tear. The cost to the taxpayer would be £60 then. But over the years I’ve paid back over £600 in rental of those sets. Claims that the taxpayer funds prisoners to have an easy life are not just wrong, they are deliberately misleading.
Can you shed some light on what life is like in prison?
Prison life is far from easy. I’ve spoken to literally hundreds of prisoners who all agree on one thing; we would all give up each and every one of the creature comforts we get in exchange for just a taste of freedom. Until you’re locked in a cell on your own for as long as twenty three hours a day, you can never really understand how it feels to not even be able to step outside and breathe fresh air. The lack of choices, the way we are kept away from our families and friends, that’s all that really matters. As for TVs, computer games, and whatever else, you can keep them.
It’s true that some people have admitted coming to prison intentionally because they have so little on the outside. But that shouldn’t be taken as a demonstration of how prisons are too easy, in reality it is a demonstration of how little support is available to those most in need when they are free. If the government spent a bit more time helping those who need it, crime would come down, the prison population would fall, and we could all stop having these ridiculous debates about how easy prison is.
Why do you think people commit a crime?
There are so many reasons but they almost all come from desperation. Some people grow up being told that, for no reason other than their postcode, they’ll never amount to anything. The schools let them down, the police harass them, the media demonises them, and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. In the end life gets so hard that they’ll do whatever it takes to make things a bit easier on themselves. If that means making a quick buck from crime, then so be it. On the other hand, there are those whose desperation comes directly from unresolved and unsupported mental health issues, or those whose desperation stems from a desire to be noticed rather than just being ignored by society.
The reasons for crime are endless but the causes of crime are always the same. It comes down to lack of support under a system that deliberately divides society in order to consolidate its own power and keep the masses dependant upon it. The only reason the Russell Brands of this world haven’t seen the revolution they call for is that those in power (and by that I mean both politicians and media outlets) do a fantastic job of convincing the population that there are an uncountable number of threats to their way of life and we should all live in fear. The reality is that we would all be a lot happier and a lot safer if we stopped listening to the power hungry elite turn us all against one another.
I guess what I’m really saying is why can’t we all just get along?