In my first post back in the new year I mentioned that I had taken the decision to do something that turned out to be quite inadvisable, but that I couldn’t yet go into detail about because it was still a pending issue. Since writing that the situation has been resolved and I think that I should probably share what happened. Here’s what went down.
First of all, I have to make it clear that I did the wrong thing. Nothing that follows is an excuse for it, it is simply an attempt to share the way I was thinking about it at the time, before realising that it was the wrong thing.
BT have an exclusive contract for prison telephones and the rates they charge are the highest I have ever heard of. Until recently it could cost up to 20p a minute to maintain contact with the outside world (it has just come down by a couple of pence but remains very high). This is higher than standard BT landlines outside, higher than most standard mobile rates, and higher even than the rates for payphones in the street (if you can still find one). Meanwhile, prisoners have not received a pay rise since the nineties and can be paid as little as £2.50 for a full week’s work. I’m not getting into whether prisoners should be paid more in this post, but what I am pointing out is that prisoners are frequently told that one of the most important things that contribute to rehabilitation and prevention of reoffending is maintaining relationships and family ties, yet every available obstacle is put in the way of that being possible.
For the sake of telephone calls I have spent hundreds, maybe even thousands on credit over the years. And it got to a point where this could not continue. I was faced with three options. The first was to accept that I could not maintain frequent contact with loved ones and face the prospect of drifting further and further away from them, perhaps losing them altogether. I simply didn’t know how to accept that. The second option was to try and get hold of a mobile phone, which would cost an absurd amount of money up front, but would save money long term provided I could avoid getting caught. There were a couple floating around the prison at the time, but I knew it was now not just against the rules but was actually illegal to be in possession of a mobile in prison so, not wanting to break the law and risk facing further charges, I decided against this. That left one last option. And now for the science bit.
I got a third party to set up a low charge premium rate telephone number which could be diverted any standard phone line and which could be amended at any point to be re-diverted to any other line as and when this is wanted. Once set up I wanted to use this line (which cost far less to call than the 20p a minute that BT were charging as standard) and divert it to the phones of my personal contacts so that I could cut the costs of my calls by over 75% instantly. However, when prisoners want to call a number they have to register it with the prison first and, since this was a premium rate number, I knew it would be stopped if I attempted to register it as belonging to one of my domestic contacts. Instead I registered it as belonging to a solicitor’s firm. This registration was processed and approved so I could call the number. In addition, the fact that it was registered as a legal number meant that I was able to pay for my credit from my prison ‘private cash’ account (which includes all of my own money) rather than my more limited ‘spends cash’ account (which contains only my prison wages and a small allowance of my own money). Finally, the other implication was that legal numbers are (usually) treated as confidential and not subject to monitoring, whereas domestic numbers can be recorded or listened in to.
Once it was all up and-running and no alarms started going off I set up a second number to use too. Then, six months later, someone else said they were having trouble with their credit, so I offered to set a line up for him as well. Another few months went by and a third person said he too was having problems with his phone use. Again, I offered to help. In the end there were a number of lines in use and all three of us were free to use the phone for far longer than we otherwise would have been.
The way I looked at it (at the time) was that we weren’t hurting, distressing, or cheating anyone out of anything. We were breaking the rules, but we weren’t breaking the law. And the rule we were breaking was a rule that basically amounted to the premise that a prisoner paid the minimum amount specified by the relevant Prison Service Instruction (PSI) would have to work for about 20 hours in order to use the phone for about 12 minutes (at 20p a minute). I didn’t see the rule as fair. I didn’t see the rule as just. And I didn’t see the rule as valid. So I broke it.
In October I was taken from my cell to the segregation unit and, once there, I was told that it had all been found out, that the three of us would be placed on report and demoted to basic, that the resulting adjudication would be referred to the police for extra charges to be considered, that I would not be permitted to use the phone until further notice, that I would be put on closed visits for three months, and that we would be kept in the segregation on the order of the governor until the investigation is complete.
To the credit of the staff involved, they cleared me to use the phone to call my mother within a couple of days, provided it was at a pre-booked time and was listened in to live by a member of staff. This, I felt, was proportionate. On the other hand, I thought the closed visits (which meant all of my visits taking place in American style booths, separated by a perspex screen) was entirely disproportionate since nothing I had done had any connection to visits whatsoever, but I nevertheless decided not to challenge it. Similarly, the referral to the police seemed unnecessary since it was blatantly clear, at least to me, that nothing we had done was actually a crime. But, even if I’d thought it was a good idea, there was no way to challenge this decision anyway. Due process simply had to be waited for.
After three and a half weeks the police confirmed what the rest of us already knew. There was no offence. Or at least, no criminal offence. We were allowed to return to our normal wings from segregation but we remained on basic (pending our 28 day reviews) and continued to be subject to closed visits and telephone booking and live monitoring. After 28 days I was promoted from Basic to Standard regime level but then I found that we had also all been sacked from our jobs and were now on unemployment wages.
By now my other telephone contacts had all been rechecked and cleared for me to call again. However, the adjudication against us for breach of prison rules remained pending. And I’ll go into what happened there in my next post.