This is a really difficult post for me to write. I started this blog in 2013 and, as somebody here pointed out to me today, it is my baby. I am proud of it. I am hugely defensive of it. I have fought to keep it going through thick and thin and even when I had to take an extended break from it I was prepared to do so purely because this was what was necessary to keep it alive in the long term. I had thought that Grendon, being the enabling place that it is, would have been more encouraging of it than other prisons. I now know that this is not the case. Allow me to explain why.
When I was still on the assessment wing here, I was asked to make sure that the community on the therapy wing I was moving to were aware of my blog.
I agreed that this was a good idea. It would give me the chance to tell everyone what I do and do not write about and to respond to and address any concerns people have. What I was unsure of was which of the many types of meeting to raise it at. After taking advice from staff, I was told to bring it up in my ‘Small Group’ first.
Unfortunately, I was beaten to the punch. A journalist picked up on one of the posts I had written and twisted what I had been writing about in order to cash in by twinning a picture of Butlins Red Coats with a headline about Grendon. His story, though based on true information, painted a picture that bears no resemblance to reality and which also included details which are quite simply untrue. But the damage was done and, as the story got syndicated throughout the mainstream media, prisoners here became aware of it, and of my blog.
I responded immediately. I came to the conclusion that it would be unfair to raise this in my small group (containing just 20% of the wing) since far more people than that might have concerns they wanted to raise. Instead, I approached the wing chairman and asked to put in an emergency minute to be raised that day. However, staff vetoed this. They said that I still had to raise it in my small group. I accepted their decision, but this meant that a couple of days had passed before I could speak to people about it. When I did bring it up, my group were not happy.
During the following 24 hours, I tried to talk to staff about the best way to proceed, but all of my attempts at conversation about it were rejected.
This was most frustrating due to the fact that I personally heard those very same staff members talking to other prisoners about the issue when they thought I was out of earshot. However, I kept my head down and got on with my day as best I could. Then, the next morning, another prisoner told me that we were all required in a Special Meeting (a meeting for an immediate concern) and that it regarded this issue. No member of staff told me about this, no one spoke to me about what would be happening. It simply happened. Imagine my surprise then, when the meeting started with me being asked to explain what it is I do with this blog and what purpose it serves.
“Well,” I said. “It serves many purposes. I started the blog at a time when I was going through a lot of struggles with my mental health, to the point of simply not wanting to be alive any more. It gave me a sense of purpose and achievement that, essentially, gave me a reason to live. Then it started to change me. It made me look back in at myself and really start to ask myself a lot of difficult questions about the choices I make in life, the reasoning behind them, and most importantly, the kind of person I want to be. As time went on I started to get feedback from a variety of people. Some were academics (usually in the field of criminology), others were journalists, and some were ex-prisoners or the friends, family, and supporters of prisoners. What united a large number of them was that they said they had benefited in one way or another from the things I had written.
“This was taken a step further when I entered a number of my published blog posts (amongst other things) into the Koestler Awards in 2015. I had a few successful entries and two in particular were picked out for Koestler’s exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London. One of these was a simple printout showing two paragraphs of one of my blog posts where I described the reasons why I write. I wrote that I believe the point of a good life is to have a positive effect on somebody and to leave them with something, even if that is just a thought or an emotion, but that jail is like purgatory because, as we have no opportunity to have an effect on the wider world, we slowly begin to die. However, there are two ways out of purgatory. One is a slow and torturous death, the other is to fight back with an all-consuming desire for life.”
Writing this blog had become my fight. My fight to have a positive effect on the wider world. My fight to leave someone with a thought and an emotion. My fight for life.
I was successful. Not only was I getting feedback by e-mail and through this blog, I also got feedback from many of the people who saw my writing at the Koestler exhibition. In response to those two short paragraphs I received no less than 40 feedback cards, all hugely positive. One wrote about how, despite usually preferring visual art, it was my piece that they liked most of all. Another wrote of how what I had written stayed with them throughout the exhibition, as they were looking at all of the other pieces of art by prisoners around the country, all with the same desire to put something positive out into the world. One person wrote that, after reading my writing, they were going to take a long look at the impact that they have on the world around them too. And another simply said “you may have just saved my life”, before writing about the fact that they too had been living with a feeling of hopelessness but that, now, they will be fighting for a positive life as I am.
This feedback did something big to me. It changed me forever. When I read it I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to those that I do have an effect on with my writing. And then I decided that it was no longer enough for me to say that I will write a book someday and get it published if possible. Writing was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to develop the blog and then, when the time is right, to submit some freelance articles to such publications as the Guardian. I wanted to earn a regular column in Inside Time. I wanted to build a platform. Then, when I eventually get out, I wanted to ask for advice from the contacts I had been making in order to break into freelance journalism, specialising in criminal justice, both in Britain and abroad. For the first time, I had a real life-plan.
As regular readers will be aware, the blog did stall for a time, but I followed procedure in order to clarify the rules surrounding my right to blog in order to safeguard the future of it. Eventually, I received this and, as I was transferred to Grendon, I became able to resume writing.
When I explained to the Special Meeting about what the blog was and why I did it, a number of concerns were raised. These all related to two subjects: Negative media attention and confidentiality.
I explained that I have never identified other prisoners on this blog, or written about the offences or personal information of other prisoners, so confidentiality will never be an issue. However, I am new here. People don’t know that they can trust my word on this yet.
I also explained that nothing I have written on my blog contains anything that hasn’t already appeared in Inside Time or in HMP Grendon’s own twitter feed. Yes, on this occasion my blog was referenced as a source for the article in question but, even if my blog did not exist, the papers frequently use information from Inside Time, reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Prisons, and the prison service themselves as a basis for their articles. My blog did not cause the article in question, it was merely mentioned within it.
They were not convinced by either argument and I was directly told (by another prisoner) that they thought I should shut the site down. When I pointed out the positive effect my writing has had not just on me but on so many others too, I was asked if that was more important than the people in this community who feel uncomfortable about it. Well, yes and no. No, no one’s needs are more important than anyone else’s in my book. But yes, someone telling me that they felt hopeless and suicidal until they read something I wrote is more significant than someone telling me that they are worried I am going to write about them when I know that this will never happen. A huge and certain positive is always going to outweigh a hypothetical negative. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to help that person address their concerns, I do. But it does mean that they don’t get to dismiss those who have benefited just because they feel uncomfortable.
So, in an effort to show that I was taking people’s feelings into account and attempting to address these, I offered to make changes. Firstly I offered to make changes to what I am writing. I offered to stop writing about Grendon altogether, instead focusing solely on my internal thoughts and feelings and/or things that are already in the public domain, such as national news and Ministry of Justice policy issues. Secondly, I offered to change the way I blog. I offered to print off copies of my posts in advance and to stick them up on one of the wing noticeboards for people to read at their leisure, if they want to. I then offered to give the community the right to object to anything I write and I assured them that I would respond to this and remove anything objectionable prior to sending it out for publication online.
Nothing I offered was enough and, what felt worse, I was sitting out there in the middle ground, having compromised on everything I do, and no one else wanted to join me there, meeting me halfway – or anywhere near it.
In the days that followed, the wing was split down the middle. Some said that I was doing really well to have achieved everything I have already and that I should carry on as I am, focusing on my future. Others said that, no matter how many compromises I make, I’m being unreasonable in wanting to carry on at all. But perhaps the most significant thing that was said to me (both by prisoners and by staff) was that I needed to think about what carrying on with the blog means for the future of my time in therapy. Essentially what I was being told was that, if I carry on blogging, I may be found unsuitable for therapy and sent back to Wakefield, failing to meet the targets expected of me and almost certainly resulting in the parole board continuing to knock me back for parole.
Remember, of course, that I have been in prison since I was a child. I have nothing outside other than what I have spent the past years building for myself. The choice I was faced with felt polarised. On the one hand, I could carry on blogging, putting something positive out into the world, and building a future career for myself, but I won’t ever get out to live that future. On the other hand, I could stop blogging, do my therapy, aim towards getting parole, and get out, but kiss goodbye to everything I have been building, get out to nothing. Yes, this is very black and white. But this is how it felt.
What was even more concerning was that a couple of prisoners even said that stopping the blog wouldn’t be enough. They would still be worried about what I might write in the future, when I get out, and nothing I do will make that fear go away. So what if I stopped blogging and then, when my three month assessment comes around, those in the community with the biggest trust issues still refuse to work with me? I could end up having my therapy cut short anyway. But I asked staff about this and, reading between the lines, they seemed to indicate that as long as I do what I can, other people’s fears are theirs to work on. I’ll admit to thinking that this should have been the case in the first place, but we are where we are and, as tough as it is, I have made a decision.
My hope is that, sometime in the future, when trust has been earned and minds are clearer, the situation can change. However, for now at least, I have to put this blog on hold.
I’m not happy about it. The truth is, I know that this blog is a force for good and I feel like I have been bullied into stepping away from it. This does not sit well with me and it makes me question whether Grendon is really what I thought it was. However, I am never going to find out unless I try, and that is why I am putting my blogging on hold.
One thing is for sure, I am certainly not taking the site down altogether. It is a resource that some may still find useful and, for that reason, it will remain live for as long as I am able to keep it so. Similarly, anyone who has any questions, queries, feedback, or support is welcome to contact me using the details here and I will be happy to respond. However, this will be my final post until further notice. I am beyond sad to say goodbye. This blog has taught me how much a person can achieve even from a prison cell, but I cannot live forever in that cell, achieving only so much. I have to work for something more now. For the opportunity to reach the outside world where I might be able to make more of a difference. For the chance to live a full and real life.
To those of you who have sent messages of support over the years, thank you from the heart. Your words have given me the inspiration, encouragement, confidence, and drive to become a better man, living a better life. Thank you all. And a special thank you to the person who recently sent me a postcard bearing the message:
“Find Your Song and Sing It”
This bump in the road has certainly tested my resolve, but I have that postcard on my wall and I will never give up singing, even if I must find new ways to do so.
Now allow me to leave you with one of my own favourite quotes. It is one that I find helps me to keep my motivation up from time to time and, whether you happen to find yourself inside or outside prison, I believe that these words of John Ruskin are worth living your life by:
“Life without industry is guilt,
and industry without art is brutality.”