Tag Archives: prisons

Tins Of Fish

It has always bewildered me that there is such an array of rules across the Prison Estate. I get that there has to be rules. I get that different establishments might have differing rules to suit the type of prison they are or to deal with any particular issues that they have locally.

And yet prison rules have still long baffled me. From the sign on a door that prohibited visitors bringing in, inter alia, “door stops and ladders” (how could a prison be defeated by wedging doors open and who could ever smuggle a ladder in?) to the prison that made me drop my trousers (a very long and not particularly edifying story) to the prison that turned over every page of my brief because “we had someone trying to smuggle a doughnut in…”, prison rules are, well, a law unto themselves. 

In Manchester we briefly had “the letter of introduction”. This was a letter which basically had to say “Hello, this is Jaime, he’s a barrister, and today he would like to visit one of your guests, Burglar Bill.”  A part of me always wanted them to have to finish with the phrase “and you shall let him pass without let or hindrance.” But they didn’t. 

My first introduction to letters of introduction was when I arrived at a prison and they told me I had to have one. This was news to me. I had not previously been introduced to the letter of introduction. The conversation went a little like this;

Officer: Where’s your letter of introduction?

Me: I haven’t got one. What is it?

Officer: It is a letter explaining who you are and why you’re here.

Me: Oh right. Never been asked for one of those before. Give me a moment and I’ll jot those details down on a piece of paper for you. 

Officer: No, that won’t do. It’s got to be from your boss. 

Me: I am self employed. I haven’t got a boss. I guess I am my own boss. So do you want it from me? Introducing myself?

Officer: Yes. 

Me: I’ll just jot it down then, like I just said…..

Officer: No! It’s got to be on headed notepaper. 

Me: Right, have you got a fax? Cos I’ll get some note paper faxed over and then I will write a letter on it formally introducing myself to you and sign it from myself to say it is deffo me. 

Officer: There’s no need to be arsey….

And so it went on. I didn’t get in the prison that day. But from that day forward I did carry a letter of introduction, like some emissary being sent on a diplomatic mission, and presented it at every prison I visited. Often I may as well have dropped my trousers (again) and shown my backside judging by the reception it got at most places. 

The letter of introduction now seems a thing of the past. Prisons feel no more or less safe. And in one of Machester’s prisons I can wear my watch as I visit a man on remand for murder and in the other prison I cannot wear my watch as I visit a man on remand for murder. I am sure this makes sense somewhere. Just not in the real world. 

My watch wearing is just an inconvenience. The real issue is which prison you can take your laptop or tablet into. Or, more importantly, what you have to do to be allowed to bring it in. One prison requires 48 hour written notice, another prison just needs you to mention it when you book in whilst another wants a letter from the computer’s mother and an oath taken in blood and bytes that the computer is who you say it is. 

Today I represented a man who was moved from a prison in London to a prison in Manchester and then back to London for his hearing today. I have mentioned in a blog previously that prison food is so bad that prisoners are concerned that protein is missing from their diet. I have plenty of clients that order protein shakes from the prison canteen to make up the deficit. These people are not bodybuilders, they just lack protein. My client today had overcome this by ordering 150 tins of mackerel and tuna as part of his “canteen”. 

A prisoner’s canteen is the extra stuff they can buy with their wages. Often it is tobacco or sweets. This prisoner wanted protein and decent food so he stockpiled tinned fish in his prison in London. And he was eating it three meals a day, had to buy when it was available and he amassed 150 tins of fish. He then got transferred to a prison in Manchester. A prison that did not allow prisoners to have tinned fish….

Now I appreciate that this sounds like I am making it up, but I promise you I am not. So at the Manchester prison his tinned fish hoard had to be stored. And today, when transferred from Manchester to court in London, his canned fish had to be bagged up in several bags and brought with him to London, just in case he ended up in a prison that let him have a sardine or two.

I know both prisons involved. They are very similar. Both privately run. Both house the same category of prisoner. They even look the same:

And yet in one prison you can buy tinned fish and in the other tinned fish is as prohibited as Class A Drugs and ladders….

The Criminal Justice System has become a disparate loose collection of different departments and entities, attempting to work together with little by way of overarching aims and guidance. I have no idea, from day to today, what I need to do to see a client, what I can take with me or whether they will be brought to court. And they have no idea whether Governor Antoinette is going to let them eat tinned fish or not. 

This disparate uncooperative co-op leads to delay and waste. And a man in the back of a prison van hurtling along the M6 with see-through bags full of contraband tinned fish. 

It has been a long day…..

The Bald Truth

Yesterday I wrote about the crisis in the CJS (here). It is a crisis that the boss, Chris Grayling, is turning a Nelsonian eye to. There is no crisis in our prisons, there is no problem in our criminal justice system.

The boss and I share one thing in common. We are baldies. We could be Britain’s foremost Mitchell brother look-a-likes. Whenever my baldness is remarked upon I respond by saying that I have “an even covering of hair”. It is just that every hair is about an inch away from one of its colleagues.

So it is time Chris and I faced the truth. We are balder than Right Said Fred and we both work in a system that is on its knees.

I have a client that I have been representing in the same case for some considerable time. He is now serving a very long sentence. The case is now wending its way through the confiscation process.

I recently had a conference with said client. He is not a left wing campaigning charity. He is a man at the receiving end of our penal system. The boss would probably call him a customer. Or a stakeholder. Or a unit.

So we were having a bit of general chitchat. He was not in the least bit concerned about the book ban. That is for left wing do-gooders. What he was bothered about was the fact that his family could no longer send him protein powder.

So what? Why should we allow some bodybuilding criminal protein powder? What next? Steroids?

Save for the fact he is not a bodybuilder. He is a middle aged, slightly soft around the middle, bloke. He used to have protein powder sent to him because the quality of the food was so poor. I felt a bit ashamed. I can understand the concerns that prisons should not be hotels but they should not be Victorian workhouses.

He told me lots of prisoners had protein powder sent to them. Then, he told me, that he could still buy protein powders from the mail order system. So I was able to dampen my left wing hysteria. Apparently, coincidental to the ban on him receiving such things from his family, the price from the internal shop rocketed. Prisons do make good business.

Then he went on to tell me about the rehabilitation work he was doing. That roughly equated to the hairs on my head. There were simply insufficient staff for the prisoners to do anything constructive. In fact, he told me, all it takes is a couple of prison officers to be absent and the whole wing shut down.

How often did that happen? Well, all it took was two people to ring in sick on their wing. Or a few wing staff across the whole prison to ring in sick so that the staff had to be reorganised across a few wings. Or for a relatively unplanned prisoner escort to be required to a hospital or some such.

And the result? He was locked in his cell. Discipline on the wing, he said, was non-existent. This was not a prison looking to rehabilitate. This was a warehouse of humanity. A storage facility of criminals. All just waiting to return to their former life.

So Chris Grayling is right when he says that there is no crisis in the prison system. If by no crisis he means that there are still beds available for new faces or that the rooftops of every prison are not awash with bare chested protesters.

However prisons are not producing the results society needs. Locking prisoners up for 23 hours with food so poor even they recognise its lack of nutritional content is going to reform precisely zero souls. That is not a crisis. That is a national scandal.

The Five Stages

There seem to be five stages of Government policy making.

First they cut. Cut services, cut investment, cut their nose off to spite their face. The alternative is to cut public services adrift and sell them off to the private sector. So prisons are privatised, closed or staffing levels cut. Boarder Agency staff are made redundant.

Then comes denial. There is no problem. Everything is going exactly according to plan. Even when the people in the know, the people working at the coal face, tell them there is a problem then they are derided. Their concerns are just self-interest. What does the Inspector of Prisons know about prisons after all?

After denial comes blame. Okay, there maybe a problem after all. Yes some prisons maybe a bit full right now. A few people may be waiting a tad long for passports but it’s not their fault. The previous administration left them with no money. These are difficult times. They are taking difficult decisions because of what happened before they came along. But they are not going to apologise for that.

Until they do apologise. That is what comes next. A Ministerial apology. There might be a problem. They are sorry if people have been inconvenienced (not that they will ever apologise to prisoners, prisoners do not have the vote so there is no point apologising to them – ever). They repeat that the problem is obviously someone else’s fault. They listened to the people who knew and when the people who knew had a choice between utter disaster and minor disaster they opted for the minor disaster so, if you think about it, it is really the fault of the people in the know that a minor disaster has now occurred. And the Government are really sorry they listened to those, supposedly, clever people. It is the kind of apology that parents force toddlers into making. “Say sorry for gouging your sister’s eye out” and everything is cured.

And then the Government leap into action. Usually by producing a wildly expensive sticking plaster to temporarily fix what they have broken. Rehiring prisoner officers to cope, advertising for probation officers from Australia, recruiting people to process passport applications, supplementing the pay of interpreters….the list goes on.

Of course all of these could be avoided if they took one, very important step at the very beginning. That would be called listening.

The Book-Keeper and the Man

A small bespectacled man sat quietly in the corner, seemingly trying to blend into the background. This is how he had existed in life on the outside. Never standing out, never making a fuss, never being noticed. At first that had just been a natural shyness but later in life it was a quality which meant he was the last person the company had suspected of extracting over £100k from company coffers. In the first few days on the inside it had been a useful defence mechanism. Now a year into his sentence he sat untroubled in the far corner.

The chair opposite him was roughly pulled from beneath the table and he looked up from his reverie to see a shaven headed mass of muscle before him, the reds and blues of a tattoo dancing up his bulldog neck from the blue prison-issue sweatshirt.

“Bazboy tells me that you are the one everyone calls ‘The Book-Keeper’,” the shaven headed man spoke in a hushed, menacing voice.

“That is correct. But mother would much prefer you to call me Arthur,” the other man replied, not looking up from his jigsaw.

“Bazboy said you were the man to come to to be sorted out with some gear,” the bald thug whispered conspiratorially.

“It is true that I have a certain knack in the obtaining of particular articles, but you will have to be more specific than just ‘gear’ my dear fellow,” the Book-Keeper still concentrated on his puzzle.

“Drugs man, innit. Anything man. I don’t care. It’s been a while you see,” the voice softened, became a little pleading.

For the first time Arthur, the one known as the Book-Keeper looked up, his eyes suddenly animated. “Oh yes, I think I can help you there, most definitely. Perhaps Hunter S Thompson or Jack Kerouac would do the job.”

“Sorry mate, slow down. I am new to this gaffe, don’t know the words used here do I? Kerouac… is that Ketamine, and that Hunter thing, is that H? I could go some H to be honest.”

“My dear fellow, Hunter S Thompson wrote ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, surely the finest book written about and under the influence of controlled substances ever. And I have a copy, just for you. Only paperback mind you….”

“Are you taking the piss?” a sudden note of anger flashed across the voice of the customer.

“I am sorry, were you looking for something a bit more non-fiction? Perhaps Howard Marks’s ‘Mr Nice’?” asked the Book-Keeper.

“Bazboy told me you were the go to man if I wanted anything hot in this nick,” the voice now sounded a little exasperated.

“You don’t seem like the Fifty Shades of Gray type and I’m afraid Smithy took my last copy anyway,” sighed Arthur. He pushed his spectacles back up his nose and returned his attention to the half completed picture of cats on the table.

“Not Fifty Shades of bleedin’ Gray, I mean things like a mobi…..”

The Book-Keeper interrupted, “I am beginning to guess that you are not referring to Melville’s tale of the whale, Moby-Dick?”

“Too right I am not. I am talking mobile phones and drugs. Hot gear. Proper prison stuff,” the man sat back in his chair with a deflated air, “and I was told you were the man who could sort me out.”

The Book-Keeper took his glasses off and pinched his nose. “My dear man, you are new here aren’t you?” He placed the glasses back on his face and continued, “I am a dealer in the hard to come by stuff. You want a phone, go and ask Bonehead but don’t ask him where he keeps it. You want drugs? They are easy. It rains tennis balls stuffed with drugs every night of the week and Mrs Jones, the blonde officer, well she has a romantic leaning towards Billy the Whizz on wing B so she brings in all the speed he needs to keep his nickname going hidden inside her bra.”

The Book-Keeper lent back in his seat, “But I, I only deal in the real deal. Books. The stuff that had to be banned. And since the library is only open now and then there is such a demand for what I can offer. The devil makes work for idle hands and all that.”

“How do you get hold of them?” the man asked, strangely curious.

“Smuggled inside kilos of cocaine,” the Book-Keeper allowed himself a little chuckle, “just my little joke. These days they are placed inside hollowed out Playstations.”

“Blimey, I had no idea books were so, well, important.”

“A book, my friend, is an education all in itself. The redemption tales of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, the true life inspiration of Christopher Reeves in ‘Still Me’ or the fantasy escapism of Harry Potter. All food for the soul. All training for the mind. And there is nothing better for business than a little bit of prohibition. So what will it be my friend, a little hit of Amis or a small tote of Betjeman?”

And so the Book-Keeper and the man struck a deal. The road to rehabilitation was mapped out in the pages of a novel.

Of Books and Bingo

One of the things that the public never grasp, that I never grasped until I became a barrister, is that ordinary people end up in prison too. A lot of them. Not every prisoner is a tattoo’d violent thug. Not every prisoner is stuck in the revolving door of the prison system. That the public do not understand it is understandable, that the MoJ should base every policy and public utterance on this fallacy is disgraceful.

Disgraceful but not entirely surprising. My previous experience of politics has always been as an interested observer. Never before have I been so directly interested in a particular department that I have paid as much interest in the goings on of a ministry as I have been since the Transforming Legal Aid consultation was announced. So now I realise that the Ministry of Justice will never let the truth hinder their thoughts, actions or public pronouncements.

So the “book ban” story has been a fine example of their general approach. It is a shame that the “justice ban” brought about by the restrictions on access to courts for prisoners has not received as much media attention but I will take my exposure of the MoJ wherever I can. And in this case they are exposed as lying, cheating, penny pinchers who put the monetary cost of anything ahead of its value.

The restriction on books and other items being sent into prisoners is contained within a prison circular designed to promote the “Incentives and Enhanced Privileges” scheme. The context is given that it is too easy for prisoners to just have things sent in for them. They should earn their access to things by being compliant in the prison. Then they will be able to earn money to buy the things that may improve the hours spent otherwise idle. The early statements from the MoJ defending this policy were all about this. This is of course a blanket ban introduced based on the idea that every offender is in need of, and is resistant to, rehabilitation. It does not cater for the idea that being able to receive small personal things from the outside world may act as a brake to an offender’s further descent into poor behaviour. If the idea was that you had to earn the right to have things like books why not just introduce that you had to earn the right to have them sent in from outside?

Then came the change. Then came the justification that parcels had to be banned because they were being abused by prisoners seeking to receive contraband items such as phones and drugs. The parcels could not be screened for the presence of such things. Something had to be done. A ban was the only answer.

If that were true then the only answer to the tide of drugs and phones in prison is to ban prison officers from entering the prison estate. And to ban new prisoners as well. As anyone knows there are a number of ways drugs etc get into prisons. They are sent hidden in parcels (albeit I venture to suggest rarely), they are carried in hidden about new prisoners or visitors, they are thrown over prison walls or they are conveyed by corrupt prison workers. If the answer to the drug problem in prisons is to ban the means of them being smuggled then you are going to have some pretty empty prisons devoid of prisoners or guards.

So the truth is that in order to tackle one problem the MoJ will create another problem and hide it in a false justification. The problem seems to be that prisons cannot afford the labour or the equipment involved in checking parcels that enter the establishment. So something which is generally seen as a positive influence is sacrificed on the altar of cost.

And I seriously hope that it is only cost that has come into this equation and not profit. I recently came across this article which kind of made sense. There is profit to be made from the prison estate having a single supplier of items to their captive market. I believe that David Mowat MP would call that an anti-competitive cartel. I am sure he will be raising questions in the House about it.

I hope someone will. Because on the Today programme Jeremy Wright was asked to identify the business that would supply the books to prisoners. He came nowhere close to answering. Are the MoJ making money out of this cartel with a single supplier into the prison estate? As you can see from the InsideTimes article the prison service justified the 5% profit they were making on Argos orders as covering the administration charge. In that case, why not charge for a parcel being checked? Either payable by the family member when it is dropped off or payable out of the prisoner’s money if they want the parcel to come to their cell.

Charge £1 a parcel for prisoners who have been allowed the privilege of receiving parcels. Discipline and costs covered. Bingo! And the Government like Bingo.

The Book of Moron

This weekend I watched a little bit of Sport Relief. Davina McCall was visiting a quarry where young children worked. She returned with one of the children to her corrugated tin home. The child produced from a bag her most treasured possessions – two tattered school books without covers that had been given to her by a friend. In these books she carefully copied any word vaguely medical as she wanted to be a doctor. In the midst of all that poverty, deprivation and struggle books were a true symbol of hope.

Thankfully we do not have children working in quarries. We do have people in custodial institutions. The vast majority of them are richly deserving of punishment. We have to hope that most of them are capable of redemption. Many of them will be poorly educated. Thanks to the Lord Chancellor all of them will now struggle to have books sent into them from their family of friends.

We know that the Lord Chancellor is not a man to let a sensible policy get in the way of a headline. We know he likes that photograph of him, arms folded, locked prison gate in the background, looking all tough. But books? Really?

I have delivered many a lame mitigation in my time but I have never ever uttered the phrase “what started out as a few social stanzas with friends soon grew to an out of control spiral of book abuse and so began my client’s descent into criminality”. Not once.

What ill is the book ban hoping to stamp out? Is Grayling worried that prisoners may be given ideas from “Escape from Colditz”? Has there been an outbreak of prisoners getting over the wall by climbing a tottering pile of Enid Blyton? Has tobacco and cannabis been replaced by “Pickwick Papers” as the currency of the landings? Has the front page of the Daily Mail been filled with stories of how prisons are becoming more like holiday camps because of the endless supply of autobiographies?

The answer it seems is that they want to encourage prisoners to earn money to buy books. Having looked at the prison incentive scheme it strikes me that it is probably easier for a prisoner to have a TV in his cell and a Playstation than it is for his family to send him a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

I appreciate that the system of reward and privilege is an essential part of prison discipline. It would be more reassuring if the Lord Chancellor would expend more energy explaining that to the public than he does on endless tinkering. However books are such a powerful, positive influence on people that their widespread availability is something to be cherished and promoted.

Rights and privileges are a hallmark of a decent society. Whilst I pause to observe that there is an irony in a Minister of Justice who wishes to lessen the rights of prisoners whilst making privileges out of rights I will say that the access to education through literature is to be cherished as a right, not dangled as a reward. I do not for one moment kid myself that every violent thug is going to have his life transformed by reading Proust but surely we have to see that if a starving child in Africa can be touched by the power of the written word then there is a man in Strangeways who may find a inspiration in life through reading.

I am tempted to send Mr Grayling one or two books. “The Rule of Law” and “The Morality of Law” might be good places to start. Or maybe just “Nutshell’s Guide to Being Lord Chancellor”. You see I believe even our errant Minister of Justice can find redemption in the written word. That is testament to how powerful it can be.