Becoming a Prison Editor

Published 30/11/2023
Author(s) Sean P

A Series of Voices: Twenty Years on From “Making Good” – Entry 5

In 2016 I had co-founded and was running a popular arts venue on the south coast. There was some trouble with the council over licensing, and various allegations and controversies throughout the year, some well-founded, others based on simple gossip, culminating in the place losing its licence two weeks before Christmas, and a sexual allegation concerning me a week later. This was bundled together with a less serious allegation from six months previously, which had resulted at the time in a No Further Action (NFA) decision by the police. There followed a social media campaign, sufficient in toxicity to compel me to leave town.

After fourteen months on bail passed, the trial arrived (in the middle of the Beast from the East snowstorm) in early 2018. It also happened to coincide with the arrest of Harvey Weinstein in New York, so was also the high-water mark of the MeToo movement. After a promising start the trial started to go bad for me, and ultimately I was found guilty on all three counts.

I waved to my parents and sole supporter before being taken down to spend two days in a police cell, later being transferred to Winchester Prison. This Victorian panopticon-style edifice had become renowned in recent years for dysfunction, even being put into ‘special measures’ at one point. The ‘vulnerable’ wing, holding the elderly, the disabled, people convicted of sexual or arson offences, and those going through addiction or withdrawal, had a distinct feeling of bedlam about it, with a unique kind of sub-normal despondency.

My first pad-mate was a septuagenarian convicted of historically abusing family members, who decided to go on hunger strike a week into my stay. He was moved to the hospital wing after a few days of this, his already dodgy kidneys starting to give out. He was replaced by an obese man with suspected autism and downs, inside for stalking and assaulting the partner of his stalkee. In our cell though he was kind and warm, and we rotated our use of the toilet during association with a certain gentleman’s code (which co-dwelling requires).

In the first few months (and in some cases years) of a sentence, a prisoner is banged up in their cell for much of the day, with just Jeremy Vine, a copy of The Sun or in my case a pad of writing paper for entertainment. During Covid this extended in many prisons to 23-hour bang up, which some justice organisations have described as an abuse of human rights. I dodged this particular bullet by being deemed a journalistic key-worker by my workshop manager at Dartmoor prison, the cat-C establishment to which I had been transferred after two months at Winchester. Just prior to starting there I had trained to work as a Samaritans Listener, which was the best way I could see to do some good for some extremely distressed people.

It’s a cliché that the best of very few good things about going to prison is the friendships you make there, but cliches can hold truths. Index convictions aren’t talked about much, but those maintaining innocence seem to find each other quite quickly, as their grievance tends to be more pronounced than the cohort who were either expecting prison, see it as a professional hazard or consider it ‘the best thing that ever happened’ to them.

After two and a half years of gazing through thick frosted glass out onto the extremely bleak Dartmoor scrubland, an officer finally came round to tell me I was to be transferred to Leyhill open prison the next day. It’s hard to overstate the excitement and joy this news will bring to almost any prisoner. The next morning six of us – two of whom being good friends, forged in the fire – were loaded into a SERCO meat wagon and traversed the south west countryside, arriving at the green trees of Gloucestershire a couple of hours later. We resisted the temptation to do a little dance as we disembarked.

Over the next eighteen months we did a lot of walking around the estate, far greener than granite-built Dartmoor; some working outside in upcycling and scaffolding, others working in the gardens or the print shop, as I did. I proofread and collated Ministry of Justice publications including the Prison Service Journal, contributed cultural pieces to the post-pandemic magazine Leyhill Matters, and steadily worked towards day-releases, which were in Bristol. I fell in love with the atmosphere, architecture and history of that city, including the plinth where Edward Colston’s statue used to be, and planned to resettle there, or nearby.

For the last six months at Leyhill my friends and I lived in the ‘pods’ which were introduced to relieve crowding during the pandemic, had their own showers and were very much seen as a pre-release pad (prefab as they were, they tended not to have the same air of despair as even brick wings at open prison could have). On the morning before my release, I was informed that I wouldn’t be able to move to the address probation had cleared in nearby Weston-Super-Mare, and would likely have to return to Sussex, where I had lived before my trial – which now seemed like another lifetime ago.

I left the majority of my boxes and bags there, and got on a train after being discharged the next day, for the final journey of the incarceration part of my sentence, and spent those few hours watching my black sausage bags in the compartment behind my seat, before realising that the hostility and suspicion of prison life was now behind me.

A lot is made of prisoners being allowed to help themselves in preparing for release from prison if they are so able. With this in mind, and having few significant savings or other sources of income, I had put out the feelers to apply for Universal Credit about two weeks before I was due to be released.

A couple of weeks later, I had had an appointment with a representative from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), who seemed highly anxious at even being in such a place – even if it was an open prison, with residents already multiply security checked – and ultra-vigilant about Covid restrictions, even though they’d by then been mostly lifted.

After a brief, tense chat, she gave me an internet link by which I could apply for UC online. I was between risk-boards, a process whereby a prisoners’ freedom is suspended after being temporarily granted every six months while behaviour is checked, and my ‘offender manager’ (community probation officer) had been changed without my knowledge. I was also on my fifth ‘offender supervisor’ (prison probation officer) in eighteen months; none of these people were apparently communicating with each other, leaving me without day-releases (I’d had monthly ones for a year until then), home leaves (to a local hostel), or any means of applying for UC in order to make my ever-creeping up release more smooth.

As the last couple of weeks approached, I sent out ‘apps’ – forms with which the prisons departments are meant to communicate with residents – to all the relevant departments, including the offender management unit, reducing reoffending, Route (help for prisoners by other prisoners), the employment hub – those who responded said I needed to apply online, others ignored my requests. You cannot apply online in prison, as there is no online access. If you request it, it might spark a security check. If there is a security check, all educational access other students have via laptops and offline computers might be summarily stopped.

When you see reports on the news that prisoners are released to sofa-surf, thence onto stealing because they have no money for rent – thus breaking a licence condition not to break the law – the reasons why might be better understood after digesting the above scenarios. Prisons are obsessed with security, and tend to pride themselves on a lack of transparency, making the attempts of self-restarting prisoners frustrating, pointless, and what amounts to a punishment-upon-punishment. The only hope lies in the broadband functionality of whatever address s/he ends up at.

The morning before the day I was due to be released, my offender supervisor called me to the OMU hut to be told that the local house which had been cleared by my outside probation officer, due to the fact that my safety couldn’t be safeguarded there, could not be used as my release address. I enquired as to why, as I needed to tell the charity couple who were helping me resettle, but answer came there none. When these kind of safeguarding potholes appear, they derail the whole complex, multi-agency release process.

I was thus required to leave the six boxes and four big bags I’d packed after four years of prison life – files, papers, clothes, some gifts – and reduce everything to three smaller bags I could carry on the train, to my pre-release address on the south coast, in which I didn’t have an actual place. I had to attend a probation appointment at 2pm that day, following which I had to attend numerous interviews in order to assess my immediate risk, having been released, illegally, as ‘No-Fixed-Abode’.

I was shipped off to the top floor of a one-star seafront hotel in Eastbourne while the Jubilee bank holiday approached, and placed into emergency temporary accommodation immediately following it. While I was at least able to have my first bath in more than four years there, the hot water in the shower in this new temporary accommodation didn’t work.

Over the next six months I saw five probation officers and two VISOR officers, as the males seemed to flake off sick on a regular basis. I was scrupulously, irritatingly transparent about everything I was doing, but they were less so in communicating this to each other when my case was handed over, leading to my Facebook account of eighteen years being summarily deleted. An off-duty policewomen reported their friend as ‘vulnerable’ after chatting about her spending time with me, while any actual ‘risk’ was in potential employers doing a Google search rather than traditional referencing.

Appeals to have old, biased news reports removed were met with obfuscation, buck-passing or silence, making a mockery of Probation’s oft-quoted principle of rehabilitation. On one meeting my fifth probation officer commented in all seriousness on there now being ‘A diverse array of genders’, to which I responded with scepticism. I was seeing my sixth by the next week, a lady of 23 years experience who had apparently heard of neither ex-DPP Alison Saunders nor the Clinks prison reform organisation. The snarky care under a microscope continued, the reasons why people get recalled becoming clearer every day.

Most of the British sites for which I’d written had deleted my articles contributed over the last few years, with just a handful remaining whose editors/bosses had actually met me in person. A few days before my release from open prison my TED talk had been made ‘private’, presumably by the main organisation, again presumably due to information from the same person working against me so industriously from behind the scenes.

In some quarters my reputation preceded me as I tried to get back into the swing of civilian life, but my furiously malevolent nemesis had been contacting charities they suspected I’d be approaching, and talking to people to whom they predicted I might be talking. Job after job was unsuccessful before even interview, and when I did get a chance to disclose, the reception was polite, but short, and as it turned out final. Employers rarely get back to undesirable candidates anyway – just try adding past convictions to the mix.

Getting newspaper editors to remove articles on the basis of their being ‘potentially inflammatory’ (probation’s stance) and utterly opposite to the principle of rehabilitation is another struggle altogether. The Right to be Forgotten and Ban the Box campaigns are signed up to in lip service, but not in practice. Most often they won’t get back to you, then it’s usually a brief note from an underling. They might then palm you off onto asking whichever service Webmaster, who will then tell you to ask the search engine, who will then refer you to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Due to the General Data Protection Act of 2018 the ICO have been insanely busy trying to keep sexbots off TikTok, and now have thousands of spuriously convicted ex-prisoners of sundry aspects of the culture wars insisting on their privacy rights. The 21st century tactic of prevention of misadventure by demonisation-after-the-fact serves as no deterrence to anyone, as nobody thinks it’ll happen to them. Until it does.

Rough but Somewhat Reborn

Coming out of prison is like coming out of a time of illness, a bad relationship or a period of grief. You feel rough but somewhat reborn, and closer to your authentic self than before. Change is always difficult – even for the haters – but it all passes eventually.

Prison does have its benefits, but they’re not necessarily what you think. It’s not about being ‘scared straight’, or not wanting to go back somewhere so terrible again – because the human animal adapts to its circumstances like any other.

21st century prisons contain every kind of human being available, from Lifers to IPP-sentencers, car thieves to industrialised fraudsters, and everything between. All are on their own journey: some ashamed, some aggressive, some innocent. But the experience is almost always immediately narrowing and bleak, basic and stripped-back.

As the prisoner gets used to this new life, so things gradually ease around them, though a high degree of scrutiny is always there – and however friendly are those around you, hostile suspicion is the dominant state. This hostile suspicion can cauterise into a very brittle shell, and when this happens, true friends are required to step in to return the prisoner to themselves.

But essentially incarceration is a sort of spiritual austerity, where the core self is all that’s really left. All distractions are removed, and with a clear head un-befuddled by alcohol, drugs or other physical stimulants, a more disciplined and streamlined version of the self can emerge. However, if a persons’ intentions were positive before they went inside, that’s an innate setting that doesn’t switch off easily; and it’s the same for negative intent.

The experience of hitting the lowest point in the view of society, then disciplining oneself out of it is profound, and can be long-lasting. Having no money in a place where you have little else of physical value is a monastic process, but it’s not often experienced like that inside, where class issues are as rife as they are elsewhere in society.

People seem to intrinsically enjoy boxing and being boxed in this way, sorting based on background in order to make things clearer for all. The elderly of all social backgrounds meet and discuss the news and their families as they would on the out. The younger cohort banter and play pool or table tennis, or watch the football as they would elsewhere. And the fallen-middle-class-professional set will gather in conversational groups, artists or engineers, religious or secular.

One thing that unites all, guilty and less so, intent or non-intent, is a derision at the counter-intuitiveness of the justice system, and the sausage machine that it feels for the incarcerated, and to an extent worse for those left at home.

All this stripping to the core leaves the essential person, and when they trust those around them and forget about spurious notions such as trade or prison honour (the pride of the dispossessed) a new integrity can be found. What can eventually exit the walls is discipline, integrity, leanness, austerity, humanity, frankness and directness. What the ex-prisoner does with these new skills is very much up to them.