Thursday, 11 August 2016

More Prison Thoughts

Leading on from yesterday's post from a former prisoner, I notice Ben Gunn has written a very thoughtful and reflective piece on his experiences for ConVerse magazine. In the spirit of bringing it to the attention of as wide an audience as possible, I hope both are happy with my republishing.    

How do you Adjust after 3 Decades Behind the Door?

I assume no Lifer walks out the Gate intending to breech their licence, but I managed to do it without even thinking. Such is the perilous path we tread.

My brother filming my release annoyed the Gatehouse staff, so I left prison with the same attitude as I entered it 32 years earlier...The final jibe from staff was about my blog, which HMP never quite made its peace with. Off in the car, destination South West. Then The Guardian phoned. Could I do a piece about my release by 3pm, for 300 quid? Oh, go on then. Out for just minutes and my first job! I was still hacking away when I arrived home. Home being a country cottage in Wiltshire and my partner, Alex. Lunch in the sun under the pergola, one hand writing, the other forking. Job done, easy money, thanks! 

Only then could I sit back and look around me, begin to relax into the reality. After 32 years of prison, beginning when I was 14, I was free. Wowser. 

Life had become a series of firsts. Everything I seemed to do was new. Small things, I’d never actually slept in a bed with a woman, to more lasting things such as opening bank accounts. And all the while the shadow of prison wasn’t far away. My partner, a diver, called it ‘decompression’, the bubbles of prison working their way out of my system, sometimes causing pain. Sitting at a cafe in Bath, suddenly the world around me seemed slightly alien, separated from me; did I belong here? Was this actually my world now? My partner was my bedrock through this early time, when I had horrific nightmares and woke screaming. She was my bridge, the thing that connected my bruised soul to the world I was now part of.

After seemingly being at war with prison probation officers for decades, I was now in a situation where a more flexible approach may be useful. Fortunately, my prior OM had been supportive, which helped persuade me that they weren’t all a blight on humanity. So I walked through their door with a “let’s see how this goes...” frame of mind. Having avoided Offending Behaviour Crap inside, I wasn’t likely to embrace it outside. Nonetheless, starting with an abrasive attitude wasn’t likely to lead to anything but Recall. The aim of my approach is ‘leave me alone as much as possible, please.”

Next day, check in with Probation. Supervision for me could have been a series of barriers and challenges, my view of Licence and Probation being well known. Difficulties were expected, but I let down the lads who bet I’d be recalled in a week! I had two Probation. Two! Tag teaming each other week by week to spread the load that is supervising me. 

I am fortunate that my Licence has no unusual conditions, and so expected restrictions were the usual – Work, Home, Relationships – and to be honest I lost my copy a couple of years ago now! My Guardian article broke my Licence – No work, paid or unpaid, that isn’t cleared by Probation. Oops. This point became an important one. For many years I have written about prison issues and I have never asked permission to do so. I didn’t when in prison, and I wasn’t going to on release. 

The issue was, whether my speaking or writing in public, paid or unpaid, was “work”. I took a hard line on this. Campaigning isn’t any old regular work; it explicitly brings into play may right to free expression. Quickly, we found a workable medium-my public activities are fine, with minor restrictions. I should give my OM a heads-up as soon as possible about any media appearances, and not discuss my victim’s family. Hardly onerous, and neither restrict anything I wish to say. What could have been a point of great difficulty was handled with far more thought than I expected. 

I have to admit, my working relationship with Probation has been far easier than I anticipated, even in difficult times. When I decided to try and live by myself, Probation were not particularly jumpy. When I had a vicious stalker (a whole other story!), Probation didn’t over-react. Equally, when I hit a period of ill health, it was not noted as a negative. Overall, the attitude seems to be one of not overly interfering, with the goal being “stability”. Having problems isn’t the issue – such is life – but how I deal with them is. It is in demonstrating consistent stability and forward movement that eases Probation’s mind. Hiding issues is a bad idea.

Within 24 hours of release, I had a home, partner and a working relationship with Probation. And I deeply appreciate that these are far more than many prisoners have on release. Just being released directly home, not hostel, was a minor miracle. I had a foundation, enough support to take a brief pause, look around me and wonder - Now what do I do?!

The first real decision I needed to make was whether to continue prison reform efforts, or to melt away into obscurity and take up regular work. I decided that reform was as important to me as it ever was, and that regular employment was unlikely to appear. So I promptly signed on! And ran into a series of hurdles in trying to engage with official bodies. I had literally no identification documents. No National Insurance Number. Nothing. It took months to chase up all that is needed to function in society, highlighted by the difficulties in opening a bank account. 

I was a cypher, literally unknown to The Computers. No financial history at all. Every door shut in my face. And yet within weeks, I was in paid employment. For months, all my earnings had to go into my partner’s account, an option many don’t have. And it fried the taxman’s brain! 

My first actual work was to conduct some analysis for a technology company which has links with both NOMS and G4S. Neither the company nor I was keen on it being known we were in cahoots, and so this slid under the radar. That completed, I was facing boredom, unemployment, and the prospect of being slung onto some inane Jobseekers course. 

By chance, a job advert from the Howard League was pointed out to me. Policy Officer. Hmm! I had been critical of some of the Howard Leagues activities over the years, so with no small sense of mischief I fired in my application just before the deadline. And expected it to vanish into the bin. I was a little disconcerted to be invited to the interview stage. Where I made such a mess of my first solo trip involving the Tube that I presented myself 90 minutes late and looking like a drowned rat. I made my pitch, and made it to the Top Three. Being a cheeky sod, I looked the bosses in the eye and asked, “Am I here because I’m Ben Gunn, or do I have a genuine shot at the job?” I was reassured.

I didn’t get the job. Not because I didn’t know the work, but rather because of my inexperience, particularly of office life. It hadn’t occurred to me, but of course, this was new territory for me. The League needed someone to hit the ground running, and I was an unknown quantity. The right candidate got the job! Later, at home musing, Frances Crook called and offered me a Policy Consultancy. I will always be hugely grateful for this introduction to regular work, even though I moved on after a few months to different work with Inside Justice, researching miscarriages of justice. Vitally needed work. The Outside World had a space for me, an acceptance. At a time when even opening a bank account was difficult, this gave me hope that perhaps I could build a viable future.

The process of ‘decompressing” from prison hasn’t been a simple one. Life is a journey, not a destination. What seemed to be very easy became quite difficult. Most parts of life are simple, even the new experiences. What became my weakness was relationships, and how to maintain them. In moving straight in with my partner after only 3 Home Leaves, I felt very aware that I was moving into her space, trying to weave my new existence into her established life. It became too much to unravel, I needed to find out how I was to live by myself, time and space to drop old habits and make new ones. For the moment my partner and I live separately but very close to each other. 

In my new place, myself and Henley Cat against the world! And I began to drop the many balls that life throws at us all. Bills mounted. My stress levels increased. The old enemy, severe depression, began to impact my ability to work. Within months, I found myself in front of a shrink with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety, coupled with more personality disorders than you can name! I retreated into myself, the world around me seeming to grow more hostile and bleak. It was a downward spiral that I am only now coming out of.

These difficulties may be huge, but I continued to do some public speaking. I am a regular visitor to many universities as a speaker, and the media pop up now and again. Most importantly, I have reached out and tried to connect with people in every corner of the justice system. Standing on the sidelines moaning is futile, and any opportunity that offers itself has me bending someone’s ear.

Due to astonishing luck, I have had the chance to grovel across the Ministerial carpet and timidly offer some suggestions to Michael Gove, who as I write is Justice Minister. I believe he is a genuine reformer, a man who appreciates the waste of human life and money that is Prison. Big structural changes are needed, instead of the petty and vicious meddling of Grayling (met him...Big lump!). And so, along with others, I’ve highlighted the importance of using prison sparingly, to reduce much of the Estate to Cat-C, unravel the shambles of Education and work, and to deal with the pressing problems of the IPPs. 

Gove has announced several shifts, none yet particularly effecting prisoners daily lives. Patience, I beg of you. Change is coming. Although at the moment it is ‘top down’, driven by the need to reduce reoffending and costs, no significant lasting reform can ever happen without addressing the needs of prisoners on the landings. I will remind anyone who listens of that.

Who knows how my journey will develop? Hopefully, more simply than of late! But no matter what, I always remember that whilst prison guarantees a bed, roof and food, that is pretty much as good as prison gets. Out here, you can fall into the gutter. But the possibilities to stand tall and find a meaningful life are infinite. That is compelling and exciting.

I am sitting here, coffee and fags at hand, typing away.; It could be another night of bang-up, really. But the options available to me are vastly more than yours. Prison is a stunted existence. The most important lesson I have learned is that I couldn’t have done this by myself. I stand here today only because of all the guys who were around me during my years inside. Any idiot can serve 32 years; the trick is to be sane at the end of it! And without those staunch friends, I doubt I would have managed that. And on release, I have been propped up by many people, whose kindness and faith I have yet to begin to repay.

Most ex cons brush prison off their feet as fast as they can. For me, prison is in my bones. I lived it, studied it, wrote on it, campaign against it. And I can’t ever forget that my free life is built on the bones of my victim. All I can do is live, live with meaning, and hopefully look back and see I may have made some small difference.

Ben Gunn


  1. Interesting reading but overall I found the piece very egocentric, and the clumsy false modesty of this passage was especially unhelpful: "And I can’t ever forget that my free life is built on the bones of my victim. All I can do is live, live with meaning, and hopefully look back and see I may have made some small difference." Mr Gunn has already made a significant difference to a number of lives - including his own - through the commission of his index offence.

    1. Oh please! The guy is writing a piece on how he is trying to move forward and all you can do is have a dig. His remorse or otherwise is not an issue. Why should he have to cough up that piece of diseased lung for you. You can think what you like but over here in the real world the past cannot be undone.
      Pina Colada

    2. "You can think what you like but over here in the real world the past cannot be undone."

      Oh Pina Colada, I hadn't expected you to be an apologist for criminal behaviour nor, for that matter, an apologist for the TR management philosophy this blog has sought to challenge, e.g. "It is what it is"; "Its done - get over it"; "JFDI".

      Its a puff piece by Gunn. Its his job. Writing creatively about himself is how he makes a living. But it shouldn't mean he's immune from critical opinion for what he says - or what he's done.

      In the "real world" people have to take responsibility for & live with the consequences of their actions, in the same way Grayling and his collaborators should with TR.

    3. Not apologising for anything. This is not about his offence. Or TR or even his vicyim. It is a piece on his adjustment to being released. Making an obvious and redundant dig at his behaviour 32 years ago in order to polish your "confronting offending" halo rather annoyed me.

    4. "It is a piece on his adjustment to being released. Making an obvious and redundant dig at his behaviour 32 years ago..."

      Mr Gunn raised the issue of his victim. I merely observed that it was clumsy; I made no reference to "confronting offending", just that we all have to take responsibility for our actions.

      I don't need or expect an apology but I'm now rather pleased I annoyed you. And for the record, my halo was confiscated many years ago when I was first convicted & sentenced.

  2. A great read that serves well to give insight into the criminal justice system to those that have no direct involvement with it.
    Having recently been released from a period of custody (my umpteenth since the mid 70's),I can't agree that the CJS can become a better entity or more functional by a process of reform. It's broken far to much for reform.
    It's a very sick animal that's reached its end and needs to be put to rest.
    There needs to be inquiries, think tanks and investigations as comprehensive as that done on Iraq, and a whole new world of delivering criminal justice developed and implemented.
    Trying just to reform the existing system will only make things worse. It's a train crash where ever you look. It needs cleaning up and a whole new type of train put back on the tracks.


  3. 1/2 Ben details some of the issues prisoners who are not of the revolving door kind experience after release. One thing I’ve noticed both during my time inside and afterwards is that those who go in and out of prison don’t suffer the same kind of issues adjusting back to society that those serving a one off sentence tend to probably because the revolving door breed familiarity with problems both inside and out making them oddly easier to deal with in some ways.

    TR was supposed to bring in a whole host of help for people leaving prison. The reality is what help there used to be has pretty much disappeared due to lack of funding thanks to the cuts implemented by I-have-a-fetish-for-high-viz-jackets-George and the CRC’s have definitely not put any money into replacing what has disappeared from the public sector. Add in the fact that resettlement departments in prison are beyond useless and always were and there is zero help around to help you get readjusted to life on the outside and it is a big readjustment even if you’ve only been inside for 12 months or so. And the longer you’ve been inside the worse time you will have readjusting.

    In prison you are treated as inhuman at worst or at best the equivalent of an inconveniently delivered parcel to be passed around the system at whim. Granted there are some officers who are really decent and who treat people as human beings but they seem to be in the minority and management certainly doesn’t view any prisoner as a human being. All control over your life is taken away from you. You are dictated to as to when and where to sleep, when are where to eat, what to wear, what work you can or cannot do and so on. In fact the only control you will have over your life whilst inside is which one of the shitty menu choices to select each week. This is hardly teaching anyone to accept responsibility for their choices and to consider the consequences of their actions which seems to be essential for a law abiding life on the outside.

    When you get out, probation will dictate who you live with, what work you may or may not do and who you can have a relationship with a lot of the time and the ever present threat of recall hangs over you at all times no matter how law abiding you are. You will probably be eating the same sort of shitty food you did inside as JSA isn’t sufficient to eat a well balanced nutritious diet and thus your health which was crap to start with after a diet of prison food will only worsen.

    You will also be living in the same sort of piss poor accommodation as you did inside i.e. dirty, vermin infested, cold and poorly maintained due to the refusal of most landlords to take anyone on benefits and housing benefit basically consigning you to the worst sort of privately rented accommodation available because you can’t afford anything else. Getting social housing is virtually impossible as most Local Authorities consider you to be a very low priority despite the fact you are classified as vulnerable on release most of the time.

    Then you also get dictated to by the DWP who makes you jump through increasingly ridiculous hoops to continue to receive the pitiful JSA allowance with the threat of sanctions also ever present. The fear factor you live under on a daily basis is immense.

    All of this is added unnecessary stress for people trying to restart their lives after a prison sentence. And that is difficult enough for someone who didn’t have mental health issues before going to prison and who didn’t develop them inside as many do.

  4. 2/2 Psychologically adjusting back to life on the outside is not easy. Many people on first time sentences wrongly that it is going to be oh so easy to just pick up where they left off. Well it may be for a very lucky few but for the majority there is nowhere to live, you’ve lost all your possessions, often you partner and family too, your pets and your ability to get a job has just fallen off a cliff because for every Richard Branson willing to give offenders a second chance there are hundreds of employers that won’t even if probation is willing to let you work (which oddly a lot of OM’s don’t despite the stats which clearly show that you’re chances of reoffending diminish with a regular stable job).

    Then even if you don’t have mental health issues there will be a lot of difficulty psychologically readjusting. Speaking to all those I have kept in contact with, we’ve all suffered from either depression, become anti social and averse to mixing with people or become isolated through ill health. We have difficulty trusting people on any level and we all have a deep seated anger, whether or not that is overtly expressed or buried. PTSD in people released from prison is not that unusual and a staggering majority will suffer from it in some form or other. Accessing counselling to deal with what you experienced for those inclined to do so is really difficult without money due to long waiting lists and a limit on sessions (most NHS Trusts limit you to six which would barely scratch the surface of the situation)

    Prison doesn’t do anyone any good in the long term and scars you for life in some way or another either physically or mentally. Oh it may cause some to reconsider a life of crime as a career path but being inside damages people that were for the most part pretty damaged to start with. Whilst locking people up may remove them from society in the short term, eventually pretty much every prisoner will be released and will bring with them the scars of being imprisoned. Prison simply does not work and there are better ways for society to deal with law breakers for the most part but with the marked reluctance of any politician to buck the tabloid hysteria and actually develop a system that works in terms of desistance from crime but which does not severely damage people mitigates against it.

  5. It was an interesting and informative read.

  6. Unison sold all you muppets out by backing corbyn. Surely you can all see that if corbyn stays conservatives will be in power for the long term. Corbyn is as bad for the than Trump is

    1. Bad for the world as Trump

  7. Hurrah for the new CSA Inquiry Chair... "Alexis Jay spent over 30 years in local government in deprived parts of Scotland, including as Director of Social Services and Housing. In 2005, she was invited by the Scottish Government to set up the first independent inspection body for social services in Scotland, and in 2011 she became the Scottish Government 's first Chief Social Work Adviser. She retired from that post in 2013. She is Chair of the Life Changes Trust and also of the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland, based in Strathclyde University, where she is a Visiting Professor. She is the author of the Independent Inquiry report into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, and is now a member of the statutory inquiry panel into child sexual abuse in England and Wales, chaired by Justice Goddard. Alexis was awarded an OBE by the Queen in the 2012 Birthday Honours List, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Strathclyde in 2015."

    Thank God they never asked Casey. By way of proof I'd encourage anyone to read the scathing critique by Community Care of Casey's Rotherham report - prepared at the request of her boss, Pickles - which highlights Casey's lack of rigour or recognised methodology, i.e. well-meaning but not fit-for-purpose.