Sunday, 6 August 2017

Perils Of Flying Too Close To The Sun

I suspect many readers, especially in recent months, will have become familiar with Alex Cavendish and his extensive writing on the subject of prison reform. He burst onto the blogging scene about 3 years ago with his very informative and professional-looking blog 'Prison UK: An Insider's View':- 
This is a new Blog and is intended to serve as a source of useful information for people who may face being sent to prison in the UK and who need factual advice or guidance. It is also intended as a forum in which to answer questions from family and friends of people serving prison sentences, as well as members of the general public or media who are curious about life inside British prisons. It doesn't claim to have all the answers, but it will try to provide information, advice and personal opinions. It will also aim to dispel some of the more common myths about prisons and prisoners.
The author was until 2014 a serving prisoner who had a lot of experience as an Insider, a prisoner who has the job of supporting and advising other prisoners, particularly those who are new to the prison system. He also trained as a peer mentor and worked extensively in prison education departments to help other prisoners improve their literacy skills. He served his sentence in B-cats, C-cats and a D-cat (open prison).
Alex enjoyed an increasingly high media profile and his authoritative and easy writing style quickly found a willing audience in a number of popular publications. In addition to writing extensively, much to the irritation of the MoJ I'm sure, he was developing an uncanny knack of being able to set the news agenda in relation to prison disturbances because of his 'inside' knowledge and contacts. Despite all the MoJ's best efforts in trying to keep a tight lid on things, time after time Alex was able to tell the world what was really going on during disturbances, minute by minute on his twitter feed. 

But then it all went very wrong, very quickly a couple of days ago when his true identity and offending history was revealed by some very angry and aggrieved people. Things escalated fast and then this:-
"Very quick tweet to all followers. I have a live appeal against conviction based on new evidence. At this stage I can't say anymore. Thanks."
By Friday Alex had closed his twitter account and published his last blog post:-

The Last Post…

Dear readers,

This will be my final post on this blog. In the three years since I started Prison UK: An Insider’s View it has had a global audience that I could never had anticipated when I tentatively started writing on prison issues. I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts and experiences about our prison system, as well as my views on what needs to be done to address the crisis.

Prison UK started its life as a more permanent record of my comments on prison issues that first appeared on The Guardian’s online pages. These attracted interest and I felt that there was a genuine curiosity among many members of the public about what goes on inside our prisons.

It also became clear that there wasn’t much first-hand information available to people who might be facing a custodial sentence. Family members and friends of prisoners also wanted to ask questions or to gain an insight into the lives that their loved ones might be experiencing behind bars. I did my best to fill in some of the gaps, as well as sharing my personal experiences.

The blog also attracted many hundreds of comments and questions, which I – and others – tried to address. I also learned a great deal from many of these contributors who wanted to share their prison experiences, either as a prisoner or as a family member or as a member of staff. We exchanged many ideas on a wide range of subjects and I would like to thank you all for your contributions.

As some of you may be aware other events have recently overshadowed me and my work, so I have decided to cease blogging on this site. I shall also be withdrawing for any further involvement in prison issues, including comments to the media. My focus in future will be on my family and on pursuing my appeal against conviction so that I can finally clear my name.

As I said recently to one well-wisher it does feel that I’m finally being released from prison myself. I’ve lived and breathed prison issues since 2012, including standing up for other prisoners when I was still inside. As I’ve made clear in earlier posts this advocacy did not make me popular with the prison authorities.

I have decided to leave the posts up as a historical record of what I hope has been a worthwhile project. However, new comments will not be posted or replied to. I am very definitely moving on.

Alex Cavendish


Whilst I have very much appreciated the excellence of Alex's work and commitment to the cause of prison reform over the last few years, I think the following skilfully-crafted blog post consummately summarises the position, but most importantly, goes a long way to explain the motivation, anger and sense of betrayal felt by many:- 

My name is Penny I am an ex con. Alex Cavendish my take

You might be wondering why the title of this particular blog reads like the start of an AA meeting, however after recent events on Twitter relating to Alex Cavendish, I feel a need to ally myself with a community I was part of and attempt explain, from my own point of view, some of the reactions on social media that are poorly understood by other commentators. I went to prison, that makes me different to 95% of the country. It doesn’t define me, but I have enduring personality changes because of it. I am amongst an elite marginalised group of people with whom I have strong ties and allegiances.

In the last 48 hours, a man who represented so many views on prison reform, a trusted voice, feted in certain quarters was ‘outed’ on social media as being a convicted child sex offender. Along with many others I was surprised at this revelation, not that he was a convicted sex offender, but that he had not told anyone what he had been convicted of. It should not matter, however it does, it does for many reasons, some of which are tied up in the complexities of prison politics.

Some reformers knew, they had recently found out and had tried to work with ‘Alex’. They, quite rightly, wanted him to tell everyone what he had been convicted of, he is said to have refused to engage, despite being offered open support by these other, ex con, reformers. In normal circumstances his crime would be irrelevant. He was a force for good and change. However these are not normal circumstances, ex con, serving con reformers and their families are already a marginalised group who struggle to get their voices heard. Any ‘scandal’ undermines any headway that has been made. It dilutes their voices and undermines the arguments they make for reform. Alex’s failure to disclose his crime to anyone is a huge betrayal of trust. I will attempt to explain why, from my perspective as an ex inmate.

Child sex offenders and killers are the ‘pariahs’ of society, more so inside prison. A very small community in which there is a concentrated pecking order. People are evaluated by other inmates using the crime they are convicted for, that is the starting point for anyone entering the prison system. First question you are asked is ‘what you in for’ (if your face has not been plastered across the media). In no other part of society would you be asked if you had ever committed a crime and what that crime was at first introduction. This one question and your answer will dictate how you spend time inside, how you are treated and more importantly, how safe you are going to be. The crime defines.

If you happen to have been convicted of a child sex offence or child murder, you can pretty much guarantee that you are not going to be safe in prison unless you spend all your time in segregation. Even the convicted sex offenders have their pecking order, a rapist being higher up the food chain than the paedophile. The SO who downloads child pornographers being ‘better’ than the child molester etc.

Should you find out that somebody is a convicted child sex offender and you choose to engage with them, you do so at your own peril. Guilty by association. You are literally putting your life at risk. It is considered to be a betrayal of unwritten prison rules if you do befriend a ‘nonce’. However, if you know then at least you can make an informed choice. A choice that was removed on social media because Alex did not tell anyone.

OK, he did not have to tell, he had served his time and given what happens to convicted child sex offenders inside HMP, you could, based on what I have already written, excuse Alex’s failure to disclose his conviction. But and this is the crux of the matter, Alex claims to have been receiving information from the ‘inside’. This could mean prison officers, governors or inmates with illegal phones. You may all be thinking ‘so what’ – Alex is a convicted sex offender, we have no way of finding out if he also has a SOPO (Sexual Offences Prevention Order) which precludes him from having any contact with minors it may also include other orders relating to whom he is allowed contact with, such as vulnerable people. Alex was in contact with many people, some of whom may well be young people incarcerated in young offenders units, some of whom have anon accounts on Twitter and may well be under 18, some of whom may be on license with a SOPO for sex offence themselves. All of this puts any whistleblowers he was in contact with at risk. Any breach of an order which may or may not be in place allows those in authority to examine his electronics if they believe he is in breach of any conditions that have been placed on him.

Any inmate who has been conversing with a ‘nonce’ privately or publicly via social media ran the risk of coming to harm themselves because of those comms. The fact they did not know he was a convicted sex offender is irrelevant in HMP. This is where the betrayal ex con reformists talk about becomes polarised.

Alex in failing to disclose his crime has put other inmates at risk by failing to disclose his offence. He has put them at risk of being scrutinised and potentially charged with possession of electronic communications, he has put those he communicated with privately on SM or email who are on licence at risk of recall and believe me the system will use any excuse to get you back inside if they want to. It is the ultimate betrayal, he absolutely knew as an ex con that he was crossing a line.

He had no right to put himself out there as a reformist without disclosing his offences and his release conditions outside of being on the SO register if he was going to engage with people. He is guilty of the worst kind of deception, it is a violation of trust that is not given easily, he took away their freedom to choose with whom they engage. Their right. The only thing many of them have left, that right to choose with whom they engage. That is the issue. That is why so many feel so strongly about this matter. It is an HMP thing. Betrayal by one of your ‘own’.

Do I condone The Lifer outing him publicly. Absolutely not, it is incredibly dangerous. Do I understand why that happened, yes. Somebody had to stop him from potentially being in contact with other inmates who could well find themselves in serious trouble should Alex’s computers or phones be seized. Sophie’s choice. I would not have done it, however I can see that The Lifer felt he was left with no choice, the ‘betrayal’ was just too big to ignore and being locked in a cell gives you plenty of time to think or even over think.

This narrative is based on my experiences of HMP and how I feel about what has happened. It does not reflect the views of anyone else.



  1. Another blog on the subject from which gives a different and more balanced point of view:

    Is it just me, or does “Alexgate” bother you in a way other than being astounded by the sheer anger people have expressed at allegedly being duped by him? I have found that many of the comments on Twitter little more than knee jerk outrage that seems to fixate hugely on the crime he was convicted of above all else. As if the crime you are convicted of somehow negates the experience of being a prisoner or somehow denies you of a right to speak of that experience.
    Given the crime Alex was convicted of and with society’s sheer hysteria over paedophiles, is it any wonder he decided to keep his identity quiet? It’s hard enough to get your voice heard as a former prisoner without being subjected to the sheer vitriol that accompanies even a whiff of child molestation in our holier than thou society (which, for example, seems quite happy to abuse and quietly euthanize disabled people without general outrage despite the harm it does to that segment of the population). Indeed, would anyone even be raising a stink about Alex concealing of his true identity if he’d killed several people through drink driving and scarpered from the scene leaving a pile of decapitated heads on the M25?
    There is also the question of whether or not Alex is entitled to his privacy about his personal life and the crime for which he was convicted. Plenty of authors, journalists etc use pseudonyms when they publish so why should Alex Cavendish be held to a different standard simply because he is a former prisoner or because of the crime he was convicted of?
    Some people are quite happy to freely admit they’ve been inside and what for and some people are not. People have a right to make that choice for themselves and to have it respected. Does the furore over Alex’s alleged deception mean that anyone else who would prefer to keep their private life private will be forced to publicly reveal it simply because of the demands of a few people with their own agendas? Surely it is their problem if they are offended by his desire not to have screaming vitriol and death threats directed his way, which seems to be the way a lot of people behave when the word paedophile is uttered in any context.
    Now I’m not for one minute condoning sexual abuse of any kind by anyone for any reason. I don’t condone domestic violence or violence of any kind or murder etc. Crime of any sort usually has a victim of some kind, a great number of whom will be devastated by what happened to them. But we need to get this into perspective: Alex did a great deal to raise public awareness and debate over the current crisis in prisons in the UK. That should not be lost in a witch hunt because the crime he was convicted of is apparently more offensive to some people than if he’d been convicted of a different crime and so he is not permitted to use a pseudonym.
    All human beings do heinous hurtful devastating things to other human beings every day. Not all of them are crimes and few people end up charged and incarcerated for their actions. Is someone who deliberately sets out to murder another human being any more or less evil than someone who molests a child? With time and therapy one can overcome the trauma of being molested and move on with life. It’s a bit difficult to move on from being dead.
    Following on from that, is a child molester’s experience of prison any more or less valid than a murderer’s? Are they more or less valid as a human being? And if you think so, who died and made you God to decide such things?

    1. Everyone’s experience of prison will be individual but there will be experiences common to everyone who has served time regardless of the crime for which you were sent down. There is far too much secrecy about the UK’s prison system which has allowed successive governments to create a system of absolute chaos so far below the radar it rarely hits the consciousness of the vast majority of the UK public. Therefore if anyone who can bring the crisis into the public eye, it can only be a good thing no matter what crime someone was convicted of. Or under what name they use to write about it.
      In other words, the crime for which one is convicted does not and should not invalidate the experience. Neither should society refuse to listen to someone’s voice because of a perception about who they are. We do not live in a fascist dictatorship, but a democracy (although someone seems to have forgotten to give the Tories that memo) where any citizen should have the right to speak without censorship or based on your perception of them. You can always choose not to listen.

  2. Penny's comments about Alex's failure to disclose his crime is rather ridiculous and deliberately scaremongering. Any prison staff or inmates choosing to illicitly communicate with people on the outside run a risk regardless of whether or not the person they are communicating with has a conviction for anything. They choose of their own free will to take that risk and must accept any consequences that come with that decision. Prison is, after all, supposed to teach you to think about and accept the consequences of your actions. Alex, due to the nature of his conviction, was far less likely to say turn to blackmail of inmates due to his conviction in case he got exposed than someone in for other crimes so one could argue that they were in fact safer. But no matter what stand you take on this issue, one has to ask whether those that outed him did so for the right reasons or simply because of their prison indoctrinated hatred of nonces. People seem to be dressing it up as "for the right reasons" but I do have to wonder if the motives are as pure as claimed

  3. Thought provoking. Working with sex offenders is complicated and often uncomfortable. One of the discomforts is the inhumane treatment of sex offenders by the public, the media, institutions, services,just about everybody really. Life sentence the reality for men whose actual, proportionate, sentence might be, say, two year community order... ostracised by community, family: sacked: evicted; vilified, dog shit through the letter box, graffiti, assaults, death threats. A chunk of the work is just dealing with the trauma, and being on suicide watch. Much of that interferes with the work of public protection and offence focussed work. Outside of (some) work colleagues, a balanced conversation about this is impossible. Ken Clarke said once that the tricky but important thing about Human Rights, is that you have to protect the rights of humans that you might not like very much. I write this as a Probation Officer, and also a victim in my childhood of sexual assault. (Being a female whose childhood spanned the seventies that doesn't make me a rare case, in fact my gender is not really relevant either). I got over it. Cue howls of protest and accusations. I didn't say everyone could or should get over it and I am not a paedophile apologist (far from it). It was good to read this today, bit of a breath of air, we wont be having a calm public debate about this any day soon

  4. Some, but not all, sex offenders are pariahs. Yonks ago I worked with a convicted multiple rapist who was serving a hefty sentence as a Cat B prisoner. Turned out that he worked for an OCG, handing out sexual violence to folk,or to their partners,who had got behind with their drug debts. Managed perfectly well on normal location, as he was not regarded as a sex offender by other prisoners and strongly resistant to addressing his offending behaviour (dread phrase) as a sex offender.An interesting slant on offender morality and a warning not to generalise.

  5. Is " Penny " actually an ex con or really a MOJ memeber of staff ( or other professional )trying to deflect the information provided by Alex ( sex offender or not ) and as 0738 pointed out people made informed choices about contacting someone illicitly - many of us that work with offenders on release could tell the tales of prison horrors that they inform us of and for some the reasons for not wanting to go back - many are tragic and horrific not always with regards to them personally but what they have witnessed.

  6. It's been quite a thought provoking blog for me today. I'm a little suspicious about Alex being 'outed' by a lifer. I'm sure during 3 years of blogging the opertuity to 'out' him would have presented itself many times before, and would someone really risk the possibility of turning the focus of attention on themselves, and having their personal details blogged about?
    Maybe the MoJ took the opportunity to close down a means of reporting on disturbances in the prison system? Who knows?
    I have some sympathy though for the piece that Penny wrote, and (just personal opinion) I think perhaps much of the negative feedback that Alex has received is a consequence of people feeling somehow 'duped' rather then a response to his offence.
    But then I began to think it's an odd old world, and pretty fickle. You can't go on a TV game show or quiz if you're an ex con. But David Dickenson, Stephen Fry, or Johnny Vaughan, all ex cons can be paid to compair them. Dirty Den had a long career in East Enders with a murder conviction, yet Barrimores career was destroyed with no conviction. Jeffery Archer, and the MPs wife who was jailed for taking her husbands driving points can write about their experiences and become 'experts' whilst others are told they can't say anything as it would be seen as profiting from crime.
    The fact that some can, some can't, some survive and some don't, some are encouraged and some suppressed makes for a whole lot of food for thought.
    Maybe a good subject for a PhD?


    1. Actually if you read the history of the outing on Twitter, it's the fact he was outed as a sex offender that got everyone's knickers in a twist due to the, let's say, ingrained prejudice against them amongst prisoners. If he'd been using a pseudonym and it had been discovered that he had a conviction for bank robbery say, the knee jerk reaction would not have happened as it did.

  7. At CGM just as the TR split took place and Interswerve were to take over the gig ALL staff were called to a mandatory event and the guest motivational speaker !!! was ( can't remember his name ) a 3 time murderer who turned his life around and become a highly paid journalist - at the time ( and I still feel ) when staff were losing their jobs that it was highly insensitive - so I agree Getafix that it is an odd old world that we are currently in