January 6, 2015

Wrexham Prison Watch: 1

The Ominous Plan

The Ominous Plan

A Titan sneaked in through the side door, Wrexham prison, with a projected prisoner population of over two thousand, might turn out to be the worst experiment in recent UK prison history. All the evidence from decades of academic and governmental research indicates that small prisons are the most effective in reducing reoffending. And the reasons are logical – small prisons need fewer resources, they are by definition safer and easier to control. Prisoner staff relationships are more authentic, there is a greater level of trust when people living and working in such close proximity are able to gain a better understanding of each other. On the plus side this giant prison will bring much needed employment to the region. But unless the regime is designed to focus on rehabilitative and enabling activities for the prisoners it will come at a high cost to the victims of its reoffenders.

Recently I nipped up to have a look at progress. It’s rising fast – not like a phoenix – more like a black cloud on the horizon…

January 2, 2015

My Friend Pete



Pete Postlethwaite Warrior Poet


I met Pete Postlethwaite for the first time around six and a half years ago. I’d been invited to visit the set of Criminal Justice, the BBC’s crime drama series shown over five consecutive nights in 2008. The show starred Ben Wishaw as a young man suspected of killing a girl and then remanded into prison and has to learn to cope with prison life as a vulnerable prisoner. Pete played the character of “Hooch” – an old hand on prison landings, who tries to help and guide Wishaw’s character as he learns how to survive the vagaries of wing life.

I had been a huge fan of Pete for a long long time, even before he played opposite Daniel Day Lewis as Guiseppe Conlon, Gerry Conlon’s father in the 1993 film, In the Name of the Father, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. I watched that film in a high security prison which I guess gave it extra resonance. Pete had a way of connecting with people, the common man you might say, whatever role he played. You sort of knew from the all perceiving look in his eyes that whoever you were, he would have a kind word for you. I watched all his films and programmes whenever I could. From the Brilliant Brassed Off to one of my all time favourite films, The Last of the Mohecans – he brought his own individual shine to anything he did. I saw him in Sharpe and Aliens 3. I saw him in Amistad and in When Saturday Comes – he was in so many great films – one of his best and most enigmatic roles was as Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. That was my pal Big Rinty’s all-time favourite film. Pete was such a wonderful actor, a world famous superstar – I never thought I would ever meet him in person.

Otto Bathurst, the director of Criminal Justice had asked me along to the set to see if I could advise on the prison scenes. The set was an old military base in Surrey. The mock up prison was very good. Extras in prison officer uniforms were everywhere, so real-looking it took me a little while to relax. Otto allowed me behind the camera to watch how it all worked. It was fascinating to see a really good director working, getting great stuff from the actors. When lunchtime came Otto walked me to the catering van. As we walked we chatted about films and actors and it was then I told him that Pete was one of my favourites. “You know he’s in this?” said Otto. “No,” I said, “I didn’t.” I was surprised and then decided to chance my arm. “Don’t suppose there is any chance of meeting him is there?” I truly did not imagine there would be, but I couldn’t see any harm in asking. We turned a corner and the queue for the catering van came into view. “Yes, sure,” said Otto. “He’s over there. Come on I’ll introduce you.”

Pete had just joined the queue and we moved up behind him. Otto introduced me. “I read your stuff in the Guardian all the time,” said Pete. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe I was actually shaking his hand. “Loved your column,” he said.  I was totally star struck – but Pete was about as natural as it’s possible to be. We collected our plates of food and settled down to eat and talk in one of the mobile dining vans.

We kept in touch, mostly by phone after that – and we met up occasionally for a beer. I loved his calls, usually out of the blue – just chatting about this and that. He invited me to a couple of places he was working but I never made it. Then it looked like he was going to be working on the remake of Brighton Rock. The film location was in Eastbourne, just down the road from where I was living at the time and I thought I’d see him there. In the end he didn’t do it – he said he couldn’t get insurance for the film because he’d had cancer – “I lost a bollock to it thirty years ago,” he said, “now it looks like its coming back.” I was shocked and saddened for him. I’d spoken to his wife Jaqui a couple of times on the phone, a lovely sounding lady. And he had talked about his children, Will and Lily. It was obvious he had a wonderful, loving relationship with his family.

Much as I loved being friends with Pete, I always felt totally unworthy of his friendship. He was after all universally respected in all walks of life. How could he ever be friends with someone like I had been? The fact is he just took me as he found me and as far as I could see, seemed to like me. My feelings of being unworthy of his friendship made it hard for me to just call him the way he called me – I don’t think he knew that. I never told him. When I was getting “outed” on the internet in 2009 and finally was forced to write my apologia in the Guardian in April of that year – Pete was the first person to call me. When the Mail on Sunday printed their “exposure” of me a couple of days later, Pete again called me – “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” he said. I so appreciated his solid loyalty. I know he had friends much much greater than I. But the esteem in which I held him was hardly less than theirs.

When he told me he definitely had cancer I was so distressed for him. I know that life isn’t fair – but sometimes you just think, “Why?” I asked him how he would feel about appearing on film for the Prison Reform Trust – PRT were filming a number of influential and well-known people about their views on prison life. Despite his condition Pete agreed immediately. “When do you want to do it?” he said.

We arranged a date and the film-maker Charlotte Rowles and I travelled up to his farmhouse in Shropshire to spend a couple of hours with him. We drove up separately. Pete met me in the car-park of one of the cattle markets in Bishops Castle, a couple of miles from his home. He’d told me on the phone, “You’ll never find it on your own.”

I waited a few minutes and then Pete arrived in his old yellow Saab convertible. Even wearing his battered flat cap and jeans he was instantly recognisable. We had a hug. “You still look like you,” I said.

As we sat waiting for Charlotte we chatted. “I’ve brought you a present,” I said reaching into my back pocket. I pulled out a horse brass sporting the image of a runner. “The Hastings Brass,” I said. I’d run the Hastings half-marathon a couple of years earlier and it almost killed me. The first five or six miles were nearly all up hill and I had hardly trained for it. When I was trying to think of something that was special to me that I could give him, the Hastings Brass was the first thing that came to mind. He smiled when I told him why I wanted him to have it. “Thanks,” he said.

Suddenly there was a shout. “Pete!” We both turned and saw a tall, portly young man standing about thirty yards away. “Pete!” the young man shouted again. Pete squinted at him trying to see if he knew him. A woman appeared behind the man. “Come on love,” she said. The young man began ambling towards us excitedly and it soon became apparent he had learning difficulties. The woman followed him, trying to calm him. Pete was totally unfazed. When the young man reached us, he grabbed hold of Pete’s arm and then hugged him. Pete hugged him back. The woman apologised, “I’m sorry,” she said, “he’s always been a bit of a handful.” Pete shook his head and smiled reassuringly. “Mum,” said the young man, “It’s Pete Postlethwaite.” The woman seemed embarrassed. “I know love,” she said, “We all know who Pete is around here.” After a few minutes the woman thanked Pete for his patience. “That’s the happiest I’ve seen him all week,” she said. Pete just smiled again and said, “It’s a pleasure.”

Charlotte arrived and we followed Pete to his farmhouse where Jacquie and Lilly were waiting for him. We made our little film and then Charlotte left. Then Pete showed me around his house pointing out things that meant a lot to him including an amazing photograph of Nelson Mandela gifted to him by a famous film director and the crown he wore when he played King Lear. We sat in his conservatory for a while drinking tea and looking out over the beautiful Shropshire countryside that he loved so much and he signed the cover of a DVD I’d brought of The Usual Suspects – “Can you dedicate it to Big Rinty please Pete,” I said. He wrote – “To Big Rinty, Kobayashi to you!” and signed it. Then I noticed a book spread open on a window shelf. I knew the book well – it was The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A friend had sent me a copy from French Guyana when I was in Wandsworth prison during the first year of my life sentence in 1985. It took me 12 years to read it properly.

It was getting dark when I said I had to leave. “Stay the night if you want,” Pete said. I was touched by his generosity. But I had work in the morning and I really had to get home. We hugged. “I’ll be in touch Pete,” I said. As I drove down the track to his farm he waved until I was out of sight. I didn’t know then it would be the last time I’d ever see him alive.

I moved to the border country to build a house. As luck would have it the property was only forty miles away from Pete’s place. I decided once I was done I would get back in touch with him and invite him to mine for tea. But four years ago today I was digging a trench for a drain and listening to the radio when the news came on. “It has just been announced that the actor…” I knew before the newsreader said his name that it was Pete.

Like many of the people at his funeral I cried openly as I fixed my clutch of wild flowers picked from his farm, which had been laid on a tray nearby for the purpose by Jacqui, into his beautiful wicker coffin. By the time the congregation had paid their respects his coffin was festooned like a warrior poet’s head dress. A sad day for a great man and for everyone who loved him.

A Spectacle of Dust: Pete’s Autobiography

August 9, 2014

Ten Years Ago Today…

Erwin James’s remarkable writings about life in prison have esta

Buy A Life Inside

Ten years ago today my Life Inside came to an end. I walked out of jail after serving twenty years to the day yet as the big gate opened to let me through there was no sense of triumph, no sense of “success” – I had a little optimism and a whole lot more hope than I had on the day I first went in. But I never saw this coming nearly five years later: The Real Me





August 8, 2014

In Prison You Exist on Dreams…

Where a Good Book might Take You...

Where a Good Book might Take You…

In prison you exist on dreams, nightmares and fantasies. When you are locked and isolated in a cell for twenty three hours out of twenty four you try to block the nightmares, enjoy the dreams and occasionally indulge in fantasies. I found this out after I was sentenced to life imprisonment and taken from the Old Bailey to Wandsworth prison in south London. With few apparent skills or abilities and almost insurmountable failings to overcome my prospects were bleak. It was impossible for me to try to rationalise my situation – or to reflect on the idea of change or personal development. The four walls contained me. I was so defeated that I lacked even the desire to be anything other than what I had become – little more than an inarticulate, ill-educated brute. The early weeks and months of my imprisonment provided no clues that a life spent in prison could ever remedy my deep-rooted inadequacies. BUT AT LEAST I COULD READ… read more

May 28, 2014

Hay Festival Event – Some Truths about Prisons


Talking to Jim Naughtie on the Today Programme last week the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said we have “never been able to send parcels into prisons” – this is simply not true. He told Jim that prisoners have, “access to the same library services that you and I do.” This too is not true and typical of the type of political rhetoric that has been bandied about in this country unchallenged for decades and one of the main reasons our prisons generate so much failure. On Thursday 29th May I will be chairing a panel comprising of Vicky Pryce, Professor John Podmore and Professor David Wilson at the Hay Festival – please come along if you really want to know some truths about prisons.

March 25, 2014

Books for Prisoners can be the Key to a Crime Free Life

'Justice' Secretary Grayling - Book Snatcher in Chief

‘Justice’ Secretary Grayling – Book Snatcher

In the past few months the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been rapidly diminishing the regime for people in prison. Last year he ordered all new prisoners back into prison uniform, then he stopped prisoners having Christmas presents sent in from their families. He has meddled with the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme so that prisoners who want to achieve the “enhanced” level of imprisonment – i.e. an extra visit a month, a better cell, a bit more money to spend from their private cash – have to do “over and above” just being well behaved. (A particularly niggardly move as he knows full well that so called “purposeful activity” in our prisons is becoming as elusive as the evidence that his other big idea, “Payment by Results” will actually work.)

More recently he has decided to restrict ROTL – Release on Temporary Licence – because of several high profile failures – yet last year there were almost half a million successful releases from prison on temporary licence. Nastiest of all of Grayling’s interference with the running of prisons however is his decision to ban prisoners from having books sent in and – incredibly – writing materials. These moves apparently are supposed to somehow magically “Transform Rehabilitation” and lead to a reduction in reoffending – yet a more illogical approach to the problem of recidivism would be hard to find.

This week he admitted that the system he presides over was “very flawed” and that the consistently high reoffending figures for released prisoners (costing the economy between £9bn and 13bn a year according to the office for national statistics) – was a “crazy situation.” Mr Grayling talks about “rehabilitation” on the one hand and yet treats people in prison like his own personal political pawns on the other. The fact is, it is the Justice Secretary’s rhetoric that is “crazy” and his determination to involve himself in the decisions which dictate the quality in the minutiae of prison landing life which is “very flawed.”

Commenting on Grayling’s decision to ban books being sent to prisoners Frances Crook, the Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform said: “Over the last year, because of shrinking prison budgets, staff cuts and increasing numbers, prisoners have been spending even longer in their cells without access to facilities such as libraries. It is common for prisoners to spend 20 hours a day in their cells during the week. At weekends they can be cooped up from Friday lunchtime until Monday morning. Conditions have deteriorated so much in recent months that this has become a major concern.

“Being able to read a book is a lifeline and a way of nourishing the mind. As families and friends are now forbidden from sending basic items into prison, prisoners are sitting in stinking cells, wearing dirty clothes, with nothing to do and not even a book to read. We urge the government [i.e Mr Grayling] to reconsider this draconian measure.”

If he really has the interests of future potential victims of people coming out of prison he really should reconsider all of the above.

PS Please sign this petition for the ban on prisoners having books sent in to be rescinded:




March 17, 2014



John Healy: "An ear, an eye and a voice that should be the envy of many weighty reputations." Daniel Day-Lewis

John Healy –  ”An ear, an eye and a voice that should be the envy of many weighty reputations.” Daniel Day-Lewis


My Good Friend John Healy, the former wino and street thief who spent 15 years as a vagrant alcoholic on the streets of London before rising to become a chess master capable of playing several games simultaneously whilst wearing a blindfold - beating grand masters and writing his best selling, award winning autobiography, The Grass Arena  - is to give a reading on Thursday 20th March at the Swedenberg Society, 20-21 Bloomsbury Way, London, WC1A 2TH. It is John’s first public reading in England in 20 years. Tickets are £7 and I guarantee will buy a totally unforgettable evening of delight.

ALSO READING are the poets Tom Leonard and Nicholas Johnson. Leonard’s poetry is visual, sonic and vital. His 1984 poetry collection Intimate Voices remained in print for almost twenty years through five print-runs and with three separate publishers. In 2010, it was supplanted by Outside The Narrative  (Poems 1965-2009), and in 2013, his collected prose writing was published as Definite Articles. His Places of the Mind: The Life and Work of James Thomson  (B.V.) remains the sole modern biography, with its epigraph from Swedenborg, of the poet of The City of Dreadful Night.

Nicholas Johnson grew up in Devon. His long poem And Stood Upon Red Earth All A Round  was 25 years in the making, part of which was filmed by Brian Catling as The Lard Book . Nicholas will also introduce the evening and chair the rare Q&A session with John Healy at the end.


March 7, 2014

Legal Aid for People in Prison – It Could be YOU….


People in Prison Justice

People in Prison Deserve Access to Justice Too

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s decision last December to curtail access to legal aid for prisonersahem – People in Prison – is an affront to civilised values. Being a captive at the mercy of the state is a precarious place to be. You might say, “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” You might say, “Why should we care about people who have committed crimes when there are more deserving cases for our help like pensioners and orphans?” You might say, “Why should I care, they’re all scum anyway.”

The more sensible among us however might say, “What if it was me? What if, heaven forbid, I found myself caught up in the criminal justice system and sentenced to a term of imprisonment? What if I found myslf isolated, without friends or funds and the system let me down in some way -  what if I was a mother threatened with being separated from my baby? What if I was disabled and I wasn’t getting any help to manage prison life, or the special help I would need for resettlement? What if I was a long term prisoner and the system was failing to ensure that I could do what I had to do to reduce the risk of me reoffending? What if I believed I was being discriminated against by a prison officer? A prison Governor? A psychologist? What if when I was at my most vulnerable I was abused?

“Who would help me if I didn’t have the option to access legal redress?”

Thankfully there are people in this world who do care about maintaining high civilised values and respect for Human Rights.

The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners Advice Service went to the High Court to challenge the Justice Secretary on this issue on 6 March 2014. Why?

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League said: “Our legal team represents children and young people in prison. The removal of legal aid to help these children make fresh starts is contrary to the whole aim of the youth justice system which is to prevent reoffending. These cuts will not result in savings for the taxpayer. On the contrary, they will result in increased costs as children remain in prison for longer than is necessary for want of a safe home to go to.”

Deborah Russo, Joint Managing Solicitor at the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said: “PAS provides legal advice to all adult prisoners in England and Wales. We run an advice line and receive thousands of letters and telephone calls from prisoners each year. PAS also represents prisoners by taking on legal cases where appropriate. The legal aid cuts to prison law have resulted in prisoners’ access to justice being severely curtailed. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, the Chief Inspectorate of Prisons and the Parole Board have all expressed grave concern at legal aid being cut for prisoners. These cuts are further isolating an already very marginalised sector of our society.”

If you ever do find yourself in prison and in need of help – you too might be thankful that organisations like this exist. Fingers crossed they get a result.

December 18, 2013

Sad Day for Team Biggs

Team Biggs in Brazil

Team Biggs in Brazil

Speaking to Michael Biggs a few years ago about life with his father the Great Train Robber Ronnie who died this morning I was struck by how grounded he was.  What was most obvious however was how much Michael loved his dad. Biggs senior will always be remembered as a major icon of British criminal history, a colourful character whose exploits gave tabloid hacks almost unlimited mileage in their tale telling of the Great Train Robbery and its aftermath. Ronnie Biggs was probably the ultimate “likeable rogue” - not ideal father material many would say I guess, but I’m certain that he was the best father Michael would ever have wanted. They were quite a team.

December 6, 2013

Farewell to a Giant

Mandeba whose moral courage made him a giant among men

Madiba – his moral courage made him a giant 


It was Nelson Mandela’s moral strength and moral courage that set him apart from every other world leader. A man of determination and persistence like no other – yet a man of humility, modesty, wisdom and compassion. When he was asked how he would like to be remembered after he was dead he answered that he would like it to be said, “Here lies a man who has done his duty on earth.” Who could ever aspire to more?


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