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?


December 1, 2013

The Indomitable Vicky Pryce

Thanks for your honesty Vicky...

“Thanks for your honesty Vicky…”


Vicky Pryce and I in conversation at the Hay Winter Festival on Sat 30 November went down a treat with our sold out audience in The Swan ballroom. Talking about her amazing book, PRISONOMICS, Vicky gave an excellent presentation of herself. (All royalties from the book’s sales are going to Working Chance, the charity that helps women prisoners get back on track.) Despite the fact that I got a couple of facts wrong accidentally on purpose when I introduced her people warmed to her openness and humility quite quickly. I expected a little hostility to be honest – now Hay is sponsored by The Telegraph group, I sort of thought there might a few right wing antagonists wanting to score a point or two – especially since I am, ahem, (among other things,) a Guardian columnist.

But even if there was anyone there who thought they might like to have a go for a hoot – when Vicky opened up to my questions it was obvious that anyone who thought they knew her from the myriad lurid headlines and acres of tabloid “reporting” of her personal and not so personal trials and tribulations this year was in for a very pleasant surprise. The hour went quickly – always a sign that nobody was bored. The questions from the audience were intelligent and considered – even one from someone who worked at HMP Holloway, “Britain’s most notorious women’s prison”, where Vicky spent the first few days of her 8 month sentence for perverting the course of justice. I think what struck most people present was her very evident lack of bitterness and her strength demonstrated by her ability to cope with the whole horrendous saga that had befallen her and her family. Comments to me from the audience as they trooped out when the event was over included, “well done her,” “what a nice lady!” and “hope she keeps up the prison reform agenda…” Hear hear!

November 3, 2013

Sydney – you beaut…

I love Sydney


Humbling response to my visit to Sydney. After the local media reporting of my potential visit I didn’t expect such a warm welcome. Thank you to all who came to the two events in which I took part at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in the stunningly beautiful Opera House. Thank you also to the FODI team who worked hard to get me over here – and thank you to the Australian Government for letting me into the country. At least it allowed me  a chance to speak for myself.

October 29, 2013

Meeting Vicky Pryce

Vicky Pryce


Meeting Vicky Pryce was a surprisingly pleasant experience. Like millions of other people I had read acres of newsprint about her, but hardly any of it prepared me for her warmth, her honesty or her courage. Newspapers have to sell – but I believe the “Vicky Pryce” agenda has been particularly disingenuous. She did something stupid ten years ago – but her biggest crime it appears to me seems to have been becoming a successful, self-made, powerful woman. I wish her well.

August 14, 2013

Bad Boy Making good

Anthony Kelly "I'm a work in progress..."

I’m rooting for Anthony Kelly– the former member of Gordon Ramsay’s Bad Boys Bakery and self-confessed “work in progress” is in the process of building a drug free, crime free life and becoming the contributor to his community in the way that he always had the potential to do. Changing a whole problematic life once you get to adulthood is not easy. If it was there would be armies of rehabilitated, regurgitated, re-assimilated, reformed people coming out of our prisons every year. The vast majority of people who go to prison for whatever reason have the desire to change for the better. For so many reasons more fail than succeed – for some the problems and issues that cause their criminal dysfunction are too deep rooted to surmount – for others the lack of support post prison makes it almost impossible to stay on the right path. Anthony has the desire and the support. He has purpose and people who care a great deal about him. Fingers crossed he makes it.


June 20, 2013

Message From Hilary Peters

‘Lets be clear’, as they say all the time. People who come out of prison suddenly face a world full of problems. Their easiest course is to go back into prison. Sometimes, a friend outside their world is a help.
On July 6, we will hear some of the problems of ex-prisoners and discuss whether members of the public can help.
Do you want to reduce crime?
Do you think there’s anything you can do?
 Eg: make a phone call
        send a text
        make a new friend?
Come and find out more.
Worcester Lodge, Didmarton, GL9 1AH
July 6. 11 am to 4 pm.

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