Monday, June 29, 2009

An expert assessment

'Risk Assessment' - a wonderful activity being carried out these days in all sorts of areas and for all manner of purposes. The general practice seems to be that experts in whatever field (and, let's face it, some of them belong in fields) gather together the facts on a particular subject, consider, and then produce an assessment before which the rest of us plebs fall on our knees to worship at the shrine of their wisdom and perspicacity.

Mind, they have to be sure they get their facts right or their finished assessment is about as much good as a chocolate fireguard.

Prison is no exception. But, while they have the general idea, they have decided to cut corners drastically so don't bother with using experts. They use trainee experts instead, who are supposed to be scrutinised by experts as they carry out their alchemy, but of course never are. Nor are there any checks to ensure that the facts are right to begin with - and one small error at the start of any assessment can have catastrophic consequences at the end. However, undaunted by this, they go ahead merrily on their assessments, ticking boxes like lunatics and telling the public what a wonderful job of rehabilitating prisoners they are doing.

This approach might help explain why they seem to be getting it wrong all the time! Not only are the reoffending levels rising, but for those who have completed such courses identified as necessary by the risk assessments, they are higher than for those who haven't.

Recently, I had a conversation with a youngish fellow who told me that he had done all of the courses and, because of that, he expected to be moved to a Category 'C' prison very soon. Once there, he would quickly get himself released, and he had his future all planned out: he would buy a bit of 'gear' (drugs) from some friends of a fellow he had met in jail, and within six months would be a millionaire.

I asked him if he had told the authorities of this plan during his assessments.

"No man! I ain't no fool! I tell them me is going to get a job and settle down with my baby mudder!"

What can I add to that?

So now we come to my own assessment. For years and years they were insisting that I needed to take part in a basic education course. I have three degrees, but it took about four years to get the assessors to actually check with education about that.

Okay, they decided to stop asking me to learn how to read and write.

Then, "We require you to take an Enhanced Thinking Skills course."

I produced certificates and essays, tracts and various writings which caused them to admit, after a few more years, that I did not require an E.T.S. course.

"We need to teach you about Victim Awareness!"

"Done it."


"Done it."

"Patterns of Offending!"

"Done it."

"Attitudes to Crime!"

"Done it."

"Excuses, Risks, etcetera etcetera."

"Done em."

"Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage it!"

Right, let us consider the last twenty-three years of simply banging my head against a brick wall with none of them listening to a word I say and yet, I have not become angry or lost the plot. Everyone says I am a calm fellow who is a calming influence on the more volatile.

I could go on, but I think my general drift is clear, or at least should be to those with more than one working brain cell. It is not apparently clear to the experts who are running the prison service. They deal with real things, like tick-boxes. Well, you know where you are with a tick in a box - you can see it, it's there, it is evidence!

Evidence of what? Evidence that there is a tick in a box, that's all. It says nothing at all about the prisoner. What can give a proper picture of a prisoner is to speak to those who know him, those who deal with him on a daily basis and who observe his behaviour. THAT'S where the real evidence comes from. However, those people are ignored and, instead, faceless individuals sit in their ivory towers, checking to see what boxes have been given a tick and, of course, making assessments.

Just think, if I could create a crystal ball, I would be invited to join them in their ivory towers and then I too could rip the arse out of the public by telling them that I could predict the future - and get a huge salary for doing so. No, wait a minute, if I could predict the future I would buy a lottery ticket! I wonder how many of the experts and assessors buy lottery tickets - and, more to the point, how many of them have actually won anything...

Oh yes, and apparently I am incapable of abstract thought. That's nice to know.

The Voice In The Wilderness

Monday, June 22, 2009

Playing with themselves

I had a Risk Assessment Management Board (RAM Board) scheduled for 2:30 pm on Tuesday 9th June - mind, when I got there it had miraculously been transformed into a Sentence Planning Board, but perhaps the two are interchanqeable. Whatever it Was, I had it on Tuesday afternoon, although it started at almost three in the afternoon, lasted ten minutes and I got thrown out at the end. Not that it matters - I've been thrown out of better places than that SOBER!

When I went in, I found myself in front of a typical prison board. They DO like their intimidatory tactics of the long table, the array of forces with their piles of folders stacked against the poor con - all that kind of gammon.

There was a young female officer who introduced herself as the Chairman of the Board - an S.O. with neither experience nor qualifications, but who am I to carp? Next to her, another young girl who introduced herself as the person taking the minutes! She had a trainee sitting next to her and I can only presume that the trainee was there to make the numbers up. Next to her sat an officer from my wing, not my personal officer of course, that would be silly because it would make sense and the prison service don't do sense. My personal officer had been sent off to one of the workshops. Going around the table the other way, starting at the Chairman, there sat another woman who introduced herself as the representative of the education department. Finally, there was a governor who introduced himself as the Head of Offender Management, Mr Sidney. My first question has to be - if there is a governor available, why isn't he chairing the fiasco?

So, I got sat down and the chairman/woman/girl asked me what my plan was for the next year? It irritates me when people speak to me as though I am a new boy or a tourist or something - patronising isn't the word.

I said, "I don't understand the question."

She said, "Well, we are here to decide on the next year..."

"I thought you were."

She ignored that. "...for your sentence plan!"

"I've got a sentence plan," said I. "I've had it for twenty-three years."

"What's that?"

"To go home," I answered. "What's your plan?"

At this point, the governor decided that more authority was needed because clearly I did not have my hat in my hands and my lips were not pursed in readiness to kiss any arses. I wasn't conforming to the norm for prisoners. Well, the governor and I started to argue ahout how I am clearly not a person who will accept things at face value and when I said, "I've been in jail twenty-three years mate, I'm not impressed", he said, "I've been in the job thirty-three years!" I came back with, "Yes, but you went home every single night. I haven't been home in twenty-three years. There's a difference."

Anyway, they threw me out and the governor threatened to come and see me the next day, Wednesday. It is Saturday now and I am still waiting. What will he have to say? Not much as far as I can see, and he has clearly realised that himself - that's why he hasn't turned up. They haven't even bothered to threaten me over the incident, not a word said.

Could it be that they are finally getting the message that I am sick to the back teeth of their games and I'm not playing any more? From now on, they will have to play their tick-box games on their own, without me. They will have to play the game with themselves - and, as every schoolboy knows, there is a name for people who play with themselves.

The Voice in the Wilderness

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Thinking - that's what ticks my box

This week there is news, of a sort. I have been given a document from the Public Protection Unit of the National Offender Management Service which informs me, among other things, that I have yet another parole hearing in June of next year, 2010. I am told that the timing will enable me to:

• Be assessed for CALM (Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage it)
• Be assessed by a psychologist

Ah - therein lies the rub! Considering that I have now been here two months, after a very unseemly transfer from Whitemoor, it seems a bit curious to me that the psychology people here at Long Lartin are conspicuous by their absence. There is a long queue of fellows waiting to be assessed by these bright school leavers - sorry, trainee psychologists.

If (that wonderful word so revered by Rudyard Kipling and a big favourite of children building castles in the air), if they assess me and find me unsuitable, what happens then?

I fully intend to discuss these assessment tools with those administering them, if / when I see them. The various tools would appear to be not exactly devised for what they are being used for, but that is by the way. I intend to qualify, in discussion, exactly what they are assessing me for and quite what tools they are using and the validity of those tools.

Of course, that in itself will mark me as some kind of troublemaker - prisoners are forced to partake in an Enhanced Thinking Skills course, but God help them if they actually try to think. No, they are not teaching prisoners how to think, but WHAT to think. Let's not bother ourselves with that aspect however, let's just stick to the point.

Bugger it, let us mention 'thinking' after all - it is quite an important subject, according to the prison service.

Thinking, an abstract exercise of the mind.

We all think, some of us less coherently than others, and some of us downright insanely, but we all think. That's the problem really - we all think. The difficulty comes because most people miss the fact that we are all individuals and none of us think alike, yet we all make the mistake of thinking that we do. This is why a poor thinker gets upset when he has an idea that, to his way of thinking, is perfectly operational, and then a far superior thinker spots the flaws and shoots the idea down in flames. At the other end of the spectrum we have the good thinker who is explaining what is, to him, a perfectly simple concept and who gets annoyed when a nitwit can't grasp it.

What we should be doing is facing the fact that we all think differently. We shouldn't condemn people just because they don't think like us, or don't think the same things.

This is where the prison pervice and their trainee psychologists fall down. They think they know best - and perhaps they do, but that has to be tested. I suspect it may not be quite as they think and that they do not have any answers, certainly not in the tick-box culture. The tick-box culture and thinking are diametrically opposed really - one does not encourage the other.

Anyway, I have a provisional parole hearing in June of next year - I just thought you would like to know that.

The Voice In The Wilderness

Monday, June 01, 2009

Friendly lions or mad dogs?

This week has brought one snippet of interesting intelligence: according to Mike Pemberton, my legal superstar, the hearing of the Ministry of Justice's appeal against the recent Judicial Review is pencilled in for June 24th 2009 in the High Court. At that time, the Secretary of State's minion will attempt to put up a case that treating prisoners in a decent and acceptable manner is constitutionally unsafe and unsound. Good luck to him.

Here at the prison, meanwhile, we have a great deal of upheaval because they have built a new wing, at great expense, which was finally opened on Monday May 18th. Most of the prison was uprooted and disturbed, for no good reason really. I was quite fortunate in that it did not involve me, although I did move to a different cell on my own wing, a much better and more comfortable cell than the one I had occupied previously.

However, all of this moving about and general upheaval does not contribute to the quality of life or encourage prisoners to settle down and get on with their unfortunate existences. What the Powers-That-Be fail to understand is that most prisoners quite simply don't care whether they live in a dustbin or a palace - all they really want is to be left in peace to get on with things. It's quite unsettling not knowing where you will be from one day to the next, always expecting to hear the size twelve issue boots stamping outside the door and being told to 'Move or else!' Oh yes, they are very nice about it. Speaking for myself, they could put me in a tent in the middle of a field, I'd be all right. All I need from the system is for it to bugger off and leave me alone!

I wonder if there is a deliberate policy to keep cons on a knife edge. It is the sort of insanity that they WOULD think is a good idea - let's face it, Einstein has nothing to fear in the thinking stakes from some of those who run our prisons.

They run an Enhanced Thinking Skills course in prisons - it is laughable. What they do is supply the con with a dozen scenarios and at the same time supply the answers or solutions to the problems posed. The prisoner then goes away and learns the answers by rote and when he has done that he gets a tick in a box and a certificate. He is now deemed to possess enhanced thinking skills! What cobblers!

However, be that as it may, what I want to know is why there can't be a course to teach enhanced humanity skills to the people in charge of the prisons? Forget enhanced thinking, that is out of the question, that advanced stuff. No, they will simply carry on coming up with ridiculous schemes and ideas which serve no other purpose than to agitate and irritate. Then they wonder why the prisons do not operate smoothly!

There is an old saying, which I can attribute to nobody - it is certainly not mine, although I have used it several times over the years. The prison service could do a lot worse than pay heed to it:
It is easier dealing with a friendly lion than with a mad dog!
The Voice In The Wilderness