Blogging and Columning!

I write for an organisation that allows prisoners (and others in the community) to find a balance in their life. From that balance a progression can be made, and for me it was a total change of career…out of the kitchen and into the world of writing!

This is the banner from my first newspaper column which was published on Friday 5th October 2018. I want to use this blog to thank GreenerGrowth for all their hard work. Jo and her team are an amazing (and I mean that) bunch of people. When they work within the prison estate there is no ‘them and us’, we all get on with the work as a team; and that makes a difference when you are working with those in secure environments. The men that I was in prison with had skills that they used in work prior to custody and we were all encouraged to use them, and to teach them to others. I was taught how to cut timber in a straight line by a former engineer; in return I taught him the art (and science, which he loved) of the compost heap.

Prison is not a positive environment, and even less so at the moment with the much highlighted disturbances and violence. This does not mean that men and women in jail cannot take positives away from these places. It does mean that the prisoners have to work harder to find the good things that will aid proper rehabilitation.

This is the endpiece to my column, and I want Jo to tell you a little bit about her organisation.

PeoplePlus Conference 2018.

Having spent time as a learner in prison with PeoplePlus it was good to be invited to attend their conference at Wyboston Lakes Resort on Friday 28th September 2018. I learned even more about the organisation that is the largest OLASS provider in the prison system; did you know that they have around 10,000 learners in prison at the moment? As I was sitting listening to the facts and figures given out, I wondered at how many lives that would change. 10,000 prisoners in learning of one form or another can lead to many more -probably countless numbers- of lives being altered. Think of it like this: each learner will talk to their cellmate, their friends in jail and their family members and friends outside of the custodial system. Countless lives being changed by the tutors that turn up to prisons to teach day in and day out.

I also heard about and witnessed education being planned and delivered at the cutting edge; innovative material like Wayout TV producing educational videos through the Way2Learn TV channel and then there are the other items in the Way2 family. I am more convinced then ever abiut the way in-cell learning can enhance what goes on inthe classroom, and aid real rehabilitation. It is encouraging to seethat the Wayout team are looking at ‘Bridging the Gap’ between learning in prison and in the community. The introduction of digital technology can only take prisoner progression further. For far too long now the Prison and Probation Service have held out on introducing real technology into their estate. What good is it to prisoners who are being released if they have now up-to-date IT and digital world skills? Access to (a controlled) internet is vital if prisoners are going to get the best out of their time in custody. There was a demonstration of a new virtual learning tool that will track the learners progress as they use this VLE digital system to study. I heard about HMP Wayland delivering courses using a 3D printer (the first closed prison in the country to allow such learning). I think all of that deserves the round of applause that was given.

During the review of the last academic year the conference was told about how each team at each jail had performed. It was amazing to hear that even with the crisis in the Prison Service with lockdowns, violence and other security issues these men and women still delivered the best quality teaching that they could. That, in the present climate of disruption, shows the commitment and passion that I saw in many of the tutors that I learned under or was employed as class mentor to.

It was an enjoyable time spent with tutors that I know, and those that I do not yet know. Over lunch, and later on, dinner, I was speaking with several teachers about the impact of their work. As I mentioned above, it goes further than they will ever know. For my journey it was truly life changing, and has even caused me to change career from chef to writer, commentator and (soon to be) motivational speaker. I hope that from my involvement at this event that I can further enhance the work I do with PeoplePlus in their prisons. I want what they want. I want to see prisoners realise that when they are released there is a pro-social life that they can lead; having a criminal conviction should be the turning point to a new crime-free way of living, and I want to help enforce that message.

After a good night’s rest, and a full English breakfast I had to catch an early train. I was due I London to take part in the Prisoner’s Education Trust’s (PET) Advisory Group. This group of ex-prisoners discuss where the focus of the Trust shoild be in the next academic year as well as other issues that face this organisation.

At this session we talked through what we thought our priorities ought to be for the Trust, and whether the they ought to be supplying funds for prisoners that simply want art and hobby materials. This topic lead to quite varied comments with some very useful suggestions being made. I cannot, at this time, share what the outcome was. This is because the Trust will deal with this topic again.

On a sad note, which is never a good way to end a blog, I want to make mention of an incident that occurred on my way home. The train in front of the one I was travelling on collided with a car at a level-crossing. The driver of the car died in that incident, and I want to pass on my thoughts and prayers to that person’s family, and to all who were caught up in the incident. While I had a much longer journey home than normal I did, at least, reach home safe and sound.

Chaos and crisis so let’s change the boss.

Professor Nick Hardwick, the wrongly sacked former head of the Parole Board has accused the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of not taking responsibility for the much reported crisis in our prisons. He makes these comments after it emerged that the HM Prison and Probation boss, Michael Spurr was asked to step down (sacked) by minister, even though the Moi deny that ministers had any involvement in this decision.

We have all read the news of damming reports by the prison inspectorate, and we all know that ‘the system’ is awash with contraband and violence. Those of us with lived experience of prison can tell many true stories of this, and how Spice, the current trend is ruining the lives of many prisoners. Last week we had the news of yet another mass stoppage of work by prison officers up and down the country because their workplace is unsafe.

Mr Heaton, the Permanent Secretary for the MoJ said “we now need to look ahead” and develop strategy for the future. So is this the right time to change Impossible head? I am not so sure that the timing is right here. Surely the right time for that would be when the strategy (if there is one) is published and ready to roll out across the prison estate.

What Motivates an Arsonist

Mark Humphries is a life sentenced prisoner living in the community; he is also a student with the Open University. Mark comments on prison life and issues of criminal justice. In this personal blog he recalls the work he did whilst in therapy for his offending.s

Fire is a very powerful and versatile element. It has many symbolic definitions, and it can be used to purify, to burn and to give us light. Fire allows us to keep warm and to cook with by providing heat. it can also be used to protect us and to send signals to others. What is it then that motivates some people to abuse this powerful tool for malicious purposes.

Due to the way that my life was turning out prior to imprisonment, and not wanting to leave in the same manner I have taken time to learn about some of what it is that allows arsonist to set fire. Throughout my time in custody I have met many arsonists; this has been in therapeutic groups as well as in general conversations. Each prisoner that I spoke to came to set fire for their own reasons; it is my opinion that this is one of the many reasons why arsonists are difficult to categorise, and why arson is such an enigmatic offence to deal with. on a personal level, my offending with arson caused me much grief and anguish; I am aware that the suffering that I went through is minimal compared to that of my victims, their families and the emergency services that had to deal with these incidents and me. Without going into too much detail I will share with you what I have learned about the motivation behind arson.

There is, without doubt, a sexual side to offending for some of those that use arson. In therapy I met several people that went on to express sexual thoughts, and to carry out sexual acts while watching the fires that they set; many of these people were sexual abused in their infancy or early childhood. This went on to have implications in the way that some of the men I met handled their intimate relationships in their teens and adulthood. All the arsonists that I met have had relationship difficulties. Many of them could not define what it was that they wanted from their relationships.

There is also a cathartic effect that arson can have. This is when the offender uses arson as a problem solving solution. The arsonist that uses fire like this usually has a poor self-worth image and sees their life full of rubbish that has to be gotten rid of. They do not see anything of worth within themselves, and probably would have been told similar throughout their life. For them the physical fire is burning up this rubbish in their life. It is also possible that there are issues that have been repressed for a long time that have come to the surface and have caused pain.

Another strong motivator for the arsonist is the power and control that they hold over people. When an arsonist sets a fire someone has to react because all fire has the potential ability to kill; this is enhanced when it is arson. To have people, especially the emergency services, is a massive sense of power for the arsonist that uses fire to hold control over their neighbourhood. I was told by one man in jail that this was the only time he felt as if he was worth anything, and it was the only time when others took notice of him.

One of the strongest things that came out of my learning was that adults do not deal with children that set fire in an effective manner. Many told me that the adults around them when they were lighting said ‘don’t worry they’ll grow out of it’. Some of them did not grow out of it, and at least one went on to kill using arson. As I was writing the original article that I have taken this blog from there was a newspaper report that two 13 year old boys went into a barn to set fire to straw, only one came out alive. We do need to take seriously children playing at setting fire.

I have listed a few of the reasons that came to light when I was in prison for arson, and I am sure that there are many more. I hope that what I have written has made sense and helped us all move forward in some way.

A View From The Inside

Mark Humphries is A life sentenced prisoner living in the community after spending over a decade in prison on his original sentence and then four years on a recall. He is a student with the Open University and regularly comments on prison matters. In these blogs he shares his views on the prison system.

What images do you see when you hear news of the prisons in this country? Recent media reporting has not been greatly in support of the Prison Service. You might not have given prisons much thought in the past. I want to change that. I want to share, in this blog, issues of prison life and some of the rehabilitative work that goes on inside these closed communities.

There are people who have chosen to keep going into prison. They have a job to do in looking after those sent to jail by the courts. In essence, although these people are employed by Her Majesty’s Prison andProbation Service, they work for you. They are charged with helping prisoners become changed people. Every prison across the country will be made up of a similar staff group to the one I describe here.; each of them will also have their own reasons for taking on this challenging role.

Uniformed prison officers, who today as I write this had to stage another mass work stoppage due to the unsafe working conditions, are the main body of the staff group. These are the people who unlock and lock up the prisoners every day; they are the ones that have direct day-to-day contact with the men and women in custody. It is these people that walk the landings and deal with the mood of the prison, and this mood can change very rapidly.

Front-line prison officers are supported in their task by a multi-disciplinary group that include GPS, nurses, mental health workers, teachers, librarians, workshop instructors and chaplains. All of these will have some day-to-day contact with the prisoners and their needs. Behind the scenes as it were there are there administrative and support staff who all help to keep the prisons around this country in working order. Each one has a role that is as vital as the prison officer.

Today the Prison Service has a greater programme of rehabilitation work than ever before. This is mainly carried out through the Offendi g Behaviour Programme (OBP). There are courses that come under this umbrella which the prisoners can participate in. Mire recently there has been some progression from the Prison Service in extending this work outside of the accredited programmes. Units have been set up whereby the prisoners can put into practice what they have learned elsewhere. These units encourage prisoners to work at making the changes in their lives that are needed to enable them to go on to lead a crime free life outside of custody.

Prison changes people, and there are staff who want to ensure that it changes the prisoners for the best. This is not always supported by the people in the Prison Service headquarters nor at government level. We have seen too many Secretary of State for Justice come and go. This has to stop if Great Britain is going to have a custodial system that is fit for purpose and can carry out its obligations to you, the public. You need a Justice Secretary that is going to work for you and put in place a robust programme that supports prison officers as well as the prisoners. Rewriting old regimes, as done by the current Prisons Minister is not going to work. It is, in fact, going to have the reverse effect.

As I mentioned earlier, today Prison Officers had to take action due to the unsafe working conditions. Recently the media has highlighted the Prison Inspectors report into HMP Birmingham, and how that was said to be the worst of conditions. The reported acted on today highlights issues at yet another prison establishment. It might surprise you to find that as an ex-prisoner I am writing in support of the prison staff, but I do so because we all need safe prisons. Without them men and women will be leaving prison with no help or changes made in their lives.

Study in Prison

Mark Humphries is reading his OU textbook.

Mark Humphries is A life sentenced prisoner now living and studying in the community. He studies with the Open University and also writes and comments on prison matters.

I was released on 14 February 2018 after spending four years behind the high walls, and razor-topped fences on a licence recall; I had committed no further offences and was only recalled due to an argument. But the issue for me was what I was going to do about it. I had to be there and did not want to waste time. I decided that this time it was time to concentrate on me, and so I studied.

I had studied in my original prison sentence, and I had realised that there was something special about kicking the cell door shut and reading the next chapter of the study book. Writing essays and complete assignments was always a challenge for me; my handwriting was never the best, no matter how hard I tried. I am not going to say that I have completely changed that because I have not. But the issue is that study changes a person, and I am not only talking about academically.

Studying behind bars changes people, as I am sure it changes people in the community. The real issue is that changing a person in prison if you have to change the community that they come from or the one that they are going to be released to. The prisoners that have spent time in the education classes, and maybe, if they are lucky, going on to Further or Higher Education will have a renewed outlook. There is evidence that says many prisoners come into the system with a poor education record, and with a negative outlook on life in general. For them there was no choice, crime was a job that brought in the money to feed the family; crime might have been what they parents were involved in, and it was an easy step to make.

The change of outlook means a change in prospects. Prisoners that have studied can see that there should be a future for them, and by this, I mean a future away from crime. To enhance prison education, the Prison Service (HMPPS) has to move forward. Recently I have been involved in a project that takes learning away from the traditional classroom and into the cells of the prisons. Prisoners have access to televisions in their cells and one education provider has launched a series of courses that are broadcast on the Prison TV channel. Wayout TV offers courses at various levels on the Way2Learn channel. The videos are broken down into episodes, and the prisoners watch each episode and then complete exercises and activities in a workbook. The participants are then awarded certificates that employers will accept as a show of commitment to change. This way of learning should go across the Prison estate. It should not, however, become the mainstream education, but remain an ‘add-on’ as an optional extra for prisoners to sign up to.

I believe that there should be a furtherance of this new way of learning, and that would be with internet access in a classroom. There must be a way that prisoners can be allowed access to secure educational sites via the education department’s IT system. HMPPS have started this with the Virtual Campus site, and that seems to be working well. The question has to be asked if some educational material can be sourced in this manner then why can’t more be done?

The education system in prison is already behind the rest of the world. Primary school-children now have controlled access to the internet at school, and at home where they are expected to submit their homework. Distance learning establishments, including the Open University, have been teaching using this method for many years. HMPPS are failing the tax-payers by not allowing prisoners to educate themselves in how to use the internet properly.

I understand that there will be a public reaction to this, after all, there are those who hold the outraged view of ‘lock them up and throw away the key’. The question that raises is who benefits from imprisonment if this was to happen? We need a prison system that is fit for purpose; prison system that employs all the rehabilitative programs available. My rehabilitation was progressed by my involvement in education through to the point where I am now able to study with the Open University and work towards my degree.

On a personal note I want to add a piece about my Distance Leraning journey. When I came into prison in 1993 I had a limited educational history, and was already involved with a vocational training course at Bible college. In prison I wanted to carry on that learning and enhance what I was studying. Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) funded me a Diploma in Clinical and Pastoral Counselling and this fulfilled my needs. Studying through Distance Learning was new to me, but it was an experience that made prison life easier to cope with, and aided my own personal progression. Since then PET have funded me a further course in Freelance Writing, which has furthered my career as a writer.

In 2016 I commenced an Open University degree course which is not PET funded, but it is still an important route for my progression. This time I am doing English Literature and Creative Writing which enhance the fictional and poetry writing that I am involved in. These course are my pathway to a crime free life outside of jail; they are the key to my rehabilitation and freedom. It has been said by others that freedom is a state of mind, and it is.

It is my hope that this simple words will encourage the decisions makers to act and work out the best way of moving forward with both the in-cell learning, and the secure internet access so that rehabilitation can be progressed and encouraged. Prisoners being released with o self-worth or confidence is not in the public interest.