Saturday, 20 February 2010

Times they are a Changing..Or Not!

I regularly read the utterly brilliant blog of a man called Ben Gunn.

Ben is a convicted murderer.

At the age of 14 when I was 10, my youngest daughter's age now, Ben was convicted of killing a man. He has been in prison ever since. For over 30 years.

Whilst I have grown up, travelled the world, met and married my wife, had 2 kids, had all kinds of business adventures, met thousands of fascinating, diverse and interesting people, smelt fresh mown grass, walked through the countryside on spring days, tasted succulent food..... - Ben has been in a prison cell.

But just occasionally he has had a brief glimpse of the outside world and gets the chance to see just a few of the kind of things that we take for granted every day. Here's what Ben has to say about the experience:

About a century ago, some MP stood up and declared that once prisoners had served ten years, then they were institutionalised and mentally frazzled.

What the hell, random MP's spouting random thoughts with little connection to reality is a perpetual event. But this declaration has entered prison mythology, quoted by cons and staff alike as if it had the same status of fact as the gravitational constant. It provides yet another official excuse to treat us like idiots.

This is beautifully illustrated by a passage in the Lifer Manual. It warns staff that, should they take us out the prison, we may need their help to cross the road. I'm sorry, but no matter how many years you have spent inside you'd have to be afflicted with physical brain damage before you were unable to deduce that a couple of tons of metal moving at 30 mph could hurt if you stood in front of it. This is spectacularly patronising but does provide a vision of Lifers being mowed-down by the gross as they wander, dazed, through the streets.

These trips are meant to help us to keep up to date, to reintegrate us. So out of date is the prison service, though, that we are expected to visit a range of banks to get leaflets about various services. That may be how it works in the wilder reaches of Outer Mongolia, but don't people in Britain tend to explore financial services through the wonders of the Web nowadays??

I have been out and about a couple of times, on average once every 15 years. These are called Town Visits. People of sufficiently low risk get to wander around some shopping precinct with a few quid in their pocket and a screw following their every move.

My first trip was in 1995 and I went into Exeter town. As soon as the taxi stopped, I was diving into the newsagent to stock up on tobacco. We are constantly lectured on how "everything has changed, it's all different now", but the reality is that the essential activities of life really haven't changed much. Shopping, I discovered, was still a matter of selecting an item and handing over currency. The only changes from 1980 to 1995 were the increased selection of goods and the introduction of a hand-held barcode scanner. Whilst I hardly recognised any model of car (they all look so alike), that I shouldn't stand in front of a moving one was still a broad principle to be adhered to. A day spend poking around Exeter raised my pulse not a beat. The only thing that took me by surprise was that I was unable to finish the fry-up we bought in a small cafe; I'd underestimated what 'real world' portions were like.

My second trip was last year (or the year before - remember my lack of time perspective), wandering around a small local town. I won't name it, it may freak out the locals if they knew they were brushing shoulders with murderers on a weekly basis.

And in those 14 years, what had changed since 1995? Yup, pretty much nothing. Of course, commercial activities had developed. Just for the hell of it, I forked out for a tall Americano coffee in some coffee chain, and sat amazed as I drank it, wondering why anyone would pay so much when they could, for the same money, buy a jar of Gold Blend that would last a week. If it had been Kapa Luak, on the other hand...

We wandered in and out of various shops, large and small, until we ran into the self-service checkout as some supermarket. Tesco? This was my first genuinely new experience and I had to give it a go. Turns out, my escort hadn't used this before either. We joined the gaggle of determined, slightly baffled, folks who were pressing buttons and trying to look competent. All went well, though self-service checkouts may speak to the rise in shoplifting.

It seems the world hasn't changed that much, technology aside. Most of our social interactions are - I hope - still based around people. And people are still people.

You can read Ben's blog at: He writes it by hand and a dedicated friend collects his 'posts' on regular visits and types them up on to his blog. On these visits he then reads the comments left by readers on his previous posts..


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