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From Prisoner to Publisher: Reformed Robber Unmasks Britain’s Broken Prison System

Stephen Jackley, a former prisoner turned author and campaigner, pulls back the curtain on the UK prison system in an exclusive interview with Byline Times, as he launches his new book ‘Just Time’.

Former prisoner Stephen Jackley served six and a half years – in 14 incarceration facilities. Credit: Arkbound / Stephen Jackley

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In 2008, Stephen Jackley – then a 21-year-old university student – was sentenced to 13 years for armed robbery and burglary in the US. He was extradited to the UK, where he served six and a half years and saw the impact of austerity policies from behind bars.

Dubbed by parts of the press a Robin Hood figure, after planning to give some of the stolen cash to charity, he was classified by the prison service as a high escape-risk inmate. 

Jackley was frequently moved around prisons, serving in 14 in total, nearly all in the UK. While serving his sentence, the softly spoken Brit was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, took the government to court several times by representing himself, and completed an Open University degree. He lost a 2014 bid to secure inmates self-representing in court access to computers.

In that time, he witnessed seismic shifts in a system that locks up 85,000 people in England and Wales – in his eyes a bag of chaos that is bursting at the seams.  

From the twilight years of Gordon Brown’s Labour government, to the draconian ‘book ban’ and ending of prisoners’ legal aid ushered in by Conservative Justice Minister Chris Grayling, he witnessed how the government’s handling of prisons pandered to an ever-more partisan press. 

Upon release, he went on to set up a social enterprise (and now charity), the publisher Arkbound. He received a commendation from then HRH Prince Charles and now lives in Glasgow. We spoke to him on the release of his new book ‘Just Time’. 

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Josiah Mortimer: What were the biggest flaws of the prison system in your eyes? Why do you believe it’s failing prisoners in the public? 

Stephen Jackley: One reason is the power that individual politicians can have on influencing the system. And you have to bear in mind that they have no clue whatsoever. In some cases, they’ve never even entered a prison. And that actually started a purely political thing to show that they are tough on criminals and so on. It so often doesn’t have any positive implications. 

I saw that strategy with Chris Grayling, who was Justice Secretary while I was inside, he introduced a number of policies that were just really bad. They didn’t do anything whatsoever to help anyone, even people outside, because if you treat someone badly in custody, they’re just gonna go out even worse than they came in… 

Every prison system needs to have a structure of accountability because you have an environment where you give power to someone else who has power over others. So there’s going to be abuse, it’s inevitable. And yet there are no checks and balances. 

That is going to cause problems in terms of abuse in terms of all kinds of stuff, miscarriages of justice. Once they took away Legal Aid, meant that prisoners couldn’t access any accountability systems unless they were wealthy, of course. [Legal aid was reinstated for some prisoners in 2018 following legal challenges]. 

And there was nothing else in place except a complaint system. That wasn’t fit for purpose as I went into the book. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman was also in a similar state, where they took over a year to investigate cases by which time the case in question would no longer be relevant. 

And the prisons inspectorate can only conduct overall inspections, they can’t look into individual cases, and they can only make recommendations…Prisons are part of the justice system, which means they need to be accountable, and there need to be ways for people within them to access the courts as a means of last resort.

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JM: Were you denied access to legal aid, or was it just an issue if it wasn’t even on the cards? 

SJ: Yes…Take prisoner categorisation. There are cases where someone needs to go to a lower [risk] category in order to be released. So imagine that they’ve refused to review the categorisation – there was no way to challenge that for a solicitor [after 2013]. 

What do they do? They can’t even be released. So it’s impacting basic freedoms, basic, fundamental rights. It’s not just a case of, ‘oh, this person wants to be treated better in prison’. They need us to listen, it’s [about] fundamental civil liberties and rights that everyone has whether they’re in prison or not in prison. 

And in my case, I was working outside, on temporary release. And then suddenly, this policy came in and said, look, you can no longer do that because you’re high risk, and there was no way for me to challenge that in the courts. I had to self-represent. I’ve seen how the court system works – it’s very much not in favour of self representation. It certainly is not in favour of people in custody. 

JM: That must have been quite a bizarre process – to be a prisoner and self representing in court at the same time. What were some of your takeaways from that and how it worked or didn’t work?

SJ: The craziest thing I came across was this blanket ban, that you can access a computer to type any legal stuff out and your legal documents go into like hundreds of pages. So I was having to write everything by hand. I couldn’t access all the legal reference material. The books in the library were GCSE law books. And I was up against barristers, who had computers and legal reference material, so it’s  a complete inequality. 

JM: So despite representing yourself, you didn’t actually have access to these documents that are being used against you in court? Citing a legal reference without having access to it at all? 

SJ: I could only frame my arguments within logic… One of these basic law books in the library cited cases from like 20 years ago, and I was pulling out a few lines from that. 

And I did manage to succeed in getting permission for judicial review. And I got to the final hearing. And it was actually I’m expecting to get a case through to the effect that like in America, prisoners are entitled to law libraries. Effective self-representation to me makes common sense, but in the UK, that isn’t that right. So I tried to establish that. And I failed. But yes, it just goes to show how unequal the system would be.

JM: You served in 14 prison facilities. That must have been really disruptive to your efforts to rebuild your life afterwards.  

SJ: Each prison was like starting afresh all over again….Dealing with the bullying, having to overcome it all over again. So yes, it wasn’t wasn’t easy. 

JM: Chris Grayling will probably be remembered not particularly fondly in the justice sector. Did his ban on books being brought into prison in 2014 have an impact on you? 

SJ: I was there when that happened. So basically, he was telling lies. In the media, he was saying they simply wanted to avoid stuff being sent into prisons, like drugs and so on. 

But books were already carefully scanned, x-rayed and so on. And he was saying that he was [stopping] food being sent in. That was never the case. And he must have known that…

Ministers have immense power over people. The way this person could just get away with blatant lies and people believing it in many cases…. It was absolute rubbish. 

JM: You served in 14 facilities. That would give you quite a unique insight and  the differences in prison provision. What were some of those biggest differences you witnessed and was overcrowding an issue? 

SJ: Yes, that became an issue later on in my sentence, and also because of Chris Grayling: he issued orders for only single cells to be turned into triple cells. So you can imagine you have a single cell, with one person [suddenly having] three people. 

And in terms of the variability – in one prison it was like living in the Victorian era. In some we had 23 hour lockdowns, and then in another prison, there were showers in the cells, exercise yards, and it was open. 

In one, most of the prisoners were employed, compared to another where only 10% of the population had jobs. It was really variable. 

JM: Do you think employment within prisoners is a useful rehabilitation tool? What happens when that’s lacking? 

SJ: Generally, yes, just bear in mind…you need to make sure it’s actually connected to giving them skills, giving them skills, because a lot of prisoners have mental health related conditions….

So if you just put a brush in someone’s hand and tell them to clean the floor with a mop it’s not really gonna do anything to help them, in terms of being outside…

It’s not just about letting them out. You need to give them the right jobs. For example, I did educational courses and all kinds of stuff. Early on in my sentence I learnt bricklaying, I did carpentry type work. It’s all very low level, but it gave me things to do and I like creative stuff as well. 

JM: Yes, and you did an Open University course as well. Did you have the resources you needed? 

SJ: Internet access is banned in prisons. No one can access the internet and computer access [is limited]…

You have to jump through barriers to access printing and so on. It’s a bit difficult. But the way I did it, they sent in the textbooks and I read them, and posted the handwritten assessments to the assessor. 

JM: How do you view this current government’s handling of the prison system? It seems like overcrowding has  gotten even worse in the past few years. 

Do you have any faith that they’ll get to grips with the issues that the prison system faces? 

SJ: This current government is right wing…I don’t think it’s possible to achieve anything progressive with this current government. 

Hopefully there will be improvements [if Labour are elected], but to what extent those improvements will actually have an impact, I’m not sure. 

I really think that the solution if you really want to change prisons is to take politics out of prisons, and reintroduce a  legal accountability framework.

With those two things, it doesn’t matter whether they go right wing, left wing or whatever route they want to go. If you have those two things in place, it will be led by proven models, criminological models that are proven in many countries that are successful. And if things go wrong, that’s a way to stop abuses of power. 

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JM: I don’t know if Labour will have prison reform high up their priority list – it doesn’t look too likely at the moment. But do you think clearing the courts backlog would improve the situation? 

There seem to be 1000s of people who haven’t actually been sentenced yet, while others have served their sentence but remain behind bars. 

SJ: That is absolutely an injustice. The court system is barely functioning. I saw that when I was self-representing. So the two issues are very much interrelated.. 

JM: Sadly, you’re rare among former prisoners in that you’ve gone on to lead quite a successful career, running a charity and becoming an author. Are you still in touch with people you met in prison and people in the sector? Is there danger of many people slipping back into lives of crime?  

SJ: I got support through the Prince’s Trust, on release probation in England. [Parole and probation] services very much take on the monitoring and surveillance side, but not so much on the positive side in terms of ‘hey, we’ve got this opportunity’. 

I’ll give you an example. I was invited by the Council of Europe to attend a journalism course. It was all approved by the [Council’s] board. I was of excellent behaviour. And that wasn’t supported. The probation officer would say: this prisoner will go off and do X Y, Z  [criminal] thing. 

Despite being an open prison, even though custodial behaviour was pretty good, they only looked at the risks of ‘if something went wrong, it would come back to us’. They were not willing to take a chance, on the 1% chance something would go wrong. They weren’t thinking in terms of economics and [rehabilitation after]. 

To be fair to them, probation officers are under a lot of pressure. Caseloads are huge, they don’t get a lot of support themselves… 

Generally, people don’t want to go back to prison, but [sometimes] that seems like the only option they can go to. There are not really many opportunities when you get released. You can either start your own enterprise or do something like construction. But staying in the same area, you meet the same people who offer good money [for crime].

‘Just Time’ by Stephen Jackley is out now. It is published by Arkbound and available here.

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