Ben Gunn: Lifer on the Loose


Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

In the United Kingdom, we are afflicted with a particular type of insanity, fueled by the notion of a ‘war on crime’, which allows us to believe that retribution, rather than rehabilitation, will lead to lower crime rates. We believe this in spite of the fact that 46% of all prisoners re-offend within a year of release and 60% of short-sentenced prisoners re-offend within the same period. The price of a prison place per inmate is an exorbitant £42,000 a year. This system’s failure is costly in more ways than one.

To desire redress for a wrong committed is a fundamental tenet of our conception of justice, as well as an unequivocally human response to pain. Yet the sort of retaliatory force we exert on those within the criminal justice system offers no practical benefit to the aggrieved, the aggressor, or society as a whole. We have known this for years. In fact, between 1775 and 1790, a British man named John Howard (1726-1790) made seven journeys throughout Europe, searching for a more humane model of penalisation, in the hopes that he would be able to improve prison conditions within the United Kingdom. He died in Ukraine before his wishes could come to fruition but the work he did ignited a country-wide movement, today known as the Howard League for Penal Reform, to continue the fight against ineffective and excessive incarceration.


The Howard League is now a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison, by campaigning on a wide range of issues including: short term prison sentences, real work in prison, children in prison, and community sentences. The goal, in short, is to promote ‘a reformatory and radically preventive treatment of offenders’.

Indeed, efforts such as these have not been in vain. Former Prime Minister Cameron promised reform and recognized the flaws in our current system when he stated that ‘we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.’ This was the first occasion in over twenty years in which a Prime Minister made a speech with prisons as the sole focus. And while there are concerns that the building momentum of penal reform will dissipate under Prime Minister May, the new Justice Secretary Liz Truss has noted that ‘the system is not working’ and promised a ‘shake-up of the prison service,’ providing a possible glimmer of hope for the carceral system.

Ben Gunn, an activist and former convict who recently visited the University of Bristol, is an outspoken advocate of prison reform. At the age of fourteen, he killed his eleven-year-old friend, and he spent the next 32 years behind bars. Now, Gunn spends his days campaigning for prison reform, consulting and writing occasionally for The Guardian.

Like many other ‘lifers’, Gunn experienced prison as ‘a kind of dark game that was played on them by the authorities’ where their willingness to submit to authority was continuously tested. In prison, he perceived himself as a ‘rebellious hero, rejecting release in order to nobly face the punishment that was his due, while fighting the cruel authorities.’ He was, according to the Prison Parole Board, a ‘fully paid member of the awkward squad.’

SIREN Editor-in-Chief Des Ibekwe sits down with Ben Gunn to discuss his work regarding prison reform.

Considering that he was sent to prison at such a tender age, this rebellious nature is hardly surprising. In an interview that Siren conducted after Gunn’s talk, he spoke about the lunacy of the ‘logic’ in imprisoning minors, highlighting the cognitive dissonance in sending children into an oppressive and unnatural environment and then expecting them to behave ‘normally’. He discussed the lack of emotional and psychological support which was available and even suggested that prisoners have to fight for their right to be rehabilitated or receive an education. Gunn, himself, fought hard to study while in prison. He eventually gained two degrees yet his aspirations to achieve a PhD were brought to a halt when he was told that there was no paper on which to write. Reports such as these are worryingly corroborated by government action: in November 2013, former Minister of Justice Chris Grayling introduced a blanket ban on family and friends sending books and other essentials to prisoners. As the Howard League rightly puts it: ‘people are sent to prison as punishment, not for a punishment.’ The denial of these basic resources served to reinforce punishment as an overarching theme in our system. It is a small victory that in 2014 the High Court ruled these restrictions to be unlawful and they were reversed. Yet what this case, and our current system as a whole, highlights is the prevailing societal desire for prisoners to be reformed within a framework which offers little support, education or hope.

This then begs the question: how can citizens, and the governments which serve both the free and imprisoned, consider it likely that punishment and oppression will lead to ‘reformed criminals’? In Gunn’s view, it is not feasible to implement punishment and rehabilitation simultaneously. Gunn quips that this is akin to ‘punching someone in the face, giving them a plaster and then punching them in the face again.’ As numerous studies have shown, it is rehabilitation which consistently yields the most favourable results for prisoners and for society.

The failure of our system today is scandalous. For this reason, campaigners and groups such as Ben Gunn and the Howard League continue to be invaluable in providing a voice for those who have too often been silenced.

To find out more about the national Howard League, visit

If you would like to join the University of Bristol’s Howard League chapter visit:

If you missed Ben Gunn’s talk you can listen to the recording here:

Authors: Lauren Wills, Sheila Bamugemereire and Sabrina Guselli (University of Bristol Howard League Society)