The unfortunate silencing of Alex Cavendish

What obligation does a convicted sex offender have to reveal his true identity? A storm over the issue has arisen in the world of prison blogging.

One of the best criminal justice blogs on the internet is Prison UK. Over the last 3 years it has described the life of prisoners in British prisons with a remarkable and unprecedented vividness. Anyone wanting to know about the realities of prison life should read it. I have even recommended it as preparation for clients expecting to receive a prison sentence: one of the most widely read posts (because it was eventually published in Metro) was about what to pack for somebody who is expecting to go to prison (flip-flops for the showers, earplugs and headphones being top of the list). If you want to know about food in prison, illness in prison, sex in prison, old men in prison, drugs in prison, suicide in prison and death in prison the blog has covered all those subjects superbly.

The writer of the blog called himself Alex Cavendish. On the blog he described himself thus:

Until 2014 a serving prisoner who had a lot of experience as an Insider, a prisoner who has the job of supporting and advising other prisoners, particularly those who are new to the prison system. He also trained as a peer mentor and worked extensively in prison education departments to help other prisoners improve their literacy skills. He served his sentence in B-cats, C-cats and a D-cat (open prison).”

He was also a prolific tweeter under the name @prisonuk, and was increasingly called upon to comment on prisons in the wider media. One particularly useful thing he has done over the last few months is to document and publicise various prison disturbances and riots that might otherwise have received no, or at least only heavily censored and occasionally misleading official publicity. Assuming, as I do, that he has not just made it all up, the only way he could have done this is by having access to “sources” within the prisons. Presumably these have been either prisoners themselves, prisoners’ families or prison officers.

@prisonuk never revealed what crime it was that got him sent to prison. I have followed him on Twitter and exchanged direct messages with him and I never asked. It seemed to me largely irrelevant. He tweeted and wrote about prison conditions, and mostly, it seemed, blogged from his own experience. If you are going to report on what it is like to serve time in prison then the chances are high that you have quite a few dark secrets. I admit that I was intrigued enough to google his name once or twice: nothing came up about what he was sent to prison for. It occurred to me that he might be writing under a pseudonym.  I suppose, if someone had put me on the spot I would have guessed that his crime was either fraud or sex. As it happened no-one did.

Last week Cavendish was “outed” as a sex offender. His exposer was (on his own description) a prisoner “doing life with a 24 year tariff” with a twitter account called @prison_diaries, also known as “The Lifer.” Cavendish, it turns out, is in fact Mark (although often known as Alex) Standish, who was convicted in 2012 of historic sex offences against a teenage boy. Mr Standish was a teacher at Crookham Court School in the 1980s. The case has an unusual history in that before he was himself convicted, he had informed both the police and and the Department of Education of a culture of child abuse within the school, and had even written a book about it (which I have not read) called Suffer the Little Children. He had also assisted Esther Rantzen who produced a That’s Life expose of the school, and even given evidence for the prosecution at the trial of other teachers who were convicted of abuse.

Many years later, a former pupil called Andy Hudson (he has waived his right to anonymity) complained that Mr Standish had in fact sexually abused him over a period of about a year. There was a trial and Standish was convicted. The judge sentenced him to 4 years in prison. Presumably he was released after serving half his sentence, and was thus able to start his blog in 2014.

Standish attempted to appeal his conviction. In the absence of fresh evidence an appeal against conviction is generally only possible if there has been some legal error at the trial. His argument, as far as I can make it out from press reports, was that it was unfair to prosecute him 20 years after the event. Unsurprisingly that failed. In recent years the Court of Appeal has invariably turned down appeals based on the argument that the mere passage of time has rendered a trial unfair. Despite being described in the press as a “second” appeal, in reality I think that what happened is that he was initially refused leave to appeal on the papers alone by a single judge, and he then exercised his right to argue the point in front of the full court. Far from being a “second” appeal, it may well be that he has not had any appeal at all because he has been refused leave both by a single judge and by the full court.

He now claims that there is in fact fresh evidence and before he left Twitter he announced that he is again intending to appeal against his conviction.

Whether there is anything in this appeal remains to be seen. For the time being he remains a convicted sex offender, and the fact that he concealed his identity while commenting on prison matters has enraged many people.

There is of course an obvious difficulty with an anonymous prisoner, probably a murderer serving a sentence of life imprisonment, taking the moral high ground on an issue like this. Be that as it may, many others – while not necessarily supporting The Lifer’s methods – have been highly critical of what they have described as Standish’s “deception.”

Two of the most critical have also been former prisoners who blog and tweet on penal affairs, Ben Gunn and Penny Mellor. Both are serious voices who deserve attention, both have served time in prison, Gunn for murder (committed when he was a child), Mellor for conspiracy to abduct a child to Ireland. Unlike Standish, and it is very much to their credit, neither has attempted to conceal their identity.

Gunn, who has a well-deserved reputation for blunt and fearless speaking has accused Standish of lying and deceit. He’s not going to like this blog because, as he put it: “The professionals defending the dangerous deceit of @prisonuk is truly vomitous.”

Mellor has gone into more detail on her blog:

In the last 48 hours, a man who represented so many views on prison reform, a trusted voice, feted in certain quarters was ‘outed’ on social media as being a convicted child sex offender. Along with many others I was surprised at this revelation, not that he was a convicted sex offender, but that he had not told anyone what he had been convicted of. It should not matter, however it does, it does for many reasons, some of which are tied up in the complexities of prison politics.

Although Gunn says the problem is not the crime but the deceit, for Mellor the nature of the crime that Standish did not reveal certainly is a problem:

If you happen to have been convicted of a child sex offence …, you can pretty much guarantee that you are not going to be safe in prison unless you spend all your time in segregation. Even the convicted sex offenders have their pecking order, a rapist being higher up the food chain than the paedophile. The SO who downloads child pornographers being ‘better’ than the child molester etc.

Should you find out that somebody is a convicted child sex offender and you choose to engage with them, you do so at your own peril. Guilty by association. You are literally putting your life at risk. It is considered to be a betrayal of unwritten prison rules if you do befriend a ‘nonce’. However, if you know then at least you can make an informed choice. A choice that was removed on social media because Alex did not tell anyone.

… [A]ny inmate who has been conversing with a ‘nonce’ privately or publicly via social media ran the risk of coming to harm themselves because of those comms. The fact they did not know he was a convicted sex offender is irrelevant in HMP. This is where the betrayal ex con reformists talk about becomes polarised.”

Well I’m sorry, I don’t accept this. It seems to be bringing the dubious ethics of the prison yard into ordinary life. It is presumably because of the unwritten rule that no “decent” murderer or robber should ever associate with a “nonce” that he felt obliged to use a pseudonym in the first place, and that he has now closed his Twitter account. Bad things happen to known sex offenders.

Nor do I accept the deception argument. In what sense is using a pseudonym a “deception”? No-one was deceived into talking to Standish, or if they were they deceived themselves. He never said what his crime was. Anyone who communicated with him – I assume that includes both Gunn and Mellor – and was worried about it, ought to have realised that there was at least a fair chance that he was a sex offender. If he was not a sex offender he could equally well have been a blackmailer or a con-man. Of course, the position would have been different if he had lied about his conviction. As far as I know he never did.

The other point that Mellor makes, what she calls “the crux of the matter” is this:

Alex claims to have been receiving information from the ‘inside’. This could mean prison officers, governors or inmates with illegal phones. You may all be thinking ‘so what’ – Alex is a convicted sex offender, we have no way of finding out if he also has a SOPO (Sexual Offences Prevention Order) which precludes him from having any contact with minors it may also include other orders relating to whom he is allowed contact with, such as vulnerable people. Alex was in contact with many people, some of whom may well be young people incarcerated in young offenders units, some of whom have anon accounts on Twitter and may well be under 18, some of whom may be on license with a SOPO for sex offence themselves. All of this puts any whistleblowers he was in contact with at risk. Any breach of an order which may or may not be in place allows those in authority to examine his electronics if they believe he is in breach of any conditions that have been placed on him.”

This crux of her argument doesn’t hold up either. As she herself says, “We have no way of finding out ….”

If he is the subject of a sexual offences prevention order, if it prohibits communication with any minors, if he is in contact with them, if they have been using illicit mobile phones, and so on. If he has breached a court order, or a licence condition, then no doubt the authorities will take action but we have no idea whether he has. If he was knowingly communicating by means of illegal phones in prison that would be a serious offence irrespective of the nature of his original crime. It is all a huge pile of speculation.

On his release Standish could have chosen a life of quiet obscurity. Instead he chose to use his prison experience to bring home the scale of the prison crisis to a wider public. Like Ben Gunn and Penny Mellor he was very good at it. If you are going to reform prisons, or even if you just want to know about what goes on inside them, it makes sense to listen to prisoners and ex-prisoners. Most of them will be bad people, or people who have done bad and sometimes terrible things. That is often why they are, or have been, in prison. Prison UK was one of the most articulate ex-prisoners and his silencing is bad news for prison reform.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

23 thoughts on “The unfortunate silencing of Alex Cavendish”

  1. Excellent piece, Matthew. We know from very recent press reports that our prison system has never been so badly managed, the inmates have never been in so much danger from violence and bullying. We can’t rely on the Home Office to remedy matters unless and until there is pressure from those who know what’s going on, which must include prisoners and former prisoners who are articulate enough to make their views known. Erwin James wrote for the Guardian and his book is well worth reading but it isn’t up to date now.

  2. I have been rather horrified by the vitriol that has been expressed by certain people followed the unmasking of Alex Cavendish. It is both ironic and hypocritical that “The Lifer” who outed him has himself chosen to remain anonymous. I suppose he would claim that he’s still a serving prisoner and tweeting illegally so needs to hide his identity but I fail to see how that excuse holds any kind of water. Surely what is good for one . . . .

    Given the way prisoners behave towards anyone convicted of a sex offence is it any wonder Alex chose to remain silent about his offence. I knew a young girl at Bronzefield who was accused of being a nonce simply because she had a picture of her nieces and nephews up in her room (she was in for perverting the course of justice because she refused to report a rape she had been subject to or co-operate with the police when they came knocking) and suffered horrendous abuse by some of the girls on the wing as a result.

    Pretty sure given the vitriol and death threats that have followed his outing that he was justified in hiding his identity and offence, if nothing else for reasons of personal safety. He has no legal obligation to reveal his true identity and was quite open with anyone who asked (as I did at one point) that Alex Cavendish was not his real name. Many many writers and journalists use nom de plumes when publishing their work and this is not illegal nor immoral nor duping anyone. Nor should people be denigrated for doing so. People have a right to a private life, even convicted sex offenders. It is one thing to choose to tell people yourself if you have a conviction and what for. It is quite another for someone else to do it without permission. All of us have secrets in our past that we would be horrified to have exposed in public so people should think twice before inflicting this on anyone else no matter how justified they may feel they are in doing so. Do unto others as you would be done by etc.

    I do not feel duped by Alex because his conviction is none of my business. I have never asked anyone inside what they were convicted of. If they wanted to tell me, fair enough but it simply was not my business otherwise. And what he was convicted of in no way lessened the valuable exposes of the prison system he did.

    We all break the law; only some get caught and even fewer end up with a prison sentence. None of us are truly innocent or without “sin”. I’d also add that lots of people convicted for sex offences have subsequently been found to be completely innocent (like Victor Nealon) so there is no guarantee that Alex actually did what he was convicted of. Juries have gotten it wrong before on numerous occasions. No one really knows what happened in the room apart from the people in the room; if anyone was even in the room at all.

    I also have some major issues with Penny Mellor’s reasoning about why she claims to have been duped because it is flawed and unjustified and overly hysterical for the circumstances. She does not have the right to be told about anyone’s conviction no matter what she seems to think. Alex served his time and that should be it. We don’t worry about murderers rushing out to kill swathes of people on release so why, unless there is hard evidence that someone is going to sexually abuse someone on release, should we worry about that possibility for a sex offender? That would suggest that all sex offenders are serial offenders which is simply not the case.

      1. Margaret, appreciate your concerns.

        But do you know Gunn and Mellor?

        And their reliability?

        Does anyone know you, or yours?

        Or anyone’s?!

        1. Thank you Mr Mann. I do know the history of Gunn and Mellor – it’s in the public domain. They are consistent and their reliability is generally good. On authority.

          As to me. Yes. I’ve been in the field of false allegations and truth for over 30 years. First as a journalist and then as a legal consultant.

          re Standish. The problem is his history of mis-representation to his own advantage, and the disadvantage of others. He’s ‘Alex Standish’ BTW.

          1. I should add that Penny Mellor has learnt from her own experiences as a somewhat freewheeling emotionalist to become a judicious discerner of character and evidence. It’s to her credit that she remains in the contravertalist field of truth and justice despite (or because of) the blemishes she has endured. As a matter of interest her original campaign re Munchausen’s etc has never been refuted as to medical bias.

            Gunn is especially interesting because his crime, though horrific, has never been denied. Nor has he ‘made a meal’ of what motivated him. He was young, disturbed and has overcome that fact neither minimising his own guilt nor using it as a springboard of excuses. It happened. He was guilty. He looks to a positive future – constrained – as he recognises. What else can he do?

            During the 1990s he was solicited for abuse allegations by the police against care workers. He refused and also decided to ‘spill the beans’ on this practice and its ‘incentives’. He was still in prison at the time so no advantage to him. That he tries to live a decent enriching life as a prisoner on licence in the public domain, with identity full on, is surely to his credit. re his strictures re Standish I don’t know – but would venture he is astute as to the character of ‘Cavendish/Standish’ given his own long history of incarceration.

      2. Not personally, I don’t but that is irrelevant to the points I made. Mr Mann’s comments below are also relevant to your question. Do you personally know Ben Gunn and Penny Mellor and can you vouch for their reliability, honesty etc or their motives in helping to expose Alex Cavendish? Do you know Alex Cavendish personally either? And not just who he is from the papers or in passing but really really well? None of us have the right to throw stones at others unless we are truly truly innocent of every conceivable sin and probably not even then. Would you like your deepest secrets exposed on social media without your permission? If not then please can the self righteousness

        1. Sarah – my word of caution was not based on what was in the media, but merely a corrective to his own self-publicising distortions that have been advanced in his favour. You may prefer to take him at face value. This is not the place to argue as to why and would be unfair to all parties. I have known Penny for many years and though I do not personally know Ben, know others whom I trust who have known him for many years (not Penny). Mr Standish placed himself in the position of sensitive authority in the public domain, albeit, understandably, under a pseudonym. Knowing what I do about him, I would not be able to support his being in this position. This is not because he has been convicted of being a sex offender per se.

  3. Thank you Matthew. I was truly astonished to learn the identity of ‘Alex Cavendish’. I am not in a position to judge whether the criticisms have merit. However, based on my knowledge of the original ‘crooked comedy’ Crookham Court case, I would urge caution as to the complete integrity of Standish – an extremely able and manipulative person who was always something of a ‘Walter Mitty’. Whether he was guilty of the offences he was eventually convicted of I cannot say. However I do know he was implicated in kicking off the original case to cover his own misbehaviour and that this resulted in at least one, if not two wrongful convictions. Sadly, therefore, despite ‘Alex Cavendish’s’ undoubted contribution to the cause of prison reform, I would not feel confident in supporting his cause.

      1. Standish as being a reliable voice re ‘prison reform’. Support? media etc. i don’t deny he has raised the profile of prison problems. Just he is not the person to vouch for what goes on.

  4. As a sex offender myself (now out of prison and trying to re-establish an ‘ordinary’ life), I have been following the fuss on Twitter with interest. This blog puts my thoughts into words beautifully. From my perspective it is very clear that the loudest voices speaking out against ‘Alex’ are more bothered by his offence than by his deception – despite what they may claim. If people don’t understand why he kept secrets, then they are lucky people.

      1. I would add that neither of his vocal critics – Ben and Penny Mellor have denied their guilt. So it’s not a matter of being ‘presumed unreliable’ because convicted. Rather in Alex (not ‘Mark’)’s Standish’s case he has form as being an unreliable, convincing, attention-seeking narrator.

      2. So his unreliability comes from not revealing the truth of his offence, I understand why some people are saying that but unfortunately many of those people wouldn’t have listened to him in the first place if they’d known.

          1. You’ll have to help me out here – please can you give me some examples?
            I was under the impression that most people found him quite reliable until last week.

    1. A small point, but he didn’t “deceive” anyone. He just didn’t say what his offence was. Of course, had he been outed as a burglar, robber or even murderer no-one would have considered the fact that he didn’t reveal those convictions as a deception.

  5. Since when did raping and murdering a Granny – or shooting up a corner store – become in some way much less morally nasty than fondling the privates of a 14 year old girl or boy in the Master’s Study?
    All these things are not good, but some are worse than others, and we do seem to live in a tabloid-driven moral panic.

    1. Indeed. It’s one of the peculiarities of the world we live in that a man serving life with a 24 year tarriff (which means he is almost certainly guilty of a pretty nasty murder) feels himself morally superior to someone who got 4 years for historic sexual abuse (4 years indicating that this is not abuse of the most serious sort).

      Whilst it’s true that criminals have always seen sex offenders of the lowest of the low, it’s comparatively recently that general society has taken a similar view. Cf the synthetic outrage re the use of a convicted rapist as a paid informant in the Newcastle sex gang case. The the fact that a sex offender is more likely to be of use as an informant in a sex case as opposed to say, an armed robber, burglar or person of good character is apparently irrelevant. Apparently, money should never ever be given to sex offenders.

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