July 13 2024
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‘Fascinating’ times in Her Majesty’s Playground

‘Fascinating’ times in Her Majesty’s Playground

From 2012 Koestler Trust Exhibition, HM Prison Durham Pastels

APPALLING VISTAS: Chris Huhne, the former cabinet minister jailed for eight months for perverting the course of justice, has found his experience of prison so far ‘fascinating‘, according to the former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, writes Matt Evans. Huhne’s ‘fascination’ is seemingly shared by public and media if the glut of programmes about prison life both real and imagined, are anything to go by.

  • Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, Jonathan Aitken said he had sent the recently imprisoned Chris Huhne ‘a cheerful line’. Aitken recalled the shamed MP apparently wrote in response: ‘I have now gone through Wandsworth and Leyhill and I have found them fascinating’ – which (Aitken noted) was ‘a surprisingly positive adjective to use about a prison’.
  • This is the the third in a new fortnightly series offering alternative takes on law and justice. See Paul May’s opening column Appalling vistas and angels of death and Francis FitzGibbon’s The rule of law is for the rulers.
  • Matt Evans is managing solicitor of the Prisoners Advice Service, the only UK charity with a specific remit to provide free prison law advice.
  • The image is taken from the Koestler Award 2012 exhibition (Tree – HM Prison Durham, Pastels)


The latest reality TV version is The Prisoners on BBC1. Filmed over a year, the first episode followed a group of prisoners from Holloway prison, which holds over 400 female prisoners. While each journey is different, nearly all fall into what the programme-makers suggest is a ‘shocking truth’, that many prisoners feel more at home in prison than out. So Jayde, just 18 and already in prison six times, only manages two weeks of release before returning to Holloway.

Jayde describes the initials HMP as short for ‘Her Majesty’s Playground’.

So does The Prisoners reflect what prison life is like: a ‘soft’ option, a welcoming and supportive environment rather than one which will ensure that people who come to prison never want to return? The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling certainly appears to think so going by his comments about the Incentives and Earnings Scheme for prisoners.

British prisoners will soon have to start earning ‘privileges’, such as the right to watch TV and wear their own clothes. Instead, all convicted male prisoners will wear a uniform for the first two weeks of their sentence. They will also lose automatic access to daytime TV, gym equipment and personal spending money.

Electronic valium
So access to the gym is now to be a privilege. Never mind that for many it is one of the few opportunities of any meaningful association and an obvious health benefit. And in respect of access to the telly, the prison service currently charge prisoners for this privilege (making a tidy profit in the process). So Grayling’s love of ‘sound-bites’ is likely to have a deleterious effect on the already pressure cooker atmosphere inside many jails but also on NOMS budgets as well.

‘It is not right that some prisoners appear to be spending hours languishing in their cells and watching daytime television while the rest of the country goes out to work. For too long, there has been an expectation that privileges are an automatic right, given simply as a reward for staying out of trouble.’
Chris Grayling

As a former client of mine, Leroy Skeete put it, when asked about the idea of life in prison being ‘soft’ at last year’s PAS/ JusticeGap debate (HERE): ‘If you think the prisoners have a better life than you then you must be truly miserable.’

For him TVs and PlayStations were not there to provide prisoners with ‘fun and entertainment, they are there as pacifiers’. ‘If they weren’t there, prisoners would smash the prison up. There’d be a riot and then people would read about it more in the newspapers,’ he said. ‘If prisoners are angry they go back to their cell. Then EastEnders comes on. It’s electronic valium.’

Three levels of privilege
The changes, which take effect in November, are tweaks to a national policy of prison incentives that has been in place in the UK since 1995. British prisons currently operate a ‘tier’ system where there are three levels of privileges – basic, standard and enhanced.

The middle tier allows them to watch TV in their cells, wear their own clothes and have more family visits and access to money than those on the lower tier.

However this is not, as Grayling, implies automatic, or simply because they avoid getting into trouble.

Instead ‘privileges’ are linked to a prisoners’ sentence plan. This invariably requires a prisoner to fully engage with work opportunities and the completion of offending behaviour courses for instance. More controversially, they can also be linked to matters which have no connection to behaviour, such as the maintaining of innocence.

There is, as Grayling would know were his previous professional experience in criminal justice rather than international marketing, no proven link whatsoever between a more austere environment in prison and the reduction of reoffending.

So what is the reality of life in prison?

In respect of the charge of ‘idleness’ there have been numerous inspectorate reports which have found prisons struggling to offer any purposeful activity, prison work, vocational, or risk reduction courses, within their walls. As their budgets continue to be squeezed, this problem will only get worse and was of course an underlying issue highlighted by the European Court of Human Rights judgement on IPPs earlier this year (see HERE).

Blame & pain
In terms of prisoners being treated ‘too lightly’, Nils Christie, a Norwegian academic, described the modern prison as having two defining characteristics – ‘blame’ and ‘pain’, and it is these characteristics which historically have distinguished prison from other forms of detention. Both still seem to loom large within the most recent Ministry of Justice (MOJ) statistics.

The Safety in Custody report, produced by the MOJ for 2011-2012, says that during this one year period there were 194 deaths, 23,134 incidents of self- harm and 14,803 assaults across the prison estate. There are 4,100 women in prison, only 5% of inmates, yet they account for almost half of self-harm incidents. In a 2011 Chief Inspectorate Report on HMP Styal, a woman’s prison, Nick Hardwick the Chief Inspector said that what they found was ‘more shocking and distressing than anything I have yet seen on an inspection’. The report described prison officers who ‘often had to use force to remove ligatures from women intent on harming themselves’.

The Incentives and Earnings Scheme was in place for some 215 fatal incident investigations of apparently self-inflicted deaths between 2007 and 2012. Seventeen prisoners (8%) were at basic level – substantially higher than the national percentage of prisoners on basic regime (2%). Of these 17 prisoners, two had had their privilege ‘level’ cut within 72 hours before they died and a further seven had had their status reduced within the month before.

My own experience of prisons and prisoners is that the overwhelming majority of prisoners hate the experience of prison – they don’t find it ‘fascinating’ in any way.

‘Fascinating’ is a word that suggests an anthropological study of animals and their environment, not human beings incarcerated in overcrowded and fetid cells.

‘Fasciation’ also suggests a bravado and arrogance of someone who has, despite their imprisonment and fall from grace, moved quickly and seamlessly through to open conditions within months of his sentence and who will no doubt return to a very privileged lifestyle on release.

Prison life is characterized by vulnerability, powerlessness, routine humiliations, and the constant reminder that, as a prisoner, you have forfeited almost all your rights. Graying’s proposals, aside from being disingenuous and political puff, only seem to reinforce this.

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