I’ve just had my first taste of being in prison today. I have visited various prisons in the UK on several occasions in the past, giving talks, but afterwards they have always let me leave. But not today!
My incarceration took place at Lewes Prison, near Brighton in Sussex. Its inmates range from lifers to career criminals to men on remand. I enjoy doing prison talks – always good to have a captive audience (!) and today I had given a talk in the prison library to a lively group. In fact they were so enthusiastic that, unusually, several of them really opened up to me afterwards, telling me what they were in for, and offering help for future research!
I say unusually because it has been my previous experiences that prisoners tend to be reluctant to talk about their crimes. It is prison etiquette not to ask an inmate what they are in for – you only ask them how long until they get out. On occasions in the past when I have struck up a rapport and then asked what they are in for, I have found they tend to reply “they say I did a bit of GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm) ” or “they say I did a bit of murder” or “they say I did a robbery”, as if they are in denial. But today’s extremely affable lot really opened up to me – I suspect because they were interested to learn more about what I knew about the latest police techniques!!! Most of today’s guys were in for drug dealing offences.
Two of them were “mules”, caught bringing drugs into the UK – one of them just two weeks after being released from a three year sentence in Amsterdam for a similar crime. One was on remand on a conspiracy to traffick drugs charge. Several others were involved in the distribution process in the UK. One guy, who I though was particularly jolly and very chatty turned out to have been in there for armed hold-ups of petrol stations. Another, an elderly Scouser, told me he was a career criminal – and not ashamed of it – and had done everything from burglary to armed robber to drug dealing. From his perspective he did not consider drug dealing as a “crime” in the way that he knew he was committing crimes when he went burgling. His view was when he burgled he knew he was depriving people of possessions, but in drug dealing if he didn’t sell the drugs, someone else would. I think that shows how easy it is to find justification for anything, however wrong, in life. And he was concerned about the future of the drugs business, as were all the others: They genuinely believe that legislation permitting drugs, in a controlled way, is on the cards – which would put them out of business! A prospect they all viewed bleakly.
The head of education for the prisoners told me, when we were chatting earlier, that a staggering 80% of the inmates in British prisons have the educational level (including reading standards) of an eleven-year-old child, hence the importance education plays. The comment reminded me of one of my favourite cartoons, in which two prisoners are chatting in their cell. One is saying, “Last time I was in here they taught me how to read and write. Now I’m in for forgery.”
It is always strange when I come to the end of these talks. We said friendly goodbyes, each of them shaking my hand and several promising to email me when they got out! They they headed off to their cells and me to freedom. Or so I thought…
There was a sudden emergency as I was being escorted. A headcount of the prisoners (approximately 550) revealed three men missing. Instantly all prisoners were instructed to stand still wherever they were, to be counted. Three were still missing as we reached the gates, and a guard told me harshly and very sternly that no men were allowed to leave the prison until the matter had been resolved. I told him that I had a live radio interview that I had to rush back for, and he told me he was sorry, there were a number of solicitors and barristers in the prison who were also unable to leave and that we could be here for several hours, even longer!
Fortunately the wait was not too long. In my research for Not Dead Enough I had myself arrested and put through the process of being booked into custody, which I found a very de-personalizing experience. Now I know what it is like to be actually locked in a prison! The guard was a tough guy – not unpleasant but non-negotiable. It did not matter who you were, while you were inside his prison you were all equals. He reminded me of a warder I talked to some years back at Droitwich prison. At the end of my talk I got approached by one inmate who told me he specialized in burgling stately homes, and that this was his third time inside after being caught stealing from Luton Hoo. He wanted advice on writing a book. As I was leaving I told the warden that, in as much as you could say such a thing about a convicted criminal that he actually seemed quite a nice man. The warder narrowed his eyes and replied, ‘They are all villains to me, sir.’