|Robin Hood: first celebrity blagger?|
The late Ronnie Biggs was considered classy in some circles because he had been part of an audacious robbery against the state – and had then managed to escape from HMP Wandsworth by climbing over the wall using a rope ladder, making the security arrangements look pathetic. He then remained at large for 36 years, cocking a snook at the British establishment while playing the role of the playboy ‘blagger’ in Australia and Brazil before old age and infirmity got the better of him.
In 2001 he returned to Britain, accompanied by a predictable blaze of media publicity, to face the music and another eight years in the slammer before he was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 and later died in a care home in 2013. However, Biggs’ fame came about because of his criminal activities; he wasn’t a celebrity who ended up in jail.
|Andy Coulson: not your average con|
When I read this piece of classic media puffery, I will admit that I laughed out loud. No doubt ex-Labour minister Mr MacShane will think I’ve got it in for him in some way. I really don’t. As I felt obliged to disclose in a previous blog post review of his slim volume of a prison diary – Denis MacShane... Boo Hoo Poor Me! – I actually did some media work with him years ago when he was a backbench MP and I found him to be a very decent bloke. It’s just that his literary output since he was released after serving just six weeks – yes, that’s right, six weeks (not months or even years) – in prison following his 2013 conviction over his parliamentary expense claims continues to amaze me.
In the space of a few paragraphs in his latest missive, Mr MacShane manages an impressive range of name-dropping including fitting in a post-release lunch with both Tony Blair and Labour’s worse than useless former Home Secretary David Blunkett – he who launched the catastrophic Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) that has left thousands of cons in limbo after serving sentences that have turned out to be many years longer than their minimum tariffs. I hope Mr MacShane told Mr Blunkett a few home truths about the real human cost of his inhumane, tabloid headline-grabbing IPP policy, but somehow I very much doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if our former Labour minister for Europe really can’t tell an IPP from a PPI.
|Denis MacShane: IPP or PPI?|
I’m sure that all these luminaries were thrilled to be in the company of a real-life ex-con who could regale them with tales of bang-up and wicked inmates. And all condensed into a mere six weeks. How very clever of him. He then goes on to observe: “I wouldn’t have missed Belmarsh for anything in the world.” Hmmm. I doubt that Belmarsh – aka ‘Hellmarsh’ – and its long-suffering cons feel so nostalgic about Mr MacShane.
|HMP Belmarsh: celebrity status|
They are also all determinate sentenced prisoners who serve a fixed term. Because of this type of sentence they never experience the stresses of parole hearings, rejections (‘knock backs’) or the issues raised by repeated transfers across the prison system that disrupt education courses, work and family visits. They aren’t likely to get bullied into trafficking drugs or paying protection money (‘taxing’) to the wing bullies or gangs.
Unlike the legacy cases left by the now totally discredited IPP sentence, these celebrities don’t find themselves still serving time nine years after having been given a minimum tariff of nine months or less, yet still have no real prospect of being released owing to a shortage of appropriate courses and a risk-adverse Parole Board. They aren’t ever likely to experience the mind-numbing and soul-destroying existence of 23-hour a day solitary confinement on the Basic regime because they are suffering from mental illness and can’t cope with the rigours of prison life. At least if Mr MacShane had done a stint on Basic, he might have had something useful to tell his well-heeled dinner guests about our failing penal system.
Moreover, most celebrities are sent to a Cat-B local nick for a few weeks and then to a Cat-D (open prison). This means that their experience of the prison system is usually extremely limited and, although they may perceive that they are being treated ‘unjustly’ (Mr Coulson being kept at HMP Belmarsh a bit longer than might have been expected) there is no denying that most prison staff avoid mistreating them precisely because they don’t fancy seeing their names splashed all over The Guardian or in a slim volume of prison memoirs a few months down the road.
|Lunching with cons|
Fallen politicians and media types still have the power to cause trouble for screws and governors, so they tend to be treated with kid gloves – whether consciously or subconsciously. A sense of entitlement does tend to work both ways.
What I really don’t see much evidence of in the output of these celebrities is any appreciation of the terrible human cost of prison, particularly during the current crisis in which overcrowding and understaffing are driving up the rates for suicide and self-harm. Violence – against staff and inmates alike – and the easy availability of drugs and mobile phones seems to be regarded as ‘collateral damage’ amid Ministry of Justice cost-cutting.
|Steel guitar strings: ban dropped|
Pretending that former politicians, hacks and other celebrities are treated just like any other con, whether by staff or fellow inmates, is ludicrous and, deep down, I think we all know it. Well-educated, socially privileged and with powerful friends outside, their prison experience bears little or no relation to the reality of hard time behind bars for tens of thousands of other men and women, innocent or guilty.