Prison Diaries, Denis MacShane, review: This inside story turns the screw on a petty system

There is a lot of anger in this book – and it gives the reader pause

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The Independent Culture

Denis MacShane is a mix of jazz musician and Jesuit. He looks both cool and priestly. You don’t know whether he’s going to pick up a tenor sax or the Summa Theologica. His jazz side lives dangerously and brazens anti-authority. It’s the side that got him sacked and landed in prison more than once. Meanwhile, Father MacShane, very much the liberation theologian, directs his anger at injustice.

There is a lot of anger in this book – and it gives the reader pause. If someone as educated and successful as MacShane emerges so bitter after only seven weeks in prison, what effect must prison have on others without his qualifications or resources? The 70 per cent reoffending rate says it all.

MacShane’s imprisonment at Belmarsh – “Hellmarsh” – and Brixton was far harsher than the Open Prison regimes dealt to other MP offenders. He certainly feels hard done by, but most of his anger is on behalf of others. The injustice begins with “erratic, inconsistent, incoherent judges” who hand out sentences that defy logic. MacShane cites “a computer nerd who stole £48,000” serving a year less than a “computer fraudster who stole £1.2 million”. Other incarcerations seem totally pointless. One man is doing three years for signing the housing benefit form of his Alzheimer-suffering bedridden mother.

Another is a 78-year-old banged up for refusing “to snitch on his daughter’s husband” – even though the son-in-law did borrow the old man’s garage to store ‘some stuff’ that “turned out to be cocaine and a gun”. Nonetheless, what is the point of imprisoning the elderly and the ill – such as wheelchair-bound Bennie, imprisoned for mercy killing his terminal cancer mother, or Colostomy Jim?

English prisons do not inflict physical deprivation. “Instead there is a complete deprivation of humanity.” MacShane paints a bleak picture of daily routine dominated by “petty arbitrariness” and “petty authoritarianism”. Banned from flogging or hanging, the modern system punishes the mind instead. There is no other explanation for depriving inmates of books and writing materials. But the worst thing, according to MacShane, is “permanently being in limbo”.

The final turn of the screw comes at the end of the sentence with “the inability of the management to honour prison sentence release dates”. No one can be sure when they are going to be tagged and finally released home.

The author began his working life as journalist – and this book is not just a diary, but a fine piece of investigative journalism. The system that sent MacShane to HMP Belmarsh on the eve of Christmas did itself no favour.

Biteback Publishing, £20

Order for £16 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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