CRIMES AND FASHIONS

Mark Leech is the latest in a long line of former prisoners to emerge from jail into the bosom of the chattering classes. Can he handle the exposure?
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ON THE same day that Mark Leech was released from Saughton Prison in Edinburgh, having served eight years of consecutive sentences for arson, fraud and armed robbery, the former gang leader Ronnie Kray was buried in the East End of London. Kray's funeral, as befits a man who had been the centre of media attention for most of his adult life, was front page news. Mark Leech's release received far less coverage - he is a younger, less notorious criminal, after all - but he was nevertheless met at the prison gates by a Channel 4 film crew who are currently making a programme about him.

If Kray was an icon for an earlier age (dark suit, cropped hair, hardest of the many hard men beloved by the British press), then Leech offers something different for the Nineties criminal aficionado. He is gay, HIV- positive, a formerly abused child turned delinquent borstal boy who, at 37, is now an eloquent campaigner for penal reform, not least in his articles for the Guardian. Leech studied law in prison, and has conducted more than 30 successful legal battles against the Home Office in pursuit of a multitude of previously-ignored prisoners' rights, his own included (other complaints were voiced from the roof-top of Long Lartin jail). His autobiography, A Product of the System, published in 1992, won first prize in the Chambers Cox Literary Awards, and received fulsome reviews. Judge James Pickles, who wrote the introduction to the book, described him as "a remarkable man" who had produced "a remarkable book". John Mortimer praised his "vivid and excellently-written account of crime and punishment". Helena Kennedy QC admired his "honesty and insight". Brian Masters, in the Sunday Telegraph, said that Leech "writes like an angel." He has also written three award-winning plays, and now has a flourishing career in journalism (including live radio reports last year from inside Saughton Prison). His new book, The Prisoners' Handbook, a consumer guide to prisons in England and Wales (in 60 of which he has resided at some point in the past 20 years), was published earlier this week by that most august of bodies, the Oxford University Press. All this he achieved as a prisoner, which to his illustrious fans perhaps makes his success more piquant.

Now that Leech is out of prison, his rise continues. He has a round of book signings to promote his latest publication; the offer of a visiting fellowship from the law school at Kent University; a dinner at the Garrick Club next month. It seems unlikely that Leech would have been able to spare the time for the job he was recently offered by one of his former governors, as an advice worker for a company bidding for private prison contracts (even if he had wanted to go into that line of work, which he didn't).

Imagine the inconvenience, then, if Leech were to revert to earlier habits and return to prison just as the world was acclaiming his success. He would not be the first ex-prisoner to have had difficulty adjusting to freedom; and, with this in mind, many people are now watching Mark Leech very closely. His supporters say that he is a reformed character, who will show himself to be as able a defender of prisoners' rights outside jail as inside. His detractors (and he still has some in the prison service) are waiting for him to fail: to prove that he is a con-man who always gets found out. And there are those who are sitting on the fence, observing with interest the career of a man who has made a virtue out of turning his life into a story, whether in the devious ploys of crime, or its dramatic reconstruction in his autobiography.

If anyone is confused as to who the real Mark Leech might be, it is hardly surprising. As he himself points out in his autobiography, in his previous role as a fraudster, he stole names as well as credit cards: "I had so many different identities that I hardly knew who I was from day to day." It is possible that Mark Leech conforms to more than one of the identities that people now ascribe to him: a brilliant writer who has shaped his criminal past into a compelling narrative; a self-taught lawyer who appears to have stopped reinventing his misdeeds into courtroom pleas of "not guilty", but who may yet lapse in the future. Just because he writes like an angel doesn't necessarily mean that he is one.

TWO DAYS after his release from prison at the end of March, Mark Leech is conducting interviews from his new flat in Bristol, which he shares with his lover (they met as inmates of Glenochil Prison in Scotland). He's already talked to the local papers and radio stations, and then there's a man coming from the Press Association to see him, and more filming to be done for the television documentary. During our meeting, a photographer takes pictures of Leech, who is sitting on the sofa looking neat in pressed blue jeans, polished loafers and a buttoned-up polo shirt. His red hair is thinning, but he looks healthy, if a little nervous. Once he gets going, fuelled by lots of strong tea and cigarettes, he's a good performer, with a conviction that is completely persuasive. You can see why he'll be good on telly: not only has he got a great tale to tell - the doughty fighter against the cruel system - but he does it in an appealingly friendly Manchester accent.

It must be strange coming out of jail to all this publicity, I say.

"I came out on Tuesday, and I've not stopped," he replies. "Channel 4 have commissioned a one-hour documentary about life on my release, called Out of the Frying-Pan. The title was mine, because I believe I've come out of the frying-pan and I'm going straight into the fire." The camera crew will accompany him for the next month: to the local probation office, to the DSS, and to Portsmouth University, where he is to deliver a one- off lecture to a class of criminology students. "The film is going to show what problems a prisoner faces on release," he says. "You go for a job, and what do you say to them when they say to you, `Where have you been for the last five years?' You can hardly say the mailbag shop at Glenochil Prison. The debt to society has been paid, but they keep all the receipts. If you lie, you're on a slippery slope. If you tell the truth, the chances are you're going to remain unemployed, on the dole. I'm going to tell the truth."

In fact, Mark Leech is unlikely to remain unemployed if he tells people he has spent most of his adult life behind bars: his writing career so far has been built upon his status as a prisoner, and will continue to be for some time (he is currently researching a book for Cassell on gay experiences in prison). In the somewhat disparaging words of John McVicar, himself a robber turned writer, "Mark Leech is not a professional criminal, he's a professional prisoner, and the latest in a long line of them to be promoted by the liberal intelligentsia."

In the past, however, Leech was apparently unaware of the possible career benefits of telling the truth about his life in jail. Last time he was released from prison, in October 1986, he got a job as a security manager by passing himself off as a former lieutenant in the Royal Navy. So convincing was Leech in this role that a few weeks later he was asked to become the UK head of security for an American toy company. Unfortunately, the head of personnel become suspicious about the credentials of his new employee and told Leech (who was calling himself Mark Sinclair-Smith at the time) to provide a birth certificate; he responded by burning down the company's records store and computer room, and then flitted around Europe using a variety of different names and credit cards.

When he returned to this country in March 1987, for reasons upon which he does not elaborate in his autobiography, he took to wearing the uniform of a naval lieutenant as a disguise. "I was walking in and out of military bases masquerading as an officer," he writes. "In north Wales I stole a number of two-way radios and went up to Scotland to sell them." He used one of the radios to call the Mountain Rescue services, telling them that he was marooned upon the hills. Two days later he was arrested in Edinburgh Castle, still wearing the naval uniform, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. "For the next three days the bomb disposal people blew up four sites around Scotland where I told them I had hidden weapons."

His fantasy was soon exposed, his earlier fraud revealed; and Leech was sent straight back to prison: first on remand to Inverness, then to Perth, Reading, Winchester and Dartmoor, where he took another prisoner hostage for six hours. Finally, in May 1989, he arrived at Grendon Prison, a place which was to change his life.

Leech is a passionate advocate of Grendon's approach, which is based on daily group therapy and counselling. He praises it both in his autobiography and in The Prisoners' Handbook (in which he commends the "robust and proven rgime that challenges the criminal way of life"); and he is equally enthusiastic in our interview, mentioning the name of the prison again and again, almost like a protective mantra. I ask him what he thinks would have happened to him without its help. "I went to Grendon in a body-belt from the strip cells of Dartmoor, covered in my own excreta," he says. "I'd attacked the governor, shoved shit in his face, and attacked the screws. It would have been a continuation of that kind of destructiveness, because of this anger within me, this anger from being sexually abused as a child. I never realised why I hated authority until I went to Grendon.

"I had to start looking at myself, instead of all the lies and deceit. I didn't feel comfortable with my past, the abuse, so I had just created a past where it didn't exist. But at Grendon I had to face it for the first time in my life."

MARK LEECH'S childhood, as he tells it, was one of relentless misery. He was born in Manchester in 1957, when his Irish mother was already in her forties. He was the sixth child, "very much an afterthought, not planned at all". By the time he was at infants' school, he used to stay behind in the playground at the end of the day rather than go home and face a thrashing with his mother's wooden spoon. "It just wasn't a home for me," he says. "Kids should be seen and not heard, that was the philosophy."

His mother died when he was eight; his father became an alcoholic; and Mark was taken into care and sent to a boarding school. There he was taken under the wing of a kindly house master and his wife, who were then tragically killed in a car crash. Subsequently, from the age of 10 until 13, he was sexually abused by an older man. "This man has done me tremendous damage, under the disguise of care and friendship and trust," says Leech. "Underneath, it was just lies and deceit and lust."

Leech ran away from school, and ended up in borstal, where he was educated by other boys in all aspects of credit card and chequebook fraud: a training which he put to good use in his subsequent brief periods of freedom. In 1982, while on remand in Strangeways, Leech slashed another prisoner in the face: a house master charged with molesting his pupils. Leech was jailed for five years for this attack, but told no one about his own sexual abuse until he started group therapy at Grendon. Talking about it then, he says, was "devastating". Even now, his anger and emotion are apparent when he describes what happened to him. "My whole world crashed around me. I started to smoke. I lost the captaincy of the rugby team - and no one ever asked, `Hold on, what's happened to him?' If they had done, I might not have become a product of the system. They just wrote me off as irredeemable, a criminal in the making, and tossed me into the arms of this criminal justice system which was destined not so much to reform me, but make me considerably worse."

Alarmingly, he says that the man who abused him is now running a school. "I've thought of going up and confronting him, but the trouble is I don't know where it would go from there. This guy is now married. He's got kids. I have a responsibility, I suppose, to make sure it's not happening to other children. But where would it end? He ruined my life for 20 years, I can't let him ruin it any more. I don't know how long I've got, having this HIV virus. Every day for me is so precious, and I've channelled my anger into something far more constructive."

One might speculate that he no longer needs to dwell on his past, nor to cover his past with some other, less painful, persona - whether as naval officer or as security manager or simply as a man with a happy childhood. He knows what he wants to be in future, which is Mark Leech, the successful writer and campaigner.

YET DESPITE Leech's confidence about his rehabilitation, others are more cautious. "He's a chancer," says a former inmate at Grendon. "He comes across as some great prison reformer, but he's a self-publicist. It's all about Mark Leech."

"He's egotistical, arrogant and self-obsessed," says a member of prison staff who dealt with Leech during his stay at Grendon. "He only likes you if you are prepared to take him at face value, but everything he does is a cunning disguise. Trying to pin him down is like trying to pin down a jelly. He got thrown out of Grendon because he made no progress there. If you ask me, he does the cause of penal reform no good at all." According to another staff member at Grendon, "We did not have any success there with con-men - because they had conned themselves first and foremost. I agree with all the good things Mark Leech says about Grendon, except for the fact that it redeemed him."

This may well be too harsh a judgement - a prison officer there at the time wrote a report describing Leech as "a man who has made excellent progress in therapy" - but, for whatever reason, in February 1990 Leech was told to leave Grendon and sent to another prison. In his autobiography, he accepts part of the blame (he broke the rules by smoking cannabis one night), but also complains that he was ousted by a "small group of officers who were not in the least interested in Grendon".

In some respects, he was clearly transformed. He continued to expend enormous energy on his Byzantine legal battles with the Home Office (it is, for example, because of Leech that the wages of convicted prisoners are no longer subject to a compulsory deduction of 3p a week; he is also responsible for establishing that prisoners have the legal right to review prison disciplinary hearings in the courts). But he had given up on the violent protests that characterised his earlier prison career, and put his energies into writing instead.

His story of how he began writing is a vivid one. He was in Winchester Prison at the time, one of 29 prisoners who had been temporarily transferred there at the end of 1989 because of an electrical fault in the buildings that housed Grendon. "You can go to the library once a week and get six books," says Leech. "I was the last one in the library one day, and I had five books, and the screw was saying hurry up. Prior to Grendon, I would have given him a mouthful of abuse and probably thrown a few books at him, but Grendon showed me a better way, so I picked up the first book which came to hand. It was called How To Write Radio Drama. I took it back to my cell and read it, and I thought, I can have a go at that. I wrote a play in five days called The Facts Speak For Themselves. It's a 90-minute courtroom drama about a guy who's supposed to have been involved in the robbery of a security van, who says the police fitted him up. The question is, have they fitted him up?" As listeners of Radio 4 were to discover when the play was later broadcast, the answer is no.

Perhaps coincidentally, the question turned out to be a pertinent one in Leech's own life. In 1991, he was transferred to Leyhill Open Prison, where he occupied himself by writing articles about prison for the Guardian, and his autobiography, which he had been encouraged to embark upon by Judge James Pickles. (Leech had written to Pickles after reading the judge's own book. The two had then struck up a lively correspondence.) In June 1991, while on leave to interview Judge Pickles for the Guardian, Leech discovered that he was HIV-positive. He returned to Leyhill, but two days later, as he writes in his autobiography, "I flipped into self-destruct when I absconded from prison in an effort to leave behind me a world which had once again become too complex to handle." In the final chapter of his book, Leech tells a convoluted saga about how he ended up taking the blame for an armed robbery at a Little Chef restaurant in Scotland while he was on the run from Leyhill. Despite maintaining his complete innocence, he was nevertheless found guilty, and sentenced to a further seven years in prison.

Judge James Pickles, recalling the fiasco of Leech's previous exit from prison, says, "Whether Mark can now cope with liberty, we will have to see. He is highly intelligent, but not altogether reliable. He is not used to freedom, despite his abilities, and there will be all kinds of temptations."

But it seems most unlikely that Leech will turn to armed robbery - if indeed he ever did. As one of his closest friends points out, "he's had no need to use force - he can talk the birds off the trees when he wants to."

In fact, his gift for the gab served him better as an amateur lawyer than as a crook: he was never good enough at crime to stay out of prison, but you can imagine him, in different circumstances, as a very successful barrister. (He has already threatened legal action against Oxford University Press, who have withdrawn from the fray and will not now be publishing future editions of the Prisoners' Handbook.) "He's fearless about going to court," says a professional acquaintance. "It's one of the few sweet things in his life."

NOT LONG after our interview, I spoke to Leech on the phone to see how he was getting on in the outside world. Some things were worse, he said, with a note of slight surprise. "You'll certainly see a doctor much faster in prison than here."

But, on the whole, he was ebullient. He recounted, with enthusiasm, the story of how he'd recently sued a man who had clamped his car outside a pub in Manchester. The man was quite wrong to do so, said Leech, because the car was rightfully parked. So he marched straight round to Manchester County Court, "and I had an injunction within 90 minutes. It gave the man 30 minutes to release the clamp from my car, and I served the order on him, and he refused." Undeterred, Leech went back to court later that day, and got a further notice. "I served it on him in the presence of two police officers," he says with relish. The man still refused to remove the clamp, so the policemen took him to court. "At that point he backed down," said Leech. "And now he's got to pay me damages of £150."

The incident received a certain amount of publicity: Channel 4 filmed him coming out of court, as did the local BBC station, and he was interviewed on radio. Mark Leech was on the right side of the law, and he was thrilled at his victory. "That's what the courts are for," he said to me, sounding not unlike a retired naval officer who believes in the importance of strict law and order. This time, however, Leech doesn't need to wear someone else's uniform to make people believe in him. He's got an audience out there, and it's all his own work: which, when you think of it, is a happy ending. He couldn't have written a better one himself. !

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