Let us show prisoners how to be human beings

Insisting on barbarities such as `slopping-out' demeans prisoners and further alienates them
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TAKING PART on Radio 4's Midweek programme last week, I was astounded by the story told by one of the other guests, John Hoskison. He had recently come out of prison and has written a book about his experiences. Hoskison is not the usual criminal, stealing cars, doing burglaries or dealing in drugs. Nor is he the sophisticated crook, engaged in complicated frauds, blackmail, money-laundering and the like. Nor has he been a professional hit-man, or gangland leader.

He is more like the tragic character in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy. McCoy is a successful stockbroker who, driving in New York with his mistress, gets lost, panics when two black men approach his car, runs one of them over, and is thus quickly transformed from Wall Street millionaire to convicted criminal.

Hoskison was a professional golfer who went to play in a match with a friend. After they finished, they went to a bar. Over the limit, he decided to take the risk and drive home. Down a dark country lane, he hit a cyclist and killed him. In his panic he did not stop. At the Old Bailey in October 1995 he was sentenced to three years in prison. He was sent to Wandsworth.

Hoskison's book is better than accounts of the British prison service by journalists because they never, as Hoskison did, get behind the enemy's lines. As a journalist, you require Home Office permission to visit a prison; you are always accompanied and you can see only what officials want you to see.

The first question that Hoskison's book raises for me is the concept of humanity. The chances of a prison officer speaking to an inmate as if he were a fellow human being seem minimal. Yet compare this with the mission statement of the Prison Service: "Our duty is to look after [prisoners] with humanity and to help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release."

Prison officers presumably believe that they have to deny the humanity of the people in their care if they are to do their difficult jobs. It is the same with the prisoners themselves. Hoskison tells how he was treated when one day he did manage to exchange a friendly word or two.

No sooner had the officer disappeared than a hand "grabbed my chin in an excruciating grip. `Don't ever let me catch you smiling at a screw again,' said one of the drug baron's henchmen. `If you do, I'll cut you so bad your bird will never want to set eyes on you again.'"

The drug baron's henchman was reinforcing the notion that giving evidence against a fellow prisoner, being labelled a "grass", would be judged the vilest deed anybody could perpetrate and would be punished with horrific beatings. As Hoskison remarks, it was a cruel warning and one "I took very seriously ... for the rest of my sentence I was never able to further any friendship with an officer."

There is also a denial of humanity in the squalor of prisons. When Hoskison arrived at Wandsworth he found filth everywhere. Old bits of food lay underfoot, dustbins were overflowing and the walls were covered with grime. As for the notorious "slopping out", it is well known that many prisons have buckets in cells rather than provide ready access to toilets and everybody deplores the practice - without fully comprehending how barbarous it is.

But as Hoskison recounts the experience, when he first opened the swing doors to the so-called "recess" area, which catered for 45 prisoners, he found "hell itself". In the far corner were two sit-down toilets, one with no door, the other with 3ft of wood up to hip height, and a queue of inmates waiting, with toilet rolls in their hands, as two men, bent up with effort, tried to hurry.

To the right was a washing-up area for crockery. To the left were two dustbins for left-over food. In the far corner was the slopping-out area, two large porcelain sinks with huge plug holes for waste and a tap that either blasted out water with the force of a fireman's hose or didn't work at all. There were also urinals, blocked and overflowing with slops from those who couldn't wait for the waste sinks. The floor was awash with faeces, rotting food and dirty water.

To my mind, this filth is as demeaning to the prison officers as it is to the prisoners themselves. Put a "normal" person in charge of a prison and probably the first thing that he or she would want to do would be to clean it up. Only then could meaningful progress be made on other fronts.

The second issue Hoskison's book raises is how many minor obstacles stand in the way of helping prisoners to lead "useful lives in custody and after release". This is a field where big problems may be best tackled, at least as a start, by making numerous small changes.

Take the question of drugs in prison. Whether inside or outside jail, drugs are at the centre of the criminal world. Visitors bring them in. They drop a package into a cup of tea and surreptitiously swap it with the prisoners. The prisoner drinks up, swallows the package and later retrieves it from the toilet or slops bucket. No doubt the Prison Service is well aware of the technique, but doesn't stop it. Moreover the penalty for being caught is too low - just a few days added to a sentence.

To take another example, Hoskison says the rate of pay for working in a prison workshop was about pounds 10 a week, whereas those taking full-time education courses (where available) earned pounds 4 a week. Full-time education is almost certainly more valuable, but few prisoners choose it because it pays less well.

Buying phone cards is the major purchase of all inmates. The phones are prohibitively expensive because the Prison Service appears determined to make a profit out of them. When inmates' homes are far away, the prison phone charges are so high that they cannot afford to call. Yet prisoners need a lifeline; it is in society's interest that they should stay in touch with their families.

It was insights such as these that made me sit up when John Hoskison started telling his story on Radio 4. So many little things are going wrong with our prisons; so many would be easy to rectify.

John Hoskison `Inside: One Man's Experience of Prison' (John Murray, pounds 15.99).