The statistics: there are 4,000 `lifers' in British prisons - more than the rest of Europe put together. The reality: boredom, broken marriages and barely enough cash to pay for a phone call
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The Independent Culture
Alan is 38 and doing life for murder. You can still hear his sense of shock at what has happened to him, five years after a court sent him down. "When I first got lifed off, for murder," he says, "I thought, `God almighty, I'm going to a jail where there are killers.'" Indeed, he does not seem quite to appreciate why he is here at all. "You must understand," he confides, "there are people in here who have done a particular crime, where it wasn't a malicious thing. In my own case, I broke a man's nose and he died because he was drunk and he choked, so therefore I have a life sentence for killing the man. Fair enough. I accept that. But when people class everybody in the lifer system as the same, that's when things are not right."

He has a point. Lifers are not your average jailbirds. They vary a great deal, and are also different from the rest of the prison population. Often they are older and better educated.

And there are more and more of them. Last year, the number in England and Wales exceeded 4,000 for the first time. That is more than the rest of western Europe put together, according to a new study from the Prison Reform Trust. Every year, 300 more join the ranks of these "prisoner pensioners". Meanwhile, only 80 or 90 get out. Those remaining are behind bars for longer: for almost 15 years on average compared with about 10 in the Seventies. Slowly, lifers are taking over the system.

All classes of people commit murder. That is clear from the dozens of interviews with lifers, conducted for the Prison Reform Trust report. And when murderers are caught, they find themselves in a bureaucratic machine far more complicated than anything other prisoners experience. Everyone they encounter is writing a report that could influence their release date - a report the prisoner will not see; even a chaplain who may never have spoken to the prisoner. It is a bizarre world. Inmates have little idea when they will get out. The rules determining when they may be freed are rarely explained.

As a result, prisoners must guess at a wise strategy, weighing up the risks of bad behaviour. If you are smart you don't smoke dope, but you may take a chance on heroin. That way you will probably escape detection by mandatory drug-testing.

"If you smoke cannabis," says one lifer, "it can last 30 days in the system. This stuff [heroin] only lasts two days, so they can chance it over the weekend. Even boys that never touched it before, they're on it."

Twisted logic rules. For example, an inmate who keeps his nose clean may find that he has made a mistake. He will learn to understand what other inmates call "mind games". "If you are a model prisoner," warns Alan, "you can get penalised, because they think that's not showing the real you. If you are really a model prisoner, they ask themselves, `why are you in here for killing somebody?'"

"It is a classic catch-22 situation," says Stephen Shaw, the director of the Prison Reform Trust. "If a prisoner behaves too well, then he may be accused of not addressing his offence. If he behaves badly, he may be thought unfit for release."

Somehow, you have to stay sane. It is why, from Wormwood Scrubs, Alan tries so hard to stay in touch with the outside. He knows that he must keep up contact with that changing world beyond the prison walls.

Those relationships will be needed one day in the future, when he is freed. They may keep him from crime, maybe even save him from suicide.

But it isn't easy. Alan relies on weekly wages, which buy just over 12 minutes' phone time. "I try phoning at least twice, three times a week," he says. "I get 37 seconds for a unit, but a guy who lives locally can get 67 seconds. For me a pounds 2 phone card, which is dear - it's two days' wages - lasts me around five minutes. Whereas a local chap can stay on the phone for 20 minutes."

Twelve minutes. Not long to keep up with three children and his parents in Devon. Like many lifers, Alan has seen his marriage collapse. He has not had a visit in two months because Wormwood Scrubs is too far away. The four-hour journey from Devon, for his retired parents, is arduous - his mother has bad arthritis. "She leaves on a Friday night to get here on a Saturday morning. She's got to stay overnight in a freezing cold flat for a half-hour visit. It's not on. I lost my marriage because of it, because there was no contact. I've got three children and I'm lucky to see them three times a year."

It's a familiar story in London, where the Scrubs is filled with people from parts of the country that do not have appropriate facilities for lifers, particularly at the beginning of their sentences. In some ways, however, Alan is glad to be with other lifers. There is less pressure. He had a terrible time, he says, when he was first sentenced in a local jail.

"You're trying to get your head round starting a life sentence. You want to try to cope with your own emotions and your own problems without somebody who is moaning about having three months, and he's got two weeks to do."

It can take a long time for a lifer to come to terms with what has happened. Jim is five years into his term. The loss of your first appeal is, he now realises, the moment of truth. "This is where the burden really starts." He is also trying to manage the outside world in his head. "You're stuck here in a time zone. Really and truly, you are thinking of when you came in, because you are not growing on the outside. So when people come in and you think something is not all right, it is often because they have grown, they're evolving. You are still slowed down, very, very slow."

Jim's comments are ironic because, despite this slowness, lifers age more quickly than folk on the outside. American research reveals that illnesses that typically afflict men in their fifties, such as heart disease, often debilitate prisoners in their forties.

However, Jim's sense of life speeding by reflects a general craving among lifers for fresh knowledge of the world outside.

"It would be nice if you had someone you could get information from," says Mike. "It's like, you go and buy CDs, but you're buying them blind. You're spending pounds 10 or pounds 15 on a CD and it's not really what you wanted, because for 13 years you've had no one there giving you information."

Without such help you can quickly be in trouble. "Some guys have no family and, two years into their bird, they're struggling because they have no contact," says Jim. "I think it has a lot to do with feeling wanted. If you knew people before, then when you come here and they don't want to see you, you feel that you're not wanted, because nobody in here is going to want you.

"Some people come in here and they have nobody. They go outside and they have nobody again. They reoffend and the courts vilify them: `Why are you reoffending, ra ra ra?' They don't understand why? You put me in a dodgy little, dingy little bedsitter, you give me some idiot amount of money and expect me to get on with life. I mean, there's only a few people that grit their teeth and say, `I'm digging my feet in and I'm not going back to jail.' Not everyone's got that character. Some suicide. Some turn back to crime. It's rotten because it all stems from how you are in here."

Yet even when your family does visit, it is hard to communicate with them in such a false situation as a prison visit. That bothers Jim. "You know yourself, when you're around your family at home you don't feel you need to speak. You just chill, watch TV or whatever. But when you're up for a visit, you feel you have to talk because they've come to see you. But I just want to see them, not talk to them the whole time.

"Sometimes my brothers come and they just relax and get a conversation going on between them. It's like I'm on the outside looking in, because I've lost a lot of time with them. Therefore I haven't got a clue about half the things they talk about. But I can sit there and see it. Sometimes I'll just be smiling because I don't feel put on the spot, and they're relaxing and just being normal. So I can have a part in that normality."

It is a normality that can easily be shattered, says Paul, who is serving a life sentence for killing a man in a brawl. He recalls a visit from his wife. "I was on a visit," he recalls, "when one of the screws decided to say to her: `What the fucking hell are you doing here visiting murderers?' She'd been here every week and that's the first time anybody had said anything like that to her... there was nearly a fight between me and the screws."

Paul knows how dangerous it is if his family becomes alienated by the treatment they receive. "They should lay off the families, when they come in to visit you," he says, "because they know that for a lot of people that's their only source of support at all. If that goes, then you can guarantee when a prisoner comes back into his cell he'll go mad - not probably swinging from the end of a landing-rope, but he'll kick off. He'll say: `What's the point of me doing anything else? It's all up the tubes; let's go for it.'"

Alan seeks some understanding: "All I am asking is to treat me like a human being. I've got family. I've got children. I was a businessman on the outside. I'm not an animal - please don't treat me like one. That's all I ask, and I'll cope with my sentence. And I will cope with it better if you ease the pressure."

The prisoners' identities have been disguised

`Prisoners' Views of the Lifer System: Policy vs Reality'(Prison Reform Trust, 15 Northburgh Street, London EC1 VOJR, pounds 5.95)