As thick as thieves? Not likely

Ford Open Prison is notorious for being a millionaires' jail. But Stephen Bailey and Nicholas O'Dwyer found an underclass developing when they took an exclusive look inside
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Tattooed and mean, the villains slouch on their chairs wondering whether to look bored, contemptuous or both.

They're hardly promising material, these new imates to Ford Open Prison. But the governor, David Godfrey, gives them the welcome speech anyway - the usual stuff about rules and regulations. But then, suddenly, the lags display a glimmer of interest: did they hear the governor right?

Indeed they did. Mr Godfrey is telling them how to get to the nearest off-licence without falling into the River Arun. Then he moves on to drugs, which he says are completely forbidden, but he admits: "You wouldn't think so. The place is certainly awash with cannabis."

By now, the new boys have realised this is no ordinary nick. Maybe the "Holiday Camp" stories they've read in the tabloids are true after all? OK, the "golf course" turned out to be a two-bit putting green that is neither use nor ornament. The lobster dinners arrived as pork rissole with chips. But at least with drink and drugs the experience could be bearable, if not pleasant.

It sounds too good to be true - because it is. Mr Godfrey is playing with them. Smuggling in a half bottle of vodka to go with your evening joint is the quickest way to get time added to your sentence. Persistent offenders are whisked off to Camp Hill, a closed prison on the Isle of Wight.

Before long, a number of these new arrivals will wish they were back in a traditional bang-up. The novelty of walking around the cricket pitch and smelling Ford's fresh air soon wears off. Ford is just another prison, albeit an extraordinary one. This was where several of those convicted in the Guinness fraud passed their time. A former inmate, Tony Adams, represented England last night at Wembley.

Yet the reality is starkly different. Ford is a divided society where a rich minority rubs shoulders uneasily with an underclass of killers, thieves, heroin addicts and petty criminals. The two societies within the prison mirror the divisions outside it. The white-collar criminals live in relative warmth and comfort, in rooms with floral curtains and cosy bedspreads. They complain freely and without a hint of irony that the underclass who inhabit the adjacent huts are "thieves".

And, with growing pressure on prison capacity, the ranks of the underclass are swelling, much to the alarm of Ford's better known middle-class crooks. "I'm sure they're accepting people here that they wouldn't have been keen to take 18 months ago," says a drugs offender named Collis, the smooth Mr Fixit of Ford. "The authorities would have felt these wouldn't fit in."

Colin Martin, a businessman, remembers when things were better. "I was here in 1979, when it was completely different. It was, say, 80 per cent white-collar crime, barristers, solicitors, policemen, accountants, fraudsters ... but it's changed radically now."

He's referring to the lads on "B" Wing - a string of single-storey wooden huts on the wrong side of Ford's cricket pitch, where they sleep 16 to a room, often in a fog of dope smoke with house music blaring into the night.

They are known as the Yahoos, the Hoolies, the Unwashed. Most of them are here for bag snatching, joy-riding, "glassing" some guy in the pub on a Saturday night: the kind of low-rent crime which business types love to condemn while fiddling their expenses.

The white-collar inmates, who live over on "A" Wing, formerly the officers' quarters when Ford was a Fleet Air Arm Base, regard the Yahoos with open digust. They are banned, for instance, from all "A" Wing landings. Every entrance door has a "Keep Out" notice.

Even so, there are thefts.The latest victim was Colin Martin, a big-framed man with good taste in cigars, who is in for deception. "What can you expect?" he says, trying to look philosophical. "The place is full of thieves.

"Everything was missing. Sixty phone cards - £120 worth - and 100 cigarettes. I had been over to the canteen early in the morning and bought over £200 worth of gear ... sometimes people that can only afford to spend £5, £10, £15 are jealous of the person that can afford a bit more."

The next day, a large padlock was fitted to his bedside cabinet.

So it's the lager louts versus a laager mentality among the white-collar criminals. No one bothers to conceal the mutual dislike and suspicion - the divide is visible everywhere.

"A" Wing is brick built, consisting mostly of single rooms with wash basins. It has the library, the medical unit, the prison dining room, a video projection cinema and indoor telephones.

"B" Wing is built of wood. It has mostly open dormitories with no privacy, shared washing facilities and mice.

The inmates' private noticeboards, on which they keep their mementoes, tell the story. Ford's gentlemen have snapshots of fine houses, Post-It notes with dates for Glyndebourne, family photos showing well-preserved wives with Home Counties hairstyles and blond kids in prep school uniform. The Yahoos favour football memorabilia, drug graffiti and girlie mag centrefolds. Back-biting is a popular pastime.

Myth insists that "A" Wing is full of Freemasons. They buy weekends out with bribes. The prison officers bring luxury food in for them, and drink. They all run businesses from their rooms.

"B" Wing brings in hookers to "service" the huts at night. They keep heroin and cocaine in the hollow bed frames. When drink is due to come in over the fence, a chair is placed in a special position outside the hut as a signal that the coast is clear.

Each side has its own traditions and institutions. On "A" Wing, inmates leaving the jail usually say goodbye with a tea party. There are chocolate biscuits arranged on plates. Lots of hand-shaking goes on.

On "B" Wing, departing prisoners get a visit from the Tango Team - named after the soft drink the TV advertisement for which shows an orange person giving someone a nasty shock. They arrive unannounced at the inmate's hut, masked and dressed in prison-issue orange waterproofs, then carry the unlucky victim into the open air where buckets of water (and worse) are poured over him. He is then dragged around in the resulting mud.

One of the key institutions on "A" Wing is the Gavel Club, the prisoners' debating society, a sort of Oxford Union with previous convictions. It meets every Friday night in the chapel block; its members are mostly men whose elbows are at home on a boardroom table. They have soft hands, tough minds and a brand of purposeful charm.

The night we visited, the gavel was wielded by Gordon Foxley, a former Ministry of Defence civil servant who was jailed for corruption after taking millions of pounds in backhanders. Foxley calls for silence. The main attraction is the farewell speech of Frank Shannon, a former director of Nissan UK, the car retailer, convicted of an £l8m tax swindle.

"There are two worlds here," says Shannon. "As we arrive, we're all mixed up together. We're oil and water. And after a very, very short time the oil has come to the top and the water is lying below ... and from then on there is little mixing."

Yet despite that Shannon has been doing some mingling of his own, meeting people he would never have met in the Nissan UK accounts department, lifers living on his landing because they were convicted of murder.

"I never met a killer in my life, until I came to prison," he says. "Now I know 35 of them, and I find them to be quite different. For one thing, they're not crooks like the rest of us. In the main, they have committed one offence at one split second in their lives, and for the past 17 years have lived to regret it.

"They have not perpetrated something that is illegal and deliberately entered into it, as perhaps the rest of us have."

But those thoughts are probably far from Shannon's mind now. For when they leave, the divisions between Ford's inmates get wider. Shannon left Ford at Christmas, to move back into his elegant Brighton sea-front apartment. The inmates watched with interest as Shannon's wife collected him from the prison gates in a car festooned with yellow ribbons and matching balloons. A Nissan, naturally. It was the sort of departure that myth has it takes place every week at Ford.

Yet probably more typical of the new Ford is Danny Clark, who spent two years inside for a failed burglary in which he came away with nothing. For Danny - stick thin, with a Cockney sparrow voice - there was no car with balloons waiting to take him away when he left Ford last week. He is penniless. Frank Shannon is thinking of travelling. Danny Clark is back to barely surviving.

Life inside Ford is featured in the BBC2 `Modern Times' film `Open Prison', to be screened on Wednesday 5 April at 9pm.

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