Howard dishes the gravy in Brixton

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The Independent Online
IN A SCENE that penal reformers had dreamt about for years, Michael "Prison Works" Howard was banged up in Brixton nick to dish out the gravy in the jail's canteen.

The former Home Secretary, whose policies are largely responsible for the present record prison population, had been locked up at his own volition to sample life behind bars.

To the disappointment of some of his critics, Mr Howard emerged from the prison gates at 7.30am yesterday, claiming to have enjoyed a "very, very interesting experience".

With 219 other volunteers, he had agreed to spend a single night in the jail as part of a unique event, which was first disclosed in The Independent last month. It is expected to raise pounds 100,000 for the Macmillan Cancer Relief charity.

Among the other participants were the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, and the television presenter Ulrika Jonsson.

Mr Howard left the prison looking distinctly unlike a released offender, clean-shaved and wearing a blue blazer and open-necked shirt. Later he disclosed that, unlike many of the other "inmates", he had been designated a single cell. The privilege was earned by working "on the hot plate", serving gravy and then strawberry custard to his fellow internees.

Mr Howard, who said that he went straight to sleep after a "pretty reasonable" evening meal of beef cobbler, said: "I had a single cell, it was very sparse, there was a bed, a little cupboard, a toilet, but it had what you needed to conduct your life in prison."

Mr Howard was sponsored for pounds 200, including a small donation from his old adversary Jack Straw, the present Home Secretary. The night's experience had not undermined his faith in the effectiveness of prison, he said.

"The prison population has increased significantly, but there's also been a substantial fall in crime, 11 per cent over the past four years, including a 25 per cent fall in burglaries; and while prison is not the only part in this, it is a significant part," he said.

When he was Home Secretary, Mr Howard recalled saying that he believed prison should be decent but austere. "On the basis of what I saw last night, I think this is what Brixton is doing," he added.

Unlike Mr Howard, Ulrika Jonsson appeared a little troubled by her jail experience. She said she had suffered feelings of panic from claustrophobia and her thoughts had dwelt on methods of suicide during the long, dark night inside.

"A plastic knife didn't seem sharp enough," she pondered, adding that her mattress had felt like concrete and her pillow seemed like a kerbstone.

Ms Jonsson said she was able to overcome her fears when the cell door was locked by talking to her cell-mate, her agent Melanie Cantor. "I was trying to stay calm, but it was a panicky moment," she said.

The participants in the exercise included judges, lawyers, doctors and theatre directors, but all were supposed to have a working interest in the prison system.

John Bray, a voluntary worker with the probation service in Sussex, said: "It was just like Porridge. The rooms were exceptionally clean and well decorated, but it didn't detract from the fact that it was an old Victorian building."

Mr Bray, 65, who campaigns against miscarriages of justice, had asked specifically if he could share a room with the former Home Secretary.

On arrival, the volunteers were processed as normal prisoners, and were searched, photographed and issued with a number before being shown to their cells.

After being served their evening meal, they returned to eat it in their cell. Before lock-up at 10pm, each volunteer was given a plastic bag containing a standard breakfast of two fresh bread rolls, a bag of cornflakes, two sachets of soup and a carton of milk.

Apart from beef cobbler, the menu offered gammon steaks, shepherd's pie and turkey drumsticks in merango sauce. The vegetarian option was garlic and mushroom pasta bake, and Halal beef pastie was also available. All meals were served with carrots and roast potatoes, with strawberry sponge and sauce to follow.

Views from

Behind Bars


(Former Home Secretary)

"It was a very, very interesting experience. I think I said when I was Home Secretary that I thought prison should be decent but austere. On the basis of what I saw last night, I think this is what Brixton is doing."


(Television presenter)

"You share a cell with someone who'd shit in front of you and you don't know their mental stability."


(Recorder of Liverpool)

"I did not sleep straightaway. I had a bit of time to think.

I did start to think that it will make a big difference. There will be times when I might think where it [a sentence] needed 12 months, that could be nine months, and there is a real difference between 12 months and nine months."


(Former governor of Brixton)

"It showed to the prisoners that people did want to find out what was the reality of imprisonment."


(Sussex probation volunteer)

"We were treated as normal prisoners but the difference was we knew we would get up and leave in the morning. I felt at ease because the people around me had all been very friendly. They were all in very good humour. It's not exactly like starting a real sentence."


(Master of the Rolls)

"It makes you realise that prison is not fun."