It was a Sunday in December 2009 when Regine Lansley took the phone call at her eight-bedroom farmhouse 80 miles from Paris.
The police officer at the other end of the line explained that her husband Ronald was under arrest at Dover police station in England and was due in court the next day. Would she come?
Regine, who had lived in France for the past ten years, grabbed all the money she could find in the house – about €1,500 (£940) – and jumped in the car. At Dover she arrived at the station just in time to see her own arrest warrant emerging from the fax machine.
She was told her husband had been charged with operating what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs branded Europe’s biggest-ever illegal veterinary medicine business, in which more than £6m of products were smuggled to the UK. She, too, was now under arrest for exporting illegal pharmaceuticals from the couple’s properties in France as well as warehouses in Belgium and Kent.
“I was in total disbelief,” Lansley recalls. “I kept thinking, ‘It will be all right in the morning’.”
She spent a night in the cells, then was taken from Dover to Croydon Crown Court in a prison van, which she describes as “a series of upright coffins bolted together”, and later transferred to Holloway on remand.
Regine and her husband, Ronald Meddes, both pleaded guilty to illegally importing and supplying unauthorised and prescription medicines, he on multiple counts and she on two counts. On 7 April 2011, Regine, 64, was sentenced to 20 months in prison, Meddes to 28 months.
All of her assets, including 11 horses and several properties in France, were confiscated and Regine, a former professional Princess Diana lookalike, is now living on benefits and relying on legal aid. Now released after serving 18 months, she says the criminal justice system has lost its purpose, arguing that her prison sentence was “a shocking waste” of public money.
While she accepts that she was found guilty of a crime and has a debt to pay to society, Lansley questions what is actually achieved by giving custodial sentences to people who pose no threat to the public.
“When I was sentenced I said to my barrister, ‘What on earth is the purpose of this?’ He said, ‘So you are seen to be punished’. But I wasn’t the one being punished. It’s my family who were being punished; it’s the prisoners who really need support and rehabilitation services but are deprived of these because the system is so completely over-stretched who were being punished.”
There are about 4,000 women prisoners in Britain – less than 5 per cent of the prison population – and according to the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings, most women entering prison serve very short sentences – 58 per cent of women entering prison in the year to June 2012 were due to serve six months or less.
The personal damage caused by isolating women from their children, and the mental impact of custody, have been well-documented, not least by the 2007 Corston Report, a comprehensive investigation of women in prison. The report’s author, Baroness Corston, concluded: “I was dismayed to see so many women frequently sentenced for short periods of time for very minor offences, causing chaos and disruption to their lives and families, without any realistic chance of addressing the causes of their criminality.”
As the impact of budget cuts across the criminal justice system continues to be felt, Regine Lansley believes there is a greater social cost that urgently needs to be addressed.
By her own admission Lansley – a remarkably self-assured socialite whose online profile for the actors’ agent Lynch Media Group reads “I have a certain talent and air about me that I am able to give high street clothes a designer look” – is not your typical jailbird. For 10 years before her arrest she lived in a sprawling mansion in France with 11 horses, dogs and cats, and was renovating houses “as a hobby”. Yet she still believes that her story tells a wider tale.
Certainly, her prison experience at times was atypical: she created her own personal letterhead on a prison computer, a Victorian-style font giving her address as HMP East Sutton Park, and at the bottom an old photo of the prison, provided by a member of staff. The letterhead was later branded a security breach and duly landed her in hot water with the authorities.
From the beginning, Lansley was not going to conform. She was taken to HMP Holloway straight from court, with no money and only the clothes she was wearing. She modified her prison attire, removing the hem and collar and fashioning them into a fabric “corsage” which she stuck to her newly customised top.
“On my first day one of the girls said to me, ‘Are you on remand or sentenced?’. I said, ‘I haven’t got a clue’. That is how naïve I was.”
Nevertheless, inmates were generally accepting of the new arrival: “Some said, ‘Oh, she’s just posh. I bet she’s been done for fraud. How many millions was it?’. That’s the first thing they say when they see someone like me. ‘Cor, yours must have been a big job. Look at you’. But after the initial period they showed me a remarkable amount of respect.” The more money you are believed to have scammed, she adds, the more respect you get.
Prison was an intense learning process. “Things like, when you have half an hour’s exercise, a girl would bang into you and I would say, ‘Oh I’m terribly sorry, excuse me’, and they’d look at you as if you’re mad and then later on you’d find out that in fact she is one of the girls who deals in drugs and is trying to find out whether you are one of them.”
There were farcical moments, too, like the time she was woken at 6am to go to court. “I said, ‘But I’m not due today’ but they insisted I went.” She packed the few belongings she had acquired during her stay – basic toiletries and a couple of outfits – in a prison-issue white plastic bag. “We got to Croydon court from Holloway, then the driver of the privately contracted van said, ‘You’re not required’,” she sighs. “I said, ‘I know’, and he said, ‘I’ll take you back to Holloway’.”
Half way there, the driver pulled over and said: “I have to take you back to court. You’re not due to go back to Holloway. You are supposed to go to Bronzefield [a privately run prison in Surrey]. I have to take you back to court to wait until the van comes to pick you up”. But there was no cell at Bronzefield, so it was back to Holloway, just in time for supper.
“Bearing in mind these vans are said to cost about £1,000 a day to run… it’s extraordinary,” Lansley says. The flip-side, less amusing, was when the prison failed to take her to court when she was due, “something that is all too common in the system”, she says.
More than anything else, at every prison she went to Lansley remembers an overarching sense of hopelessness. “The mental problems I have witnessed are frightening, horrendous: self-harm, suicide, not being able to communicate properly any more. People lose a will to live or to do anything.” She says there is a disconnection from the real world that prisoners can struggle to regain.
The result for a number of women can easily be what Lansley calls “ping-pongers”. “They get sent out of the gate when they finish their sentence. They have nowhere to go, no purpose, no skills, no hope. The best thing is to go to Sainsbury’s, steal a sandwich and get back in as soon as possible.”
Rather than “sitting in prison, unable to do anything, not to be able to contribute anything even if you have a brain and the abilities to do something”, Lansley says a much more appropriate use of her time would have been to help people like that, who are truly disadvantaged and need support and rehabilitation. Now that she is back on the outside, she hopes to resume the charity worked she did before her conviction. But with no money other than £46 a week in benefits, and few job prospects given her age, she says it is “tricky”.
To fill the days at the various prisons she was sent to (prisoners can be moved without warning and for no discernible reason) during her initial 18-month sentence, Lansley kept a journal. One entry reads: “Life here is so boring and pointless it defies description, I have applied for jobs but there is no work. The education system is very limited and there are not enough places for everyone. I cannot even do a distance learning course as my sentence is ‘too short’… I am sitting day in, day out with nothing to do but watch TV at a vast cost to the public purse.”
Criminal justice in the UK is dually about punitive justice and rehabilitation. In cases like Lansley’s, where punishment is governed by the Proceeds of Crime Act, 2002 – created as a statutory mechanism for seizing profits connected to terrorism and drug trafficking, but which has been much more widely adopted – she questions the justice of a custodial sentence.
“In my case, the punishment has been the confiscation,” she says. Other than causing a great deal of disruption and costing the taxpayer a great deal of money, the custodial element, she argues, achieved nothing. “I look around and see all these people in real need, with no money to help them – and yet they’re paying £56,000 to keep me locked up, unable to work or contribute to society in any way. What’s that about?”