Photographed, fingerprinted, strip-searched: the humiliating welcome to Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce's new lives in prison
Chris Huhne's first experience of his government's penal system was inside a grim, overcrowded south London prison where inmates are locked up in shared cells for up to 22 hours a day.
Huhne is expected to spend up to a month of his eight month sentence at Wandsworth Prison. Newly arrived inmates pass over their valuables before they are weighed, measured and seen by a doctor.
The 58-year-old is likely to come under close scrutiny from the mental health team to see if he poses a potential suicide risk because of his fall from grace, said Mark Leech, editor of Converse, the prisoners' newspaper, and a former prisoner who now counsels high-profile inmates.
Wandsworth – a category B local prison built in 1851 – can hold 1,665 prisoners and is one of the largest in Europe. Inspectors expressed concern in 2011 at the levels of self-harming in the prison, the lack of exercise and the treatment of prisoners. The report found that there were about 32 cases of self-harm each month.
"The treatment and conditions of too many prisoners at Wandsworth was demeaning, unsafe and fell below what could be classed as decent," said the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick.
Huhne will first be taken to the reception area at the prison to be checked in. "He will be photographed, fingerprinted, strip-searched, and subject to ultra-sound searching to ensure he is not carrying contraband," said Mr Leech. "He will be issued with a prison number, the opportunity to make a telephone call, and then he will be given the chance to have a shower and be fitted with prison clothes – for a convicted prisoner, blue jeans and a blue-and-white prison shirt."
Huhne will then be given dinner. "He'll then eat his mystery bowl of stew, in a plastic bowl, with a plastic cup and plastic knives and forks," said Mr Leech. After the first few days of assessment he will be moved to a 12ft by 7ft cell shared with one or two other strangers. "It's a typical Porridge cell," said Mr Leech. "That's when it will start to hit him. It's an old overcrowded prison, with very few opportunities and it's pretty violent."
The 2011 report by Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons found that prisoners were at best locked in their cells for more than 16 hours a day but up to 22 hours. "The cell will contain a toilet and washbasin, with a small modesty screen – life will never be the same again," said Mr Leech.
Many believe that Vicky Pryce may find the experience more harrowing. Figures from the last prison inspection suggested 52 per cent of female inmates had mental health issues, compared to an average of 29 per cent across male prisons.
Holloway Prison, where Pryce was sent yesterday, has a reputation. In 1996 conditions were so appalling that the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, walked out in disgust.
Waiting in reception, Pryce is likely to be allowed one free telephone call. She will later be stripped of jewellery, and made to wear a prison uniform. Prisoners have been known to wait for hours during this process and the sight of others in distress can resonate very deeply. Previous inmates have spoken of seeing women detoxing from drugs, with some in withdrawal, crying or desperately trying to arrange for childcare before their sentences start.
The first night is particularly difficult as it is an alien environment. Pryce won't have to endure this for long though. She is likely to be moved to a lower security prison within weeks if not days to serve out her sentence.
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