Governor's tale of life behind bars

'There is an enormous amount of shame involved - queueing up to get food, being locked in a cell'
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As he plans to appeal against conviction, a former prison boss tells Jason Bennetto how he became another victim of a 'racist system'

A PRISON governor who was jailed earlier this year for fiddling his expenses has spoken for the first time about his life behind bars and says he now understands inmates who riot.

Jogendraneth Rajcoomar, 42, who was Britain's most senior black prison governor, is appealing against his conviction and two-year jail term for fraud involving pounds 9,500.

He claims he was imprisoned for a relatively minor offence because of the racist attitude among many senior Prison Service managers and governors. He also says the regime inside prisons is "incompetent" and he now understands why it sometimes causes inmates to attack governors.

Rajcoomar was convicted last December of six charges of obtaining money by deception. He used a false address to claim pounds 9,500 in living allowances, which are paid to governors who live away from home, while he worked at The Mount prison in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. St Albans Crown Court heard he was in fact living at his family home in Wendlebury, Oxfordshire, and secretly at a flat in Isleworth, West London, with his mistress.

Speaking last week from Hewell Grange open prison near Redditch, Worcestershire, he said: "When the judge started summing up I felt sick, as I knew he was going to jail me. When he said I had to go to prison for two years I just pretended I was in a dream. I had to block out thoughts of my past status.

"There is an enormous amount of shame involved - showering in front of people, queuing up to get your food, being locked inside a cell.

"I could have headed for a breakdown but I have to be pragmatic and strong."

His experience of being on the other side of the bars has confirmed his earlier views about the quality of senior Prison Service staff. "I have never seen management so incompetent," he said. "From a prisoner's point of view I can understand why prisoners riot or throw punches at a prison governor sometimes."

He added: "I believe it's the people at the top who hold the racist views despite their nice words. People who cannot deal with prisoners are promoted to jobs at headquarters where they decide policy. They don't understand or know prisoners so you get a proliferation of rules that are not necessary and cause great unrest."

Dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans, a relaxed and confident Rajcoomar spoke of his earlier life. From a wealthy Asian family, he came to England in 1973 and gained a master's degree in social psychology at the London School of Economics. He joined the Prison Service in 1983 as assistant governor at Wormwood Scrubs and featured frequently in publicity brochures for the service as an example of equalopportunities at work. He hadbeen a registered mental nurse and worked in psychiatric hospitals until 1983. During a trial period at Wandsworth jail, he recalled, "I was the only black face there. It was incredible - even prison officers wore National Front tiepins."

He was transferred to Grendon/Spring Hill prison in 1988. Here, he said, he made himself unpopular with some of the staff when he introduced changes in order to relax what he believed was an unnecessarily strict regime.

"Most of my problems have come from white liberal governors who continued to view me as a 'coolie'. They are terriblyfond of giving a hand to a compliant black person, but the one thing they can't cope with is a confident, intelligent person who does not fit their stereotype. I was not afraid to use my authority and make decisions - I became their worst nightmare, a 'nigger with a badge'."

In 1990 he was promoted to governor grade four at The Mount prison. While at the jail he was known as outspoken and made enemies. In 1992 he was moved to Bullingdon prison near Bicester. During this period he was breaking up with his wife, with whom he has a son and a daughter, and was suffering from depression. On 22 October 1993 he was suspended after being accused of fraud.

In court he admitted he had used a false address, but said he had not tried to obtain money by deception. He had lied about the address of the flat he shared with his mistress because he was worried about his wife finding out or a tabloid newspaper visiting him, he insisted.

When he was first imprisoned, in a more secure category C prison, he was intimidated by a few inmates because of his previous position.

In one incident he was punched in the face. But since those early days his life inside has improved. This has been helped by the work he has done in offering advice to fellow inmates on subjects such as applying for parole.

"Guards and prisoners are all very sympathetic because they think I was stitched up," he said.

He added: "One of the main things I have learnt is that there is no value in putting people in prison unless there is some thought about what they will do after their release. From being a regular taxpayer I have become a burden on the state. What is keeping me locked up achieving?"

He is waiting to hear whether there are grounds to appeal against his sentence and conviction. He has three months left to serve before he will be released on parole. He believes he was victimised because of his attitude and race.

"I can't believe it is right that I have been sentenced to two years for my offence. The usual procedure in this kind of case is for the Prison Service to have an internal investigation and to simply sack the person if found guilty. Instead they have made an example out of me."