It’s up to well-educated, midde-class jailbirds to tell us where we’re going wrong with our prisons

Vicky Pryce, Chris Huhne and Denis MacShane could put in some community service

Share

A few weeks ago, I bumped into the former Labour MP, Denis MacShane, at a bus stop near Victoria station in London. He was a couple of days away from his sentencing for fraud and under few illusions about what lay ahead. In the circumstances – it was also dark, cold and wet – he was reasonably cheerful.

With that chance encounter, I realised that, for the first time in my life, I know several people who either have been, or – in MacShane’s case – are now, in prison. I don’t know them well, but I know them: as former colleagues, in the case of Chris Huhne, who was a journalist before he became a politician; and as fellow think-tank frequenters on matters European, in the cases of MacShane and Vicky Pryce. We have benefited from the same sort of education. We are interested in similar things. We see each other about.

Now you might object that all that this shows is my sheltered background. But how many middle-class professional people actually know anyone in their immediate circle who has been to jail? In our generally law-abiding circles, prison still has the capacity to shock – which is also what makes the experience so potentially valuable. 

Not only can these ex-prisoners speak and write about it in a way that most former inmates cannot, but they can make it comprehensible to the likes of us. Vicky Pryce, in happier times, joint head of the Government Economic Service and just reappointed as an – unpaid and very part-time – adviser to the Business Secretary, has made a cracking start with her instant book, Prisonomics (Biteback Publishing, 2013). As a former policy adviser, she knows how things work on the inside of government. She can talk to power. She now knows how things work on the inside of somewhere very different.

There have been the usual complaints. Isn’t everyone just bored by prominent people who brag about their two minutes in prison as though they were intrepid pioneers? And should not someone with Pryce’s erudition have been able to go beyond the liberal clichés – about women in prison (far too many); repeat offending (far too much); and the expense and inefficiency of the whole system (needs to be re-thought from the ground up)?

Vicky Pryce answers The Big Questions: What is the most effective way of improving prison?
Kate Johns: I know what Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce will face - my background may as well have been Mars to fellow prisoners
Amy Jenkins: Why shouldn't Huhne and Pryce turn their experiences to their advantage?

Just maybe, though, the reason such “clichés” crop up time and again is that many of them are actually true. Whatever you feel about the numbers in prison, the cost-benefit ratio leaves much to be desired. We have an expensive system that works poorly. Let’s either admit that it’s a poor system and pay less for it, or – preferably – try to get better value for our money. As an economist of some stature, Pryce is in a better position than most to suggest how that could be done. Nor should her conclusions be dismissed simply because she spent a mere four days in Holloway and just eight weeks in a relatively cushy country house. First impressions can be some of the most  valid. New prisoners bring to their observations the perspective of the “normal” world – a perspective that is all too quickly lost.

Disgraced former Labour minister Denis MacShane has been jailed for six months at the Old Bailey after admitting making bogus expense claims amounting to nearly £13,000. Denis MacShane was jailed for six months after admitting making bogus expense claims The defensiveness of the prison establishment is notorious, and those running the new private prisons seem no more inclined to glasnost than their public-sector counterparts. It took weeks for the extent of the recent protests at Oakwood prison in Wolverhampton to become known, and it is still not clear what triggered them. All we really learned was that prison unrest is not uncommon, whoever jangles the keys.  

Of course, many prison governors do their conscientious best. But when that best leaves our prisons infested with  drugs and allows inmates to run illicit businesses with the aid of smuggled mobile phones – just two of the endemic scourges – then it should be obvious that it is nowhere near good enough. A fresh look from a former prisoner with an informed eye and a savvy economist’s brain is exactly what is needed.

It is not just a fresh look, though, that is required – would-be reformers have lobbied for change for decades – but realistic remedies and, above all, a way of presenting them that convinces those who make policy and spend tax-payers’ money. This is where Pryce, Huhne and MacShane – when he has done his time – could put in some valuable community service.

They have all done government work. They speak the language of the elite and they know how to persuade, perhaps even how to get things done. Together, they represent the best chance this country has had for a long while to make prison at once more beneficial to those incarcerated and better value for the rest of us.

You can argue until the cows come home whether sending any of these three to prison was a sensible use of public  money. But if one result of their brief sojourns at Her Majesty’s pleasure is a thorough reconsideration of our  penal system, future governments, and future prisoners, might look back on the outlay as money well spent.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
File photo dated 11/3/2014 of signage for the main entrance and emergency department at a hospital  

Weekend opt-out is stumbling block as BMA and NHS negotiate new consultant and junior doctor contracts

Charlie Cooper
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms