Noel Smith: My life inside with Big Brother

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Channel 4's Big Brother is proving once again a hit among television viewers. But for me and many others it is more than another piece of entertainment. It bears striking parallels with our everyday lives - a bunch of slightly off-key strangers locked together in a place where their every move and word is watched and analysed, where they are given mind-numbing tasks to complete, where the rules can be changed by those in control on a whim, and where the only way out is by impressing the public (in the form of the parole board).

Take away the soft furnishings, replace the bright colour scheme with shades of institutional grey and remove all the fun and you are left with something that closely approximates the modern British prison system. The big difference is that some of us will spend decades in the "house"', and when we get out we are handed £48.50 instead of a cheque for £100,000.

In truth, the prison experience has more in common with Orwell's version of Big Brother than Channel 4's because not only are prisoners under constant surveillance, but their mail, both incoming and outgoing, is read by uniformed staff, their phone calls are recorded and listened to and visits by family and friends are taken within sight and earshot of the guards. There is no privacy within our prison system, so the feelings of oppression and frustration that the housemates suffer strike a chord with many prisoners. But here the similarities end.

Prisoners often have to remind themselves that they have been sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment, because those whose job it is to keep us incarcerated sometimes lose sight of that fact. Just like on Big Brother they move the goalposts every now and again for no discernible reason other than to see how we'll react.

In recent years, since the Woodcock and Learmont reports into the escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst respectively, security inside our prisons has grown progressively more intrusive and oppressive. The Home Office and Prison Service, embarrassed by the publicity surrounding those escapes, are so fearful of any mention of our prisons in the media that I can almost guarantee that as you are reading these words someone in the Home Office press department is faxing the governor of this prison and flapping about the "implications" of a serving prisoner being allowed access to the media.

I can understand why they don't want the outside world knowing what goes on in our prisons. After all, a lot of the petty rules and restrictions, not to mention the really serious stuff, would not stand up to intense public scrutiny. As every criminal knows, you can get away with almost anything as long as you keep it secret. And there are few more secretive institutions than the British prison system.

I wonder if the public realise, for example, that in any given year the death rate for prisoners is eight times higher than in the Spanish Inquisition? Or that the murder rate among prison inmates is at least double that of the outside world? Or that there is an average of two suicides every week, and a dozen more attempts - and that this month alone 12 inmates have committed suicide?

Of course they don't, because the press are continually bombarding them with stories of "holiday-camp-style jails", where prisoners spend many long hours simply laughing at their victims. As long as the public are being fed salacious titbits about how easy prison is, the less likely they are to worry about the well-being of prisoners. I can understand how people would think it only right that those who break the law and prey on society should be treated harshly, and the taking of someone's freedom for long periods is a very harsh punishment. But if society decrees that a lawbreaker should lose his liberty for 20 years, does it also give the body that supervises his forfeit the right to impose further punishment, without any further offence being committed by the prisoner, as it sees fit?

Take for example the Volumetric Control procedure, which requires any prisoner, when ordered, to pack all personal items held in possession into two average-sized cardboard boxes. This includes personal letters, family photographs, clothing, foodstuffs, hobby items and anything else he may possess, stripping the cell, which is his living space. Anything that does not fit into the boxes is confiscated. After this he must then unpack the boxes and put everything back in its place until the next time he is ordered to pack them.

This is punishment - the kind of "task" the organisers of Big Brother might use on the housemates in order to mess with their minds and give the viewers a good laugh, but if they carried on doing it at regular intervals the public would soon see it as a cruel and pointless exercise.

Suppose that those who run Big Brother also thought that it would be a good idea to send in search teams at any time, night or day, to strip-search every housemate? Would this be funny? Or would it serve to increase the housemates' mental instability and paranoia? This kind of "operational procedure" happens every day in our prisons, so can there be any wonder that suicide rates are rising in prisons?

Every day in prison is a struggle against the frustration generated by countless petty rules and regulations. Something as simple as ordering a pair of socks involves filling in six different forms and getting permission from three different departments. It can be no coincidence that apart from the high suicide and self-harm rates there has been a rise in the number of prisoners being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

I accept that prison is not meant to be easy. But do we really want a prison system that takes bad people and makes them worse? That takes the sane and makes them mentally ill? A system so terrible that more than 100 people a year are driven to take their own lives rather than serve out their sentence? Is this why nobody wants to talk about our prisons, but will give acres of media coverage to a television show that fakes an approximation of the prison experience?

Two things I am sure of: if any of the Big Brother housemates ever goes stir-crazy and self-harms live on air the show will be scrapped. Blood and death seem acceptable when shrouded by the secrecy of our prisons, but not in your own front room. And long after the last housemate has collected their prize, there will still be more than 75,000 of us locked up playing a version of the "game". Only no one will be watching.

Noel Smith is serving a life sentence for armed robbery. The paperback version of his memoir, 'A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun', is published by Penguin next month