Robert Chesshyre: Where the inmates call the shots

Ford is straight out of a Carry On film, and about as dated

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Several years ago, I attended an open day at Ford Open Prison. I was with two men recently released with whom I was discussing the possibility of writing a book about their crimes and misadventures (the book never happened: they didn't see their escapades in quite the way I did).

I have written extensively about imprisonment, and spent time in what might loosely be called "proper" prisons – those with walls and bars – but I am of liberal mind over issues of punishment and believe that much of the security employed in locking up mainly sad offenders is utterly wasted. Most inmates wouldn't run away if you put them in the middle of a field. All absconders (from open prisons) and escapers (from closed) are eventually caught – usually within days.

But I wasn't prepared for Ford – at least as I found it on that open day.

The prison – where the drink-fuelled New Year's Eve riot led to extensive fire damage and much soul-searching over the criminal justice system – seemed then a cross between a lax military camp and Butlin's. Prisoners wandered about chatting to relations who had come for the day, and old lags like my two companions looked up mates who were still doing time. Obviously, routine had been suspended for the day, but there was something in the environment that suggested that there wasn't a great deal of routine when it wasn't an open day.

Among our fellow visitors was a wealthy businessman, recently released. He came with sidekicks – one might have thought by the way they acted that they were bodyguards, and he and his henchmen swaggered about the campus as if they, rather than the Prison Service, ran the place. I didn't see a prison officer actually salute the ex-inmate, but the body language told where the power lay.

Later I went with my two associates to the home of a prison officer with whom they had become friendly during their time inside. I do not suggest that there was anything improper about this relationship, though it was slightly odd that everyone should be so matey and clearly comfortable socially. There was even to be a party later that evening, to which I would have been welcome.

By then I'd seen enough of my would-be fellow authors, and made my excuses and headed home. But what I took away from that day was that, in an environment like Ford, the imbalance of wealth and power between staff and a minority of white-collar criminals means that it is the inmates who call the shots.

Such wealthy people are highly unlikely to become involved in riots like those on New Year's Eve – they have far more to lose by blotting their copy books than do the run-of-the-mill burglars and shoplifters – but their relationship with the staff, at least as they appeared many years ago, must have helped to set the prison tone. At the very least (and again I am not suggesting corruption) blind eyes were obviously turned by prison officers to the quality of life enjoyed inside by rich inmates. They lived according to their means rather than according to the rules.

Ford, converted into an open jail in 1960 from a former Fleet Air Arm station, was not when I visited and – judging from reports – has not become a second Alcatraz. It was then (and must still be) easy for friends and relations to smuggle in food and drink to make the inmates' durance more tolerable. The blow of incarceration for the well-off is also softened by the imbalance between the prisoners themselves. The wealthy can organise their comforts by arranging for the families of the poor (the vast majority of prisoners) to be paid on the outside.

White-collar crime should be punished (probably more severely than it is) and prisoners at the end of long sentences should live in an environment that is more like normality than most prisons are. The Scandinavian model of weekend jails seems to make sense. At least, the incentive to smuggle booze would be reduced. Ford is straight out of a Carry On film, and about as dated.

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