Letters from a lifer: Six months ago Martin Stephen, a Cambridge headteacher, renewed contact with a childhood acquaintance. But by then his correspondent was in prison, convicted of murder. These are his words

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IT'S impossible to describe how one feels in prison, like trying to explain a migraine to someone who doesn't get headaches. Even if you work in a prison you only touch the surface; you can no more understand the inner desolation than a nurse can really know the pain of a terminally ill patient . . .

THEY tend to write, 'The defendant showed no emotion when sentenced.' It makes you seem callous or indifferent. In fact I was just numbed; the reality doesn't penetrate. The end of the trial comes as a surprise; so much left unsaid. Then it's into the high-performance, armour-plated prison van full of flak-jacketed cowboys. One hates to disillusion them, but the mob shrieking 'Murderer]' and banging the van make no more impression than flies buzzing; so much wasted effort . . .

FIRST arrival at prison is novel. Stripped naked and comprehensively searched before a group of warders. The wit of the screws is hilarious, and I remember such gems as, 'Bend over, pull your cheeks apart]'. They log your possessions, still naked: a mental stripping to follow the physical one. The prison clothes don't fit, of course, but I am too busy listening to the tirade of threats about what you are and what will happen to you if you cross the screws . . .

I AM taken to the prison hospital, vaulted like a cellar, made to strip again and given an inverted mailbag to wear which reaches just below my waist. The strip-cell is a joy I did not know existed: empty cell with mattress on the floor and sealed-in window in a trough below ground level. Company is a plastic potty and a cockroach. No radios, books or watches allowed. I neither receive nor send any letters. The light is on 24 hours a day, of course. The meals arrive most of the time, on a plastic plate. Sometimes I am allowed a spoon to eat with. They let me out twice a day to empty the potty, standing shoeless in a recess running with urine. Once a day I wash and can use a toothbrush used by other prisoners; this is situated by a cell marked 'HIV'.

. . . One warder drives us mad by continually bouncing a golf ball, echoing down the vaulted corridor. He is obsessed with the weapons used in murders. Believe it or not, there is not a day without an inmate being beaten. I am later told this (strip cell) treatment is to cure me as I am regarded as a suicide risk. Naturally this makes me feel better. I read an Amnesty report some months ago condemning inhuman treatment of African prisoners. They were continually verbally abused, thrown naked into spartan cells, disorientated by perpetual light and removal of watches and improperly fed. Thank heaven our country is civilised]

YOU know all about three of us living in a cell designed for one, sharing a plastic bucket for a toilet. It takes me three months to scrounge a half pillow. The cell is really aromatic. I never see any disinfectant or cleaning materials for the bucket: the mould is surreal.

AFTER conviction I was allowed one 30-minute visit a month and one letter a week. I could also buy an extra letter out of my wages of pounds 1.39 a week. It was ideal for those not wishing to retain contact with family and friends.

THERE are some very good people working in prison; I can't talk properly about the debt I owe them. But the others are the majority. I had believed I was sent to prison as a punishment, not for a punishment. A majority of the staff make it very clear that they regard it as their duty to take a daily pound of flesh. Five years on in my sentence staff still shouted taunts at me about my crime; it's good rehabilitation . . .

Feelings about one's offence vary between individuals. I killed the person I loved beyond all else and I live every day with that, seven years on I still dream about it. I failed her when we were beset by problems. There is no word to describe the feeling; remorse doesn't even start to sum it up. The sufferings of her family and friends and my family and friends have been truly terrible. Their pain endures and I live it with them. Why do the press persecute them when they are most vulnerable? I am not the only one who is guilty, I think. Time does not make things fade, for me at least. Even if I could blot out the memories, to do so would be to betray and deny those I loved. I cannot say that it's all over and I am sorry; it would just not be good enough, and they are with me every day. Pain, regret and a whole gamut of other emotions remain undiminished.

A LIFER's tariff is the punishment element of his sentence and the theory is that once he has served that he can be released so long as he provides no threat to anyone. My tariff stretches well into next century. The process for recommending tariffs is interesting . . . All judges recommend how long a prisoner should serve, though only sometimes is this reported in the press. The recommendations are usually secret and go to the Lord Chief Justice, who makes his own comments, and finally to the Home Office. There someone who has never met you determines your tariff on the basis of secret reports by the judge and such people as the police. You can't see these, of course. You can't be represented, and so you can't challenge. The result is that the Government and not the judiciary decides the sentence.

I saw some evidence before a House of Lords committee on life imprisonment. The Home Office gave details of a six-month period; 106 life sentences were given in those six months. The minister increased 63 of these above the trial judge's and Lord Chief Justice's recommendation. Thus some 60 per cent of sentences are increased by someone not even in the judiciary. The Prime Minister was quick to intercede personally in Thailand. I wonder if he might do better to look nearer home . . .

Reports on lifers are prepared periodically, in theory. The theory is that you spend three or four years in a prison so that highly trained people can get to know you. In my case no prison officer either from my work or on the wing did a report. I never set eyes on the chaplain or the psychologist before the report was written, and I had to have a replacement welfare officer because the original one was off sick. I made repeated requests to my wing governor for an interview. I never got one. Two months after the review board he produced a damning report claiming exhaustive interviews. You are powerless, of course. Franz Kafka has nothing on our system. My feeling is that the system has become the god, its purpose forgotten. We are numbers denied humanity and justice and hope, and on this our daily life is based. And the system is not even efficient.

THE whole range of humanity is there on a wing, the good with a tragic history side by side with the uncontrollably violent. The authorities are unable and sometimes unwilling to help or protect you, and it is not acceptable to go to them. Survival means carving a niche where you are ignored, or building up a network of friends. I have been attacked in prison ('I slipped in the shower, Sir'). Going for a shower or into the toilet recess can spell danger. Metal bed legs or batteries in socks are the favoured weapons at the moment, but knives are on the increase. Minor violence is all-pervasive, extreme violence less common but increasing due to almost unlimited access to drugs in nearly all prisons. Contrary to the Prison Officers' Association propaganda, there is very little violence against prison staff.

We are still human, and we still need to say, 'I am better than him even if society at large despises me'. So we have our hierarchy here, with each grade looking down on the next . . . My profession as a lawyer didn't endear me to many prisoners, and nor did my middle-class public school background. Don't believe the old adage that public schools are a good preparation for prison - it isn't so] The other prisoners did not like the tabloid version of my crime . . . it became known that I was to be stabbed to death. Prior to that, excrement had been thrown in my cell and I had been threatened with a 'burn out' in my cell. I had been sent to Coventry, been threatened and had people who had tried to help me threatened as well. The prison knew about all this. I ended up in a VPU (Vulnerable Prisoner Unit) which is basically where sex offenders are segregated for their own protection. Mine wasn't a sex crime but I was with about 90 sex offenders.

I have met kindness and helpfulness in strange places in prison. I met nothing but kindness from these pariahs of society, most of whom you couldn't distinguish from the man next door. We lived surrounded by a sea of hatred. The place where I worked had open-work bars which the ordinary prisoners passed on the way to their work. We were spat on as a matter of course . . .

YOU almost have to supplement your income by 'dealing', if only to make life more bearable and get little treats like coffee. You've heard of drug and tobacco barons as seen on TV? They exist, as do bookies, protection rackets and a thriving network of small businesses such as bakers, matchstick makers, calligraphers, artists and toymakers. All illegal, of course; the things are made to give to families or sell to the other inmates. Everything inside has a value. The prisoners are not the only ones who know that. I made toys for a business, but I also taught English to a Bangladeshi immigrant - a life sentence shortly after arriving in the country - wrote and read letters for illiterates and helped with legal problems. I was called a fool for not charging . . .

AFTER a certain length of time in prison you start to deteriorate. You read and you study but you are like Canute holding back the waves. At best it's a damage limitation exercise, and at all costs you must avoid being institutionalised, being 'cabbaged'. A lot don't make it. An uncertain release date makes future planning madness and a threat to sanity. Live for the day. The limit of my horizon is the wall I sit and stare at and the security lights blot out the stars at night. A day at a time, and I contain the hopelessness of hope.

LOYAL family and friends often face great personal cost. Contact with them is vital but it increases the pain. Many long-term prisoners cut off all contacts to limit the pain; it is self-preservation when one sees separation stretching beyond the millennium. Seeing marriages disintegrate and children growing up without you takes its toll on them and you. You no longer know them but you know they suffer, and you don't know if you will ever even meet again. So along with other prisoners you spend long, soul-destroying hours making things for them in an inadequate effort to show that you care and don't forget them . . .

I COULD tell you endless stories of humiliation, conditions and injustice - but what's the point? It's not the physical things that matter, but how one is treated. Most long-term prisoners will tell you the same. You survive, rather than live. You create your own mode of existence and you laugh at yourself all the time with a black humour. You never laugh at your crime, just at yourself. It is a different world if you have an organisation backing you - say, a political base or a women's rights group . . . As far as the police go, they do sometimes fabricate or suppress evidence, but the real complaint is the way that they gild the lily by embroidering cases to make them seem far more serious than they are. Once a lifer, you are out of sight and out of mind. The strange thing is that we do not have two heads and we are surprisingly like normal people . . .

I DID wrong. I know and accept I have to be punished. I want to be punished for what I did, not what a tabloid distorted it into. This is a widespread feeling. It is right that we submit to justice. We also hope for justice. I don't pity myself, that would be inappropriate. I do pity those I have seen broken by the system and I despair of a system that defies all logic and justice. The system leaves us in a maze of madness. It is crying out for change, and for justice.

All the letters reproduced here form part of a private correspondence. The recipient has not checked the factual accuracy of these comments. Dr Stephen is High Master-elect of the Manchester Grammar School.

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