`The cost to society is so great it makes me dizzy'

Polly Toynbee introduces James Humphreys, the student imprisoned for possession of cannabis and Ecstasy, who writes here from prison
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The Independent Online
James Humphreys will be out of prison next month, after a sentence that defies common humanity or common sense. I wrote about his case a couple of months ago - not because it was extraordinary, but because it is so common. Today he writes his own story from inside prison. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years after police found cannabis and Ecstasy in the house he shared with other Manchester students. Ecstasy is, absurdly, a Class A drug with a recommended sentence of three to five years. Luckily, the experience hasn't destroyed him, as these wry observations suggest. Nor has it turned him into a heroin addict, which is a real danger for anyone entering prison these days. Manchester University is going to take him back, which is a mercy.

But what was his sentence for? Prisons are full of minor drug offenders who should be serving community sentences. Processing one addict through the courts and jail costs an average pounds 36,000 - yet many offenders will never get near a treatment programme. The prison population, at 62,000, is soaring out of control, while US research shows how every dollar spent on drug treatment saves $7 in crime. All in all, some pounds 48,000 has been wasted on James's case - a pretty ineffective skirmish in the "war against drugs".

"Last June I was sentenced to two-and-a-half years for "possession, with intent to supply Ecstasy and cannabis." I was taking my turn to get it for my small group of adult, university friends and immediately took the blame and pleaded guilty. It was my first offence and I was under 21.

What is getting me through this sentence is having supportive family and friends, and I might have been driven completely insane if I hadn't managed to find some humour in my situation. This can be hard at times because prison is a relative wilderness for comedy. There is nothing funny about people having their lives wasted. But there is plenty of irony and things that make you go "hmmm". Sometimes my blood boils, the next minute it runs cold. Prison is a strange, often surreal, experience and quite a culture shock in contrast to the heavenly, chemical-fuelled university days that landed me here.

My first experience of prison was Strangeways, which has undergone vast improvements since the riots. For two weeks I was banged up on the induction wing with a Moss Side gangster, and, immediately, I was learning the art of armed robbery and how to sell drugs without being caught. Now, after a year, I have amassed comprehensive, nefarious skills ranging from how to steal a car and counterfeit fraud to how to get away with murder in three easy steps. The otherwise uneventful first two weeks were punctuated by the IRA's attempt at landscaping the centre of Manchester. I was in an ideal position to watch the mushroom cloud from my room with a view.

I soon had a cell with a TV and en-suite toilet, but room service was terrible. The staff were rude and kept insisting on searching my underpants for God knows what, and even wanted me to urinate into a beaker. I've never been so insulted in my life! I'd have to award Strangeways only two stars. Fortunately, I was only there a month, but unfortunately, I was moved to Haverigg, which is a remote seagull colony in Cumbria. I suspect that the area is also the site of some terrible radioactive disaster judging by the range of morphological abnormalities sported by the local species.

I spent some time there on a billet of smack-head Scousers, who would steal my outgoing mail for the stamps. Many a night I fell asleep to the tranquil sounds of them vomiting in the toilets because they had had too much "toot" (heroin). Drugs are an omnipresent force in prison, actually cheaper and more easily available than on the outside. It is a sorely tempting route of escape and the source of the most violent disputes, as people get into debt. Not even one star for Haverigg, I'm afraid.

If you are good in prison, you get to a place like the one I am at now, a Category D prison, which is definitely five-star. I get temporary release in the form of home leave on a regular basis, and there is no fence to speak of. There is even a public footpath running through the grounds. I am a person again.

I'm on Education at the moment, which completes the illusion of prison being like boarding school, especially being woken up by the sound of a bell (incidentally, the bloke who rings the bell is in for ringing stolen cars). In "art and craft" I am surrounded by gangsters and yardies, who sit there going "Bloodclot!" and "Badboy!", and calling all women "bitches", while making cuddly toys for their girlfriends.

It still makes me angry to see so many people inside who shouldn't be. The social ramifications and the cost to society are so great I feel dizzy just thinking about it. I mean, when, for instance, are we going to stop jailing people for cannabis? The only person who has died from that in 20,000 years was killed when a half-ton block landed on his head. Anyway, I have been feeling more like myself recently, as my release date approaches. The election has especially cheered me up, mainly because my nemesis, Michael Howard, is now powerless. I had the privilege of Anne Widdecombe coming to see my cell on a prison visit in the dying days of the Tory leadership, and now even she has turned on him. Perhaps there is some hope for the human race, after all."