I still believe crime must be punished
PETER HITCHENS: I still believe crime must be punished. But a week inside showed me squalor achieves nothing
I spent last week in prison. I know prison is where quite a lot of my Left-wing enemies want me to be but this was by my own choice.
I was taking part in what I believe is a tremendous and important Channel 4 documentary series. It was an experiment that can almost certainly never be repeated.
People such as me, soft and safe individuals who have lived far from evil and danger for most of their lives, were exposed to life behind bars in a frighteningly realistic way.
As well as me, these included soap opera actors, an ex-MP and a TV star.
The programme-makers assembled a large group of genuine ex-prisoners, and also several experienced former prison officers, to recreate as closely as possible the routine and atmosphere of jail. This was no stage set. We were literally Banged Up (the working title of the programme) several times a day, as uniformed officers swung shut the heavy blue-grey iron doors and forced us to endure slow hours in the company of cellmates we had absolutely not chosen.
We mopped the floors and peeled potatoes and doled out food to each other in the servery. We worked out in the gym and shared the showers, which switched wildly between freezing cold and searingly hot.
We circled round the exercise yard when the weather allowed and were exposed to various attempts at therapy from yoga (an actual punishment for me) to bricklaying. For days we never saw a tree or a blade of grass. A snatch of birdsong was a treat. From the high, dirty, barred and meshed window of my cell I had a splendid view of a 19th-century redbrick chimney slowly crumbling, and a small patch of sky.
We lived for several days in a wing of Shrewsbury Prison, a frowning Victorian house of correction which dates from 1877 and was in actual use until ten years ago.
Its glowering gateway looks startlingly like the entrance to a tomb. We went through the degradation experienced by convicted criminals, including an intimate body search.
I arrived in a suit and tie, and polished shoes, and shuffled to my cell in stained prison garb and canvas slip-ons, wearing a compulsory identity badge emblazoned in angry red with the word ‘prisoner’. It is a dismal place, oppressive and grubby, haunted by tragedy of one kind or another, and redolent of all kinds of misery. It is especially dismal because the busy sounds of the nearby railway station remind the inmate of the freedom of others, outside the melancholy brick walls.
One of our greatest poets, A.E. Housman, wrote of this very prison in his masterpiece A Shropshire Lad: ‘They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:/ The whistles blow forlorn,/And trains all night groan on the rail/ To men that die at morn.’
And quite a few did die at morn. Seven men were executed by hanging there between 1902 and 1961. More recently, there have been other hangings – in a two-week period in 2004 three inmates killed themselves in this way. Housman also wrote: ‘There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,/ Or wakes, as may betide,/ A better lad, if things went right,/ Than most that sleep outside.’
And here I must praise the former prisoners, who did their bit without any reward, and who – in many cases – suffered flashbacks to real prison sentences. I will always be grateful to them for the small but vital kindnesses they gave me, a suburban softie with a la-di-da voice, obviously doomed to defeat in any hard physical confrontation.
Do not think I have gone soft thanks to this experience. I still believe strongly that crime must be punished and deterred. I still accept with regret that prison is a necessary weapon in the struggle to protect the weak against the strong which this country is currently losing so badly.
I still think we are all responsible for what we do. I just do not think that physical squalor, dirt and danger help achieve these ends. If anything, my heartfelt desire to drive illegal drugs out of our society is even stronger than it was before. The same goes for my rage at the failure of our sub-standard state schools to teach their pupils to read properly, let alone set their feet on the ladder of opportunity.
As for our crazy folly in destroying the stable married family and dismantling the industries that allowed a man to support such a family by honest work, I am even more speechless with astonishment that we ever did these things. These foolish political errors help keep our prisons full to bursting and will carry on doing so till we put them right.
But crime is still deliberate evil. Excuses may let us mitigate the punishment, but ultimately we can decide not to do wicked, violent or dishonest things. And I still believe that we should always think first of the welfare of victims of crime, before we worry about the conditions in which we keep criminals.
Even so, I learned a huge amount about the lives of men who find themselves in prison and was able to see them as fully human and to like them. Men I would once have crossed the street to avoid are now, in a strange way, my blood brothers. I should also put in a word for prison officers, an underestimated, neglected and often misrepresented group of men and women. Hopelessly outnumbered, they even so do an astonishing amount of good by tact, diplomacy, patience and hard-learned common sense.
The pressure on them grows daily. One said to me that the recreation of real imprisonment in the programme was extraordinarily accurate – ‘except for the drugs, the violence and the suicides’.
Of course, I would never have voluntarily endured the full horror and real danger of many modern British prisons. But the toned-down version I underwent was quite scary enough. There is far more to tell than this, extraordinary dramas, moving and distressing moments, a real personal redemption, masses of humour and anger, the numerous times when I was genuinely physically scared and genuinely miserable and yearning to get out.
I hope with all my heart that when it comes to our screens this autumn, many millions will watch and see something that will astonish and enthral them, and make them think.