In the week since Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce were given prison sentences for perverting the course of justice there has been an upsurge in interest from both media and public about the nature of prison life and what the infamous ex-couple can expect.
Much speculation has centred on whether the experience of imprisonment is, as the tabloids would have us believe, more painful for middle-class people. We have read about Chris Huhne’s fall from grace and Vicky Pryce’s vulnerability as if poorer people with a lesser sense of entitlement were somehow also less vulnerable, less sentient, more inured to loss and terror, more accustomed to being deprived of their rights and their freedoms. In contrast, I firmly believe that imprisonment is less frightening and less damaging for people such as Huhne and Pryce than it is for someone of lesser status, lesser means, lesser power.
Of course imprisonment will have come as a shock. Loss of control over what to do, what to say, what to wear, what to eat and where to go is disorientating for any first-time prisoner. You don’t know the questions, let alone the answers. Most frightening is the inability to open your own door. The experience of being locked in a cell with a blank plate where the inner handle should be is utterly terrifying, both claustrophobic and disempowering. And locked in with you is that total stranger, your cellmate. A convicted criminal. Just like you.
However, on their reception to prison, Huhne and Pryce were buoyed by money, contacts, access to the best legal advice and, unlike the vast majority of first-time prisoners, they have the security of knowing that, when they are released, they will have homes to go to, money to spend, friends and family to support them. They will not be left unemployed and destitute with nothing but the meagre discharge grant to live off until the next benefit cheque arrives (see PDF).
The confidence that comes from knowing that ‘outside’ is secure makes prison a much less frightening and dehumanising experience for relatively wealthy middle class prisoners than it can be for those who have no money, no power, no external support.
A first night in custody will always be terrifying but imagine how much more terrifying it is if, as a result of your imprisonment, your children will be taken into care, your pets will go hungry, your home will be lost – and with it your belongings because you have no-one to take charge of your affairs.
If you were lucky enough to have a job, the one thing that stood between you and poverty, this too will disappear. And how frightening is the prospect of release if you have nowhere familiar to go and no familiar face to turn to.
Huhne and Pryce were also buoyed by the knowledge that they would soon – and rightly – be moved to more open conditions. Indeed, Pryce has already been transferred. Sentences of imprisonment are given as punishment not for punishment. The key is loss of freedom and self-determination.
‘Open conditions’ is not a reward for good behaviour. The Prison Service is obliged to hold prisoners in conditions of the lowest possible security but because of the limitations of the prison estate this is not always possible: available accommodation never perfectly matches the prison population and the culture of the Home Office is risk-averse, to protect the public but also to avoid adverse media reaction.
Don’t believe the hype
Huhne and Pryce pose no risk of abscond. Their self-control will prevent them from fleeing an unwalled prison and, if they did, a tabloid journalist would soon be on the trail.
But don’t be fooled: open conditions is still imprisonment. Don’t buy into the mythology peddled by mainstream media that prisons are holiday camps or that prisoners are somehow ‘other’, somehow not ‘people like us’. There is an unacknowledged continuum between life inside and outside prison. All prisoners have lived in the community before entering prison and the vast majority will return to the community at the end of their sentence.
And there but for the grace of God…..
To this extent prisoners are just like us. Remember, however, that male prisoners are 14 times as likely as the general population to have two mental health disorders while the figure for female prisoners is an astonishing 35 times more likely – see HERE.
So prisoners are people like us but more vulnerable, with greater levels of need and poorer coping strategies. More than a quarter of the prison population will have been in the care of the local authority at some time before their 18th birthday: unaccustomed to forming lasting relationships, with a history of transience and of fragmented family support.
Sadly, there are a very few people for whom imprisonment is a period of respite. Those with no roots, no friends, no family, no means of support, those with acute mental illness, those who frequent homeless shelters and soup kitchens, those for whom prison provides the food, water, shelter and warmth which may be absent from their daily lives.
Don’t criticise the Prison Service for providing more comfort inside than some experience outside. Reproach rather the society that is tolerant of people living their lives in conditions which are worse than those of prison.
So whilst it will undoubtedly be a salutary experience for Huhne and Pryce, whilst it will force them to face themselves, whilst it will bring them into close contact with people with whom they are unused to socialising; neither imprisonment nor release will strike more terror into their hearts than into the hearts of many of their peers, those without the money, contacts and power enjoyed by the current first ex-couple of the state. Because when it comes to imprisonment, class matters.
Rachel worked for Her Majesty's prison service from 1992 to 2001, starting as an officer at HMP Brixton and finishing as a deputy governor at HMP The Verne. She is a qualified teacher and currently works in the field of children's rights. You can follow her on twitter at @DorsetRachel.