Sunday, January 4, 2015

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The Perils of the Celebrity Con

Alex Cavendish from November last looks at the phenomenon of celebrities in prison. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View. 

Although there has always been a tendency to romanticise certain types of crime – and those who commit these offences from Robin Hood to the Great Train Robbers – the cult of the ‘celebrity con’ is a rather newer phenomenon, at least in Britain. Unfortunately, their brief prison experiences – and thin memoirs – often give a dangerously skewed snapshot of life inside the nick that overlooks many of the real scandals and horror stories.

Robin Hood: first celebrity blagger?
In part, this is because there has been a major change in the type of prisoner who achieves celebrity status. The traditional pattern was that the British public developed a sneaking, and often misplaced, admiration for what were seen as clever or daring crooks, especially those who nicked large sums of cash or valuable jewels.

The late Ronnie Biggs was considered classy in some circles because he had been part of an audacious robbery against the state – and had then managed to escape from HMP Wandsworth by climbing over the wall using a rope ladder, making the security arrangements look pathetic. He then remained at large for 36 years, cocking a snook at the British establishment while playing the role of the playboy ‘blagger’ in Australia and Brazil before old age and infirmity got the better of him.

In 2001 he returned to Britain, accompanied by a predictable blaze of media publicity, to face the music and another eight years in the slammer before he was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 and later died in a care home in 2013. However, Biggs’ fame came about because of his criminal activities; he wasn’t a celebrity who ended up in jail.
Andy Coulson: not your average con
The recent release on licence of former News of the World editor and Downing Street spin doctor, Andy Coulson, has spawned the usual media commentaries about how he will find life after having served five months of his 18-month prison sentence for conspiracy to intercept voicemails (aka phone hacking). Our old friend (and fellow ex-con) Denis MacShane has been quick to pen a piece for The Guardian, in the form of an open letter, about how life after prison will be for celebrity cons like Mr Coulson.

When I read this piece of classic media puffery, I will admit that I laughed out loud. No doubt ex-Labour minister Mr MacShane will think I’ve got it in for him in some way. I really don’t. As I felt obliged to disclose in a previous blog post review of his slim volume of a prison diary – Denis MacShane... Boo Hoo Poor Me! – I actually did some media work with him years ago when he was a backbench MP and I found him to be a very decent bloke. It’s just that his literary output since he was released after serving just six weeks – yes, that’s right, six weeks (not months or even years) – in prison following his 2013 conviction over his parliamentary expense claims continues to amaze me.

In the space of a few paragraphs in his latest missive, Mr MacShane manages an impressive range of name-dropping including fitting in a post-release lunch with both Tony Blair and Labour’s worse than useless former Home Secretary David Blunkett – he who launched the catastrophic Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) that has left thousands of cons in limbo after serving sentences that have turned out to be many years longer than their minimum tariffs. I hope Mr MacShane told Mr Blunkett a few home truths about the real human cost of his inhumane, tabloid headline-grabbing IPP policy, but somehow I very much doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if our former Labour minister for Europe really can’t tell an IPP from a PPI.
Denis MacShane: IPP or PPI?
Then he tops it all off with a splendid piece of self-indulgence that I can’t resist repeating here, just in case any blog reader missed it. Writing of his time on Home Detention Curfew (HDC) or ‘tag’ Mr MacShane writes:
I just organised loads of tag dinners at home and MPs, ambassadors, editors, judges, writers, other friends and family came round with wine and good cheer. They knew the truth and were pleased for the first time in their lives to have someone to report first-hand on Belmarsh and Brixton.

I’m sure that all these luminaries were thrilled to be in the company of a real-life ex-con who could regale them with tales of bang-up and wicked inmates. And all condensed into a mere six weeks. How very clever of him. He then goes on to observe: “I wouldn’t have missed Belmarsh for anything in the world.” Hmmm. I doubt that Belmarsh – aka ‘Hellmarsh’ – and its long-suffering cons feel so nostalgic about Mr MacShane.
HMP Belmarsh: celebrity status
As an ex-prisoner myself I think that one of the problems with this kind of journalism is that most of the ‘celebrity’ cons – mainly former politicians or journalists – who take up the pen about their prison experiences have rarely served a sentence of more than a few months (or even a few weeks, like Mr MacShane). Jeffrey Archer is a rare exception to this rule since at least he did a longer stretch than most (half of a four-year sentence for perjury).

They are also all determinate sentenced prisoners who serve a fixed term. Because of this type of sentence they never experience the stresses of parole hearings, rejections (‘knock backs’) or the issues raised by repeated transfers across the prison system that disrupt education courses, work and family visits. They aren’t likely to get bullied into trafficking drugs or paying protection money (‘taxing’) to the wing bullies or gangs.

Unlike the legacy cases left by the now totally discredited IPP sentence, these celebrities don’t find themselves still serving time nine years after having been given a minimum tariff of nine months or less, yet still have no real prospect of being released owing to a shortage of appropriate courses and a risk-adverse Parole Board. They aren’t ever likely to experience the mind-numbing and soul-destroying existence of 23-hour a day solitary confinement on the Basic regime because they are suffering from mental illness and can’t cope with the rigours of prison life. At least if Mr MacShane had done a stint on Basic, he might have had something useful to tell his well-heeled dinner guests about our failing penal system.

Moreover, most celebrities are sent to a Cat-B local nick for a few weeks and then to a Cat-D (open prison). This means that their experience of the prison system is usually extremely limited and, although they may perceive that they are being treated 
‘unjustly’ (Mr Coulson being kept at HMP Belmarsh a bit longer than might have been expected) there is no denying that most prison staff avoid mistreating them precisely because they don’t fancy seeing their names splashed all over The Guardian or in a slim volume of prison memoirs a few months down the road.
Lunching with cons
Since your average con has problems with reading and writing, and in any case isn’t likely to be having lunch with Tony Blair or a judge or ambassador anytime soon, giving them a hard time on the wing doesn’t carry any real risks. A prisoner from a powerful and privileged background doesn’t just check in his or her social, economic and educational advantages when they go through prison Reception.

Fallen politicians and media types still have the power to cause trouble for screws and governors, so they tend to be treated with kid gloves – whether consciously or subconsciously. A sense of entitlement does tend to work both ways.

What I really don’t see much evidence of in the output of these celebrities is any appreciation of the terrible human cost of prison, particularly during the current crisis in which overcrowding and understaffing are driving up the rates for suicide and self-harm. Violence – against staff and inmates alike – and the easy availability of drugs and mobile phones seems to be regarded as ‘collateral damage’ amid Ministry of Justice cost-cutting.
Steel guitar strings: ban dropped
Real efforts to support rehabilitation were never taken that seriously even prior to Chris Grayling’s wilful destruction of the Prison Service, now it’s seen as nothing more than a bad joke, like the ridiculous ban on steel stringed guitars (now lifted) or the absurd limit of 12 books per prisoner (now also dropped). Presumably when you’re only doing a proverbial ‘shit and a shave’ sentence of a few weeks or a couple of months, these issues don’t impact much on your daily life, even if they can prove life-changing and deeply demoralising for cons who are facing years or decades inside.

Pretending that former politicians, hacks and other celebrities are treated just like any other con, whether by staff or fellow inmates, is ludicrous and, deep down, I think we all know it. Well-educated, socially privileged and with powerful friends outside, their prison experience bears little or no relation to the reality of hard time behind bars for tens of thousands of other men and women, innocent or guilty.


AM said...

Another good piece from Alex Cavendish on the celebrity in jail. They write memoirs as if they were real participant observers but in what sense could there be any real substance to that? I doubt if Denis McShane could ever describe the rigours of the regime and the malevolence of a core element of prison staff in a way that Jimmy Boyle did.

Simon said...

Personally I found the rules on parcels and the ban on sending books to prisoners repugnant.

Stopping the influx of drugs or other contraband is vital but banning someone receiving a book in a parcel is just counterproductive.

Some fool had this bright idea. Obviously not a reader themselves or they would know the power of a book to bring escapism (not that kind) and education, empathy and heartwarming or mind-changing knowledge. A book (apart from those by celebrity cons) is like nothing else and without the right to read I would possibly, and particularly in a situation of incarceration, turn to drugs.

I would be at the end of my tether at any rate.

People with the power to choose something they'd actually like to read are more likely to enjoy it and keep reading. How else do the government expect a prisoner to spend their time? Or to improve themselves on terms they don't look at as a chore.

AM said...


during the blanket protest there were no books for years: not a single one apart from the Bible which I refused to read. It was the product of a deeply punitive mindset. Our "reading" took the form of people who told a story out the cell door. Some of the boys were brilliant. Many people refer to Bobby Sands telling Jet but I wasn't on his wing and never heard it. The best of the lot that I ever heard was one from a big Derry guy - 'O'D' - which he called America. I think he made it up but it was superb. The tension at the finish was something else. I think it was the only one he ever told. There were a few stand alone ones which hit the spot. Sean Nash from Lurgan told a French espionage one about a guy called Pierre and Paddy Molloy told a thriller about a guy wrongly convicted who then went on the revenge trail. They stand out as great stories, all one offs if I recall.

I think depriving people of the means to read is pernicious. When Grayling tried it on in England I was glad there was such a kick up. Years ago it was the done thing so it shows how attitudes have shifted.

Simon said...

AM, I remember reading in books and online about how political prisoners in Long Kesh told stories, poems and learnt Irish. Some were as simple as retelling the story of a film others were remembered books or simply created from the prisoner's own imagination.

Papillon by Henri Charriere explains how a prisoner's imagination can get a power unlike anybody else's particularly during solitary confinement.

The days of the old Fenians in Victorian prisons when they could read nothing or even speak to another prisoner would be back before you know it if some of these fools in power had their way.

AM said...


it would be chained to the wall and bread and water diet on a good day.

I read Papillion in jail when I was 17. Loved it. Read Borstal Boy a month or two before that when I was 16 ... and in jail!!

Simon said...

I read both around the same age. Borstal Boy and Papillon were in my family's collection so were there for years before I went to read them. We had a nice collection of about thirty books and I was very lucky as my parents and grandparents, even my siblings encouraged me to read and bought me books on special occasions.

I had my own collection. Mostly things like Ben Elton, Tolkien, Spike Milligan's war memoirs. I bought the first printing of Ten Men Dead, then some Martin Dillon. We also had Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and I picked up Chickenhawk and Once a Warrior King around then.

Now my three main interests are Irish history, the American West and the Vietnam War.

I have read enough dross as well to know when to steer clear of a probable stinker. Too many popular fiction titles can seem a waste of time.