There are times when I really hate to be proved right. This is one of those occasions. Exactly a month ago I posted a piece on this blog about the forthcoming prison memoirs of former Labour minister and MP Denis MacShane, written after he had served just six weeks in the slammer having been sent down for bogus parliamentary expense claims. I expressed surprise that he felt able to produce an entire book based on such a short period as a guest of Her Majesty.
I wrote: “... let's hope Mr MacShane's weighty contribution to the ever-expanding shelf of prison memoirs won't be a "poor me" whinge that trivialises one of the most traumatic experiences a person in Britain can live through and simply does disservice to the movement for radical prison reform.” Fat chance. I suppose we should be grateful that at least he didn't publish it under his prison number like Jeffery Archer did with the first volume of his prison diaries.
This morning I was reading the online version of the Mail on Sunday and chanced upon some extracts from his Prison Diaries (price £20.00). That’ll be two full weeks of average prison wages should any inmate really want to wallow in self-pity with Mr MacShane. Even the fact that the Mail is flogging it at a discount rate through its online bookshop should be a warning to the wise. Of course, I also want to make it clear that I’ve not read the whole book, just the online extracts, so I want to be as fair as I can.
I feel I should declare from the outset that I once had some personal contact with Mr MacShane back in the days when he was a backbencher in opposition and willing to investigate wrongdoing in high places. We managed to get a Parliamentary Question asked with his help and some front-page national newspaper coverage of a fairly serious foreign policy embarrassment for the government of John Major. Mr MacShane seemed to me to be a decent bloke, so this rather negative review of what has been published of his book so far certainly isn’t based on any personal axe I might have to grind.
As far as it goes, his description of HMP Belmarsh – one of the UK’s less pleasant nicks – seems about right. I’m lucky in that I’ve never been banged up there, but I know a lot of fellow cons who have. I’m told it’s pretty horrific, although nothing like as bad as Pentonville which is the London prison that male prisoners on appeal stay over at when their cases reach the Court of Appeal. Mr MacShane at least got a single cell.
I can’t quibble with his description of the filthy state of his first pad (cell). It all bears the hallmarks of truth, right down to the suspected dried blood on the inside of the cell door. Anyway, he was soon off to Brixton.
I remember being placed in an induction cell that was – quite literally – covered with blood from the last inhabitant who had slit both his wrists with a prison-issue razor blade. Everything was covered with barely dried blood spatter, including the floor, the walls, the window bars, the toilet, the sink and the mattress. Despite strict prison rules on the special measures to be adopted for the cleaning up of contaminated areas – blood always being a serious concern owing to the presence of both Hep B and C in the prison population – I was just given an ordinary mop, bucket and a hand-brush to get it sorted out. Not even a pair of disposable gloves.
|Mobile phone photo of Belmarsh cell|
Fortunately, when the duty nurse came to do some checks and I showed her the bloody hand-prints on the walls and the thick pools of congealed blood on the floor, she got me and my pad-mate out pretty damn quickly. When I put in a formal written complaint (Comp 1), I did actually get an apology from the deputy governor – the only one I’ve ever received inside.
What I do find very distasteful in those diary entries I’ve read so far is Mr MacShane’s name-dropping of his fellow prisoners, particularly more notorious ones that readers are likely to recognise. This is a pretty mean and nasty trick to pull, particularly from someone who was inside for just a few weeks and could never have got to know these individuals on a personal level. Presumably it makes this thin volume a bit more saleable in this age of salacious exposés. Even Lord Archer had the common decency not to identify fellow cons by full name in his own, much more extensive, prison diaries.
When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision never to identify any specific fellow cons in my writing. The sole exception would be in those instances where I have been asked by the person concerned to assist them in miscarriage of justice cases and they have given written permission for me to publicise their situation. I regard anything else as purely exploitative behaviour and it’s a real shame that Mr MacShane hasn’t realised this. Perhaps it’s because he’s done so little time in jail – or perhaps because his publisher demanded he name some of the 'bad bastards' he’d met inside.
I suppose I also find it very disappointing that Mr MacShane seems far too preoccupied with his own situation to really look at the impact of incarceration on his fellow cons, many of whom will be living in these conditions for years, perhaps decades. Taken together with his rather distasteful self-justification of his own behaviour over the expenses scandal, the published excerpts of his diary are everything I really hoped they wouldn’t be… self-pitying and full of complaints about the daily privations and humiliations of life in the nick. “Boo hoo, poor me!” It’s something that Jonathan Aitken, another disgraced politician, managed to avoid in his own prison memoirs – which I think are among the better examples of their kind.
In the interests of fairness, I’ll reserve final judgement on Mr MacShane’s slim contribution to the history of prison literature until I’ve had a chance to read the whole thing, which I’ll borrow from the local library, not buy from the Daily Mail’s online bookshop. However, I do get the distinct impression that this is a missed opportunity by someone who was once a member of the UK’s ruling elite to make a meaningful contribution to the current debate about prison and its failure to rehabilitate or reform. Better not to have promised, than to have promised and not delivered.