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The Embarrassing Truth About Britain's Prisons

Updated on August 30, 2014

I am in the middle of watching the Channel 4 documentary Lifers and I’m so shocked by the first 3 minutes and 44 seconds that I’ve had to stop. For the unaware, Lifers is an inside look at the “judicial system” in England. I have used inverted commas because the past few minutes have been a complete joke. So much so that I want to laugh. And not because it’s funny.

I have a bizarre fascination with prisons. I don’t see it as unhealthy, nor do I think it stems from a gratification that I might get from some kind of horrible superiority; I’m genuinely just compelled by how they work and what kind of people wind up there. The recent surge in prison documentaries would suggest that the general public share my morbid curiosity; Lifers has done what the controversial Miami Mega Jail did not and left me pretty speechless.

True to their controversial form, the Cutting Edge team at Channel 4 have done far more than they said on the tin. Said tin explains that ‘Cutting Edge meets the convicted killers facing a lifetime behind bars at Gartree Prison in Leicestershire, home to Europe’s largest population of life-sentenced prisoners.’ It sounds a little scary and more than a little sad; it sounds a little gory and more than a little thought-provoking and all of these are reasons why I tuned in. But here I am, less than five minutes in and I can’t help but think what a laughing stock the British prison system is and that’s it’s an unfathomable waste of taxpayers’ money.

The first inmate that the team meet is Philip Hegarty, sentenced to natural life for a murder so violent that the victim’s skull was shattered into pieces. Upon his arrival, he saunters around the prison like someone who’s here by mistake; there are no cuffs nor obvious security measures for the television crew or for the two prison officers who seem to be welcoming Hegarty to some sort of grimy hotel. As the inmate says himself, he has nothing to lose and so if he were to kill these two officers in front of him, what more could be done with him? After the prison staff are done checking that he hasn’t smuggled any drugs amongst his packets of coffee and Hobnobs, Hegarty saunters to his cell, says that it’s dirty and then lights a cigarette in the doorway.

This lack of security seems alarming to me when Gartree is home to more murderers than any other prison in Britain. Shaun is filmed in his cell with the door wide open. Soon after his arrival at Gartree 12 years ago, Shaun was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome and so it is with some sympathy that I listen to the hazy account of the random attack on a stranger in 1999 that saw him imprisoned for manslaughter. He was and is clearly a man in need of significant help and support but was not diagnosed in time and seems not to understand that his actions may mean that he remains in prison for the rest of his life.

But life doesn’t always mean life. With all life sentences, there is an often scarily short minimum sentence that must be served before a team of psychologists can deem you safe enough for early release. Shaun for example was told he would serve a minimum of 9 years but the team meet him during his 12th year of incarceration. He is asked whether he thinks himself likely to re-offend; he says personally he doesn’t but as he knows, “unexpected things can happen”. The Senior Forensic Psychologist says that she will not allow a prisoner to be released until he proves that he is no longer a threat to society and that she wants to see genuine remorse. Ozzy, a heavily tattooed lifer says that all you have to do is agree with whatever they say and you can get parole and early release…..which he does.

Of course, there are some who don’t regret the actions that sent them to prison. That’s a disturbing reality but it’s one that begins to make sense the more we learn about their daily lives within Gartree. Keiron’s a convicted murderer whose earliest possible release date is 2025; he says that had he not beaten a friend to death in 2006 then he would not have got the qualifications he has now earned. This is before he complains that the Christmas Day lunch at Gatree really isn’t very nice. Chris, serving a minimum of 23 years for his part in a street robbery and murder has a room that looks very much like my room at boarding school. He’s got a TV, photos on the wall, a nice V shaped pillow, a laundry service on his doorstep and two budgies.

In many US states, these men would be placed on Death Row and locked up for twenty three hours a day. In Russia, prisoners are marched around the compound with their heads bent right down so that they cannot ever determine a map of the prison. I’m not advocating the reinstating of capital punishment in Britain, nor am I suggesting that the whole world adopt Gulag style camps as a way of punishing but when Lance, a lifer at Gartree who murdered a disabled man in 2007 explains that prison is the best place to be right now because it’s too hard to get a job on the outside at the moment, there must be a flaw in the system? Lance loves prison; he gets three meals a day, a comfy bed, access to further education and a PlayStation where he and his mates can play Call of Duty so why would he want to leave? He’s right but his logic is hideous.

Director Tim Wardle and his team have been fearless. In their documentation of daily life behind UK bars, they’ve highlighted some serious flaws in the system and pointed out a terrifying truth of prisoners’ attitudes to their own incarceration. I seem to have been more restricted at school than these people are in one of Britain’s toughest prisons; and that really isn’t right.


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