Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: I have been shocked to my core by Wandsworth prison

The chief inspector of prisons reports that conditions inside are squalid. As a lifelong prison campaigner, I'm disgusted that people are treated this way
May 10, 2024

I have visited and performed in many prisons since the 1980s, when I went to HMP Long Lartin, one of the toughest jails in the country, to do a poetry reading with a team of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. I confess to being unconvinced that an audience of mainly lifers would appreciate our choices, especially one of a poem by TS Eliot that I didn’t understand myself. But they did and were spellbound.

I have on my wall a painting by one of those men, with whom I carried on a long correspondence. After he died, someone sent me a watercolour that he wanted me to have, of a big bruiser seemingly battling a gale, with a small blonde figure holding his arm, fighting beside him. Since then, I have feebly campaigned for reform of our prisons. There is a little of “there but for the grace of God” in my interest.

As an eight-year-old child, when I was evacuated during the war, I was the member of a gang of older kids called the Vaccies. We fought with the locals. When cornered I was a vicious fighter, and if knives had been the modus operandi then—with my childish rage against the frightening wartime world—I can’t swear I wouldn’t have carried one. I was also a prolific shoplifter. I was blessed by having teachers and parents who eventually led me down a better path. My husband John Thaw also said that had he not been rescued by two perceptive teachers, he would definitely have been a criminal.

That well-known lover of humanity, Priti Patel, declared her objective in dealing with criminals was to make them “literally feel terror at the thought of committing offences.” It is strange that our prisons are full of poor, scared people, whereas those who kill by dodgy building methods or who falsely condemn post office workers get away scot-free.

The government advocates being more robust in how it deals with social problems. “Robust”? Cruel. Imprison rough sleepers, transport asylum seekers, lock ’em up and throw away the key. The political parties fight over who is toughest on crime. Yet a punitive approach isn’t succeeding. Almost 50 per cent of prisoners reoffend within a year of leaving prison and over 50 per cent come out barely literate, ill-equipped to make an honest living. Punishment is considered preferable to seizing an opportunity to educate and turn around chaotic lives. It costs nearly £50,000 a year imprison someone—all that money to teach an offender an encyclopaedic knowledge of drugs and additional criminal expertise. How does this happen?

In April I went to a meeting organised by a remarkable Wandsworth Quaker, Liz Bridge. She’s been sacked from her voluntary job of chaplain in the local prison for giving a few quid to an inmate who was about to be dumped onto the street outside with nothing but his leaving grant of £89.52. He didn’t even have a map of Wandsworth and Clapham Common to help him get to the tube station.

Liz, who is one of those wonderful middle-aged, middle-class women who get things done, decided that if she could no longer help the men that she had learnt to love during her seven years of volunteering, she would reveal the truth about what was going on inside jails.

She and her fellow Quakers set up a meeting in a very big church in the area, with several ex-offenders and families of inmates. The church was packed with locals and people like me who were reduced to tears of shame at the stories that unfolded. I have visited many prisons but have seldom been allowed onto the worst wings, so I have a sanitised view of what prison is like. And God knows what I’ve seen is bad enough

Imagine, as you read this in your comfy chair or sitting out in the sun, what it would be like to be locked up for 23 hours a day, in a cell built in 1851 for one person, but which you must share with a stranger. Perhaps the stranger has a mental or physical illness that is out of control because of the frequent non-delivery of medication. Any medical appointments to manage his condition are usually long-delayed, and being forced to appear in public in handcuffs is not conducive to recovery.

The cell has two bunkbeds, a ledge for a table and, in full view, a frequently out-of-order toilet. There is only room for one chair, so you have to eat the appalling food crouched on the lower bunk or sitting on the lavatory. At night you will put a wet towel down in front of the door in an attempt to keep the cockroaches at bay. If you’re allowed out for one hour—and sometimes you are not— the yard will be covered in bird excrement. Your prison garb is probably several sizes too small or large, and rather than use the laundry in your precious hour, you will wash it in the tiny sink in the cell, if the tap is working. You would probably not waste time queueing to use one of the six showers provided for an average of 300 men on a wing, when you would rather take a few gulps of air along with the rats in the squalid little yard.

There is no work or study to occupy your mind, apart from in the kitchen, where the rats are better fed than the prisoners. (Pentonville prison kitchen has at long last been closed down to deal with the vermin, so God knows what my friends there are eating.)

At the meeting, the ex-offenders tell us that Wandsworth is lawless and out of control. Assaults are frequent on the young and inexperienced screws (although one gained admiration when an angry inmate shouted, “You Polish c***” and he replied “No, I’m Latvian.”) Being a guard is a dangerous and depressing job, so it’s no wonder that there are half the numbers in Wandsworth than necessary. I personally would grab anything to deaden the pain of facing this existence for an indefinite period. Testimony from one man said he came out of Wandsworth mentally dead. Having shared a cell with self-harming, suicidal men, he had learned to squash any fruitless sympathy. One of the best ways to help a miscreant is to use mediation to teach them empathy for the victim. Prison causes the opposite—a hardening of the spirit.

There are many proven better ways to redirect rule breakers onto a straight path, using the kindness and respect that we want them to show others, as happened with John and me. There will always be people who need to be kept in prison for their own and society’s safety, but surely we cannot consider ourselves civilised if we treat any of our fellow human beings in this way.

Since I finished my first draft of this article, the news broke of the results of Chief Prison Inspector Charlie Taylor’s report. Yesterday he issued a notification to the Ministry of Justice, asking for the prison to be placed into emergency measures to deal with the “cramped and squalid conditions”. The Quaker’s campaigning had borne fruit. The beleaguered governor has also resigned. But the pressure must continue to make sure the prisoners see better conditions. What is going to be done to keep them and us safe?