Behind Bars In Britain’s Failing Prisons
by Vicky Pryce
315 pages, Biteback
Review by Pat Black
Vicky Pryce is an internationally renowned economist. She worked at the highest levels in the private sector with KPMG before taking a role with the British government, but she found herself in a spot of bother a few years ago and ended up spending some time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
Prisonomics is Pryce’s prison diary, fashioned with the tools of her trade.
Don’t interrupt, it’s rude.
The book opens with Pryce’s stomach-borgling realisation that she is going to be sent to the big house, and looks at how she prepared herself for a berth at HMP Holloway, one of the UK’s most famous – or notorious – women’s prisons.
She wasn’t in there long before the much more sensible decision was taken to transfer her to East Sutton Park, an open prison set in some lovely grounds with a much more relaxed regime.
In a minute, please. Amma let you speak.
Pryce doesn’t have a bad word to say about her fellow inmates in either institution. Most of them are sympathetic to her plight, and accept that there was little sense in sending Pryce to the clink in the first place. There’s a spot of sisterhood going on there, regardless of social status, which cheered me.
Pryce doesn’t shy away from the fact that some of her fellow inmates have been convicted of major crimes (though lots of them reckon they’ve been set up, or shafted by lawyers, excuses familiar to most of us from Shawshank). But she is emphatic on two points: British prisons waste a lot of money, and in many cases jail time does not work, either as a deterrent or as a corrective measure for society. From an economist’s point of view, this doesn’t make any sense.
This is especially true of women’s prisons, where, Pryce argues, the majority of the inmates shouldn’t be there in the first place, having been exploited by men and punished on their behalf, before being torn to shreds by the justice system.
“Yeah, that’s what I want to ask. How did…”
Yeah, just… two minutes. Okay? Jeez. Tough crowd in here tonight.
Pryce lets us know about the prisoners who are trying hard to reintegrate into society through work programmes, and the various barriers society has set up to stymie former inmates to this end. She also applauds the companies who actively seek to employ former prisoners. There’s a crushing irony in Timpson’s being so good at hiring people who were previously under lock and key, but fair play to them.
Then there’s the added heartbreak of women with children who are sent to jail – the disasters wreaked on homes without income, the childcare issues, the trauma suffered by motherless children.
Balancing this, the camaraderie between the girls is heart-warming, though it will probably disappoint aficionados of women’s prison movies of the 1970s.
The latter section of the book concerns Vicky Pryce’s proposals for how she would change the system, and forms an argument for how prison just doesn’t work except when there is a clear public protection issue. Even the sense of satisfaction the public gets when a criminal is punished is transitory, Pryce argues.
“For god’s sake, just STOP. Don’t make me Google it, Pat. I want you to tell me. What did she get sent to prison for?”
I was coming to that, angry pants.
Vicky Pryce doesn’t say much about this side of it, which is a shame, as it’s one of the most jaw-dropping, Shakespearean downfalls I can remember in British politics since Lord Archer got to find out who was First Among Equals behind bars.
I don’t say this to shame her, though. In many ways, the fact that the author ended up in jail perfectly illustrates the flaws in the system.
In 2003, Vicky Pryce took the economically sound decision to accept some penalty points on her driving licence on behalf of her then-husband, the former Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne, when he was caught by a speed camera. This is something thousands of people have done for their partners, I would bet. In the UK, you can lose your licence if you go over 12 points, and Mr Huhne was very close to the red line. Losing your licence is not an economically attractive prospect if you have to drive a lot for work. Pryce took one for the team.
Fast-forward 10 years. Huhne is now a Cabinet minister, after the Lib Dems landed on their feet in the 2010 elections and formed a coalition with the Conservative party. But, uh-oh – here comes Mr Dick! Huhne had an affair with a political campaigner, who was in a relationship with another woman at the time. Hear that pitty-pat sound? That’s an echo of tabloid editors salivating on their desks once this information got loose.
The father-of-three decided to end his 26-year marriage to Pryce and set up home with his new lover.
Vicky Pryce is from Athens, and it’s tempting to say something culturally clichéd about messing Greek women around at your absolute peril – so I will.
This Fury basically set out to get him. She leaked information to a national newspaper about Huhne’s speeding points dishonesty “on behalf of another person”, which is of course against the law.
Unfortunately, accepting the points also constitutes a crime. After a police investigation, they were both charged with perverting the course of justice, convicted, and sent to jail for eight months each. Huhne has the distinction of being the first Cabinet minister in British political history to resign over a criminal investigation. They were forced to appear side-by-side in the dock when they were sent down. The drama was irresistible.
They weren’t the only ones caught in this particularly sticky web. Constance Briscoe, a barrister and recorder (senior judicial officer) who was one of the most prominent black women in the British legal system was exposed as an accomplice in Pryce’s plot. She arguably suffered the worst out of the three, being found guilty of three counts of perverting the course of justice and jailed for 16 months, with a high-flying career utterly destroyed.
At no point in Prisonomics does Vicky Pryce examine her thirst for revenge and where it led her and others. Guilt is not part of her formula. There are a couple of brief statements of fact, and nothing else.
I saw Pryce speak at a literary festival when this book was launched, and when someone from the audience asked if she regretted taking revenge on her ex-husband, she would only say: “I was punished, and I accept that.”
I get that; it’s even admirable, because she could equally have had a whinge about how she shouldn’t have been anywhere near a court, never mind a prison. Not because she’s a big important public figure or anything - I just don’t think three speeding points is worth jailing anyone for. There are better ways the justice system could engage its time and the public’s money, I would have thought.
I also get that perverting the course of justice is a very serious crime, but we’re not talking about disposing of a body or concealing evidence of industrial-scale embezzlement, here.
Pryce’s downfall was utterly incredible, though. And it’s a shame she doesn’t want to talk about it, because this is the meat and bones of her personal story. Despite her amazing career, it’s what she will ultimately be remembered for by the British public. I’ve gone into more detail about that side of it here than she manages in 300 pages.
There’s also no mention of what her ex-husband, Chris Huhne, might have suffered as he began his sentence in big boy jail. Whenever a politician is sent down, there is usually a clamour among what we might term the competitive element in the prison estate to give him a warm welcome. If Huhne was lucky, this might only have amounted to a punch in the mouth. I would bet his prison diaries contain a lot more terror than Pryce’s concerns about her hoard of custard creams being confiscated.
This is a very worthy book, told with great sympathy and sensitivity by a hard-working, conscientious woman. She has some interesting points to make about the effectiveness of the prison system in this country. Crucially, she is an optimist: she thinks she can make things better, or at least more efficient, and that’s worth your time alone.
Economics are never the whole story, though.