Guardian. Comment is Free 21 November 2014
Welcome back, Andy Coulson. Let me tell you about life after prison
So glad you are out. I bet every hour inside seemed a day. Now you can join the long list of the famous ex-prisoner Brits including Mick Jagger, Bertrand Russell,Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Stephen Fry and Gerald Ronson.
It’s much better outside than in, though. I was back in Brixton recently and keep in touch with Old Belmarshians. I found there was rather more truth and self-awareness in prison than in the tea-room of the House of Commons, and I bet you found prisoners and prison officers nicer than some of your former journalist friends, especially those writing all the moralising editorials about you before returning to the fraud of writing their expenses claims.
Someone once said that your sentence only really begins in England when you leave prison. Like me, you will have been given £46 – the money all discharged prisoners receive and unchanged since 1996 – and that’s it. You and I had a house and savings to return to, but many non-violent crime prisoners leave to find their home and family have disintegrated under the pressure of months of waiting for the trial, and then today’s ideology of mass incarceration.
How are you enjoying the tag? I liked the ceremony of fitting the neat little plastic bracelet around my ankle and finding a place in my house for the monitor. My tag time was 7pm-7am. Like Cinderella, I always worried about getting home in time.
Of course you and I and most of those convicted of non-violent offences could have been tagged from day one, but our judges, politicians, the Crown Prosecution Service and, ahem, our tabloid editors have an almost religious belief that throwing as many people into prison as possible is good for Britain.
Your former boss, David Cameron, has twice as many prisoners on his watch as Margaret Thatcher. The atavistic calls to throw more people into prison and deny any return to their former jobs grow in tempo and ugliness.
My tag was a minor bore. So many asked about mine I was tempted to charge £5 a look and £10 to touch. 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. Like me, you are doing your tag time in winter, so staying at home 7pm-7am for a few weeks won’t be too much of a chore.
The hardest part for me – and I suspect you – will be the psychological adjustment. Everyone in the political-media world knows that far from you being the only editor or journalist who took part in hacking and invasion of privacy, there are loads who did and nothing happened to them, just as I can name MPs and ministers today who fiddled the expenses system for personal profit – something no one accused me of – and who escaped without a mark on their character.
So you will ask yourself, as I did: “Why me?” All I can say is that life happens. If I hear another senior judge friend tell me that what they and the CPS do has nothing to do with justice or truth but is about social order, I will yawn, but the plain fact is that this weird thing called society or public opinion needed some to be punished after the double scandal of MPs’ expenses and phone hacking. Unlike Admiral Byng we are both now free and on to new lives. I hope David Cameron has the decency to invite you around for coffee or lunch as Tony Blair and David Blunkett did once I was out.
You worked hard and loyally for the prime minister. You made a mistake. Some editors shop their sources to the state and avoid sanction. Others eavesdrop on sources and go to prison. You were part of a culture that reached across journalism. Many MPs have made a point of extending a hug to me with the whisper “There but for the grace of God …”. I hope your journo friends do the same. But they won’t. You and I have to live with the cliches of being “disgraced”, “shamed”, and “convicted” as our fellow NUJ members get such pleasure from dumping on ex-cons.
You will face difficulties over bank accounts. I first opened a bank account with Lloyds as a schoolboy, but the bank closed down my account while I was inside. Insurance companies refuse to take money from a released prisoner, though a very good charity, Unlock, can advise. Up to three-quarters of all released prisoners are back inside within a year as our overcrowded prisons can offer little or no training nor rehabilitation and the financial despair and lack of a job or a home drives released prisoners back to crime.
I hope you can join me in supporting demands for prison reform. Unlike MPs, civil servants, or columnists, we know from the inside just how rotten and useless Whitehall prison policy is.
The not very smart minister Chris Grayling was forking out £1,000 a week to keep you, me and thousands of other non-violent, one-mistake men in prison who in more intelligent countries would be punished at their own expense not that of the taxpayer. Half of all female prisoners attempt suicide and the thousands of women in prison because of poverty, debt or having a criminal boyfriend is a disgrace.
Some crazy things have happened to me in a rollercoaster life, and now I wouldn’t have missed Belmarsh for anything in the world. I learned loads, not least about myself. Good luck and show ’em the stuff British hacks are made of.