A Year Ago 23 December 2013 a judge sent me to Belmarsh Prison. This article written by Francis Beckett was published in the Journalist, the monthly journal of the National Union of Journalists where I was president in 1979-79. Francis Beckett succeeded me two years later.
Denis MacShane is good at reinventing himself, which is fortunate because he’s had to do it rather a lot. He did it when he was fired from the BBC for calling a Conservative cabinet minister a crook, live on air, after which he became NUJ president in 1978.
Today, at 66, most of his savings gone on an unsuccessful attempt to stay out of prison, he’s reinventing himself again. Next Spring there’s a new book called Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe, and right now there’s a book called Prison Diaries.
It’s an extended colour piece about day to day prison life which allows the reader almost to taste what he tasted and smell what he smelled. It reminded me that Denis, before politics took him, was a really good writer.
It says two things. First, we put far too many people in prison, and we treat them inhumanely. And second, he, Denis, should never have been one of them. I don’t know how anyone can read it without being convinced of his first proposition.
When he was an MP, he took no interest in prison reform, and neither did most of his colleagues. There are no votes in it. Journalists take no interest in it because they have never been in prison, and neither have most of their readers.
But Denis has now been an MP, a journalist, and a prisoner, and he has some disturbing questions to ask.
Why on earth are prisoners’ books, notepads and biros taken away from them? Denis had to smuggle stubs of biro and the unused backs of official forms into his cell to write his diaries, which he now thinks may have improved the immediacy of his writing.
Why was he banged up in his tiny cell for up to 23 hours a day over Christmas and not allowed to see his partner or his children?
Why are prisoners strip-searched at random? “A man half my age peers at my genitals as if I had a secret weapon hidden there. It is a foul, humiliating process without the slightest reason or justification given my age and my docile behaviour here.”
Why is their brief exercise period frequently cancelled at no notice, why do prison officers humiliate the men in their charge, why do the authorities tantalise prisoners by arbitrarily putting off the day when they are due to be released with a tag?
And what on earth are we doing locking up elderly, disabled men like Denis’s new friend Benny in Belmarsh, the toughest and highest security prison in Europe, where they are denied the pain relief and medical attention which might make their lives almost bearable? Benny manouvres himself slowly around Belmarsh in his wheelchair, because when his 77-year-old mother, in dreadful pain and with two months at most left to live, said “Please end this, please let me go, please” he put a pillow over her head.
Why was Denis in Belmarsh? He wasn’t an escape risk. Other MPs convicted of expenses scams went to open prisons, but Denis does seem to have been singled out for harsh treatment. The police decided his crime was too small to prosecute. He’d repaid the £12,900 he wrongly claimed and there was no personal gain. Then a cross-party committee of MPs called his crime very serious, so the police reopened their investigation, although there was no new information.
It’s an affront to justice that Denis sat in Belmarsh while David Laws, who did exactly the same but for a larger sum of money, sat round the cabinet table.
Many on the extreme right saw him, correctly, as the most effective pro-European in Parliament. The relatively civilised europhobe Daniel Hannan wrote: “Who will the BBC find to defend Brussels on air? Seriously – who?” That’s why right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) wrote with slavering vindictiveness: “Is it too early to open the champagne on a Monday morning?” You have to wonder about the sort of person who opens champagne at the prospect of a fellow human being going into Belmarsh. Staines’s fans posted tweets such as: “Big day for @DenisMacShane. Hope he’s packed his lube. @porridge.”
I don’t excuse Denis, but I think Mr Justice Sweeney, who could easily have imposed a non-custodial sentence, had half an ear to the cries of the lynch mob.
But Staines and his friends have harmed one of their own pet causes. They are at the forefront of the campaign to send more people to prison and make it more unpleasant. And Prison Diaries may be just the weapon their opponents need to show that they are wrong.
Francis Beckett is an author and journalist