When the annals of history look back over the great prison reformers the names of Elizabeth Fry, John Howard and Jeremy Bentham will all ring true. Yet another name seeks to be added to their number and this somewhat enigmatic character is none other than Lord Weston-super-Mare or as he is more commonly known Jeffery Archer.
From his plush penthouse suite Jeffery Archer holds an almost voyeuristic view of Central London and of the Thames, a far cry from his days in Belmarsh prison where his opulence accounted for little more than a “cell [which] measured five paces by three..[with] a single bed with a rock hard mattress…a steel washbasin and open lavatory that had no lid and no flush”
It was in July 2001 that the Millionaire novelist Lord Archer was jailed for four years after being found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice. Archer faced dishonesty charges arising from his successful 1987 libel action, in which he won £500,000 damages from the Daily Star over allegations that he slept with a prostitute. He was accused of asking his former friend Mr Francis, 67, to provide him with a false alibi for a night relating to the libel case and of producing fake diary entries to back up his story.
Archer spent the first twenty-two days of his sentence in HMP Belmarsh the double A-category high security prison in South London, which houses some of Britain’s most violent criminals. From there he was moved to HMP Wayland, a category C establishment in Norfolk where he remained for sixty-seven days. Thereafter he was transferred to the North Sea Camp open prison and released on parole in July 2003 after two years in prison.
The sojourn provided Archer, a former Conservative MP with a unique and devastating insight into our prison system and its desperate need for reform. “I believe that there are three changes that the Home Secretary could put in place at little extra cost that would be of great benefit to the public.”
Archer went on “Payment to inmates for all jobs throughout the Prison Service should be universal and standardised, including payment to those who opt to do education” Archer went on “60% of people going into prison are illiterate. If you go into prison then you are offered a job after three weeks, when they have decided whether you are sensible and stable they offer you a job. If you get a job you get £12.50 a week. If you go to education you get £8.00 a week and in some prisons £6.50. This is lunacy.” Archer was certainly clear in his conviction, as he went on “First offenders coming into prison who can not read and write should be paid the full amount a week to go in to education and write and we should send them out of prison able to read and write. They will never go to education and learn to read and write while they can get £12.50 peeling spuds and £6.50 going to education” His first proposal certainly appeared to be one with a great deal of common sense and would fulfil part of the general definition of rehabilitation? “If the Home Secretary can not see that then he is nuts.” He added.
Archer lent forward and enthusiastically pushed ahead with his next proposal “The second one is that during a trial, defendants should be categorised A, B, C or D. This would allow first offenders with no history of drugs or violence, to be sent directly to an open prison, where they would be less likely to come into contact with professional criminals, violent thugs and drug addicts.”
Warming to the topic Archer explained “Let us say you are 23 and you are not very bright, you can just read and write, but you are not very bright. But you are not violent; you have done shoplifting or something. You go to Belmarsh for three weeks whilst they decide where to send you. I think that you should be categorised during the trial so that immediately you go out you go straight to an open prison. So that you do not mix with murderers, drug dealers or violent behaviour people. So you do not join the school of crime, you have a chance if you are in open prison.”
It is clear that Belmarsh left a lasting impression on Archer. In his controversial A Prison Diary he referred to Belmarsh as “Hell” a place where on his first night there he had contemplated suicide. But as he himself confessed the police had condemned this idea on the basis that such an early categorisation might send the wrong message, that there was a possibility that you are hinting at their guilt? Archer’s riposte? “Balls, absolutely rubbish. Categorise them, every single person that goes in, automatically. Stop them going to Belmarsh. Stop them going to these evil places so that when they get out, they have a chance. At 63 [years old] I can handle being on a wing with 21 murderers, but there was a kid of 19 who was on the floor below, who was in for shoplifting” You could see Archer shaking with almost fury at what saw as the idiocy of the situation “This same young man will now be spending at least a fortnight with murderers, rapists, burglars and drug addicts…Are these the best tutors he can learn from?"
Archer continued “Thirdly, the punishment for smoking marijuana in prison should not be the same as for those prisoners who take heroin. This would stop a number of social marijuana smokers turning to heroin” The reason that prisoners appear to turn from marijuana to heroin is that marijuana remains in the bloodstream for twenty-eight days, whilst heroin can be flushed out in twenty-four hours by drinking pints of water.
“There are a small percentage of people and I have no desire to exaggerate, who have turned from marijuana to crack-cocaine and heroin because they do not want their sentence added to or do not want punishments because they can wash it out of their system in 24 hours. That is nuts and should be dealt with. Plain bonkers and the Home Secretary should realise this, plain bonkers”
Archer accepted that this may cause difficulties for a government which did not want to be seen to condoning the use of drugs in prisons. “Yes it is, but for all people to go on heroin and crack-cocaine is the other end of that, and that is not an answer”
Archer proved remarkably robust in both force and conviction in is tone “I am not suggesting that any of the three are easy, I am suggesting that they should be dealt with”.
There were however topics that Archer believed should not be dealt with, well certainly not by him at least: His thoughts about the trial? The Judge? What he thought about people calling him a liar? Or a loveable rogue? His thoughts on Michael Crick (his unauthorised biographer and chief provocateur)? Whether it matters whether people like him? Whether he felt contrition for his actions? His answer to all these questions (and more) was simply a resolute “No comment”. For an explanation as to his silence he simply exclaimed “Not interested. Not interested. I am a writer and that is my life.”
But Archer is so much more than just a writer. Perhaps it will be on the subject of penal reforms that he will find a degree of redemption for such a roller coaster of a life “If these three recommendations were to be taken up, I would feel that my two years in prison were not entirely without purpose” Maybe Archer is reinventing himself after all?
A Prison Diary From Hell to Heaven by Jeffery Archer is published by Macmillan Books, £9.99 hardback ISBN: 1-4050-8851-6. Available in all good bookshops.