We’ve recently had a spate of ‘inside’ exclusive stories in the media about celebrity prisoners and their alleged doings in the nick. Although such leaks and gossip in the red top tabloid press are nothing new, these articles – sometimes entirely bogus or exaggerated – often offer a highly distorted view of prison life and, inevitably, this has an impact on public perceptions of what goes on inside the walls.
Over the past few weeks we’ve been treated to some ‘celebrity’ gossip concerning our current national hate figures Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall. It’s to be expected that fallen idols who were once central figures in the world of popular entertainment for decades continue to fascinate some sections of the general public, especially when the individuals concerned have been banged up for something very ‘naughty’ (to use a term common among cons for sex offenders or ‘nonces’).
|Oscar Wilde's trial in the Police News|
Tales about how one or other of these elderly prisoners supposedly got spat at in the jail chapel or had a row with a family member during a visit or even – allegedly – chucked his wedding ring in the prison pond have become staple tabloid fodder, especially in the Daily Mail which never seems to tire of giving cons a good kicking. Of course, this is nothing new.
The Victorian tabloids – ‘penny dreadfuls’ as they are sometimes called – were just as bad. They enjoyed a particular feeding frenzy when the celebrated playwright, novelist and wit Oscar Wilde was sent down for two years’ hard labour in 1895. The scandal was front page news and none did it better than the Police News.
Having been convicted of gross indecency with other males, he fitted very definitely in the category of ‘celebrity nonce’, even back then. These days Wilde would probably have ended up on what is called a Vulnerable Prisoners’ Unit (VPU), known to generations of cons as ‘going on the numbers’ (a reference to Prison Rule 45, formerly Rule 43: Removal from Association) for his own protection from those fellow cons anxious to show their disapproval by dishing out a good bashing.
The wider question is how all this gossip and tittle-tattle gets out into the public domain. Occasionally, a prison officer or other member of staff will get his or her collar felt by Inspector Knacker of the Yard on charges of misconduct in public office, which usually involves an allegation of having supplied confidential information to a journalist in return for cash payments. More of these cases seem to have been coming up recently as a result of police investigations into some of the dubious practices of the UK newspaper industry.
There is some fuzziness around the edges of this particular legislation because the law doesn’t really provide a clear definition of who is a ‘public officer’. The relevant case law seems to suggest that it is the nature of the duties involved, as well as the violation of public trust, that is more important that the holding of a specific office. In theory, it seems that a ‘public officer’ doesn’t necessary need to have been formally appointed or even paid from public funds to fall under the jurisdiction of the law on misconduct. This might be considered rather surprising in view of the fact that the maximum penalty is a life sentence!
|Daily Mail: loves a con story|
What is pretty clear, however, is that any prison official (whether a governor, screw or civilian member of staff) who flogs gossip and other inside information to the media will be breaking the law. Such breaches of trust can have serious implications for both serving prisoners and for ex-cons whose time in custody might be of interest to the readers of the tabloid press.
Celebrity cons – regardless of what they have been sent down for – are particularly prone to the leaking of such inside information, as are those prisoners who have been convicted of particularly heinous offences. Even some very commonplace or minor incident inside the nick – such as a heated argument or an inmate getting put on a charge for breaking the rules (getting ‘nicked’) – can make a juicy tabloid headline. And even if the tale isn’t true, well never let the facts get in the way of a good tabloid story.
Lord Archer, convicted for perjury in July 2001 and sent down for four years, was a popular target for negative media coverage while he was inside. In fact, this led to him being shipped out from a Cat-D (open prison) back to the joys of HMP Lincoln (a Victorian Cat-B local) for a few weeks following one particular media-generated scandal involving his alleged social activities when he had been granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL). In the end it was all revealed to have been a storm in a tea cup – actually a lunch plate – fuelled by the media and he was subsequently returned to another open prison for the rest of his sentence.
|Lord Archer: fitted up|
Causing any kind of embarrassment to the Prison Service when you are either a celebrity con or a notorious ‘name’ is never looked upon kindly. In fact, for those who are in an open nick it can be a sure-fire way to get a one-way ticket back to closed conditions, even when the media has grossly over-exaggerated an incident, real or imagined.
To be fair, not all inside stories originate from the screws or civilian staff. Quite a number are peddled by fellow cons anxious to make a quick buck on the back of any celebrities they may – or may not – have actually bumped into on wing landing. Sometimes these are just recycled rumours or idle gossip. Groups of cons can gossip away like schoolgirls in a playground. If I had a quid for every story told or retold by fellow inmates that started with “apparently…” I could probably afford to retire early.
It can be dangerous to try to sell tip-offs or gossip about fellow prisoners while the would-be vendor is still in custody. Contacting the media without prior permission is strictly against the prison rules, specifically Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 37/2010 - Prisoners’ Access to the Media. Sometimes hot stories about other cons can be repeated to family and friends during a social visit with instructions to go and try to flog the information to the tabloids.
However, once a con has been released it’s almost impossible to gag them. For an ex-prisoner who has just been kicked out of the main gate with £46 discharge grant in his or her pocket, the temptation to try to make a wodge of extra cash by phoning around tabloid news desks can prove just too strong to resist. Just knowing – or inventing – a bit of ‘hot’ gossip about a fellow con who is either a celebrity or else infamous for their crime could be the only saleable thing they have to offer, particularly if they need some quick cash to fund a drugs habit or other addiction.
|Where's the nearest tabloid editor?|
That’s just one of the reasons that famous, or infamous, prisoners need to be very choosy about who they associate with inside. Your best jail ‘mate’ can easily turn out to be a real snake in the grass and, well, go on to ‘grass’ you up to the gutter press as soon as he or she gets out of the nick.
It’s not just stories about famous or infamous cons that get leaked to the press. General ‘shock, horror!’ tales of idle prisoners living lives of luxury at the taxpayers’ expense, including state of the art gyms and Sky TV on giant flatscreens also do the rounds from time to time. These articles seem to be deliberately calculated to outrage retired Army majors in Bognor or the blue rinse brigade from Tunbridge Wells. Needless to observe, almost all of these prisoner-bashing tales are fabricated and fictional.
The Sky TV subscription story has done the rounds for a few years now. No public sector prison has ever permitted prisoners to have subscription channels on their rented in-cell TV sets. The rules are absolutely clear: a maximum total of nine freeview channels, including BBC 1 and 2, ITV and Channels 4 and 5, plus a few others. Anything else is pure fantasy, as any con who has done time in a public sector nick will confirm.
|Believe it or not... No Sky in prisons|
The seemingly unquenchable media thirst for celebrity gossip neatly mirrors a general societal obsession with sending people to prison, whether they really are a threat to the community or not. Sometimes it seems that almost regardless of the actual offence, the red-faced retired majors and their blue rinsed ladies (not to mention the tabloid editors) are only really happy when reading in their morning paper that every criminal up before the beak has been sent down for a goodly stretch.
When these twin fixations come together in the form of a media splash about how a fallen idol or famous person is having a torrid time in the slammer, everyone wins. Except, of course, the prisoner and his or her family and friends. Moreover, I doubt that many victims of the crimes of these cons feel too chuffed about seeing such stories splashed across the tabloid front pages day after day.
It’s always worth remembering that many of these celebrity prison stories are entirely fictitious, having been cooked up by either a fellow con in a bid to make a quick buck or else by a dodgy member of the prison staff keen to do the same. Of course, for governors, screws and civilian staff the stakes can be much higher than for inmates who blab. When rumbled, members of staff can face the loss of their career, a criminal trial and, if convicted, are liable to find themselves on the wrong side of a heavy steel cell door. In the end, no-one really likes a grass, whether in prison uniform or dressed as a screw.