Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Perils of the Celebrity Con

Although there has always been a tendency to romanticise certain types of crime – and those who commit these offences from Robin Hood to the Great Train Robbers – the cult of the ‘celebrity con’ is a rather newer phenomenon, at least in Britain. Unfortunately, their brief prison experiences – and thin memoirs – often give a dangerously skewed snapshot of life inside the nick that overlooks many of the real scandals and horror stories.

Robin Hood: first celebrity blagger?
In part, this is because there has been a major change in the type of prisoner who achieves celebrity status. The traditional pattern was that the British public developed a sneaking, and often misplaced, admiration for what were seen as clever or daring crooks, especially those who nicked large sums of cash or valuable jewels.

The late Ronnie Biggs was considered classy in some circles because he had been part of an audacious robbery against the state – and had then managed to escape from HMP Wandsworth by climbing over the wall using a rope ladder, making the security arrangements look pathetic. He then remained at large for 36 years, cocking a snook at the British establishment while playing the role of the playboy ‘blagger’ in Australia and Brazil before old age and infirmity got the better of him.

In 2001 he returned to Britain, accompanied by a predictable blaze of media publicity, to face the music and another eight years in the slammer before he was released from prison on compassionate grounds in 2009 and later died in a care home in 2013. However, Biggs’ fame came about because of his criminal activities; he wasn’t a celebrity who ended up in jail.

Andy Coulson: not your average con
The recent release on licence of former News of the World editor and Downing Street spin doctor, Andy Coulson, has spawned the usual media commentaries about how he will find life after having served five months of his 18-month prison sentence for conspiracy to intercept voicemails (aka phone hacking). Our old friend (and fellow ex-con) Denis MacShane has been quick to pen a piece for The Guardian, in the form of an open letter, about how life after prison will be for celebrity cons like Mr Coulson.

When I read this piece of classic media puffery, I will admit that I laughed out loud. No doubt ex-Labour minister Mr MacShane will think I’ve got it in for him in some way. I really don’t. As I felt obliged to disclose in a previous blog post review of his slim volume of a prison diary – Denis MacShane... Boo Hoo Poor Me! – I actually did some media work with him years ago when he was a backbench MP and I found him to be a very decent bloke. It’s just that his literary output since he was released after serving just six weeks – yes, that’s right, six weeks (not months or even years) – in prison following his 2013 conviction over his parliamentary expense claims continues to amaze me.

In the space of a few paragraphs in his latest missive, Mr MacShane manages an impressive range of name-dropping including fitting in a post-release lunch with both Tony Blair and Labour’s worse than useless former Home Secretary David Blunkett – he who launched the catastrophic Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) that has left thousands of cons in limbo after serving sentences that have turned out to be many years longer than their minimum tariffs. I hope Mr MacShane told Mr Blunkett a few home truths about the real human cost of his inhumane, tabloid headline-grabbing IPP policy, but somehow I very much doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised if our former Labour minister for Europe really can’t tell an IPP from a PPI.

Denis MacShane: IPP or PPI?
Then he tops it all off with a splendid piece of self-indulgence that I can’t resist repeating here, just in case any blog reader missed it. Writing of his time on Home Detention Curfew (HDC) or ‘tag’ Mr MacShane writes: “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.”

I’m sure that all these luminaries were thrilled to be in the company of a real-life ex-con who could regale them with tales of bang-up and wicked inmates. And all condensed into a mere six weeks. How very clever of him. He then goes on to observe: “I wouldn’t have missed Belmarsh for anything in the world.” Hmmm. I doubt that Belmarsh – aka ‘Hellmarsh’ – and its long-suffering cons feel so nostalgic about Mr MacShane.

HMP Belmarsh: celebrity status
As an ex-prisoner myself I think that one of the problems with this kind of journalism is that most of the ‘celebrity’ cons – mainly former politicians or journalists – who take up the pen about their prison experiences have rarely served a sentence of more than a few months (or even a few weeks, like Mr MacShane). Jeffrey Archer is a rare exception to this rule since at least he did a longer stretch than most (half of a four-year sentence for perjury).

They are also all determinate sentenced prisoners who serve a fixed term. Because of this type of sentence they never experience the stresses of parole hearings, rejections (‘knock backs’) or the issues raised by repeated transfers across the prison system that disrupt education courses, work and family visits. They aren’t likely to get bullied into trafficking drugs or paying protection money (‘taxing’) to the wing bullies or gangs.

Unlike the legacy cases left by the now totally discredited IPP sentence, these celebrities don’t find themselves still serving time nine years after having been given a minimum tariff of nine months or less, yet still have no real prospect of being released owing to a shortage of appropriate courses and a risk-adverse Parole Board. They aren’t ever likely to experience the mind-numbing and soul-destroying existence of 23-hour a day solitary confinement on the Basic regime because they are suffering from mental illness and can’t cope with the rigours of prison life. At least if Mr MacShane had done a stint on Basic, he might have had something useful to tell his well-heeled dinner guests about our failing penal system.

Moreover, most celebrities are sent to a Cat-B local nick for a few weeks and then to a Cat-D (open prison). This means that their experience of the prison system is usually extremely limited and, although they may perceive that they are being treated ‘unjustly’ (Mr Coulson being kept at HMP Belmarsh a bit longer than might have been expected) there is no denying that most prison staff avoid mistreating them precisely because they don’t fancy seeing their names splashed all over The Guardian or in a slim volume of prison memoirs a few months down the road.

Lunching with cons
Since your average con has problems with reading and writing, and in any case isn’t likely to be having lunch with Tony Blair or a judge or ambassador anytime soon, giving them a hard time on the wing doesn’t carry any real risks. A prisoner from a powerful and privileged background doesn’t just check in his or her social, economic and educational advantages when they go through prison Reception.

Fallen politicians and media types still have the power to cause trouble for screws and governors, so they tend to be treated with kid gloves – whether consciously or subconsciously. A sense of entitlement does tend to work both ways.

What I really don’t see much evidence of in the output of these celebrities is any appreciation of the terrible human cost of prison, particularly during the current crisis in which overcrowding and understaffing are driving up the rates for suicide and self-harm. Violence – against staff and inmates alike – and the easy availability of drugs and mobile phones seems to be regarded as ‘collateral damage’ amid Ministry of Justice cost-cutting.

Steel guitar strings: ban dropped
Real efforts to support rehabilitation were never taken that seriously even prior to Chris Grayling’s wilful destruction of the Prison Service, now it’s seen as nothing more than a bad joke, like the ridiculous ban on steel stringed guitars (now lifted) or the absurd limit of 12 books per prisoner (now also dropped). Presumably when you’re only doing a proverbial ‘shit and a shave’ sentence of a few weeks or a couple of months, these issues don’t impact much on your daily life, even if they can prove life-changing and deeply demoralising for cons who are facing years or decades inside.

Pretending that former politicians, hacks and other celebrities are treated just like any other con, whether by staff or fellow inmates, is ludicrous and, deep down, I think we all know it. Well-educated, socially privileged and with powerful friends outside, their prison experience bears little or no relation to the reality of hard time behind bars for tens of thousands of other men and women, innocent or guilty.


  1. Denis MacShane did do a stint on basic, and his book is full of comments to the effect that the human cost of imprisonment is far too often discounted when the judges are sentencing. It’s hardly a slim volume either, at 376 pages.

    I read the Guardian piece, and I thought that the majority of the comments there were well over the top ...sad stuff indeed to wade through.

    It’s trite to say that celebs won’t be treated like everyone else (because of their potential to bite back after release) thus reducing value of what they say after getting out. But Denis MacShane reports lots of instances of he himself being casually treated like sh*t as well as everyone else, enough to make him to some extent immune to that particular criticism I would have thought.

    Like you, I’m not impressed by refs to Blair and Blunkett, but that shouldn’t be allowed to damn the whole endeavour (or its author).

    The book was a good read, and I got the distinct impression of an honest man doing his best. I’m glad he wrote it.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I always welcome a contrary view! I have skim read the book (borrowed from the local library, rather than purchased) and I honestly don't recall anything about Mr MacShane being put on Basic. If he was, then if must have been such a brief period that I missed it entirely.

      As I note above in my blog post, how a six week stint inside managed to make a book still astonishes me. I served longer than Lord Archer, Mr MacShane and Andy Coulson put together, yet I'm not sure I could produce a diary approaching the length of his... amazing.

      Whatever one's own view of Mr MacShane (and personally, I liked him when we met), The Guardian 'open letter' was, by any stretch of the imagination, a thoroughly preposterous puff. I doubt that 000.09 percent of prisoners or ex-cons have ever dined with an ambassador, let alone a former prime minister or ex-Home Secretary. The name-dropping simply demonstrated the vast gulf that separates these celebrity cons from everyone else.

      I really question how badly he was treated inside. I've seen how well-known and/or educated middle class prisoners are treated by screws and governors alike. However, he certainly wasn't 'twisted up' (put into painful restraint), battered until he lost his front teeth - which I've witnessed myself, or screamed at until he burst into tears in front of other cons. From his standpoint, I suspect that not being treated with the courtesy he felt he deserved counted as being mistreated. Most screws do not appreciate arrogant cons who constantly demonstrate a sense of entitlement. It's all about perspective really.

      My main point is that celebrity cons who experience prison for a few weeks simply aren't in a position to comment in depth about the many faults of the prison system. They hardly finish induction or get categorised in that time, let alone gain any sense of what hard time can involve. Neither do they really get to know other cons in any meaningful sense, even if - like Mr MacShane - they still feel entitled to drop their names in their diaries and memoirs!

      I'm not sure I'd use the word 'honest' in the context of Mr MacShane, although I'd be willing - having met him - to use the term 'decent'. However, my concern is that these celebrity memoirs often provide a very skewed snapshot of what prison is all about and that is serving time - often very long time - rather than a few weeks or a couple of months.

  2. Alex, thank you for another informative, and wryly amusing entry. I read Dennis McShane's piece in the Guardian; and while he does make some pertinent comments on prisons and sentencing, the lack of self awareness - e.g. the association with Bertrand Russell, the reference to his 'tag' dinner dos, which inadvertently sound like something out of a Ferrero Rocher advert - is so staggering that my jaw hit the shag pile. Hmm . . . he means well, as your Granny might say, but he could be more circumspect.

    It's a shame that many 'celeb' former cons went down for offences relating to their honesty, i.e. fraud, perjury, so that the veracity of their accounts of their time inside are habitually dismissed by the press and its readers.

    You mention 'taxing'. May I ask two broad questions on the subject?

    Firstly, how does taxing operate? Are newly arrived cons sussed out to how much money they have – either through their 'spends' or the processions they arrive with – and also whether they have regular visitors, who can be marked out for extortion? Do the outside associates, of the extortionists on the wing, then directly threaten these visitors into putting money into their accounts, presumably in the form of a postal order, the identity of the sender of which, cannot be traced? (Although the handwriting on the envelope that the postal order arrives in, might give a clue to the more astute staff, who regularly deal with incoming mail).

    Secondly, how do ordinary cons avoid being 'taxed'? I guess that adopting the Nancy Reagen stance of just saying no, won't cut much ice?

    Best regards

    1. Thanks for your comments. I definitely agree about the lack of self-awareness in The Guardian piece. It was so bizarre and self-referential that I really did laugh out loud (on a train in the quiet zone, I'm sorry to confess).

      I don't simply dismiss Mr MacShane's account out of hand. However, it always seems to me that it is the desire to produce a saleable product that takes over from the real narrative of prison life. So many of my own daily diary entries honestly do read "work, lunch, work, tea, shower" - as would those of 95 percent of other serving prisoners.

      To answer your specific question about 'taxing' - ie the paying of extortion money (or goods) to other cons, this tends to happen when there is a powerful group or gang controlling a wing or unit. They target prisoners who are vulnerable or otherwise unaffiliated with a larger group and basically charge them protection money. In some Young Offenders' Institutions it becomes so institutionalised that young lads have to pay 'rent' for their own cells. Those who don't get beaten or bullied, or find their cells trashed or set on fire.

      Possessions, food, clothing, canteen goods - all can be taxed. I've known older cons pay as much as half an ounce of Amber Leaf rolling tobacco per week to their 'protectors'. Some cons actually start out by trying to 'buy' friendship with canteen items and then find it gets formalised as a weekly 'charge'.

      Of course, the Postal Order system can also be used if the 'taxed' con has money or family outside willing to cooperate, but in my experience it's usually food, medication or canteen goods that are sought. The drugs trade in prison is much more sophisticated and little, if any, of this cash ever goes near the prison gates.

      I've never been taxed myself, but being ex-Army and 6ft 1 helped. All the Army lads tend to band together anyway inside and we looked out for each other. I've mentioned in another post the case of the ex-sergeant major who arrived on a Cat-B wing as a first timer and was targeted by a con who demanded his carton of milk. The newbie invited the con into his cell and then gave him the most almighty gut-punch that winded him completely. he was never bothered again. Sometimes, just standing up to the bullies is sufficient to get rid of them. However, if the gang is well organised and determined then it can be a more violent process than that.