Magazine article The Spectator

Prison and the Lure of the Abyss

Magazine article The Spectator

Prison and the Lure of the Abyss

Article excerpt

Prisoners want to reform, but it's hard

I received a sad letter this week: Steve is back in prison. Each day the mail comes down to the wing in a pouch, and the office is closed while the staff sort through it, marking a board next to the name of each lucky recipient. When a board is put out, we all have a look, playing it casual but really hoping for a letter, a card, a few quid; anything provides a bit of interest, and the feeling that someone, somewhere has thought of you. It's nice. Usually it's nice, but not this time. I knew the handwriting straight away, because health problems that affect his coordination have left Steve with, shall we say, a distinctive script. I opened the letter, and saw the printed header, with the address of a prison in Yorkshire.

They say you don't have mates in prison, just jail friends. It's not true, not at all. In extreme environments, when you really click with someone, and also find unconditional acceptance and trust, deep and lasting bonds are forged. Steve and I built such a bond serving years in high security together. When I came to HMP Grendon -- a unique prison, run entirely as a therapeutic community for men who want to take full responsibility for their offences and work intensively on their rehabilitation -- he was already here, and our friendship developed still further.

We supported each other through a sincere effort to make real changes to our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, and I honestly thought he'd cracked it. He did eight years of an IPP (an indeterminate sentence, for the public's protection), including four years at Grendon. He worked hard to understand his life and his offences, and the prolific drug use that lay at the heart of it all, and earned an expensive place at the residential drug rehab to which he was paroled. Yet here he is writing to me from a prison to say it's all gone wrong. No specifics, just apologies, on a page saturated with shame and defeat.

According to the prison grapevine, within weeks of leaving rehab, he was back on the crack cocaine, and committing burglaries. Stories such as Steve's are all too common, but each time it happens it brings up lots of questions for those of us still in jail, trying to make changes and trying to have faith in the future. …

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