Mathilda Mallinson: Helena, what do you know about prisons in the UK?
Helena Wadia: I read England and Wales lock up more people than any European country except for Poland. Is that true?
Mathilda Mallinson: Technically, yes. If we look at a per capita comparison, England and Wales lock up three times as much of our population as the Netherlands and Norway and over twice as much of our population as Germany does.
Helena Wadia: I actually remember a Dutch case a couple years ago, where judges refused to extradite a suspected drug smuggler to the UK because they ruled that sending someone to a British prison was illegal under international human rights law.
Mathilda Mallinson: Yeah, that happened, which points to one of the issues with our prison population, actually, because we’re over capacity.
Helena Wadia: So what’s been done?
Mathilda Mallinson: The government has pledged 4 billion pounds, and that’s to build 18,000 new prison places, including four brand new sparkly prisons.
Helena Wadia: So that should relieve some of the capacity problems that we’re seeing.
Mathilda Mallinson: Well, that’s the catch. The government also projects an increase in our prison population. By 2026, we’re expected to have 98,500 prisoners in England and Wales.
Helena Wadia: But how many do we have today?
Mathilda Mallinson: Around 79,000.
Helena Wadia: Okay, wait, but 98,500 minus 79,000. Now, I’m not the biggest maths wiz in the world, but I’m pretty sure that’s more than 18,000.
Mathilda Mallinson: That is correct.
Helena Wadia: So we’re building 18,000 new prison spaces, but we’ll be looking up more than 18,000 new people.
Mathilda Mallinson: Correct.
Helena Wadia: Where are all these new criminals supposed to be coming from?
Mathilda Mallinson: Okay, well, tougher sentencing – anyone who knocks over a statue, 10 years behind bars, that kind of stuff. Also, the government puts it down to their plans to recruit 23,000 new police officers, which is another part of their whole tough on crime agenda.
Helena Wadia: I thought the whole rationale for being tough on crime was deterrence. But evidently they don’t think that extra police officers and tougher sentences will be very good at deterring crime, if it will result in tens of thousands more people being locked up. Right. So I think the next question to ask then is: does prison work?
Mathilda Mallinson: Good question. I’m heading behind bars, hearing from people who’ve spent time inside – both those locked up, and those holding the key – to ask whether they think prison worked.
Helena Wadia: And I’ll see you back in the studio with some very special guests to discuss everything around this media storm.
Theme music plays
Helena Wadia: Welcome to MediaStorm, a news podcast that starts with the people who are normally asked last.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’m Mathilda Mallinson
Helena Wadia: And I’m Helen Wadia.
Mathilda Mallinson: This week’s investigation – Criminal justice: does prison work?
Sounds: birds tweeting, river flowing
David Breakspear: Between the bars: the smell of Welsh grass: freedom
Water flowing: in a deep Welsh Valley: the taste of tears
Perfection in the palm of my hand: moments later: melting
Mathilda Mallinson: Haiku. 17th century Japanese poetry. And for David Breakspear the stepping stone from decades of crime to the hope of a clean future.
David Breakspear: I mean, 12345678 – nine words, you know, I mean, the power of words is just incredible. So mine is just, well it speaks for itself really:: I am flying: as a bear skating: on the beach
It’s about freedom is of state of mind. And that’s what the ability to be able to read enables: freedom in your mind. It’s, it’s a lot better than psychoactive substances for a night out, that’s for sure. I’d rather write haiku than smoke a spice joint.
Mathilda Mallinson: David was a so called ‘revolving door’ inmate— people stuck in a cycle of prison and crime. Reoffenders. Now four and a half years clean, he is primed to tell us why people fall through the cracks of custodial justice.
David Breakspear: Crime isn’t as cut and dry as you think, there’s a story behind it. Not everyone going through the court system are criminals. They’re just someone that may have made one single mistake because he was struggling somewhere else. He may have had a gambling addiction or a drug addiction. Those are the issues that we need to attack. We know people commit crimes, it’s the why people commit crimes that’s important. Really it just takes, from the government, from society not involved that are looking from the outside in, and for the media, just have a bit of empathy. Now, I only care about the criminal justice system because well, I suppose in one aspect I grew up in it. It was part of my life for nearly four decades.
Mathilda Mallinson: Where in your life, if you had to, would you pinpoint your downfall into crime?
David Breakspear: I think being excluded from school, that would be somewhere that I could point my finger and say that. I was challenge – or labelled being challenging and disruptive. What the teachers didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, was that my labelled “challenging and disruptive” behaviour was actually cries for help. You’ve got teenagers still trying to get their own identity, and they’re being told that they’re not wanted. It’s as if the education system is there to filter out the wheat and the criminal justice system is there to pick up the chaff. But if that happens, it should be a second chance for the system to get it right for the individual.
Mathilda Mallinson: “Small pockets of excellence” exist in prison education, to quote the 2021 Ofsted review, but the “overall quality remains extremely poor,” it says, with the current government making “little improvement”.
David Breakspear: Prison isn’t a rehabilitative environment. Yeah, prison makes people bad! Once someone becomes trapped within a revolving door, it takes around eight or nine sentences for them to be able to go, “you know what, I feel I’m sick of this now”. And that’s kind of what happened to me. And ironically, it took me nine – coincident not ironically. It’s criminogenic. You may go in as a shoplifter, and then your fifth sentence you’re like credit card fraud, because of what you’ve learned in prison. And you’ve got people with really good intentions – because they know the lack of options and opportunities that are out there – gives you a phone number of friend: “give my mate a call”. And so yeah, and the next thing you know, you’re in for shoplifting, you’ve been grafting Class A drugs. And that’s not dramatic. It happens and it happens every day in prison.
I don’t know any different because no one tells me. All they tell me is what’s wrong with me. No one asked me, what can I do? What am I good at?
The whole prison journey can be a traumatic experience. At the end, you can spit out someone out that’s going to be traumatised.
Sound: sweatbox truck engine, men shouting, prison gates opening.
So you arrive at the prison. The journey in a Sweatbox alone is a journey and a half if you’ve never been on a Sweatbox. Not everyone around you might be nice, could be putting the fear of God. It is quite humorous, but it can’t be humorous for that person sitting in that little box going to prison for the first time. That must be a scary situation. So yeah, you’ve got all that to go through before you even arrive. You then get processed through the gates, known as a sterile area. They will search you, strip search you. But then they start asking questions about, “Are you feeling suicidal?” Or things like that. There needs to be a more trauma-informed approach. And I think a lot more understanding of neurodivergent conditions and also issues around mental health.
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s true that we have no clear picture of the extent of mental health in prison. The Ministry of Justice admits to this. The Centre for Mental Health recently summarised the existing research on mental health in prison. All of this data is at least five years old. They found 70% of prisoners met the criteria for two or more mental health conditions and vulnerabilities. Only 10% of prisoners are recorded for receiving treatment. Perhaps more shockingly, mentally ill people are sometimes put in prison simply because there is no community care available. The 1976 Bail Act enables courts to imprison adults for, quote, “their own protection” with no trial, no time limit, and no medical opinion. These remands are most often used for women.
David Breakspear: In 2010, I received a diagnosis of a number of personality disorders. And that for me was when I kind of knew why I was doing what I was doing and what I was doing wrong. And I think I prisons are prevalent with undiagnosed conditions. If that condition is undiagnosed, the individual could be like I was – years ago, labeled as challenging and disruptive, which will affect their progress throughout their sentence. It’ll effect what they can and can’t do. They could end up spending a lot of time down the segregation unit because of their challenging and disruptive behaviour, especially with the latest figures about the length of sentences increasing.
Mathilda Mallinson: David is referring to new sentencing laws. I’ll take a deep breath and rattle some off. The government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill doubles maximum sentences for emergency worker assaults, introduces life sentences for dangerous drivers, harsher sentences for children and teens who commit murder and 10 year maximum sentences for vandalising a memorial. That’s 10 years up from three months. It also delays and sometimes halts early release, reduces judges’ freedoms to deliver light sentences and illegalises elements of Gypsy and Traveller lifestyle and peaceful protests, while the Nationality and Borders Bill criminalises people coming to the UK to seek asylum. All of this means more prisoners, locked up for longer.
David, what is the key to rehabilitation, to turning people away from crime?
David Breakspear: For me, rehabilitation is an attitude, and the process to achieve that – how I’ve done that – was through education.
Mathilda Mallinson: David started teaching fellow prisoners how to read.
David Breakspear: I had value, I had purpose, I was somebody. And I felt good about myself. A lot of issues come down to self-worth and confidence and how people feel about themselves. And I spent a lot of years being told I was this, that and the other, and labeled with this, that and the other. And all of a sudden, I’m finding out for people who I’ve got so much more in common with, maybe I’m not that bad.
Mathilda Mallinson: One person who fell into that cycle of crime after her first short term sentence is Shelley, who’s asked to be identified by her first name only. From petty crime when she was 14, she most recently received a five year sentence for conspiracy to import Class A drugs.
Shelley: It’s my son’s birthday today. So I’m running around, trying to blow up balloons!
Mathilda Mallinson: Power mum. If you hear a washing machine in the background, that’s why. Like David, Shelley traces her troubles back to childhood.
Shelley: I was a victim of sexual assault when I was 13 years old. I hid it from my mom, it led to a huge relationship breakdown between me and her. And I probably found comfort with the wrong people – on the street.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’m curious, did prison help you in any way?
Shelley: For me, personally, it wasn’t the actual prison, it was the fact of having the family element – women that have been through what I’ve been through. I felt at home and felt understood for the first time. That’s all it is. Sometimes people just need a little bit of love. You know, sometimes people need a reason to go on. Sometimes people need a reason to believe that they are of value to somebody. It definitely came from the community. It didn’t come from the institution itself. You can go to the door at the office for something and be told to fuck off and have the door slammed in your face before you even open your mouth and ask anything. I was told by an officer that I’d be back, we’re going to see you again. And I did go back. I went in there to do motivational speaking at an enrichment day.
Mathilda Mallinson: How about those not stuck in a cycle, who leave prison and never come back?
Lisa Brooks: I was sent to prison in July 2015 for conspiracy to supply Class A drugs.
Mathilda Mallinson: Meet Lisa Brooks.
Lisa Brooks: Honestly, I think the crime and reoffending rates are so high because there’s a massive divide between the rich and the poor. I feel like the cost of living in Britain overrides the wages. I mean, I’m on a good wage, but I still struggle. I just think the government needs to do more, you know, raise the wages, make it worth people working, because I’m going to tell you straight Mathilda right about now. I just feel like I work to pay the bills. I don’t have no enjoyment. And if I do have enjoyment it is then getting myself into more money problems where that could cause me to end up doing what I did before, to go do something stupid. Why do people in Britain feel the need to drown themselves in so much drink and drugs? Because they’re not happy. They’re not living, they’re just living to survive.
Mathilda Mallinson: Lisa has only been convicted once. She’s been out for two years and has not reoffended. Statistically, she’s a measure of the success of prisons, but actually ask her and you’ll get a different story.
Lisa Brooks: The government is not getting to the root cause of the problems, the problems are in society. And all they’re actually doing is creating further problems. Because these people are then coming out of jail with more psychological issues than they already had from the things they’ve seen in jail from being confined, you know, in a little four-by-four, space, 23 hours a day. Do they think that’s going to rehabilitate somebody? I just think the whole “tough on crime” thing, it’s just a way of covering up the real problem, you know. Building more prisons! Are you crazy? Like, what do you want for half of the country to be in jail? The truth is, they don’t know what to do with all the offenders in prison. It’s just shove them all in one space and contain them. There’s no actual help. Yeah, okay. We get put on these stupid courses. But the courses don’t help. I went on courses in there and I was just sitting there like, “but I didn’t commit this crime because of this or that or that. I did it because I needed help”.
Mathilda Mallinson: So actually, that’s interesting. I haven’t had that perspective before, that the courses offered don’t cater to people who have committed crimes out of economic necessity.
Lisa Brooks: I think that the domestic domestic violence one helped me a little bit, but other than that, no.
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you mind me asking, does that mean that you’re a survivor of domestic violence?
Lisa Brooks: Yes, I am.
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you find that very common with women in prison?
Lisa Brooks: Yeah, I met loads of women in there who were in jail because of a man. Because they were coerced into or something. You know, I met a few girls who stabbed their partners – some died, some didn’t – but that was down to suffering years of domestic violence. You know, clearly the police aren’t doing the job right, because the women wouldn’t have ended up in prison if they’d have intervened.
Mathilda Mallinson: There’s no illusion about the fact that domestic abuse survivors are disproportionately represented in the female prison population. It’s two in three, by the government’s own data.
Lisa Brooks: Drugs are another problem that our prison system completely fails to address. I was in New Hall Prison for two years in Wakefield: there was one girl who came in and out 11 times in that space of two years. These girls, you know, the ones that were reoffending, they were drug addicts. When you’re sending a drug addict out homeless, telling them, “oh, here’s a tent”. And you’re a woman as well! So women are expected to go live in a tent? How dangerous is that? Right? I mean, what are they going to do? Go live with creepy old guys just have a roof over their head, to have sex with that guy, just so they’ve got some money. And in the end, it gets too much. And they end up doing something on purpose to come back to prison. It’s so sad. Because they got out they have kids and they’ve gone back to drugs.
Mathilda Mallinson: You’re also a mother. How difficult was that in terms of going to prison?
Lisa Brooks: the judge wouldn’t even let me go home and say bye to my kids. They remanded me there and then when I was found guilty. That was so hard. It was awful. I didn’t speak to my kids for 10 days. And when that judge sentenced me, he did not consider my children. My barrister said, “please go easy on the sentence, she’s got two children”. And he turned around and said that I should have thought about my children before I committed the crime. Well, I was thinking about my children when I committed the crime – it was to pay bills, it was to get food in the house, so my kids would be okay. Being away from my children was the worst. I had to learn to block them out in order to get by. They’re the only thing that stopped me from doing something stupid, you know, because I thought: “I’ve already messed up their lives. If I do this, you know, if I take my life, then how selfish of me would that be?”
Mathilda Mallinson: For Lisa, the toll of imprisonment was almost too much.
Lisa Brooks: They ask how you feel when you first come in. I was suicidal. And what they did was they just shoved me in a safe cell, checked on me every hour by turning the light on and opening the flap. Ultimately, I just got banged in a cell anyway. I think the government, they’ve got no idea how it is for us down here on the ground. While they’re living their lavish lifestyles, they don’t have to worry about money, but people like me do.
Mathilda Mallinson: We’ll be returning to Lisa and Shelley’s cases in a later episode to look at one of the most racialised areas of criminal justice: the war on drugs. And we’ll have David Lammy on to speak about his seminal investigation. But for now, I want to focus on prisons: whether they cure or contribute to crime. The latter case was made to me down the phone by a prisoner who wish to stay anonymous. He’s been in and out of prison four times, his latest sentence 14 years.
Sound: phone rings and autogenerated voice says: “An inmate from a correctional facility…”
Anonymous: The system can be corrupt. If you see wrongdoing by governance or by screws, prison officers, you know, if you feel you’ve been treated unjustly by the system, your first thought is to is to fight fire with fire. If they’re going to treat you bad, if they’re going to look down on you and treat you bad, you know, I mean, you’re going to react in a similar way. You’re trying to kick against the system. You can’t win, but you’re locked horns. it’s easy to stay in that frame of mind when you’re inside. Now, I’m not saying all prison officers are bad, you know, I mean, and all governors are bad and this and that. But they tend to be very negative, places.
Mathilda Mallinson: The issue he keeps circling back to is the staff – prison officers. So I’m heading to meet one. John Sampson served in HMP Pentonville during the pandemic, and now runs support courses inside prisons.
John Sampson: I was a prison officer in HMP Pentonville from the summer of 2018, until the start of this year, so for about two and a half years. Like ultimately, I became a prison officer because I wanted to work with people and try and help people get to a better place.
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you think that that attitude survives many years working as a prison officer?
John Sampson: There are a significant minority where it does survive. And I was always in awe of those people. That is something that I saw a lot when I was there: people who came with good intentions, and through their experience of working there, really lost themselves in that job.
Mathilda Mallinson: Can you explain why that happens?
John Sampson: You’re fundamentally doing an inhumane job, but trying to do it in a humane way. You’re caging people effectively. That’s gonna throw up a wide range of reactions, emotions. So on a daily basis, you know, I would have been verbally abused, threatened with violence, on occasion, been the victim of violence, seen a lot of violence around me. Seeing a lot of people inflict violence on themselves. If you don’t have a strong belief system, you lose yourself in that role and you become hardened. You become abusive yourself.
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you think then that it is a necessity of the job? Or do you see it as something that should be improved on?
John Sampson: I don’t think you can totally escape the structure of prison. But environmentally, I was working in a space that was just not fit for purpose. Overcrowded, decrepit Victorian prison that was built in the 1840s to house 300 men
Mathilda Mallinson: And how many does it house?
John Sampson: And it now houses 1300.
Mathilda Mallinson: This is Pentonville? Which was explicitly designed to remove people’s identity – I studied history and I remember – the Victorian design of Pentonville was thought out to basically maximise psychological torture.
John Sampson: I mean, I don’t think we’ve gone that far from from that. It is not fit for people to live in.
Mathilda Mallinson: So a lot of the people who we’ve spoken to as well have fallen into crime, if not as a result of, but with the influence of significant trauma. Do you feel that officers are adequately trained to take that trauma into account?
John Sampson: I don’t think trauma is actually something that’s particularly spoken about amongst officers. We would just put down as like, really challenging behaviour. There can be this process of actually, you being transferred some of their trauma – a vicarious trauma process. Self-harm is a massive thing in prison. As an officer, you’re the first responder to that situation. That is a traumatic experience. So you’re sort of just gradually accumulating this vicarious trauma as you move through your career. People get burnt out, and people leave the job. I guess, I left the job and I got burnt out.
Mathilda Mallinson: Are there systems in place to support officers through that trauma? Do you have access to counselling?
John Sampson: Yeah, so there are systems in place. What I would say is there’s a culture of sort of aversion to seeking help. Going to get counsel or going to get support after you’ve experienced something difficult might be perceived as a weakness or a vulnerability that you shouldn’t be showing in a place like prison.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’ve struggled to get officers to speak on the record this candidly about what goes on in prison. I’m wondering whether you can shed any light as to why there is so little journalistic access to this area, which really should be one of the most transparent— you know, justice should be one of the most transparent sectors of a democratic society?
John Sampson: We’re literally not allowed to. What happens then is the only spokesperson for prison officers is the union, the Prison Officer’s Association, which I believe does damage to the experience of prison officers as a collective. Taking the pandemic as an example, the Prison Officer’s Association came out with this narrative: the pandemic is great for prisons, it improved safety, mental health and self harm has gone down. It couldn’t have been further from the truth! No one’s experience of the pandemic on either side of the door was positive.
Mathilda Mallinson: Why do you think the POA was putting out such a positive message if that wasn’t reflecting reality?
John Sampson: In the pandemic, at its worst, we were running a regime where guys were getting out of their cells for 30 minutes every two days, which meant that they couldn’t get into any fights. Staff assaults had gone down, because no one was coming out of their cells. No one could assault staff! It was a very naive understanding of what was going on in prisons. Prison officers will be doing their best when the prisoners that they work with are doing their best. That is just a fact.
Mathilda Mallinson: Do you think that our tough on crime politics is the right direction?
John Sampson: I mean, I can say categorically no. Prisons are so overcrowded. If I was in charge tomorrow, I would half the prison population, knock down all of the Victorian prisons that are no longer fit for purpose. I’m pro building new prisons. I’m not pro building new prisons and keeping old prisons open. Will we just sort of dig down further into a pit of our own despair? Or are we going to be like: “maybe we need to come out of the pit and actually build something new?”
Mathilda Mallinson: “Build back better.”
John Sampson: “Build back better.”
Mathilda Mallinson: Of course, not all prison officers report having the same perception.
Ger O’Dwyer: There’s not a whole lot left to see that might surprise me.
Mathilda Mallinson: I also spoke to Gerrard O’Dwyer, a seasoned prison guard from Northern Ireland, who paints a picture of old school camaraderie.
Ger O’Dwyer: I suppose it wouldn’t be very different from a relationship you have with somebody on the outside. A lot of fellas come in, they just want to do their time and go back out their families. We’re just the same – we want to go in at eight o’clock, do our time, then come back to our families eight o’clock talk at night. So it’s an all our interests: you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. And we’ll get on just fine, you know.
Mathilda Mallinson: I am actually interested whether you think other officers have the same approach, because what I’ve heard from some people who’ve been inside is that at least some officers will take the liberty to personally put them down. Is that something that you have witnessed?
Ger O’Dwyer: No, I have to say no. No, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t agree with that statement. No, absolutely not.
Mathilda Mallinson: But he has felt pressure from the press and public to make life in prison difficult. Articles describing prisons as holiday camps, criticising any kind of lifestyle parks afforded to people serving criminal sentences. These are common, and Ger doesn’t agree.
Ger O’Dwyer: You know, you see and hear people complaining about ‘holiday camps’ and that. Like, the punishment is the loss of their liberty. Like, when they come into us, it’s not our job to punish them, they have been punished by the judiciary. Does The Sun want people tied up in chains breaking bricks? It’s the loss of their liberty. That’s that that’s their punishment. And that’s a huge thing. Like you have the option to go for a walk, meet your friend, they don’t have those options. I don’t know if people realise the enormity of that.
Mathilda Mallinson: Does that mean you would be in favour of actually improving living conditions in prisons?
Ger O’Dwyer: All the staff would be hugely in favour of improvements, because the better their living conditions, obviously means we have better working conditions.
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s not just prisoner welfare that’s a concern, like John, Ger says the job takes its toll. But for that, he’s found a remedy.
Sound: Irish music
The Cork Prison Officers Male Voice Choir was set up in 1989.
Ger O’Dwyer: A group of lads came together and was just singing – if a member of staff had passed away, they would sing at the funeral.
Music is a hugely important thing and it’s about participation and comradeship as well. You know, I have to stop and think at times about how much it really means. It means an awful lot to me, you know. I surprise myself with how much it means to me. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’ll be the first to tell you, I’m not bringing revelations. A lot of this is old news. And yet is it actually reflected in how we talk about crime in our politics, in our press? Are we just giving victims of crime the priority they deserve? Or are we using victims as a fig leaf to win votes? If the evidence has one thing, but the voters want another, where is that discrepancy coming from? That brings us on to part two of the podcast. Thanks for sticking around.
Theme music plays
Helena Wadia: Welcome back to the studio, where we’ll discuss all the cheerful headlines of marginalised, ostracised, and systematically silences communities.
Mathilda Mallinson: Our first guest this week is actually being re-voiced by an actor because they are famous for their secret identity. This best-selling author exposes corruption, cracks and confusions in their otherwise impermeable industry. No, it’s not Banksy. It’s the Secret Barrister! Welcome gender nonspecific voice of the Secret Barrister.
The Secret Barrister: Hi, I’m the Secret Barrister.
Helena Wadia: Our second guest is the head of prisoner involvement at the Prison Reform Trust, where she leads the integration of lived experience voices into much needed campaigns for change. Please welcome Paula Harriott.
Paula Harriott: Hello, everybody.
Helena Wadia: So in this investigation, it sounds like a lot of the people when going through the criminal justice system have felt unheard, misunderstood, lost and confused. Paula, in your experience, would you say that this is the norm?
Paula Harriott: I think so. Yeah. In that introduction to me, what you didn’t say was that I am actually a former prisoner myself. So the lived experience of being in prison and also being featured in The Sun… the headline, and I’ll never forget, it is “Drug lag let out to work in drugs-rife Hamsworth”, and a picture of me that made me look like hardcore criminal. It was a really scary experience to be outed in The Sun. I have been to prison. I’ve accepted the punishment. I’ve changed my life and I cannot be held ransom by the press. I understand there’s like interest in people’s criminal convictions and they relate to risk and personal safety and public safety. And I like genuinely do understand that. But there’s like disclosure for public protection, and there’s disclosure for voyeurism.
Mathilda Mallinson: This thing we have, this obsession we have with painted villains, the drama of it, the theatrics of it… Someone described the legal system as a theatre show. And that kind of came up a lot in my interviews, where people just felt really lost in the system, completely stripped of agency. Secret Barrister, you’ve written a lot about the opacity of the system in these terms. In what way do you think that the legal system is a theatre show?
The Secret Barrister: I think the justice system and those of us in it can do a very good job of making it feel like a theatre show. And that’s the problem. We clothe ourselves in black gowns and 17th century horsehair wigs and quote Victorian legislation and let Latin trip off our tongues when we’re making legal arguments. It’s a product of tradition, which as a baby lawyer, we are taught to imbibe and replicate, but which immediately creates a barrier between us – the insiders – and anybody else trying to follow criminal justice in action. If you make people feel like outsiders, you can’t be surprised if people, when the case goes against them, are then left with a feeling that justice has not been done.
Helena Wadia: Is it all technicalities? Or is there an active inequality in how our legal system operates?
Paula Harriott: I think there are some gross inequalities. As a defendant, you’re already frightened. And if you’re using legal aid, you don’t have any recognition of whether or not your barrister or your solicitor or the quality of your advice is any good. There isn’t a TripAdvisor for the quality of the legal representation that you’re allocated. So how do you know? Having worked in the sector for many, many years, I recognise that there is something called justice for the rich and less justice for the poor. And that’s about the quality of advice that you can buy and the quality of information that you can have access to. That’s not doing down legal aid barristers because – and solicitors – because I meet many that are fabulous and committed and professional and values-driven. But there are some that are demoralised and underpaid overworked. Your life is in their hands!
The Secret Barrister: Over recent years, there’s been a steady creep in the erosion of individual rights and liberties across the legal landscape. The removal of legal aid from vast swathes of the population means that if you’re accused of a crime or find yourself unlawfully injured or unfairly dismissed from your job, you will likely have to fund legal proceedings yourself, which many people simply cannot afford to do. In criminal law, the situation is particularly egregious—
Paula Harriott: See it’s words like that that disconnect, ordinary working class people. We have to check if we understand what that means. And they will just flounder and feel like, how is this person acting in my best interest by speaking in a way and in a language that doesn’t represent me? The language is the language of class, isn’t it? This isn’t an attack on people using complex language to describe complex issues. It’s not. But it’s a fact, it has to be recognised that you have to become accessible in your use of language in order to promote equity and equality within the criminal justice system.
Mathilda Mallinson: I’m now dying to know what’s so egregious.
The Secret Barrister: In criminal law, the situation is particularly egregious as you don’t choose whether or not to engage with the criminal courts, and cuts to legal aid mean that people are facing years decades of their lives in prison and are forced to either represent themselves in court against the most experienced prosecutors in the country, or have to remortgage their homes to fund private representation. The government changed the law so that if you’re acquitted, if found not guilty, you will not be reimbursed your full legal fees, meaning you can be wrongly accused and find yourself bankrupted trying to clear your name.
Paula Harriott: And just— on that point, compensation for victims as well. Do you remember at the London Bridge attack at Fishmongers Hall? And it was former prisoners – one of them was my colleague at work – former prisoners who helped to detain the guy that had killed both Jack and Saskia. They were refused victim’s compensation because they had criminal records. So people with criminal records can never claim compensation as a victim of crime.
Helena Wadia: That’s so…
Mathilda Mallinson: Egregious?
Paula Harriott: (Laughing) Is that egre— what’s the word? Egre—
Mathilda Mallinson: That is pretty egregious!
A lot of this attack on the rights of people on the wrong end of the criminal justice system is part of the government’s tough on crime policy agenda.
Paula Harriott: I’d like I’d like it to be tough on the causes of crime. I understand about punishment. Yeah. Like anybody who’s a victim has a sense of the requirement to visualise and to see justice. So I understand about the need for justice, but that… what is the purpose of imprisonment? What are we seeking to achieve by doing that? When I was in prison, there’s not one woman that I really met in that system, who when I listened to the backstory, I thought, oh my god, I really get it how you’ve got here. Before I went to prison, there was about like, six, seven services that I was having connection with. You know, I was a drug user. You know, my husband smoked crack, domestic violence, social services, mental health issues… and all these different services coming to me trying to stop what was the inevitable descent to the criminal justice, to prison. And then I get the eight year sentence. Suddenly it was all about me. None of those services sit back and go: “Okay, what did we do that failed her?” There’s such a need for us to have a sophisticated conversation about this that’s less emotional, that deconstructs why we have imprisonment in the backdrop of our mind like some Victorians.
Helena Wadia: Yeah, I think we will we definitely want to talk about how the media is complicit in kind of playing up that tough on crime narrative. You know, the government tells us that crime is on the rise. And the media tells us that prisons are the answer, because I’m not sure that there is a mainstream media outlet that doesn’t express overt support for presence. There are definitely opinion pieces, and there are definitely less mainstream outlets that add nuance to the conversation. But if we’re looking mainstream, there can be seen to be an overemphasised apparent risk that all prisoners pose to society. We’re being told that there are dangers all around us, and then we as a public become scared, and then therefore, prison is quite an unproblematic solution. Secret Barrister, I want to know, how does the phrase tough on crime make you feel?
The Secret Barrister: Tough on crime politics makes my heart sink, not just because I’m a lily-livered liberal who doesn’t think anybody should go to prison – although just on that note, we do send far too many people to prison, and that’s for a later discussion. But because tough on crime does not actually mean tough on crime. There’s no evidence to suggest, to take a recent high-profile example, that increasing the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency workers from one year to two years is going to make a single emergency worker any safer. And I can tell you, because I prosecuted and defended a lot of these people, people do not sit home weighing up the pros and cons of assaulting a nurse, balancing the sadistic pleasure against the likely punishment a court would impose. These offences are invariably spontaneous, wholly unplanned and arise out of a complex combination of factors relating to mental ill health, alcohol and drug use, ingrained behavioural problems and environmental stressors, none of which are solved by slapping an extra two months on somebody’s prison sentence.
Mathilda Mallinson: It actually just seems so obvious when you put it like that. Do you think the media is complicit in flaring up that tough on crime narrative?
The Secret Barrister: The media undoubtedly plays a role in flaring this up. A day doesn’t pass without a story railing against a “soft judge” letting a “dog” or a “lout” walk free from court. The news reports rarely include the context that you need to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of the sentence, such as the fact that the defendant is a carer for a seriously disabled child, or that they have for the first time in a decade obtained a job and a house and have remained out of trouble for three years since the offence was committed, and the court doesn’t want to risk destabilising them. Rage generates more clicks.
Helena Wadia: Yeah, I do think the language of prison reporting is oversimplified, especially hearing from the investigation, Mathilda, the people you spoke to you – how each case had so many nuances and intersections. But as Secret Barrister just said, I don’t think we would have ever heard those nuances or intersections in the mainstream media.
Mathilda Mallinson: No, Paula just got “drug lag,” was that it?
Paula Harriott: Drug Lag. Not like not like “mother of five who had a really complex life”. Othering people in the press is is a tactic that we don’t, unless it affects us personally, we don’t pick up on. Because the language is cementing a framework of division, that in many ways, is part of inequality, isn’t it? And until people like call that out, then nothing will happen. And it has to be people with lived experience at the forefront of that.
Helena Wadia: Exactly.
Mathilda Mallinson: One of the reasons that people with lived experience don’t have that voice you’re saying they should have is probably because of how otherised they are in the media. I mean, this is the thing: whether the media does it for entertainment purposes or for financial purposes, It has real-life policy consequences. So is the danger to this demonisation of, quote, “criminals”, that it undermines public incentive for the reforms of the prison estate to happen that we know should be happening?
: The Secret Barrister: This is a huge problem. And it’s not restricted to the media. It pervades our entire culture. The stories we tell ourselves about crime are all too often reduced to the monochrome and the binary. There are innocent angels, either victims or the wrongly accused, and irredeemable villains who we need to punish to – to adopt a favoured bullshit political phrase – the full extent of the law. We’re discouraged from nuance, from seeing complexities in people’s lives or situations. We’re especially discouraged from seeing criminal justice is something that might affect us. Criminal justice, as I’ve said, is something that we all own. It’s not just for cartoon burglars wearing stripy tops chased by a truncheon-wielding PC Dibbles. Any of us could get sucked in and any of us could make a mistake. If we did, we would want to be treated fairly by a system that didn’t write us off as “criminal scum” but viewed us as a whole.
Mathilda Mallinson: Why do we do this?! I mean, why does the media do this? Is it just about selling papers? Obviously sensationalist, clickbait, we’ve seen this every week, we know that this happens. But is there more to it?
The Secret Barrister: Well, there’s definitely a healthy degree of self-interest among the media proprietors. There was something unsubtle, for example, about the way in which the majority of the media lined up to cheerlead government attacks on employment rights. And I don’t think you’ll find many journalists who would say that their working conditions have improved since.
Helena Wadia: (Laughing) Mathilda, any thoughts on that?
Mathilda Mallinson: I mean, getting made redundant with one week’s notice and no pay as normal, right?
Helena Wadia: Okay, so the big question, then: What can the mainstream media do better to educate people properly about the legal system? I think what would have been useful to me was to know that alternatives to prison or to long prison sentences. So whether this be abolition or whether this be rehabilitation— they are not new ideas. Like there’s this kind of narrative that they’ve sprung up randomly over the last like couple of years, and that they’re very kind of “lefty liberal”, as The Secret Barrister said, like “lily-livered” ideas. But, you know, they’re not— in terms of modern prison. abolitionists have been organising in different groups in the UK, at least since at least the 1970s. Paula, what do you think the mainstream media can do to better educate people properly, then about the legal system?
Paula Harriott: I don’t know if it’s like what the mainstream media can do. It’s what changemakers can do to influence the mainstream media. Because if we’re waiting— you know, it’s like Audrey Lorde says, isn’t it? “The master’s tools will never demolish the master’s house.” So to have faith in them, for people with power, to voluntarily adopt different attitudes is, like, delusional. In my work at the Prison Reform Trust, you know, with my own podcast, The Secret Life of Prisons podcast, it is an attempt to create an audience for a different perspective on prisons, led by prisoners themselves. It’s not… I don’t wait for the mainstream media to do anything!
Helena Wadia: Yeah. And Secret Barrister, same question.
The Secret Barrister: If it doesn’t cause you to immediately cut off my mic. I will elegantly segue into a plug for my second book, Fake Law. And modestly suggest that those working in the media read it because so many of the problems in the way we talk about justice are based on fundamental misunderstandings of how our system works.
Mathilda Mallinson: Right, time to talk about the headlines. The big crime story of the moment, although notably, it’s not actually listed under “Crime” on most news platforms, but under “Royals”, or in the case of The Sun Online, under “Fabulous”, subtopic, “Celebrity”…
Helena Wadia: Wow
Mathilda Mallinson: Prince Andrew has been accused of having had coercive sex three times with a 17 year old, a minor in the country of question, by grace of his dalliance with convicted sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein. The woman who we’re talking about, Virginia Giuffre, is pursuing civil litigation against the Prince, which his legal team has so far unsuccessfully attempted to have thrown out. Now I know the media has had a vulture feast over this case and haven’t exactly gone easy on Prince Andrew. But I do wonder still about the tone of it all: whether it reflects any double standards and how the media treats people from different backgrounds when accused of or associated with crime.
Helena Wadia: Yeah, for me, I do think that there is a reluctance in the media to hold Prince Andrew to account in the same way that we hold perhaps a regular person facing the allegations he’s facing. So take a recent headline from The Independent: “Prince Andrew could be stripped of title if he loses sex case, reports say”— it’s not a sex case. It’s a rape case.
Mathilda Mallinson: It’s a rape case.
The Secret Barrister: The last two weeks have not reflected well on the media. The reaction to the convictions of Ghislaine Maxwell has been unlike anything I’ve seen. I cannot recall another case in which the family of a convicted sex offender have been invited on to the BBC to sermonise about their innocence and to enjoy sympathetic puff pieces charting their tragic downfall. This isn’t meant to contradict what I said before. And I do think her background and the portraits of her upbringing are relevant in our understanding of criminality. But the point is the contrast when we compare it to a 39-year-old heroin addict who has robbed a shop at knifepoint. He doesn’t get rendered in 3D with a public exhortation to understand how his background led him to that point. So I agree that there’s definitely an element of double standards.
Prince Andrew is slightly more complex, but there has been in his case a noticeable split between the elements of the traditional media and what is happening on social media. The former might fairly be described as playing down the allegations or certainly treating Andrew with a respect and reverence that they would not extend to a civilian facing similar allegations. But on social media, there is the opposite. The near universal assumption is that he’s guilty. He has of course done himself no favours at all with his conduct: his refusal to engage with the authorities in the US, and his incredible tales of Pizza Express and inability to sweat do not, in my professional opinion, enhance his credibility. But he’s not yet been convicted of anything and instant assumptions of guilt by people who are not acquainted with any of the evidence are not fair or helpful. Whether the accused is a member of the public or a non-sweating prince.
Mathilda Mallinson: Paula, we both want to say a massive thank you for joining us and being so open and so enlightening. Where can people follow you? Do you have anything you’d like to plug?
Paula Harriott: Oh, just follow me on Twitter. @paula_harriott, it’s really easy. You can contact me at the Prison Reform Trust and you can subscribe to my own particular podcast, The Secret Life of Prisons, where you’ll hear more prisoners, former prisoners, talking about the experience of being in prison.
Helena Wadia: And voice of The Secret Barrister, where can people follow you and do you have anything to plug?
The Secret Barrister: You can follow The Secret Barrister on Twitter @barristersecret, and my latest book Nothing But The Truth comes out on the 12th of May, taking outsiders through the long and winding road to becoming a barrister. My previous books, The Secret Barrister and Fake Law, are available now and expand a lot on the issues that we discussed here today.
Mathilda Mallinson: Thank you for listening. We’ll be back on the 27th of January with our next episode – Fatphobia: Healthcare by size. That’s a little switch up in case you didn’t notice as we take our release fortnightly.