November 19, 2010 11:24 pm

Barred from freedom

Prisoners have nothing to hide behind; they are humanity with all the trappings stripped away, equal under the sign of the loss of liberty

I went to prison the other day and I recommend the experience. I am not trying to minimise the awful aspects of incarceration, with or without the right to vote, even for those who know they are going to get out (or at least think they are going to get out, but you never quite know – some security mix-up, a confusion of papers) in the space of a few hours.

There are the inevitable gates and security procedures, the horrible clang of metal doors and clank of keys; beyond the locks there are the looks you get, even at the visitors’ entrance: not quite the looks anyone in Civvy Street can give you, the looks that say “abandon hope all ye who enter here”.

I was in HMP Pentonville at the invitation of former Tory cabinet minister and prison inmate Jonathan Aitken, who was giving a talk under the auspices of the chaplaincy on his experiences in jail. Aitken speaks well, of course; I was impressed by his courtesy and charm, and the way he did not talk down to his audience; indeed, he might have been addressing, not 60 or 70 jailbirds, but the honourable members of the House of Commons.

And the impression one got was that Aitken had done pretty well inside, as of course he had done outside, before, as he put it, being a little economical with the truth – an excess of pride led him to commit perjury.

Very early on, he said, he was faced with a poser: a huge and angry fellow inmate of HMP Belmarsh approached him and said, “Aitken, I’ve got a bone to pick with you; you’re a friend of Micky Howard”. This was a reference to the hardline former home secretary Michael Howard, whom the prisoner blamed for his continuing incarceration. Aitken replied: “He’s been a good friend of mine for 20 years and you know, he’s not such a bad fellow.” This was the right answer; loyalty counts for more inside than slimy attempts at ingratiation.

Quite soon Aitken had made himself indispensable and, one guesses, quite popular as the writer of letters, including love letters, for the quite large proportion of prisoners who were functionally illiterate.

One thing Aitken touched on but didn’t really go into was what it feels like to experience the sudden and disastrous loss of status which going to prison represents. His own fall from grace was as drastic as you could imagine; he still holds the record, rather amazingly when you think about it, as the only British cabinet minister ever to have spent time in the clink. He was rich, feted and famous. He became merely infamous.

Losing status, I was thinking as I chatted to some of the prisoners, though painful, might not be without its positive aspects. Prisoners have nothing to hide behind; they are humanity with all the trappings stripped away, equal under the sign of the loss of freedom. If freedom didn’t matter, none of this would matter. The suffering, but also the thoughtfulness and capacity for reflection of some prisoners, are the proof that freedom matters.

I think this was why Aitken had invited me to come to Pentonville. Prison, as he put it, is the ultimate Slow Lane, the place where time can seem to grind to a complete halt. But you can be sure some hard thinking goes on there. Famously, the prisoners of Alcatraz had much less difficulty with Waiting for Godot (performed there in 1957) than certain bourgeois audiences.

I liked the questions the prisoners put to Aitken, which were neither particularly philosophical nor theological, but sharp and practical and to the point. “How much do you earn now?” was my favourite, followed by “Are you a friend of Jeffrey Archer?”

My main reason for recommending a visit to prison, though, apart from making the acquaintance of some of the most thoughtful people you might meet in a month of Sundays, is to experience the blessed relief of coming out through that endless series of clanging doors. Out, in my case, onto an ordinary, none too beautiful London street, on an ordinary working afternoon, blessed by the intensity of late autumn sunshine. You might, as I did, give thanks for this, before getting on your ordinary train.

And on that ordinary train you could see what we make of our freedom. The drawn brows, the fidgeting with gadgets, the general sense of dissatisfaction and distraction and unfreedom which holds sway in the world outside the clanging doors. When, visited by his seeming friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the melancholy-mad Hamlet says “Denmark’s a prison”, they reply, “Why then is the world one.” They mean it as a joke, but their own behaviour indicates otherwise. Unconvinced, Hamlet presses further: “Is it a free visitation?” Of course there is nothing free about it at all. Pawns in a power game, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have surrendered their small margin of personal freedom and perverted the free-running course of friendship.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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