David Cameron is planning to stop prisoners having Sky TV in their cells, in a bid to end “cushy conditions” in British jails. The PM is concerned that some prisoners see doing time as like being in a holiday camp, and wants to remind everyone that “retribution is not a dirty word”.
If he really wants retribution, I have a simple suggestion. Remove not just the television screens, but books, newspapers and stereos too. In fact, remove nearly every creature comfort, save perhaps for a few cigarettes each day. Then, I absolutely guarantee you, hard time will feel like hard time.
Hang on, you might ask, what would a middle-class Telegraph hack know about what it’s like to languish at Her Majesty’s Pleasure? Nothing, I grant you. But I have spent time as a prisoner, when I was kidnapped in Somalia back in 2008. While on assignment to cover the country’s piracy problem, my photographer and I were abducted and spirited off to some remote mountain caves, where we spent the next six weeks.
Compared to conditions in a British jail, it was not very comfortable. We spent nearly 24 hours a day stuck on a mat smaller than a double bed, with nothing to read, no way of keeping a diary, and only a chess set made from pebbles to pass the time with.
Our kidnappers did occasionally lend us their short wave radio, on which we could access a very crackly BBC World Service, but even that gets pretty repetitive if you listen to it hours on end. In fact, the only thing to look forward to each day was the “snout” ration, in the form of a few ciggies scrounged off the kidnappers.
Finally just to give it that prison tinge of violence, we had a charming guard called the Old Bastard (our nickname, not his) who cocked his gun in my face one day and threatened to beat me to a pulp. True, he never threatened to turn “sister” on me as well, but I can’t say the thought never entered my head.
Yet in many ways, the toughest aspect of incarceration was not the fear that we might get killed, or never be released, but the sheer, crushing boredom. I was very lucky in having a fellow hostage for company, but after a couple of weeks, we still began to run short of things to talk about. Daydreaming helped, but only a bit. Instead, we woke up most mornings with the uniquely dismal prospect of spending the next few hours staring blankly at the walls. Every minute felt like it lasted an hour, every hour a day, and so on.
We did have plenty of time to think, though. And I do recall coming up one day with a novel solution for Britain’s prison overcrowding problem. Put convicts on the “cave routine” – or some variation of it, according to how well behaved they were – and you could make a two-week sentence seem like two months, a two-month sentence seem like two years and so on.
I am not suggesting, to be clear, that this could be done for really long sentences, or be suitable for everyone, as there is evidence that too much time without stimulation has bad effects on mental health. But for shorter sentences, might it not be food for thought?
The realistic answer, of course, is no. These days, I suspect that even Mr Cameron would deem such a regime excessively harsh and a gross violation of human rights. However, speaking as someone who has had my human rights violated in this way, I can say that it didn’t do me any lasting harm. It just wasn’t very pleasant, and I wanted it to stop as soon as possible. Isn’t that what prison is supposed to be about?