Mr Innocent and Mary Poppins go to prison

Mr Innocent and Mary Poppins go to prison

You may find it hard to have any sympathy with Denis MacShane and Vicky Pryce. MacShane was a pro-Zionist MP who was regularly sent on to Newsnight to bat for the integration of a capitalist European Union and believes that Tony Blair was the greatest ever Labour prime minister.

Pryce, a liberal economist who had worked in banking and oil, was joint head of the UK Government Economics Service, a partner and chief economist at KPMG and director general for economics at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

The two were recently sentenced to jail for law breaking activity which in both cases took place a decade earlier and by simple twists of fate had later caught up with them. He falsely claimed Parliamentary expenses for work that was not Parliamentary. She perverted the course of justice by taking driving points for her then husband, Chris Huhne, the oleaginous Liberal Democrat MP who also did time.

As is now almost fashionable they have turned their spell behind bars into an opportunity to write a prison diary.  If their diaries share anything it is a cumulative and coruscating attack on prison and the notion that it has anything to do with justice.

Their criticisms are fuelled in part by being dumbfounded by the chaos of the system. Denis MacShane is entered, Kafkaesque fashion, on to the prison system database at the high security Belmarsh as Ian McShane (the prison officer must have recently watched Lovejoy) and so officially there is no record of him being in prison at all.  In a passage that resembles an episode of Porridge, Pryce describes a transfer from her short stay at Holloway to East Sutton Park in a privatised vehicle that breaks down.

Another source of their ire is the disgust of the upper middle classes being exposed to the brutal regulation and harassment that working-class communities disproportionately experience. The cruelty towards prisoners that pervades the prison system is recounted in detail. Is this, they both ask themselves, how ordinary people are treated? Well, yes it is.

Each meet numerous people who, it appears, should never have been in prison. While confessing little interest in criminal justice while an MP, MacShane asks throughout his book why so many of the people he meets in the prison system are there. They do not seem to have done much wrong and have been the victims of simple legal injustice.

In part this is MacShane’s way of arguing his own case; unlike other MPs caught up in the expenses farrago he did not make a financial gain. Time and again he admits his wrongdoing but the feint is that he wants the reader to conclude he is Mr Innocent felled by the BNP who triggered the expenses complaint and Kier Starmer, then Director of Public Prosecutions, and John Lyon the Parliamentary Commissioner who simply took against him rather than others who had purloined much more for personal gain.

Pryce, who lied for her husband and put forward a defence of martial coercion, writes of drug dependent women, those imprisoned under joint enterprise laws and foreign drug mules who are, in the main, adjuncts to the activities of law-breaking men and are victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Yet her description of life with ‘the girls’ at HMP East Sutton Park at times read like a stay in Mallory Towers with midnight feasts and jolly hocky sticks with herself a Mary Poppins in the clink.

Pryce concludes with a quasi-abolitionist perspective on the women’s estate from a quasi-feminist position noting that there are ‘many women – and many men – who should at this moment not be in jail but either at home with their families or being properly looked after by social and health services in their communities.’ MacShane concludes ‘…the Labour [Party] record is truly shameful, they have sought to profile themselves as being tough with criminals. But beating up men and women behind bars is childish and counter-productive.’ Perhaps he forgets that his beloved Tony Blair was the driver of the ‘tough on crime’ policy that helped double prison numbers.

Both are privileged short-term residents and appear unaware of the protection that their fame offers them. Pryce served ten weeks, MacShane seven, hardly the long walk to freedom. On stepping out of prison they resume lives and careers of people with privilege. Left behind is a penal regime that selectively and ruthlessly punishes the poor, the drug dependent, the mentally ill and those traumatised by complex histories of sexual and physical abuse that require a public health approach rather than the barbarism of the 23 hour lock-up experienced by prisoners in many prisons in Britain. MacShane, in a rather unBlairite fashion, argues that ‘The Crown Prosecution Service and judges are about social order, not justice.’ How true. If anything is a perversion of the course of justice it is the British penal system which, despite austerity, has continued to grow at an alarming rate.

Denis MacShane, Prison Diaries, (2014) Biteback Publishing

Vicky Pryce, Prisonomics, (2013) Biteback Publishing

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