The former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker has punctured a pernicious and persistent myth that clings to political discourse like the foul stench from a blocked sewer. Now a convicted fraudster, he talked candidly to the BBC about spending eight months in English prisons before his deportation back to Germany last year, describing how time behind bars was difficult and dangerous.
“You fight every day for survival,” said the tennis star, whose celebrity lifestyle crashed after falling into bankruptcy. “Whoever says that prison life isn’t hard and isn’t difficult is lying.”
Sadly, all too many people perpetuate this lie. Becker’s insights demolish the daft idea pushed by politicians, journalists and films that being deprived of liberty and stuffed in a cramped cell is somehow cushy.
He went to Wandsworth, described in the chief inspector’s most recent report as a “crumbling, overcrowded, vermin-infested prison” filled with “desperately bored” inmates locked up 23 hours a day with “poor” access to the library, gym or education. One group “who came blinking into sunlight” revealed it was the first time they had been outside for more than a week.
Then the tennis star was sent to Huntercombe in Oxfordshire, which the inspector called one of our most progressive prisons – yet still found concerns over safety and mental health for inmates often only let out of cells for one hour a day.
Little wonder report after report highlights the failure of our prison system to curb reoffending – especially when so many people inside those cells are damaged by their background, addictions, trauma or mental health troubles even before being despatched into these hellholes for their crimes.
Becker told how his fame counted for nothing. “Inside it doesn’t matter that I was a tennis player, the only currency we have inside is our character and our personality. That’s it, you have nothing else. You don’t have any friends at first, you’re literally on your own and that’s the hard part, you have to really dig inside yourself about your qualities and your strengths but also your weaknesses.”
It is painfully obvious that if personal demons that cause citizens to commit crime are not tackled in an institution that exposes weakness, these people are likely to carry on offending after leaving prison. Even Republicans in Texas have come to understand this. Yet Britain uses these grim places to warehouse tens of thousands of people failed by the state.
Some are, of course, guilty of monstrous behaviour. Yet to pluck out just one of those many devastating reports, MPs on the Commons Justice Committee have pointed out that seven in 10 prisoners may have mental health needs, which only worsen behind bars. Many are jailed due to dire lack of treatment facilities, although only one in 10 then receive help. Prison was often seen as “inappropriate” – and sometimes “inhumane” for inmates with the worst psychological problems, especially when they are stuck into segregation.
Now listen to the shocking banalities of the political debate as the two main parties divorce themselves from Westminster’s failures, pretend they are tough and tussle for support ahead of local elections with headline-grabbing stunts. Rishi Sunak says he will “stamp out” anti-social behaviour “once and for all” by banning another drug despite the disastrous failure of prohibition, increasing fines for kids spraying graffiti and forcing some vandals to wear jumpsuits while repairing their damage.
Labour descends into the gutter in response, accusing the Prime Minister of opposing prison for paedophiles and people convicted of gun possession. This is not just vile politics but utterly deceitful, given that sentences are based on guidelines and they are using data going back five years before Sunak even became an MP.
Clearly Sir Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions who should know better, intends to adopt the dismal New Labour playbook of trying to outflank the Tories on crime, although even hardline former home secretary David Blunkett was dismayed by those “deeply offensive” attack advertisements. Their party passed 28 criminal justice bills and put one new offence on the statute book for every day in office over 13 years.
The legacy of Westminster’s jousting on “law and order” is a prison population that almost doubled over the past three decades, leaving the likes of Leeds, Durham and Wandsworth holding two-thirds more inmates than intended – along with six deaths and more than 1,000 self-harming incidents each week in overcrowded cells.
Behind this lies the idea that prison deters criminals, despite British recidivism rates staying stubbornly high. So the average sentence for indictable offences has risen in a decade from one year and five months to more than two years. Yet when the Sentencing Council of England and Wales asked academics to review its stance, the subsequent report last year blew apart all the anachronistic political arguments.
The review concluded that short prison sentences of less than 12 months were less effective than alternative community options in reducing reoffending – and possibly even made people more likely to commit crimes upon release – while increasing of prison terms made “no effect on the level of crime in society”.
This echoed findings by the think-tank Transform Justice, which noted how assaults on police and health workers had risen despite penalties quadrupling over the last four years. “Prison sentences are not effective in reducing offending, whether through deterrence or rehabilitation,” said director Penelope Gibbs. “We all want to cut crime but the answer is not more prison but more effective community punishments. Prison is a dead end.”
She is right. Ultimately, this hackneyed law and order debate exposes only the timidity of politicians who have failed on so many fronts from tackling addiction through to fixing broken childcare and mental health systems. Prison is horrible, as Becker says – but it exposes the weakness not only of criminals but all those posturing politicians who talk so tough while displaying such abject pusillanimity.