Banalities From Behind Bars

I first met Vicky Pryce at a dinner party in May 2010, a couple of weeks after her husband, Chris Huhne, left her for his former aide Carina Trimingham. She wept throughout, telling me one minute how much they loved each other, the next how vile he was for leaving her. She asked if we could meet for coffee and I agreed. It was a routine we kept up for months. She wept while I listened.  

A year later, a Sunday newspaper revealed that Vicky had taken her now ex-husband’s penalty points for speeding so he didn’t lose his driving licence. She was charged with perverting the course of justice and served two months of an eight-month prison sentence. This comprised four days in Holloway and just over eight weeks in East Sutton Park open prison for women in Kent.  

I have a particular interest in prisons as I spend much of my spare time as a lay monitor at a London men’s prison trying to ensure that prisoners are treated fairly, so I was particularly interested in Vicky’s book. I was disappointed that it contained nothing about her guilt or remorse. “This book will not dwell on the case or what went before it,” she states firmly. Nor are there any personal revelations or signs of self-awareness.  

The book doesn’t work as a narrative or an analysis of women in prison. The chapter on her first day at Holloway, which could be a real eye-opener for a smart, respected economist like herself, offers little about the prison except that she learnt how to use “freely provided tampons to block draughts on the grilles” before we are whisked away to her speciality, the world of economics, her work on the financial crisis in Cyprus and an “inordinate amount of time in the Overseas Development Administration providing an economic recovery plan…for Zanzibar”.  This information is included, she tells us, because it is evidence of how she knew she would cope in jail. She lost me there. 

On her second day, she received 20 letters. “An officer said that in all his time at Holloway he had never seen anyone receive so much post in one day…the girls (prisoners) all came to my cell to marvel at the number of letters on my bed.” At East Sutton Park, she is given the job of cleaning the dining room after breakfast and lunch, which she tackles efficiently and well. In one or other prison she meets a “lovely South American girl”, “a lovely Caribbean girl”, “a lovely South African girl”, “a lovely Italian girl” and a “convert Muslim vegetarian with a heart of gold who was in prison for the fourth time”. 

She relates how the prisoners were all “lovely, kind and helpful” and rushed around getting her “a soft pillow, a duvet, a duvet cover”. She makes them sound more like girls from an Enid Blyton jolly-hockey-sticks boarding school with Vicky the most popular girl in the class rather than the mentally unwell, addicts and damaged individuals I’ve come across in ten years of volunteering in a prison.     

She sees probation officers in “really sweet” offices within the prison building. The prison holds a family day which some of her children and grandchildren attend. It is the only day visitors can bring food into the prison and Vicky requests prawns, smoked salmon, Parma ham, Gruyère cheese, strawberries and cream. “To this day I do not understand the policy that does not allow visitors to bring treats.” I can tell her that it is because it is the ideal way to smuggle drugs, SIM cards or other illicit material into the prison.  

She is released, given the standard £49 and is tagged at home that evening. The tag came off two months later.

The book is wholly self-serving, with not a jot of introspection. We learn that “no one seemed to think I should be in prison at all”, whether they were a fellow guest at a chattering classes dinner party in Islington or a fellow convict.  Vicky is also surprisingly naive. She writes that most of the women in prison were there because they were “forced” to do something wrong by their husbands, boyfriends, brothers or fathers. Not once, however, does it occur to her that most prisoners, whether male or female, insist they “didn’t do it” or blame others for their situation. They are also adept at telling you what they think you want to hear.

In the final section of the book she explores issues such as the cost of keeping people in prison and the alternatives to prison for women. But again she shows her naivety by complaining about the lack of access to the internet, which would, of course, be a godsend to drug barons and other criminals who want to continue their activities while still inside. 

She gave ten big prison rubbish bags full of “books and papers and lots of letters” to relatives and friends to take away before she was released. It’s a pity she didn’t put the notes for her book in one of them and leave it out for the binmen.

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