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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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A life behind bars

For 30 years, Frances Crook has being trying to reform Britain’s prisons. So why does change feel as far away as ever?

When I heard that Michael Gove had been sacked as justice secretary, I was in prison. Kirklevington Grange, to be exact, a category D jail in North Yorkshire for men nearing the end of their sentence. The news came on the television – mobile phones are banned from British prisons, though some do find their way in – and I turned to my companion to see her reaction. She looked mildly interested.

Then again, Frances Crook has worked with 14 cabinet ministers responsible for prisons in her 30 years as chief executive of the Howard League, the penal reform charity. At 63, she has been in the job long enough to see both Kenneth Clarke and Jack Straw come round for a second go. Later, I ask if this parade of politicians makes her feel like the Queen in The Audience, played by Helen Mirren, watching prime ministers pass by. “I met them all,” she replies. “The only one who refused to meet me was Michael Howard. I met some of them twice.”

Over the past 150 years, the Howard League has established itself as a moderate and constant voice asking for three things from our justice system: “less crime, safer communities, fewer people in prison”. Some see it as a bunch of bleeding hearts. As even Crook jokes later, she can’t help it: she suffers from a spectacular case of nominative determinism. Her name literally means “free the criminals”.

The name of the charity comes from the 18th-century prison reformer John Howard, who first visited a jail in England when he was appointed high sheriff of Bedfordshire. Appalled by the conditions he found there, he spent four decades and £30,000 of his own money touring the country trying to improve penal standards. He visited some institutions eight or nine times. In Ely, he found “the gaoler chained the victims down on their backs on the floor, across which [were] several iron bars, with an iron collar with spikes about their necks and a heavy iron bar over their legs”.

The Howard League was set up in 1866 to continue this work, and visiting jails is still a large part of its remit. It becomes easier, seeing the problems at first hand and how these vary across the estate, to piece together what isn’t working. Crook visits a dozen jails a year, a process that has become simpler since Chris Grayling moved on from the post of justice secretary in May 2015. He hated outsiders seeing inside the estate, and journalists were rarely granted access.

The biggest problem is sheer numbers. In October 2016 the prison population stood at 85,860, which is 11 per cent more people than our jails can decently accommodate. Since the 1990s, it has increased steadily by 3.6 per cent a year – whereas it dropped to 40,000 under Margaret Thatcher. The prison population is overwhelmingly white, male and British, although foreigners and ethnic minorities are over-represented in comparison to the country at large.

Only 5 per cent of all prisoners in the UK are female; 12 per cent are foreign nationals; 25 per cent are from an ethnic minority. Men from lower socio-economic groups are over-represented, not least because of the toxic legacy of policies such as antisocial behaviour orders, which Crook describes as “absolutely wicked”. “Well, it just scooped up people: women who were working in the sex trade, people with mental-health problems, people who were on the edge of society who were not coping well,” she says. “There will always be people like that, who are fragile one way or another, who are addicted to something – gambling, drugs, alcohol – who are just not very good at life.”

 

***

Crook can remember her first day at the Howard League, back in 1986, because the office was empty when she arrived. After graduating from the University of Liverpool she had worked as a teacher, a councillor and as a campaigns co-ordinator for Amnesty International, during which she visited her first prison. It was Holloway, the women’s jail in north London, and she was taken there by the recently elected local MP, Jeremy Corbyn. She found the regime almost militaristic. “It was a very repressive, oppressive place – quite unpleasant.” (For her first seven years at the Howard League, she also served as a Labour councillor in Finchley, where she lives; and she had her only child, Sarah, now 28, soon after starting at the League.)

At Amnesty, she had also visited ­Barlinnie in Glasgow, which had a special unit where offenders could work on art projects alongside prison officers. It was where the gangster Jimmy Boyle was incarcerated after his conviction for murder in 1967. After leaving prison he became a sculptor, and never returned to crime. “It had a fantastic success rate,” Crook says. The unit was shut in 1995.

When she arrived at the League for her interview, Crook says, “they’d been very honest with me and said: ‘You’re taking a huge risk. There’s no money, we’re in debt, you’ll be taking on an organisation that’s either going to sink or swim.’” When she started work, she found that the headed notepaper still had a previous address on it. “So we just set to, fundraising for the first two years.” In the days before computers, every begging letter had to be typed individually.

Prison reform was, and is, an unfashionable cause. Money dribbled in from individuals and from Quaker charities – “and, luckily, every so often a Tory politician gets banged up for something and they become a convert to prison reform”. A long-term supporter left £6m in his will nearly a decade ago; consequently, unlike many other charities, the Howard League receives no money from central or local government.

Crook says the barriers to reforming the system change depending on the government and mood of the day. The killing of James Bulger in 1993 gave a new impetus to those who favoured a punitive justice system. Later in that decade, it was often “fear of the tabloid press – the fear of a scandal, and you can never tell what it is: Christmas dinner, sex, running a drug ring, escapes”.

She has a pet theory that New Labour’s huge majority created a generation of MPs with little to do at Westminster, and who were endlessly buttonholed at constituency surgeries about issues such as dog mess, graffiti and children hanging around in parks. “The people who go to an MP’s surgery are the people who have an axe to grind,” she says. “They’re complaining about something, usually their neighbours, or kids playing football, or antisocial behaviour.” Such people would see criminals as a class separate from theirs even if they, too, were committing criminal acts. “They’re not going to complain ‘I’m beating my wife’ or ‘I’m buggering my children’ or ‘I’m involved in petty theft’ or ‘I’m fiddling my tax’ – all the things that people do.”

 

***

 

What is wrong with our prisons? Drugs are rife, particularly new ­“psychoactive substances” such as spice (a synthetic form of cannabis), which have unpredictable effects. With drugs comes a drug economy, leading to beatings and gang violence.

The increasing length of sentences has driven up the prison population and there are greater numbers of the elderly and infirm. At the same time, there are 7,000 fewer officers now than in 2010, when the prison population was lower, according to a report by the House of Commons justice committee. It is particularly hard to recruit in the south of England, because the basic salary is £20,545, so officers from northern prisons are sometimes sent on “detached duty”, living in hotels and clocking up extra money for the inconvenience. Steve Graham, deputy governor at Holme House Prison in County Durham, tells us he has five officers at Wandsworth, London.

“The thing is,” Crook says, “they’re coming from an adult male prison and they’re going into Feltham [a young offender institution], dealing with children, with 15- and 16-year-old boys; or they go into a women’s prison and deal with women. They’ve got no training and no support.”

Steve Graham nods. “All I can say is, from Holme House . . .”

Crook interrupts: “It’s not their fault.”

Given such staff shortages, men are left in cells for longer because there is no one to let them out. (There is now a Teach First plan to recruit university leavers to the sector under a scheme called Unlocked Graduates.) Overcrowding often leads to two prisoners being squeezed into a cell made for one. Isis, a male young offender institution in Greenwich, south-east London, was built in 2010 to house 478; at its last inspection, it was found to hold 600.

Basic safety is still a problem: 268 people have died in prison this year, and the Prison Governors Association has called for an inquiry into the “unprecedented” rise in self-harming, violence against staff and suicide. The “benchmarking” scheme to cut costs, introduced by Chris Grayling in 2014, came in for particular criticism, the governors asking “why resources continued to be depleted when evidence showed that it was not working”.

Finally, the part-privatisation of the probation system in England and Wales to contractors such as Sodexo, which started in 2014, was accomplished with all the success that the phrase “government outsourcing” has come to imply. The £3.7bn contracts to oversee 200,000 medium- and low-risk offenders are almost all loss-making, as the providers complained to the Financial Times on 12 October. “If you are 15 to 30 per cent down on business, that will mean having to reduce staff and that will have a knock-on effect on our ability to reduce reoffending,” one manager told the newspaper. “To say it’s a cock-up is an understatement.”

The most frustrating thing for campaigners is that the government is entirely aware of the problems. Appearing before the Commons justice committee on 15 July 2015, Michael Gove said: “You cannot look at the number of suicides and self-inflicted injuries, or at the level of violence overall in the prison estate, and feel anything other than concern about the conditions in which prison officers have to work and the conditions in which offenders are kept.”

When I email to ask Gove for his impression of Frances Crook, he calls her “a passionate, principled and highly effective campaigner dedicated to helping those who few others speak up for” – and he delivers a statement that makes Ken Clarke look like Hanging Judge Jeffreys. “While the state will always need to incarcerate some offenders, the mark of a civilised society is a decent and humane prison system,” he tells me. “Every human being has an innate dignity and worth and, in the right circumstances, is capable of contributing positively to society. Prisons which are safe and ordered communities led by people committed to rehabilitation can turn those who have been liabilities to society into assets.”

Gove’s great plan was to “academise” jails: giving governors control over their budgets and regimes, rather than issuing nationwide decrees. The liberalisation scheme is being piloted at six reform prisons, including Wandsworth, Kirklevington and Holme House.

Anyone who remembers him in his education days – when he angered teachers by declaring himself the enemy of “the Blob” – might be surprised that Gove is remembered far more fondly by those in the prison system. Kirklevington, with 283 cells, has an annual budget of just over £5m; Holme House, which holds 1,167 men, has £18.5m, plus another £2m for education. But bureaucracy is stifling the ability of governors to run their own institutions: many are tied in to private finance initiative contracts for services such as building maintenance, with tough break clauses. As we tour a dilapidated building at Kirklevington, Crook points out a leaking roof and collapsed floor. Where maintenance often used to be done in-house, providing work for offenders, Gove’s predecessor Grayling preferred to employ private firms.

Such problems are now the province of Liz Truss, formerly Gove’s junior minister at Education, who was appointed Justice Secretary in the post-Brexit reshuffle. Her speech at the last Conservative party conference followed her predecessor’s lead in acknowledging the profound problems of many prisoners. “More than half can’t read or write to a basic standard,” she said, “half have mental-health problems and nearly two-thirds of women offenders are victims of abuse.” Truss also insisted that Gove’s reforms would continue, with a white paper due “in the coming weeks”. (It was published on 3 November.)

Ian Blakemore, the executive governor for both Kirklevington and Holme House, was one of several senior staff who seemed enthusiastic about the possibilities of reform. Having worked in the prison service for 27 years, he pointed to the greater openness as a sign that the prisons are engaging with their local communities. Angie Petit, the governor of Kirklevington – who started as a prison officer – added that she would welcome more control over the budget: “It’s become more prescriptive. For example, if I had a prisoner-pay budget, and I needed to top that up from a different budget, I wasn’t able to. Whereas now I can.”

Crook was exasperated. “This is only ­going back. This is not going forward. This is just going back to what it used to be.” The first question she asks on a visit, she said, is: what’s the budget? “For 30 years I’ve been asking: what’s your budget? And now, you’ve got a budget again, which is good – but you still haven’t got as much autonomy, even with the reform prisons, as we did ten years ago.”

 

***

 

Frances Crook’s first political act came at school, when she was asked to “put on these very short hockey skirts and go out on this freezing cold field and run around with a hockey stick,” as she told the Guardian in 2006. She refused, telling her teachers that she didn’t see the point, and that she would sit in the changing rooms until they had finished. “The teachers were so astounded, they didn’t know how to react. Nobody had ever refused before. I never did play hockey. In the end I used to go home. Nobody seemed to care. But it was an important political lesson. You can say no to things – as long as you are reasonable about it and say what you are going to do instead.”

So, here’s the rub: Frances Crook’s job is to spend time with people who are doing unpleasant front-line jobs – when did anyone last throw piss in your face at work? – or managers dealing with arbitrary Whitehall directives, trying to manage troubled and sometimes violent people, on limited budgets. She sees them fight the slow, remorseless grind of the system. But her job is to criticise them.

There is something teacher-like about her, even three decades after leaving the profession. On the day we tour Kirklevington and Holme House, she warns us that she might slow us down because she is soon to have a hip replacement. This does not prove to be the case. As we walk round, she has a birdlike alertness for detail. On seeing the lunch on offer at the canteen: “You can have carbohydrate, carbohydrate or . . . carbohydrate.” When I wince over a sign listing prices for “confectionary” and “muffin’s” – once a sub-editor, always a sub-editor – Crook promptly takes it up with our guides. “This stuff matters,” she insists. “People learn from their environment.” Later, in a cell: “This is a little nag, but when you put phones in the room, let them get incoming calls.” She overrides the press officer so that we see visiting time.

One of the prisoners we meet, Joe (not his real name), tells us he is due to be released the next day. He doesn’t seem happy. “I’m getting out tomorrow and I’ve got nowhere to go,” he says. On release, he will get his clothes and belongings back, and a discharge grant, but places in probation hostels are limited to high-risk offenders. “After 21 months, I’ll have £49 in cash. I’m being set up to fail.” As we leave, Crook takes our guide aside and insists that accommodation be found for Joe, at least for his first night.

Later, I ask Crook: how does she do it? Most of us would be too afraid of causing a bother, or being disliked, to do her job. “I always was a little awkward sod!” she smiles. “Just born awkward.” And does she find it hard to let go at the end of the day? “I’m not a people person. I’m a systems person.”

Peter Stanford, the director of the Longford Trust, a prison education charity, concurs. “When you’re working with these frustrating things – when we even seem to be going backwards – that takes a very particular sort of person. She’s sustained her passion, her energy and worked round every obstacle. Ordinary people would have given up. She can be prickly and difficult, but she’s right. You need someone not to be seduced by the latest silky-tongued minister.” Talking of which, Michael Gove is full of praise for her ability to stand up to the government. “Progress depends on campaigners making the powerful uncomfortable,” he says, “and Frances does that for the very best of reasons.”

 

***

 

The most memorable part of our visit comes in House Block 6 of Holme House, where there is a therapeutic community. Prisoners have to apply to join it, commit to voluntary drug testing and submit to a system of judgement by their peers. Get three negative “pulls” in 28 days, and there is an “encounter” with the rest of the community, where your problems are addressed. Everyone has a job, and after 38 weeks everyone “graduates” from the programme. The scheme is part-funded by the local NHS, and what is stopping it from expansion is money for more staffing. “That,” says a prison officer – “and not everyone wants to change.”

Crook is keen for me to see House Block 6 because it mirrors some of the techniques used at her favourite prison, Grendon in Buckinghamshire, which styles itself as a “democratic, therapeutic community”. Grendon deals with sex offenders and those who have committed violent crimes, and combines drug rehabilitation with intensive therapy. “And it’s been there quietly in the Buckinghamshire countryside for 40 years, and has a reoffending rate of less than 10 per cent.” Nationally, half of all prisoners reoffend within a year of release.

Life on House Block 6 is still not easy. “Slammed behind your door, you feel forgot about,” one man tells me. Another has not seen his seven-year-old child in 20 months, because his partner lives too far away to visit. Complaints about lack of medical treatment are common: one man can’t get a repeat prescription of the anxiety medication he has taken for 16 years; another has waited four years for a hip replacement. Dental work is basic. There is one psychiatrist available to the block.

There are bright spots, though: many of the prisoners we meet praise the staff for doing a “difficult” job and others are happy with the work and training on offer. Out of 1,167 on the roll, a thousand have something to do during the day.

When we gather a group from the block, I am surprised by the first question: “Haven’t I seen you on Newsnight?” The men here are more articulate than others we meet during the day, and they know how they are seen by outsiders. “They think we’ve all got PlayStations,” says one. “People think we’re bad people,” says another. “We’re good people who made mistakes.”

When I ask what their one wish for change would be, the answers are thoughtful: more education, more support on release, more ability to save up money for release. One says simply: “I’d like to see more light at the end of the tunnel.”

 

***

 

As well as her first day at the Howard League, Frances Crook remembers her worst. In 2003 she met Pauline Campbell, a single parent in Cheshire, whose daughter Sarah was 17 and “wearing too much make-up and experimenting with drugs”. Sarah had been raped as a teenager, and was taking antidepressants. One night, she and a friend went into town and, in Crook’s words, “jostled this chap – they were trying to get some money out of him because they wanted to buy drugs, and he had a heart attack, and he died”.

Sarah Campbell was arrested, convicted of manslaughter and sent to HMP Styal in Cheshire. On the segregation unit, a few days before her 19th birthday, she took an overdose of prescription drugs. She was one of six women to die in Styal in a 12-month period. “It was so awful,” Crook says. “I felt very strongly – my daughter’s called Sarah, and she was the same age at the time, and we’d both been teachers and all that.”

She began to work with Pauline Campbell, and eventually the Home Office conceded that Sarah’s human rights had been violated – but not before Pauline had been arrested 12 times while protesting about the treatment of vulnerable women.

“She’d go and stand outside Holloway Prison and try to stop the vans coming in, because she said the prison was not safe . . . We did what we could.” Crook and her colleague tried to channel Pauline’s grief towards campaigning and she became a trustee of the Howard League. But she never got over her loss; a journalist visiting the house years later found it was still full of her daughter’s belongings. On 15 May 2008, Pauline went to Sarah’s grave and took an overdose. She was 60 years old.

For Crook, that incident is an indictment of the British prison system and its many failings: it took one tragedy – the initial death of the pensioner hassled by Sarah Campbell – and added two more. “This is what the system does,” she says. “It’s not just the prisons, it’s the courts . . . it’s the whole system. It doesn’t make things better. It makes things worse.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind