Beyond reasonable doubt

A Prison Diary Volume II: purgatory

Jeffrey Archer <em>Macmillan, 310pp, £16.99</em>

I have been in 135 prisons, Jeffrey Archer has been in three. The difference is that my stays were for a maximum of five hours and his were for many months. So I was quite surprised that I read all of Hell (Archer's first prison diary) and the first 200 pages of Purgatory before learning something I did not already know - namely, that it is an offence to fall asleep fully clothed. This intrigued me because it is not an offence to lie in bed for half the morning if you are not scheduled for work or education.

It is a trivial matter, but it sums up all that frustrates me about the absence of serious and purposeful activity in prisons whose stated objective is, dash it, to prepare prisoners to lead useful and law-abiding lives upon release. You will contribute little to society by lying in bed during the working day, but you will do it no harm whatever if you are so worn out with work at the end of it that you nod off before getting undressed.

In Purgatory, the diary of two months' incarceration in Wayland Prison, Archer both succeeds in portraying the mind-numbing existence of a prisoner in 21st-century Britain and fails to provide any serious examination of the state of our prisons. This is largely, I realise, because there is a strain of self-pity - leavened with humour and some pithy observation - that was less obvious in Hell, the tale of his incarceration in a high-security prison.

For a man with his energy, the confines of the exercise yard prove a sore trial, and he remarks that he wishes Mr Justice Potts, the trial judge who sentenced him, could join him for just a few paces. But, Jeffrey, it was you, not the judge, who was convicted of conspiracy to commit perjury in a case from which you walked away with more than half a million pounds. I admit I found the verdict a bit odd, in that one of the defendants was acquitted and one convicted, for how is it possible to have a conspiracy of one? Nevertheless, you were found guilty and it is hard to see how you were not going to end up in prison.

Archer then highlights the unacceptability of two men sharing a cell with the lavatory and a tray of food. Agreed. Then, however, he makes the crass observation that the prison service prefers to pay a hefty fine to Europe for doing this, rather than sort out the problem. The prison service has no such preference, and has for many years sought to reduce this sort of overcrowding, but it is at the mercy of the courts as to how many inmates it must accommodate, and at the mercy of government as to the number of prisons.

The next whinge is that preachers in the prison chapel always pitch their messages at inmates rather than treat them as "normal human beings". In this case, the sermon was about failure and second chances. Dear me, Jeffrey, that is pretty central to the Christian message and was probably being preached that Sunday to thousands of "normal human beings" in churches all over the country.

Despite his tendency to self-pity and some awful blunders (among them the endearingly schoolboyish howler of confusing pharaohs with Pharisees and the perpetual confusion of time added to sentence with loss of remission), Archer is in splendid form. There he is, waiting in mental anguish for his release to an open prison while jeopardising it by arranging to pay another prisoner, by means of postal orders sent in from outside, to wangle extra canteen supplies. It takes him scarcely five minutes to find someone to do his laundry for him, to put up a curtain in his cell and to smuggle him extra towels. When he goes to the prison library, the first thing he does is see if his own books are there. They are not and he tells us why, but neglects to make the more important point that the most popular borrowings are of books on true crime.

But that is small beer compared to his attempts to buy an emerald for Mary and a Botero painting via a prisoner who has a connection, in Bogota, with the mother of the artist.

There is a great deal of writing about what he or other inmates have seen on television, which appears to be the main way of whiling away the hours of lock-up. It makes me wonder what they all did before they were allowed TVs in their cells (which happened only under the current government - Michael Howard was unpersuadable on the subject).

Archer paints a bleak but true picture of life in prison. The staff come out of it well, the governor much less so, being invisible. The days are largely idle (though not for Archer, who writes voraciously), the wings are drug-ridden, education is liable to cancellation and is not rigorous, violence always lies just below the surface, sometimes erupting horribly, noise and dirt abound, and far more time is spent trying to find ways round the rules than in any sort of purposeful activity.

Archer would not have spent two months in Wayland but for the spite of Emma Nicholson. But this much good has come out of it - the public has a better notion of what goes on in our prisons. What Archer has written is not original, but it is vivid and disturbing, and will reach a vastly wider audience than any academic treatise or political pamphlet on the subject. Whether it has any impact on life in our prisons is another matter.

Ann Widdecombe is MP for Maidstone and The Weald