Memories of prison: stale food and bad smells

I begin a new series with Channel 4 in the next couple of days. It is titled Freedom and will be broadcast as three one-hour documentaries next year.

The subject of freedom recalls my stint in Pentonville Prison, London, banged up by an eccentric judge at Knightsbridge Crown Court back in 1977. I thought that the prison would be closed down by now, having been built in 1840 with gallows at the ready. Many a haunted spirit, a restless soul, roams the corridors of this place.

Now it is the home of petty offenders, those who fail to pay council tax or domestic maintenance. As I remember it, lodged in the brickwork is the stench of stale food cooked 160 years ago. All ex-Pentonville cons will testify to that rather odd and repulsive smell, which never leaves the nostrils until death. Such is the state of the British prison system that these monstrosities are still allowed to stand.

As I stood in reception, my protectors (what else are prison officers for?) shoved my bed linen and prison uniform against my chest. You were supposed to make up your bed in a specific way, military-style. But this was never explained or demonstrated; you were merely accused, on first inspection, of flouting the rules. Rules, indeed, were never issued; there were no dos and don'ts. Fellow prisoners, however, would lead newcomers through a maze of made-up rules and regulations bearing no relation to the Home Office rule book.

And the prisoners were kept at heel by the system of divide and rule. Northerners were set against southerners; Kentish prisoners against Londoners; and, if several were Londoners, north of the river against south of the river.

All this brings me to the recent horrible murder of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham by a white racist. My nephew did a stretch at Feltham and I visited quite regularly. It was a very enlightened regime then. My nephew did remarkably well from the point of view of rehabilitation.

He received awards and certificates throughout his fairly lengthy stay there. I even volunteered to assist with a radio station within the prison, offering to participate in any educational programmes they cared to establish. A prison officer visited me at home to discuss the project.

Much seems to have happened there since. The first task the prison officer faces with any new entrant is whom he should share a cell with. A misplacement leads to disaster, death even.

That first task is central to good order in prisons. It is also the point at which officers can use their power to exploit divisions between prisoners. To place a black youth from Peckham in the same cell as a member of the Brixton posse is asking for trouble. South London is plagued with black gangs who have been at each other's throats from time immemorial, and prison officers are well aware of this. They can make a prisoner's life a misery in such circumstances.

I am absolutely certain that the murderer of Zahid was known to be a racialist nutter, a regular source of conversation among the officers. On the other hand, as a first offender, the Asian would have been known as quiet and reserved. There isn't a huge Asian population at Feltham, and I am sure Zahid kept his head down. But there is no neutrality in prison; one has to take a side.

I understand the Commission for Racial Equality is carrying out an investigation. I know not what powers the investigators may have. They need to know that the rule book is meaningless and that the rules in place are a pact between the strong, who are the prison officers, and the weak, who are the prisoners.

It is from the latter that the truth will be found. The investigators will find it a difficult task without judicial power and without the capacity to offer sweeteners to prisoners to encourage them to speak out.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer