Do the British have a better class of convict than we do?
Unlike in Britain, few members of the Irish establishment have served time, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
REMEMBER Vicky Pryce – the Wonder Woman who successfully combined being a mother of five with a brilliant career as a top-flight economist – who ended up in jail as an unintended consequence of her vengeful pursuit of her ex-husband, Chris Huhne?
(Incensed when Huhne, the UK's Lib Dem Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, left her for his aide abruptly and callously, she told a journalist she had taken his penalty points for speeding: the couple were prosecuted for perverting the course of justice and sentenced to eight months, which in practice meant two months' imprisonment and two months with a tag.)
What baffled so many onlookers was that such an intelligent and competent woman should allow visceral rage to wreck her career along with that of her husband, and cause such havoc in her family. The answer, as she said herself, was that she was "a fiery Greek": Greeks don't share the traditional British respect for reticence.
So what happened then? Well, Huhne emerged saying prison was a "humbling and sobering experience", got a part-time job with a six-figure salary as a consultant to an energy company and is now a Guardian columnist. His first article showed no sign of humility but instead blamed his downfall on a personal vendetta by Rupert Murdoch, a claim so arrogant (Murdoch's a busy man) and preposterous that even the Guardian's media correspondent, Roy Greenslade, said he protested too much, and Nick Clegg, his party leader, rebuked him, saying: "Newspapers play an incredibly important role and always will do in keeping people in positions of authority and power on their toes, uncovering wrongdoing where that takes place, uncovering the truth where it is not revealed."
Pryce emerged expressing her gratitude for all the support she had received from everyone whilst in prison, including her fellow residents and prison staff, got straight back to work and has just produced Prisonomics: Behind Bars in Britain's Failing Prisons. Now, I like what I know of Pryce (apart from her Grecian meltdown), but it's hard not to agree with critics that four days in Holloway jail followed by a few weeks in East Sutton Park, an Elizabethan mansion in 84 acres, is rather slender experience.
Still, even though it's a rather dull story, it's hard not to be impressed by her capacity to see and express the point of view of those she was imprisoned with, and she's put a lot of work into looking from a female point of view at a criminal justice system devised and administered by men.
I think she's too prone to think that most women are there because of men, but she's dead right that British – like Irish – prisons are full of people who shouldn't be there (the illiterate, the mentally disturbed and so on), that it's a waste of public money, that few prisoners come out better than they went in and that the emphasis should be on non-custodial alternatives and education and rehabilitation.
It's interesting, though, that successful public figures who have had charmed lives have often been humanised by jail. For many, it's the first time in their lives that they've understood how the system affects the underprivileged and inadequate and they usually come out determined to do something about it.
Jonathan Aitken, a Dublin-born Conservative Cabinet Minister brought down through a Guardian investigation into dubious business practices, was jailed in 1999 for perjury and is now a Christian evangelist and a leading campaigner for prison reform. Jeffrey Archer, a member of the House of Lords, went to jail for perjury in 2001, and although his three-volume Prison Diary is self-serving, he did write usefully about how badly some inmates are treated.
Conrad Black, also in the Lords, who served 42 months in an American jail, has been vociferous in the media on the victims of an unjust system. And now even Chris Huhne has told Aitken he wants to get involved with prisoner aftercare.
There have been a few other politicians in jail recently over expenses fraud. Pryce is said to be in a relationship with Denis MacShane, a half-Irish, independent-minded and intelligent Labour ex-minister who had to resign his seat over alleged false invoices. His case comes up next year, if found guilty he faces jail, and, being a decent bloke, he can be expected to swell the ranks of posh ex-cons who devote themselves to helping less fortunate prisoners.
No hope of such an outcome in Ireland, though, although we have far more corruption than in the British parliament, but only Ray Burke has done time for criminal activities and I haven't heard him express any views on prison reform.
Could it be that the British are not only tougher than we are about wrong-doing among the privileged, but have a better class of convict?