Rat-infested prison cells are one difference between punishment and cruelty | Erwin James

I never saw a rat in my 20 years in jail. Today’s prisoners don’t deserve such terrible conditions

The news that a 71-year-old pensioner serving a short sentence in Wormwood Scrubs prison developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when he was locked in a rat-infested cell for 23 hours a day will not have come as a surprise to prisons chief inspector Peter Clarke. Only last week, Clarke’s report on HMP Bedford revealed that a prisoner was catching and killing rats in his cell even as that prison was being inspected.

The Scrubs pensioner is now suing the prison service for the “vivid and terrifying nightmares”, anxiety attacks and depression he has suffered since the experience. The saddest part of his story is that he says when he complained to prison officers about the rats, he was told: “This isn’t a hotel, you know. You’re here to be punished.” Is that really the answer he deserved?

It’s been the case for decades that people who are sent to prison in the UK go as a punishment, not for extra torment. For too long the debate on prisons has been tainted by disingenuous rhetoric, that they’re too soft, too cushy, and, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

Filmmaker Paddy Wivell spent almost seven months in HMP Durham for his recently broadcast documentary, Prison. When asked what he thought the biggest misconception about prisons was, his response was unequivocal: “That they’re holiday camps.”

Filth, squalor and vermin are nothing new in our prisons. Last year there were four prison inspections that resulted in urgent notifications – instances where conditions are so bad, the chief inspector notifies the justice minister, who is required to develop and formally produce an action plan of resolution. Nottingham was first, a “dangerous” prison with a drugs problem, and very high levels of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths. Then Exeter, which inspectors described as very violent with overt drug use. Privately run Birmingham was so bad it was taken back into state control, and then came “dirty and vermin-infested” Bedford.

A 2017 inspection report on HMP Liverpool before the urgent notification protocol was established described broken windows, rats, cockroaches, damp, dirt and leaking toilets: “the worst conditions” inspectors had ever seen. It led to the first ever justice select committee evidence session on a single prison – although Clarke is encouraged by the efforts of Liverpool’s new governor Pia Sinha. “Since that inspection I’ve been back to pay an informal visit and the energy that’s going in to improving things is terrific,” he says.

Whenever a damning prison inspection report is published, it’s difficult not to think back to my own 20-year incarceration. In my first cell in Wandsworth in 1985 all I had was a bed, a table, a chair – and a lid-less plastic bucket encrusted with urinary and faecal deposits for my toilet. My year of 23-hour “bang up” gave me plenty of time to observe the cockroaches scuttling around the walls, in and out of the cracked and flaking, pale-green emulsion paint.

My two abiding memories of Wandsworth are of the faint but constant whiff of human waste, and of the man who hanged himself in the cell above me during my first Christmas there. These sorts of conditions and incidents were what prisoners simply came to expect. A prison move, a new graffiti-covered cell, walls often smeared with blood and excrement – that was just how things were. First thing after “landing”, I’d pay a fellow prisoner on the works department to get me some paint. During the 20 years I was in those places I must have scrubbed and painted a couple of dozen cells. But I have to say, I never saw any rats. And there seemed to be more hope on the wings in those days. I never forget the teachers and others who worked to change our lives for the better. They’re still there, those oft-forgotten heroes, and thank goodness for them.

The fact is most people who go to prison arguably deserve to be there. I did. But do they deserve violence, squalor, filth and vermin? I hope the former prisoner with PTSD wins his case. He might have deserved to go to prison – but he didn’t deserve that.

• Erwin James is the author of Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope. He served 20 years of a life sentence in prison before his release in August 2004


Erwin James

The GuardianTramp

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