x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Plan short breaks with British inmates: great location, clean room

Inmates in the UK prison system have begun posting their own "spoof" reviews on Google of various jails up and down the country in a wry homage to their circumscribed lifestyle.

It's summer here in the UK, when thoughts turn to holidays. There are many considerations involved in choosing your vacation, the most crucial being the accommodation. Should you go for bed and breakfast or all-inclusive? A sea view or a standard double? No wonder selecting a holiday is reputed to be one of the most stressful experiences.

Well, hope for the bewildered traveller has come from an unlikely quarter. Inmates in the UK prison system have begun posting their own "spoof" reviews on Google of various jails up and down the country in a wry homage to their circumscribed lifestyle.

The reports, fashioned in the style of TripAdvisor, make for interesting reading. If the results are to be believed, they give the lie to the popular conception that Britain's prison system is brutal, overcrowded and unsanitary. Indeed, holidaymakers looking for a late bargain might be tempted to ask if there's any current availability at Her Majesty's Pleasure.

Take Exeter prison for example. Despite its forbidding appearance, it weighs in as one of the most sumptuous Des-Res's: with special mention being made of "great-sized rooms, full room service and free pool table".

HMP Featherstone fares equally well, with one resident stating: "I frequently visit here for short breaks. Good views over the courtyard. Shower facilities are good but bring your own soap. Only snag is that the view is obscured by iron bars."

Littlehey Young Offenders Institute does even better, with one inmate posting that "the only downside was the rather large fence preventing a longer ranging walk on a sunny afternoon".

The darker side of prison life is rarely glimpsed. At Wormwood Scrubs, a grim Victorian building on the outskirts of London and one of the toughest penal establishments in the country, one reviewer hinted at the true circumstances when he wrote "Due to overbooking I was forced to share with a rather charmless individual called Mike The Hatchet who was keen to know why my stay was so short". What method Mike used to extract the information from his colleague is left to the imagination, although we can presume he welcomed his new neighbour by shaking him warmly by the throat.

These humorous and disarming reviews mask a darker truth about the prison regime. A report last year by the Prison Reform Trust concluded that the current population is 97,000, nearly 8,000 more than the buildings were originally designed to hold.

Many in the outside world might throw up their hands in horror at the notion of inmates enjoying satellite television and gourmet meals. Surely, they argue, the whole point of imprisonment is to make the experience sufficiently disagreeable to deter offenders from ever returning. But overcrowding has tangible consequences for both the offenders and the wider community. Walton prison, near Liverpool, is one such example, with reports of daily stress, violence and anxiety. "It was like being put in a cage made for one animal and then getting two or three other people in," reported one inmate.

The proliferation of gang culture, designated along tribal and religious lines, is apparently rife, and impossible for the prison service to mitigate when so many individuals are banged up at one time. The availability of hard drugs is also allegedly endemic.

One friend who is a leading figure in prison reform put the case elegantly to me the other night: "If you wish to re-educate and reform somebody who has committed an offence, what worse fate could you inflict on them than incarcerating them in cramped quarters with hardened felons. If they don't know much about criminality when they go in, they're experts by the time they leave. Getting rid of tellies is not going to cut reconviction rates."

And as for the opulent lifestyle suggested by these latest mock reviews, the reality is assuredly different. No one who has ever had a look inside a UK prison (as I did a few years back) would ever wish to book themselves in voluntarily.

The story goes of one young offender being shown into his cell at the start of a long sentence to discover an old man lying on the bottom bunk and staring miserably up at the ceiling. "Look at me," said the man, "I used to live the life of Bill Gates. Best hotels, fast cars, Savile Row suits, and I only dined in the best restaurants."

"What happened," asked the newcomer.

"Bill Gates eventually discovered his credit cards were missing" explained the lag.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London