Interview: Vicky Pryce, economist and campaigner
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Economist Vicky Pryce was imprisoned in March 2013 for perverting the course of justice, serving nine weeks of an eight-month sentence. Since then, she’s been a prominent campaigner for prison reform, especially for women. Katie Jarvis attended a lecture she gave on behalf of the Nelson Trust, and spoke to her afterwards
They’re milling around chatting, the people sipping wine and eating pretty canapés (spicy chorizo and butternut squash; swirly-sweet blueberry cheesecake) in the theatre at Beaudesert Park prep school (a venue kindly lent free-of-charge).
For a moment, instead of mingling, I stand and watch.
They’re good people. Many of them with enough space in their lives to volunteer; to offer a civilised handshake to a society that, on the whole, has played fair with them. They sport well-cut suits and chic dresses; they chat knowledgeably with each other – Brexit; the budget; the criminal justice system.
And there’s Vicky Pryce, top-notch economist, preparing to give the fundraising lecture on prison reform that they’ve come to hear. She’s svelte in black: a slight figure...slight but commanding.
Educated, clever, committed to public causes: Vicky Pryce is one of them.
But as I stand watching silently, I’m aware of an even bigger group amongst this throng. An invisible group. A group whose non-presence interweaves like passing phantasmagoria.
This second group consists of women: women shut neatly away from the rest of society. Staring out from behind prison bars, their punishment isn’t simply lack of freedom. Their punishment is separation from their children (sometimes not even knowing where those children are). Their punishment is often loss of home; loss of job; loss of future. (Try getting employment, try getting a house, (try getting car insurance, even!), as an ex-con.)
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Educated, clever, committed to public causes: Vicky Pryce is also one of them.
Vicky Pryce can’t remember the last time she saw a police officer patrolling her street, she tells me with (what I take to be) an exasperated sigh.
“We even had a car overturned outside my house – some people picked it up and threw it over! And the police came… but the chances of them doing anything?
I don’t know much about her house except that it’s tall and thin, with a study on the first floor; (I know this because she runs upstairs to it while we’re speaking on the phone). And I know it’s in Clapham, where the average house-price glances casually down on the ever-more-distant £1-million.
“There was a story in today’s Standard about this guy whose mobile was stolen by someone on a moped. The owner tracked it through some device; told the police exactly where his phone was, and they said, ‘We can’t be bothered’.”
I can feel her grimacing ironically. “I mean...so what’s the point of not doing what these guys are doing? Break the glass, go in and steal someone’s laptop in the full knowledge that nobody’s going to do anything!”
Her point is an interesting one: and it’s one that goes – blah-blah - way beyond the deterrent effect of the visible police officer (important though that vanishing presence undoubtedly might be).
What Vicky Pryce is also saying is this. The distinction between an offender and many-a-member of the judgemental public is not so much wrongdoing; it’s about whether or not you’re caught. There are degrees, of course; pinching a bit of office stationery isn’t quite on a par with full-scale tax evasion or benefit fraud. But the difference can be more of nuance than many of us are prepared to admit.
A few days after her own release from prison, Vicky had coffee with a former Home Office senior civil servant. In Prisonomics – part prison-diary, part analysis - she writes, “As we covered the 300 yards from Clapham Common tube to Clapham Old Town, my friend remarked that… we had probably passed at least half a dozen people who had committed an offence and had never been caught.”
In fact, statistics will tell you that only three out of 100 offences end up in court.
And, when it comes to those that do: one in four of the UK’s working-age population has a criminal record.
So that’s the first problem with our criminal justice system.
And that’s the first problem with all of us.
There’s not a lot of point rehearsing the reasons Vicky Pryce ended up behind bars in Holloway in March 2013, at the age of 61: details of her conviction for perverting the course of justice – alongside her ex-husband, a former cabinet minister – are a matter of public record. (In the unlikelihood you missed it: she was ‘done’ for accepting his penalty points on her own licence.)
And there aren’t a lot of laughs in what followed.
But there are a few. Such as the vignette she describes when officers emptied her handbag during her transfer to prison, pulling out ever-more-astonishing wads of notes that totalled nearly £1,500. (She’d been drawing money out between court appearances to give her children; then forgot and wrote them cheques instead.)
Or her description of smuggling coveted cheap white toast out of her first prison breakfast, whilst remembering a meal she’d eaten in Pizza Express a few nights previously. She’d sent her water back (it had unwanted lemon in it); her wine back (too warm); and complained that the egg on her pizza was (slightly) overcooked.
But the most striking thing about those early prison diaries is not her own discomfort; it’s the kindness with which her fellow inmates treat her. Outside the prison gates, fascinated newspapers were gleefully running Vicky-Pryce-in-jail scare stories – (“Carrying her bed linen and towel to her cell, the cat-calls and shouts from the inmates will have been deafening, abusive and surreal,” hypothesised one broadsheet). Instead, what she discovered was a warmth and camaraderie she had little expected. Fellow prisoners offered blankets to supplement the thin orange excuse she found on her draughty bed; they queued up to donate shampoo for the shower, and extra toilet rolls for the unscreened loo in her cell.
When she joined them that first morning for the ‘movement’ – a twice-daily exodus from cells - “All the girls said, ‘You’re Vicky Pryce! We thought you wouldn’t want to come out and mix with us!’ I sat on a bench and they all came and started telling me their stories. That’s how I began to realise how ridiculous it was to send all these girls to prison.”
Girls (“that’s what we called ourselves”) who posed a threat to society? Whose removal was effected to protect the decent man-in-the-street?
Well, judge for yourselves: she relates some of their stories as we talk.
“The woman who was with me in the room [at East Sutton Park; the open prison to which Vicky was transferred after four days] had taken some money that belonged to her in-laws, to fund IVF. She was paying it back when her husband decided to divorce her. He found out about it and told his parents who told the police...instead of sorting it out! So what was the point of jailing her? What was the point! Nobody was going to get their money back; it just ruined a lot of lives.”
Or the woman in her 60s, put away for growing cannabis for her ailing husband. Her potted pot was discovered when teenagers broke in and made off with it.
And yet it costs – as Pryce the economist points out – more to send each of those women to prison than to send one of our children to boarding school.
To jail one such woman might be considered a misfortune; but we’re sending them in such hordes, it screams of carelessness.
Nor are we simply talking blunt economics; these are tragedies in the making. Many women Vicky encountered were single mothers whose children ended up in care – not only another immediate cost to the state but a future legacy, too: 24 percent of today’s prisoners had been in care as a child.
And it doesn’t stop there. When these mothers attempted to regain custody after their imprisonment, the Alice in Wonderland world of social services-at-their-worst would kick in.
• “You lost your home when you were imprisoned. And homelessness – as everyone knows - is not a suitable state in which to bring up a child.”
• “Well, I’d like to apply for council accommodation so I can regain care of my child.”
• “Ah, but I’m afraid you don’t have a child living with you. So – as everyone knows - you are therefore not a housing priority.”
Hang on a minute, I protest. I never knew this about our criminal justice system! This isn’t punishment. This is cruelty.
But it’s old news to Vicky Pryce. “There was one incident I witnessed where a girl saw her baby [at visiting time] and tried to commit suicide straight after. We were all trying to cheer her up.
“The period after visits was the most depressed in the week. The girls had seen their families; they knew what they had left behind; they were worried about the impact it was having on their children. That was when we all had to get together and support each other...
“That’s the thing about how different women are [from men in prison]; it’s increased my tendency towards feminism. They really helped each other.”
So, in no particular order, that’s the next problem with our criminal justice system.
Grayling didn’t get it (his ‘reforms’ included cutting legal aid, and banning friends and relatives from giving books to prisoners). Gove did: he understood the arguments for not imprisoning people for trivial reasons; for putting more resources into rehabilitation; for educating the public about the merits and demerits of the prison system. Then Brexit reared its ugly head.
And now? Well, we’ll simply have to wait and see. But if Vicky Pryce were in charge?
“I would close half the prisons – men’s and women’s,” she says. “And I’d change the sentencing process in line with many European countries: to far more suspended sentences, where people have to pay something back. If somebody has committed a fraud and you simply lock them away, then society will have lost that money for ever. So instead of being in prison – and what’s the point? – they should be out working.
“And I would put a lot more money into centres such as the Nelson Trust, who look after people in danger of committing crimes and those who are offenders. We know that’s a much cheaper option, and it works far better. Hardly any support is given in prison for mental health. And, as for the education prisoners receive, it’s a lottery at best.
“What’s more, any organisation involved in looking after people [after conviction and release] should be judged by whether or not they can find them a job. Because that’s how you avoid reoffending; that’s the closest correlation there is.”
There are companies which actively and successfully recruit ex-offenders: if you regularly use Timpson or Pret A Manger, for example, you’re likely to have been served by someone on day-release from open prison or who has served a sentence.
Vicky Pryce is luckier than most. She’s well aware of that. Even while she was inside, she received a job offer – to become a patron of Working Chance (a position she still holds), which finds quality jobs for women ex-offenders. Another of the letters she received during her sentence was from the House of Lords, asking her (in her capacity as former head of the government economic service) to give evidence about the Eurozone crisis. Which she did, shortly after her early release, complete with tag on leg. (“I wore the tag for two months, during which I had to be home from 7pm to 7am. In actual fact, I wasn’t going to take anyone else’s speeding points overnight anyway,” she jokes (albeit pointedly).)
Yes, hers is one of the few post-prison voices still being heard. And she’s determined it should be heard on behalf of the whole of that invisible community. The community that stood by her side when she was in need of help.
As Vicky Pryce finishes her lecture, the floor is opened to questions. One man is concerned about a lack of prison staff: inmates at Eastwood Park in nearby Falfield can remain locked up for 23 hours a day.
A woman worries about the disparity of educational opportunities between prisons.
And then a second man speaks. I can’t see him from where I’m sitting, but I can picture him. In my mind’s eye, he’s wearing a discreet cashmere sweater, and trousers of a jauntier hue. His well-modulated voice asks for respectful attention.
“I sit as a part-time judge,” he begins.
And then he continues: “If I have a man and a woman in front of me, who have committed identical offences, with identical backgrounds, but the woman has a child: I can’t send the woman to prison. Am I just wet or is there a good economic or social justification for what I am doing?”
How interesting, I think. How very interesting.
All royalties from Vicky Pryce’s book Prisonomics go to Working Chance, the recruitment consultancy for women leaving the criminal justice and care systems. Her latest book, Why Women Need Quotas, is published by Biteback, priced £10.