ANDY HARPER: So, both Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce have begun their sentences of eight months imprisonment for perverting the course of justice following a speeding offence. Now irrespective of your feelings for the pair, do you think this is an appropriate sentence, given the complaints about lenient sentences in relation to other crimes?.. There’s been a lot of talk recently about lenient sentencing for crimes regarded as being of a violent nature. For example, the man who kicked the Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson and smashed a bus shelter was given a twelve week jail sentence, suspended for a year. So, is jail the answer in this case? And what does it feel like, waking up on your first morning behind bars? Well Noel Smith was in Whitemoor between 2000 and 2003, after being jailed for bank robbery and possession of firearms. He’s now the Commissioning Editor of Inside Time newspaper. Noel, a very good morning to you.
NOEL SMITH: Morning.
ANDY HARPER: So Noel, let’s put the question to you simply. What is it like the first time that you set foot inside a prison? Irrespective of whether you visited them before, you are now a convicted person. What is it like?
NOEL SMITH: It’s a very dehumanising experience actually. The first day you’ll be stripped of everything, clothes, you’ll be strip searched, orifice search, all your personal possessions will be taken away. And they’ll look at what they’ll allow you back. And for someone like Chris Huhne, there’s also the added bonus I suppose you’d call it of being well known and being a high profile case, which means he’ll get a lot of attention from other prisoners, particularly prisoners who might be in prison down to the policies of this government. A lot of people have turned to crime in the recession, and there’ll be people in there who won’t be too pleased with him.
ANDY HARPER: Will he be in a cell on his own, or will he be sharing with others?
NOEL SMITH: Well it depends. I believe he’s gone to Wandsworth.
ANDY HARPER: Yup.
NOEL SMITH: So it’s more likely he’ll be in a cell with one or two other people.
ANDY HARPER: And do they pay any account as to the sort of other people you are sharing with? Will they be perhaps similar people, former professional people? Or could he be put in there with, you know, somebody who’s committed robbery, somebody who’s, you know, who’s done some sort of completely different crime? Do prison take any account of that?
NOEL SMITH: No. Social status is not taken into account in prison. The only thing that will be taken into account is they now check, which is a recent thing, to see if any of his cell-mates would have previous for assaulting other prisoners, or even killing other prisoners. So it’s likely he’ll go into a cell with two non-violent people. But he could be in there with a junkie, a shoplifter. He could be in there with someone who’s in for grevious bodily harm. They don’t take into account anything like that. You just come where there’s room.
ANDY HARPER: And obviously there’ll be public areas. You always hear dreadful tales about the showers, and all of this sort of thing, and the canteen, the food hall. Is he or will he always be watched, if you like, by prison officers? Or do the officers just leave the prisoners to get on with it?
NOEL SMITH: Well, prison officers are much like everybody else. It depends on their politics, and what they feel about his crime. Certainly the Governor will probably make an exception with him and order his staff to keep an eye on him. And because obviously if anything happens to him he’s very high profile, and the media will get hold of it. So the Governor of the prison is not going to want anything to happen to him whilst on his watch. So it’s quite likely the staff will be designated to watch him.
ANDY HARPER: Is it possible just to keep your head down, as Jonathan Aitken said? He was a former MP of course, convicted and served time, and he says that he gained a lot from it, but he kept his head down and he found the prisoners very very convivial. Is it possible to get through just doing that?
NOEL SMITH: I was actually in Belmarsh with Jonathan Aitken. He was a couple of cells away from me at the time. Jonathan Aitken handled it quite well, in the fact that he didn’t ask for protection. He came on to the wing, and he did keep his head down. And several people, including myself, had a look at what he was about, and despite the fact that I’m against his politics, we decided that .. and there is a kind of a hierarchy in prison .. we decided that nothing was going to happen to him. Hopefully Chris Huhne will find people who will do the same for him. But there are some sensible people in prison, and wield a bit of power, and who may take to him and look after him, as we did with Jonathan Aitken.
ANDY HARPER: Now the expectation is that after a few weeks, maybe up to a month at Wandsworth, he then gets moved to an open prison. Have you been inside an open prison?
NOEL SMITH: No I haven’t actually. I’ve been in a semi-open prison. But i think, to be quite honest here, Chris Huhne has received eight months, an eight month prison sentence, of which he will do four automatically. He could be eligible for the tag after two months. So within eight weeks it wouldn’t be conducive to move him to an open prison. Spaces in open prisons are at a premium at the moment, and they’re supposed to be reserved for long termers and lifers. If he gets moved to an open prison on such a short sentence, then that would show that they’re giving him some benefits that other prisoners don’t get.
ANDY HARPER: So he’s better to stay in a place such as Wandsworth, and then. after a couple of months, get a tag and be released on some sort of system, I don’t know how they all work. You think that would be better for him really.
NOEL SMITH: Well as a first offender, that’s what he’d be entitled to. It’s hardly worth transferring him to another prison when he’s only going to be serving about eight or nine weeks anyway.
ANDY HARPER: How did you survive it all?
NOEL SMITH: I served 32 years in prison, overall, and I can tell you that a lot of people who I was in prison with didn’t survive. A lot of people die. There’s a high death rate in prison. And a lot of people lose their minds with long sentences and end up sectioned. So my survival was actually down to stubbornness, if you like, and the fact that I had a good family outside looking after me. And I could write, so I could get my words outside the walls of prison.
ANDY HARPER: It might be nice to talk to you at a later date Noel, all about the newspaper itself. We have run out of time now, because we wanted to talk about Chris Huhne, but perhaps we can come back to you and talk about the newspaper and what it does and what it achieves.
NOEL SMITH: Yes. that would be great. Yes.
ANDY HARPER: It’s been really nice to talk to you. Thanks very much for joining us this morning.
NOEL SMITH: No problem. Thanks very much.
ANDY HARPER: That was Noel Smith, who was in Whitemoor between 2000 and 2003, but as you heard served 32 years in prison. He is now the Commissioning Editor of Inside Time newspaper. And we will catch up with Noel at a later date and talk about the newspaper, because it would be nice to hear how he’s turned things round.