Many years ago I went to visit a friend who was serving time in a military prison. He gave me instructions on how to smuggle money in to him: roll up a ten-pound note and insert it into a tube full of toothpaste. I was a bit nervous about being caught but, not wanting to be a wimp, I agreed to do it. When the ruse succeeded I was relieved - and a little proud of my newly acquired criminal nous.
More recently I went to visit another detained friend although, this time, no test of my loyalty was required because he is in a very different type of prison - a privately built and operated facility for young offenders. It is a much less intimidating place where the restrictions on inmates’ freedom appear to be less onerous. Naively I attributed this to a modern and enlightened approach to punishment but have since learned that it has more to do with there being a variety of prison styles tailored to suit different types of offender.
From my friend’s perspective, of course, the difference is one of degree only since he will be spending about three years there locked away from his life. In one respect he has been lucky: there are prisons with harsher regimes to which he might have been committed, especially as he is not a young offender. He is, in fact, a family man in his forties and was sent there because at the time of his sentencing there was a shortage of prison places. Despite this one stroke of luck, however, he is a misfit because of his age and the cultural difference it entails. Still, at least he is easily distinguished from the others in the visiting room: he is the one not wearing Nike or Adidas.
Despite the comparative humanity of the prison regime, visits cannot be undertaken on a whim: they require permissions, forward planning, documentation and, unless you live nearby, travelling time. The on-site security procedure is as stringent as that at airports but with additional searches to detect smuggled drugs - despite which, drug use inside is rife. I have no idea how they get past the searches and the sniffer dogs but I doubt whether the old toothpaste trick is still in use.
Once past the no-fun security procedure, the experience of visiting was quite lively. In the actual visit-hall, a large, airy room with a tea and refreshment bar in one corner and a play-pen for children in another, the atmosphere was mostly convivial. We were seated at allocated tables which are spaced just out of earshot one from another but, when my eye strayed, I could not avoid speculating about the other groups. The prisoners stand out because of their orange tabards; their girlfriends are easy to identify by their meticulous grooming and the lustful body language of their imprisoned lovers; but identifying who is mother, father, sibling or friend afforded plenty of opportunities for conjecture.
My friend said he had learned to make the best of his situation by filling the time with every activity and every personal-improvement course on offer. He is also acquiring some nifty new jokes and a good line in black, prison humour. He seemed generally optimistic and cheerful throughout but, when time was up and he had to make his way to the exit, I thought I detected a little slumping of his shoulders. I counted my good fortune as I left through the visitors’ door but my relief was tainted with guilt and regret at having to leave him behind.
Prisons were originally used for temporary detention prior to the fulfilment of sentence - execution, flogging, banishment etc. - but they have since become the sentence itself. I am not the first to question whether imprisonment is an appropriate or effective resolution to anti-social or criminal activity but I am sure that, in this case at least, the outcome can only be harmful to my friend, his family and, by extension, to society.