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Boris Becker’s prison revelations and the role of celebrities in prison reform

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Few would deny that our current prison system is in crisis. The prison population is soaring; living conditions in many prisons have deteriorated; and access to purposeful activity – including education – continues, post Covid, to be severely curtailed. Yet the public remain disengaged and politicians from both major parties have promised to get even tougher on crime with more and longer prison sentences.

The campaign for prison reform needs a silver bullet. Might a celebrity be able to help? On Saturday 8 April, former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker provided some insights into life behind bars in Britain in an interview for the BBC’s 5 Live Breakfast show. In April 2022, Becker was convicted of hiding £2.5 million worth of assets and loans to avoid paying debts during his bankruptcy and sentenced to 30 months imprisonment. He was released in December 2022 after serving 8 months at HMP Wandsworth and HMP Huntercombe and immediately deported to Germany.

‘Whoever said prison life isn’t hard and isn’t difficult is lying,’ Becker told his interviewer. He described his experience as ‘brutal’ – every day was a fight for survival – and told listeners of how he surrounded himself with ‘tough boys’ to secure protection. It was, he explained, a ‘very different experience to what you see in the movies’.

Becker isn’t the first celebrity to find himself in prison and to talk about his experience in the midst of a prison crisis. Following his release from a sentence of two years imprisonment with hard labour for sexual offences (i.e. intimacy with another man) in May 1897, the famous poet and playwright Oscar Wilde wrote two letters on prison conditions for the Daily Chronicle (a liberal newspaper) as well as a lengthy poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which quickly entered the canon of English literature.

Like Becker, at the beginning of his sentence Wilde was imprisoned at Wandsworth for a short period to serve part of his first stage of imprisonment, a grueling experience of ‘hard labour, hard board and hard fare’. The state of Wilde’s health meant that he was excused the treadmill (an instrument of torture by which men were forced to climb more than 6,000 feet per day). But he was still made to pick oakum, slept on a plank bed without sheets and was given only just enough food to keep him alive.

Wilde became very ill, and after two months in the infirmary he was transferred to Reading Gaol where he served the remainder of his sentence. There Wilde witnessed and later wrote about the cruelty inflicted on juvenile prisoners; the mental pains of imprisonment when locked in a cell for 23 hours a day with limited access to books, letters and visits; and the inadequate sanitary arrangements made worse by constant diarrhea induced by a deliberately repulsive dietary.

Timing matters, and it is true that Wilde was late to the party. Before Wilde was even convicted, the Liberal Home Secretary Herbert Asquith had already established a departmental committee, chaired by Herbert Gladstone (son of the former prime minister, William E. Gladstone), to consider the state of prisons following several disagreements with Edmund Du Cane, Chair of the Prison Commission, and a series of articles in a leading newspaper which exposed Du Cane’s inhumane regime, which physically and mentally damaged prisoners while turning many into repeat offenders.

On 10 April 1895, on the eve of Wilde’s conviction, the Gladstone Committee published their report. It acknowledged the cruelty of the late nineteenth-century penal regime, which treated prisoners as a hopeless or worthless element of the community. It recommended the abolition of hard labour machines, a reduction of the time spent in solitary confinement, and more attention to education and training for rehabilitation.

Reform takes time, and these recommendations came too late to make any difference to Wilde’s experience of imprisonment which was little better than torture. By the time of Wilde’s release from prison, the Liberal government had been replaced by a Conservative administration, and appetite for an ambitious penal reform programme for the benefit of society’s most undeserving had dwindled. There were other more pressing matters for legislators to deal with.

However, some work continued behind the scenes, led by Du Cane’s successor, Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, and in 1898 new draft legislation on prisons came before Parliament. It was, at this critical moment, that Wilde’s interventions made a difference. His public revelations of his experiences at Wandsworth and Reading held the feet of legislators to the fire and helped to ensure the passage of the prisons Bill through Parliament. As Wilde later wrote to his friend, Georgina Weldon,

‘I have been able to deal a heavy and fatal blow at the monstrous prison-system of English justice. There is to be no more starvation, nor sleeplessness, nor endless silence, nor eternal solitude, nor brutal floggings. The system is exposed, and, so, doomed.’

But Wilde was mistaken in regarding the 1898 Prison Act as a substantial moment of penal reform. Although the legislation provided for the differential treatment of some prisoners, abolished hard labour machines (such as the treadmill), and allowed prisoners in local prisons to earn time-off their sentence, relatively little changed inside prisons. Imprisonment remained a brutalizing experience, especially as little was done to increase any purposeful activity, and to address the futility of short sentences.

Fast-forward to today, and we are still trying to figure out how to make prison work as a punishment. It doesn’t help that our philosophy of imprisonment dates from over 200 years ago - the birth of the modern prison in the early 1800s. The solution to the increasing prison population proposed by the government today is to build more prisons. But if we really want to tackle the current prison crisis we need to radically rethink the whole purpose of the institution and how we use it.

A celebrity prepared to share their lived experience of the system could play an important role in this, as the example of Oscar Wilde demonstrates. Radical reform needs the support of public opinion.  Celebrities have a ready-made platform and followers. They can also remind us that prisoners are people like us; indeed, even the successful and wealthy can end up in prison, and we may feel some sympathy for their pain.

Unfortunately, there is not much to hope for from Boris Becker, if the BBC interview is anything to go by. For Becker, the brutality came from those he was imprisoned with – the murderers, drug dealers, rapists, people smugglers and other dangerous criminals, as he described them; not from the institution. Prison was a punishment he had to endure, a consequence of the crime he committed, which made him appreciate the advantages of his past life and proved that he was a ‘survivor’. There is little doubt that the purpose of the interview was to prepare the ground for a Boris Becker come back, not to raise awareness of the crisis in Britain’s prisons. However, in the process, his narrative of survival and use of negative stereotypes might have inadvertently further alienated the public and hampered the case for prison reform.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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