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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
'What's wrong with prison? Let me tell you'
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Posed by model
Inmates should learn to read and write before getting parole, Lord Archer has argued in a speech offering a radical vision for prison reform. Nonsense, says a newly-released lifer, who sets out an alternative manifesto for reform.

After 17 years behind bars, Chrissie knows a thing or two about prison.

Jailed for conspiracy to murder her husband, the mother-of-two saw her time inside as an opportunity for education as well as a meditation on mending her ways.

She took a first degree in social sciences and embarked on a PhD. Towards the end of her stretch, while in open prison, she earned a skilled and stimulating job as a charity researcher.

Ironically for someone whose life has taken such a drastically wayward turn, Chrissie, 57, calls herself one of the "lucky ones".

Sentenced to life in 1986
Spent three years in Durham prison; then Styal in Cheshire and Askham Grange in Yorkshire
Took OU degree in social science; started PhD while also doing manual work
But her vision for prison reform stands in contrast to that of Lord Archer, who breaks his post-custody silence for the first time on Thursday to set out his thoughts on that subject.

Chrissie, who wishes only to be identified by her first name, was sent down in 1986 for plotting to kill her second husband.

It was a "mentally abusive" marriage, she says. When a friend offered to poison him with weed killer, she went along with the plan. It's something she now calls a "horrendous decision".

Apart from both being held at Her Majesty's pleasure, there are few obvious parallels between Lord Archer and Chrissie.

She did however enjoy the support of her family while inside, stayed clear of drugs, and focussed on her release.

While the council flat in Wrexham where she now lives doesn't register on the same scale as the millionaire novelist's penthouse in central London, she is gradually steering her life back on course.

Money for studying should equal that for working, says Archer
But if other prisoners are to follow her example, she says it will not be thanks to some of the theories to be set out by Lord Archer when he addresses a conference on prison reform on Thursday.

Among his most controversial suggestions is that illiterate inmates should not be granted parole unless they learn to read and write.

"I can see the point he is trying to make. More needs to be done to educate prisoners, but that sort of pronouncement risks being self-defeating," says Chrissie.

She draws on an experience at Askham Grange, an open prison in Yorkshire.

"I met a girl there who had been in prison five times who couldn't read and write. The last time she did make the effort and was thrilled with what she had achieved.

"But these people have forceful characters. If she had been told to do that, she would have taken an opposite stand."

They've got no where to go when they get out; no home to return to and settle back into
On the drugs issue - Lord Archer says cannabis users should be punished more lightly than hard drug users - she has equally strong views.

"From what I saw, they are treated differently. But it's a distraction anyway. Cannabis is rarely seen or smelt these days because it lingers in the blood for a month and can be picked up by random drug testing."

Instead, inmates have moved on to harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine, says Chrissie, who is researching drugs in prison for her doctorate.

Women's prisons are no better than men's, she says, estimating that up to 85% of her fellow inmates were drug users.

The drugs themselves were brought in by visitors, and passed mouth-to-mouth or thrown over the prison wall. Chrissie concedes that it's almost impossible to stop the supply.

Yet she thinks the support network needs to be overhauled. Under the current system, inmates with drug habits are supposed to be put on a rehabilitation course.

But understaffing and a poor referral system means many slip through the net while others merely "pay lip service" to get parole.

Her damning assessment is that no-one she knows who went on the course was a "successful case".

Yet drugs create tremendous instability in such a close environment, making it almost impossible for inmates to better themselves.

Archer kisses wife Mary after arriving home
Family support
During her 17 years inside, Chrissie saw the "revolving door" problem, in which released inmates return to prison again and again, many times. It reflects the poor preparation prisoners get for coming out, she says, pointing out she was given just a day's notice of her release.

"They've got no where to go when they get out; no home to return to and settle back into. A friend of mine who was released after me, was put in a hostel full of smack heads and now she's back on the gear."

Yet there is one area on which she and Lord Archer fully agree - that prisoners should be paid more to study. Currently, a convict can earn more by doing a manual job in prison, than studying.

Lord Archer says levelling the pay rates could make a difference overnight.

"It's true. It's only a couple of pounds - you might get 7 for studying and 10 for working, but when you've got nothing that makes a difference," says Chrissie.

Chrissie was not paid for this article.

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