Time is money

Economist Vicky Pryce, former wife of MP Chris Huhne, talks about her experiences in prison

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In March 2013 Vicky Pryce was convicted of perverting the course of justice for taking ex-husband Chris Huhne’s speeding points. Pryce, an ex-civil servant and former joint head of the UK’s government economic service, used her nine-week sentence to scrutinise the prison system through the steely eye and ever-ready calculator of an economist.

The result is Prisonomics, an always frank, often funny, eye-opening account of the 61 year-old’s experiences in jail.

Prison diaries by unlikely inmates are not a new phenomenon, of course. Novelist Jeffrey Archer made use of his time inside to furnish lucky readers with a three-volume tome based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. US TV producer Piper Kerman’s year inside for drug trafficking formed the basis of memoir Orange is the New Black, now adapted as a hit US TV series.

There are far too many women in prison who shouldn’t be there

But in Prisonomics, Pryce is giving something more than entertainment back to society. Interweaving the details of the economist’s daily life inside with analysis of how prison is failing the women around her, the book is part memoir but mostly it’s an urgent call for prison reform.

So much need to change, Pryce says. For one thing, there are far too many women in prison who shouldn’t be there. “A lot of women feel they have been hard done by in the way their case was looked at,” she says. “But because it’s a small percentage, it is rarely perceived as an area that needs a lot of special attention. And yet the cost to society of putting women in prison is great, and that’s just not calculated.”

“We know full well that in most cases women are not a threat to society,” continues Pryce. “They are a threat to themselves. Something like 50 per cent of the women in jail have been subject to domestic violence, 53 per cent have been abused as children. We need to realise that these people are very vulnerable already.”

After four days in Holloway, Pryce was transferred to East Sutton Park open prison, where she saw first hand the benefits this system affords to prisoners. “It’s an extraordinary concept to go somewhere where there’s no lock up, no fences, no bars – where people can go out to work every day. It’s a very good way to get people to take responsibility for themselves again.”

Alas, Pryce reveals, there are currently only 228 female places in open or Category D prisons, and those are under threat of closure.

Another aspect that the economist feels strongly about is giving ex-offenders employment opportunities upon their release. Pryce is now a patron of Working Chance, a specialist recruitment consultancy helping women ex-offenders find employment. “If you find them jobs when they come back into the community, then you are much more likely to have them integrated, for them to be independent,” she explains.

One thing is for sure – what we do now is not working well enough.

“Prison, if anything, increases crime and increases re-offending,” says Pryce. “What you want is fewer victims and less crime, and less re-offending. And if that’s what we all want, then we need to think differently. I’m not doing this from the liberal perspective. I’m doing it on what makes sense.”

Throughout the book, Pryce’s observations are astute and lacking self pity; it’s the diary of someone determined to make the best of things and to see the good in others.

But then, as Pryce herself admits, she was in a privileged position. From the cash she absent-mindedly stuffed into her handbag at various intervals pre-trial, intending to give to her children, but which instead she was allowed to take into prison (it totalled £1,490), to the call from Big Brother that comes swiftly upon her release, the reader is under no illusion – there is a power to having a voice that people want to hear.

“There is,” Pryce agrees. “And a lot of the women really wanted me to write the book because they can’t be listened to. They wanted their stories to be told.”

Vicky Pryce, 23 July, 10.30 am – 11.30 am, Buxton Festival.
Prisonomics (Biteback Publishing, £16.99), is available now

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