Enjoy this free chapter from A Prison Diary 1…
DAY 1 THURSDAY 19 JULY 2001
‘You are sentenced to four years.’ Mr Justice Potts stares down from the bench, unable to hide his delight. He orders me to be taken down.
A Securicor man who was sitting beside me while the verdict was read out points towards a door on my left which has not been opened during the seven-week trial. I turn and glance at my wife Mary seated at the back of the court, head bowed, ashen-faced, a son on either side to comfort her.
I’m led downstairs to be met by a court official, and thus I begin an endless process of form-filling. Name? Archer. Age? 61. Weight? 178lbs, I tell him.
‘What’s that in stones?’ the prison officer demands.
‘12st 10lbs,’ I reply. I only know because I weighed myself in the gym this morning.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he says, and asks me to sign on the bottom of the page.
Another Securicor man – known by the prisoners as water-rats – leads me down a long bleak cream-painted bricked corridor to I know not where.
‘How long did he give you?’ he asks, matter-of-factly.
‘Four years,’ I reply.
‘Oh, not too bad, you’ll be out in two,’ he responds, as if discussing a fortnight on the Costa del Sol.
The officer comes to a halt, unlocks a vast steel door, and then ushers me into a cell. The room is about ten feet by five, the walls are still cream, and there is a wooden bench running along the far end. No clock, no sense of time, nothing to do except contemplate, nothing to read, except messages on the walls:
A key is turning in the lock, and the heavy door swings open. The Securicor man has returned. ‘You have a visit from your legals,’ he announces. I am marched back down the long corridor, barred gates are unlocked and locked every few paces. Then I am ushered into a room only slightly larger than the cell to find my silk, Nicholas Purnell QC, and his junior, Alex Cameron, awaiting me.
Nick explains that four years means two, and Mr Justice Potts chose a custodial sentence aware that I would be unable to appeal to the Parole Board for early release. Of course they will appeal on my behalf, as they feel Potts has gone way over the top. Gilly Gray QC, an old friend, had warned me the previous evening that as the jury had been out for five days and I had not entered the witness box to defend myself, an appeal might not be received too favourably. Nick adds that in any case, my appeal will not be considered before Christmas, as only short sentences are dealt with quickly.
Nick goes on to tell me that Belmarsh Prison, in Woolwich, will be my first destination.
‘At least it’s a modern jail,’ he comments, although he warns me that his abiding memory of the place was the constant noise, so he feared I wouldn’t sleep for the first few nights. After a couple of weeks, he feels confident I will be transferred to a Category D prison – an open prison – probably Ford or the Isle of Sheppey.
Nick explains that he has to leave me and return to Court No. 7 to make an application for compassionate leave, so that I can attend my mother’s funeral on Saturday. She died on the day the jury retired to consider their verdict, and I am only thankful that she never heard me sentenced.
I thank Nick and Alex for all they have done, and am then escorted back to my cell. The vast iron door is slammed shut. The prison officers don’t have to lock it, only unlock it, as there is no handle on the inside. I sit on the wooden bench, to be reminded that Jim Dexter is inocent, OK! My mind is curiously blank as I try to take in what has happened and what will happen next.
The door is unlocked again – about fifteen minutes later as far as I can judge – and I’m taken to a signing-out room to fill in yet another set of forms. A large burly officer who only grunts takes away my money clip, £120 in cash, my credit card and a fountain pen. He places them in a plastic bag. They are sealed before he asks, ‘Where would you like them sent?’ I give the officer Mary’s name and our home address. After I’ve signed two more forms in triplicate, I’m handcuffed to an overweight woman of around five foot three, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. They are obviously not anticipating any trouble. She is wearing the official uniform of the prison service: a white shirt, black tie, black trousers, black shoes and black socks.
She accompanies me out of the building and on to an elongated white van, not unlike a single-decker bus, except that the windows are blacked out. I am placed in what I could only describe as a cubicle – known to the recidivists as a sweatbox – and although I can see outside, the waiting press cannot see me; in any case, they have no idea which cubicle I’m in. Cameras flash pointlessly in front of each window as we wait to move off. Another long wait, before I hear a prisoner shout, ‘I think Archer’s in this van.’ Eventually the vehicle jerks forward and moves slowly out of the Old Bailey courtyard on the first leg of a long circuitous journey to HMP Belmarsh.
As we travel slowly through the streets of the City, I spot an Evening Standard billboard already in place: ARCHER SENT TO JAIL. It looks as if it was printed some time before the verdict.
I am well acquainted with the journey the van is taking through London, as Mary and I follow the same route home to Cambridge on Friday evenings. Except on this occasion we suddenly turn right off the main road and into a little backstreet, to be greeted by another bevy of pressmen. But like their colleagues at the Old Bailey, all they can get is a photograph of a large white van with ten small black windows. As we draw up to the entrance gate, I see a sign declaring BELMARSH PRISON. Some wag has put a line through the B and replaced it with an H. Not the most propitious of welcomes.
We drive through two high-barred gates that are electronically operated before the van comes to a halt in a courtyard surrounded by a thirty-foot red-brick wall, with razor wire looped along the top. I once read that this is the only top-security prison in Britain from which no one has ever escaped. I look up at the wall and recall that the world record for the pole vault is 20ft 2in.
The door of the van is opened and we are let out one by one before being led off to a reception area, and then herded into a large glass cell that holds about twenty people. The authorities can’t risk putting that many prisoners in the same room without being able to see exactly what we’re up to. This will often be the first time co-defendants have a chance to speak to each other since they were sentenced. I sit on a bench on the far side of the wall, and am joined by a tall, well-dressed, good-looking young Pakistani, who explains that he is not a prisoner, but on remand. I ask him what he’s been charged with. ‘GBH – grievous bodily harm. I beat up my wife when I found her in bed with another man, and now they’ve banged me up in Belmarsh because the trial can’t begin until she gets back from Greece, where the two of them are on holiday.’
I recall Nick Purnell’s parting words, ‘Don’t believe anything anyone tells you in prison, and never discuss your case or your appeal.’
‘Archer,’ yells a voice. I leave the glass cell and return to reception where I am told to fill out another form. ‘Name, age, height, weight?’ the prison officer behind the counter demands.
‘Archer, 61, 5ft 10, 178lbs.’
‘What’s that in stones?’ he asks.
‘12st 10lbs,’ I tell him, and he fills in yet another little square box.
‘Right, go next door, Archer, where you’ll find my colleague waiting for you.’
This time I am met by two officers. One standing, one sitting behind a desk. The one behind the desk asks me to stand under an arc light and strip. The two officers try to carry out the entire exercise as humanely as possible. First, I take off my jacket, then my tie, followed by my shirt. ‘Aquascutum, Hilditch & Key, and YSL,’ says the officer who is standing up, while the other writes this information down in the appropriate box. The first officer then asks me to raise my arms above my head and turn a complete circle, while a video camera attached to the wall whirrs away in the background. My shirt is returned, but they hold on to my House of Commons cufflinks. They hand back my jacket, but not my tie. I am then asked to slip off my shoes, socks, trousers and pants. ‘Church’s, Aquascutum and Calvin Klein,’ he announces. I complete another circle, and this time the officer asks me to lift the soles of my feet for inspection. He explains that drugs are sometimes concealed under plasters. I tell them I’ve never taken a drug in my life. He shows no interest. They return my pants, trousers, socks and shoes but not my leather belt.
‘Is this yours?’ he asks, pointing to a yellow backpack on the table beside me.
‘No, I’ve never seen it before,’ I tell him.
He checks the label. ‘William Archer,’ he says.
‘Sorry, it must be my son’s.’
The officer pulls open the zip to reveal two shirts, two pairs of pants, a sweater, a pair of casual shoes and a washbag containing everything I will need. The washbag is immediately confiscated while the rest of the clothes are placed in a line on the counter. The officer then hands me a large plastic bag with HMP Belmarsh printed in dark blue letters, supported by a crown. Everything has a logo nowadays. While I transfer the possessions I am allowed to keep into the large plastic bag, the officer tells me that the yellow backpack will be returned to my son, at the government’s expense. I thank him. He looks surprised. Another officer escorts me back to the glass cell, while I cling onto my plastic bag.
This time I sit next to a different prisoner, who tells me his name is Ashmil; he’s from Kosovo, and still in the middle of his trial. ‘What are you charged with?’ I enquire.
‘The illegal importing of immigrants,’ he tells me, and before I can offer any comment he adds, ‘They’re all political prisoners who would be in jail, or worse, if they were still in their own country.’ It sounds like a well-rehearsed line. ‘What are you in for?’ he asks.
‘Archer,’ rings out the same officious voice, and I leave him to return to the reception area.
‘The doctor will see you now,’ the desk officer says, pointing to a green door behind him.
I don’t know why I’m surprised to encounter a fresh-faced young GP, who rises from behind his desk the moment I walk in.
‘David Haskins,’ he announces, and adds, ‘I’m sorry we have to meet in these circumstances.’ I take a seat on the other side of the desk while he opens a drawer and produces yet another form.
‘Do you smoke?’
‘No, unless you count the occasional glass of red wine at dinner.’
‘Take any drugs?’
‘Do you have any history of mental illness?’
‘Have you ever tried to abuse yourself?’
He continues through a series of questions as if he were doing no more than filling in details for an insurance policy, to which I continue to reply, no, no, no, no and no. He ticks every box.
‘Although I don’t think it’s necessary,’ he says, looking down at the form, ‘I’m going to put you in the medical wing overnight before the Governor decides which block to put you on.’
I smile, as the medical wing sounds to me like a more pleasant option. He doesn’t return the smile. We shake hands, and I go back to the glass cell. I only have to wait for a few more moments before a young lady in prison uniform asks me to accompany her to the medical wing. I grab my plastic bag and follow her.
We climb three floors of green iron steps before we reach our destination. As I walk down the long corridor my heart sinks. Every person I come across seems to be in an advanced state of depression or suffering from some sort of mental illness.
‘Why have they put me in here?’ I demand, but she doesn’t reply. I later learn that most first-time offenders spend their first night in the medical centre because it is during your first twenty-four hours in prison that you are most likely to try and commit suicide.
I’m not, as I thought I might be, placed in a hospital ward but in another cell. When the door slams behind me I begin to understand why one might contemplate suicide. The cell measures five paces by three, and this time the brick walls are painted a depressing mauve. In one corner is a single bed with a rock-hard mattress that could well be an army reject. Against the side wall, opposite the bed, is a small square steel table and a steel chair. On the far wall next to the inch-thick iron door is a steel washbasin and an open lavatory that has no lid and no flush. I am determined not to use it. On the wall behind the bed is a window encased with four thick iron bars, painted black, and caked in dirt. No curtains, no curtain rail. Stark, cold and unwelcoming would be a generous description of my temporary residence on the medical wing. No wonder the doctor didn’t return my smile. I am left alone in this bleak abode for over an hour, by which time I’m beginning to experience a profound depression.
A key finally turns in the lock to allow another young woman to enter. She is dark-haired, short and slim, dressed in a smart striped suit. She shakes me warmly by the hand, sits on the end of the bed, and introduces herself as Ms Roberts, the Deputy Governor. She can’t be a day over twenty-six.
‘What am I doing here?’ I ask. ‘I’m not a mass murderer.’
‘Most prisoners spend their first night on the medical wing,’ she explains, ‘and we can’t make any exceptions, I’m afraid, and especially not for you.’ I don’t say anything – what is there to say? ‘One more form to complete,’ she tells me, ‘that’s if you still want to attend your mother’s funeral on Saturday.’ I can sense that Ms Roberts is trying hard to be understanding and considerate, but I fear I am quite unable to hide my distress.
‘You will be moved onto an induction block tomorrow,’ she assures me, ‘and just as soon as you’ve been categorized A, B, C, or D, we’ll transfer you to another prison. I have no doubt you’ll be Category D – no previous convictions, and no history of violence.’ She rises from the end of the bed. Every officer carries a large bunch of keys that jingle whenever they move. ‘I’ll see you again in the morning. Have you been able to make a phone call?’ she asks as she bangs on the heavy door with the palm of her hand.
‘No,’ I reply as the cell door is opened by a large West Indian with an even larger smile.
‘Then I’ll see what I can do,’ she promises before stepping out into the corridor and slamming the door closed behind her.
I sit on the end of the bed and rummage through my plastic bag to discover that my elder son, William, has included amongst my permitted items a copy of David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon. I flick open the cover to find a message:
Hope you never have to read this, Dad, but if you do, chin up, we love you and your appeal is on its way,
William xx James xx
Thank God for a family I adore, and who still seem to care about me. I’m not sure how I would have got through the last few weeks without them. They made so many sacrifices to be with me for every day of the seven-week trial.
There is a rap on the cell door, and a steel grille that resembles a large letter box is pulled up to reveal the grinning West Indian.
‘I’m Lester,’ he declares as he pushes through a pillow – rock hard; one pillow case – mauve; followed by one sheet – green; and one blanket – brown. I thank Lester and then take some considerable time making the bed. After all, there’s nothing else to do.
When I’ve completed the task, I sit on the bed and start trying to read The Moon’s a Balloon, but my mind continually wanders. I manage about fifty pages, often stopping to consider the jury’s verdict, and although I feel tired, even exhausted, I can’t begin to think about sleep. The promised phone call has not materialized, so I finally turn off the fluorescent light that shines above the bed, place my head on the rock-hard pillow and despite the agonizing cries of the patients from the cells on either side of me, I eventually fall asleep. An hour later I’m woken again when the fluorescent light is switched back on, the letter box reopens and two different eyes peer in at me – a procedure that is repeated every hour, on the hour – to make sure I haven’t tried to take my own life. The suicide watch.
I eventually fall asleep again, and when I wake just after 4 am, I lie on my back in a straight line, because both my ears are aching after hours on the rock-hard pillow. I think about the verdict, and the fact that it had never crossed my mind even for a moment that the jury could find Francis innocent and me guilty of the same charge. How could we have conspired if one of us didn’t realize a conspiracy was taking place? They also appeared to accept the word of my former secretary, Angie Peppiatt, a woman who stole thousands of pounds from me, while deceiving me and my family for years.
Eventually I turn my mind to the future. Determined not to waste an hour, I decide to write a daily diary of everything I experience while incarcerated.
At 6 am, I rise from my mean bed and rummage around in my plastic bag. Yes, what I need is there, and this time the authorities have not determined that it should be returned to sender. Thank God for a son who had the foresight to include, amongst other necessities, an A4 pad and six felt-tip pens.
Two hours later I have completed the first draft of everything that has happened to me since I was sent to jail.