The making of a career in crime

May 12, 2000

David Wilson (below) is striving to give 'jailbirds' a voice through his research into prison study and by righting miscarriages of justice. Claire Sanders talks to the one-time prison governor It was a trip to Albania that finally drove David Wilson from the prison service to academia. He is now professor of criminal justice at the University of Central England, working to raise the research profile of the public policy department and teaching criminal justice to postgraduates. He is well qualified for the job, an academic with personal experience of his field of study.

In 1997, as the man responsible for the training of prison officers in England and Wales, he was hired to advise the Albanian government on how to set up a democratic penal system.

"There I was in the poorest country in Europe, in the middle of riots," he says. "But the first person I met quoted Winston Churchill at me: 'You judge a civilisation on how it treats its prisoners'." That person was Bedri Coku, head of the Albanian prison service, who was himself imprisoned under the communist regime of Enver Hoxha.

Despite Coku's words, Wilson was cynical about what he might find when he visited an Albanian prison. Yet, even in this deperately poor country, he says, "I found more going on in their prisons that was positive and liberal than in the UK."

On his return he watched in despair as shadow home secretary Jack Straw supported Michael Howard's Crime (Sentences) Act, which introduced mandatory minimum sentences and sent the prison population rocketing upwards.

Wilson resigned. "I'd worked all this time hoping for a Labour government only to discover that when Labour finally looked like winning, it was behaving just as bloody badly as the Tories."

It was a difficult decision. He had worked in the prison service since 1983, he had a mortgage and two children to support. But the University of Central England came to the rescue, and he is now able to build on the academic career he broke off in 1983.

Wilson has always strived to attack the establishment from a position of strength. "In the prison service I always volunteered for the tough stuff." He set up units for the most disruptive prisoners, he was riot commander during two riots and was put in charge of three hostage situations.

His academic career followed a similar pattern. A degree at Glasgow was followed by a PhD at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a period as the St Andrew scholar of New York (1979-80). "I had the classic glittering academic career," he says. But he did not want to teach at Oxbridge. "I felt that I would be teaching the next generation of accountants."

Instead he chose to put his radical politics to the test. "I'd been involved in Labour politics as a student," he says. "But I decided to put my money where my mouth is and try to change an established structure."

He applied for the prison service and spent three days telling his interviewers that the British prison system "was a rotten structure that needs to be changed". They seemed to agree. At the time, the service was offering an accelerated promotion. "I realised that under this scheme I could have some real power pretty quickly," Wilson says.

His first job was as assistant governor at Wormwood Scrubs. "I got off the Tube at Acton and asked a passer-by where the prison was," he recalls. "He told me to follow my nose." It was a warm summer and prisoners had just thrown their **** out the windows.

He went on to become the youngest governor ever when he took charge of Finnamore Wood at the age of 28. He later became governor at Aylesbury's Grendon prison, famous for its therapeutic regime, and prison officer for operational training in England and Wales.

The thread that links his work in the prison service and his academic career is his desire to "give people a voice" - especially the hundreds of innocent people in prison. The Criminal Cases Review Commission, an independent body set up under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 to investigate suspected miscarriages of justice, estimates that there are more than 1,000 alleged miscarriages of justice waiting to be righted. Wilson receives a letter a week from prisoners protesting their innocence.

As governor of Grendon, he listened to the protestations of former tax clerk Stefan Kiszko, whose medical notes described him as suffering from "delusions of innocence". Kiszko's time in prison had been lengthened by his refusal to accept his guilt, a refusal that prevented him progressing through the therapeutic regime lifers need to complete before they can be released.

Kiszko spent 16 years in prison wrongly convicted of the sexual murder of the schoolgirl Lesley Molseed in October 1975. When he was arrested in December 1975 there was no forensic evidence to link him to the death. In a chapter for the book Murderers and Life Imprisonment, Wilson wrote: "After two days in police custody Stefan signed a 'confession' to the murder, which he subsequently withdrew. It took 16 years for him to be released, when his solicitors discovered that tests on his semen and semen found on Lesley were incompatible.

"It is important that people like Stefan are given a voice and believed," Wilson says.

Another person Wilson has worked to give a voice to is Alex Alexandrowicz. His story is told in the book The Longest Injustice: The Strange Story of Alex Alexandrowicz.

The book is based on chronicles that Alexandrowicz kept while in prison, which were completed and edited by Wilson.

In 1970, at the age of 17, Alexandrowicz received two life sentences for aggravated burglary and grievous bodily harm. He spent the next 22 years in prison, more than double the average term served by a murderer, much of this time as a Category A high-security prisoner. Alexandrowicz has always protested his innocence. Refused a solicitor, denied sleep for 48 hours and told that an identity parade could not be arranged until he confessed, he agreed to sign a statement although he bore no resemblance to the suspect described by witnesses.

What sealed his fate was a photograph of him sharing lunch with Igor Laptev of the Soviet Embassy, where he had gone to try to trace his Ukranian grandparents. The photograph was used as evidence that Alexandrowicz was a spy. He says he was told that his father would be deported if he did not agree to be "put away for a while" until things cooled down.

Alexandrowicz's case has gone to the CCRC and a decision is imminent.

At UCE, Wilson is still striving to give prisoners a voice. When he left the prison service he complained that there was very little research showing whether education policies worked. He is now supervising Emma Hughes, a PhD student at UCE, who is examining the archives of the Prison Reform Trust, reading former prisoners' letters describing their educational experiences. While most prisoners studying for degrees in prison are enrolled with the Open University, some work with their local university. Hughes is gathering evidence about how useful prisoners feel studying can be (see box).

Wilson has a strong media presence, although he is selective about what he does. He is a presenter on the BBC series Crimesquad, which examines different offences and seeks to show that there are alternatives to prison. But above all he is a serious critic of our criminal justice system. He once wrote of it: "If your gas central heating system worked like our criminal justice system, you would have long ago had to switch to oil, or you would have frozen to death."

The conference "Beyond the Basics - Prison Education as a Catalyst for Change", organised by the Prisoners' Education Trust and UCE, takes place on May 17 at the Midlands Conference Centre, Birmingham.

THE LIFERS WHO LONG FOR LEARNING.

The following quotes come from letters written by prisoners to the Prison Reform Trust and collated by postdoctoral researcher Emma Hughes * "At long last, I am on the road to acquiring recognised qualifications."

* "It is events like this that give a focal point to my incarceration. Having a meaningful course to study is a great help in coping with prison life."

* "In the long-term it helps to quell 'today's' feelings of anxiety when it comes to the thought of job-securing opportunities upon release. Having additional qualifications can only be a plus and these courses are giving me a feeling of hopefulness."

* "I am really enjoying the course and the challenge, as I had very little schooling and have not actually done any lessons of any sort for 40 years."

* "I have learned so much in the two months I have been studying and find the course very stimulating. I am looking forward to undertaking other associated courses with a hope of going on to a new qualification in counselling and advice."

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