Each episode began with a judge making the following proclamation: “Norman Stanley Fletcher, you are an habitual criminal who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences – you will go to prison for five years.”
Luckily, I am not in prison but at points over the last few weeks my life has had parallels with Fletcher. I was arrested protesting outside the BBC when Nazi Nick Griffin went on Question Time in October 2009. I was charged with assaulting a police officer – something I completely deny.
My judge sentenced me to 80 hours of community payback (CP) and a £450 fine. CP is when an offender has to undertake between 40 and 300 hours of unpaid work. You are told that you are repaying the community for the wrong you have done.
Day one: the probation officer
When I arrive at the central probation office in Newham I am directed into a small room. Sitting there are six young men. They all look me up and down in that way only teenagers can. “Are you our probation officer?” one snorts. “No,” I say, “I’m on probation just like you.”
As one, six pairs of eyes look me up and down again. “What you done for?” asks the same teenager. “Assaulting a police officer,” I reply. He nods his head approvingly and just says, “Niiice.”
Within minutes I am summoned to an interview room where I meet a probation officer. I am asked a number of questions. At one point I am asked if there are any gangs in Hackney out to get me. “I’m 47,” I laugh. “This is not a joke,” she fires back. I go on to tell her that the Workers Revolutionary Party do a sale in Mare Street on a Saturday morning and it might not be a good idea to send me there. Not a flicker of a smile. I decide to keep my jokes to myself.
I’m told it’s gardening and cleaning the streets of Hackney for me. I am also informed that one hour would be deducted from my community payback for attending the interview.
Day two: a dog day afternoon (just 79 hours to go)
On my first day I walk straight into the building I am assigned to. There I meet Hackney’s very own Mr Mackay (the officious prison warder in Porridge) – the building manager.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he yells. “I’m reporting here to do my community payback,” I tell him. “Well, wait outside in the street,” he tells me. “Why?” I ask. “It’s the rules.” He then makes it clear that I can’t use my mobile phone or the toilet because, you guessed it, they are the rules too.
While I wait outside the rest of the probationers roll in. A white minivan pulls up and it’s off to a community centre to weed the garden and clean out two sheds. I grab myself a hoe and weed a flowerbed. Suddenly this putrid smell wafts across the garden. Two of the probationers run out of the shed laughing hysterically. While they were cleaning out the shed they put a spade into a pile of rubble that just happened to be a mummified dead dog – they severed the wretched thing’s head from its body.
Immediately the shed is closed. “This is a job for Hackney’s environmental health department,” our probation officer tells us solemnly. We spend the rest of the day weeding and raking the grass. Trevor plants plastic flowers by the side of the shed as a mark of respect for the dead dog.
Day three: criminally minded (6½ hours done, just 72½ hours to go)
A white minibus picks us up and our names are checked off a register. We sit around chatting while we wait to be allocated a job. It is these moments and when we are on lunch breaks we get to talk and get to know each other.
There are two main topics of conversation – how shit life is and hopes and dreams. Tyrone asks me if I have ever been to Vietnam. “Yes, it’s beautiful,” I tell him. Trevor tells us he wouldn’t go there because “it’s full of criminals”. “Well, what the fuck are you doing sitting in this van?” shouts Tyrone – we fall about laughing.
The last two decades have seen a massive rise in the use of community sentences by the courts. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform community sentences increased from 133,000 to 186,000 between 1996 and 2002. By 2008 they had increased by another 30 percent.
Alone with my CP friends I now find myself part of this growth industry. But I don’t believe we are the real criminals. One is a student who was caught claiming housing benefit while at college – a benefit he would have been entitled to claim 15 years ago. The rest have been found guilty of petty offences like possession, shoplifting and criminal damage.
They are ordinary people who hit bad times. The ghosts of Porridge return – Fletcher, Godber, Bunny, Lukewarm and “Horrible” Ives.
15 hours done, just 65 hours to go.
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A pick of the highlights