- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

BIRMINGHAM, England — When the architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner visited Hewell Grange, a Victorian Gothic pile outside Birmingham, he was impressed mainly by its Great Hall, with its Italian marble columns, its arches of finest Welsh alabaster and its wall hangings copied from tapestries belonging to the Emperor of Austria:

“Overwhelming,” he noted breathlessly.

Others have been just as smitten, naturalists in particular. Around the shores of the 25-acre lake, believed to have been designed by Capability Brown, grass snakes can be spotted, along with reed warblers (“a shy bird of adventurous migratory habits,” according to Chambers Encyclopaedia). However, there are other, equally unexpected denizens of Hewell, with somewhat circumscribed migratory habits: the 190 category D prisoners who live here.

All the inmates are nearing release and have been deemed to pose no danger to the public. Which is just as well, as there are no fences at Hewell and no locks on the front door. Far from being brought there in handcuffs, prisoners often roll up to Hewell Grange on public transportation. Weekend visits home are fairly common for well-behaved prisoners with sentences of less than four years, and 40 percent of them have jobs outside the prison. Some even have their own cars to drive to and from work.

Most of the inmates are white-collar criminals: forgers, frauds and con men, along with the occasional drug baron. There are no murderers in Hewell, nor any sex offenders and — an understandable precaution, given the wealth of ornate oak paneling — no arsonists.

One of the ironies about Britain’s open prisons is that they remain closed books to almost everyone apart from the inmates. Partly, this is because the Home Office prefers it that way: More than anything else, they’re sensitive to accusations that open prisons are, in indignant tabloid usage, state-funded holiday camps.

Hewell Grange doesn’t look much like a state-funded holiday camp, which are middle-class at best. In addition to its lake and its marble columns, Hewell has an archery lawn — off-limits to prisoners — and formal gardens with box hedges and yew-tree bowers. Once there was even a maze.

On the hillsides, Jersey cows and Wensleydale sheep belonging to the prison farm graze contentedly. “When the flowers are out and the sun shines on the pink sandstone, it’s absolutely magnificent,” said Neil Croft, the prison governor.

For the prisoners, however, there is more to life than a decent view. As Les, serving eight years for what he describes as being “overly concerned with the importation of drugs” says: “You can’t spend all day gazing at the surroundings. … After five or 10 minutes of looking round, it’s worn off.”

Like all the prisoners here, Les has ended up in a category D prison after spending time in a higher-security jail. “In a category C prison, you might have less freedom, but at least you’ll have your own cell with a television in it.”

The day at Hewell gets off to a leisurely start. Workers on the farm have to start milking at 6 a.m., but for the rest, breakfast is served from 7:30 to 8:30 — there are no bells or blaring loudspeakers — if prisoners aren’t hungry, they don’t have to eat.

They are, however, required to do a full day’s work, either on the farm, in the “community” or cleaning around the prison. Inmates who work “out,” usually those nearing the end of their sentence, are paid the going rate for their jobs; those who stay in are paid depending on what they do. People working in the dairy receive pocket money.

There had been a house owned by the Windsor-Clive family on this site since the 16th century. The present home became a boys prison in 1945 and an open prison in 1992. Today, all the prisoners sleep in dormitories in what were once children’s nurseries or servants’ bedrooms.

The air is thick with the smell of stale sweat, stale tobacco and disinfectant. Beds are crammed together, separated by makeshift partitions. Posters of topless girls are stuck on the walls in between friezes of decorative plasterwork. Books tend to be scarce, but then a high proportion of people coming into prison can’t read.

Lying on one of the beds in his prison uniform of sweatshirt and jeans is an enormous Irishman called Joe. It turns out he “got into a spot of bother” about some stolen cars and is nearing the end of a two-year sentence. “Not long to go now,” he sighs, before saying in a faraway voice, “I once fought Mike Tyson, you know.”

He thrusts a bunch of photographs, showing a younger, chubbier Joe with his arms clasped around boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. “Here are my cuttings too,” Joe says proudly, digging out a pile of old newspaper clips. The first of these is headlined: “Boxing Legend in Stolen Car Gang.”

“Life is not too bad in here,” Joe said, “and they do their best to help you find a job afterwards. There’s a resettlement manager and a Job Center clinic. I’m currently talking to a potential employer about working as a sales rep for a roofing firm.”

Later, in his oak-paneled office looking out over the dovecote and the archery lawn, Mr. Croft, the prison chief said: “A lot of people who find themselves in prison are responsible and trustworthy citizens, regardless of the fact that they’ve broken the law. We try to give them a degree of responsibility and treat them like adults.”

Life at Hewell Grange, the governor insists, is not cushy. Far from it. “For a start, we are depriving people of their liberty, and that in itself is a major punishment.”

Do the surroundings have a beneficial effect?

“I’m quite sure they do,” Mr. Croft said. “How can one fail to be affected by a place like this?” Some of the prisoners like it so much that they stay in touch afterwards like old friends, even writing thank-you letters to Mr. Croft.

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