Leech – a parasite

John Bowden writes from HMP Bristol

On the 22nd September 2002, Mark Leech, ex-prisoner and prison reform entrepreneur, was interviewed by the media concerning the transfer of Jeffrey Archer from North Sea Camp open prison to inner city Lincoln jail. Asked about the sort of prisoners held at Lincoln, Leech described them as the “Riffraff of the Prison system”, which seemed rather incongruous a remark to make by someone who had built a fairly lucrative career as a self-proclaimed supporter and representative of prisoners. In fact, so intrigued was I by Mr Leech’s remark that I asked Insidetime, a prison wide newspaper produced by the prison reform charity Newbridge, to investigate exactly why Mr Leech had apparently been so keen to please news editors with reactionary sound-bites, instead of aligning himself with the prisoners at Lincoln, and using the opportunity to communicate their experience of life in an overcrowded hell-hole such as Lincoln. What the brief investigation revealed, caused me to seriously worry about Mark Leech’s integrity and honesty.

Leech has, since his release from prison in 1995, metamorphised from a small-time criminal and litigious prisoner into a resourceful and media-savvy penal reform operator whom the Prison Service now endorse as one of their most significant success stories.

Since 1995, Leech has compiled and edited The Prisoners’ Handbook [later re-titled The Prisons Handbook], now considered within prison circles as a standard text on British prisons and their regimes. He has also founded two organisations or companies – Unlock – of which he was Chief Executive until 2002, describes itself as an organisation ‘run by ex-offenders for ex-offenders’ and seeks to assist them to ‘successfully rebuild their lives’. Towards this end, it claims to work in partnership with the prison system itself, though maintains that it will ‘not get under the covers with anyone’. In fact, Unlock was launched at a Prison Service event at Pentonville Prison, during which the Director General of the Prison Service publicly endorsed the organisation, and Judge Stephen Tumin was made its President. The organisation’s slogan, ‘Working in Partnership to leave crime behind’ suggested that maybe crime reduction was its motivating purpose, as opposed to supporting prisoners’ rights and the rights of those freshly released from prison.

Unlock’s mission statement claimed that an important part of its work should involve ‘Informing political debate’ and ‘Educating the public’ about the need to reintegrate ex-offenders back into the community; one wonders how Leech’s characterisation of Lincoln prisoners as ‘riffraff’ possibly equates with that.

The Prisoners’ Handbook describes its editor as having ‘taken a journey from the strip-cells and punishment blocks of prisons to the point today where he meets every six weeks with the Home Secretary and Director General of Prisons to discuss policy’.

Leech formed a second organisation, or more precisely a Limited Company, called ‘Mark Leech Associates’, although this seems more geared towards accumulating capital from the publication of literature and media interviews.

It’s obvious that ‘helping prisoners’ has become an occupation and career for Mark Leech. and consequently self-interest and aggrandisement now characterise much of his behaviour.

Insidetime, after persistent writing, telephoning and faxing, eventually managed to elicit a response from Mr Leech concerning his ‘riffraff’ remark. He flatly denied making it, and in a letter to Insidetime claimed “that this would be completely out of character for me and it is not what I said. In explaining the difference between North Sea Camp and Lincoln I expressed the view that in Lincoln, Jeffrey Archer would be with the mish mash – not riffraff – of the prison system; meaning that Lincoln Prison contains remands, convicted, short and long term prisoners.” This was an incredible denial to make considering that his remark was filmed by the BBC and published in The Times.

Unfortunately Insidetime, who depend on the co-operation and goodwill of the Director General of Prisons to have its paper distributed to prisoners, decided to give Leech ‘the benefit of the doubt’, and say no more.

I was understandably vexed, so decided to write to Mark Leech myself. I received by way of reply a short, terse letter from his “Practice Manager”, Jenny Berry, who informed me that I had got it wrong and that it was the Press Association who had misquoted Leech. No explanation was offered regarding the film evidence.

To have made the remark in the first place, Leech revealed much about his view of working class prisoners; to then deny that he ever made the remark poses serious questions about his integrity.

People involved in prison reform should be cautious of individuals like Mark Leech and understand that much of what he does, he does out of self-interest and a desire for celebrity. He certainly doesn’t speak on behalf of prisoners or ex-prisoners, many of whom now consider him a self-interested hireling of the system. He has yet to explain or apologise for the description of the prisoners at Lincoln, and will continue to speak in their name and further his career on their behalf.

John Bowden,
HMP Bristol.
22nd November 2002.

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