A pensioner who ended up in prison after a series of personal tragedies has spoken out about the harsh conditions behind bars, how ‘just’ the justice system is, and his unlikely friendship with a murderer.
Martin Stevens, 65, was incarcerated in High Down prison, in Banstead, from November 1 to December 17 last year, after being sentenced to six months behind bars for failing to declare an insurance policy while bankrupt.
He had pleaded guilty to the offence, a first-time crime, as no one had predicted it would land him in jail.
He was released early, with a tag, for his exemplary behaviour, but does not dismiss his time there as a waste, saying: "Apart from it being a total shock to the system there were many rewarding aspects."
Embracing his sentence, Mr Stevens developed a fascinating insight into Britain’s criminal justice system - one which is currently under enormous strain from a number of changes which are being spearheaded by Epsom's MP, Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice.
Overcrowded prisons, plummeting staff numbers, cuts to legal aid and changes to probation services are all contributing to the ‘crisis’ in Britain’s jails today, according to the many critics of Mr Grayling's cuts.
After reading this newspaper’s articles on conditions inside High Down, Mr Stevens contacted the Epsom Guardian to share his experiences...
"The legal system is about who puts on the best show on the day"
In 2007, after 10 successful years in business, Mr Stevens’ company went bust.
He was declared bankrupt, he lost his home and his wife divorced him.
Six months later his mother died and doctors discovered a large tumour in his chest.
Explaining his offence, Mr Stevens said it stemmed from cashing an insurance policy in 2009 which he should have declared during his bankruptcy.
He claims to have done this on the advice of a solicitor who told him to use the money to pay his bill.
Because of changes to legal aid thresholds, Mr Stevens was ineligible for legal aid and could not afford to pay for representation himself.
He also felt he lacked the mental strength to endure a trial and so pleaded guilty.
"The changes in legal aid budgets are why many more people are going to jail because they cannot defend themselves.
"I was one of those," he said.
"The reforms are draconian and wrong.
"If you’re a middle-class person with little money you’re stuffed.
"Unless you’re very rich or very poor you can’t afford a solicitor.
"The legal system is very much about who puts on the best show on the day.
"It’s not about who is guilty or not guilty, which is extraordinary.
"There was no point sending me to prison.
"I’m never going to break the law again, it would have been more benefit to be put to work in the community, not just sitting in a cell for 23-and-a-half hours a day."
"Make the most of the experience"
Mr Stevens said he was moved by the "extraordinary acts of kindness" he experienced shortly after he arrived at High Down, and throughout his time there.
"Having everything taken from you when you arrive in prison is extraordinary.
"My obvious distress was not greeted by derision as you might expect but compassion and understanding," he added.
Mr Stevens said he was comforted by two ‘listeners’, Samaritans-trained prisoners, upon his arrival.
He said: "One of the listeners took me to a big cupboard and said ‘don’t be ashamed to cry, you won’t be the first or the last, it’s a shock. The first two weeks will be the worst’.
"He told me to make the most of the experience, something to tell my mates when I got out.
"He also told me he had noticed a lot more people like me coming to prison now for fairly innocuous crimes."
"Government wants to privatise the prison"
Mr Stevens endorsed many of the concerns which have been raised by family and friends of prisoners in High Down in the last six months.
He said in all of the time he was there, prisoners were locked up for 23-and-a-half hours a day in their cells, missing gym and never stepping foot inside the library - although those who wanted to attend classes had the choice to do so.
"The reasons given to me for the long lockdown was that with the previous regime it used to be ‘come to High Down for a lie down’ and that the new governor had tightened things up," he said.
"The talk among officers and prisoners is the Government wants to privatise the prison so if they fill it to overcapacity and reduce the staff to a minimum they can present a good business model.
"Morale is very low as staff are extremely over-worked and because they have to do menial tasks.
"There was never any access to the library.
"Gym isn’t allowed as there’s not enough staff, unless you’re a trustee or a listener.
"The only exercise period I had was about two weeks before I got out."
Mr Stevens said education was scheduled for 2pm to 4pm on Monday to Thursday, but very few prisoners went - especially because many prisoners could not speak English very well.
He said there are not enough prison officers for time to be spent motivating prisoners into rehabilitation.
The pensioner said doctor's visits were "hit-and-miss" as to whether officers came to get the prisoners or not, and the quality of the very small portions of food was "horrid".
He said: "I ordered a hot dog with onions for one Saturday main meal but when my turn came they had run out of rolls and onions so it was just a sad sausage."
Mr Stevens said his wife, who he met after his divorce, found visits extremely difficult: "Visits were the worst, knowing that your loved ones had been there by 9am to get a ticket for the 2pm visit but the officers wouldn’t come for us until 2.30pm."
"It’s like experiencing your own funeral without dying"
"The noise gets you, constant yelling and door-slamming then at night the 'window warriors' - young London gang kids shouting abuse to each other from the small windows until the early hours," Mr Stevens said.
"In a way it's a bit like experiencing your own funeral but without dying.
"I met some incredible characters in prison, from murderers, bank robbers and drug dealers to an old boy of 70 who hadn't paid his council tax and a few guilty of a crime 'by association', the most controversial law ever.
"Everyone had their story, some shouldn't have gone to prison in the first place and for some it was all part of a career path."
Mr Stevens, who now works part-time as a credit controller, said he was surprised when a fellow prisoner came to introduce himself, with a younger man in tow, who he said was his son.
Mr Stevens said prison does not act as a deterrent to such criminals, as going to jail is seen as a price worth paying.
"They stash the money and factor in the time in prison. It’s still more profitable for them to do the job than not," said Mr Stevens.
Mr Stevens said he was saddened to meet a number of bright young men who knew they would turn back to a life of crime upon leaving High Down.
"There are so many kids in there for drugs offences.
"They don’t want to go to education, they want to get back outside and do some deals," he said.
Of another prisoner, who talked about "going back to his ends", Mr Stevens said: "It’s a never-ending cycle. He can’t get out of it but really wants to.
"It comes back to role models."
He added: "I had fascinating conversations with Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists and Christians.
"I experienced small acts of kindness that on the outside mean nothing, but in prison are huge - such as a prisoner finding me a pillow and a kettle, both in short supply.
"Perhaps because of my age I was only intimidated a couple of times, but generally I was treated well by my fellow inmates," he added.
"I re-learnt the values of fresh air, freedom and the power of a hug from someone you love."
"Our friendship is based on an extraordinary moment in my life"
A pivotal moment in Mr Stevens’ time in prison came when he was paired in a cell with David Jeffs, a financial adviser, who is now serving 24 years in Wandsworth.
Last December, he was found guilty of murdering his client, Mayfair socialite, Roberto Troyan, whose money Jeffs had spent on luxury hotels, exotic holidays and sports cars.
Mr Stevens said he lived with Jeffs during the month his trial was being heard at the Old Bailey.
"I’m a great believer in the chemistry of things. We just got on," said Mr Stevens.
"He gave me a few pointers.
"If someone came to the cell being friendly, I would be friendly back but David said they were looking for drugs.
"Without his help and guidance I might have been a lot worse off."
The two men still write to each other and Mr Stevens visits Jeffs in Wandsworth Prison where he was transferred following his verdict.
He added: "He would come back from the trial and we used to talk about it.
"He is either innocent or a psychopath, I don’t know which. He says he is innocent still.
"Our friendship is based on an extraordinary moment in my life, not through any crime he committed."
Mr Stevens said the pair were "celled together" because, unusually for prisoners, they were both non-smokers.
He said: "To relieve the boredom of incarceration we would imagine we were in a themed hotel and would write TripAdvisor reports on the food, service, cleanliness, views.
"We would always try to maintain standards and set the table before we ate, using toilet roll folded for a napkin.
"Huge crows and gulls would know when it was meal time.
"They would track the trolleys at midday bringing the rolls for lunch.
"Prisoners don’t use bins, they throw everything out of the window."
"Everyone has a story"
"Prison taught me tolerance.
"That everyone has a story.
"And that I can have a conversation with somebody about the Koran, Catholicism, about their race, creed, their background, because we are all in there with empty pockets. All at the same level," said Mr Stevens.
"Success is all smoke and mirrors.
"You can lose everything very quickly and I consider myself fortunate to have experienced the journey I have been on.
"The old adage of ‘remember the people you pass on the way up are the same people you will meet on the way down’ is so true.
"I have always loved people and understood them. I have always been willing to learn from others. I have never really had an ego.
"I never imagined I would end up going to prison."
If you have a story to do with High Down or any concerns you would like to raise about the prison, contact Hardeep Matharu by calling 020 8772 6346 or email email@example.com.
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