UK leading criminologist and ex-prison governor Professor David Wilson, speaks to Ally Swadling about his experience of prison, penal reform and how to dispel prison stereotypes.
“When I went there I’d ask if he was OK, and say that I was concerned that he was locked up by himself. On one memorable occasion he waited for me to visit, and when we opened his cell door he had stripped naked and covered his entire body with black shoe polish. He then threatened to “stab me with his moustache”, and told me to “fuck off”. I did.”
The press called him “the most violent prisoner in Britain” but for Professor David Wilson, Charles Bronson was simply another one of the inmates at HMP Woodhill where Wilson worked as a prison governor. A ‘Category A’ prison, Woodhill is the notorious home of two special units which Wilson helped to design and to manage, containing the 12 most disruptive prisoners in the country. “Even if my primary responsibilities were to the prison’s special units, I saw Bronson regularly enough in the segregation unit,” Wilson recounts in his column in The Guardian. “Only one person wanted Bronson to be in solitary confinement – Charles Bronson.”
Sat with a coffee in hand, the Wilson sat in front of me is very much the “celebrity” academic I’ve seen in more recent years on the TV and writing in newspapers – not perhaps how I’d imagine him as a prison governor dealing with the likes of Bronson. Wilson is direct and precise in his expression and he quickly abandons his coffee to free his hands, which are constantly gesticulating as he speaks. Notably, he is also nothing like the detached, chain-smoking bald bloke who was chosen to portray him in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2008 biopic Bronson, which depicts an incident where Bronson held the prison librarian hostage and Wilson took on the role as hostage commander. “Of course I might have been calculating – or appeared so to him – but I am not bald, bespectacled and I have certainly never smoked.” Wilson is an interesting man, to say the least.
In 1983, he completed his PhD at Cambridge and was then quickly recruited by the HM Prison Service’s Assistant Governor Scheme before starting his training at HM Wormwood Scrubs.
“Originally I was interested in the philosophical idea of why do some behaviours become labelled as crime and why do some behaviours, which cause just as much damage, are seen as permissible. Because I was reading philosophy it was this particular idea that attracted me to pursue a career in dealing with offenders. I wanted to apply the idea, and so my first ever job was an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs” Wilson explains. “I literally went from the philosophy to the practice in the course of a weekend.”
As a perpetual student in his twenties with no previous experience of employment, it comes as no surprise that the transition was stark. “Stark contrast is perhaps understating what happened,” he smiles. “I think prison officers didn’t like assistant governors, especially ones called ‘Doctor’ who had come straight from Cambridge; they wanted their prison governors to be ex-army or something. It was only because I could prove my abilities of playing rugby and that I understood the idea of boarding schools and people living in close proximity that I was able to survive those first few months. They were crucial in allowing me to then go on and pursue the ideas that had interested me in the first place.”
By the age of 29, Wilson became the youngest prison governor in the country. I ask how his experience of working with violent prisoners had affected his original philosophical thinking at this point. “My first exposure to a serial killer was when I was training as an assistant governor in Wormwood Scrubs and he was called Dennis Nilsen. I was kind of intrigued by that,” Wilson explains, referring to “the Kindly Killer” who was convicted in 1983. “But my first real experience of working with really violent prisoners was at Grendon, which operates as a psycho-dynamic therapeutic community and therefore its purpose is incredibly optimistic.”
Working at Young Offender’s Institutes Finnamore Wood and Huntercombe, Wilson went on to work at Grendon prison where he ran a sex offender’s treatment programme. Following his “positive experience” of working at Grendon, Wilson was asked to work with the violent prisoners of Woodhill. “That was a much more challenging experience and not at all as optimistic as the experiences of working at Grendon,” he concludes gravely.
His time and contact with these violent offenders began to shape his ideas on prison, and ultimately led him to quit the prison service in protest of the conditions. “I resigned when I returned from a visit on behalf of The Council of Europe to Albania, I was asked to help to advise the new democratic government of Albania about setting up a democratic penal system [Albania was previously under dictatorship]. Albania is an incredibly poor country – I was expecting their prisons to be appalling, but frankly they were better than our own.” His hands motion emphatically, also gesturing towards a deep-seated passion that now seems to have been masked by a well-practised television persona. “So because of being under a dictatorship, their attitudes to prisons were far more enlightened than British attitudes towards prisons. I resigned when I came back from visiting Albania, saying I don’t want to do anything more in our penal system. It was a natural return therefore to apply for an academic job.”
Wilson, who is now a Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University has 15 published books predominantly on the subject of serial killers. He’s also become a figure of the public eye, regularly contributing to The Guardian and presenting documentaries for the BBC and Channel 5. I ask Wilson about his responsibility to dispel the kinds of distorted images of prison and prisoners the media so loves to weep about. “Well to bring it bang up to date, I think it is very interesting how Channel 4 promoted Gordon Ramsay” Wilson begins, referring to Channel 4’s favourite over-used leather handbag who went into Brixton prison to teach prisoners how to cook. “Both Channel 4 and Ramsay have played on two stereotypes of prison: the first was he was going to encounter super predators, that everybody there was going to try and kill him and try and hurt him in some way. But equally he’s also played on the other flipside of that stereotype; that prisoners are lazy and don’t want to get out of their cells; that they’ve really got to be cattle-prodded to take any action to change their circumstances,” he explains cuttingly, mimicking the tabloids. “So often what I’m doing in the public eye is trying to counteract those stereotypes by talking about how prison is in fact a much overused space that usually creates more problems than it solves. I think because the vast majority of the public don’t get access to the prison—that’s why programmes like Ramsay’s are so important—and if he panders to stereotypes it seems to me that it’s an opportunity missed.” Wilson raises his eyebrows as a resigned look flashes across his face. “I am pleased that it disappeared with almost no trace.”
However Wilson’s involvement in television is also problematic. In 2008, Wilson resumed his role as prison governor in a fake prison with the former Home Secretary David Blunkett as part of social experiment that followed the rehabilitation of ten offending teenagers in a programme called Banged Up. Although the series was nominated for a RTS award, it received a mixed response, most notably from ex-convict turned writer Erwin James, who called it “a sham.”
“I think that Banged Up really did work” Wilson affirms. “The medium can work, it is just those TV programmes that want to be sensationalist, populist, and exploitative programmes—which tend more often than not to get a commission—that is the problem.” While I wouldn’t call Banged Up ‘ground-breaking’, the message is an obvious and important one. I do take some issue however with Wilson’s more recent documentary Killers Behind Bars: The Untold Story, which aired on Channel 5 earlier this year.
“Killers Behind Bars started out with a much more academic purpose, which was to introduce the public to real criminology as opposed to CSI criminology. In the series I’m actually using genuine profiling techniques,” he describes. “Actual offender profiling is a bottom up, data-driven approach to discovering or suggesting who the police might target the investigation towards.” While it is an incredibly interesting and compelling viewing, there is something quite uncomfortable about watching an hour- long documentary that re-opens these high profile cases in such horrific and intimate detail. Something about it just smacks of those “Never Been Seen Before!” straplines plastered all-over tabloids and ‘Real Life’ story magazines – the voyeurism of these kinds of programmes is just unavoidable.
I find myself getting frustrated that Wilson won’t acknowledge the difficulties of his own programme which doesn’t seem to have much purpose other than to satisfy morbid curiosity. How can we find this elusive balance between entertainment and enlightenment? “Well the balance is heavily skewed towards entertainment,” he admits, “I think there are some interesting and edgy programmes as a consequence of that imbalance. For example, Dexter springs to mind as a very interesting and edgy programme. Dexter is a serial killer who targets other serial killers, so the viewer ethically and morally is being asked to root for Dexter – I find all that very problematic, because really what we’re playing on is a stereotype of what a serial killer is like. Serial killers are not dramatic, exciting, insightful people – they don’t talk about fine foods and Florentine architecture or blood spatter patterns. They’re actually rather boring, dull, grey, everyday people who are self-obsessed, weedy and needy.”
It’s not quite the resolve or explanation I wanted, but it does characterise a man who has remained faithful to the truth and to his own experiences. David Wilson can certainly be relied on to provide a well-informed and lucid voice to the prison debate, but it’s disappointing to see the burgeoning “celebrity” rather than the academic.
With thanks to Ed Greenwood for his help and research.
Originally published by Nouse in November 2012.