‘Doors open slowly, but slam quickly’
After 35 years as a solicitor, including a spell doing criminal defence, Russell Conway thought he was fairly hard-bitten, but none of it prepared him for seeing his own son sent to prison for graffiti
Nothing really prepares you for your first visit to see your son in prison.
My son Harry, a street artist known as Zerx, was in his early 20s when he was sent to prison for 12 months, for what he would describe as art, and what the police described as criminal damage.
Similarly, nothing really prepares you for the police banging on your door at 6.30am, holding up a search warrant and sifting through the contents of your home looking for evidence with which to build a case against your son. Sleepy, blurry eyed, and desperately trying to read the small print on a search warrant was for me a unique experience.
I was a fairly hard bitten, 35 years qualified solicitor. I had practised criminal law when I was younger. I had seen clients in prison many times and made that rather sorry trip to the cells after sentencing frequently. But having to do it ‘for real’ was very different. Prison visits as a family member (rather than a professional) are gruelling. You have to give up everything you take for granted: money, wallet, mobile phone, keys, even your pen. Doors open slowly but slam shut much more quickly. There are intrusive body searches, where even your mouth is examined for drugs or contraband, and a succession of x-ray machines designed to make absolutely sure nothing gets through which should not. It is also slow. If I had a visit booked for 2pm I was advised to be at the prison by 12.30pm.
After three months, and many letters to the prison governor and representations from third parties, we managed to get Harry out on a tag. The tag often malfunctioned. Alarms were set off when they should not have been; it disrupted Harry’s university studies as he had to miss lectures in order to be back home by his curfew time.
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Harry Conway’s arrest was widely covered in local and national press
I was privileged enough to be able to choose the firm of solicitors we wanted to represent Harry in the Crown Court. I could also attend conferences with the solicitor advocate, and make informed decisions with my son. Few have these advantages.
I was also able to give Harry advice about what to pack in his bag on the day of sentencing. While it appears to be something of a lottery what prisoners are allowed to take, at least if you have pyjamas, underwear, writing materials and a book or two, this will soften the appalling loneliness of the first few days.
How others manage is a very real worry. Under the government’s planned reforms to criminal justice, there will be far less choice as to who represents you. Solicitors, feeling the pain of reduced fees, will be unable to provide a full holistic service to their client of the kind we were able to obtain. While I was able to write to the prison governor about Harry’s dietary requirements (he is a vegan), I doubt that is something firms of solicitors will be able to deal with in the future.
I was also able to ensure Harry had an email account so that he could receive messages in prison, and made absolutely sure he received as many visits as possible from me, his family and friends.
Prison punishes not just the offender but the offender’s friends and family. All of us were knocked for six by the process, the incarceration, and the humiliation of the visits. We were all innocent but we were made to feel very guilty.
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Following his conviction, former prolific ‘street artist’ known as ‘Zerx’ has now taken up photography
‘We were knocked for six by the humiliation of the prison visits. As a family, we were all innocent but were made to feel very guilty.’
I have come out of the process scarred, troubled by the judicial process, and concerned that the future seems to be an even darker place where solicitors specialising in crime will be fewer and far more difficult to access. Many families will have difficulty in tracking down appropriate representation for their loved ones. Access to justice is a bellwether of a society’s civilisation: very sadly the omens are not good in our criminal justice system.
As a teetotal, non-smoking, vegan, it’s safe to say, I didn’t fit in
On leaving the dock, I seemed unphased and almost submissive to what had just happened. Sentenced to a year in prison for writing my name everywhere. My alter ego, Londoners had come to know as Zerx, written in paint all over the capital. I remember being led into the prison van and reading: ‘Riding life for murder,’ scratched inside. Having reached Wormwood Scrubs prison, I stayed in the first-night centre, which is meant to adjust you to prison life before being put into general circulation. The whole situation had still not sunk in. I bedded down for the night watching Film Four, occasionally glancing over to my window, where the sun was setting over Trellick Tower. Trellick was a 10-minute bike ride away from my house; Wormwood Scrubs prison was maybe 15 minutes away from my house. I was still in my area; just in different surroundings.
In my experience, prison is like a big secondary school. Pupils (prisoners) annoy their teachers (correctional officers), and argue among themselves; segregation is detention; privileges are taken away, just like children. And you learn things, generally not of a positive nature. It is not progressive in any way. You just sit there watching TV, waiting for your stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure to end. I was a vegan who didn’t drink alcohol, take drugs or smoke. It is safe to say, I didn’t fit in inside this category B prison, where substance abuse played a large part in most inmates’ reasons for being there.
‘I remember being led into the prison van and reading: “riding life for murder” scratched inside’
People were getting shanked for cigarettes, and I felt like an outsider looking in to some strange social experiment. Her Majesty’s prisons aren’t great at supporting vegan dietary requirements, so I hope not to return.
Harry Conway

About the author(s)

Description: Russell Conway
Russell Conway is senior partner at Oliver Fisher solicitors in west London.