Rosie Johnston, white and privileged; Edward Johnson, black and poor. For several months between 1986-1987 they shared the experience of imprisonment. Rosie Johnston was to emerge from HMP East Sutton Park in June 1987, having been sentenced to nine months for the possession of heroin and for supplying it to her friends at Oxford University (including a Cabinet Minister’s daughter). Two weeks prior to her release, Edward Johnson was taken to the gas chamber at Parchman Penitentiary, where he died, despite a final desperate attempt to gain a stay of execution. Apart from prison, Rosie and Edward had very little in common. For one thing, Edward was innocent.
Despite having a novelist for a mother, it is perhaps doubtful that Rosie Johnston would ever have come to the attention of the public had she not been sent to prison and been determined to write a book about it. Her life had the privilege of privacy, and no doubt seemed destined to be dominated by house-hunting, jokes about the mortgage rates, and holidays in Tuscany, where her mother had a summer house. Despite having been a regular druguser, she remarks in her prologue: ‘If someone had told me that I was to spend six months of my life in prison, I would have thought them an idiot. People went to Prison in the News: people who had committed murder, or spied for Russia.’ Rosie doesn’t dwell too long on the details or circumstances of her offence, only on her sense of injustice, especially concerning ‘media harassment’. She obviously resented becoming ‘News’ herself. Shakily sustained by a diet of alcohol, cigarettes, psychotherapy and spiritualism, she tried to take comfort from the hiring of a ‘clever and respected QC’, and from the advice of her grandmother, who encouraged her to ‘go down’ since it would be ‘such an experience, darling’. Her grandfather, in the grip of senile dementia, commented: ‘It would never have happened if you had gone to Cambridge.’
Her book is a naive affair, characterised by bitterness and not in the least saved by her obvious debt to every recent NACRO ‘Briefing’ on the current state of the prison system. She did time in Holloway, Bullwood Hull and East Sutton Park, and devotes a section of the book to what happened to her, and to what she expected to happen to her, when she was inside. She writes of her fellow prisoners, the prison staff, her work, the availability of drugs, of lesbianism and victimisation, and asks all the right questions about women and crime, and the effectiveness of prison as a punishment and/or deterrent. However, her observations on these matters are trite and unconvincing. Her heart is often in the right place, but it is in so many other places as well that she seems to have taken her grandmother’s advice literally. Her imprisonment has become an ‘experience’ – something which she has been through and which she can allow us to ‘share’.
A sense of ambivalence, of not quite belonging, is at the very heart of the book. She rails against her fellow prisoners’ ‘misconceptions’ about her having or spending lots of money. Yet she received visits from Lord Longford (she was a friend of his grandson) and Lord Hilton (‘a distant cousin of my mother’), and had a food hamper sent from Fortnum and Mason’s. On their last visit prior to her release, her parents arrived early, and in the field next to the prison – ‘as if they were at Henley Regatta’ – proceeded, to the amazement of staff and inmates alike, to tuck into hunks of cheese, French bread, cold chicken and a bottle of wine. With obvious pride Johnston observes: ‘it was typical of mum and dad to think they could guzzle their picnic and wash it down with Sancerre in full view of the prison staff and inmates.’ No wonder her dorm mate thought she knew Fergie and Andy, and asked if she had spoken to a black person before – a question never satisfactorily answered. I lost count of the times she compared prison to her old boarding-school. She criticises the imprisonment of drug-users, since ‘drugs are easily obtainable inside,’ while describing how she smuggled tobacco into East Sutton Park by ‘crutching’ – pushing an ounce of Golden Virginia into her vagina: she can’t have been unaware that this is exactly how drugs are smuggled into prison.
Merrilyn Thomas’s book concerns the work of Clive Stafford-Smith and the Southern Prisoners Defence Committee. Born in Newmarket, educated at Radley and another Cambridge reject, Stafford-Smith went on a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. North Carolina has been called ‘the home of the Ku Klux Klan’, and Stafford-Smith’s passionate work on behalf of the disadvantaged can have owed little to environmental conditioning. ‘America’s most hated lawyer’, Stafford-Smith came to British attention as a result of a BBC documentary, about his attempts to get one of his clients, this Edward Johnson, a stay of execution from the Mississippi Governor. He did not succeed, but the documentary Fourteen Days in May, restored the issue of the death penalty to public consciousness, as did the sequel The Journey, which established Johnson’s innocence of the crime for which he had been executed. Thomas adds flesh to the outline traced in the documentaries; a compelling picture emerges of bigotry and prejudice. Her focus is net just what happened to Edward Johnson, but the death penalty itself, and those seven countries – USA, USSR, China, Iran, Iraq, South Africa and Nigeria – which between them execute the vast majority of those killed as a result of the imposition of a judicial sanction.
Thomas’s strength is to see capital punishment as the by-product of a social structure flawed by reasons of class and colour. There are some two thousand men and women on Death Row in the United States, although the country’s jails hold thirty-five thousand convicted murderers. Not all American States retain capital punishment on their statute books, and of those that do the majority are concentrated in the old Southern Confederacy. Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – where Edward Johnson was executed – are the most enthusiastic of those States which retain the death penalty, and someone in Wisconsin or Minnesota with a similar background to Johnson, and convicted of committing a comparable offence, would not have been executed. It is also significant that Edward was black. Twelve per cent of the American population is black, but over 40 per cent of Death Row is made up of people from ethnic minorities. However, it is not simply the colour of the killer’s skin which is important, but that of the victim. In November 1988, of all those on Death Row, only 43 whites had been sentenced to death for killing a black, whereas 727 black people had been sentenced for killing a white person. As Thomas argues, ‘taking into account the fact that half of all those arrested for murder are black, what the statistics seem to say is that if you are black and kill a white person, you are more likely to be executed than a white person who kills a black person.’ Indeed, no white convicted of the single murder of a black person has as yet gone to the gas chamber.
Poverty, rather than colour, is the greatest bond that unites those awaiting execution. Stafford-Smith claims that ‘nobody with the means to pay for an effective defence ever ends up on Death Row.’ Of those currently on Death Row none could afford private representation, and all had to have a court-appointed attorney. Stafford-Smith maintains that unless a particular case is going to attract a great deal of publicity, court-appointed lawyers do not want the job, since it is labour-intensive and badly paid. In a country with a legal minimum wage of $3 per hour, Stafford-Smith was recently paid just 51 cents an hour for defending someone whose life depended on his skill. Murder cases are thus usually handled by inexperienced or incompetent lawyers, and Stafford-Smith cites an example of one man being defended by a student. The Defence Committee works as a charity, and Stafford-Smith has long since given up hope of ever earning the living his legal expertise would normally have brought him. This is definitely not LA Law. Nonetheless, as Sam Johnson, another grateful client, says of those on Death Row in Mississippi, ‘all of the guys here, they all want Clive.’
The release of the Guildford Four, after 15 years’ imprisonment, will stop the tabloid clamour for the re-introduction of capital punishment – for a few months. Given that ethnic minorities are grossly over-represented in our prisons, it doesn’t take a genius to work out who’d get the chop if the death penalty were to be brought back – to a country whose incarceration rates are the highest in Europe. Perhaps we should all have gone to Cambridge.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.