On a late summer's morning in South London, I sat down with Noel "Razor" Smith for a full English and an entire pack of Marlboro Reds.
At 14 years old – the age he was jailed for the first time – Noel was written off by a prison governor as someone who'd spend the rest of his life in and out of the correctional system. At the time, the governor may have had a point, but Noel has spent the past few years proving him wrong.
After a combined 32 years in jail, mostly for armed robbery offences, the 54-year-old is now an author and the assistant editor at Inside Time, the UK's national prison newspaper. Over breakfast, he talked me through his life in crime, his involvement in the paper and how he thinks Britain's prison system should be reformed.
VICE: Hi Noel. What was the first thing you were imprisoned for?
Noel Smith: For stealing a moped and for attempted burglary of an off licence. It sounds clichéd, but prisons are universities of further criminal education. My first time inside, I met a geezer who was into armed robbery and had access to guns, so when I got out I bought a gun off him. I started robbing shops, rent offices... it just went on and on.
But you were caught again eventually.
Yeah, I was captured at the age of 16 and given a three-year sentence for armed robbery and possession of a firearm. When I got out at 19, what was there for me to do other than go back to crime?
You were put in solitary at 17 for trying to escape. What effect did that have on you?
It's just a horrible existence. I tried to commit suicide when I was in there. I ripped off the metal bit of the door, sharpened it up on the wall and tried to rip the veins out of my arm. It was a horrifying experience, and I think it affected my whole life. Once I got out in 1980, that was it: I was just a hardened, dyed-in-the-wool criminal.
So those first few years inside gave you no incentive to stay on the straight and narrow?
No, the opposite: they gave me the tools to reoffend. It gave me the attitude, it gave me the connections: "Go out and commit more crime, because we ain't teaching you nothing good in here."
Can you tell me about Inside Time?
Inside Time is a prison newspaper that was set up in the wake of the Strangeways prison riots in 1990. During the inquiry, one of Lord Justice Woolf's recommendations was that prisoners should have a platform to get their views aired. Prison is a very closed society – you're not allowed to speak to the press, they tape your phone calls, they search your mail – so he said there should be somewhere where prisoners can be confident to ask a question and get a proper answer, as well as putting their own views forward.
When did you first get involved?
I wrote a letter to the first issue and had it published, which was the first thing of mine I'd ever seen in print. I loved it. The paper originally started with eight pages, and now there are 85.
What's the process of putting each issue together?
Inmates send handwritten letters and I type them up. We get between 350 and 450 letters per issue, but we've only got room for about 26, so I go through them to look for the interesting ones. Ones that make certain points that prisoners should know about. Also, prisoners and ex-prisoners write a lot of articles.
What purpose do you think it serves, besides people being able to air their views?
The paper gives you a lot of information. I remember when I was in jail, everyone would look forward to the day it came out, because trying to find information in a prison is like trying to find information in a fucking hayfield, let alone a stack. So we take information and put it in the paper so everyone has access to it.
And can use it to better their circumstances?
Yeah. I learned some great things as a reader. In Dartmoor, they kept cancelling exercise when it rained. I complained and they ignored me, so I wrote to Inside Time and asked, "What's the actual rule?" They said that the only time the prison can cancel exercise because of weather is if it's so bad that they can't see the fence from the exercise yard. I showed the response to the guards, and after that we got exercise every day. So that's how it helps: it gives you weapons to fight back.
A lot of the articles are prisoners talking about how bad conditions are. What are some of the worst things you've heard?
We've had letters from people who are so hungry in prison because the budgets have been slashed so much that they're actually eating cockroaches and mice, or trying to catch pigeons that land on their cell windows. They're cooking them in their kettles. They can't leave their cells to even wash their dishes or plates, or whatever, without six screws with riot shields and all the gear on stopping them. Imagine spending every day living like that and then being released. Do you think you'd be a normal, upright, upstanding member of society? The damage is irreparable.
What do you think is the solution to stop people from reoffending?
You've got to scrap everything we know about prisons. Of the 89,000-odd people in prison in the UK, there are probably 5,000 who are a danger to the public. Don't put people in prison if they're not a danger to anybody – it would cost us less. And people who have drug and alcohol addictions, or mental illness, treat them as such. Don't lump them all in as prisoners and criminals. And teach the youngsters a trade – give them something they can do with their lives. We also need some politicians who know what they're talking about.
Politicians who aren't so far removed from the circumstances that cause people to offend?
Exactly. Judges are the same. They go from their stately homes to their public schools to Oxbridge. They have no clue about real life. They think, because of the lies the tabloids say, that we all sit at home with 50-inch colour TV screens eating KFC every night and feeding it to the kids. I know people who are in abject poverty, and until we really address the balance between rich and poor – the powerful and the disenfranchised – we ain't gonna have any change in this country whatsoever.
What are your thoughts on Chris Grayling, the current Justice Minister?
When the Tories first got in, they got Ken Clark in as the Minister of Justice. He took a look at the problem and said, "Here's how we can fix it: we get prisoners out of their cells, we give them proper jobs in prison, we train them and educate them, and when we let them out maybe they won't reoffend."
Of course, the right wing press said it was mollycoddling, so Ken Clark's great vision was replaced by someone the red tops would love: a hard right-winger called Chris Grayling, who had no experience of the criminal justice system. The closest he'd come to prison was seeing an episode of Porridge. The spiteful bastard sat down and worked out a way to send prisoners almost back to the 1930s. He changed the incentive system and created prisons with less food budgets and less education.
A couple of months ago, after a rise in suicides and violence, he said there's "not a crisis in our prisons". What do you make of that?
I can't believe he has the nerve to say that what he's doing has no correlation to the fact that suicides and assaults have risen. He's fucked the system so bad that it's going to take another 12 years to fix it. It's incredible this man still has the job. Mind you, unlike some politicians, he realised early on that no one gives a toss about prisoners. The only people I've met like him have been actual criminal masterminds who don't end up in prison.
What was your personal turning point?
I've been out for four and a half years now, which is the longest I've been out since 1976. I was in the upper echelons of armed robbery firms. I'd been given life for a series of bank robberies – in which I stole a vast amount of money with a gang called The Laughing Bankrobbers – then got out after 11 years and went back in for life again on the two-strikes act after another set of robberies.
I was in Whitemoor prison, which is the most secure prison in Europe. It was full of infamous prisoners – most of them really violent people; 50-year sentences. So I'd kind of made it – I was one of the diamond geezers. I was with these people and they knew not to fuck around with me, and I quite enjoyed the life.
All of a sudden, I got news from the outside that my 19-year-old son Joseph had died in mysterious circumstances. It's very hard to explain how that feels. It's bad enough if you get that sort of news outside of prison, but I was stuck in this top security jail. It virtually destroyed me. I couldn't mourn in there because it's a sign of weakness.
I sat down and had a serious think. There were two ways I could go: I could become the worst fucker the prison system had seen since Charlie Bronson, attacking every screw that came near me, or I could try to look for rehabilitation. Luckily enough, the latter won out. Problem was, I didn't know how to start because I'd been a criminal all my life.
So what came next?
I discovered there was a prison called Grendon in Buckinghamshire, which is a therapeutic jail that has a great success rate at turning violent people around. They take people with severe personality disorders, which they define as behaviour that you keep despite the fact it hurts you and others. I was a career criminal, so I fit the profile. They treated people with respect, and we did intense therapy every day.
What kind of issues did you work on?
The main thing they tried to instil in you was victim empathy. When you're a criminal, you don't think of your victims. To you, they're not people, because if you personalise them it's another thing that will stop you from committing the crime. I ended up serving five years in Grendon, working on my son's death and the whole of my life. Eventually they sent me to a semi-open prison in Kent, where I served a further two years. I went through depression for a while, as all long-term lifers do when they first get out. My aim is to stay out for the rest of my life.
And to give a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't have one.
Yeah, exactly. I know that prisoners aren't attractive to the outside world, but the message I try to get across is that you're only one missing council tax payment away from being a prisoner yourself. Anyone can become a criminal, but they're not monsters. Well, some of them are, but a very small minority who are never getting out.
Most are ordinary disadvantaged people who have serious problems in their lives, and I think it's wrong that they're demonised by people who should know better – by people who hold the power. These are supposedly educated people doing these things, and they're not even sneaky about it; they just say, "What are you going to do?" They're worse than robbers. At least Dick Turpin wore a fucking mask.
More stories about prison: