The former Sunderland and England soccer player Adam Johnson has just been jailed for six years for sexual activity with a 15-year-old fan. He was found guilty of sexual touching but cleared of one charge relating to another sexual act, having pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child and one count of grooming.
A likely initial destination for Johnson is HMP Frankland in County Durham, England, the jail that holds notorious killers Ian Huntley and Levi Bellfield, and last year saw two inmates disembowel convicted child rapist Mitchell Harrison. There's a received wisdom that sex offenders are in constant danger while inside from other prisoners, who regard "nonces" as the lowest of the low. Johnson is reported, by the Sun, to be "shitting himself."
This all sounds very scary, but overall, it doesn't quite match up to the reality I've seen working as a teacher in prison. I asked a some of my students to discuss how they think Adam Johnson will get treated while he's inside.
James, 30, has just been sentenced to six years for his part in a drug conspiracy that involved large amounts of cocaine, ecstasy, and crack. James was quite far down the gang's pecking order, but the length of the sentence reflects the size of the operation, the fact it's his second strike for dealing and his refusal to plead guilty at any stage of proceedings.
I ask James how he would react to returning to his cell one day to find Adam Johnson as his new pad-mate. "To be honest, as long as he wasn't trying any big-time shit, I wouldn't be that arsed. It's not like he's a pedo," he says.
This prompts a mixed reaction from the group; some people seem nod in agreement, while one or two others seem a little riled. The fact is: Johnson is a convicted pedophile.
I put this to James. "Yeah, but she was up for it," he says, apparently forgetting the fact that Johnson groomed her. "A few months older, what would have been the problem?
"If he gets stuck in, pulls his weight, helps out with fitness and gym, he'll be treated like any other twat in here."
You'll get some absolute fanny trying to make name for himself.
Carl, 27, is serving his 24th sentence, this time for stealing a pastry from a bakery while on probation. He lists the jails he's spent time in, and I lose track once he hits double figures. I refer Carl to an article published by a national newspaper that suggested Adam Johnson was considering hiring "protection" while inside.
"Bollocks," Carl replies. "Yeah, you'll get the odd knob trying to test him—probably some absolute fanny trying to make a name for himself—but nothing he'd need to be scared of. Just slap the cunt back, and you'll be alright, problem solved."
Carl adds that Johnson will probably face this kind of confrontation every time he moves prison, which could potentially be a few times over the course of his sentence—but this could be more down to the fact that he's famous than because of any perception of him being a "nonce."
Otis, 33, is waiting to go on trial for a Section 20 assault, otherwise known as grievous bodily harm, on his brother in law ("Man had it coming for time"). This is his first experience of prison, and I'm interested to hear whether his take is any different to the overall consensus in the room: that Johnson may well have acted like a creep, but that the severity of the punishment doesn't fit the crime.
"Look, if it was my daughter, man better be ready to see me," Otis says. "I'd be having words with her, too. Don't get me wrong, but man is twenty-seven and should know better."
I ask whether or not Otis would be bothered about sharing a cell with Johnson. He says he wouldn't be keen but would get on with it in principle—but only on the basis that nothing else came to light in terms of this—or any other—charges against him.
Charles, 45, is coming to the end of a sentence for manslaughter and has spent time in some of the toughest jails in the country. Within the group dynamic, it's immediately clear that he has the respect of the other prisoners—it's pretty rare for everyone to shut up, completely unprompted, as soon as someone starts talking. Charles immediately goes into explicit detail as to what he's seen happen to sex offenders in prison. Some of it is standard pool-balls-in-socks stuff, whereas a description of a razorblades-in-the-showers scenario has the group, myself included, struggling to keep our breakfast down: "They held him down, cut him across the nips, his face, his cock, and then one of the lads stuck a blade in his arse. My mate was the wing cleaner, took him an hour to clean up the shower floor and walls."
Is this a possibility for Adam Johnson? "It doesn't have to be," says Charles. "The biggest mistake he could make would be to stay on the nonce wing for a second longer than he has to. He ain't touched a baby or a ten-year-old, but the longer he stays tucked up with that kind of scum the more suspicious other prisoners will get."
I ask Charles what course of action Adam Johnson would be best advised to take. "Get on a normal wing, talk to a couple of the faces there and show them his papers [to confirm the official details of his case / conviction], and then just get on with it."§
At the end of the session, I'm still a little surprised that there wasn't a more visceral reaction to Adam Johnson; usually even the slightest mention of sex offenders provokes pitchfork groupthink and little evidence of nuanced thought. The fairly limited level of acknowledgement that he has actually committed a serious crime is absolutely problematic and a sign of badly dated sexual politics. Mind you, it's equally jarring that Victoria Coren Mitchell wrote in the Guardian that she "snarled about the ghastly things I hoped would befall" Johnson while in prison. Can Johnson actually expect to face "ghastly things"?
"He's only got himself to blame, and it's certainly not the place to be pulling any millionaire strops," says Charles as we begin a group game of Trivial Pursuit. "But he'll be old news when a real monster arrives, believe me."