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How do celebrity prisoners survive in UK prisons?

Max Clifford at a red carpet event
Max Clifford was arrested in 2012 for a number of indecent assault crimes | Image: Featureflash Photo Agency /

Not long ago, we brought you an article about how various American celebrities who broke the law fared in jail. It was an interesting piece, even if we do say so ourselves, and it set us thinking. While our research gave us some insight as to just how famous people get on in US penitentiaries, it didn’t reveal anything about how the system works over here in Blighty. So we thought we’d get to work and find out.

Do prisoners with famous faces get treated any better or worse than their non-recognisable counterparts? Let’s see if we can find out by exploring some of the sentences and experiences inside for some of the British celebs who fell from grace, straight into a big bowl of porridge.

Rolf Harris

Let’s begin with one of the most shocking examples. For decades, the Australian musician, artist, television presenter and entertainer Rolf Harris was one of British media’s most beloved figures. Known for his paintings, funny songs and crying when a cat came into Animal Hospital with a broken leg, no one could ever imagine the man had a dark side.

The revelation that Rolf Harris was guilty of multiple charges of indecent assault on two young girls was shocking. However, his arrest being part of Operation Yewtree meant that it was one of a litany of surprise arrests of men in the entertainment industry. And with his March 2013 arrest not all that long after the Jimmy Savile bombshells, again, the impact was lessened. He was convicted in June 2014 of 12 charges and sentenced to five years and nine months in prison. He was freed in May 2017.

In jail, in his mid-80s, Harris was seen as ‘at risk’. High profile and guilty of sex crimes on children, he was a prime target for violence. So, at HMP Bullingdon, Harris was kept in a special wing for ‘vulnerable inmates’. After being transferred to HMP Stafford, Harris very quickly got put on gardening duties, a prized position. Did his status and celebrity help him bag the job? We wouldn’t like to say, sport.

Ian Watkins

Rolf Harris is a despised celebrity, no doubt. But when it comes to pure public revulsion, there’s only really one famous person sent to a UK jail that springs to mind. The former lead singer of the Welsh rock band Lostprophets, Ian Watkins.

On 18th December 2012, Watkins was charged with 13 sexual offences against children, including a particularly shocking and heinous charge… the attempted rape of a one year-old girl. For his crimes he was handed a not insignificant 35 year prison sentence.

Since his imprisonment, Watkins was caught with a mobile phone, but claimed he was merely holding it for other prisoners in order to avoid ‘someone sneaking up behind me and cutting my throat’. If these claims are true, it suggests that, perhaps, Watkins is - or at least was - a victim of bullying inside. Something very few people will be overly sympathetic about, we’re sure.

Anyone who suspects that famous faces get an easy time when sent down might do well to convince Ian Watkins of that fact.

Boy George

Most people think of tall hats, multicoloured braids and top tier 1980s pop music when they hear the name Boy George. Still a beloved musician and personality to this day, the singer and DJ seems to have gotten away with his criminal misdemeanours. At least in terms of his public perception, anyway.

In April 2007, (Boy) George O’Dowd handcuffed a man to a radiator in his London flat. Not only was he guilty of ‘falsely imprisoning’ Aufun Carlsen, he also beat the man with a metal chain. In January 2009, George was sentenced to 15 months in prison, but served only four months due to good behaviour.

It may be tempting to see 15 months down to just four as preferential treatment, but the reality is that for shorter custodial sentences, heavily reduced time is fairly commonplace, regardless of how famous the prisoner is.

Max Clifford

Largely despised for his smarmy personality and underhanded tactics as a PR guru, Max Clifford's star status plummeted even further back in December 2012 when Met police officers arrested him as part of the famous Operation Yewtree investigation. On 28th April 2014, Clifford was convicted of eight separate counts of indecent assault against four different victims dating back as far as the 1970s. He received a sentence of eight years.

Appeals rejected, further charges brought and a litany of private litigations ongoing, Clifford died of a heart attack in December 2017, five years after his initial arrest. It seems fairly safe to assume that the stress and his life in prison could have contributed to his death. During his spell inside Clifford was given wrong medication on more than one occasion. There’s no evidence that that worsened his heart issues, but being given four times the dosage? That can’t be good.

Jeffrey Archer

Politician-turned-author Jeffrey Archer likes a tall tale; his books have sold in their millions. His most regrettable story came during his 1987 libel trial against The Daily Star. In the summer of 2001, Archer was found guilty of perverting the course of action and perjury. For his troubles he got four years inside.

Initially, Archer was sent to Belmarsh, a Category A facility. He was soon moved to a Cat C prison in Norfolk, then an open prison in Lincolnshire and - later - a B and finally a D. Altogether, he would serve a fairly standard two years of his four year sentence.

While in HMP North Sea Camp, the open prison, Archer was allowed to leave during the day, as were most other inmates. He would go to a local theatre and volunteer. It seems as if he was moved after being found to be abusing his privileges, by dining with MPs and other former colleagues.

What conclusions can we draw from these examples? Well, each case is quite different, but it seems a pretty safe bet to say that stars are not treated like VIPs in the British legal system. At least, none that we know of, anyway.