As a criminologist who studies the effects of incarceration on troubled souls, Professor David Wilson is frequently disturbed by what he sees.

“I can be creeped out by some things,” he admits.

“The worst thing has been having to work with the extreme end of paedophiles.

“I had built into the research programme that I would speak to a psychiatrist at the end of a working day. I never wanted to be desensitised to what they were telling me.”

You wouldn’t know any of this just from bumping into him in the street.

As a punk rocker turned academic and family man, he readily admits he fell into the sticky web of his subject matter by accident.

Serious criminals can make David’s work seem to be glamorous, the sort of role which could be captured in a TV drama or thriller novel.

But if there was no criminality, would he settle for being thrown onto the dole queue?

“Yes, I would if it meant I never had to speak to the parents of a murdered child ever again,” he says.

“I would settle for that in a heartbeat.”

As a teenager, Prof Wilson loved The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Rezillos and long-forgotten Scottish punks The Jolt and he’s still energised by communicating with young people.

He’s also a media friendly, go-to man from all sides of the political and policing divide, especially with regard to the eternal question: ‘Does prison work?’, to which his brutally short answer is “No”.

Prof Wilson might have retained his engagingly-strong Scottish accent, but his real strength comes from being as neutral as any Swiss.

A man to whom the grief-stricken turn for help while letters from serial killers sit on his desk.

His office is at the end of a tunnel-like corridor on an upper floor of a drab building at Birmingham City University’s Perry Barr campus.

Within a year or two, he expects his department will move to BCU’s new Eastside campus next to Millennium Point.

Perhaps that new site will make even more young people want to sign up for his fascinating brand of course work.

In a typical year, the criminology department attracts 1,500 applicants for just 80 places.

“Do you know,” he says, “we have six open days a year and everyone comes with their parents.

“I bet you didn’t go to university with yours. (Hell, no!).

“You have to try to shut the parents up, to say: ‘Everything will be all right. They’ll be fine’.

“Then you try to talk to the student...”

It’s another example of how our fear of crime has made parents ever more protective.

If few parents now let their children play out in the old-fashioned way, surely logic then dictates they won’t trust them to find their own way to a new city for an interview either.

Of course, as a man who has not been a victim of crime himself, it’s easy for Prof Wilson to make this observation.

But he reminds you regularly that because he visits prisons every week, he regularly sees at first hand what life is like on the other side of the lock and key.

His new book Pain and Retribution, billed as the first single-volume history of British prisons, details how our perceived need to be tough on crime has seen more people jailed in this country than any other in Europe.

The book also illustrates how crime has fallen in Red Hook in the southwestern corner of Brooklyn in New York, where non-penal measures have been taken more seriously.

“It’s perfectly possible to have fewer people in prison and to have less crime and safer cities,” he says.

“That’s proved by Red Hook’s small, community-based alternative to the English prison system.”

Not that David doesn’t want to see punishments fit the crime.

“I have spent most of my adult life working with people who have committed very serious and violent crimes,” he says.

“And I wouldn’t let them out.”

He then argues it cannot be right that two people per week go to prison for non-payment of the BBC licence fee.

“Two people a week is 100 people per year,” he reasons.

“And the types of people not paying the licence fee are probably leading quite chaotic lives.

“People who need help with addiction, mental health problems, advice about unemployment.

“Prison is a very blunt tool... and it seems to sweep up these people and usually makes them worse rather then better.

“I am not pro-legalising everything under the sun because too often I’ve seen the damage done by alcohol and drugs to communities.

“I am very happy to have more of a health perspective on those issues rather than criminal justice.

“I think we have to support people.

“Support is often about saying: ‘Those things are going to do you harm’.”

Pain and Retribution begins by pointing out that the problem with prisons is that three diverse groups of people have a vested interest in what goes on behind bars – society (everyone from politicians to the media to the electorate), prison staff and the prisoners.

Criminologist Prof David Wilson has written a book called Pain and Retribution - A Short History of British Prisons, 1066 to the Present
Criminologist Prof David Wilson has written a book called Pain and Retribution - A Short History of British Prisons, 1066 to the Present
 

The recurring theme of the book, which Prof Wilson says took nine months to write and three months to polish, is that prisoners are at the bottom of the food chain, with society suggesting they deserve to be there.

He receives correspondence from a wide variety of people and always writes back. Even when it’s a serial killer who might be on a vanity mission.

“Some criminals are very charismatic,” he says.

“I have to be careful when I tell you that some serial killers still write to me.

“I have to treat them very professionally.

“The ones I have worked with are incredibly narcissistic. Very self-obsessed. Manipulative.

“If they could get on to Wiki, they
would be changing their profile.

“I have always written back to them. And if any member of the public writes, I write back.

“I try to be courteous. And I reply to tweets. I am very accessible. People know how to get access to me.

“The hardest letters are from members of the public who want my help as if I’m a one-man detective agency.

“Those are the hardest. What can I do? You can’t do anything.”

Did he ever fancy being a detective?

“No. I fell into this by accident when I was a history student and saw an ad to become assistant governor at Wormwood Scrubs,” he says.

“I was fascinated by why the behaviour of a Cambridge rugby team might be seen as ‘high jinks’, but others would be fined £50 and bound over to keep the peace.

“How were those ideas worked out in practice?”

Once Prof Wilson was on the inside, his PhD paid dividends.

“They thought I was a doctor in the medical sense and so they kept sending me to interesting prisons like Grendon (in Buckinghamshire).

“There was ‘the cult of the amateur’. I was a 23-year-old PhD history graduate (Glasgow, then Cambridge) and nobody questioned that.

“Yet I was assistant governor (training) and then became the assistant governor of Hunterculme, for young offenders.”

Professor Wilson says people turn to crime because of circumstances unique to them.

“It is neither nature, nor nurture and they are neither born nor made,” he has concluded.

“They are circumstances that are unique to that particular individual.

“That’s not to say that genes don’t belong, but there’s also the importance of peer groups.

“Many are narcissistic, psychopathic.

“But psychopathy is not the only explanation why they do what they do.

“There are psychopaths who run industries, manage football teams.

‘There are only some who harness their psychopathy to commit violent crime.

“They have a range of influences unique to them.

“They can be self destructive and have the misconception that their needs overrule everybody else’s needs.

“The narcissism is usually very marked.”

Is research catching up with film fiction, so that people could soon be stopped before they’ve committed a crime?

“Pre-cogs,” Prof Wilson smiles. “Do they sometimes just snap?

“No. They are a long time in the making. Often they have fantasised for a considerable period of time about doing what they do.

“Murder will be recaptured into their fantasy which compels them to commit even more crime.

“I would never release them. I am not an abolitionist.

“That’s a really vital foundation for our society.

“They would be too big a threat to your children. To families. Your neighbours. Your neighbours’ communities.

“I have no problem locking up that kind of offender.”

And yet, as Prof Wilson points out, we have more prisoners serving life sentences than the rest of Europe put together.

And in Norway, the longest term that anyone can serve, including mass killer Anders Breivik, is 21 years.

“(Norwegian nurse Arnfinn) Nesset killed 23 of his patients, but Norway released him,” he says.

“Nessett is still living in Oslo.

“We have been pretty tough on crime in Britain.

“We have more women in jail, more young people... and more elderly over 60 than at any point in our history.

“We have so many people over 60 in jail they would fill six prisons.

“Many are historic sex offender cases.

“Does this protect us? Make us feel safer?

“Is it a good investment of our money?”

Prof Wilson details statistics showing that two thirds of those released will commit further crime within 12 months, half of adult men will commit further crime in less than 12 months and just under one in two women.

“What would we do with a hospital if two out of three patients were killed?” he asks.

“Or if a school failed to teach two out of three children to read and write.

“We would say: ‘There is something wrong with those institutions’.

“Let’s keep the people who need to be in prison, there, but in the long term, let’s find ways of making our communities safer other than by using prison in this way.

“They are even taking away books, things that we regard as making our lives have value.

“Other offenders who have committed very serious crimes have turned their lives around.

“People like Noel ‘Razor’ Smith, a bank robber who was once public enemy No 1.

We do talks together and I went to his wedding recently.

“He was a prolific bank robber, not a killer.

“And a question I ask myself if he’d had my social and economic background, would he have ended up like me?

“And if I’d had his background and lack of education, would I have ended up like him?

“But Noel writes beautifully and has written two books that are incredibly powerful, I think.”

If he was to be locked up himself, where would he like to be sent?

Grendon Prison is his answer, a 1962 facility opened as an experimental psychiatric prison to “provide treatment for prisoners with antisocial personality disorders, under the direction of a medical superintendent”.

“It has a therapeutic community that’s completely transformative,” he says.

“The building is quite horrible but you do feel there is hope there – you can always tell with any prison if there is hope or a sense of despair.”

* Professor Wilson is the director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University and vice chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Pain and Retribution A Short History of British Prison, 1066 to the Present by Professor David Wilson is in bookshops now (£20 Reaktion Books).