Rolf Harris leaves behind gilded lifestyle for vulnerable prison unit

Prison authorities to look at whether veteran entertainer will undergo sex offender rehabilitation programme and when he can be moved to open jail

Jamie Doward and Gaby Bissett
The Observer, Sunday 6 July 2014

Rolf Harris was convicted of 12 indecent assaults on four girls. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

He wowed the crowds at Glastonbury and painted the Queen. Now Rolf Harris is on suicide watch in HMP Wandsworth, his downfall complete, his reputation as one of Britain and Australia's best loved entertainers in shreds.

This weekend as the 84-year-old serial abuser, convicted of 12 indecent assaults on four girls, contemplates his new life from behind bars, it will become apparent to him that his problems are only just beginning.

For a man who lived a gilded lifestyle, in a spacious waterfront home in the Berkshire village of Bray, the first few weeks in prison will be a living nightmare. And it will be little comfort for Harris to learn that he is far from unique: the over 60s are the fastest growing group behind bars – thanks, largely, to the fact that convictions for historic sex abuse are on the increase.

On arrival at Wandsworth, the prison in south-west London that holds some 1,600 inmates, Harris will have been risk assessed to see if he had mental health issues that could indicate whether he might self harm. Due to his age it is likely that he will be held on the vulnerable prisoners unit where he will encounter other paedophiles and sex attackers who are kept from the rest of the prison estate for their own safety.

Almost immediately, one of the most difficult things for Harris to confront, a man worth a reputed £11m, will be the realisation that he is unable to control his future. Over the next 28 days the prison will develop a sentence plan that will look at whether the entertainer needs to undergo any rehabilitation and whether there are any issues thrown up around his age, such as infirmity.

Then a decision will be taken to move him to another jail, possibly one that specialises in holding older prisoners, most probably Norwich or Kingston. But here there are problems.

There are nearly 4,000 over-60s now behind bars, with numbers having risen by 130% between 2002 and 2013. Finding Harris a suitable prison cell could prove difficult. But, equally, fast-tracking him could see the prison service accused of bending the rules for a celebrity.

"Four out of 10 of these prisoners (the over-60s) were convicted of sex offences and people over 60 are the fastest growing age group in the prison estate, yet there is no national strategy for the elderly who get sent to prison," said Professor David Wilson, of Birmingham City University. "The Prison Service needs to develop a strategy to cope with this fastest growing section of the prison population or they will simply be failing in their duty of care to the elderly people that they are locking up."

At some stage, probably after four to six months have passed, Harris will be moved to open prison conditions where he will be encouraged to take part in activities. Work for someone over 65 is unlikely, say experts. Instead he will probably end up teaching art classes to fellow prisoners.

A key question will be whether Harris agrees to attend a sex offender rehabilitation programme for which there is an 18-month minimum waiting list. But whether he comes out of prison a changed man is debatable. The late Ray Wyre, who established the world's first residential clinic for sex offenders, said that paedophilia was the most persistent personality trait.

Indeed a small minority of people might question whether there was even any point subjecting an elderly man to a custodial sentence after he has already seen the thing he valued most – his reputation – destroyed. But Richard Scorer, head of the abuse team at Slater Gordon, a law firm that represents many victims of sex abuse – including those of Jimmy Savile, said a custodial sentence was important partly because of the way Harris exploited his celebrity.

"It is a recognition of the harm that Harris has caused to his victims," said Scorer, author of Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis. "This is very important when you are dealing with somebody who has used their status and reputation to abuse."

Harry Fletcher, a criminal justice expert, said any rehabilitation courses given to Harris would be on a one-to-one basis but would not be compulsory.

"The point is not to shame them but to get them to contain their behaviour," Fletcher said. "They can never be cured, but you have to get them to point where they know it is morally wrong."

The rehabilitation courses can yield results. Only a third of sex abusers who attend them go on to reoffend compared with more than 50% of other prisoners. Demand for such courses is likely to rise. "There has been an increased number of prosecutions for historic child abuse cases," Scorer said. "Many involve family situations; some involve institutions. Over the last three years since Savile the dam has broken and people feel much more able to talk about this. People feel a great deal of fear and shame, particularly where prominent people are concerned, but the culture is changing. People are more willing to come forward. They have confidence that justice will be done and the convictions that have come through. Operation Yewtree are important. Harris and [publicist Max] Clifford were two cases among many prosecuted up and down the land everyday. But in another way they are particularly important. They were high profile and people are influenced by what they see."

Some, however, might feel Harris is too old to benefit from any rehabilitation programme. But Phillip Hodson, of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, said it was important for society as a whole that Harris should be encouraged to confront his actions. "A client came to see me, a famous man who had a famous daughter," Hodson said.

"He said: 'My problem is my life is screwed up, it's an enormous mess but I've only got eight months left to live.' So I said: 'We'd better get on with it then.' Whatever time we've got we have to use it. What we are saying as a society is that we understand that Harris is not wholly evil. It's important to get him to realise the damage he has done. We aren't talking about changing the person. We are talking about having more insight, not about building a new self."

Hodson said there were probably multiple reasons why Harris behaved the way he had. "He had a distant father, he was emotionally tied up in his art, he suffered from intense loneliness and depression. People who want to be celebrities are people who need excessive praise. If you seek excessive attention and behave as if the laws don't apply then that says an enormous amount of where you have come from and the connection between your background and what you've done. If you don't agree with that view then you have to invent categories of evil and that's not helpful."

Hodson suggested Harris would be able to find some respite in his final years if he confronted his actions.

"If you want to gain some sort of peace or resolution, to move forward, you need to realise what you have done," Hodson said. "If you can behave better and make amends you have a better death. And the goal of old age is to have a good death."

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