The downfall of Eric Watson: 60 days inside ‘squalid’ UK prison

Embattled Kiwi businessman Eric Watson has been unceremoniously forced to swap his Playboy-style life of luxury for a squalid prison cell in London’s dilapidated Pentonville Prison. Jane Phare reports on the longest two months of the former rich lister’s life.

Sixty days. That’s how long disgraced millionaire businessman Eric Watson will have to endure North London’s grim Pentonville Prison, locked in a small Victorian cell for up to 23 hours a day, stripped of his dignity, his mobile phone, access to the internet, his kids, friendly faces and the blue suit he was wearing when he was last a free man.

With little to do, boredom and frustration will set in quickly, perhaps loneliness. He’s had no direct communication with his lawyers, no internet access and, with the prison in lockdown, no visitors. Instead, inmates have limited access to a payphone with a queue of other prisoners listening in.

Those calls could well be to his eldest son, Sam, whose mother Debbie Houghton was a former long-term partner. And he has three other sons by former partner, Swedish model Lisa Henrekson, with whom he split earlier this year.

Watson’s only connection with the outside world will be a small, high window in his cell guarded by bars and netting to stop outsiders from throwing drugs, weapons and mobile phones through the opening. He’ll eat most of his meals in his cell, delivered on a trolley by guards.

News of how Watson is coping is scarce. A family intermediary did not respond to inquiries and attempts by the Herald to speak with Pentonville’s governor Ian Blakeman through the UK’s Ministry ofJustice were also met with silence.

Diagnosed with Covid-19 before his trial and now aged 60, Watson could well have had a cell to himself when he first arrived.

The coronavirus ripped through the UK prison system with scores of inmates and prison staff at Pentonville falling sick. In April, two Pentonville prison staff in their 60s suffering from Covid-19 symptoms died.

It is thanks, in part, to the Covid-19 diagnosis and a sympathetic judge that the former rich lister won’t be still sitting in his cell on Christmas Day.

Lord Justice Christopher Nugee ruled that Watson was in contempt of court, lying about his remaining wealth and hiding assets as part of a long-running, bitter dispute between Watson and businessman Sir Owen Glenn. At stake is $57 million owed to Glenn’s company, Kea.

Justice Nugee reduced Watson’s sentence from six months to four, taking into account personal factors including the fact he had tested positive for Covid-19 and the effect on his family.

And thanks to the law, Watson will only have to serve half of that four-month sentence. Watson wasn’t planning to serve any of it, his legal team immediately asking the judge to stay his prison sentence pending an appeal. But Justice Nugee’s sympathy didn’t extend that far.

He told Watson he did not think there was any prospect the Court of Appeal would allow an appeal. And with that, Watson, wearing a black mask, was led out of court to swap his smart suit for a prison uniform.

Pentonville will be a ghastly contrast to Watson’s Playboy-style lifestyle of lavish birthday parties – he married lingerie model Nicky Robinson on his 40th birthday in 1999 (they were divorced in 2003) and partied for two days in Istanbul on his 50th – luxury holidays and hob-nobbing with the who’s who of Europe and Hollywood. He owned a string of racehorses and, before moving to London, lived in a mansion on Takapuna Beach.

He’ll get out of prison a week before Christmas, just in time to meet his lawyers, dash to Oxford St for a spot of shopping and, no doubt, have a celebratory dinner with his new partner and friends at his $10 million Kensington townhouse. With its five bedrooms andfive bathrooms, Watson’s home is in sharp contrast to his prison cell.

Then he’ll have to figure out how he’s going to pay massive legal bills, millions owed to Inland Revenue and Glenn’s debt.

In the meantime, those 60 days are very slowly tick-tocking away.

Watson couldn’t be in a worse place do his lag. Built in 1842 and half a century past its use-by date, Pentonville, nicknamed “The Ville,” is the sort of place that shocks even officials who work within the British justice system.

The Pentonville Independent Monitoring Board (IBM) regularly files damming reports which make dismal reading, describing the prison as dilapidated, squalid and inhumane, a place overrun with vermin, crammed with twice the number of men it was designed for and plagued with problems.

Those problems include blocked toilets, sewage leaks and broken facilities which have meant prisoners didn’t get hot food, showers or clean clothes for days in the past.

In 2015 the Justice Secretary Michael Gove described the Islington prison as “the most dramatic example of failure” in the UK prison system. That year a report highlighted that many inmates were left without basic provisions, including pillows and utensils, that there were “mounds of rubbish” on the floors and cockroach infestations.

A 2018 report said many prisoners went for weeks without exercise in fresh air. Assaults on prison officers were up 30 per cent since 2019 and that since March 2015, 20 men had died in Pentonville, 13 by suicide.

This year Covid-19 made life even more miserable. Chronic staff shortages due to illness have meant prisoners are kept two to a cell – 4 m by 2m – for 23 hours a day and allowed to shower just twice a week.

The dismal conditions mean Pentonville’s Governor Ian Blakeman, brought in on a rescue mission last year, has had difficulty in attracting staff. Covid-19 hasn’t helped, with existing staff being lured away for better conditions and pay as police officers and border force agents.

Blakeman, in an interview with the Camden Journal, said the recruitment drives made life very difficult for understaffed prisons to attract workers.

“Their pay [police and border control] is very competitive, you get free public transport as a Met Police officer and that’s appealing,” he said.

It’s a place that no one wants to visit a second time. English musician Pete Doherty from indie rock band Babyshambles wrote a song, Pentonville, after spending four nights in the prison in 2005. “It’s wicked and rough, it’s hard, Pentonville rough,” he wrote.

“Some men jump out of their brains, ’cause they can’t take the pressure, or the shame or the pain …”

And about his cell. “Lying on my lumpy mattress, lying on my back, staring up at the ceiling, counting all the cracks. And what’s happening behind me, look over my shoulder back, Bill Cole got my breakfast pack, he won’t give it back.”

However, the shocking experience didn’t teach Doherty a lesson. Six years later Doherty was sent back for another six weeks for cocaine possession.

It’s a prison that has been home to other high-profile Englishmen. Entertainers George Michael and Boy George, and football stars George Best and Nile Ranger have done time there, as did Oscar Wilde.

Ex-con Carl Cattermole wote a book, Prison: A survival guide, based on his time at Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs, to help others faced with their first experience behind bars. The book’s first edition was little more than 1000 photocopied booklets printed illegally by a mate working as a night cleaner for a London bank.

But as word spread about the book, Penguin signed up Cattermole and the next version included chapters written by other inmates and family members of prisoners.

Cattermole, 33, spent two and a half years in prison for criminal damage. He remembers his first day. Expecting a promised induction course he was instead given a “dusty old blanket with dead woodlice in it” and taken straight to his cell, which was “covered in crap”.

There’s plenty of talk about gangs, drugs and violence in prison, he says. But there are other invisible issues to deal with too, like boredom, loneliness, the lack of privacy, isolation, the difficulty of staying in touch with family, long queues for the payphone.

Speaking to the Herald from his Brixton home this week, Cattermole says Watson, used to freedom and luxury, will find it hard adjusting to prison life in Britain.

“If you’re used to caviar then porridge is going to come as a bit of a shock.”

Pentonville attracts a wide range of inmates, he says.

“You’ll have everyone from billionaire businessmen to a drug addict who’s stolen a sausage roll.”

The food is terrible, he says. Dinner was something like sausage rolls or curry.

“When I say curry, it’s like stewed vegetables with a bag of curry powder thrown in.”

The breakfast pack Doherty sang about is a plastic sachet of porridge oats delivered with dinner the night before. Inmates allowed a kettle make their own porridge or are delivered hot water to their cell in the morning. They’re allowed a small ration of instant coffee or two tea bags a day.

Pentonville has a library but because of chronic underfunding, good or recent books are scarce. And with staff shortages and lockdown, officers will not be able to escort prisoners to places like the library or gym, he says.

Inmates are allowed TVs in their cells but the channels are limited, he says. Pre-Covid inmates were allowed a visit once a week, reduced to once a month if they misbehaved.

The queues for the payphones were so long many inmates had to return to their cells before they got to the front. And there was no privacy, he says, just a queue of men behind listening in.

Overcrowding means single cells are scarce so inmates are sharing.

“You’re locked in with someone you’ve never met who might have personal issues of their own.”

“You spend a lot of time just bouncing around in your mind, locked up with your trauma. And if you have anger issues, you just get more and more angry.”

Coping with places like Pentonville depends on each inmate’s mental state. He’s seen “middle class” people cope well. “Others come to prison and melt into a puddle because they’re intimidated or depressed or whatever.”

There’s a class system of sorts within the prison. Those with money can buy toiletries and snacks like biscuits and canned tuna from the prison canteen.

He laughs at the memory of tough gang bosses and drug dealers stockpiling cans of tuna in their cell as a show of their “wealth”.

“It was really bizarre. Ostentatiousness will take any form, however meagre it may be.”

Now settled in South London, Cattermole has fond memories of living in New Zealand for three years from the age of 9 or 10. His mother, a healthcare worker, answered an ad “in the back of a magazine” and landed a job in Wairoa.

“I was the only white kid in the school.”

Later they moved in Ohakune and he remembers the spectacular eruption of Mt Ruapehu in 1995.

“I loved it there. I had an amazing time.”

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