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Mike tells his inside story of the Dana

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

Mike Willmott is happy to talk about his life's education.

There was Haileybury, a posh public school, where the actor Simon MacCorkindale was a contemporary. And Cambridge University, that beacon of excellence. There followed a career in teaching.

And then HMP the Dana on remand, and Stafford prison. Where he learned a lot.

"Being in prison is a long catharsis. You find out who you are, live with yourself, and learn to befriend yourself," said Mike, who is 69 and from Shrewsbury.

"I have rebuilt my life."

He has created a one-man show about his experiences at Her Majesty's Pleasure which has been staged several times at the Wightman Theatre in the county town, and which resumes there in March.

Today he has a little editing and proof-reading business run from an office in Frankwell, through which he helps people get self-published.

His own book Deep Inside is a jumble of poetry, prose, and observation from his days inside.

How did he end up in jail?

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"I set fire to my own house in Bishop Street, Shrewsbury," says Mike.

"I was very distressed. I handed myself over to a fireman."

There was nobody in the house, and Mike points to a nexus of factors – drink, relationship problems, and bereavement – behind his action.

He was taken into the Dana, Shrewsbury jail, on remand in April 2005.

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"I was totally prepared for it, in one sense. I went to public school – Haileybury."

The first thing to happen was he became a number, although he doesn't remember his prison number now.

"It was Victorian, austere, noisy, with people shouting, both the officers and the convicts. Everyone smoked, including the officers. They had a funny little hut in the middle of the landings and they would smoke in there.

"I was not a smoker, but I did take to buying cheroots on a Friday night. You could spend up to £20. I would sit back on a Friday night and listen to Any Questions with a cigar.

"The cell was minimalist with a toilet you had to share with the other person. It was highly embarrassing and highly smelly and primitive.

"There was a television, there to keep you unrebellious. I don't possess a TV now, believe it or not, but in there I got to know all sorts of programmes and quizzes I had never known before.

"My cellmate was a Zimbabwean. He was not in there for any crime. They were trying to deport him back to Zimbabwe and he was objecting to it."

Mike, a divorced father of three and the son of a vicar, was in the Dana until July 2005 when he was sentenced to two and a half years after admitting arson.

He did his time at Stafford jail, serving 11 months in total, being released in the spring of 2006.

By and large he got on with other prisoners, but he said: "I saw naked bullying of the worst kind, by the officers against the inmates, and by the inmates against themselves. That was universal, both at Shrewsbury and Stafford."

On the other hand, there were various elements which were good.

"The food at both jails was absolutely beautiful.

"I spent my time walking around the yard for exercise – that's the one hour you are allowed into the fresh air.

"There was a very good education system.

"There was quite a good library at the Dana, and I got heaps and heaps of books and read them and made notes.

"I lost two stone and was much fitter when I came out. It cleared my head. It cleared up a lot of emotions."

Mike's teaching career had included Adams School at Wem, and Highfields School in Wolverhampton, but was curtailed by a breakdown.

Some might express surprise that he would be content to talk openly about his time in jail.

"It's a fair question. I wanted to let people know about the madness of the prison system. I feel a strong reforming urge. I wanted to tell and discuss with people what it was like on the inside."

The Dana closed in 2013, and these days stages public tours, although Mike has never been back.

While he is comfortable with those tours, as he feels they show the public what it was like, he is less comfortable with the themed experiences in the building.

"There's a danger of trivialising it and not really hearing the truth. That's why I wanted to do my show – Inside The Dana Prison."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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