Prison & its discontents

April 1, 2008 at 8:44 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 1 Comment
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At The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan stand-in Patrick weighs-in on Ezra Klein’s important article on rape in American prisons:

Convention dictates that no politician can afford to take on prisoners as a constituency. Politically prisoners are high risk and offer low returns. Release one inmate who relapses and a politician is immediately branded as soft on crime. The votes an elected official loses for implementing sensible prison reform aren’t offset by the votes of prisoners or ex-felons since those groups are often denied the right to vote. There are good reasons for prison reform, some of which Ezra discusses, but rarely are the political obstacles to this reform openly acknowledged. Those most affected by the dysfunctional prison system are largely unable to exert the political pressure necessary to fix it. Prison rape is allowed to go on partially because of the passive acceptance Ezra notes and partially because of the political disenfranchisement of the abused.

I think much of this is also applicable to the situation in Britain, where we lock up more of our citizens than anywhere in the EU. When former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy stood up in support of giving prisoners the right to vote (we’re currently in the unflattering company of eight European countries – including such stable liberal democracies as Hungary, Estonia & Armenia – that deny all prisoners this right), he was howled out of hustings by a right-wing press unable to portray inmates as anything other than bloodthirsty psychopaths who, if released, would make it their mission to inflict misery on your nearest & dearest. But the fact remains that without a right to vote, prisoners have no say in the system that governs them.

But who gives fuck, right? my right-wing devil whispers to me, these people lost the right to be citizens like you and I the moment they committed crime. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s also true that the way we treat our prisoners has a definite impact on how they behave when they are released. As much as some of us might wish to lock all criminals up for life, the reality is that only the most violent, most dangerous offenders stay incarcerated for that long, and they are a tiny minority of the prison population. Like it or not, the rest of them will one day be released. And if they’ve been released without help finding accomodation or a new job, without help with whatever mental illnesses they may harbour, whatever drug or behavioural problems they may be battling, whatever skills or education they lack to find employment, they are much more likely to offend again. And if they offend again, that means they’re a threat to the law-abiding members of our society. This is why a prison policy based on Rambo posturing and tabloid pleasing will never be tough on the causes of crime. This is why a liberal, reformist approach to the prison service is the only option left for a system that’s running out of ideas. And, if you’re running out of ideas about why we should change our prison policy, this is the politically expedient answer you should give: preventing prisoners from going back to a life of crime is in the interests of the middle classes.

After all, these days, that’s the only consideration, right?

Photo: Stangeways Prison in Manchester, taken by Flickr user dullhunk (Creative Commons)


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  1. […] It’s not rocket science. If you have a small prison with a high staff-to-inmate ratio, if you fill that prison with educators, psychologists, drug therapists and skills councillors to tackle the problems they entered prison with, if you make their time inside so constuctive that they’re better-equipped to become law-abiding citizens, then there’s a good chance that less of them will reoffend. Don’t just take my word for it either; why not try listening to the experiences of ex-prisoners themselves – people who have a fairly decent idea of what it’s like inside and of what might be needed to make these places more conducive to rehabillitation. Oh, and whilst we’re at it, give them the fucking right to vote. […]

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