Getting out of jail

April 25, 2008 at 10:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Prison Reform, Working Class Britain | 3 Comments
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Photo by Flickr user vinduhl (Creative Commons)

The reason I’m writing about ‘Cushygate‘ in two separate posts is that whilst there’s always fun to be had at the expense of the right’s overheated hysteria, our criminal justice system seems so broken, so socially-destructive and so utterly unfit for purpose that we need all the serious words we can muster. But if seriousness was the intention of Glyn Travis as he took to the airwaves on Talk Sport & Radio 4’s Today programme, he failed miserably, merely succeeding in adding fuel to the right’s fire about the Prison Scum who suck on the soft teat of the taxpayer.

Since he made no direct reference to the dozens of more desperate ailments afflicting the prison service, what you’ll find at the core of Travis’ argument is a non-too-subtle demand for more staff, greater resources and higher wages. These are all demands I have sympathy for, which makes it so frustrating that he insists the main problem is those unemployed, undereducated, mentally ill and addiction-addled inmates in its care somehow have it too easy – as if any of them have ever had anything easy.

Had he encountered better-prepared interviewers, they might have asked him whether the recent damages awarded to inmates who suffered beatings and racial discrimination at the hands of his fellow prison officers was an example of the ‘cushy’ life they enjoyed. They might have asked whether last year’s 22,000 cases of self-harm was just because inmates were upset they couldn’t get Pay-per-View boxing on Sky. They might have asked why, if his workplace is such a Centre Parks that inmates never wish to leave, was the 2006 suicide rate 33 times higher than the rest of the country, and if the 92 people who killed themselves last year on his members’ watch only did so because they didn’t like the croissants that came with their breakfast in bed. Finally, they might have asked Glyn Travis why he thought it best to ignore these serious problems in favour of playing the Prison Scum card to an eager media. Sadly, we probably know the answer to the last question; it’s in his members’ interests.

So where do we go from here and how do we hope to grapple with the problems caused by decades of ‘get tough’ governing that’s seen the prison population rise to record levels? I’m sure there are countless approaches we can take, not all of them easy nor without their flaws, but we must surely get past the idea that simply locking offenders away is an effective long-term crime prevention strategy. As I wrote earlier this month:

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.

Sure, stepping-up our efforts to rehabilitate offenders is a fairly standard liberal policy, but these words by criminologist & former prison governor David Wilson got me thinking about a way we could achieve that:

Prison has become the functioning alternative to the welfare state and, as such, the only institution in this country where, as a matter of right, you can get almost immediate access to a doctor, a dentist, a drugs counsellor, a teacher, advice about homelessness, help in applying for jobs, and where these rights are enforceable by the courts.


Quite simply, there are never going to be enough prison officers to control a jail through sheer weight of numbers, and every jail therefore runs with the consent of those who are being locked up. If prisoners withdraw that consent to be governed – as they did during the lead-up to the riots at HMP Strangeways – then our prison system comes to a grinding, crashing, juddering halt.

The tension apparent in this relationship between prisoner and prison officer – the inmate whose well-being is dependent on the care they receive and the prison officer whose job depends on the co-operation and good behaviour of the inmate – certainly indicates that prison could be a place where productive rehabilitation can be achieved.

If you’ve committed crimes against others then you’ve infringed upon the values of peace and freedom that exist amongst all liberal democracies, and if a court rules the crime to be serious enough to revoke your own freedom, you should serve the sentence given to you. But whilst you have a duty to yourself to make sure you never offend again, the state has a similar duty to those citizens who pay it money to enforce & uphold the law to make sure you never offend again.

To that end, yes, we need more prisons – lots more – but they should also be a fraction of the size of those we currently pay for. And if we had smaller prisons and more prison guards per inmate then maybe we’d reduce the amount of drug smuggling, stop a few suicides and attempts at self-harm. Then, who knows, perhaps if we staffed these smaller, more secure prisons with as many drug therapists, psychiatrists, fitness trainers and educators as there are security guards, there’d be an opportunity for those inside (who, let’s face it, are a bit of a captive audience) to overcome some of the root causes of them being banged-up in the first place.

That couldn’t be the end of the matter, of course; you’d still need to revamp the probation service to ensure that those being released could find both accommodation (for homeless inmates are far more likely to reoffend when released) and an occupation and none of this is an adequate substitute for investing in safer communities, better public housing and education in those areas that most need it.

As I said earlier, no approach is perfect, but there are alternatives to this country’s current Judge Dredd approach to crime that – if framed in the right way – could be sold to the waverers from the ‘hang ’em & flog ’em’ approach as being in the whole country’s self-interest.

Nobody goes to prison for a cushy life, but a lot of people end up in prison believing crime is the only way to get there. Prison might be able to provide proof to the contrary, but only if we work for it.

Photo by Flickr user vinduhl (Creative Commons)


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