A multitude of casualties

February 4, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Posted in Prison Reform | 2 Comments

It could be a scene from any town or city in the country. In 2002, Amrit Bhandari was walking through the centre of Chester when two women asked him for money. He refused, but the beggars persisted and one threatened to accuse the 72-year-old of rape if he didn’t hand something over. They never assaulted him, but Mr Bhandari was so panicked by the harassment that he suffered a heart attack. Rather than try to help the man they had literally frightened to death, the girls took his briefcase and wallet, and fled.

One of the girls sentenced for the manslaughter of Amrit Bhandri was Sarah Campbell. Sarah’s short life was one filled with horrors few of us can imagine; sexually abused throughout her childhood and raped at 15, she became clinically depressed, sought escape through drugs and, by the age of 16, was enslaved by an addiction to heroin. Just one day into her three year sentence, Sarah swallowed a lethal quantity of prescription drugs. She was eighteen years old.

Insistent that her daughter’s death could – should – have been prevented, Sarah’s mother Pauline became one of the country’s most tireless crusaders for prison reform. Each time another young girl killed herself in custody, Pauline could be found outside the prison gates protesting the failure of care and often getting arrested for her trouble. But the energy she put into her cause couldn’t fill the void left by Sarah’s death; last year, she was found dead at her daughter’s graveside. The coroner returned a verdict of suicide.

The reason I recount these stories is because one of the most enduring lies told about those of us who urge reform of the prison system is that we’re soft on criminals and ignorant of the victims. On the contrary, there’s no doubt that Sarah Campbell and her accomplice should’ve been punished for their crime, either with incarceration or drug treatment. But what the ‘lock ’em up’ brigade too easily ignores is the way our prison system creates its own victims, hardens criminals and only extends the cycle of misery which leads many to prison in the first place.

This week, the Prison Reform Trust announced that thousands of inmates who should be receiving specialised mental health or social care are instead being ‘diverted’ into prisons which can’t provide the help they need. In the report, the trust claims that because of a chronically overstretched system, many courts are dumping the mentally ill in prisons, and that only one in six of these provides support that could be classed as ‘adequate’ or better. They cite cases where the self-harming, suicidal or severely handicapped are kept in segregation because prison bosses simply don’t know what to do with them, and note a lack of co-ordination between the various agencies involved.

On top of this, last week the Chief Inspector of Prisons issued her own severe warning over the state of our jails. In her annual report, Dame Owers spoke of growing concerns about overcrowding, prisoner health, problems with drug & alcohol abuse and inadequate provision of those training & support services which are essential for rehabilitation. Lastly, she warned that this recession will only make things worse for prisoners’ employment & resettlement prospects, which will greatly increase the likelihood of reoffending. If our prisons are exhibiting signs of systemic failure now, just think what they’ll be like when unemployment passes three million, and when muggings, thefts & burglaries start to increase. At some point the dam is going to burst.

Prison should always be a place for punishment, but because the vast majority of offenders are one day released, it also needs to be a place where we can ensure that they’ll never come back. By most objective measurements, our prison system is failing to meet that standard, and until the government can construct a policy out of something more than a lust for incarceration, there’ll be more Amrit Bhandaris, more Sarah Campbells and more Pauline Campbells in the months and years to come.


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  1. […] some of you might remember, a few months ago I wrote a post on prison policy which mentioned the short, troubled life and eventual suicide of Sarah Campbell. What I neglected […]

  2. […] A Multitude Of Casualties […]

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