Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Horror .. the Horror ...

I enjoy Johann Hari's work. But he doesn't half write some nagombi on occasions. Ok - strap in and hang on for a trip on "The suicidal 14 year-old who exposes the moral bankruptcy of Blair's prisons policy".

We start with the a mention of 15 year old Philip Knight, who killed himself in Swandea Jail '14 years and 1,006 prison suicides ago'. Apparently tackling prison suicides was 'top priority' for then Home Secretary David Waddington.


"And now? The Tory policy of jamming ever more prisoners into already packed jails has been brought to a climax by David Blunkett. Tonight, there will be twice the number of prisoners there were when Philip Knight last took breath. Our prisons have received almost no extra cash. Politicians have been warned repeatedly that overpopulated prisons cannot deal adequately with depressed, despairing inmates."

Leaving aside the infelicity of that first sentence (no - don't go there ...), Johann has a point. I'm not sure it's a point he wanted to make though. This government have maintained the sentencing policies of the Howard regime, which proved successful in reducing crime post-1994, but blinked when it came to the neccessary business of building more places. As I wrote last year

"The prison population has risen continually since Michael Howard's reforms first started to reduce some crimes ... At some stage it was obvious that either the trend would have to be reversed, or new prisons would have to be built. Both Straw and Blunkett have sat hypnotised as the prison population rose, and have refused to sanction the major building program which was neccessary. They are left with no option but to try to send fewer people to jail."

Back to Johann.

"Both the Tories and Labour have ignored these facts and continued a populist prescription of jail, jail, jail. (Michael Howard yesterday called for even more people to be jailed, attacking the Government for stopping at 80,000.) "

I do love these democrats who hate populism. I have a democratic mandate. You are a populist. When will the Johanns of this world understand that the number of people imprisoned should be a function of the crime level. That, and that alone, should determine the number of prison places available. Having said that, it is obviously wrong to pile people into overcrowded prisons. So build more !

"As a direct result of this policy, six women have to be cut down from their home-made nooses by prison officers in Holloway every night." And all six are totally fed up with it.

"David Blunkett is right, however, about one thing. It is not enough merely to condemn this. Critics of the Government's policy of over-crowded, suicide-infested jails need to offer a serious alternative."

You got it. Build more prisons. Single cells where desired. Don't put young people in with adults (or, if the suicide rate at Feltham is anything to go by, with each other).

Uh-oh. That's not what he means.

"In the reactionary soil of Blunkett's law and order policy, there are the fragile seeds of an authentically progressive alternative."

Johan is still a very young man - 24 ? 25 ? Let this cynical old fogey tell him that I've been reading about such alternatives in the Guardian since 1971. The play scheme doing such a good job - and just about to lose its funding. The dance workshop/car repair centre/theatre company/community arts group/co-counselling project/encounter group/you name it - always about to revolutionise aftercare/turn the bad boys onto art/revitalise the estate - and always underfunded. And then never heard of again. Change David Blunkett to Keith Joseph and that sentence would fit into a 1970s Melanie Phillips piece.

What's the recipe today, Johann ?

"One third of prisoners in Britain are released to "No Fixed Abode" (NFA); in some jails it is as high as 70 per cent ... NFA is virtually a revolving door straight back to prison.

Staring into this black hole is a key factor in the suicide rate in our jails, and in the decision of 60 per cent of the surviving prisoners to reoffend within two years of their release."

I see. One third of prisoners don't have homes to go to on release - so two thirds of them continue to commit crime.

Perhaps those who do have a place commit crime in solidarity with those that don't ?

"(Ex-prison officer Gary) Thurgood is keen to link these new homes with developing the work ethic in prisoners who have often grown up in families where nobody has ever had a job. Liverpool has the largest amount of vacant housing stock in Britain, so Thurgood approached the local council to see if prisoners training in bricklaying, plastering and construction could work on derelict or run-down housing stock and then move into the houses themselves on release.

The project has already begun; prisoners will move into their first homes later in the year. Thanks to the culture of hope this fosters, the suicide rate is falling.

I see. Give the prisoners building skills and their own houses to do up. It could just work, after a fashion. Imagine a whole area redeveloped by the ex-prisoners. Not many bags of cement or paving slabs would go missing from in front of those houses. Whether the same could be said of the private development a mile away remains to be seen.

Street crime might be low, too, in the immediate area. Where every house contains a conviction for ABH it may be that unruly youth would congregate elsewhere.

There are all kinds of possibilities, good and not so good, in an entire community of ex-offenders. But they're all unproven ones. "So why isn't this approach being rolled out to every prison in the country?" Because, Pollyanna, it costs a lot and we don't know if or how it'll work.

Britain has a choice. We can have a smart, sleek prison system on the 21st-century Liverpool model that seriously rehabilitates (at most) 40,000 prisoners. This would cut crime and heal the lives of some of the most abused and brutalised people in our society.

A sentence like that last one makes me sick. How about the people who are abused and brutalised but DON'T commit crime ? Or the people who have been abused and brutalised by the guys banged up in Walton ? You're spitting in their faces.

Theere is one sense in which many criminals are victims - they are far more likely to come from what used to be called 'broken homes' or never to have had two parents. I look forward to Johann's next piece raging against divorce, cohabitation and promiscuity and in support of marriage - must have missed the others.

Or we can have the 19th-century status quo: 80,000 prisoners warehoused like battery chickens, where prison officers barely have time to cut down prisoners as they twitch on a rope. To go for the second option is suicidal not just for prisoners but for every one of us. We are all more likely to be mugged, burgled or raped when unrehabilitated and uneducated prisoners return to our streets.

That first sentence is just risible. And the second again shows that Johann has a point - again not one he'd recognise. It's true that prison - that punishment - alone is not enough. What is necessary is the cultural drive to condemn crime and criminals the way we can condemn smokers and racists. The two things - attidudes to criminals and their punishment - react on and reinforce (or weaken) each other.

Take Saudi Arabia, where murder is punished by beheading and robbery by amputation. Were we to introduce such punishments to the UK, crime would fall, but not to anywhere near Saudi levels. The existence of such draconian punishment is a reflection of a culture that has no time for thieves and murderers. It's the culture that makes the crime rate low - the punishment reflects and reinforces the culture.

Our culture reflects a world where thieves and murderers are always at worst victims of circumstance ('the most brutalised and abused ...'), at best some sort of hero.

As long as the Howard League can always get a slot on Today, pro-criminal charities outnumber pro-victim ones by 20 to 1, and people pay columnists to write 'don't be nasty to criminals - you'll only make them worse', crime will continue to run at historically high levels.

A few last things. Victims of crime commit suicide too.

According to Home Office figures (p22), approximately 40 suicides a year are of the chief suspects in homicide cases. Assuming half of these are on remand in custody, that's 280 people - more than a quarter of your 1,006 suicides. You can also add the suicides of convicted murderers. Mourn Fred West and Harold Shipman if you like - I'll pass on that one.

Finally - for information on prison suicides, why not consult someone who gets closer to them than most - a prison doctor ?

UPDATE - Dan of Jackalope Pursuivant has the complete answer to overcrowded jails. As he says, why build when you can put up a tent ?

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