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Date: 05/03/11

Locked Up

I promised that I'd follow up on my post of 19/02/11 with my general opinions on penal policy. I'm sorry if I seem obsessed with the subject at the moment (for reasons which I've already given), but I might as well put that obsession to the use of enlightment and entertainment while I have it.

This piece is it, but it's going to be a lot shorter than the one I'd originally intended to post (*) for reasons which I will give later.

One of the key measurements of how civilised a society is is the way in which it deals with those who break that society's rules - or rather the rules which are set down for that society by its ruling groups. We are a society which has decided - sometimes to the disgust of the more vocal elements within - that those who break the rules laid down for lawful behaviour do not have their hands or heads cut off, do not get strapped to a medical trolley and slowly, calculatingly poisoned to death, and do not (except in the most extreme cases, which are very few indeed in number) have removed from them all hope of redemption. Not for us the pre-mediaeval barbarism of Shari'a as practised across the Muslim world today, nor the mechanised, pseudo-sanitised American Way Of Putting To Death.

We have instead decided, by dint of that sort of historical consensus and compromise which has spared us from the worst spasms of extremism and fundamentalism, that the most severe punishment we may inflict on a fellow human being is to to remove him (**) from general society and place him in a secure location. To do so is both a practical act - to protect the public from the possibility of further law-breaking by that individual - and a symbolic one - a clear demonstration that that individual's presence in what we flatter ourselves to call 'normal' society cannot be tolerated until his behaviour matches the minimum standards we have the right to expect.

And yet, for all this adherence to humanitarian values, it is no more possible to have an intelligent rational debate on penal policy in the UK than it is in the US. Because generations of screeching hacks who know that you can never go wrong, sales-wise, by manufacturing outrage on behalf of The Great Public, aided and abetted by desperate, grandstanding politicians who prefer to follow the opinion of said Public rather than try to lead it, have created an atmosphere of vicious hysteria surrounding the issues of crime and punishment.

So it is that - however measured, however carefully based on available facts and research, however tactfully couched - any critique of the way we operate our criminal justice system which dares to suggest that the underlying ideology of "lock 'em all up and cut their goolies off!" is not only ethically dubious but has been unsuccessful by any objective measure, is met by a hail of froth-lipped vituperation about 'namby-pamby do-gooders' (or, if you're in the US, 'bleeding-heart liberals) (***).

(Yes, I freely admit that if I - or anyone else who matters to me - were to be the victim of a criminal act, I would want to don my 1970s-vintage Doc Martens and kick the culprit's arse all the way from here to Samarkand; but that is why we have a system of Justice rather than just of Law; Justice is (if the term is to mean anything at all) Law tempered by consideration, compassion and humanity).

The counter-claims seldom adduce much in the way of facts or serious research, relying instead on decibels and emotive language for its effect. So it is that any statement to the effect that we are far too ready in this country to lock people up for far too long for far too many minor offences will invariably be met by such cries as, "You wouldn't be saying that if your nine-year-old daughter had been gang-raped by forty-seven Muslim illegal immigrants before having her corpse put through a mincing machine!" (****), or just by the chanting of media clichés such as, "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime!", which constitutes the criminological equivalent of "Four legs good, two legs bad!". Saying something loudly and frequently doesn't make it any more true.

This is the mindset which has led to the prevalent, the dominant, the only socially acceptable position on the subject being that imprisonment should be not only the first resort of punishment, but that it is incarceration and incarceration alone which can be termed a punishment at all. And so we have the standard, saloon-bar/tabloid-bore comments about anything else being "a slap on the wrist" or a "soft option".

And even imprisonment in itself is not deemed enough punishment in the mind of the demos. Being removed from society is not sufficient for these people; there must also be the total removal of privacy, of dignity, of humanity its very self from those in prison. We therefore get all the Daily Hate-isms along the lines of, "They shouldn't be able to watch telly in prison! They should be chained to the wall for twenty-four hours a day and made to shit their pants in front of everyone!", and the old favourite, "Prisons are just like holiday camps!" (never, in my experience, uttered by anyone who's ever spent time in one, and evidence in my view only of the possibility that the utterer of that particular hand-me-down has, in the past, booked some bloody weird holidays).

(I do wonder, by the way, what sort of quirks lurk in the minds of people who seem to take such an all-encompassing delight in the thought of other people being humiliated and dehumanised; especially if it involves whips and shackles. There's a potentially fruitful area for psychological study there, I feel)

It is scarcely to be wondered at, therefore, that any argument which is based on observable facts - that imprisoning increasing numbers of people for ever-longer periods of time for ever more petty reasons, and then making those people's lives as difficult as possible once they have completed their mandated punishment so as to make rehabilitation near impossible for many has not, does not and will not work in the long-term interests of society - will struggle to gain any traction when trying to move through the sludge of prejudice and vindictiveness in the comprehension of people whose image of what prison life is like seems to have been gained entirely from watching re-runs of Porridge.

And yet, that argument must be made, because it is bloodily clear that the underlying presumptions of penal policy over the past thirty years or more have been a grotesque and deeply damaging failure for all of us. Every reptilian oozing about how "prison works", every 'crackdown', every barmy idea about 'zero tolerance' or 'three strikes' imported from the United States (now installed as the biggest penal colony in human history), where those ideas have not worked either, or have been misused to create the maximum outrage against humane values; none of them can hide the fact that an increasingly extreme and vindictive system does not and cannot ever deliver the sort of society which we claim we wish to see.

The only viable underlying principle of a system of Justice (as opposed to a system merely of Law) is the same as the one which should underpin all of that society's interactions; namely, "Do as you would be done by". We can none of us be sure - unless we are sequestered by our own choice in a cloister, and perhaps not even then - that we will never fall foul of the laws which surround us and bind us, and our best protection is to ensure that even those who incur our disapproval by their actions are protected by the same safeguards as we would hope to be protected by ourselves. Robert Bolt, in his play A Man For All Seasons has Thomas More reprove his ambitious underling in words which sum this up perfectly:

ROPER: So now you'd give the devil the benefit of law?

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?

ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

MORE: Oh, and when the last law was down, and the devil turned on you, where would you hide, Roper, all the laws being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, man's laws not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think that you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Yes, I'd give the devil the benefit of the law, for my own safety's sake.

When we put someone in prison, we subject him to the most severe penalty we can impose; we disconnect him from everything which is familiar to him, everything which may give him solace or comfort, everything and everyone which may give some meaning to his life. We bring him face-to-face with the stark reality of loss, of his transgression and the realisation of the unaccaptability of his conduct. This can have a ruinous effect on him, leaving him with little in the way of hope or - to use a word which may seem strange coming from a non-religious viewpoint - redemption. Even if it doesn't do that, it usually leaves the offender no better disposed to a law-abiding, productive life afterwards than he was to begin with.

It therefore behoves us to take such a step only after the most intense consideration and with all due conscience and humility; for who is to say that we won't be on the other end of that mechanism some day, and hope for proper consideration, measuredness and compassion to be shown to us?

And yet the knee-jerking continues. It must be apparent from any rational and humane view of the matter that our society has overdosed on imprisonment, especially for juvenile offenders, where the damage done will tend to have consequences far deeper and more far-reaching than it would for adult offenders.

Perhaps there are some signs that even those in charge of our currently unbalanced system may be getting the message, however. The Ministry of Justice (which sounds like some sort of Goth disco, but isn't) has published a Green Paper entitled Breaking The Cycle, which gives the thinking of the current Government on what needs to be done with the criminal justice system.

Bearing in mind the ideological complexion of the current régime, the Paper is - on the whole - a pleasant surprise. Although it contains some of the posturing rhetoric I've been complaining about, and although it does see a greater involvement for the profiteering sector in the system, its emphasis upon the need to avoid putting people in prison when there may be more effective (and, in the long term more economical) ways of dealing with them is quite heartening. It bears many of the hallmarks of the current Secretary of State at that Department, Kenneth Clarke, who in his time as Home Secretary nearly twenty years ago did seem to be one of the more intelligent and reasonable men to hold that office in recent times.

The consultation period ended yesterday, so I'm afraid that it's too late for you to add your 2p-worth if you haven't already. I did manage to put together a response (which also included my little bit for the campaign to secure justice for Edward Woollard), and sent it off to the Ministry on Friday. You can find it here.

(*) I lied.

(**) By 'him', I mean individuals of all sexes throughout.

(***) And what does it say about our respective societies that the words 'do-gooders' and 'liberals' are nowadays terms of abuse?

(****) Thus encapsulating all those themes dear to the heart of the Great Unthinking - lickle kiddies, violent sex, xenophobia, torture and junk food. (*****)

(*****) I must find a better way of doing footnotes than this.