Considering the law of averages, I would imagine that most reading this (like me) have known at least one person to have been detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, though I’ve mercifully evaded the honour myself; and let’s face it, few issues spark such incandescent fury as the subject of prison conditions. On one side, there is the ‘short, sharp shock’ mindset that will routinely declare with mortification – ‘They have television sets in their cells!’ – something that strikes me as an empty argument; imagine being stuck in a cell for the first half of the day and having nothing to do but watch ‘Jeremy Kyle’, ‘Loose Women’ and ‘Cash in the Attic’; that sounds a pretty severe punishment regime to me. The other side is more about humane treatment and actual rehabilitation so that reoffending is minimised; but this, of course, stinks of lily-livered liberalism a long way from ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.
The Minister of the Interior in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ who utilises the technological brutality of Ludovico’s Technique as a fast-track means of rehabilitation, rides a wave of electoral populism that ignores the loss of free will in the process; though penned in the early 60s, Anthony Burgess’s novel anticipates a desperate government solution to rising crime that rings truer now it did at the time of its writing, let alone Kubrick’s movie adaptation of the book a decade later. Reducing the prison population whilst simultaneously satisfying the public clamour for lowering the crime rates makes the likelihood of a similar system to that devised by Burgess an ever-present possibility, though it hasn’t happened yet.
A pause for statistics, I think. Okay – the UK prison population is around 86,000; less than 4,000 are women, as men are 22 times as likely to be imprisoned as women. In 2009 it was said 8,500 former servicemen were behind bars – 10% of the prison population; prisoners over the age of 60 rose a staggering 130% between 2002 and 2013 – four out of ten of more than 4,000 over-60s in UK gaols have been imprisoned for historic sex offences, now the fastest growing age group in the prison estate; only a couple of days ago, a 101-year-old man (Ralph Clarke) was sentenced for historic sex offences, lest we forget.
14 prisons have closed their doors for good in the last 20 years, yet David Cameron’s solution whilst cutting prison staff by almost a third as PM was to propose reviving the antiquated tradition of ‘prison ships’, those decommissioned hulks that figured highly in nineteenth century literature’s landscape, perhaps most famously with the character of Magwitch in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’; what should have been more of a concern to Cameron’s law & order policy was the fact that during the first four years of the Coalition, there was a 29% drop in the numbers of prison staff.
At the same time as the above statistics were collated, 239 men and women died in prison, a 6% increase from the year before and 29% higher than five years before that; in the four years from 2010 to 2014 there was also a 28% increase in assaults on prison staff, whilst just this year the prison population shot up by more than a thousand between September and November; the increasing use of indeterminate sentences and long determinable sentences have served to double the prison population in the last 20 years.
Statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice a couple of years ago reported the average week in an average prison constitutes 70 assaults on staff, four to five prisoner deaths (of which one or two are suicides), and 500 self-harm incidents – and these statistics are restricted to prisons in England and Wales alone. That hackneyed old phrase ‘powder keg’ has never seemed more relevant, and events in HMP Birmingham over the last 48 hours seem to back this up.
Toss in claustrophobic confinement, contraband legal highs, and the increasing sectarian tensions resulting from the upsurge in sentences relating to Islamic terrorist offences, and you have a soufflé of simmering discontent with a system on its last legs that inevitably leads to riot. It happened 26 years ago at Strangeways and it would seem little has changed in the intervening two and-a-half decades other than a continuing conversation between public and politicians to equate punishment with a pseudo-medieval notion of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.
The institutionalisation effects of prison life on recently-released inmates – the sudden removal from day-to-day life of a rigid routine that is easy to submit to whilst simultaneously yearning for liberation from it – and the failure of the parole system to steer them away from returning to the environment that put them behind bars to begin with, is a conundrum of crime and punishment that has yet to be resolved. Neither hardline prison reform nor concerted attempts to elevate the imprisoned above the level of cattle has produced the desired effect. But it’s not just those coming out; those going in are also part of the problem – largely because there are too many of them. The endless number of laws added to the statue book from the Blair era onwards, not to mention the twin tabloid scourges of home-grown Jihadists and pensionable Paedos, has served to cram this country’s gaols to breaking point.
What happened in Birmingham, as what happened at HMP Ashwell in Rutland seven years ago (albeit without accompanying hysterical publicity), is something that shouldn’t be seen as an isolated incident or an aberration; in many respects, it’s a miracle it doesn’t occur more often – though I’ve a strong suspicion it will become a greater recurrence over the next few years. Sure, we’ve had the expected strong words from the Justice Secretary, but at least the Minister for the Interior who selected Alex de Large for special treatment had a crowd-pleasing solution up his sleeve; all Liz Truss has to fall back on is archaic Victorian Values rhetoric that promises to crack down on the unruly rabble who should be grateful to be spared the retribution of the hangman. And that won’t make our streets any safer for Us than it will for Them once we’re all sharing them again.
© The Editor
PS Allow me an indulgence – here’s a link to my appearance on Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ on 17.12.16…