MADHOUSE OF CARDS

AlexMost of us are now familiar with the shameless tactic of ‘playing the race card’, which is usually employed by those who’ve painted themselves into a corner and lack both the intelligence and the decency to formulate a coherent argument that will stand up and warrant examination. I suppose the first time the race card was played to great effect was during the trial of OJ Simpson back in the 90s, when an odds-on guilty verdict was masterfully reversed by Simpson’s legal team as they tapped into the ongoing racial tensions in the US and made the whole spectacle about race. It worked, and ever since then the race card has been produced routinely by some non-white public figures as a means of silencing any questioning of their actions as well offering a sense of security that prevents opposing points of view when making public statements. Just the other day a black actress in the Netflix bodice-ripper, ‘Bridgerton’, made a ludicrous claim in a magazine interview which came across as a desperate attempt to place the multicultural Regency fantasy of the series within an authentic historical context.

According to Adjoa Andoh (the actress), 50% of Nelson’s navy was African and 20,000 black people were living in the centre of London in the early 19th century. She states this as fact, yet offers no evidence of her claims. Most of us fortunate to have learnt our British history before it was warped by Woke revisionism know this is simply untrue, yet nobody would dare dispute the actress’s imaginative fallacy, for to do so would immediately result in one being labelled racist; therefore, she is free to spout such guff knowing she is immune to criticism or questioning. The increasing misuse and abuse of the word ‘racist’ outside of its correct context and using it as a casual insult to put the brakes on debate does nobody any favours other than perhaps actual racists. It serves to bracket any genuine racism alongside a ridiculous list of imaginary racist crimes, diminishing the effectiveness of the word in outing the real guilty parties and breeding cynicism towards the word itself and towards accusations of racism rooted in fact. When everything is racist, nothing is racist.

Having seen the deplorable playing of the race card and how successful it can enable some to get away with murder (well, it certainly did OJ Simpson), those unable to pull it out of the hat on account of being white have found another one they can play – the mental health card. Again, when the amoral use the phrase ‘mental health’ as an excuse they imagine will elicit sympathy and deflect closer scrutiny of whatever crime they have committed, they do so at the expense of those who are genuine sufferers of mental health conditions. It’s almost reached the stage when we anticipate ‘mental health’ being pushed forward as a get-out-of-jail card whenever anyone is exposed as a crook, and we begin to suspect everyone with mental health issues of being a charlatan, employing the phrase in the same way a drafted soldier in a time of war might pretend to be mad in order to be relocated from the frontline. However, none of this would be remotely effective without the support of the more disreputable members of the psychiatric profession, those Gods among men whose unimpeachable wisdom in the court of Law ranks even higher than the authority of the Judge.

In a recent and typically thought-provoking ‘Triggernometry’ interview, the former prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple summarily rubbished some of the oft-quoted ‘facts’ when it comes to the mental health of many currently being detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and exposed them for what they are. ‘You read…that seventy percent of prisoners have some sort of psychological problem,’ he said. ‘I believe that’s a whole load of hokum. That is an excuse for the failure to deal with the relatively few raving lunatics in prison, which the NHS is incapable of dealing with because it’s so incompetent.’ He cited the decimation of the state psychiatric hospital network as leaving no option but to put those with serious mental conditions behind bars, and if a stat claiming 70% of 80,000 people is to be believed, it’s no wonder the task of adequately caring for them seems an impossible one that nobody would expect any government capable of resolving.

Theodore Dalrymple also criticised the methods of diagnosing mental health in the context of it providing a reason for criminal behaviour. ‘Their whole process of diagnosis is so lax,’ he said of his fellow professionals; when confronted by further stats claiming a high proportion of convicted criminals have educational needs such as dyslexia and so on, he recalled his own experience of dealing with prisoners and said that ‘(most) were not deficient in intelligence; they could understand everything perfectly well.’ Playing the mental health card is the default position of many unscrupulous psychiatrists hired as experts by defence teams to secure a violent villain a cushier sentence than his crime otherwise warrants; and blaming mental health for a crime suggests it was the condition that committed the crime rather than the criminal; it implies he or she can be cured, thus winning far earlier parole than the recognition of an incurably evil nature ever would.

Deprived of the Ludovico Technique to guarantee a model citizen upon release, the role of the prison psychiatrist can be pivotal in swinging it, and the do-gooder naivety of many parole boards confronted by a well-behaved criminal with the psychiatric stamp of approval is testament to how mental health can be abused. Most are unaware of the way in which the mental health card is a useful tool for the canny crook to cut short his sentence because they’re not paying attention until the predictable headline when said wrong ‘un inevitably reoffends once released. The public figure playing it when caught out, however, we know of from the moment his or her illicit activities are revealed via Fleet Street. Only this week we’ve seen backbench Tory MP David Warburton react to being exposed as an alleged coke-snorting, serial sexual harasser by playing the mental health card, checking-in to a private psychiatric hospital, apparently suffering from ‘severe shock and stress’.

Warburton has had the Conservative whip withdrawn as an investigation into the allegations levelled against him is pending; misconduct complaints stem from three separate women and, according to the Sunday Times, these include two former aides. The fact that Warburton employed his wife in Parliament in a ‘human resources’ role didn’t exactly fill the complainants with confidence that their allegations would be investigated or taken seriously; Mrs Warburton is still able to work as her husband’s Communications Officer and Parliamentary Assistant, despite the change in the rules forbidding MPs elected from 2017 onwards to employ family members, because he himself was elected in 2015. As some of Mr Warburton’s colleagues blame his behaviour on a ‘mid-life crisis’, the MP is safely cocooned from the publicity at his mental health retreat and the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, the Parliamentary watchdog set up to deal with allegations of harassment, is looking into the story.

We’ve already witnessed how several athletes have recently been showered in nauseating praise for their ‘bravery’ at failing in their chosen field and then invariably playing the mental health card in the knowledge that failure attributed to mental health issues will be celebrated more than sporting success in some quarters. As with the other examples referenced, falling back on mental health as a catch-all term to excuse deficiencies that bear little relation to authentic mental health conditions that millions of people are genuinely afflicted by devalues the term; it also risks provoking scepticism whenever anyone suffers for real rather than cynically playing the card. Celebrities wearing mental health as a fashion accessory doesn’t help much either, but this is the society we find ourselves in, a society in which selective ring-fencing can neutralise a multitude of sins.

© The Editor

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INSIDE STORY

Another report, another series of warnings that will probably go unheeded because we’re dealing with society’s least desirable citizens – well, after those who spend their days lounging around Westminster; yes, we’re talking Her Majesty’s Prisons yet again. This time, the review into the average conditions of Britain’s penal institutions has been conducted by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, producing findings that would appear (in several cases) to contradict the rules of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. 200 years on from Elizabeth Fry’s landmark visit to Newgate Gaol, it seems prison conditions remain abysmal, relative to the conditions in which the rest of us live.

Out of those currently incarcerated (numbering 85,000), upwards of 21,000 have complained of living in an overcrowded environment; conditions in cells also comprise poor ventilation, a lack of heating in the winter months, damp and vermin. When you’re banged-up in a small enclosed space for 22 hours a day, the indignities of having to take a dump a few feet away from a cellmate is neither enjoyable for the person on the throne or the person hearing and smelling the process. The picture painted by this latest report isn’t exactly the holiday camp model regularly referenced in the likes of the Daily Mail.

According to the report, single cells just about meet the specifications outlined by the CPT, whereas multi-occupancy ones fail dismally. HMP Birmingham has even managed to squeeze as many as four to six inmates in cells that were probably designed to fit three at the very most. As the prison population continues to rise year-on-year, the prisons simply cannot cope. A severe shortage of prison staff isn’t helping either, meaning inmates are spending less of the recommended time out of their cells because there aren’t enough screws to keep an eye on them. To while the long hours away, many prisoners naturally turn to drugs whilst others turn to the Koran – radicalised in time for release.

The Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Peter Dawson, reacted to the revelations in the report by calling them ‘shameful’, whereas the President of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, said ‘The Government must be brave and reduce the prison population, and don’t worry about votes.’ Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, added ‘The aspirations of the prison reform programme will not be met if prisoners are confined in conditions that embitter and demoralise, leaving them unable to access rehabilitative activities and, all too often, turning to illicit drugs to break the boredom born of long periods locked in their cells’.

Punishment is pivotal, of course; I would’ve thought being there amounted to pretty severe punishment in itself; I certainly can’t imagine anything worse, but then I haven’t committed a crime serious enough to warrant being detained at Brenda’s pleasure – or at least not one that’s recognised as such, yet. An astronomical increase in the list of offences since the Blair era, the upsurge in terrorist activities, and the habit of the CPS in pursuing allegations stretching back decades have all undoubtedly contributed to the dire state of affairs. At the moment, the prison population is barely a thousand below what is regarded as the ‘useable operational capacity’.

But then there’s rehabilitation; quite important if we are to prevent reoffending and a return to the same cramped cell in the same overcrowded nick. The successful rehabilitation of criminals whose previously closed minds were expanded in the prison library wasn’t helped by the intervention of that dumbbell Chris Grayling when prisons were part of his remit, but education either of an academic or a practical nature is surely a crucial stage in the transformation of the con into a member of society with a purpose. ‘Purposeful activity’ is supposed to constitute at least 10 hours of out-of-cell time a day, though just 14% of inmates in the report claim to have received this, with 21% of them alleging their daily break from the cell amounts to little more than a couple of hours.

The Ministry of Justice has responded to the findings by declaring the Government is indulging in its favourite hobby of tossing money at a problem in the hope it will go away. ‘We are investing £1.3bn to modernise the prison estate,’ said a spokesman. ‘Our work in this area is supported by a drive to recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers, who will boost the frontline and help turn our prisons into places of reform’. Exacerbating the situation, however, today was also the day when the DPP Alison Saunders proudly trumpeted the fact that sex offence prosecutions are at a record high, with more sex offenders being prosecuted ‘than ever before’!

As well as half of the cases coming before courts in 2017 being sex crimes, they now also account for a fifth of the annual CPS caseload, and one wonders how many of them result in a sound conviction, let alone how many should have even ended up before a jury in the first place; according to Saunders, however, ‘Just because they’re cleared doesn’t mean it’s made up’. It’s also telling that cases of domestic abuse making it to court have dropped since the last stats were published, suggesting the majority of the success stories Ms Saunders is so eager to take credit for are either in the ‘stranger danger’ category or are ‘historical’; and the CPS loves to time travel. Perhaps the least surprising revelation is that there hasn’t been a single prosecution for Female Genital Mutilation during the past year, regardless of NHS England claiming 5,000 new cases over the last twelve months. Ah, those funny foreigners and their funny ways.

© The Editor

A BED FOR LIFE

One of the many memorable individual stories in the superb 1990s BBC drama ‘Our Friends in the North’ was the decline and fall of the character Geordie Peacock, played by Daniel Craig. The son of a mentally ill and violent father, Geordie flees his native Newcastle and eventually tastes the good life as the right-hand man of a Soho porn baron played by Malcolm McDowell; as with the other characters in the series, we follow Geordie’s trials and tribulations from the 60s to the 90s, but Geordie’s journey is an especially traumatic one as he gradually slides into alcoholism and begins to exhibit traits inherited from his father. After a spell living on the streets, Geordie sets fire to his bed in a homeless shelter and receives a seemingly disproportionate life sentence for his moment of madness.

I only reference what is one of my favourite British TV dramas of all time due to the fact that news broke today of a man whose sentence for a virtually identical act of arson is poised to be curtailed. Like the fictitious Geordie Peacock, 32-year-old James Ward from Nottinghamshire has suffered from mental health issues, though when he set fire to his bed it was in a prison cell. He was behind bars serving a 22-month sentence in 2006 for Actual Bodily Harm following a fight with his father; on the eve of release, he set the mattress in his prison cell alight and was then resentenced under the now-scrapped Imprisonment for Public Protection scheme. The additional sentence was for a minimum of 10 months. Only 11 years later is Ward finally about to be released.

Imprisonment for Public Protection – IPP for short – was one of the last of the draconian Blair Government’s endlessly damaging additions to the Law; introduced in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, it came into effect in 2005 as a means of keeping prisoners inside whose crimes weren’t serious enough to warrant a life sentence but who were regarded as too dangerous to be let loose on society. Indeterminate sentences were nothing new, of course; successive Home Secretaries made it clear the likes of Brady, Hindley and Sutcliffe would never see life outside of gaol again, ensuring parole wouldn’t be a possibility for any of them. While few would dispute the logic of that, beyond a straightforward life sentence there were no provisions for those earmarked as a risk to the public without having committed a crime to justify this opinion. IPP was supposed to be the answer.

However, as early as 2007, the Queen’s Bench division of the High Court concluded that prisoners serving indeterminate sentences under IPP were victims of an unlawful system, particularly where prisons lacked the adequate facilities to accurately assess an IPP prisoner’s suitability for release; the temptation to simply keep the prisoner incarcerated was both adding to prison overcrowding and denying freedom to those who had served far more time than their minimum sentence specified. The findings of a 2010 report into IPP declared it to be unsustainable and it was discontinued in 2012, just seven years after it began to be implemented.

‘The IPP continues to cast a long shadow over our justice system,’ said Mark Day, the head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust, in response to the news of James Ward’s case. ‘Despite recent welcome efforts by the Parole Board and prison service to speed up the release of the remaining IPP prison population, without legislative action there will still be thousands of people caught in indefinite detention by 2020. The onus is now on the Government to put into action the sensible recommendations made by the Parole Board and other senior policymakers and finally put an end to this unfair and unjust sentence.’

Ward brought attention to this shady corner of the criminal justice system himself when he contacted Radio 4’s Today programme last year. ‘Prison is not fit to accommodate people like me with mental health problems,’ he wrote. ‘It’s made me worse. How can I change in a place like this? I wake up every morning scared of what the day may hold.’ Ward’s sister has campaigned for his release for years. ‘James is not a risk to the public,’ she says. ‘He’s only ever been a risk to himself, and with the right support we can get him there. I hope the IPP prisoners who are way over their tariff can now also be released. I don’t like to think about what would have happened if they’d decided against letting James out. He had given up.’

At the same time, 3,300 men and women remain in gaol on IPP sentences; as was the case with the Joint Enterprise law until a series of campaigns highlighted its injustices, Imprisonment for Public Protection is one of those aspects of law and order in this country that most are largely ignorant of. We tend to assume the punishment fits the crime, yet who really knows how fairly IPP was applied during the years when it was an option? Do we have enough faith in those making such life-changing decisions to do the right thing, or have the numerous exposés of corruption and ineptitude to have seeped out in recent years bred suspicion that those in a position to make these decisions simply cannot be trusted?

Public bodies that exert immense power over people’s lives – whether the police, social services or the prison system – essentially have carte-blanche to use the tools at their disposal, often free from independent scrutiny; and in the case of James Ward, it would certainly seem some form of mental health care would have been a far more fitting solution to his evident problems. But his story is just one of thousands waiting to be told.

© The Editor

OUT OF SIGHT

Anyone who has seen either the original 1977 BBC version of Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ or its even more graphic cinematic interpretation from a couple of years later will certainly be aware of just how brutal a system the old Borstal could be. Yes, the film was a work of fiction, though few doubt it was a pretty accurate dramatisation of conditions in such institutions at the time the initial play was penned by Roy Minton. With the first ‘Play for Today’ incarnation deemed too violent to be transmitted, director Clarke took the same route as Dennis Potter when his own ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ had been banned from BBC screens a year earlier: he restaged it as a movie. By the time it was released the Borstal system was more or less defunct, replaced by detention and youth custody centres. The name Borstal continued to linger as colloquial shorthand for such locations, however.

Since the Criminal Justice Act 1982, the ‘short, sharp shock’ eye-for-an-eye approach to punishing young offenders not yet old enough for proper prison has had to compete with demands for a more humane attitude based around constructive rehabilitation and an increasing awareness of the social environments that have bred criminality. It’s something of a conundrum, balancing the need to punish and make residents aware they’ve done wrong, without resorting to the excessively harsh disciplinary regime of the old Borstal model. If the system tips too far in one direction, exaggerated comparisons of Young Offenders Institutions with luxury hotels are regularly aired in right-wing tabloids as an example that whichever party happens to be running the country is too ‘soft’ on crime.

What does society do with children who don’t adhere to the rules and regulations dictated by that society or simply don’t fit into it? Those who end up being sent to a Young Offenders Institution as a last resort are presupposed to have reached an age where they can distinguish between right and wrong; those suffering from severe mental disabilities are similarly exiled from the frontline of day-to-day living, placed in care units that are both intended to attend to their special needs and to spare society from their uninhibited behaviour. The latter children are deemed to be blameless; they know not what they do. The former were traditionally regarded as wicked, not even able to boast the excuse of lunacy; therefore, they had to have the badness drilled out of them by Borstal.

A greater acknowledgement of the conditions that give rise to criminality amongst the young – social depravation as well as abuse of a physical, sexual, and psychological nature – have permeated thinking when it comes to what to do with such children in the last few decades. Attempting to break the cycle of offending before it becomes a habit is a tough task if the children released back into society then return to the same environments that bred them; moreover, the importance of not modelling the establishments on gaols – and therefore them not merely being ‘prep-school prisons’ – means it’s a difficult path to traverse. There is also the fact that some of the children have committed extremely serious crimes and are unarguably a danger to both the children around them and to the outside world.

Today the High Court ruled that a 16-year-old inmate of Feltham Young Offenders Institution in south-west London had his human rights breached by being kept in solitary confinement for upwards of 22 hours a day. Denied interaction with other residents and the access to education to which he is legally entitled, the boy – who apparently suffers from serious mental health problems – was detained at Feltham last December and is due for release this month; the cause of his detainment has not been revealed. In response to the ruling, the Ministry of Justice has declared that ‘proportionate and justified segregation’ is necessary in some extreme cases, though Feltham itself has been previously criticised for its treatment of residents; HM Inspectorate of Prisons recently claimed 40% of boys were locked in their cells throughout the school day whilst 30% had only a couple of hours a day in which they were let out of them.

Unless one is an ex-inmate, only those who have either family members (or the family members of friends) encased in such institutions can have any inside knowledge of the way in which they operate. They remain something of a secret society within society. If a Young Offenders Institution or a care unit containing mentally-handicapped children is to receive a prearranged visit from inspectors, the elements that cause concern for parents are discreetly swept under the carpet for the duration. It’s not too dissimilar to when my mother was a school dinner-lady; she once told me when inspectors were due the headmaster would ensure the most troublesome pupils were given a day-off in order not to give the inspectors the impression the school was a hotbed of antisocial anarchy. Had the inspectors simply turned up without warning, the airbrushed impression of the school they received would have been replaced by a far truer picture of the establishment.

Having a friend whose mentally-handicapped child is resident in a care unit, I’ve received several stories of the realities of such an institution, ones that rarely (if ever) leak out to the wider world and ones that certainly don’t fit the image anyone without an emotional investment in them might have of how they function. Avoidable accidents are commonplace, usually due to members of staff whose excess pounds prevent them from being as nimble on their feet as they should be when looking after children with an abundance of energy. When food budgets are often spent on meals the said members of staff can enjoy at the expense of the more problematic residents, who may not be willing (or able) to consume them, one has to question who is actually benefitting from the vast amounts of money diverted into these institutions.

Some of the stories that have emerged from the likes of Feltham bear an uncomfortable resemblance to scenes from ‘Scum’, whereas some of the stories I’ve been told of those institutions reserved for the mentally-handicapped often recall the equally nightmarish fictional portrayal of the old asylums in another disturbing play from the turn of the 80s, ‘Walter’. This whole subject is one of the most challenging society has to deal with, and one cannot but sometimes come away from it concluding that society isn’t dealing with it very well at all.

© The Editor

KORAN ABOUT THE HOUSE

I’ve never been in a mosque, but I’ve never been in a synagogue either. Although I was raised in a secular household, I am familiar with one branch of the House of God on account of having to attend endless childhood weddings and christenings; these were churches of the austere Protestant variety, however, rather than the camp Catholic model. I’ve no idea if the ambience is as chilly and, frankly, boring in the showrooms of other denominations, but with all my C-of-E education coming via the dullest lessons at school, I think my agnostic outlook was sealed from an early age. Drawing a picture of Pinky and Perky at the Crucifixion in the infants was probably a telling indication that I recognised a fairy tale when I heard one.

On last night’s edition of ‘Question Time’, a member of the audience brandished a leaflet he swore blind he’d been handed at an open day at Didsbury Mosque, at which the father of Salman Ramadan Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was once a regular. What he read from the leaflet sounded like classic Radical Islamic propaganda, denouncing western immorality in a language that implied such immorality was deserving of severe punishment. A veteran of the same mosque sitting a few rows down denied he could have received such literature at Didsbury, but the man was adamant.

The general impression given is that there does seem to be something of an ‘It weren’t me, guv; I weren’t even there’ culture prevailing through many of the mosques that have harboured the hate preachers and fundamentalist shit-stirrers in the UK over recent years. Either nobody saw or heard anything or their eyes turned blind through choice; however, not knowing the interior structure of mosques, I’ve no idea if the guilty parties retreat into special recruitment rooms. But the climate of fear when it comes to informing in many Muslim communities seems almost reminiscent of Sicily or even Belfast during the Troubles; events in Rotherham and Rochdale appear to back up this Mafia-like control the worst offenders have over the populace and why the police steer clear.

Then again, it has emerged that Salman Ramadan Abedi’s extremist views and support for ISIS had aroused enough suspicion within his own community that he had been reported to an anti-terrorism hotline, something I imagine would put those who reported him at considerable risk should they be identified. As a result of these calls, Abedi was known to the security services; but police manpower being deployed to keep an eye on potential Jihadists would severely stretch the police manpower required for historic fishing parties into the sex lives of dead celebrities and politicians, so it’s no wonder the likes of Salman Ramadan Abedi could further his ambitions free from surveillance. Many police officers may have been laid off in the wake of Government cuts to the country’s forces, but deciding the priorities for those that remain is something the police themselves have to answer for.

The internet has also resurfaced in the blame game this week. Online outlets such as Facebook and Twitter certainly operate on curious moral grounds. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine had her FB account suspended after posting a photo of herself holding a Supertramp LP over her chest; the sleeve of said album featured nothing but a pair of tits on it. Similarly, the entertaining Twitter ‘Whores of Yore’ account initially had a profile pic which was a portrait of Nell Gwyn showing a nipple; the painting hangs in the National Gallery for all age-groups to see, but was evidently too outrageous for cyberspace, and the offending nipple had to be removed for the account to continue. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter don’t appear to have similar problems with inflammatory language or violent videos promoting opinions that somewhat contradict the Utopian New Age worldview shared by Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow visionaries.

So, yes, mosques and websites have been under the spotlight yet again this week, though few have mentioned HM prisons, which seem to be the real recruitment centres when it comes to home-grown terrorists. The escalating convictions for those planning terrorist attacks since 7/7 means many prisons have a far higher Muslim population today than has been the case in the past, and the brutally alienating regime behind bars means birds of a feather naturally flock together.

A young Muslim prisoner who may be serving a sentence that has no Radical Islamic element to it is befriended by another Muslim prisoner who recommends one way to stay safe from the psychos, the druggies and those who take a shine to a pretty face is to spend his time exclusively with other Muslim prisoners. Segregation and indoctrination ensue, and said prisoner is released with a head pumped full of Paradise and those oh-so alluring virgins.

Armed police and even bloody soldiers – both of whom have had their numbers severely depleted by the same Government that now requires their services to enhance ‘Project Fear’ for the public – are currently highly visible on the streets of Britain; but they’re guarding the stable door when the proverbial horse has already bolted. No wannabe Jihadist would contemplate an ‘incident’ when there’s such a show of force; better to strike when nobody is looking. No matter how heavy an armed presence Bobby and Tommy present this weekend, the only strike I expect to see at Wembley tomorrow will emanate from the foot of Diego Costa.

© The Editor

THOROUGHLY MODERN MINI

mini-2At one time, TV documentaries opened viewers’ eyes to previously-hidden worlds rather than simply reflecting their own prejudices about a particular social demographic back at them. A good example was the award-winning ‘Gale is Dead’ in 1970, which shone an unflattering light on the grim underground subculture of heroin addiction and the tragic demise of an unloved teenage graduate of the children’s home conveyor belt that succumbed to it. Five years later, another programme in a similarly sympathetic vein profiled an eleven-year-old boy from County Durham who was being held at a secure unit for disturbed children on account of him being a prepubescent pyromaniac. Anyone who witnessed the TV debut of Michael ‘Mini’ Cooper would have been instantly aware that here was a remarkably intelligent, sharp, and charismatic young individual that society didn’t know what to do with.

Mini emanated from a working-class background with a God-fearing Irish mother and an archetypal Northern English father who disciplined his children in the way he himself had been disciplined – the parents of Larkin’s ‘This be the Verse’ writ large. His rebellious instincts asserted themselves at an early age, traversing a familiar path of shoplifting and playing truant before settling on the unusual outlet of starting fires; one such fire took place in Mini’s own home which, unbeknownst to him at the time, was occupied by his father. This resulted in him being taken out of a normal school environment and placed in the kind of institution that was a dumping ground for children who kicked against the pricks without knowing why.

Franc Roddam, the director of the 1975 documentary (who later progressed to the likes of ‘Quadrophenia’), had the kind of access to closed-door institutions that would be unimaginable now; he was able to film inside the secure unit Mini was being held at and record the rehabilitation process of the time as it was practiced not just on the programme’s ‘star’, but also the other inmates, whose faces aren’t pixilated. We see the chillingly cold panel that decided Mini’s fate and condemned him to an adolescence under the strictest supervision, keeping him away from the society they regard him as a danger to; and we see the way in which the psychiatric profession used children like Mini as guinea pigs for the latest experimental techniques, without any real care and consideration for how little they would prepare him for release back into the community as an adult.

I first became aware of Mini a decade after his initial television exposure, when the memorable BBC2 documentary strand ‘Forty Minutes’ broadcasted a follow-up film to the 1975 original; in it, we caught up with Mini ten years on, viewing his eleven-year-old self on camera for the first time and struggling to deal with the real world after a lengthy spell being utterly institutionalised by the facsimile society of the care system.

He was making a lonely living as a Butlin’s-style entertainer, performing a magician’s act before bored holiday-makers and trying his best to cope with an environment that the system hadn’t prepared him for. The programme ended on an uncertain note, with the viewer left hoping that Mini would manage to forge a future for himself that would see him finally bury his demons.

We might like to imagine we’ve moved on in the forty-plus years since Mini’s TV debut; but data relating to the children in this country currently being detained whilst another Star Chamber – or ‘Youth Offending Team’ – decides what to do with them suggests not a lot has been learnt in the intervening half-century. There are 10 secure children’s homes in the UK, some of which have held the likes of Mary Bell and the James Bulger killers, Robert Thompson and John Venables. The real problems seem to arise when the children reach 15 and are then eligible to be transferred to a Young Offender Institution. The statistics speak for themselves. Under the old-school Borstal system in the 1930s, the average re-offending rate was around 30%, whereas the modern equivalent is closer to 75%. It doesn’t sound as though its successor is working.

As with the early Nick Broomfield production, ‘Juvenile Liaison Officer’ (made the same year, but deemed too controversial to transmit at the time), the access granted to the director of the original documentary on Mini Cooper – perhaps in an aim to highlight the ‘progressive’ nature of the reformed post-Borstal system – wouldn’t be the same today. Fear of litigation born of this country’s compensation culture and an increasing inclination to cloak so many of our invisible institutions in a veil of secrecy under the guise of security means fewer of us are actually aware of what goes on behind those doors than we were forty years ago.

But these developments imply they have something to hide. The public sector homes don’t wish to expose their management’s inflexible adherence to a rulebook they stick to with fastidious arrogance, regardless of how much damage it might do to those in their care; and the private sector’s natural sense of competition means they don’t want their competitors to take notes when they get it wrong. How can either attitude fill the parents of children in care, let alone society at large, with confidence in the system?

When filmed at eleven, Mini Cooper wasn’t to know he’d eventually be released back into a society he wouldn’t be an active member for years; at that age, each week seems to span a month, and his upset at being informed of the committee’s decision to keep him under lock and key is heartbreaking. His struggles to survive in that society ever since his release hardly suggest the system prepared him for it. He clearly had potential for greatness; that much is evident on-screen. But the fact that society had no defined role for him to slot into, no available means of harnessing his intelligence, is a damning indictment of that society; locking him up until he came of age was a short-term solution leading to a long-term problem.

Thankfully, for Mini Cooper at least, he finally found his niche in life by turning to writing, chronicling his eventful life in the book, ‘Mini and Me’; anyone who has followed his fortunes via the series of follow-up documentaries to the original has been rooting for him all the way, and there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing him succeed at last. But how many Minis didn’t? How many secure unit survivors have been in and out of prison during the same time frame, nabbed as kids and never breaking the cycle, offered nothing more by the system than being another minimum wage drone because rehabilitation as it stands makes the mistake of trying to turn such kids into everything they rebelled against in the first place?

© The Editor

WITHIN THESE WALLS

orangeConsidering 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…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0850blp