THE CLANG OF THE PRISON GATES

Another depressing set of statistics has emerged from HM Prison Service, telling us that the prison population in the UK has now reached record numbers, and no further places are available, even if you book early to avoid disappointment. Worse still, cells are now being routinely used in police stations and courts, and they too are full to bursting.

The cost to you, the taxpayer, is staggering. It costs between £25,000 – £36,000 per annum to house an average prisoner, and the cost goes higher with the category. There are now 81,681 prisoners, so you do the maths. Police and court cells don’t come cheap. It costs £420 a night in a police cell, and £300 a night in a court cell. To put that into context, a “Truly Madly Deeply” night at Claridges costs £455, and a “Timeless” weekend starts from £259, so if things go from bad to worse for the newly created Ministry of Justice, which they will, there are rooms available, even as I write.

And what does the government propose to tackle this problem? Build more prisons, which is not the solution! The problem of overcrowding will persist whilst the government approaches crime and punishment from a purely knee jerk reaction based on “catching the public mood.” That is no way to legislate, even in the short term.

The unpalatable truth is that we are sending far too many offenders to prison, full stop! We need to raise the custody threshold, not lower it all the time. And above all, we need to give back to the judges the power and the right to pass appropriate sentences, and not shackle them with flow charts and sentencing guidelines. It’s a complete shambles! What’s more, it’s uncivilised!

What is needed, first and foremost, is a properly funded, fully staffed and proactive probation service to supervise and rehabilitate offenders within the community. But if imprisonment or detention is essential, custodial sentences should be much shorter. Anybody who has been to prison, especially for the first time, will tell you that the first seven days are the worst. After that, they become dehumanised and desensitised, and simply “go with the flow.” The short, sharp shock, also known as “the clang of the prison gates,” is a far more effective deterrent than long and indeterminate sentences.

One final thought – there has been a lively debate recently on the evils of battery chicken farming, where these unfortunate birds are crammed together in small cages, and deprived of exercise and any quality of life, so I ask, where are all those so-called Human Rights lawyers taking the government to court for inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners crammed together in small cages, three or more at a time, designed for a single occupant, where they are deprived of proper exercise and any quality of life? Surely these human battery chickens are as deserving a case for immediate redress as their feathered counterparts?

SHARON’S LAW

I greatly enjoyed Rowan Atkinson in the Blackadder series on television, and his Mr. Bean character, rather like the Curate’s egg, was good in parts, but speaking of curates, whatever possessed him to take on the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury? And why the beard? As my late father used to say: “Never trust a man in a beard, he’s got something to hide.” And what’s with the name? I mean, how many self respecting parents would name their infant son after a tree?

The problem with the Archbishop as a comedy role is that he’s getting laughs in all the wrong places, and that’s the kiss of death to all comedians. And talking of the kiss of death, and as a committed Anglican, I look to the Archbishop as a conduit between me and the Almighty, but I have this uneasy feeling that when I get to the pearly gates and mention his name, The Almighty will be totally mystified. And let’s face it, if the Almighty is mystified, what hope for us lesser mortals? Oh dear, I wonder if that’s blasphemous? And if so, will I be led to a place of execution and stoned to death? All very worrying.

It’s been going from bad to worse, this comedy routine, and it will end in tears. It was last Christmas, talk about bad timing, when the venerable Rowan told those of us who were listening that parts of the Nativity story were a figment of the imagination, and in particular, there were no three kings or wise men. Happily, my informant told me to log on to YouTube where I found a sternly worded rebuke from the direct descendent of King Melchior, so that’s put the record straight!

But there’s worse to come. News has reached me from the Royal Courts of Justice that Rowan now enjoins us to embrace Sharon’s Law, and somehow assimilate it into the law of the land. So I ask, in a spirit of enquiry, who’s this Sharon? I knew a Sharon once in my callow youth, and she was certainly a law unto herself, but that’s another story!

I’m confused. As St. Paul wrote: “For now I see through a glass, darkly.” Well frankly, he’s not alone. So I say, let’s leave Sharon to her own devices, Rowan should go back to reprising his best loved comedy roles, and leave the Great Debate to those better qualified to lead us to the Promised Land.

WE’VE LOST THE PLOT

I had one ear cocked towards the Today programme on the radio the other morning, as I do, and I listened with dismay to PC. Jones telling John Humphries about the procedures he has to follow if he stops some snot gobbling youth in the street late at night.

It made for depressing listening, as PC. Jones went through the forms he has to fill in there and then, and if he takes ‘executive action’, more forms to fill in when he gets back to the Station. According to the Daily Mail, and let’s face it, if it’s in the Daily Mail, it must be right, police officers spend a total of six million man hours each year filling in forms.

The other day, I watched a police video of a client of mine being booked in following his arrest for drink driving. Now I grant you he was less than co-operative, nothing, I hasten to add, to do with alcohol consumption, or so he told me in conference, he was just tired and naturally irritable, but the booking in procedure, with Sergeant Plod at the helm, was painful to behold. Plod tapped each key on his computer as if it were about to self-destruct. It’s enough to make strong men weep. The whole shambles took about fifteen minutes, time and enough, if my client had indeed been drinking, which he hadn’t, to sober up and pass the alcometer test with flying colours.

It’s the same with Traffic Wardens. You return to your car barely two minutes after you’ve parked for a quick dash to the bank, or whatever, only to find some sour faced petty functionary writing a short novel, all the while licking his pencil and sucking his teeth. And everything’s in triplicate.

We’ve lost the plot. I blame the Human Rights Act. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of basic human rights, they are the glue that binds together a civilised society, whether they’re enshrined in statute or evolve from plain old fashioned common sense and fair play.

So when it comes to plain old fashioned common sense, if PC. Jones simply clipped the youth around the ear and frog marched him back home, giving his mum a bit of plain old fashioned advice about parental responsibility at the same time, I’d be the first on my feet, cheering loudly. But that’s not going to happen. The snot gobbling youth, aided and abetted by his outraged mum, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Victim Support, will sue the Police Federation for breach of his human rights, and he’d almost certainly win. And then, with a nice wedge in compensation, he’d be back out on the streets in no time, more alcohol, more anti-social behaviour, and untouchable.

And what sort of message does this send out to his snot gobbling chums, and more to the point, to law abiding citizens such as our esteemed Home Secretary, scared witless, who are unlucky or foolish enough to be out on the streets at the same time? Avoid eye contact, cross to the other side, don’t provoke them, let them shout and scream, hurry home and lock the door.

How did we get it so wrong?