Before we wave goodbye to Mick Jagger, now Sir Mick Jagger, bastion of the establishment, how the worm turns, I was struck by his reaction to a night in Brixton Prison: “It was not particularly nice. Not to be recommended.” An understatement if ever there was.
For as many years as I can remember since I was called to the Bar in 1974, we had a number of stock phrases when mitigating on behalf of our client, one of which was the clang of the prison gate and not the length of the sentence that was the ultimate deterrent, and so it was for Mick Jagger as it is for so many who are carted off and locked away.
It is one of the phenomena of the past twenty five years that successive governments have used imprisonment as the first, not the last resort, and sentences have got longer and longer In case Jeremy Corbyn is tempted to point the finger at the Tories, some of the most draconian laws on crime and punishment were passed in 2003 by a Labour government when Tony Blair was in power and still in short trousers.
Despite vacuous statements about reducing the prison population, it hasn’t happened and will never happen unless we have a complete rethink. In Mick’s case, he was sentenced as a first offender to 3 months imprisonment for the possession of four amphetamine tablets. Whilst the judge could have been working to a political agenda, it was excessive and immediately overturned on appeal.
The statistics are frightening. The prison population is higher than ever, and 40% are re offenders. So much for the concept of rehabilitation. Almost all prisons are dangerously overcrowded, and the crimes being committed behind bars are worse than the crimes that brought the inmates there in the first place. The frightening mentality of the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ brigade is depressingly familiar in Little Britain.
Another frightening statistic is that nearly 80% of prisoners are serving a sentence of 12 months or less. They shouldn’t be inside in the first place, but judges have lost the power to be original and inventive, and must do everything by the book. If that’s the case, time to throw away the book.
As I drive along motorways, or more to the point, crawl along motorways, I am astonished and depressed in equal measure by the amount of litter along the roadside. So why not use those convicted of petty crime to pick it up? Far better than sitting in a cramped cell for hours on end doing nothing.
They say that a society should be judged by the way it treats its most disadvantaged citizens. If that is so, we have a lot to learn.