THROW AWAY THE KEY

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.

THE CLANG OF THE PRISON GATE

As candidates for the top job in 2020 jostle for pole position, those who fancy a flutter would be unwise to write off Michael Gove.  He is known as ‘Oiky’ by Private Eye, but that aside, he is very much the dark horse in the race and should not be dismissed lightly.

He had a good run at the Department of Education until Cameron, ever the fair weather friend, dumped him in favour of somebody more emollient, I can’t remember who, but presumably transgender and black to cover as many bases as possible.

After the General Election, Oiky came back as the Justice Secretary, something about which he knew absolutely nothing, and an ignorance he shares with a number of judges, but he’s taken to it like a duck to water.  His latest initiative to reduce the prison population is to cut substantially the terms of imprisonment which prisoners would otherwise have to serve, thus tackling prison overcrowding at a stroke.  Whether his initiative gets past Middle England and sees the light of day, only time will tell, but he has my support.

Those of you old enough to know better will cast your minds back to 1965 when capital punishment was finally abolished, much to the disgust of the ‘Hang ’em High’ Brigade.  I mean, if you hang ’em high, they won’t do it again, and what does it matter if the occasional innocent man is hanged if it’s all for the greater good.  But with the abolition of capital punishment, imprisonment became the ultimate deterrent and the ultimate punishment, but was never used as such.  Deterrence never works, as it assumes that those contemplating committing a crime consider the consequences, which they don’t. That leaves punishment.  It is depressing but true that sentences of imprisonment are increasing significantly in both length and severity because successive Home Secretaries see this as a vote winner.  How depressing to play politics with people’s lives!  It’s a fact, acknowledged by Gove, that the real punishment of imprisonment is in the first two weeks, the so-called ‘clang of the prison gate’, when a condemned man’s humanity is stripped bare, when he is prodded and pushed and abused by the system which is at breaking point.  That’s the real deterrent, and any sentence beyond the short, sharp shock is an expensive waste of time.

Finally, the use of imprisonment as a sentencing tool also needs to be examined.  Three quarters of all serving prisoners are serving a sentence of two years or less, so why are they there in the first place?  Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to devise a more appropriate punishment within the community.

PRISON REFORM

Jack Straw’s latest perorations on crime and punishment fall well short of a reasoned argument, based as they are on the emotive knee jerk journalism of the tabloids.

I refer to his bald statement that prisons should not be holiday camps, they are there expressly to punish offenders, and too much time and effort is spent on them and not enough on the victims of crime.

His speech is set against the ever increasing prison population, about which more than enough has already been written, but his emphasis on punishment as opposed to rehabilitation is disappointing and short sighted.

No doubt there are researchers out there, and statisticians of every hue, who will tell us that the rate of reconviction of offenders released from prison is in the region of 60%. That is a staggering and hugely depressing statistic, and the cost to the public purse must be equally staggering.

I visit prisons on a regular basis in the course of my professional practice, and I have yet to find one single prison that can be equated with a holiday camp. The regime is restrictive, prisoners’ movements are tracked every minute of every day, there is a complete absence of a caring environment, and rather like the worst of state schools, the staff have a siege mentality, simply trying to get through the day without a major disruptive incident. It’s all about keeping the lid on a boiling cauldron.

Don’t get me wrong. There are an enormous number of dedicated staff, from prison officers to probation workers to course providers through to chaplains and counsellors, all doing a herculean task with little reward, but they too are fighting a system that doesn’t work.

For the most part, the prison population comes from the most disadvantaged sections of our society, those from broken and violent homes, with few if any educational qualifications, most are barely literate, with no employment prospects above the most basic, like wheeling supermarket trolleys across the car park, and with no sense of direction or purpose in life. So a period of enforced incarceration should provide the State with a golden opportunity to improve their lot and return them to Society as better men and women. Above all, to give them hope. The present system is simply setting them up to fall.

You achieve nothing if you dehumanise offenders from the moment they walk through the prison gates. A civilised society should aim to give them hope and fulfilment, with the deprivation of their liberty sufficient punishment for their crimes.

The whole question of crime and punishment should be revisited, to include the courts and the very debatable approach now adopted where the imposition of a custodial sentence is the sentence of first resort, not because the judges are in favour of it, but because the Government tells them.

By making the prison environment more user friendly, and more compassionate, you remove at a stroke the hostility simmering below the surface. If you treat prisoners as human beings, with needs and aspirations, they are more likely to behave like human beings. By filling their days with meaningful activities pitched at their intellectual level, and by offering them a real chance to improve their lot, they won’t come back.

So enough of this political posturing. Try a little kindness and compassion, and let the tabloids go hang!