Osvaldas Pagirys was born in Lithuania eighteen years ago. He died whilst in custody at Wandsworth Prison following his arrest for the theft of sweets and whilst awaiting deportation. He hanged himself in his cell, but was still alive when discovered by the prison service 37 minutes after the alarm had been raised. No, this is not a misprint.
Following a recent inquest, the blame game has begun. The prison officers on duty that fateful day did not see the alarm light flashing, nor did they hear the alarm bell ringing. Something about the three wise monkeys springs to mind, but wisdom on that day was in very short supply. The suggestion that they simply couldn’t give a monkey’s uncle springs easily to the lips. And it makes the lad’s slow strangulation all the more tragic when he was known to be a suicide risk.
Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister, offered his apologies and said: “the safety and welfare of people in our custody is my top priority.” So there’s a load off! If pigs could fly!
This sad and needless death is set against the background of a burgeoning prison population which is totally out of control, and which even the redoubtable Rory might struggle to manage.
The statistics are frightening. The prison population has doubled in 20 years, and this against a falling crime rate. When the Tories came into government back in 2010, it was described as a priority to reduce the prison population, which then stood at 80,000, and Michael ‘Oiky’ Gove was given that grave and weighty responsibility. For a brief moment it seemed as if he might do something positive, but the moment passed, as did he, to another department. Instead of reducing it, it now stands at 86,700, less one.
There are three fundamental issues that need to be addressed. The first is the requirement that judges must follow national sentencing guidelines and must ignore what they instinctively feel is the right sentence regardless of the circumstances. So I advocate the abolition of these guidelines and trust the judges to do the right thing. In so doing, I would remind them that since the abolition of capital punishment, imprisonment is now the sentence of last resort, regardless of its length. In this regard, I would abolish the right of the Attorney-General to refer ‘lenient’ sentences of imprisonment to the Court of Appeal, which in turn feels obliged to increase them.
The second is to remove imprisonment altogether from the myriad of petty offences, including the theft of sweets that brought Osvaldas into the prison system, and make much greater use of community penalties. I would rather have a convicted shoplifter picking up litter, some of which may have been dropped by him in the first place, than sit in an airless cell in Wandsworth Prison at a cost in the region of £40,000 a year to the taxpayer.
The third and most important is to place much greater importance on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment and containment. It is sad but true that 40% of prisoners reoffend. They will tell you this is because the cause of their offending is not addressed whilst in custody, they are not taught any new skills, and on release, there is no meaningful support.
It may not sit well with the hang ’em high brigade, but that’s a consequence I am prepared to live with. Let’s start behaving like civilised human beings, and this in my brave new world would be a fitting epitaph for Osvaldas, who would not have died in vain.