There is rarely a day that goes by without there being some story in the press about prisoners or prisons. When we do, we often hear them described as ‘thugs’, ‘beasts’ and ‘monsters’ (among other things). There is a large (and sadly influential) section of the population who view prisoners as second-class citizens, as things which are not worthy of being considered as or respected as human beings. We see it clearly, first they are de-humanised and then it becomes possible to justify all sorts of abuses and ill-treatment upon them. Indeed, we can see certain sections of the population advocating treating prisoners in ways that we wouldn’t be allowed to treat animals. However, prisoners are people. Yes they are people who have done bad things, but they are people nonetheless.
As a group they are identified by what they have done wrong, and the fact that they are in prison. They’re considered as a homogenous group of people; something which they are not. Within the prison population you have some of the most vulnerable and broken people in society. You have people with multiple mental health problems, people who have suffered the most horrendous abuse as children (and often as adults too), you have people who were neglected by the adults who were supposed to have looked after them while they were children and I could go on. Of course, none of these reasons is an excuse for what they have done; though, it can offer an explanation as to why they offended in the way that they did. As well as those who are vulnerable and broken, there are people who have simply made bad choices in their lives or been caught up in situations that got out of hand (it’s not just “bad people” who end up in prison; anyone can, in the right circumstances, find themselves on the wrong side of the law). We’re not dealing with a homogenous group of people; we’re dealing with a wide variety of people who all have one thing in common: they’re in prison.
It is a legitimate aim of society to want to be safe, and to be free from crime. It is also a legitimate aim of society to punish those who offend against the community. The mess that can be left behind after a crime has been committed can be huge; and it will often be the community that’s been impacted who are left to pick up the pieces. However, punishment alone is not enough. We need to look at radical ways of dealing with crime if we are going to see the changes in society that we want to see. Simply warehousing people in prisons for set periods of time isn’t going to bring about the changes that we want to see.
When it comes to prison we seem to be confused, as a society, about what it is for. We are all agreed one of the justifications for prison is as a form of punishment. However, is prison itself the punishment or is prison a place that we send people to be punished. There is a subtle difference in wording, but in practice this makes a massive difference to how prisons are operated. We frequently hear the line that prisons are like holiday camps being trotted out (which, when you actually think of it is an absolutely ridiculous saying; prison is about as far from Butlins or Centre Parcs as you can get). We see regular calls for prisons to be unpleasant places (they already are) where harsh regimes are the order of the day. In England and Wales that view seems to be winning out as the prison regime is being continually made more harsh and more unpleasant by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP. Those who favour such policies say that if we make prison a harsh and unpleasant place then people won’t want to go back and thus when they’re released they won’t commit another crime. It’s utter nonsense and has little or no scientific backing to it whatsoever. In any event, in my experience, people who leave prison in the UK today genuinely don’t want to go back when they walk out the gates. The problem is though they often walk out of the prison gates into homelessness, unemployment and back into the chaotic lifestyles that they lived before they went to prison.
Let me tell you the story of Jimmy (not his real name). Jimmy was released from prison; while he was in prison he lost the home that he had been living in before he went into prison. However, a place for him to stay had been arranged. Due to failures in the prison system, he was released later than expected. It was a Friday afternoon. By the time he made it to the housing association the person who had the key for his flat had gone home and wouldn’t be back in until Monday morning. He was simply told to come back on Monday morning. He went to the Council to present as homeless and to try and get emergency accommodation. He was told that there we no places to give to him. Faced with spending the weekend sleeping rough, Jimmy committed a minor crime knowing that he would be held in the police station until court on Monday. So, he put a brick through the window of a shop and waited until the police turned up. He was duly arrested and held in police custody over the weekend.
This is the type of thing that happens time and time again. People undergoing methadone treatment for heroin addictions are released with a doctor’s appointment three days away; of course in that time there is nothing treating the cravings and they end up feeding their habit with heroin, which puts them back into the revolving prison gates. People are released from prison unemployed and often have to wait weeks to get any form of benefits payment, by which time they’re back in prison having either stolen to try and feed themselves or simply committed a crime to get back into prison where they know they’ll be fed. These situations are not uncommon either, they happen all the time. It’s particularly bad for people released from prison on a Friday because all of the services that they can turn to close for the weekend. Foodbanks, for example, often require you to have been referred to them from organisations like Social Work, the Job Centre, Citizens Advice etc. All services that either close down for the weekend, or are so overstretched that they can’t assist everyone that needs it.
As a society we need to begin to change our attitudes because as it currently stands we set up people coming out of prison to fail. We’re not willing them to give them a chance; we’re happy to discriminate against them in terms of employment opportunities and wonder why they commit further crime or label them layabouts because they remain on benefits long-term. We’ll let our prejudice and discrimination get in the way of policies known to work and to cut re-offending because they don’t give us the retribution that we consider to be just. The system is broken and its brokenness is creating fresh victims and costing us as a society dearly emotionally, physically and financially. The first thing that we need to do is recognise that people who have offended, regardless of how heinous their crime, are human beings. Only then will we be able to have sensible discussions about justice and penology; only then can we ensure that we have a justice system that ensures the public are protected long-term by transforming the lives of those who have caused harm to their communities.