Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blogito Ergo Sum

Yesterday's big news story was the announcement that Britain's prisons are full up. 81,000 prisoners are currently residing at Her Majesty's pleasure and there are no cells left. To create space some prisoners are being released early, which has prompted a hysterical outburst in the tabloids. If you believe the Daily Mail, an army of rapists, paedophiles and murderers are banging at the gates, waiting to resume their outrages. The reality is that minor offenders are leaving prison a couple of weeks earlier, but that makes a dull headline.

I don't think anyone is happy with this situation. Whilst justice has always been subject to expedience as much, if not more, than any concept of moral law, the public expect the punishment to fit the crime and early release should be subject to good behaviour, not overcrowding. However, if there are no places for new prisoners the whole justice system will grind to a halt. What is the answer?

Building new prisons should be the last resort. I would prefer to see a concerted effort to deal with the causes of crime, but that is a long-term solution and will do nothing to deal with the current problem.

In the short-term, it would make sense to deport prisoners who are foreign nationals to prisons in their own countries (except anyone whose safety might be endangered). Over 10,000 prisoners - 13% of the total prison population - are foreigners without residency in the UK and cost the tax payer approximately £400,000,000.

In the mid-term, something must be done to address the appalling scandal of the way we treat people with serious mental illnesses. In the past, people who were unable to function in society were detained in what used to be called asylums. I remember visiting someone in a mental hospital when I was in my teens (just before Margaret Thatcher decided to introduce the disastrous 'care in the community' policy which closed many residential psychiatric hospitals and saw the number of beggars on the streets rise dramatically). I was quite apprehensive about going there and when I saw a man in a dressing gown walk towards me saying 'And they spoke to me in heavenly voices' I almost turned and fled. But I stayed and discovered a peaceful sanctuary with beautiful gardens that provided a refuge from the chaos of 'real' life. An asylum in the true sense of the word.

A significant number of people in prison should be in a secure mental unit, not a prison. As one prisoner officer said to me, 'I went into this service to look after prisoners, not become a psychiatric nurse' and I remember him pointing in two directions, saying that one prison wing was for the mad, the other for the bad. You might argue that all I'm proposing is a different form of imprisonment, but I think it's important to differentiate between offenders who are responsible for their actions and those who suffer from a mental illness and need help.

As for the long-term solution - dealing with the causes of crime - I know that there are no easy answers. However there are a number of widely-accepted causal factors: a high number of teenage pregnancies, a lack of male role models, poor housing, inadequate special needs provision, drugs, endemic unemployment and poor education.

In America it has been shown that cutting social security benefits has reduced teenage pregnancies, but is that a morally acceptable course of action? Should we penalise people who are already having a pretty crappy life? Other studies have proved that the easiest way to reduce the birth rate amongst the poorest parts of society is through providing women with more educational opportunities. Not sex education, but real learning that empowers women and makes them feel that they have choices in life.

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