Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I grew up a five-minute walk from the world’s finest cathedral – and Myra Hindley. Whenever a helicopter hovered at night, my brother told me that she had escaped from HMP Durham. Aside from those moments, however, I gave little thought to her, or the other thousand prisoners living in its seven concrete-clad Victorian wings.
This surely isn’t unusual. Convicted criminals are an oft-forgotten subset, housed outside of their communities – physically, through incarceration, or psychologically, owing to a lack of societal awareness. How often do you notice someone wearing an electronic leg tag, or breaking boulders by the side of the motorway, like Elvis in Jailhouse Rock?
Occasional helicopter moments (or glances at The Sun) remind us of the UK’s 86,000 prisoners: the withholding of their books and votes, perhaps, or the threats of riots and terror cells. Yet, unsurprisingly, we remain most vocal about the issues of which we are most conscious; since few prisoners have regular internet access, and 47 per cent have no single qualification, the voice of life inside can be relatively quiet. Many organisations fight against this – not least the 1300 charities currently working in Britain’s prisons – but inmates still represent a shady minority of lost society.
This oversight seems particularly wrong, considering the ways in which successive governments have failed them. The think tank Bright Blue held an impressive party conference event on penal reform; its conclusion was that this was urgently needed. It’s difficult to find anyone who disagrees.
Prison does well in popular culture: TV shows and trendy websites focus on exciting extremes. It’s easy to learn about the cocaine-fuelled, self-run prison ‘village’ at La Paz, Norway’s modern take on prison architecture and lifestyle, the booking fees and charges in American jails, or the crocodiles surrounding those in Indonesia. And there is extensive coverage of the rise of fundamentalism and hard-core violence in British jails: ‘In any single week, there are four or five deaths, 300 assaults and 70 assaults on prison officers, of which nine are serious.’
But reality for the majority of prisoners must be much more banal. How can we find out about them – those people hidden away, down the road? Even the quickest of googlings unearths riveting blogs. Mostly written by ex-prisoners, some include thoughts from (usually anonymised) prison workers, too. These provide a useful resource for those facing a sentence, and an incomparable (albeit, of course, highly subjective) chronicling of the everyday effects of penal policy.
Apart from intriguing nuances – the description of a heavily-annotated prison library copy of Jeffrey Archer’s diaries, and discussion of taboo topics, like sexual practices – the view emerges that prison life is very boring, and something of a bureaucratic nightmare.
Worryingly, inevitable administrative failings seem not only to exacerbate complex problems, such as delayed remand hearings: they can also aggravate the most human of struggles. Overcrowding, staffing shortages, and the introduction of certain rules (requiring the provision of uniforms for IEP ‘entry-level’ prisoners, and the banning of some sanitising products, for instance) can, apparently, lead to unacceptably low levels of cell cleanliness, and to insufficient opportunities for prisoners to wash themselves, their clothes, and their bedding.
The topic of justice typifies the Conservative split. ‘Toughness on crime’ is an old tenet, but conservatism is responsive, too. Suggesting that fewer people should be sent to jail (vast expense offering a valuable backup to a strong moral argument, here) is not the same as being ‘weak on criminals’.
This also exemplifies the overdue necessity for equivalence between mental and physical healthcare. Andrew Selous, the Prisons Minister, began his opening statement at the Bright Blue debate with a list of statistics. He pointed out that three-quarters of young offenders had had an ‘absent father’, 41 per cent of prisoners had observed domestic abuse, and a quarter had a learning difficulty or disorder.
Yet this doesn’t mean that we simply need to reduce sentences for those with mitigating circumstances. Unless people are unable to make their own decisions (in which case, sending them to prison is certainly the incorrect recourse), we mustn’t obviate their personal responsibility. And we must defend the innocent: criminals posing a known risk of harm to others should not be free.
Whatever our individual views on whether punishment should be protective, retributive, and/or deterrent, however, we should remember that conviction offers the chance to improve an offender’s life – and that of those around them, too. Aside from possibilities for academic education (again, easily hampered by bureaucracy, shortages, and overcrowding), the practical skills and employment options that companies including Timpsons and Halfords offer prisoners can be transformational.
During audience questions at the Bright Blue event, a representative of the Prison Officers Association complained that the ‘general debate about prison’ had been going ‘round in circles for decades’, and was ‘moving backwards at the moment’. Danny Kruger, head of the charity Only Connect, responded by suggesting what communities could do to ‘help their sons’, and called for proper autonomy to be given to prison governors. Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League, recommended focuses for ‘contracting the system’. Their approaches sounded pretty Conservative – and constructive – to me.
And there is hope for this type of pragmatism: as Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s heavy-handed, yet undeniably successful approach made him unpopular with teachers. It seems, however, to be being met with approval from those on both sides of the cell door: people who are all too aware of the harshness of life. Reforms that truly tackle overriding issues – extremism, drugs, bureaucracy, and what to do with those criminals who don’t need custodial sentences – will, and should, take time to institute.
Ensuring the basics, such as hygiene, cannot wait. The intrinsic value of this is undoubtedly sufficient, but dehumanisation also makes prisoners less likely to behave, and more likely to reoffend.