What is the difference between ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I didn’t know’?
I ask this question in the wake of what must be one of the best television series in the past year: BBC One’s deeply uncomfortable and disquieting three-parter, Time.
It is described as: ‘Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting, brutally honest portrayal of a failed public service which gets everything right about prison life – minus the tedium.’ If you haven’t seen it – and sorry to my readers abroad if you can’t get BBC – I would like to invite you to watch it, even to dip into it for ten minutes. I’ll tell you why.
Having worked in many prisons in England, I feel everybody needs to know what is going on in them. In our name. There was nothing in the series that I didn’t recognise from my years inside. As I am up against a tight writing deadline for my book (and this blog actually!), I am going to allow the three episodes to speak for me and bear witness to the sheer illogic, and all too often, inhumanity of our current system.
This doesn’t apply to all prisoners, but if we recognise that many addictive, violent and destructive behaviours derive from childhood trauma; if we fully comprehend the impact of untreated traumatic incidents, then the cruelty of locking up people, who were first and foremost victims, in what are often little more than hell holes, becomes very clear.
My admittedly provocative opening question stems from a genuine desire to understand the answer.
For decades, the adult-generation of Germans living through the Second World War have not been believed when they say, ‘we didn’t know’ (about the concentration camps). And people around the world often blame them for having looked the other way. I don’t want to get into that debate here. There is a consensus among historians that some would have known, some would have heard about them and not believed it, and others would not have known. Most of the camps were miles away in the east and there was little access to free press. There was also a deadly dictatorship controlling thoughts and actions. Yet not knowing, or knowing and not doing anything, allowed the deadly system to persist for as long as it did.
I have been talking to a wide range of audiences about my experiences of working as an artist in prisons for nearly three decades. The most common thing I hear afterwards is a shocked “I had no idea.” It’s totally valid, I make no judgment. There are loads of things I have no idea about. But why don’t more people know about this? There are prisons in nearly every major town. The shocking statistics of failure, the appalling conditions and the tragic stories of many of the people locked up in them are reported on all the time, in every form of media. How can we not know about them?
There is obviously a wide spectrum from having no idea, to knowing but looking away, to knowing and acting. I would just like to use this month’s blog to encourage you to become more informed, specifically about the system in which we warehouse prisoners. Not just for their sakes, but for all of us who live in the communities into which they are returned… usually worse.
When enough people ‘have an idea’, things can and will change.
Watching this series is a start. It’s tough watching, but the reality is much, much tougher.
October is a busy month. Lots to see and do or get done. Can I just add three things to your list? The first two are London-based and optional; the third should really be compulsory for everybody.
So firstly, for anyone in London on Friday 11th October at 4pm, I am very excited to be speaking at the National Army Museum’s inaugural Chelsea History Festival. My talk How Germany Remembers is just one in a whole line-up of talks by impressive historians, writers and speakers – including Max Hastings.
Secondly, and also this month until 3rd November, The Koestler Arts annual exhibition – Another Me – will be showing at the Southbank. I personally haven’t been yet but I know it will once again provide visitors with a glimpse of the huge talent and potential locked up in our prisons. It is a showcase for what the arts can do for people’s well-being, self-esteem and rehabilitation.
I was in fact invited to expand on these benefits for the autumn edition of The Arts Society magazine. Please feel free to read my article ‘Art behind Bars’ to learn more.
But thirdly, and in stark contrast to the positivity of the arts, is the shocking Channel 4 series Crime and Punishment. I know, I know, I have been here many times before. You are probably sick of me going on about the plight of prisoners and state of our prison system. But you won’t be half as sick as all the people involved, who know how acute the crisis is.
Please watch it. Even just Episode 2. And then compare what you see with the Ministry of Justice’s evidence-based summary of what works…
Even I was aghast at what I saw in the first three episodes, and I have been in many of our jails. Everything has got so much worse since the 43% cuts to the budget from 2011 onwards: the levels of frustration from being locked 23 hours a day in conditions that even animal rights campaigners would protest against; the levels of desperation that lead people to shred their bodies or hang themselves to get a radio or better clothes to wear for a visit from their wife and kid; the levels of terror in young officers who patrol the wings after just 10 weeks training and 2 weeks shadowing; and the levels of weary resignation of those who enrolled to help and make a difference but are repeatedly forced to cower behind plastic shields and just ‘contain’.
I believe everybody you see in this series is doing their best. But increasingly without hope of change. What you witness is the underbelly of our society. A society that punishes disadvantage, that punishes mental health, that punishes lack of education. In almost every shot, hopelessness seeps under the cell doors to mix with the blood of self-harm.
We all probably feel there are far better causes to engage with – cancer patients, the rain forests, refugees and hedgehogs; that offenders have only themselves to blame and that prison has nothing really to do with us. But if you are reading this, it probably does. Because so many of us have had advantage, education, guidance and love. And it is precisely us who can help bring about change. How? you might ask. Well a good start would be to recognise that Boris Johnson’s policies to extend sentences and build more and bigger prisons are wholly illogical and will only make the situation worse. You could then take a moment to retreat into your imagination, put on the battered, ill-fitting shoes of some of these offenders and try to walk a few steps. See how far you are able to get. The barriers to a crime-free productive life on release are enormous and once more of us realise just how bad things are, we can all join in with the other voices that are demanding: enough is enough.
More prison places, more punishment, longer sentences and tougher stop-and-search powers for police… I am far from alone in being dismayed at Boris Johnson’s ideas on prison reform.
However, his prison policies are no more and no less than I would expect from him: vain, backward-looking, wilfully ignorant of evidence and expertise and whiffing of his trademark self-serving disregard for the people affected. Anybody who works in the system or has occupied themselves with the deeper issues behind the revolving door of our flailing, and failing, system can see the shallow grasp he has of what is required. As the respected Prison Reform Trust says: “Tough rhetoric is no substitute for understanding the evidence.”
In a blatant display of easy vote-winning, tough-on-crime policies, Johnson is returning to Michael Howard’s aggressive and long disproven claim: ‘Prison Works!’ So let’s just unpick a little of what he and his team are suggesting as part of their “bold” plan (‘bold’? ‘Old’ would be a more accurate description) “to create a justice system, which cuts crime and protects law-abiding people.”
1.“10,000 new prison places” – at a cost of £2.5 billion – “so we can keep criminals behind bars.” Nothing new here, not least the well-known fact that prison is not a solution to cutting crime or reoffending. The then justice secretary, Liz Truss, made the same pledge in 2016 and the places were first due by 2020. The government then quietly reduced its target to 3,360 places by 2023. So far only one prison has been completed.
Responses to this idea:
Peter Dawson, Director of The Prison Reform Trust: “Doing away with overcrowded and outdated prisons makes a lot of sense. But governments have been promising that for decades and they always underestimate what’s involved. According to the prison service’s own figures it would take 9,000 new spaces just to eliminate overcrowding – not a single dilapidated prison could be taken out of use before that figure was reached.”
Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform: The construction of new prisons is “an exercise in ego and reputation” and a “gross squandering of taxpayers’ money.”
Robert Buckland QC, the fifth Conservative justice secretary in four years: “More and better prison places means less reoffending and a lower burden on the taxpayer in the future…” Except it DOESN’T Mr Buckland! And there is a raft of evidence, teams of experts and front-line workers and decades of failure to reduce re-offending through a punitive system to prove it.
2. To “properly punish” offenders by sending more to jail and to make sure criminals are “serving the time they are sentenced to” by putting an end to the automatic release of prisoners half way through their sentence. Hmmm… just a few weeks ago research indicated that short prison sentences were driving up reoffending and former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, had called for “ineffective” prison sentences of under six months to be abolished. You can do the maths yourselves. Currently reoffending costs the UK £18bn per annum. Keeping an adult in prison costs around £37,000 a year, with at least double that amount for a young offender. Reoffending rates for sentences of less than 12 months stand at 65%. There are 83,000 people in the system… Put those figures on your campaign bus Mr Johnson.
3. Apparently it’s “time to make criminals feel afraid, not the public.” Home Secretary Priti Patel goes further and wants them to feel “terror.”“Populist electioneering” says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, and it is. Even the most basic psychology or a bit of listening to offenders’ stories would reveal the terror many of them have already felt in their homes, schools or communities making them feel compelled to join gangs or arm themselves with knives. Can the government not see the relationship between the rise in knife crime and the nine years of brutal cuts – that Johnson supported – to community support officers, probation, police, not to mention education, youth services, housing, mental health and other public services? Johnson wants “…to keep criminals off our streets and turn them into law-abiding citizens when they have paid their debt to society.” But has society honoured its duty to educate those people, to support their needs, to protect them? 54% of prisoners are dyslexic, 50% can’t write, 29% were victims of abuse as children. They will be released with just £46, a criminal record, often a newly acquired drug habit and frequently nowhere to live… so where is the ‘bold’ plan for the chances they will be receiving to become ‘law-abiding citizens’?
That’s still not the end of it.
4.“20,000 more police officers” – which will merely reinstate those lost by the past years of Tory cuts. “Extended stop and search powers” – which often result in the unfair targeting of ethnic minorities and were a key factor in the anti-police anger that triggered the riots while Johnson was mayor of London. Even reports by both the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police found no long-term significant reductions in crime. And “£100 million worth of airport style X-ray scanners, metal detectors and mobile phone blockers to crackdown on drugs and weapons coming into prisons – even though many of them come in with underpaid officers wanting to make an extra buck.
Johnson’s next point makes me laugh… and weep!
5.“It is vital we have a world-leading prison estate…” How about aiming for a fair, functioning, humane prison estate as a start? Every single HM inspector of prisons says the same: our prisons are shameful shambles. We lock up more people than anywhere else in Western Europe; we already have excessively long sentences; prisons are filled to 95% of their operational capacity; overcrowding, cuts in front-line prison staff (1/3 of newly-appointed recruits leave within a year of being in post) and squalid conditions have led to the highest levels of violence and self-harm. Drugs abound while meaningful activities, education and work remain a luxury… you can read about countless other contradictions of purpose and violations of human dignity almost weekly.
Frances Crook again: Mr Johnson “doesn’t seem to understand” how the current justice system works. “What is coming out of Number 10 is politics but not real life. It’s not going to deal with real-life crimes and victims. It’s a lot of hot air.”
I am in good company when I say a government’s approach to prison policy is a litmus test for its maturity, wisdom, far-sightedness and humanity.
Dostoevski:“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”
Even Johnson’s hero, Churchill:“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country…”
In his macho rhetoric on the treatment of crime and criminals, painfully devoid of detail on educational or rehabilitative measures, Boris Johnson may mean well. ‘Tough on crime’ always appeals to the general public as it’s apparently for our safety. But with these measures, he is merely exposing naked ignorance, vanity and apparent indifference to the issues faced by real people. Emptying prisons of short sentence prisoners; providing extensive education and work opportunities; rolling out victim awareness and restorative justice courses; offering incentives for good behaviour; instating many more, well-trained prison officers on the wings with time, not only to open and close doors but to listen and guide… These are some of the things that will move our prison system in the direction of being fit for purpose. Only then can we start dreaming of ‘being safe’ and having the “world-leading prison estate” Johnson wants.
“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.
Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then, with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).
A last minute blog before the curtains fall on 2016. As a year, will it get a rapturous applause and an encore I wonder? No, I don’t think it will. Not from the point of view of one of my main blog themes – prisons – at least. A re-wind to the beginning and a second chance…? Well that would be wonderful.
This time last year I was excited. I think all those who work in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) were. We were facing unprecedented possibilities of genuine reform within the sector. As Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had done his homework thoroughly, rather ironically consulting and listening to the experts more than most of his predecessors had done. He commissioned Dame Sally Coates to create the Education Review: Unlocking Potential to which even individuals like me were given an opportunity to contribute. My ambition to make the case for the arts at government level was looking set to be realized.
“Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.” Oscar Wilde, de Profundis, 1897
People were moving around the building as if it were an ancient site, a relic of times long past. Tentatively they stepped into the tiny cells, their barred windows raised to a height designed to deprive. Metal bunks, the squeak of their springs still echoing in the silence of long nights past; a painted table, names etched into the surface, reminders of identities transformed into numbers; and toilets tucked behind waist-high partitions separating toothbrushes and washing-up from another’s piss and shit.