Are ‘chain gangs in high-vis jackets’ really the best way to beat crime?

I was going to divert from the usual themes of my blog and write about something light and summery. But then the government published its Beating Crime Plan and, though I can’t face going through all of it, I feel compelled to point out a couple of things. Because its showy, populist, tough-on-crime bluster and glaring ignorance of the real issues is a smack in the face for anyone who dared hope for a different, progressive or even a building-back-better or levelling-up approach.

You can read the full paper here if you really haven’t got better beach or staycation reading. Or just get an idea from the different views on its content in some of the links below. For now, I am just going to take two examples that come straight out of Boris Johnson’s mouth to illustrate my point. Which is basically that little of this is going to work… because it never has. 

The first quote is from the foreword:

“None of us can fulfil our potential if we live in fear, none of us can rise up if we’re held down by those who would do us harm. If we as a society, as a country, are to truly flourish then we have to start by beating crime – and I’m proud that this Government has the plan to do just that.”

So, the first sentence, while true, is also an own goal. Living in fear is precisely what so many children and young people are forced to do in their early lives. It’s what drives them to join a gang for supposed safety-in-numbers; to reach for the perceived protection of a knife; to become an aggressor rather than a victim. 

The second sentence, also off. ‘Beating crime’ is the not the way for a society and country to truly flourish. Crime, like drugs, is a largely a symptom, not the cause of failure. To thrive as a nation, we need to give the most disadvantaged more of a chance to fulfil their potential; to educate and support them to become the person that deep down they know they could be, but can’t find a way to be. As for the government’s plan Johnson is so proud of…

The second example is what Johnson said to reporters: 

“If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.” 

I am kind of assuming that all my readers can see reasons why this might not just be wrong, but also deeply offensive? Is it progressive, or even remotely appropriate to bring back what amounts to little less than medieval public shaming? Basic psychology, the Treaty of Versailles, no doubt your own experience of shame all demonstrate how humiliation, even if ‘justified’ usually leads to counter-productive outcomes. As for ‘chain gangs’… really?

And what ‘debt to society’ is he talking about? The debt of having been failed by the education system, of having lived in poverty due to the absence of a living wage, of having been a victim of systemic disadvantage / racism / drug addict parents / trauma / lack of opportunity? Not all criminals fall into those categories, but a great many do.

The plan continues with ideas that blatantly ignore recommendations, previous experience, the expertise of those on the ground… and even logic. More stop-and-search powers, even though these are known to disproportionately target black people. More prisons, even though their £37,000 per person per year merely results in the £18.1 billion bill for high re-offending rates, usually within 12 months of release. You just have to read the below paragraph and compare with the statistics to see how deluded and detached from reality the reasoning behind these plans are!

If prisons worked you wouldn’t have to embark on the largest prison building programme… you could spend all those millions of pounds on mental health therapies and drug addiction treatment and prevention; on building soft social skills; on support for dyslexia, jobs, housing… Anyway, I could go on, but it is too frustrating and fruitless to. Maybe next month I will find something lighter and more summery to write about… as long as the government don’t publish any more of their plans.

Related links – not all representative of my opinions

‘Weird and gimmicky’: police chiefs condemn Boris Johnson’s crime plan

Boris Johnson says stop and search is ‘kind and loving’. He’s gaslighting Black people

Boris Johnson Under Fire From Business Chief Over Hi-Viz ‘Chain Gangs’ Plan

Hi-vis chain gangs? This is what happens when a newspaper columnist becomes prime minister

Johnson proposes hi-vis chain gangs as part of crime plan

Crime always pays for the Tories – that’s why they turn to it again and again

Boris Johnson promises ‘fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs’ so criminals can visibly pay debt

Boris Johnson defends police pay freeze

Boris Johnson’s new police plans slammed by former Met officer

BBC World at One (start at 28:18 mins)

PRITI PATEL: The public want to see justice done

A talk, an exhibition and a TV series…

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’.

Photograph 3
Guernsey Prison, Margaret Macdonald Platinum Award for Photography 2019, Koestler Arts

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.

Doing time… or simply wasting time?

When you work in prisons or other extreme situations, certain snapshot images ink themselves on the walls of your memory. Hidden from view for much of the time, they appear like a tattoo when a sleeve is rolled up. I have one such image that often causes me to stop and think. 

Doing time

It came about on one of my morning rounds, walking from wing to wing gathering up the participants of my art class to accompany them to the art studio. I had a key for all the locked gates through which you had to travel to get anywhere in the prison, but not a key for the cells. Casting his eye over my list of names, a prison officer stuck his metal key into a cell door, turned twice and pulled. The door opened to reveal a small, wiry man sitting on a neatly made, metal-framed bed just staring at the narrow space in front of him. He was dressed and ready for another day of… nothing; of waiting for time to pass. The slight slump of his body and thin, grey hair combed back from his forehead accentuated his pallor as he slowly turned his head to face us. Blank eyes betrayed a hint of the resigned surprise of someone who had got used to the loss of all privacy and power. For a tiny moment our eyes met. Was it a flash of hope I saw before the officer, realising his mistake, pulled the door closed without a word and locked it once again? I stood motionless as he studied the list and moved towards another cell, imagining the tiny man turning back his head to continue staring through the tidy arrangement of objects on the table opposite him: a single mug, a jar of cheap instant coffee, a toothbrush and a roll of toilet paper. 

I still see this man when I am running though wild garlic-filled beech forests or soaking in the exuberance of my mother’s colourful flower beds; when I feel the warmth of sunshine or the heat of a bath. I think of him still sitting there alone, just quietly waiting… wasting. And that basically sums up what our prisons are. One big waste: of time, of money, of opportunity, but, worst of all, of human lives. If you put aside questions of whether a person is guilty and deserving of punishment and, for one minute, place yourself into his cell and slip on his shoes… what do you feel? 

I know I bang on about it, but I hate waste. And the illogic of locking people up in increasingly depraved conditions with nothing purposeful to do, and then ejecting them back into society with the expectancy that they will somehow be changed for the better, urgently needs to be addressed. We all know the benefits of exposure to nature, the arts, colour, fresh air, exercise, work, self-discipline, being listened to… the list is long. So why, why are we systemically depriving the people in our prisons of all those things? The prison service’s self-declared mission is to help offenders lead “law-abiding and useful lives on release.” Yet in practice, it too often does the opposite.

As Brexit procrastinations continue to drag minds and resources away from pretty much all other societal issues and constant changes in Justice Secretaries and Prison Ministers prevent anything from getting done, our prisons are becoming even more overcrowded, understaffed, drug-infested, inhumane, dangerous and failing institutions. There are thousands of my ‘small, wiry man’ sitting on beds in tiny cells, over half of them with literary skills of an eleven year old, many of them victims of violence, neglect and abuse as children, each costing £38,000 per year, each just waiting and wasting while we become increasingly guilty of ‘looking away’. 

So what can you do? There are lots of wonderful initiatives, charities and people trying to make our prisons better places. Let the government know the current situation is unacceptable by supporting their work. Here are a few suggestions: Prison Reform Trust or Howard League for Penal Reform or The Forgiveness Project or The Koestler Trust or contact your local prison and offer to teach literacy, become a prison visitor or mentor to someone on their release. You will probably find it incredibly rewarding!

Minefields of ticking time bombs just waiting to explode

Pentonville Prison is “crumbling and rife with vermin”. HMP Birmingham is in a “state of crisis”. Prison staff protest over “unprecedented violence” in jails. “Biggest UK prison riot in decades could and should have been prevented,” report finds.

We have been reading one such headline after another for months now, actually years, probably decades. Almost everything about our prison system is failing and contributing to this dire state: chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of purposeful activity, easily available drugs, squalor, rises in violence, self-harm, suicide… they are all interlinking, poisonous contributors to what is becoming a system wholly unfit for purpose. Yet still nothing substantial is done.

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Good news and great ideas… or just bleedin’ obvious and long overdue?

 

So there’s good news and bad news on the prison front this month.

The good news is that the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has declared that “there is a role for the arts” in criminal justice. He believes it’s a good idea. In an interview with The Times on May 25th, Mr Gauke said “the creative sector is a big employer, you hear stories of someone involved in a prison production who ends up in the West End as a lighting technician…” He wants “a culture of rehabilitation” that encourages “drama, writing and painting in prisons.”

Feltham - Christopher copy.jpg

 

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What can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

“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).

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