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.”

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I applaud these Prison Reforms, but the crucial element to bringing about real change is still missing

I am no fan of David Cameron and the Tories, but I’d like to give credit where it is due. And his Prison Reform speech on Monday, though flawed in places, does deserve applause. After decades of Michael Howard’s delusional “Prisons work!” approach, we finally have a prime minister who is talking some sense.

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I started working in prisons back in 1987 and the same backward ‘hang’em, flog’em’ method of dealing with offenders has largely prevailed until now. The terror of appearing “soft” on crime has led to our system being the “scandalous failure” that it is now proclaimed to be, even by the very government that has contributed to prisons being “at their worst level for 10 years”. Successive governments have preferred to continue pumping more than £13 billion a year into an over-crowded, under-staffed, under-funded, violent and ineffective system, which even fails its primary goal of helping prisoners “to lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release” in more than half of all cases it handles.

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I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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