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.
A ten-year-old boy haunted by the face of his mother as she was stabbed multiple times in front of his eyes; a seven-year-old boy sexually abused by a family friend, then repeatedly while in care; an eight-year-old boy in charge of his younger siblings, regularly punched in the face by his terrifying mother… I could go on. These are some of the people I have just met in HMP Parc while participating in The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme. And it beggars the question: is it right to be punishing people who themselves were originally the victims of primary life experiences that were so overwhelming, traumatic and desperately sad?
Finally, finally, the news is exposing what an appalling mess our prison service is in. For the first time ever the Queen, a Tory Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the BBC, both prisoners and staff alike are all singing the same tune the pesky Inspectors of Prisons and irritating campaigners – once dismissed as idealistic, bleeding heart liberals and ‘soft’ on crime – have been singing for decades. There’s no going back now and I am in my element!
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.
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.
This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.
What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.
The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.
Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.
Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.