Criminal Negligence

Downing 15 January 2009

The British penal system is failing both inmates and those working to help them

As citizens we hand over certain rights to the state. One of those rights is our ability to punish wrongs done against us. The state stands in our place and locks up criminals to prevent vigilantism and to ensure everyone is treated equally and fairly. Yet just as the public bays for blood so too now does the state.

In an effort to capitalise on crime politicians rise to tabloid demands for tougher, longer sentences. I implore you, suspend your judgement on how tough sentences should be and consider what a prison sentence actually means.

This Christmas, I went to prison. My only crime was a geeky desire to look at sentencing in practice. I visited Magaberry, a high security category A prison and Magilligan which has both category C facilities and an open unit. Both these prisons are in my ‘provincial’ homeland of Northern Ireland where crime has a historical twist which is still evident today.

Once through the austere exterior, I discovered that prison is a fascinating little world of its own. Prison guards represent authority, the state. Just like the state, they have many faces, helpful, friendly or a force to be reckoned with behind the riot shield. The currency – drugs. A popular choice is the ‘UDA Blues,’ essentially whatever is around scraped together and guaranteed to help you forget or escape your troubles.

There’s a social hierarchy as well: basic, standard and enhanced. Your status is based on your behaviour and includes privileges such as TV and the much coveted gym. Within this of course lies all the allegiance and prejudices which exist outside, where are you from, who do you hang around with on the outside, have you made name for yourself?

To anyone who says prison is easy, I would challenge them to spend some time there. Share a 2x4m cell with another man and an open toilet. Be told when and where you can move, eat and sleep. Have limited visits from your family. Spend mind-numbing day after day watching your 20x20cm TV. Worse, spend a night in a suicide cell. Hell, give me a few months in prison and I’d be in one.

No linkaturs, a padded suit with Velcro to cover you, a camera to watch you and all the time in the world to think how much you don’t want to live anymore. The saddest thing of all is that for some prisoners, life inside is better than life outside. A warm, dry place to stay, access to a gym, three square meals a day and a routine is more than they get in our society.

So what do they do in this little world? Help is available – psychologists, teachers, therapists, doctors, dentists, vocational teachers and probation workers all work tirelessly with the limited resources they have to help offenders. These individuals really believe in helping people, one prisoner development officer said “We are not here to punish people, coming here is their punishment, losing their liberty and being apart from their families is punishment. Once they are here we try and help so they won’t come back.”

Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime? All that hot air has resulted in is a population which is tough on the products of society’s failure. Almost 60% of prisoners in Magilligan had the numeracy and literacy level of a 9 year old. This does not excuse the criminal choices they made, but it is a sad indictment of our society.

Working to help offenders does not mean ignoring victims. In Northern Ireland the Probation service offers victims the choice of being kept informed of developments with the person who offended against them.

So what to do? Chronic offenders stuck in a vicious cycle of crime, victims wanting punishment, politicians scared to appear ‘soft’ and a criminal justice system caught in the middle of escalating sentences and expectations. Well, outside the criminal justice system we need a serious effort in the social sector, from education to housing. We’ve concentrated on being global so why not spend some time and money on our own backyard.

As for prisoners, they need increased support and initiatives. While a prisoner is inside you have their full attention, let’s use it effectively and move back to a case by case style approach looking at the person and not hitting the target. There need to be strong links once prisoners are released, vocational education is wasted if no one will hire an offender when they’re out. Prisoners with mental health issues need those addressed in the correct facilities. Let’s not forget about prisons and treat them as a dumping ground for society’s problems.

Sarah Hansen is a 2nd year law student.

Sarah Hansen