Friday, 2 January 2009

A surprisingly simple policy to make Prison work better.

Now many of you will have noticed that I am a civil libertarian: I believe that a fair trial is important enough to not want New Labour to abolish it. I think people should be innocent until proven guilty and I think proven guilty in the eyes of 12 good men and true remains a pretty good benchmark for being proven guilty. So far, you will not get much argument out of anyone, except a New Labour home secretary.

Once someone has been convicted, then there is sentencing. The sentence serves a number of purposes. First, Prison should aim to reduce crime by keeping miscreants off the streets for the duration of sentencing. Rehabilitation is important in reducing crime, but is, at present more an aspiration than a reality. What the prison reformers, with their obsession with "humane" prisons neglect is the punishment side of prison.

The problem with prison is that for most of the prison population, it just does not represent a punishment at all. How can I say such a ridiculous thing? If you'll allow me, I'll try to explain:

If you're reading this, your parents probably read to you. They probably ensured you did your homework and they probably provided a stable and loving environment in which right and wrong were explained at length and backed up with moral certainty. Don't steal, lie, beat people up etc... As a result of their parents' actions, most of the readers of this blog are capable at the very least of gaining and keeping employment sufficiently remunerative to at least aspire to one day own a house. Because of the stable environment in which most of the readers of this blog were brought up, they are capable of developing complex relationships and forming long-term partnerships. Prison for most of the population therefore means loss of job, loss of long-term aspirations, loss of respect amongst your peers (unless you go in for tax-evasion in which case you get a pat on the back for effort from me). It may destroy a number of your personal relationships: If you go in for a significant period, would you expect your significant other to hang around? In short, for most of the working population, prison is essentially social and professional death. The loss of liberty for the duration of the sentence is trivial next to the loss of everything else for the rest of your life. Thus the proceeds of crime are just not worth the risk: the fear of punishment is part (a small part) of what keeps you from transgressing agianst the basic rules of society. Because most of the population would do almost anything to keep out of prison, it's easy to forget that not everyone has as much to lose.

Now let's consider the people who form the bulk of the prison population. They come from broken homes. The majority of them have been 'in care', and have not benefitted from stable, loving families to teach them right from wrong. As a result, many of them lack the basic toolkit which would allow them to hold down a job: many are functionally illiterate. As a result, they exist on the welfare state, which provides housing and subsistence. What have these people got to lose? Without the moral upbringing that so many of us take for granted, prison just does not represent a punishment. You exchange one bed for a smaller one. You exchange one state-owned accomodation for another. There is no change to your prospects of getting or holding down a job because that was non-existent anyway. Few prisoners have long-term relationships which would be jeapordised by a short spell inside, and the social makeup of the prison population is similar to that in which they move when outside. Prison, especially short sentences for petty offeces is for "the underclass" is not social, professional or financially troublesome. Where is the punishment?

Morally the problem with making prison harsher, is that it is a further punishment against those who have already been dealt a poor hand. This is also the argument the left makes against welfare reform. The problem is that people respond to incentives. If prison is no punishment, then there is no incentive to avoid it. But making prison harsher risks in reality means making it inhumane, but there's nothing inhumane about denying luxuries.

I would not go as far as Old Holborn, and using the Turkish or Venezuealan penal system as a model, but if the loss of liberty is to be a punishment, the denial of TV seems to be a start. The Sun, in its occasional crusades against inmates enjoying the "high life" inside make much of TVs in cells. Indeed I would say that this single luxury item creates the most offence amongst sun-readers. It goes without saying that mobile phones, drugs and the like should also be removed, but these would be difficult to eradicate. TVs though: This is one thing I will agree with the sun on. It's easy to achieve and there's an obvious secondary advantage. Over half the inmates of British gaols have serious problems with literacy. If rehabilitation is to be achieved, Prisoners' education must take a higher priority. Because there is a lot of time to kill, and people respond to incentives if TVs were withdrawn this would give an incentive to learn to read by those failed by the education system. In denying inmates one thing they take for granted on the outside, this would actually help prison be percieved as a punishment by those on the recieveing end, and benefit society and the inmates at the same time.

I'm not saying that denying lags their daily fix of Jeremy Kyle will solve all the problems in British Gaols or provide a magic bullet by which inmate illiteracy could be solved, but it is a simple, easily implemented, cost effective policy whose long-term effects will be broadly positive, especially if matched by an increase in investment in prison education. It will also have the ancilliary benefit of increased public trust in the penal system, and increase the deterent effect of prison a bit: Banning TVs in Gaol would be one of the first policies in A Very British Dude's government. Low hanging fruit, and all that.


Sam said...

Otis Ferry, who is currently locked up, had this to say on the matter:

“Contrary to popular belief, prison life is not tough, and in this namby-pamby society we even get our own televisions, although I have quickly realised that watching it is quite a punishment in itself".

Anonymous said...

If criminals aren't currently deterred by the prospect of prison, I can't imagine the prospect of not having TV is going to deter them.

It would surely be better to allow them only to watch programmes that build the skills they need to function in society. This could include reading and writing but there must be many video courses on, I don't know, carpentry, plumbing, DIY etc.

The risk of denying inmates TV is in whatever activities replace it. They have to be constructive. Sitting around for hours a day getting bored is not going to stop them reoffending when they come out.

Letters From A Tory said...

The prisoners need exercise and a good diet - but once that it taken care of, it should be rehabilitation, rehabilitation, rehabilitation.

JuliaM said...

anon: "The risk of denying inmates TV is in whatever activities replace it. They have to be constructive. "

Well, I guess you didn't read the post fully then, because the suggestion was: "Because there is a lot of time to kill, and people respond to incentives if TVs were withdrawn this would give an incentive to learn to read by those failed by the education system."

Lobbydog said...

Good post. I think punishment as a deterrent only works to a small degree though.
Crime will only be reduced significantly if prisoners are rehabilitated/educated and “set up” for life outside.
The question is how to get them to commit to it inside and then not to revert to old ways when they get out.
For me part of the solution is, paradoxically, much longer and definite sentences - even for small offences.
That wouldn't be for punishment, but so that a rehab programme could have time to have meaningful impact.
The programme itself would have to totally detach the prisoner from the outside world and take up every part of his day.
Definitely no TV, just compulsory constructive, educational activity, psychological guidance, whatever it takes and as long as it takes, until that person gets the message.
Then a much more tiered, comprehensive re-entry programme.
That costs a lot of money though and who has that at the moment.

Scippio Africanus said...

The English once punished all felonies by death. This may have been harsh on grand scale but the point was this - those who choose to step far outside the expectations of society will be put down!

In Western society, we need to harden ourselves about the plight of criminals and think more about victims, future victims, and law and order. Violent criminals should be executed and forgotten. This will strengthen society and forge a more righteous character.

Terpsichore lusitana combatente said...

Interesting post.

Not talking about the very small offenses neither the very heavy ones,
I defend work. Physical, active work that makes sense and has fruits.
They can learn a skill and a job but with a lot of practice, working and exercising.

To work without financial reward and freedom is a redeeming punisment, - one with sense.

Then, surely also the theory of the skill, and philosophy!

Mark Wadsworth said...

On the specific topic of TVs and illiteracy, there is a middle way - allow them TVs but with the sound permanently off and the subtitles on.

It works for Finnish children so it must be worth a try.

Human Bean said...

As someone who comes from a broken home, I have really high moral values and don't know where they come from. I had them from a young age. So not all people who are from broken homes are going to be criminals and not all people from good backgrounds are going to be law abiding. I think different kinds of crime happen from each background. For example I have a cousin who has been to prison for GBH who had a bad upbringing, and my uncle (in law) who was from a middle class background went to prison for fraud.

There is a big incentive for poor people to commit crime, usually petty, because they don't have much money on benefits and don't have the skills or qualifications to get a decent job and feel that even if they tried they wouldn't get the jobs they wanted as it's a closed shop to people like them.

Instead of getting rid of TV maybe they should blair it out loudly 24hrs a day with Gorden Brown's speeches repeated over and over, that would be enough incentive not to go to prison for anyone. Actually that might be considered torture.

Terpsichore lusitana combatente said...

Oh my god Human Bean of course I agree with you. I'm not even convinced that poor people do more crimes at all - but they end up in prison much more often.
And even more important then that, to make a relation between poor and rich and morality or lack of morality, is uitrageous and very ignorant. That's why I didn't even consider the need to mention.

Terpsichore lusitana combatente said...

Excuse for the english... and regards.

J said...

Very good interesting entry and very true.

I deal with numerous ex-offenders every day. A tiny minority have any fear of returning to prison. But none are better off for it.

I agree that prison can be a just punishment, but that now the punishment is gone. There are too many carrots and not enough sticks (not that I am advocating corporal punishment, not yet anyway).

The problem is that offenders do often have it too easy inside, and do often serve too little.

The other problem is that whilst in prison they have no real help to reform themselves.

I know two young men who did very serious crimes several years ago. One was given lots of course to do while in prison. He gaines lots of qualifications and left prison with very high hopes of employment. Unfortunately he was given the chance to do courses in physical education, coaching, fitness, and so on. When he came out he couldn't get a job anywhere because all his prospective employers would fail him on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. If he had been given courses for employment when CRB checks would not be required he might have found employment.

The other chap had the chance to do day release while in prison in a care environment working with disabled children. Since his release the Probation Service have been working with him. When I saw a few weeks ago he told me his Probation Officer had advised to draw up a list of care homes and such like to approach re potential work. My jaw dropped, and I had to explain to him that there was virtually no chance of him getting work given his conviction for attempted murder. I suggested he return to his Probation Officer and discuss this further.

These are just two examples of a pathetic system we have.

Yes get rid of the televisions. Yes may them work, may them work hard. Yes remove the gangs, regiment their lives and yes keep them locked up if they fail to improve - BUT ensure that the rehabilitation that is available is suitable and right.

Terpsichore lusitana combatente said...

"So not all people who are from broken homes are going to be criminals and not all people from good backgrounds are going to be law abiding."

Of course.

Terpsichore lusitana combatente said...

"Yes get rid of the televisions. Yes may them work, may them work hard. Yes remove the gangs, regiment their lives and yes keep them locked up if they fail to improve - BUT ensure that the rehabilitation that is available is suitable and right."

Yes. And their sense of disapointment, frustration, or a feeling of being mokked at, can dismantel the whole previous rehabilitation, I imagine.

Terpsichore lusitana combatente said...

I feel uncomfortable with this sentence

"“Contrary to popular belief, prison life is not tough, and in this namby-pamby society we even get our own televisions,""

It could be added that it is in his country. In most countries, prison life is very tough and horrible - I suppose.

Also, what is horrible for many (like lack of higiene), will be bearable for some others.

It must be unbearable for the people who are there falsely acused.

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