Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The relationship between crime and imprisonment.

I was going to write something about the relationship between crime and imprisonment when I came across this posting I made on the Guardian's CiF site on 9th September 2008.  It was in response to the proposal to build Titan jails.

The relationship between crime and prison is not as clear cut as both sides of this debate assume. The people we imprison are selected on the basis of their visibility, their vulnerability, their power (or lack of it) and because of their behaviour. Criminal justice agencies focus their efforts on those it is easiest to convict and often prioritise low hanging fruit (e.g. kids hanging around the streets) rather than more serious criminals who through their location, position or wealth are able to operate with impunity. Take a drug smuggler. Divide your cargo among four people who for whatever reason (but often poverty) are prepared to carry it. Three get through, one gets arrested. The smuggler makes very healthy profits, three of the mules get a few bob, and one gets a long sentence justified by a Minister who claims its shows she or he is tough on drug smuggling.

The SEU report commission by the government made clear that our prisons were full of the most socially excluded members of our society. Many of them have committed crimes, but it is the poor, the homeless, ethnic minorities, the educationally disadvantaged, victims of sexual abuse, the mentally ill and other powerless people who pay for their crimes by imprisonment. That doesn't mean that the rest of society is crime free. Of course it is not, but in general we do not pay for our crimes.

The reason why the most socially excluded tend to end up in prison is not because they commit more crime but because they are targeted by the criminal justice system.

Prisons are primarily places of punishment; of course there have been good programmes in prisons and certain prisons have for limited periods been positive places, but just because you see a flower in a desert you should not jump to the conclusion that deserts are good places to grow flowers. Prisons are bad places that, all other things being equal, damage those locked up in them, those who work in them and the families of both. We should oppose the buildings of these prisons because prisons are bad places; they are anti-social and will damage many people. But the solution does not lie in smaller prisons or any other type of prison. When a prison becomes a good place, which actual does good to those inside it, then eventually it is either closed or replaced with a punitive regime, the good place quite simply was no longer a prison, to res-establish it as such the good had to go and the pain substituted for it, it had to be re-established as punishment. We saw it with Norfolk Island in the 1840s, with Borstal after the Second World War and with Barlinnie special unit more recently.

We can't support a system that targets the vulnerable and powerless and inflicts pain on them by pretending that smaller units, NACRO running the resettlement or other recycled failed reformative bollocks with make them work. They work already, as places of pain and punishment. They have never and will never work as places of reformation. The problems which lead certain people to be selected for imprisonment are problems of social inclusion that need dealing with in the community.
The orginal article and comments can be read here. My text above is the same as I orginally posted.  However the links have been added.

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