Sunday, 20 March 2016

We hail imprisonment in this country, but do we really think enough about it?

A couple of weeks ago I watched a Panorama special on international attitudes towards crime and imprisonment; it was fascinating to see both the extreme and more liberal examples of this. Yet I intriguingly found that I was indeed more fascinated, not by the horrors of the treatment of political prisoners by Daesh or Assad’s government in Syria (though this is of course continually shocking) , but by one specific example at the other end of the spectrum- Norway’s methods and attitudes towards imprisonment. They have created a system whereby reform of all inmates- no matter what the crime- is the critical objective.

Over the past decade or so the country has created several new prison sites…but no ordinary prison sites- these are not viewed as ‘prisons’, instead as secure communities of rehabilitation. This is literally what they are. Each inmate is given a specific task or full time job to carry out during their sentence and are encouraged to work together to do so effectively. Evidently this doesn’t turn out to be as simple as it sounds, as many inmates have mental illnesses or dilemmas and consequently cannot do these jobs instantaneously. However, the organisation will work at this and aim to get these individuals into a realistic pattern of life, as soon as possible. For extreme offenders such as murderers and rapists, they have even converted an island into community. Why on earth should rapists have an island have an island built for them? I shall come onto this later. But given the sheer variety of offences and mental illnesses within criminality surely this system would only see a mild difference in success rates? Wrong- the statistics are there to be made an example of; it has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the world at just 20%. Now I’m sure many members of our own political establishment would argue that reform is indeed the UK’s main critical objective. But many are now fully aware that this simply isn’t being achieved. In 2014, those serving less than 12 months saw a 58% reoffending rate and over two-thirds of under 18 year olds are reconvicted within a year of release. Many officials will argue that ‘huge’ improvements are being seen in these figures; indeed last month our Prime Minister pledged many much needed reform targets including, “a new Corruption Prevention Strategy to deal with the small number of corrupt staff who allow contraband in our prisons”. This is all very well and good and I welcome such pledges- they are no negative thing. But my argument is that to really improve the system we must begin to think about a fundamental aspect of crime.
Last summer during my post-GCSE 10 week summer I read a book called The Tipping Point- a very modernist account of how as humans we are influenced by the smallest of factors, namely based around our environment and our peers. It contained a chapter on criminality, specifically focusing on 1980’s New York City. This example highlighted to me how much this influences the majority of crime. It’s a pretty simple process really- detailed physiological studies suggest that the vast majority of offenders do so as they feel fundamentally intimidated by society. Surely then by putting these people through a process of pure punishment- be it through physical imprisonment and mental intimidation by staff- this is going to further this evidently, subconscious feeling? This would be a typical argument of justice professionals in Norway.

Now let’s realistically consider this ‘radical’ concept. Unfortunately, but understandably, British society generally upholds a strong stigma towards criminals, especially towards crimes such as rape and murder. They are and always will be horrific and utterly unacceptable crimes. How any human being could possess the complete inhumanity to carry out such a repulsive act, is beyond us. Or is it? The ‘average’ amongst us probably don’t think much of it- these are bad people…that’s it. We cannot pinpoint this ‘badness’- there are too many varieties of it. But there is a general pattern: the majority are from low income, often impoverished backgrounds, have a family history of criminality and often of mental illness. Many murderers commit on account of unresolved vengeance between rival gangs, families and so on. None of this information justifies such crimes in any shape or form. But it does draw us back to thinking more about the fundamental aspects of the motives behind them. A lot of these people simply act upon subconscious feelings of neglection and punishment for being the in ‘the bad litter of society’. Now, from this point I could go into a whole philosophical debate about such fundamental problems within capitalist society, but I digress; our true objective of imprisonment is too solve crime. That’s an obvious point that most 5 year olds could state. Why then is the establishment and a significant proportion of British society not addressing this by the appropriate means? Why are we failing to recognise through clear, in our face facts, that a better solution is workable? To achieve a more peaceful and law-abiding society, with low reoffending rates, our primary aim must be rehabilitation. True rehab would be socially beneficial, with more of our citizens learning to live and cooperate in a community; true rehab would be economically beneficial, with imprisonment costing billions of pounds less a year to the tax payer which could then be reinvested into rehabilitation schemes and, if we were to get to get to Norway’s successful standard, see a 38% increase in reformed criminals contributing back to society through employment; finally, true rehab should be beneficial through increased political hapathy amongst more impoverished micro-societies that exist as a result of what I believe to be political under-representation.

I’m certain that many members of society would argue that the above is obvious and is being looked into. If so, then let us act upon it and not ignore such a vital issue on account of abiding to an out of date stigma. If so, then let us continue to look into it through investment in research and innovation in the industry.

Britain is a civilized society; through thinking more about the cause of criminality, we can make it even more so.


Next up: ‘Academy schools: fake or fortune?’

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