Limited Vision – insidetime & insideinformation – InsideTime


I have always enjoyed the Christmas and New Year holiday period. Lights, music, happy children, food, plus right in the middle of it sits my birthday. Prison put a bit of a dampener on my pleasure, and of course Covid flattened things everywhere for a couple of years, so I hoped this year would have brought the delight back. It hasn’t. Perhaps it is because when my birthday arrived, the number of imaginary candles on my cake was frighteningly high, but I feel the reason is the depressing realisation that there will be no inspiring vision forthcoming from any politician on criminal justice that would bring hope of change. Or on anything else to be honest.
That Was The Year That Was
Not the sort of change we saw in 2022. Two Monarchs, three Prime Ministers, countless Secretaries of State all came and went in the past twelve months. Some came, went, then came back again. It was chaotic and shambolic, but I am afraid depressing. I cannot deny it was amusing in a Comedie Noire sort of a way, but the governance of our land is not supposed to be a political version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show albeit without music and dance.
But at no time was the prospect of sensible revision or even consideration of the ways our justice system works on the agenda, and even more worryingly the debate seems to be moving further and further away from fairness but towards more punishment, whilst continuing to use and even expand methods that have failed time and time again. Is anyone standing up to proclaim ambitions to fix the system? Are there aims of reducing overcrowding in prisons, or cutting the numbers on remand for months without trial, or lessening the waiting list for trials? Not a whisper of any such intentions.
The media have not helped; indeed rarely do. I am certainly not trying to trivialise or dismiss the appalling impact of being a victim of serious violent crime, but perspective is needed. In 1995 the percentage of people in the UK who had been the victim of a violent crime was 4.7%, but for many years now it has been around 2%. You do not actually see that reflected in the press who give the impression of rampant anarchy and bloodshed. The problem with that type of reporting is it encourages the type of problem it exaggerates. If young people are told that knives are widespread they are more likely to carry one as they may consider it necessary to protect themselves.
Young people in London may well hear through various sources that in the Capital violent crime is out of control, whereas in fact it is statistically the safest place in the country. I accept that nobody was ever stabbed by a statistic, but any statement made by a supposedly serious commentator should have at least a shred of a fact about it. I am not stupid enough to ignore that far too many young people are getting dragged into gangs and drug related activities leading to their getting badly injured or killed, but over hyped descriptions are damaging.
The solutions trotted out are the old failures. Stop and search is resented because it is seen as being used in a discriminatory way and acts against the concept of policing by consent which is key to breaking gangs. The other failed policy is that of giving longer and longer sentences. These are supposed to be a deterrent but are not. They do not work because that idea assumes people plan to carry out an act and balance up pros and cons. That is not how it works. Some acts are spontaneous out of anger, some taken out of desperation. The prospect of an additional six months or so inside will not change what happens and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. A bit of honesty is needed. Longer sentences are a political act to pretend to be tough, nothing more and nothing less. Nothing in my superficial summary is new, but it would be really helpful if at some time someone looked at proposals from those with knowledge, who have no need to pose in front of cameras in pursuit of cheap votes, and started to implement the practical solutions advocated by not only Prison reform organisations but also by the members of various select committees of Parliament who take the time and trouble to look at evidence and put plans forward. Let me, for example, look at education.
 
A Very Bad Platitude
In 1996, one year before he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair said his three priorities for Government would be “Education, education, education.” As if to prove that there is nothing new around, in his first speech of 2023 the current Prime Minister announced his priority was mathematics and everyone should continue to study this until they reached the age of 18. Picking just one topic instead of the entire spectrum seems like a major cut back but perhaps it is a start. Unsurprisingly there was no hint of how this would be funded or how teachers would be found.
The benefits of the provision of education in prisons has been proven time after time, and the excellent report by the Select Committee on Education published in 2022 is the latest of a long line that demonstrate this. The perils for young people who are failed by the Education System in schools and end up on the often quoted school to prison conveyor belt are well known. Suspensions and exclusions from school damage young people and leave them vulnerable to being groomed by crime gangs and put them on a deadly road. County Lines Gangs exploit them. Yet schools still let them down. There are far too many young people in prison with low or no literacy or numeracy skills because they have been failed.  They felt they had no worth. It is our fault for allowing this.
Schools should be considered to have failed if they allow young people to leave without basic skills, Furthermore they should ensure that they allocate time and resources for frank and open debates on society and life so that children can talk about the temptations that they may find, and can see how this must be avoided. People with lived experience should be brought in to chair these talks, those who fell out of society but have now dedicated themselves to stopping others doing the same. This will, ironically, probably be resisted by the same media who moan about crime. On line grooming for criminal, sexual, or even terror related reasons are too easily accessible and the siren voices will tempt those who are being labelled a failure by schools and society.  This will need both funds and teachers to provide, but to me we cannot afford to ignore these concepts which have all been recommended before by people who, unlike me, know what they are talking about.
Most Depressing Of All
50 years ago the first ever Community Service Order was given. At that time the concept of community service as an alternative to prison stated that the person placed on it would be undertaking a task of genuine benefit to the local community, that it would give a positive experience to the person undertaking the work, that it should be local to their home, and that they should have the opportunity to continue the activity after their allocated sentence. It was recognised and agreed that giving people positive opportunities would build up their sense of self worth, and they would benefit from achieving something significant for others.
Two years ago, one of the Prime Ministers from 2022, a certain Mr Johnson, I wonder what happened to him, said that such schemes should be like “Chain Gangs” and so people are given to wear bibs with “community payback” on them and end up doing manual tasks for the public to see. Whilst these are quite clearly less damaging than a spell in prison, they do little to enhance the confidence of those taking part and certainly do not give them a feeling that they can be valuable parts of society where the original concept was designed very clearly to do that very thing. We should return to that idea, and use these far more widely as alternatives to prison which should be the last resort. It would save money and cut reoffending as such schemes always do.
However I would always want to see education included in any community service. It is vital. At school young people may thrive, survive, or nosedive. No one should leave the education system without basic skills. If school fails them, they should go on to college. Vocational training is fine, but literacy and numeracy are necessary and literacy opens up the world. Everyone should have participated in debates and discussions on society and life, and the dangers of grooming and crime.
The Last Resort
The reasons people fail at school are many and varied and a lot of people succeed in life despite this. But a young person who has been told they are a failure through their school stay and who is bitter at life is an easy prey for a voice whispering in their ear that carrying a knife and moving drugs will earn them money and respect. The successes of those who have left prison where they received an education and have gone on to thrive in life outside are all a triumph. Surely it is far better to have caught that person before they ever entered a prison gate. It would be better still to collect them as they walked out of a school gate in the first place angry and frustrated, and direct them to a supportive college. Make prison the last resort, look at community service first of all and cut down the numbers inside at the same time. I am sick of politicians and pundits celebrating that in a few years we will have 100,000 people in prison as if this is a triumph of planning. It is instead a miserable failure of which we should be ashamed.
This is a simplistic piece. There are many people with far greater knowledge than me who would love to devise programmes that would work. But my anger and frustration as we start into 2023 is that there is no significant politician from any party articulating a vision of crime prevention that is based on anything other than police, stop and search, and people being banged up for longer.
What we need is a vision for real change. So far we have none. Let us not wait much longer.

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