Saturday, December 19, 2009

Second Class People

I have heard some pretty strong things said about prisoners. We are, apparently, expelled from society, outlaws, unwanted, not entitled to the protections of human rights, that we have declared war on society... You name it, if it's stupid or negative; it has been said of us. And yet...

And yet all of the obligations and responsibilities that go along with being a part of society are still forced upon us. The most important ones are - that we have to comply with all of the laws, even if we can't get access to read most of them; and we have to pay our taxes, and often more of them than people outside. As a smoker, about 80% of my paltry wage has gone to the government every week for 29 years.

How is it that we can be saddled with all of the obligations that come from being a part of society are still forced upon us, whilst at the same time we are said to be not part of society, that we are denied the benefits? They can't have it both ways, a deal is a deal. There is a 'social contract' between each individual and society and society is breaking it far more than we are.

The deal was this: that if we broke the law, we would be subjected to the due measure of punishment; and then we would be restored to our pre-criminal status. That is the meaning of the word ‘rehabilitation’; it is 'to be restored'. Society has broken that deal, and if they are not going to stick to their part of the bargain then why should we?

Let’s have a quick gallop through the ways in which we are being screwed over. Firstly, we are not fairly punished. There are two reasons for this, neither pretty to look at. The introduction of victim impact statements means that some people are being thrown inside for longer not because of the crime they committed, but because of someone's best weeping and wailing performance. And the obsession with risk assessments means that there are thousands of people serving indefinite sentences on the basis of what they may do in future, not for the crime they committed. This is unjust for so many reasons; one being that risk assessments are as accurate as a drunken monkey at the world darts championship.

Whilst in prison, we are robbed and misused by any sap who fancies making a fast buck. The phone prices, the canteen suppliers, the outside firms who we are forced to work for... everybody gains from our punishment except us. Alongside the loss of freedom, our visitors are forced to trek across the nation, and are humiliated on arrival. We are denied any training or skills, despite the prettily worded 'statements of purpose’ that litter notice boards. We are kept in prison years longer merely to keep the modern plague that is psychology employed, to no obvious effect on the re-offending rates. At the end of this process we are kicked out with a week’s benefit and a plastic bag, helpfully labelled with a big Prison Service logo - just in case the people on the train didn't realise they were associating with a social reject.

On the street, we may be subject to more layers of surveillance and control, probation, police, MAPPA, Registers of various sorts. Every job interview turns into a farce because we have to declare our convictions. We are just not given a straightforward punishment for our crime; we have our lives trashed in a hundred ways. At the end of our punishment, society is then encouraged to treat us like lepers.

Where, then, is the rehabilitation? At what point are we restored to society to carry on from where the punishment ended, allowed to rebuild? It doesn't happen. This is why society breaks the 'social contract’; these are the ways in which it breaks the deal every single day.

It has to be asked, why should we keep the deal if they don't? Why should I accept my lumps and stop committing crime if society refuses to accept me back as a full citizen? Why should I be saddled with all the obligations of society when they deliberately deny me the benefits of being part of society?

Either we are a part of things, or we are not. If we are going to be kept as second class citizens, then why not reduce our obligations? If I'm going to be prevented from getting a job on a level playing field, then why should I pay full taxes? Why should I abide by the law when those very same laws are used to perpetually deny me fair opportunities?

The society that despises us can't let us go; it seems compelled by some twisted urge to keep a grip on us, even while claiming it doesn't want us. Here's a new deal for society to consider - allow us to return as full, reformed people and citizens or let us go, keeping us as second class. But if you choose the latter, don't expect us to behave as if we are proper members of society. You will get the crime rate you deserve, because you can't expect us to stick to rules that are only used to keep us down.

With thanks to Inside Times


  1. Good argument but falls down in the face of reality. It would be an irresponsible society if questions were not asked of previous convictions when a person goes to get a job as a nursery worker for example.

    If you owned a supermarket would you employ someone who'd been done for theft?

    In the case of NI where people have been locked up for political reasons, who have done the time but hadn't committed offences before or after the time, there is a case like you say, yet Sinn Fein were unable to get criminal records wiped clean, for people to get jobs. There are jobs for ex prisoners if they were political prisoners, such as taxi-ing, I even know one guy who teaches at a university.

    The post is too simplistic, it doesn't differentiate between categories of crime. Sex offenders, well those guys are the lowest of the low, but petty crime committed in someones youth, there again you have a case.

    Your post has too broad a brush to be taken seriously. Maybe you could examine the issue again and come up with something a little less broad. As for things not being fair, they aren't fair on the outside either.

    What is it they say, lifes a bitch ;-)

  2. I Anonymous' point to a certain extent.

    I acknowledge that some offenders are suffering from psychotic disorders which directly influenced their crime and as such were not a result of bad choices or crappy circumstances that forced the person to act the way they did and therefore their chances of re-offending will not be affected by learning to make better choices or improving their socio-economic status in future.

    But with regard to your question 'If you owned a supermarket would you employ someone who'd been done for theft?'? Well, actually yes.

    People steal for many reasons, for example feeding drug addiction and if that person has beaten their addiction then the reason they stole is no more, so why shouldn't I at least try trusting them? I have mentioned this to Ben before, but I had a friend who I met when he was doing community service for car theft and he became a good friend to myself and my parents.

    One summer he did some work for us and Mum left him to get on with it while she went to work. He was trusted with our house keys and when he expressed his gratitude for our trust my Mum simply said 'Would you steal from a friend? Of course not. Therefore I trust you'. He later told me that this trust was a really big deal for him in terms of his confidence in re-joining society as a productive member of it.

    If we want people to re-join society then we have to be willing to welcome them back to us. That takes a lot of trust on both sides.

    Will your trust be betrayed sometimes? Probably (mine has been betrayed more times that I care to remember by people who've never seen the inside of a police station, never mind a prison), but the point is that the emotional and psychological impact you make on the person simply by the act of placing trust in them can often be profound and permanent.

    As for juries? Well, I've seen the kind of homophobic, racist, self-righteous dross that gets called up for jury service and quite frankly it terrifies me that those idiots can have so much power over another person's destiny.

  3. just to avoid all the serious matters and pick up on 'as a smoker':- are you allowed to smoke indoors? Surely a prison is someone's workplace, and it can't be one law for one and another for others...

    ...but on the other hand, I can't imagine most prisons will says "oh, I'll just open the gate, you pop outside for a quick tab and ring the bell when you want to come back in"

  4. @jackp : cells are treated as "homes" and so are smoking areas. All other indoor areas are smoke free.

  5. @ Gaina - I consistently applaud your comments. I like the way you think.

  6. I'm getting the feeling Ben is having a few days of sticking his fingers up to society. Frankly, I don't blame him.

    But... as with the charity post, if you (global you) take your anger out on society by committing crimes (unless you choose your victims very carefully) you are punishing the wrong people.

    There is an argument that society punishes itself by marginalising people in this way and, if ex cons take action themselves to stop being side-lined, then it will remove any of the pressure on society to change. However, I tend to think pressure on society to change will come best from those who have exceeded their expectations.

    Ben is in an excellent position to be that person, especially with the support he has lined up for when he is released. All we need is for the system to release its grip on him *sigh*

  7. Its not just inside that people are discriminated against its outside too.

    5 years ago I jumped into a taxi after a night out with university students. Unknown to me the taxi was booked. I did see a couple arguing outside but thought no more about it. Anyway I jumped into this taxi and the woman outside started to shouting get out. I said no and a police man came up and I was trying to explain to him that I didnt know it was booked and he arrested me for drunk and disorderly behaviour. I was kept in the cell over night fined £80 my DNA taken (didn't have to attend court)
    but the problem being'
    I wanted to train as a social worker and no agency will take me because I have a criminal record now this society has to start allowing for mistakes everybody makes them. :(

  8. @ Wigarse: I too notice a change in Ben's tone in the last couple of posts. @ Ben: though I have no doubt that you have cause to be very angry, when it comes out in your posts in this way, I think you run the risk of losing your audience. As for me, I'm guessing that the so called festive season is taking its toll. Personally I find it an immensely stressful time as do many people that I know, especially those prone to depression. It must be an especially difficult time to be in jail.

  9. I always thought that ben intended the blog to be challenging, not a forum to gain popularity. If he challenges, we have the choice of thinking, or going away. I am staying to think.

  10. Hmmm, i read this as being polemic rather than anger. And it is a fair question- if prisoners do reform, why are they kept marginalised? I think some commentators want a light and fluffy version of prisonerben, but i know him and he is personable but can be challenging!

  11. @ syncopated eyeball: Oh! Thankyou :). My gob gets me in trouble more often than not so it's quite nice to come accross someone who likes the way I think! haha.

  12. I think if I had served 30 years after being sentenced to 10, and found myself still there, again, at Christmas, I would be more than just a bit pissed off. Trying to change the system from within (didn't Cohen sing that?) must be disheartening at times.

  13. Re: my previous comment. I was certainly not suggesting that Ben would lose MY readership. I read every day and have done so for weeks. I was expressing what I've learnt from my personal experience: an angry TONE alienates - I too, along with Gaina, can't shut up. I like this blog precisely because it is not fluffy!

  14. syncopated eyeball said....I too, along with Gaina, can't shut up.

    Oh, I can shut up just fine...I just find that sometimes it's more amusing not to X-D.

  15. @syncopated eyeball

    What I said wasn't meant as a criticism (except the bit about punishing the wrong people). I come here to be challenged and have my mind expanded and I know I am not the only person.

    I don't consider I have to agree with everything Ben says, and so I am not in anyway put off by posts like this. Perhaps if there are some people who are, it is better they are weeded out? I'd far sooner that then Ben changed his writing style to please his audience.

    One of the problems with blogging is that many people only comment to disagree. I'd like to state for the record that I agree with everything in both this post and the charity one except the issues I have already raised :)