Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Prison Works" - An Attractive Lie

The central plank on which the argument "prison works" rests is the seemingly obvious assertion that, whilst prisoners are locked away, we cannot commit crime. There are two problems with this edifice of thought.

Firstly, it makes the crass assumption that there is no crime in prison, that as soon as we pass through the gates we are transmogrified into paragons of reasonableness. As assumptions go, this is a pretty big one. As dumb assumptions go, it's a classic. Crime is rampant within prisons, utterly rife. Prisoners lie, cheat, steal, punch, kick, stab and murder with some vigour.

Just about the only crime that is rare in prison is motoring offences...though there is the apocryphal story of the disciplinary hearing where the Governor announced his faith in the honesty of his staff. "If my Officer tells me he saw you riding a motorbike along the landings, I'd find you guilty of unauthorised possession of petrol"... That aside, crime is as much a bane in here as out there.

Or is this assumption itself based on yet another assumption? That is, that crimes committed against criminals just don't count? If that is the case, if the rule of law ends on conviction, then can I assume that we are free to leap into bestial modes of life without any sanction from that law? Or, worse, can we then assume that we are inconsequential, a sub-species whose suffering from crime is an irrelevance?

So the first plank of the "prison works" argument is riddled with rottenness. And the second assumption? That is, that if we weren't imprisoned than we would - inevitably - be out there continuing to commit crime?

Many prisoners would. But don't allow the natural outrage against this divert you from a simple yet fundamental point. That would mean that we are locking people away not as punishment for the crime which they have already committed, but instead we are isolating them for the crimes they may commit in the future.

This is a classic slippery slope, and one that should cause a twinge in everyone who has a passing acquaintance with small concepts such as Justice and Liberty. Locking people away in order to prevent crime should be universally decried. Or at least debated.

Of course many prisoners would go on to commit crime if they were on the streets. Instead, they commit their crimes on prison landings. And around a third of prisoners do not re-offend on release (for two years, at least). So we are detaining tens of thousands of people in an effort to prevent crimes which they were never going to commit.

"Prison Works!" is an excellent slogan, fitting nicely within the confines - and mentality - of a t-shirt. Take a few moments, though, to unpick the assumptions it is woven from and the fabric of the argument falls through one’s fingers like ashes.


  1. I always thought our justice system was based on innoccent until proven guilty?? Is this no longer the case? While I agree the public has a right to be protected, we also have a duty of care to those held in prison. Like it or not, they are all human too. Thanks Ben...thought provoking as always

  2. As self-appointed representative of The Taxpayer, could I remind people that PRISON COSTS!
    How many of our enormous prison population have done something you'd pay £50k a year to prevent?

  3. When people automatically defend harsh things without giving proper thought to them, it tastes of vindictiveness rather than morality.

  4. @May

    If our justice system was based on innocence until proven guilty, then why do we have secret courts, anonymous witness programmes, and remand?