Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Decency Matters

There are those who will attack and denigrate prisoners at all costs and at every opportunity.  Some such people occasionally leave comments on the blog and one theme is the eternal question of why should prisoners be treated decently? After all, given the suffering we have caused, why should we get anything more than cold gruel and a daily kicking? I could dismiss such people as being ill-informed, neanderthal, but that would be facile.  Such people, I assume, may be suffering the effects of crime and their contempt may be genuine.  Their comments may be crude but the emotions behind them may be very real and complicated.  It would be abrogating the purpose of the blog if I were to dismiss such people as they dismiss me.

So why should prisoners be treated decently?  There are two main reasons, one utilitarian and one moral.  I don't expect either to persuade those who stew in a pit of their own hate.

In a utilitarian frame of reference, how society treats prisoners has a strong effect upon the levels of future crime.  If you prescribe punishments that include hatred and despair, if you strip away all social capital and reject the prisoner to the extent of being outcast from society, then there are consequences.  Those consequences include higher rates of future offending. It may be emotionally and politically satisfying to hurt those who have hurt us, but in doing so we create future victims.  In this sense, advocating endless punishment and degradation for prisoners is stupid beyond belief; it is the social equivalent of a toddler's temper tantrum.

Morally, to degrade prisoners is to deny a shared humanity.  To degrade other individuals reflects upon the darkness in our own souls.  It is an impulse to be resisted, not fed.  To expel prisoners from society - emotionally, socially, politically - is to expel them from being considered human. And this carries unspeakable changes to all of us.

Treating prisoners decently is often posed as being anti-punishment; it need not be.  But there must surely be limits to punishment, a defined purpose and a rational outcome.  To reduce ourselves to acting out of emotional spasms degrades all involved.

There are debates that could, should, be engaged with.  What should be the aims of punishment?  What should be the limits?  What should the daily regime of prisoners be like, what facilities should be afforded? At present these are not issues for debate but rather act as lightening rods for our basest personal emotions and political urges.  And as long as this remains the case, then society loses as much as prisoners do.


  1. An excellent post Ben. I truly believe that if everyone was totally honest about themselves, they would have more compassion for prisoners as they would be able to admit that they too are potential offenders. No-one can truly say what their reaction would be were they placed in a certain situation, for example. I maintain that much of the denegration of prisoners just serves to makes people feel better about themselves. We DO all share a common humanity and you are right Ben; to think otherwise will lead to unspeakable things, as history shows us. Also, as a Christian I believe that unpalatable as it is for many, we ALL fall short and that God does not grade our sins. He offers us ALL His forgiveness, a fresh start, and help to change who we are for the better. There is not one of us better than any other in His sight; He loves us all the same. Punishment should not mean degradation. It should be a time to reflect and receive the help and support needed to change.

  2. One of the mainstays of our criminal justice system, and one very rarely covered, is that we punish criminals with deprivation of liberty, nothing more nothing less. We do not 'add on' extra punishment while in prison, so its right that we treat prisoners in accordance with their human particular because of the number of miscarriages of justice. Any one of us could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up in prison

  3. Thank you for blogging Ben. My partner has just been jailed and I am in the process of becoming aware of the world of issues confronting prisoners. Your writings are tremendously helpful, thank you for giving a voice to the voiceless. Don't know if you can, but have you read Will Self's article in the BBC magazine (posted on this site)? You hang in there & keep your head up.

  4. This post deserves a wider audience.

    Everything you say is true. It was Churchill no less who stated that you can tell the level of a society's civilisation by the way it treats those who transgress its laws. Looks like we've taken a long step back towards barbarism in recent times.

    I think it should be mandatory for anyone wanting to become a judge or a magistrate to have to spend at least three months beforehand in a Cat-C or even a Cat-B being treated as if he/she were a convicted prisoner; plus they should be required to attend a 'refresher' of one month every three years.

    This might just (although even then it would be a long shot) put some of them off being so ready to throw people into prison for what are by any yardstick minor offences; or to appease the howling mob or yapping politicians; or just "because they can".

    There's another element, though. When prisoners do get back out again, many of them are homeless, nearly all are jobless, and most of them have little prospect of legit employment again, with the requirement to declare any conviction for at least ten years. Add to that the galloping use of CRB checks (which we were assured were only to be used for jobs with 'vulnerable groups') and anyone getting a conviction (let alone a custodial) - especially a young offender - is looking at a lifetime of officially-sanctioned and officially-enforced underachievement. This is not healthy and makes future reoffending all but inevitable, if the flaming-torches-and-pitchforks brigade could but see it.

    The long and short of it is that fair, just and humane treatment for those of us who have not (yet) fallen foul of the courts is best guaranteed by ensuring fair, just and humane treatment for everyone.

  5. I'm not even sure what the point of punishment is for it's own sake. You want the person to not commit X, Y and Z acts (acts designated by current legal scribblings as 'crimes') for the rest of their lives.

    Punishment might help achieve that. But punishment is just a means to that end, punishment is not the end itself.

    Except for the mindless haters. Well, those haters who haven't managed to commit a major crime themselves yet. Where else does alot of crime come from but hate that breaks free of intellect? It's ironic how the people who hate prisoners and want them to suffer are so very, very close to commiting the same acts as those they despise so very much.