Friday, October 26, 2012

The Longest Day

There have been many unusual days of late.... The last one encompassed a meeting around miscarriages of justice - the first building I've needed a clip-on ID badge to wander, followed by a bite and a drink with the ex producer of Rough Justice and the ex head of the Metropolitan Police's intelligence unit. This is not to deny that interesting days never happened in prison, but the sheer variety of activities that can be found in a "free" day is so much more eclectic.

It was a long day in London and I was tired, deciding to forego my usual peripatetic use of the Tube in the evening for the train home. With an inflamed tendons in my shoulder and elbow, placing my laptop in a luggage rack as I lurked in the crowded vestibule within sight didn't strike me as being an outrageous risk.

I was wrong. Approaching Didcot I stood aside as hordes crowded the aisles to leave my view of my bag obscured. And as the train began to move again I noticed it was missing.... After searching high and low I presented myself to the train manager who made a note and managed to give me the wrong number of the transport police.

Dumped at my home station in the dark and wet I was seriously hacked off. As well as a new netbook, my phone charger and a bundle of confidential papers were in my bag. Realistically - despite being in possession of a Crime Number and a letter from Victim Support - none of it will ever be found or returned.

Of course, this isn't the first time I have been a victim of crime. You don't stagger through 32 years in prison without the occasional bump into the unpleasant. As ever, being on the crappy end of the crime stick leads to anger, frustration and a bout of contemplation.

The first, and still greatest, challenge to my views on crime and punishment was provoked by the death of my sister many years ago. Like many victims of crime, I spent an improbable number of hours dreaming up ghastly and inventive torments for her killer and that phase lasted several months. Until it dawned upon me that my hatred and frustration could corrode away at my spirit and add to my grief. It certainly didn't help me in any way.

After much contemplation I realised that all I wanted from my sisters killer was for her to recognise the enormity of her actions, to look into her eyes and know that she carried the weight of my sisters death. Sending her to prison was utterly futile.

Who stole my bag? The temptation is to alight upon the youngsters loitering in the train vestibule. hile not all of the young are criminal, a depressing amount of criminals are young. Was it an opportunist grab for an item to sell for the next bag of smack? e will never know.

If the git is ever caught, could I actually stand up in Court and help try to send him to prison? No. Whatever mess his life is in, sending him down would make it a hundred times worse, and at great expense to boot.

An apology and explanation would be nice though. And this is the strength of Restorative Justice approaches. Criminals do as they do partly because they distance themselves from their victims; justify the likes of theft by either not considering the disruption to the victim or minimising it - "the insurance covers it". With the RJ process, the crim is compelled to peel away this facile view and face the reality of the person behind their crime, the people they have harmed in whatever way. And that alone is often a remarkably powerful motivator for reflection and change.

If "my" thief is ever discovered, I would hope that the response would be to aid him to repair the harm to me, whilst simultaneously help him to sort his life out. I fear the criminal justice system just isn't that sensible.


  1. Isn't this the basis of much of Sharia? How would it work? Locally or nationally? Could restoration be an individually negotiated process? I'm trying to think of simple examples - kids cleaning up a vandalised garden seems better than an ASBO, for example (just as fights and minor bullying in schools are better sorted out by sensible parents and a couple of play dates than any school bullying policy). But these things require the co-operation of all parties. What if it's not forthcoming? And if petty thefts are inspired by addiction, what restoration is possible? Replacing dozens of stolen items doesn't seem feasible. I dunno. Just asking?

    1. @Jill, it may help if you Googled around RJ, lots of stuff. Its not Sharia, its actually far more akin to AngloSaxon justice, pre Norman invasion.

      In my case, a deal such as paying for a replacement laptop (the punitive part) coupled with rehab (the support part).

    2. RJ is closer to Maori Law, Aboriginal Law and if you go back far enough, Brehon Law. It is about resorting the 'status quo' rather than 'punishing'.

  2. Good blog Ben; the only problem with RJ starts to appear when we get into the realms of offences against the person from common assault right up to murder ( no!! That isn't a dig). I don't think that RJ would work in most types of sex offences either; I suppose there'll always be a need for jail regardless of how well (or not) it does its job?


    1. C-A,

      So you are thinking that a victim of a sexual offence/rape would not want to enter in to VOM, (Victim Offender Mediation)?

      You would be surprised at the amount of victims of these , and other crimes, who voluntarily want to enter the RJ sphere.

    2. But, yes, it seems there will always be a need for jail; a few people cannot be rehabilitated and they will need to live somewhere. But in reality, those numbers will be minuscule compared to the current prison population.

  3. No one suggests that RJ is an easy process; it is often as fraught as it is productive.

    Imprisonment is a modern punishment. I wonder what we did before that? And what indigenous tribes, without prisons, do today?

    1. Really interesting post, glad you got sorted with a replacement laptop.

      To give one answer your question above, In Tanzania, anyone caught house breaking is usually summarily killed by house guards (any in the neighbourhood). This is quite a common reaction in the 3rd world, where detention isn't available or practical, especially when the fear of the criminal leads to fear of retribution if the criminal is reported rather than just killed. The place I worked had a very strict "no killing" policy, which was very controversial with the guards.

      The irony is that Tanzania is an extremely safe country - it's perfectly safe to wonder around most of the towns and villages late at night, and house breakings are actually quite rare considering the wealth disparity.

    2. @Andy S
      Good point: probably not what Ben wanted to hear but still a good point.
      As for other places... Middle East , thieves get a hand chopped off, sometimes flogged in public, sometimes both. Old England thieves would get hanged for stealing a sheep etc until the public grew tired of executions, then we started transporting criminals to the new territories of Australia etc.
      Getting back on point though, the whole point with RJ is it only works with 1, offenders who are truly sorry for their misdeeds and 2, victims who are willing to engage with the process.
      Furthermore RJ does not fulfil or replace one of imprisonments key functions ( which interestingly hasn't been mentioned so far) that is deterrence.

    3. Ok - Deterrence. There is no such thing.

      I am (was - it's been several years) a reformed sex offender. However, I knew that if I was caught committing a sex crime, I would face a long prison term.

      But I didn't think what I was doing was a crime. I was just talking to someone who wanted to talk to me, about all sorts of subjects, one of which was sex. What made it a crime was her age. More importantly, I'm now out, and engaged to the woman in question.

      AS a result, there was no deterrent effect.

      More importantly, having been inside, I now won't pay things like TV licence, Council Tax etc, since the worst they can do is put me back in for 2-4 weeks. Having done more than 4 years inside, 4 weeks is nothing.

      Prison is only a deterrent for those people who fear it. Most people who fear it aren't criminals. Most criminals see it as an occupational hazard.

      Now what I fear is indeterminate imprisonment. But that's not Prison, that's the duration of it.

      I offered to take part in RJ, and was told it wasn't suitable for Sex Offenders. But I wasn't suitable for the "courses" they wanted me to do. So, as a result, I am apparently, according to the omniscient Parole Board a "unquantifiable risk" of reoffending. So much so that I have virtually no monitoring or involvement with the authorities at all, travel and work abroad and have a law student as a girlfriend.

      Prison takes a mans freedom, often for no reason.

      And if you want to play the "deterrence" card, what purpose is remanding a prisoner? 19,000 remand prisoners in the system today, more than half will walk from court. What a waste of money, time and effort. There can be no deterrent effect on an innocent man. He doesn't fear prison because he has committed no crime.

    4. @ Fenrir...

      Good point well put regarding deterrence; but I don't think it's as straightforward as either of us have made out. I suppose the reality is that there's no way of quantifying the number of people for whom the fear of being sent to prison has deterred them from offending in some way or another because those possible offences never happened..
      I don't doubt for a second that prison ( accepting your point ref IPPs) holds no deterrent for people who have previously experienced it, but looking back to the 60s thru til early 80s it did hold some deterrent factor. I'm not suggesting that the huge rise in prison population is because prison is easier now, but if its less of a deterrent than it was that surely must have some impact on attitudes towards it.

      As for remanding people I do accept that lots of people on remand get acquitted at trial, but what about those that don't? How many times do you think some people reoffend whilst on bail, fail to surrender to bail etc? I can't see an alternative to remand in custody for some offenders

    5. To turn your last comments round. How often do you hear of someone not offending on remand, then walking from custody? It doesn't make the papers, where Offending on bail does.

      There was a recent case in Hampshire IIRC, of a guy on remand for the murder of an old woman in her own home. I happened to share a landing with him for a few days. I know he got beaten up at one prison, even though he was on the VP, and was moved to another prison where he got R46 (OR) segregation.

      After 14 months on remand, he was acquitted, and not even an apology from the Prison Service for his beating. What a waste of time, effort and money. And the police have even said "we are not looking for a new suspect", implying the court got it wrong.

      The system is the issue, not the buildings.

      Now I am out and Ben can't associate with me, I will say it's a pity our paths never crossed :-)

    6. You mean R45 ( OR)

  4. Once again Ben you have made me think. Thank-you.

  5. You have to lock up everything these days, Ben, things have changed. I reckon community ended when you had to lock your front door. Successful people learn to let these provocations pass, otherwise they will be delayed with an endless succession of skirmishes. Ref your remark on retribution, I think the saxons used to hang a thief!

  6. I doubt we will see a revolution in RJ (particulalry as a replacement to prison). In the words of Cameron "retribution is not a dirty word" and "punishment is what offenders both deserve and need, too. It says to them: “You are adults. Your actions have consequences.”"

  7. May I take you back to the place, you, over here, laptop, over there? I think that you should be either, a politician, or ministerial maniac? Both of those, even lose the Nations secrets, never mind their own! A laptop, is called that, because you play with it, on your lap. It also means, that you should never let it get further from your sight, than 3.9mm. You shall learn, or you will lose everything 85 times, after which, you do it all over again! =D
    For someone, who has just spent over 30years, with some of the most unreliable wombats, on the planet, "Shame on You"! Did you not know? Out here, they will rip you off for everything. You have more out here, than you ever had in there. If you think, that leaving something that important, is clever, then you shall keep losing those damn things, and reporting it on here! That would be boring, indeed!