Thursday, November 8, 2012

The New Job

Perhaps it is a sign of the age in which we live. On my arrival at the Howard League I was handed a  PC rather than a shovel, and spent a period of time familiarising myself with various internal policies and the current campaigns. Organisational and bureaucratic stuff. Nothing too onerous!

Just after lunch - my first Big Mac - I was stopped in my tracks. A folder entitled "Child Deaths In Custody". Opened, it revealed  a list of children who had killed themselves behind bars, the youngest being the age at which I began my sentence - 14 years old. I was shaken, and remained so for several hours. Leaving work I wandered the darkening streets of London, searching for.....what? Some inner peace? Awaiting a revelatory flash to put all of this in context?

I felt drenched in misery. Events from past years and past faces rolled through my mind on an unstoppable conveyor of angst and I felt a certainty of anger at the centre of my being. It was that force that kept me plodding forwards in the face of official disapproval and semi-official brutality, it was a reconnection with the visceral anger that propelled me to dissent with my captors and their philosophy for most of my adult life.

I have had disputes with the Howard League over the years; their priorities have not always been the same as mine. And yet whenever I am asked about the purpose, the point, of such organisations as the Howard League I will now always recall the moment I opened that file.

Society needs dissenters, it craves those who sit in the aisles and shouts pointed questions. When we - and we are all responsible for the policies that put damaged and distressed children in cells - are content to have a system of criminal justice whose destination sometimes ends with a frail body hanging from a cell window then it is time to speak. It is time to act.

And it is a time to reflect. I am. Can we not do better?

47 comments:

  1. One of my points of dissent from Blair's New Labour government was its ugly wish to criminalise children. It started with the Bulger case, where I felt too little blame was apportioned to adults, especially parents, who may have influenced the two juvenile killers. Children become fully formed adults after they have detached themselves emotionally from their parents, teachers and others. I agree with Ben that we can do better, for example, by ceasing to scapegoat children in circumstances where adults are the responsible parties, and by treating children in custody in a way that reflects our hope that they may become our future good citizens.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thought provoking post Ben, but ( as usual I'm afraid) I take a slightly different view.
    I think that your view of this issue (ie through the prism of someone who sees imprisonment as fundamentally flawed in almost all cases and almost all of its aspects) is clouded by what you call your visceral anger.
    You can't realistically suggest that it's the fault of the criminal justice system that some children in prison ( and some adults too, but that's a different subject) kill themselves in custody, because that's a view that is too simplistic and is focused entirely on the end of what ( in most cases) is a lengthy process in which the seeds of suicide ( and the opportunities to avert it) are sown, and missed, way before the person concerned ends up in custody.
    As at 2010 ( latest figures available) there were 64000 looked after children in the UK, of these 73 percent were in foster care, the other 27 percent in Local Authority Care of some sort ( that's 17000 kids in care). This total equates to 0.5 percent of the child population of the UK. Of those 17000 in care roughly 1500 ( about 9 percent) are in custody of HMPS. Out of the 64000 looked after children 59 percent are subject of a care order, and 37 percent are voluntary agreement cases. Most are looked after as a result of neglect, abuse or other family dysfunction.
    Of the 1500 in custody, 42 percent had been in care before being in custody and the average age of receiving their first police caution is 11.5 years!!
    The point I'm making is if these kids are in the system for years before they end up in custody, why haven't they been pro-socially modelled before reaching the point of becoming offenders? It isn't the CJS that's at fault for their suicide when they land up inside, it's the whole system that ought to have looked after them following their parents failure ( in most cases) that has let them down and allowed them to drift towards a cycle of crime, custody, release, crime, custody that is self sustaining in too many cases. The proof of that is that the same document (HMIP Thematic Review on Looked After Children in Custody) informs us that the figure of 41 percent of children in prison having been in care, carries forward but slightly reduces to 32 percent of adult prisoners having been in care or " looked after" at some point in their childhood.
    I applaud you for raising this matter; I don't think the tragedy of children killing themselves in custody is the fault of the CJS, but don't propose to have any solutions to the sorry road that leads kids into prison either, I do hope that this reply, and your post, provoke a debate that cuts across the divides that have been apparent on your blog lately and hopefully enlightens us all...

    Regards,
    Cynic-Al

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. i hear what you say, the CJ system is but part of a wider social tapestry and prisons an even smaller niche.

      However, these kids killed themselves in prison, not care, not at home, nowhere else. In this, prison should be the focus.

      In taking damaged people and deliberately inflicting greater distress then yes, I do apportion responsibility to prisons for these deaths.

      Delete
    2. Cynic-al

      It actually matters not where these kids came from, the fact is the prison service has a duty of care for children/juveniles despite what backgrounds they come from. Spouting unreferenced claptrap and pointless percentages about how many were in care or abused or in trouble before they entered the penal system does not hide the fact that they KILLED themselves in the custody of the PENAL SYSTEM!!
      From your post, most of them would have topped themselves BEFORE they were given a custodial sentence!!

      P.S Post your sources, (Harvard style), and I will look at the veracity of them.

      Many Thanks.

      Chuck.

      Delete
    3. @ chuck,
      Thanks for yet another belligerent rant of a response...
      If you take the time to actually read my post you will see that I did actually reference all of my " claptrap and pointless percentages"... The FACTS that I quoted came from HMIPs thematic review published in 2010, but I will bow to your obvious wisdom which undoubtedly surpasses that of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and his review team....

      Cynic-Al

      Delete
    4. @ Chuck

      Harvard style referencing? Are you teaching a course on blog commenting, or do you not have Google?

      - Xyzzy

      Delete
    5. Cynic-Al

      Allow me to provide a more measured response and not a 'belligerent rant' this time.
      I still hold that the data you provided @9.46 on the 8th Nov is still quite meaningless, as statistics can be interpreted in many different ways as there is no meaning behind numbers.
      You state vociferously that they are FACTS but they are not. They are someone's analysis of a bunch of numbers. Quantitative data might be useful for indicating trends or patterns but they do not 'prove' anything. Qualitative data on the other hand might give meaning to the numbers, but again rely on an interpretation of the questions by the respondents .
      With respect, you managed to come to the conclusion that the rest of the system was more to blame for deaths in custody of young people based on that report, (published in May 2011 BTW), than the CJS but based on the evidence it is not as conclusive as you say.
      I would still maintain that damaged kids from 'looked after' backgrounds are pushed over the edge by incarceration, (but that is just my interpretation and not necessarily a fact). the fact is that the CJS in taking them into their care, (no matter what their background), has a duty of care to try to make sure they do not kill themselves whilst in it.

      Can we kiss and make up now?

      Chuck Macaber

      Remember: there are "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" (Twain/Disraeli; take your pick)

      Delete
  3. Seconded about the Bulger killers. I remember the suicide of the young boy at Feltham, that dreadful institution. Children can wreak havoc in wider society - TDAs, etc - but I can't see how Scum-style institutions can ever provide an answer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Scum was a work of fiction... The reality is far more fun....... Bring on the gladiators!!! lol

      Delete
    2. I remember the Borstal game called 'Murderball' - an improvised version of rugby with few rules: Any number of players are divided into two roughly equal teams and the objective of the game is to get the ball over a try line or between goal posts by any means necessary.

      But, what I remember most vividly; is the look of sadistic joy on the faces of the gym screws looking/leering on....as young boys in tight shorts had no other choice than to batter the fu*k out of each other - for no other reason than the strange/sick pleasure of those charged with their welfare.

      I'm guessing you're of a similar bent....!?

      Delete
    3. The changes in behaviour/attitude/personality that some children are forced to adopt simply to survive the harsh reality of youth custody - accompany them into the ‘free world’ on discharge.

      Delete
  4. I applaud you for having the strength to fight on as you did. I recently faced an injustice that I tried to rectify, and faced with a brick wall and implied threats to myself and others I am responsible for I was forced to surrender. I struggle to imagine how you kept fighting for so long.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. sheer bloody mindedness! Human beings are remarkably resisient.

      Delete
  5. I am sick of hearing about the Bulger case. That one (extreme and unusual) case has been allowed to influence policy for far too long. I am sick of the obsequious cowering to the victim's vengeful mother no matter how abhorrent and wrong her utterings.

    Ironically, while I believe the two children in question should never have found themselves in an adult court (the idea that a 10 year old has sufficient mens rea for murder is idiotic and putrid); the way they were dealt with after trial was correct imo - secure care rather than prison.

    Prisons are no places for children and while the reduction in custody for kids is to be applauded, I would argue that any person under the age of 17 should not be placed anywhere near a penal institution. The focus should be on welfare - even in secure settings.

    Believe it or not, things were better in Victorian times. A virtually identical case back then resulted in the two perpetractors being given five year sentences for manslaughter in a caring (rather than punitive) setting. One of them I believe even left before the five year sentence was up on good behaviour. The sentence was thought to be right and just.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/a-child-murdered-by-children-1616746.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thaws weren't the first 10 year old killers; Mary Bell was just under 11 when she killed her first victim, Venables and Thompson were the youngest to be convicted of murder, Bell was convicted of manslaughter. That aside, they certainly had sufficient mens rea to be convicted, and jail is where they should have gone, rather than into an already discredited secure care home.
      I'm flabbergasted that you consider the murder victims mothers (Denise Bulger) views abhorrent, especially when you consider that one of the two (Venables) that savagely murdered then mutilated her son has been cautioned for affray, convicted of possession of cocaine and convicted and sentenced for possession of child pornography depicting penetration of a 2 year old since his release from care.... No wonder the mothers views are so strong about these two...

      Delete
    2. That Denise Bulger has extremely strong feelings about Thompson and Venables is quite understandable.

      However....her feelings are not those of every murder victim parent or family, nor are they helpful in the sense of informing public policy.

      Delete
    3. Proof that we did not successfully rehabilitate them, then.

      Delete
    4. @Katy. Hmmm, depends how you define it. If you mean rehabilitation to only ever mean no criminal activity, then no.

      But if a reduction in criminal activity or seriousness of offence counts, then looking at kiddie porn pics and snorting coke is a hell of a reduction from murder.

      Delete
    5. Yeah??? Cos using coke, or looking at images of a two year old being penetrated doesn't harm anyone eh??? Pity you weren't a nonce benny cos then you might have you seriously need...

      Delete
    6. Might have got what you seriously needed I mean

      Delete
    7. Put your name to your threats, you spineless Window Warrior!

      You want to give me a kicking for not agreeing with you???? Epic!

      Delete
    8. Jeez - why is it that people seem to be making up straw man arguments? Where on earth did Ben say those things didn't HARM anyone? This is where some people lose the plot and indicate their own stupidity - by saying that because X doesn't believe Y, he must therefore believe Z. It really cretinous debating of a very infantile kind. Stevo

      Delete
  6. Well said Ben, people seem to be unaware of what goes on and that this is happening to children. You know my feelings on the subject. I absolutely boil with rage when I think these are children, what the hell are they thinking about and I know where many of these kids have come from and that most have all the potential to be intelligent, caring, funny, sweet people but because of mostly difficult circumstances and lack of direction their whole lives end up being de-railed. We as a society are allowing this to happen, it is not fair and my pet hate is INJUSTICE!! Keep up the good work, I for one and I'm sure I'm not alone, am right behind you!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anon - yes I do consider some of her views abhorrent. I'm allowed to think that - she is not some unimpeachable saint. She's also a bit of a bully (look at what she said about Maggie Atkinson and David Ramsbotham) who thinks that any views apart from her own should be shouted down through the tabloids.

    I have some sympathy because I think she is largely used by tabloids who feed of her hatred. But she has really contributed nothing to the debate but bile and hate.

    She once said that if Thompson and Venables were murdered, she'd be happy to stand next to their killer in court (that was long before the new conviction btw). Now if that is not incitement to murder, I don't know what is. And you think two ten year olds should have been sent to prison? No need for me to say any more. Thompson did not go to an 'already discredited' secure care home by the way - he went to Barton Moss secure unit - considered to be the best in its field. Red Bank (where Venables was placed) had its problems.

    Venables and Thompson were not the youngest ever to be convicted of murder in any case, I believe they were the youngest to be convicted of murder for 300 years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So do you think she should forgive them?? Would you forgive them if they had killed your child?

      Delete
    2. @Jenny did not suggest at any point that DB forgive T or V. Why set up a false comparison?

      Just because someone does not support DB in her extreme feelings does not imply that they believe the opposite.

      Delete
  8. No - I don't think she should forgive them. I simply don't think she should encourage acts of violence against them. And I think she should stop demanding silence from people who disagree with her. She is a bully.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You know what they say about walking a mile in someone's shoes before commenting on whether or not their journey is a tough one???
      Obviously an alien concept to you given your level of compassion for the murderers of that child when compared to the bile you spout about the surviving victims of their horrible crime.... Can I assume that you aren't a parent?

      Delete
    2. @Anon, Jenny was trying to say that DB should stop advocating the murder of T=V; nothing more.

      And as a law abiding citizen, I assume you also would support Jenny's call to refrain from murder...?

      Delete
  9. I am a parent actually (three times over in fact). Funny how you've made a crass assumption that I'm not.

    I have shown no compassion to Thompson and Venables - all I have said was that children do not belong in prison and that I think a ten year old does not have sufficient mens rea for murder. You need to read what I've written again.

    My issues with this case is that it has absolutely nothing to tell us about juvenile crime. It was a horrible, unusual crime (although not unique) and it should not be used as a template for policy.

    I find Mrs Fergus a dislikable person. That is my opinion. (It's not actually a lone one either believe it or not). She is free to say what she wants of course but to expect no comeback from people when she says things that come across as quite nasty (not thinking of the things she has said about the killers but about other people), is arrogance.

    Victims aren't always nice people you know.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Neither are f***ing convicts. MIKE

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whats your point, "Nike"? That because cons can be unpleasant then victims can be? you are always attempting to create some equivelence, as if two wrongs make a right. Guess what - they make two wrongs.

      Delete
    2. Oh Dear Mike, (oh sorry MIKE, you do like to shout your name as you must think you are much more important and/or informed).

      At least you spelled everything correctly in your pointless reply this time.

      Well done, you're learning.

      Next time you might want to contribute something useful to the blog.

      Reckon that might take a lifetime though, but please come back snowdrop.

      Chuck

      Delete
  11. Dear Ben

    As someone who had worked in children's residential care and taken them backwards and forwards to Youth Court, Youth offending team etc. I implore you to do anything in your power to help change policies on youth custody. It is nothing short of a tragedy that so many young people who have suffeted at the hands of those who should be caring for them end up in the CJS. Even one suicide would be too many, then there are those who turn to illegal substances to numb their pain and remain on the prison merry-go-round for years. Please read 'shattered lives' by Camilla Batmangelijh of Kids Company. Please do what you can to change things. Thank-you.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Strangely - Jenny and Anon probably have the same expectation of victims. That they must necessarily be unimpeachable and pure. Jenny may be cross because the victim's mother in this instance doesn't fulfil this while Anon probably can't see past this version of victim to see her in any other way. Like anyone else, victims of crime can be nice people and not so nice people. For me, Denise Fergus seems like a not very well educated, not very bright person who has probably been given a platform by the popular press that she doesn't really merit. She gives them what they want and they probably compensate her financially in return. Not a particularly positive state of affairs but there we go. She irritates me and I think she is wrong on almost every level so I ignore her but I don't judge her because she is not like more sophisticated victims such as Doreen Lawrence. - Stevo

    ReplyDelete
  13. My last comment, on your previous posting, still holds true! The subject of this posting, is a serious wake up call, Ben? You should know, of all people, the suffering that is instigated by this place, is just nothing to do with the Divine Pleroma.......

    ReplyDelete
  14. @ prisonerben 6:29 8 November

    Bloody hell Ben, for a moment there I thought you were going to accept the bigger picture and acknowledge that prison for kids is the last of last resorts, but all you've done is agree that these kids are often dreadfully damaged way before they reach custody yet still blame prison for their deaths..
    Take a look at the evidence; HMPS juvenile centres are ( pro rata to their capacity) funded almost as well as the high security estate, and devote a vast amount of resources into safeguarding children in custody ie individual training plans, independent review officers, named local authority and YOT workers, family sentence planning processes, weekly progress reviews, but still tragically some of these kids choose to end their own lives.
    As you know every death in custody is investigated TNT the police and referred to the PPO as well as being subject to a coroners inquest. There has yet to be a coroners verdict other than suicide or misadventure in the case of the suicide of any child (15 to 17) in any HMP juvenile centre, so how can you blithely blame the prison service( even if what's a large proportion of your followers want to hear)?
    As I said in my original response, these kids have been let down so badly and have been so damaged prior to custody, and that road to suicide in some cases has foundations laid by society, their parents, the social services, and multiple other factors...

    Cynic-Al

    ReplyDelete
  15. Cynic-Al - no-one disputes that the majority of children who end up in custody have led profoundly disrupted (often tragic) lives.

    However, prison is no place for such children. It is prison which has seen the suicides. How many children have killed themselves in the past 30 years in secure children's homes?

    I'll tell you. None. Zero. Nil.

    ReplyDelete
  16. What about Niamh Lafferty and Georgia Rowe? Both aged 15, absconded from the Good Shepard care home in Erskine near Glasgow and jumped hand in hand into a nearby river. The sheriffs fatal accident inquiry ( Scottish equivalent of a coroners inquest) roundly condemned the home, both girls were know to be at risk of self harm and had profoundly damaged lives both prior to and within care. Had they progressed to a ( let's say) Scottish Prison Service juvenile centre and committed suicide there would that automatically make the SPS at fault too?
    Your logic (IMO) is flawed; it isn't prison that kills children, it's their loss of hope, realisation that they have reached the end of the line, feelings that they have been let down by all forms and figures of authority that they've ever encountered, and so on and so on.... To just say " children should never go to prison" is simplistic because some children ( and remember, the only " children" in actual HMP custody are aged 15-17) do need to be imprisoned for many reasons, not least because they're too old for many secure care homes, and almost all children in prison have already proved to be unmanageable in that setting anyway.
    Cynic-Al

    ReplyDelete
  17. They have only become 'too old' for secure care homes relatively recently. Secure care homes used to be able to hold vulnerable young people up to age 19. And I call STCs prisons btw.

    I would argue that most young people in prison shouldn't be there at all. Particularly those on short sentences (which are useless at best, counterproductive at worst). I would rather see young people sentenced to intensive foster care (if their family life is chaotic) than custody. Prisons are not the places where the multiple failures of successive agencies should be placed. They have effectively become dumping grounds for society's failings and are expected to be care homes, hospitals, mental health units, workplaces, schools, etc as well as places of punishment.

    ReplyDelete
  18. So you do accept that some young people should be in prison then?
    Cynic-Al

    ReplyDelete
  19. No - if they need to be held securely, they should be in small local authority units. I thought I made this clear. I believe only a very small number of young people need to be held securely at all. Moreover, I believe prison to be criminogenic - particularly to young people

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Probably criminogenic to whoever enters it cos its full of scummy crims.... Get real, it's a bit like saying I think water might get you wet if you jump in it ....

      Delete
  20. No, you didn't make that particularly clear; you said "I would argue that most young people in prison shouldn't be there at all" ... Reasonable to infer from that statement that you accept that some young people ( the remainder from "all" minus "most") should be in prison?
    Cynic-Al

    ReplyDelete
  21. OK - what I should have said was 'most young people sentenced to custody'.

    ReplyDelete
  22. But do you accept that some do need to be in custody? Simple question....
    CA

    ReplyDelete
  23. Denise Fergus has been indulged, sucked up to, and coddled by the media in the UK to a degree that's virtually unprecedented for the parent of a murder victim anywhere on the entire planet! Apart from one scathing attack by Charlotte Raven, I've yet to read any columnist or journalist anywhere take her seriously to task for her often abhorrent views (like her attempts to incite vigilantes to go after Venables and Thompson and kill them).

    Seems to me she hasn't been asked a single tough question by a journalist in 20 years. In the tabloids (where she whores out her son's death at regular intervals in exchange for hefty amounts of cash) she's beatified as a saint - Saint Denise of Bootle Strand - and in the broadsheets and on TV she only ever faces the softest of soft questions. I've seen several of her television interviews, and the interviewers NEVER confront her with the FACT that England is the only European country where 10-year-olds can still be prosecuted at all, and in well over two-thirds of the nation states on Planet Earth, 10 is below the age of criminal responsibility as well! And even those nations that do sometimes prosecute killers as young as these two, the prison term is very rarely much, or any, longer than the eight years V & T served (and sometimes significantly shorter). So when she moans about the allegedly short sentence, the so-called "mollycoddling" V & T received, is there not even one single journalist in the entire UK with the guts to confront her with the reality that she's basically complaining about the legal policies, not just of England, but of ALMOST SINGLE COUNTRY ON PLANET EARTH??

    And by the way - there's one facet of the Bulger case that I've never seen any commentary on but deserves note. According to David James Smith, author of The Sleep of Reason, the best overall take on the case, Jon Venables underwent corrective surgery for his eye squint shortly before he killed James. What Smith doesn't appear to know, but is well-known to many trauma experts, is that these sorts of surgical procedures frequently trigger severe PTSD in patients, especially children, and ESPECIALLY children who are ALREADY traumatized by their regular lives. Two great books to read on this subject are Waking the Tiger and In An Unspoken Voice by Peter A. Levine. (Levine even singles out operations to correct squint as being among the most frequently traumatizing/PTSD-instigating of all surgeries!)

    Why is this relevant? One of the normal biological responses to PTSD is the killer impulse or rage reaction, which is programmed into us (like it is to other members of the animal kingdom) to save us in states of emergency. Since the child's body (even if the child is unconscious) experiences the surgery as a rape or violation, a mortal danger, the child is now instinctually PRIMED FOR EXTREME VIOLENCE. This is NORMAL. This is part of our evolutionary biological inheritance. Our very BIOLOGY compels us to be tremendously VIOLENT in response to VIOLATION.

    It has NOTHING to do with psychopathy or sociopathy. The more I look into this case, the more I believe Smith was correct that Venables, not Thompson, was the prime instigator of the violence against James, and that this was not a premidated crime, and moreover, I believe that severe trauma and PTSD, built up in his system, accounts for Venables' lethal behaviour that tragic day. I don't believe he killed James because he's a monster. I believe that he killed him for the same reason that war veterans often overreact and commit horrific violence when they return from their tour of duty - the severe PTSD and its attendant rage reactions is now locked into their bodies. Until and unless the PTSD is properly treated and cured, these veterans will always be dangerous, and potential time bombs.




    ReplyDelete