Sunday, December 11, 2011

Victims (yet again)

I don’t recall saying that I would avoid topics which may be uncomfortable, controversial or even offensive.  Putting the full weight of the State on a person and throwing them into prison is a profound act. It is to expel them from their community and to deliberately inflict suffering. Given the seriousness of this, then confining the debate to some comfortable island, to bow to sacred cows, or to merely bandy trite stereotypes around would be cowardly and pointless. As I have a voice, it would be pure ego to use it merely to flatter you or to polish my own image. As the only regular prison blogger in this country then I feel a responsibility to strip away the detritus that often passes for penological debate and attempt to deal with some of the difficult issues. This clearly makes some readers uncomfortable.

One of the most sensitive issues is that of the victims of crime. Those who have followed the blog from its early days will understand that I decline to be led by popular opinion on victims’ issues. At the same time, I refuse to poke at victims’ issues merely to provoke outrage. There are genuine issues to debate and I will on occasion raise them.
This may seem to be indecent and I'm not insensitive to that. People whose lives have been wrecked by crime should receive support and the utmost consideration as indiv­iduals. Human suffering should provoke our empathy.
As a collective, some victims have grouped to form a political lobby whose effects are visible throughout the criminal justice system. Individual victims may - from plain decency - be left in peace but political lobby groups are legitimate targets for debate or criticism. The alternative is to abandon policy-making to the hands of a particular group, whose agenda may not be for the good of the wider society.
Such criticism may seem unseemly. That is the price of debate. That such subjects are being analysed by a murderer seems to be plain crass or foolish, as one commenter alleges. That may be so.
As a member of a society whose criminal justice system is being warped by victims lobbying, I maintain that I have every right to join the debate. Justice should, after all, belong to all of us. As a prisoner whose daily living conditions and progress to release are affected by victims lobbying efforts, I insist that I have a perfect right to be heard. And as a man who lost his sister to a violent crime I myself am a victim and on that basis I feel it should not be viewed as improper that I have a voice. Unless only "nice" victims are allowed to speak?
In some sense I may be uniquely placed to speak on such issues. As the singular prison blogger, and as both the perpetrator and victim of homicidal crime, I may offer a bridge that could span the chasms in these debates.  And if some readers find such debate uncomfortable I can only hope that they examine their beliefs.
An uncomfortable  debate  always holds the potential  to be  a  deeply productive  one  and this blog always  prefers  to  generate   light  rather  than  heat.


  1. You are right of course. However, there is one major problem with this debate at the moment, and it is a prisoner. It is a prisoner who is willing to be interviewed, to write, to appear on TV, to loudly give his opinions. It is a prisoner who fought his way to the Strasbooug courts for prisoners votes. If I hadn't stumbled upon the guardian article that lead me to this blog, it would probably be the only memorable prisoner speaking on these issues.

    It is John Hirst.

    I have no idea if he is simply unable to express himself, or if he actually has no idea what normal members of society think. However, he is the perfect victims spokesman. He is the "perfect Criminal," in that he comes across as unpleasant, arrogant, and not at all remorseful (in particular when he states that he doesn't need to be sorry as he has served time in prison which absolves his crime).

    In doing so, I think he does more damage to the cause of prisoners rights than any other person in the UK.

  2. Yeah, about those votes, when are we going to see prisoners voting?

    I hope every prisoner who is being denied the vote currently is pursuing a compensation claim against the government since they (The Tories) as usual seem to think they're above the law on this issue!

  3. So…… victims isolated are fine (being ‘worthy of the utmost consideration as individuals’). But they’ve had the sheer temerity and wrong-headedness to form a political lobby ---and by doing so have warped the criminal justice system.

    But all is not lost, because Mr Gunn feels he’s maybe uniquely placed to speak out against this state of affairs ----- because he is a (very) long-serving murderer who has ‘lost his sister to a violent crime’.

    Ben --- if you’re going to be a ‘bridge (to) span the chasms’ on this issue then, for my tastes if no one else’s, you need to show a degree of humility –all I see here is conceit.

    1. I doubt if that would apply solely to your tastes.

    2. Conceit? For pointing out that victims groups lobbying for THER agenda need not be in the interest of society as a whole? And for noting that I have an experience in this regard which is rare?

      If that's conceit, to hell with it. The points still stand....

  4. and tallguy: John Hirst has done difficult, technical work and he’s done it painstakingly and to excellent effect. And he gets noticed. All fine by me.

  5. Ben can speak out about this subject as he has a right to an opinion, he is articulate, has writing skills and a regular blog with a large audience, what is wrong with that? What makes you say or think he is showing conceit here anonymous?

    The criminal justice system is well warped anyway and has been for a long time hence the said imbalance and the topic of discussion.

    It admirable to attempt to make a bridge in the debate among the opposing sides, but I don't rate Ben's chance at success, although I would be glad to be proven wrong.

  6. You are right, Tall Guy, JH is not a very palatable spokesman. But I hear he has Asberghers syndrome, which may explain it.

  7. Anonymous coward 1:

    Lobby groups are /never/ a good idea on any subject, they corrupt everything, see the Americans and their flat refusal to do anything about climate change because big oil companies with money can bribe the representatives.

    While it's nowhere near as bad here as we (thankfully) have a fairly transparent system, it does still go on, heh.

    Victims should have no say whatsoever, this is not Saudia Arabia, the state punishes criminals through a fairly well known body of people, namely our magistrates and judges who are trained to sentence the crime and not the criminal, victims and their groups are not and cannot be objective which is why they rightly shouldn't have anything to do with the process.

  8. Ben himself recommends John Hurst on this site. From that, I can only deduce that he understands fully, what an equally unique (and valid) prospective he brings to the table in terms of exposing the ills of our CJS.

    If JH exuded a more clean-cut image, I expect all the usual suspects involved in prison reform would be queuing up to welcome him on-board.

    From what I've read. I consider JH a victim himself.

  9. Well said, Hideki, good point made there about victims.

  10. In British law any crimes you commit are against the State: the State tells you not to do something and if you do it the State gets cross with you. It's what you did not what the outcome was: you couldn't know the kid you hit would die but you you could and did know you shouldn't hit him.
    It's a good principle because it's fair - pity governments don't keep to it. Hysterical lobby groups, especially of victims' relatives, are only partly to blame. The media barons are a lot to blame too.

    1. Victims lobby groups are hysterical? Based on what evidence please?

    2. For extrapolating from single tragedies to campaign for mass changes. It is disproportionate and irrational - hysterical.

      Unless we want to wander off into a learned discussion of Freudian theory, obviously.

    3. That accusation has no basis Ben. Nothing would ever change if we ignored or discriminated against those who had direct experience. In any arena.

  11. Hideki,
    taking a problem and inverting it doesn't fix things, it just means you have a different problem. Lobby groups have done their share of good in the States. The ACLU does lobbying; so do groups like PFLAG and the NAACP. Money means you can afford to pay professional lobbyists, so it's an advantage, but it's not one victims' rights groups tend to have. Besides, you don't seem to be talking about lobbying anyway - you're talking about campaign contributions (which are poorly regulated, but that's not the topic.)

  12. We are not sure that anyone expects you to avoid uncomfortable topics, and have never seen it suggested that you should. You have never offended us nor made us feel uncomfortable.

    A young nurse accused her then partner of rape and physical abuse. He went to court and was given bail. The CPS, the police and the victim herself were concerned by this decision, all agreeing that the victim would be put in grave danger. There was nothing any one of the three could do about it. So he was given bail and went on to stab his former partner over 70 times in the car park of her workplace. Their fears and concerns were valid, the nurse paid with her life, but nobody had to listen to them. The victim and those on her side were ignored, as is usually the case in our CJS.

    Her parents “lobbied” for change, supported by many victim led organisations. Those changes have been accepted and now the CPS/police/victim will be able to challenge a judge’s decision to grant bail where they feel someone will be placed in grave. Can that possibly be a bad thing?

    You state that putting someone in prison is a deliberate attempt to inflict suffering. We would disagree. Yes, the prison system could be better. It could and should do better at rehabilitation. It could and should do much more as far as education and training is concerned. It could and should do a much better job at putting people back into society who had been enabled to lead crime free lives. But it has to remain a place where offenders face the consequences of their actions. One of those consequences can be the removal of ones liberty. It is also a place that can serve public protection very effectively.

    You are right when you say there are genuine issues to debate with regard to victims. But appear to fail to see that this is the reason that some victims have come together to lobby governments. We do not know of one victim or victim organisation who wants “policy-making to [be in] the hands of a particular group, whose agenda may not be for the good of the wider society”. And we are very familiar with most organisations. We know only of those who want to be PART of that debate.

    I don’t think your “criticism” seems unseemly. In fact we believe it is very useful as it highlights the difference between offender geared lobbyists and victim led lobbyists. We want nobody excluded from the debate. We believe every single member of society has a right to be heard whether victim, ex offender or ordinary Joe. We want a solution that reduces the number of victims.

    Let’s look for example at restorative justice. Do you really believe victims should be expected to take part having no say in how such programmes are designed or implemented? We think that notion would is ludicrous, victims should have a say in how this policy is designed, if not it will be a huge fail, and could cause further damage to victims.

    As members of society we do not feel that the CJS is being “warped” by victims lobbying and as such, like you, have every reason to join the debate. No more than we would state it is being “warped” by offender led lobbyist groups.

    You say that justice should belong to all of us. Shouldn’t it read “all of us except of course victims”? We do not feel your voice should go unheard, or be ignored, and it would be proper if you afforded victims the same courtesy. They have a perfect right too.

    There is nothing in this blog that we find uncomfortable, nor controversial. It is full of the same old stuff that victims have heard for decades. We should just quietly accept that we may or may not get the help and support we need. We should stumble through a CJS that we cannot possibly understand because of its legal complexities. We should never challenge, not attempt to address, its failures, because fail victims it often does. As the case of Jane Clough perfectly illustrates.

  13. The Clough case is appalling. And doesn't alter my perception one whit.

    That someone "feels" in danger and persuades police of the same is hardly a good basis on which to throw an innocent person in prison.

    That the police and prosecution failed to persuade the court that remand was sensible only points to the lack of evidence. That - after the fact - the crime was indeed committed doesn't alter anything. People cannot be put in prison without sound evidence, sufficient to persuade the court.

    Prison could and should, perhaps, do many things - but it doesn't. It damages. And it damages those innocent people on remand as harshly as the convicted. That is the reality.

    It is a serious matter to damage someone in that way and the power of the State to do so should be tightly circumscribed. he new law allows prosecutors to go shopping around Judges to find one who will imprison an innocent person. This is an invitation to abuse of power and that is why it is reprehensible and not in the interests of society.

    1. Jane Clough did not "feel" in danger, and she did not persuade the police or CPS that she was Ben. She was in danger, an obvious fact. The police and the prosecution did not "fail to persuade the court that remand was sensible" the Judge "failed" to accept the fact. Fact it obviously was. A failure of our court system is often (sadly to the cost of women like Jane).

      The reality, Ben, is that for the 30 ish % who do not got on to reoffend after a custodial sentence (most of whom who have served long sentences) prison does not damage, it changes. On those statsitics some might argue that the biggest problem with prison is that most offenders are not kept there long enough to enable change?

      Nobody wants a system where we "shop" around for judges to bend to someones every whim. Nobody wants "innocent" people (which of course Vass is not) thrown in jail. But a system whereby people like Ms Clough are protected from people like Vass is fundamental to a justice system that works. A system where judges free men to walk out of court and stab a partner over 70 times, till she lays dead in her workplace car park, is clearly one that does not work.

    2. That she happened to be sadly correct in her fears is an after-the-fact justification. She could not know the future, only fear it. A poor foundation on which to bang someone up.

      that 30% don't reoffend has sod all to do with change caused by prison. they still lost their homes, jobs, possibly family and kids. Prison damages, period. It's designed to do that. Call it punishment or anything else you like, but damage it is.

      What is fundamental to our justice system is that people should not be banged up without solid evidence and judicial process. It should be hard to lock people up because it is an extremely serious thing for the State to do.

    3. There was solid evidence that suggested Jane would be in grave danger if Vass were given bail. The Judge decided any and all "fears" were not warrented, and chose to ignore the evidence and grant Vass bail. In doing so he allowed Vass to carry out his threat and do as he had said he would, murder her. It is on these gounds that the bail laws have been reformed allowing cps/police/victim to appeal a bial decision whee they believe a judge has failed to make a sensible decision. The Judge IGNORED evidence, he didn't simply ignore unwarrented fear. The change does not allow for people to be banged up without solid evidence nor to ignore judicial process. It allows Judges decisions, based on evidence, to be challenged.

  14. "victims and their groups are not and cannot be objective" - Would you care to evidence that opinion?

    1. When has a victim's group ever lobbied for something which enhances justice for all, rather than perceived justice for victims? That's a lack of objectivity.

  15. Surely every lobby group lobbies for those it is concerned with. When has an offender geared lobby group ever done as you describe?

    1. So you don't deny my point, that victims groups campaigns may harm justice for society even if they satisfy the victims groups? And who are the "offender geared lobby" groups?

  16. I do deny that point, I have never come across a victim led campaign that was being fought to harm justice. The aim of campaigns I have known is to improve/enhance the system, taking into consideration all players and not just one group.

    Attend a CJS conference Ben, offender geared groups and organisations are there in high numbers. All lobby. We will see you there!


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