Monday, June 30, 2014

A Slice of Prison Culture

It's instinctive, if unfair. But I rarely wholly trust any man with a thin scar down their face. Being slashed, "striped", is one of the traditional prisoner expressions of disdain for debtors and sex offenders - nonces.

Such is the prisoner subculture. Nonces are, as a matter of social policy (so to speak), the excluded, the despised and the legitimate target for the violence of other prisoners.

Except I never did buy into this. In my early years, my appreciation of the subtleties of moral criminal reletavism was not all that it could have been, and I expressed myself as forcefully as the next man in relation to sex offenders. As the years passed and my moral education deepened, I withdrew from this part of the subculture.

There were three reasons for this. Firstly, the prisoners' moral calculations were a tad askew. While all sex offences have a "yuk factor", this needn't lead to the conclusion that all sex offences were inherently "worse" or caused more harm than non sexual offences. I killed someone. Who am I to tell a rapist that he is worse than me, and beat him?

Secondly, there was the problem of "justice". We cannot demand for ourselves what we would deny others in the framework of justice. The very men who inflicted vigilante beatings to nonces would howl to the rooftops if a mob turned up at their cell door.

On the landings, though, in the grubby reality of prisoners social life, what caused me pause was the sheer hypocricy that I witnessed. Sex offenders who were wealthy, or who could seriously fight back, or - most significantly - a nonse who could supply heroin were not invariably hounded. They were often treated with more distinctions. Whereas the sex offenders who were isolated, weak, vulnerable, were invariably abused. Such bullying dressed up as a principled stance against sex offenders was, is, pathetic.

I do not condone violence between prisoners based on their crimes. Not then, not now. As well as being morally suspect, such violence only plays into the hands of prison staff. It undermines any attempt at prisoner solidarity and is utterly pointless.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Purpose of Prison

What is the point of prison? What is it we expect to happen via some mystical act of hiding someone away behind a 20 foot wall?

I wish I could point to some profound piece of law; Or guide you to a deeply insightful Parliamentary discussion that encompassed teasing out the nuances of State power, the uncomfortable realities of inflicting suffering on citizens. You will know that such debates haven't yet taken place.

The best I can give you - apart from Chapter One of any criminal justice textbook - is Prison Rule number 3: The Purpose of Prison Training and Treatment. You will appreciate how little attention is paid to this grandly titled Rule when I point out it once held the place of Rule 1. It slides down the list as time passes.

Rule 3 states that, "The purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life".

Note those words: encourage...assist...useful life.... And note the complete absence of the word "punishment". Indeed, the Prison Rules are denuded of that word, as if by its literary absence then the reality of prison is somehow more amenable. Even punishments issued as part of the internal disciplinary process are smuggled into existence by being called "awards". I "won" a few awards over the years, mostly resulting in solitary confinement. An award in prison is not one to be sought after.

Punishment, then, seems to have been forgotten in the Rules. The punitive element of imprisonment is reduced to t6hat inherent in the act of imprisonment - the loss of liberty. Not liberties, please note; but liberty. This is an error that many make. And the loss of liberty is grievously underestimated by those who have never suffered it, by those who insist that imprisonment must be accompanied by imposing harsh treatment and hard regimes.

The Rules are clear. Which makes it rather pathetic that Ministers insist on reaching down from their vast and comfortable official perches into the cells of prisoners, to tweak the penitents lives just to make them a little bit more miserable. Not out of some great penological or criminological urge to reduce crime, but in the politicians perpetual quest to grub for votes and to retain their clammy hold on power.

To take Rule 3 on its face - let's pretend? - it might be asked just what in prison life either encourages or assists prisoners to live a good and useful life? Is it the overcrowding? The meagre family contact? The forced penury? Being forced to work for the profit of outside companies? The ambivalent healthcare? Being compelled to crap in front of cellmates, strangers?

These are structural indecencies, requiring no input from prison staff. This is the way prison is designed to be - degrading and empty of significant positive purpose. An hour in any prison is enough to suggest that far from encouraging a future "good and useful life", prisons foster a sense of anger, injustice and resentment. And a 60% reoffending rate.

I have tried to imagine what a prison would look like if it did aspire to actually adhere to Rule 3. It was so far removed fromj my experience that I failed. Utterly.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Morally Ambiguous Murderers

The Right wingers who lurk in the shadier parts of our society - such as Parliament and the Daily Mail - are not known for supporting murderers. Usually. But then we have a soldier convicted of murder and suddenly the adherence to the rule of law goes out the window. And Life should most certainly not mean life....

We saw this with Corporal Lee Clegg. After a stolen car had scuttled through his checkpoint on a lane in Northern Ireland, Clegg fired at the retreating car and killed one of the kids inside. Knowing instantly that using lethal force against a car which posed no threat was wrong, Clegg pushed one of his squad to the floor and stamped on him, so that they could claim the car hit them.

Rightly, Clegg was convicted of murder. And the Tory dogs of war - fresh from Balaklava, I suspect - declared him a hero and campaigned hard on his behalf. In the event, Clegg served 2 years of a life sentence, returned to the Army and gained promotion. No lifetime firearms ban for him then, just every other lifer on licence...

And now I see an e-petition is floating around for another convicted soldier, Marine A. Some feel his conviction by a military court for murder is an outrage and he should be released. Possibly with a Mandelian parade (that's Nelson, not Peter...).

The undisputed facts of this case are not ambiguous. Two insurgents were taking pot shots at Marine A's base. An Apache helicopter gunship was summoned, and it shot the two desperados to pieces with its 20mm cannon. Marine A was sent out with his squad to check on the insurgents.

Marine A found the victim. He was grievously, probably mortally, wounded. He was disarmed. Marine A then dragged him out of direct sight of his base and shot him dead. He then turned to one of his squad who was wearing a helmet camera and declared that he'd just broken the Geneva Convention. In brief.... Marine A found a wounded enemy. He disarmed that enemy. He then killed that enemy.

A military court found him guilty of murder. On the face of the facts, not surprisingly. This was not in any heat of battle; it was not the result of some mental fuse being blown under the pressure of combat. It was cold blooded and deliberate killing of a wounded and disarmed prisoner. It would be difficult to imagine how any court could not condemn this act.

However, there are those on the Right (including the risible "Britain First" group) who are circulating an Epetition to free Marine A. They do not dispute any of the facts of the case. The sole basis of their cause seems to be that a British soldier is, by definition, a hero and must not be convicted of killing a terrorist scumbag.

Exchanges I've had in other forums only reinforce this attitude. Excuses made for Marine A include the fact that the enemy are brutal and not constrained by the rules of war. Both true.

However. We engage enemies, we send our forces, on the basis that they fundamentally threaten us and our values. To attempt to justify mistreatment of enemy combatants on the grounds that the enemy mistreats British prisoners is bizarre. The basis of our campaign is that we are better than them, that our values are better. To attempt to argue that we should act as badly as our enemies is to reduce us to the enemies level. Which would beg the question - what are we fighting for, exactly? The right to torture and murder enemy fighters?

I have every sympathy for our armed forces. But the uniform is not some cloak that endows superman status nor renders our troops invisible to the rules for the conduct of war. Soldiers who commit crimes should be - must be - held as accountable as any other citizen.

In the event, the Court of Appeal has reduced Marine A's sentence to a minimum term of 8 years. That is half the standard starting point for murder. For anyone else, murder with a firearm would result in a minimum term of over 30 years. In this framework, an 8 year minimum is a gift.

I hope that this does not lead to a repeat of the Lee Clegg episode - Tory MP's queuing up to denounce the conviction, the sole argument being childish flag-waving.

Those who proclaim an adherence to the rule of law do themselves no service by special pleading for murderous soldiers. Ignoring the monstrous hypocrisy of such pleading, it also creates its own dangers. For accepting, even arguing, that our troops should be entitled to act with the bestiality of our enemies extinguishes any moral reletavism and only hands propaganda to our enemies.

Murder is murder. Law is law. Being in public service does not, should not, result in a free pass to crime.