Better judgement

Against my better judgement, I was persuaded by a friend to attend a talk given by a recently retired High Court judge she knew… (Needless to say I didn’t!)

I confess, nonetheless, I was rather impressed. I remember judges from my youth who asked daft questions like who are the Beatles? This man was humorous and highly aware.

I was rather impressed with his take on punishment. He pointed out that prison is really a product of the Victorian age – as he said “Vigorous Protestantism” was seen as offering reforming solutions. No longer the ducking stool, the stocks or the pillory (apparently this is like the stocks with an additional hole for the head) or just plain whipping (not completely abolished until 1948!) All these penalties were for misdemeanours. If you were convicted of a felony there was just one penalty – execution. How cruel and unkind this seems to us now.

Yet he suggested a conversation he might have with an eighteenth century predecessessor which gives enlightening context.

What do you do now? asked the eighteenth century judge.

Well, he has to reply, we’ve got 85,000 people in prison (double the population of the 1980s) costing about £40,000 each.

That sounds expensive, it must be good, this prison system.

Well I’m not sure, he has to reply, about 70% reoffend within two years and prisons are so full many remain on the drugs (65-70% of people taken into custody have traces of illegal drugs in their blood) they were on before they went in because there are insufficient staff to supervise the prison.

Well there must be some good for this expensive system to be so widely followed.

Yes of course, at least people are kept out of the community – albeit overwhelmingly not permanently.

So there must be a rehabilitation system in place then?

Well theoretically yes, but again there are insufficient staff…

He concluded, not unreasonably, that his eighteenth century judge would consider the new system exactly as we now consider theirs, completely bizarre if not entirely mad.

As indeed we all should.

£40,000 per inmate would pay for a lot of social services and it is only the Daily Mail syndrome that prevents us from being decently logical and preparing people for life in our society rather than being ineffectively punished for a short time outside of it.

It is a further disaster that the current ‘austerity’ programme means we are actually storing up further problems by keeping the ‘poor, low achievers’, who form the majority of the prison population, both poor and low achieving. As a policeman from the 1970’s is supposed to have said to the government of the time “Society throws its rubbish in a dustbin and then expects the policeman to sit on the lid.” The police themselves are, these days, also much reduced in numbers.

I suspect that, in order to keep trouble off the streets, this scenario from the ‘Spectator’ is our only hope.


  1. Graham -

    So that’s about £3.4 billion p.a. But it’s actually worse than that: capital cost of building prisons; losses to the economy of having people who could, with an effective rehabilitation scheme and other social measures aimed at prevention, be in employment, contributing to the economy and paying taxes; the losses, both economic, personal and social experienced by their partners and dependants.

    It’s madness and inhumane.

  2. Peter May -

    Agreed. We think we’ve ‘advanced’ but I think our prison ‘system’ will be unfathomable when our successors look back.

  3. Ivan Horrocks -

    Don’t forget much of our prison (and probation) system is now privatised so given how ideologically and economically this government (and the previous two) are in the pockets of corporate interests there’s every incentive for locking people up and criminalising them. This cosy little occurence has been well documented in the US, of course, where such practices have come from, and with a prison system even more vast – and ineffective – than our own.

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