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Jason Newman: The prison system could do with a dose of Project Fear


I’ll never forget my first experience of a cell. I was reasonably young and had gone with my dad to a small rural police station to get passport forms stamped. To teach me what I’m sure he knew would be an invaluable life lesson, he asked the officer on duty to show me the small holding cell. The door wasn’t closed over and I can’t have spent longer than thirty seconds standing in there but the message was clearly understood. I decided I didn’t much fancy the whole prison thing.

What was instilled in me that day was a healthy sense of fear. I naively thought this is where a prisoner would spend all his day not spent at work with nothing more than a book and blanket. This fear is now absent in the minds of young people in areas were the setting sun serves as an unofficial curfew for fearful residents. Most Western European justice systems have given up on the installation of fear and the dispensing of punishment. They proudly flaunt this as an achievement, a symbol of how the justice system and society as a whole has become more “civilised.”

Pass through or spend time in any of the areas blighted by anti-social behaviour and civilised is the last word to spring to mind. Gangs of hooded barbarians terrorise the old, the weak and the vulnerable, all of whom are weary of impotent police officers and the governments that have rendered them so.

The justice system has had its philosophical basis ripped from underneath it, the belief that people have free will. But alas the new more caring, more “civilised” system tells us that the cause of crime can only stem from deprivation, rough upbringings and “falling in with the wrong crowd.”

Anti-social blackspots are no longer called so, rather they have become known in a rather creepy form of official Newspeak as, “areas of social deprivation.” In the great tradition of Rousseau, man is born good and then proceeds to be corrupted. The prisoner is no longer there to be punished but to be “rehabilitated”. He is there to be made right again having been perverted by a society that corrupts with its inequalities almost as if he were but a passive sponge soaking up the delinquency. Essentially the dangerous notion is introduced that he is not responsible for his own actions.

Social deprivation is an argument that does not hold water as pointed out by the wonderful writings of former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple. At the turn of the century all countries of the industrialised world had staggering levels of genuine deprivation and poverty, yet remarkably low crime statistics. Most towns and villages had local police stations as well as beat walking officers, which ensured that while not as easy as dialling 999 reporting a crime was still relatively straightforward. Even accounting for crimes like domestic violence and child abuse, which were often kept hidden at the time, the crime figures still wouldn’t fall in the same galaxy as those of today.

If we were to accept the idea that an individual is merely the product of circumstance devoid of any sense of right and wrong, then we sacrifice the right to punish anybody for any crime. A burglar is not somebody who has decided voluntarily to break into a house and take hard-earned possessions in a move that will ensures the occupants will never feel at ease in their own home again. According to our more “civilised” justice system, the burglar is a victim of socio-economic conditions, somebody who is really as much of a victim as those he has burgled.

To start from a point that excuses bad actions because of bad conditions robs that individual of any sense of control over their life. They are told, “you are not being punished for the harm you have caused in society because it is society’s fault you felt like doing it in the first place; you are in prison merely to be rehabilitated. You are not being punished for your crime,  you are being helped because of your deprived circumstances.” This is no conservative straw man.  A prisons and courts Bill proposed by then Justice Secretary Liz Truss in April failed to mention even once punishment as a duty of the prison service.

The last forty years or more have shown that this Fabian approach does not work. Year on year more and more money is called for to alleviate social deprivation and aid rehabilitation yet crime shows no sign of significantly falling. As a matter of fact in Britain there appears to be an alarming increase despite the attempts at fiddling that usually take place with politically sensitive figures.

The question too must be asked even if these fluffy liberal methods were proven to decrease crime would we want them enacted? Ask yourself would you feel justice was being served better if a) the person who mugged you spent a few years living a Spartan existence in prison. Or b) spent their incarceration being counselled through their daddy issues, receiving training many people on the outside pay thousands to obtain all while living in cells furnished with the latest games consoles?

The alternative method is one that serves society well as shown by the figures at the turn of the century. A method based on both the Christian and Burkean idea that man is not born good and indeed must be made good by being shown the consequences of bad actions. A method championed by parental proponents of the naughty step for decades.

This would entail genuinely punitive measures that both punish the offender and encourage reflection. Austere prisons lacking any of the comforts enjoyed by those on the outside, comforts that serve to distract prisoners from why they are there in the first place. Prisons should serve to fill all people, but especially those considering committing a crime, with the same fear my ten-year-old self felt. It is a fear that if struck into the heart of a young offender early enough through a custodial sentence on his first contact with the justice system (and not his 31st), will no doubt stay with him for life.

The police and prison officials are not social workers and the judiciary are not social services, God knows, there’s enough of the State’s budget spent on these things as it is.

“Much may be made of a Scotchman if he be caught young”, opined Doctor Johnson, indeed the justice system must learn much may be made of any man if he be caught young.

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Jason Newman
Jason Newman
Jason studies English and Politics at third level in Ireland.

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