Make prisoners work hard (oh, but not too hard)

I think there’s something wrong with me.  Either I read too much BBC news or else I’m just plain out of step with the world.  On the basis of what I read (on the BBC news) all those convicted of a crime, any crime, large or small, I’m not in a discriminating mood, should be sentenced to death.  I mean, what’s the point of living following a criminal conviction if you are barred from working.

Yes, I’ve just read Viewpoints: Should Prisoners Have Jobs?  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23781988 not to be confused with Prisoners “must work harder” for TVs also on the BBC site.  In a contradictory conundrum, Prisoners must only work hard enough to earn the right to watch telly, but not too hard to help pay a mortgage.  The article repeated Ken Clarke’s statement that “prisoners should work 40-hour weeks while serving time” so just how does this latest argument stack up.

Paul Nowak, assistant general secretary of the Trades Union Congress hauls out the nice shiny chestnuts:  “We cannot have a situation where young people are unable to find a job because work is being done in a nearby prison for a fraction of the cost”.  Brenda, punch me in the face.  Fraction of the cost.  Don’t know how good at maths you are, but have a little think.  How much do you think it would cost to construct a working, call centre, within prison grounds?  How much to police it – I mean putting in safeguards to ensure those working in it are not abusing the system.  How much to guard the facility, to bus in those in charge.  How many hours do you think a serving offender is actually allowed to work in one day – I’m telling you, it’s not 9am to 5.30.  And can I just remind you (again) that 40% of a prisoner’s wages go to the Victim’s Support fund.  What a lazy, lazy argument.

No, you are right, Paul, “Unscrupulous employers must not be allowed to exploit prison labour and transfer employment from our communities into prisons”.  But heck, Paul, do you know how long it takes to establish an employment opportunity inside a prison, what hoops you have to jump through, the time spent waiting for government ministers to approve the idea – that’s before you’ve even invested in a structure safe enough to house your equipment.  And how brave of the TUC for not signing up to the government’s Code of Practice on Work in Prisons – what a fearless bunch they are.

Frances Crook gives us a much more balanced argument citing the importance of ex-offenders (especially those who have committed less serious crimes) being given “community sentences and free up resources to ensure those left inside get the support they need to turn their lives around”.

Oh Peter, Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Centre for Crime Prevention, you naughty boy you.  How could you word your thoughts so sloppily “for too long prisoners have spent a lot of their time in cushy idleness….”  and, here’s a bit of icing on your cake of platitude “a lot of people will find it creepy that the cold-calls they receive could be coming from a prison”.  I can imagine it now, sat in the comfort of my front room.  The phone rings.

Me:  “hello”.

Caller: “I’d like to sell you double glazing”.

Me: “Are you calling from inside a prison or inside a call centre?”

Caller: “what’s the difference”

Me: “i need to know your background as I’m not sure if i’m feeling threatened”.

Caller: “well, i’m a youngster, I go out at weekends and get totally rat-arsed and smoke cannabis, I’m paid a pittance and am unreasonable targeted to make a certain quantity of calls an hour, I exceed the speed limit and could one day mow someone down in a tragic accident, but thankfully that hasn’t yet happened.  I can’t afford to insure my car on my pay, but no worries, I think i get away with that.  I recently went on my holidays and smuggled too many fags back into the country and sometimes I work cash in hand but don’t tell the tax man”.

Me: “phew, I’d hate to think I was speaking to someone who had been caught defrauding the Inland Revenue.  Now where were we with the double glazing offer?”

But finally, after I’d almost given up reading, Karen Steadman, researcher at The Work Foundation comes up with some hard statistics:

Research on ex-prisoners showed half were claiming an out-of-work benefit at 12 months after release, with nearly three quarters claiming within two years of leaving prison. Ex-offenders are often also unemployed for a longer period of time than other claimants.

Though the reasons for this are multiple, including social exclusion, stigma, lower levels of education and work experience, and gaps in work history, the result is too often the same – a return to criminality.

Karen raises an extremely important point that the majority on the ill-informed commentators on the story fail to pick up on.  If Karen is correct, and, believe me she is, who do you think pays to support those on out-of-work benefit?  You do you eejut.  You might not like the idea, but surely it is better to get offenders – and also any long term unemployed person – into jobs to save us all money?

Hurray for Professor Andrew Ashworth

Professor Andrew Ashworth has produced a pamphlet released by the Howard League for Penal Reform arguing that prison “as our most severe punishment, should only be used for the most serious crimes”.  And he goes on to cite those crimes being of a violent, threatening or sexual nature. 

The Howard League article can be found here:  http://www.howardleague.org/what-if-property-offences/  the BBC reporting can be found here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23686277.

The important part of his pamphlet seems to be forgotten in the furore to accuse him of being soft on criminals, but reading his report, I don’t believe that is his intention.  Professor Ashworth does, like the rest of the population, believe that victims of crime should be adequately compensated for their losses and he believes this can be achieved by handing down “effective and proportionate responses that do not require a total loss of liberty” and for that I applaud him.

I think you know me by now, I will only comment on first hand experiences, but in our case, apart from the business my husband stole from, who did he harm and what was the impact of his crime?  Why did the judge in his case feel that the public in general needed to be protected from him?  Do you see where I am coming from – if the judge had analysed Mike’s case (and forgive me, I thought that was their role), he would have instantly discovered that (a) Mike had repaid nearly all the money he had allegedly stolen (b) he had lost his job and his livelihood (c) the company had not been affected by his actions and (d) he did not have the lifestyle normally associated with million pound fraudsters, so was not in danger of leading anyone else astray.  Far from it.  A couple of hours of investigation would have revealed Mike was devastated and consumed with remorse and guilt over what he did to the company, to his family and his reputation.  He was attempting to make amends by working for small local companies who were all happy and comfortable with his past.  In one case, given the company he was working for had severely restricted funding, he worked for free.  He was a man trying to make amends whilst on bail.  But still, he was sentenced to three years.

I believe I have argued before that so-called “white collar criminals” have so much farther to fall.  Their remorse is often total and absolute – repayment of stolen amounts is forthcoming, the indignation of dismissal, explaining their actions to their family – all these processes are mortifying in the extreme to someone normally of “good character”.  Prison is an unnecessary process.  It is the icing on the public’s cake. 

Going back to the BBC’s article, I then checked out the follow up the next day where “experts” and those in the know made comment.  I take exception to Max Chamber (who is head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange) who seems to believe that “prison is already largely reserved for the most serious and persistent offenders, with magistrates and judges using prison as a last resort.”  Max, please, you need  to get out more.  It’s not.  Prison is used often as a first resort, as a useless and ineffectual deterrent.   Max’s comments are disingenuous that “….by far the best way of (reducing the prison population) …is to prevent crime and reduce reoffending…”  Max, please tell me how sending people to prison helps prevent crime?  How long have we been sentencing?  Now, I’m dyscalculic but I’m sure if I plotted a graph of when prisons were invented, the line indicating those serving a sentence would be dropping like a stone if it were a decent deterrent. 

No, the Government won’t change the law – it’s interesting that we have the vitality to question and petition our government over the placement of double yellow lines.   It’s just a shame we don’t use the same amount of energy when dealing with those who break the law – which, I have to remind you, could be you, your husband, your wife, your son or your daughter.