Transformation of a Tory as a result of prison experience

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By reader, Alasdair Macdonald:

About 10 years ago, over a short period, I attended lectures on prisons by Mr Jonathan Aitken, the former Cabinet Minister who had been jailed for seeking to pervert the course of justice and by a woman (sadly, her name eludes me) who had been the first woman to have been governor of a prison for males.(She has also been the governor of the prison which held Ms Myra Hindley and Mrs Rose West.) Although they were coming from different perspectives, their essential message was the same: Prison is pretty ineffective as a way of dealing with crime. Of course, some people, both agreed, have to be locked away for the public safety, but, the number of these is pretty small. Both were of the view, that even in the present circumstances, most prisoners should not be in prison, since most are people suffering psychological and/or psychiatric illness and do not present much risk to the public. There are other ways of dealing with them, but that would mean diverting money from the prison corporations to other kinds of actions, such as probation, community service, rehabilitative actions.

Mr Aitken, whom until his conviction, I had always considered – rightly! – to have been a scion of the establishment who had an arrogant sense of entitlement, clearly had undergone a sincere transformation as a result of his prison experience and had become a proselytiser for prison reform. However, knowing the establishment of his own party well and its attitude to crime and punishment, he felt his chances of bringing about change were pretty slim. Nevertheless, he has persisted and has become a prison chaplain and was interviewed on BBC Scotland a few Sunday mornings past. His story was unchanged. He was still contrite, but he was determined to continue campaigning.

The woman prison governor was equally scathing about the attitude of the Labour Party to prisons (Remember: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”?). Indeed, she considered the then Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, as the most reactionary and, indeed, wilfully nasty that she had ever served under in a 40 year career in the prison service.

She told a particular story, which is relevant to the Christmas theme. Christmas, she said was a particularly harrowing time in prison, with convicts separated from their families. This is particularly acute for women prisoners who have children. It is also stressful on prison officers who have to be on duty. Consequently, Christmas can be a time of high numbers of attempted suicides and other tensions which can erupt into violence against officers and against each other. Prior to Christmas she had had a staff meeting to discuss approaches to managing the Christmas period and, to he joy, the staff felt they should be proactive and seek to create a Christmas spirit in the prison. They put up a tree and brought in decorations and played seasonal music. The facilitated more socialisation. In craft classes, prisoners were able to produce gifts for families and for each other. The kitchen manager reported that she could produce a Christmas dinner within the current budget.

However, one disgruntled prison officer tipped off the local press, who ran a story on it about lags having a high time at the public expense. This reached the desk of the aforementioned Mr Straw who immediately ordered that all preparations were to cease, all decorations were to be removed, the diet was to be as for the rest of the year and the governor was given a flea in her ear. I note that your first piece of evidence of the nasty attitude is from the Labour supporting Daily Ranger.

There are people within the Conservative and Labour Parties who have more humanely progressive and frankly realistically practical attitudes towards prisons, but, they keep their heads down and work in small ways to alleviate things. The Strathclyde Police Violence Reduction Unit in its early years operated ‘under the press radar’, letting only some reasonably sympathetic editors in on the strategy. Generally their approach was that they would not report much, but said that proprietorial pressures would demand that they kick up a fuss if problems arose.

There are good people out there – probably the majority – but there are some pretty venal ones in positions of power and influence.

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