And the Problem Is?

Written 19th October 2016 by Ruth Peters

Andrew Sperling, Specialist Prison Law Solicitor, considers the death in custody at HMP Pentonville

Another prisoner died in the custody of the State yesterday. It appears that he was stabbed to death by at least one other inmate. Two other prisoners were seriously injured.

I read this news in a tweet last night. The first response to that tweet was:

“…and the problem is?”

It is easy not to care about people in prison. It is easy to see them as ‘other’, deserving of whatever disgusting treatment gets meted out to them.  Some have done terrible things to other people.  The primal, Biblical desire for vengeance and retribution is strong.

Why is it such a problem to have a prison system full of violence?

Here are a few reasons why it might be regarded as a problem to have a prison system which is absolutely rife with violence, suicides, squalor and hopelessness:

  1. It could be you or someone you love in there. People’s views about prisons usually change if they are unfortunate enough to find themselves locked up or have to visit or communicate with someone who has been. Most go about their day to day business comfortable in the knowledge that they are not law-breakers or criminals and do not need to worry about prison. ‘Normal’ people drive dangerously and if they are unlucky will hurt or kill someone. ‘Normal’ people get drunk and involved in arguments which can get seriously out of hand. ‘Normal’ people commit insurance frauds because they think they are victimless crimes. ‘Normal’ people find themselves in unpredictable situations which can go horribly wrong.
  2. We hold ourselves out as a civilised society. We condemn less-developed or more brutal countries who routinely violate the human rights of others. We pride ourselves on having made progress; morally, intellectually and spiritually. It is possible to advocate the need for a prison system but still retain a commitment to making prisons safe places in which people are treated with dignity and respect.
  3. There are many people in prison who are vulnerable, some barely out of school, some suffering with mental illness. Many have been victims of terrible crimes – sexual and physical abuse and domestic violence. Victims and criminals are not always different categories of people.
  4. The majority of prisoners will be released from prison and will return to the community. Treating people like wild animals does not prepare them for living as decent human beings. If you want a revolving door of harm – prison – harm, the best way of going about it is to have overcrowded, under-resourced, rage-filled prisons and institutional indifference to the misery they create. You reap what you sow.

At the moment the institutional response to incidents like this is a collective shrug. The problem is real and it is not going away.

Andrew Sperling – Specialist Prison Lawyer

Andrew is a specialist prison law solicitor. He specialises in public law, Parole Board advocacy and human rights. He was a founder member of the Association of Prison Lawyers (APL) and  Chairman of APL between 2011 and 2013.

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