Ken Clarke, The Lord Chancellor, wants to close down three prisons. This is in contrast to the last administration which had a program of building more prisons and bigger ones. We already lock up more people every year than any other country in Western Europe, but far less than they do in America. What is the right approach?
There seems little argument that many people in prison are there because they are inadequate, addicts or mentally ill. Clearly these people should not be there. It is also probably true that there are a lot of people out there walking free who ought to be in prison and who are not. The arrest and imprisonment of one family in Nottingham cut burglary in that city by 50%. If only the evidence had been there before, much crime could have been prevented.
What is prison for? A murderer has recently won a court case on the basis of the European Court of Justice ruling that a blanket ban on prisoners voting in National Elections is unjust. Prison Reform agencies often say that the deprivation of liberty is the sole punishment of imprisonment and that there should be no other deprivation. Outsiders moan that prisoners lounge around all day watching television, playing games and having conjugal visits.
I think the problem is the idea that prison should be one-size-fits-all.
It is said that many in prison are themselves victims of crime. I know a young man who was in prison for two weeks last year. His offence was driving without a valid driving licence. He is a plumber who was burgled and lost £30,000 from his safe. The £30,000 in cash was there because he avoided VAT by doing jobs for cash – a not uncommon practice among artisans. He thought he knew the thief, but in view of his dodgy business practices he did not tell the police. He was uninsured and had to declare bankruptcy. In his despair he took to drink and lost his licence for drink-driving. He had to employ a driver to take him to his plumbing jobs, but for one late-night call-out he took a chance and drove himself. The police were waiting for him are stopped him.
Prison for him was a short sharp shock. It was an open prison with a very easy regime. He has an addictive personality. Instead of alcohol, he concentrated on exercise. By spending most of his day in the gym he lost a lot of weight and got very fit. When they let him out he continued the exercising and began to sort his life out. Subsequently he has had a few drinking binges, which have seemed like setbacks, but he has learned that he is an alcoholic and must never drink again. He has had one relationship with a bright young teacher with a small child, but it came to grief when he got drunk. Currently he seems to be doing well. He is working and supporting himself and exercising.
Did prison help? I think it probably did. The shame and shock of it turned out to be a corrective for him. It doesn't just stop there and he still has a problem, but I think he is winning.
So what is my recipe for prisons?
First, there are people who are not safe to be walking around, whose liberty must be curtailed for the safety of the rest of us. Here I would include violent psychopaths, dangerous pedophiles and I would add seditious terrorists. If there is no chance of changing these people then society cannot contain them. Of course, we should be researching how to treat these people, but treatment alternatives are not promising. Violent schizophrenics are a minority and can generally be controlled by a 'chemical cosh' - strong anti-psychotic drugs that control the symptoms. However, many schizophrenics cannot bear the suppression of mental energy that this involves and default on their medication. They are mostly voluntary patients, but if they default they may become killers - more often suicides than murderers - and this is a difficult problem for the authorities. Once they become compulsory patients, then depot neuroleptics may be enforced; the alternative is a long-stay secure mental hospital.
Sociopaths are different. No-one knows what is wrong with their brains. They seem to be unable to understand what it means to live in a society, where give and take is necessary for living. Click here for a description of what a sociopath is like. Here are some of the characteristics: They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims. They have no problem in lying coolly and easily, and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. They may have a deep seated rage at their core. They do not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices who end up as victims. The end always justifies the means and they let nothing stand in their way. Joy, love and compassion are more likely to be feigned than experienced and serve an ulterior motive. They are outraged by insignificant matters, yet remain unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person. Since they are not genuine, neither are their promises. They are unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others' feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them. Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, rape and sexual acting out of all sorts are characteristic.
It is estimated that 3% of men and 1% of women are sociopaths. Obviously, we cannot lock them all up. Many of them have had such a crafty way of life that they appear normal to outsiders, but those who live with them know them as manipulating bullies who make their lives a misery. Because they go undetected, they wreak havoc on their family; on people they work with, and on anyone who tries to be their friend. A sociopath deceives, takes what he (or she) wants, and hurts people without any remorse. Sociopaths don't feel guilty. They don't feel sorry for what they've done. They go through life taking what they want and giving nothing back. They manipulate and deceive and convincingly lie without the slightest second thought. They leave a path of confusion and upset in their wake.
Researchers have found that the brains of sociopaths function differently to normal people. Their brains function in a way that makes their emotional life irredeemably shallow and yet they are capable of mimicking emotions like professional actors.
There is no known cure or therapy for sociopathy. In fact, some evidence suggests that therapy makes them worse because they use it to learn more about human vulnerabilities they can then exploit. They learn how to manipulate better and they learn better excuses that others will believe. They don't usually seek therapy, unless there is something to gain from it.
Given all that, there is only one solution for dealing with a sociopath: get him or her completely out of your life for good. This seems radical, and of course, you want to be fairly sure your diagnosis is correct, but you need to protect yourself from the drain on your time, attention, money, and good attitude. Healing or helping a sociopath is a pointless waste of your life.
For those sociopaths who commit serious crime, prison has a place - not for rehabilitation, it won't work - not for retribution; it is like water off a duck's back - but for safety's sake. Violence, murder, robbery and rape will just recur if there is an opportunity. For these people life must mean life and for them deprivation of liberty is the purpose of prison.
A good example might be the young man who stabbed Phillip Lawrence. Learco Chindamo's brutal gang 'Venom' which terrorised North London in the mid-1990s. In 1995 Chindamo stabbed headteacher Philip Lawrence to death when he came to the aid of a pupil at the school gates. After serving 14 years Chindamo claimed to be reformed but he has been re-arrested found guilty of mugging a man at and ATM machine in Camden while on a weekend release. In my opinion Chindamo should be behind bars for the rest of his life.
The offences of sedition and seditious libel were abolished by the last Labor government in 2009. It was replaced by hate crimes legislation. The prime purpose of the Act was to protect Muslims and homosexuals from so-called hate crimes while continuing to support free speech. I think the Act was one of the reasons that Labor was defeated at the election. In fact their attempt to get the Bill through unscathed was defeated in the House of Lords, where the Waddington Amendment was passed: In this, for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred. However, it is not clear whether what would have been called sedition or treason is sufficiently guarded against by current legislation. In law, sedition was, I quote, overt conduct, such as speech and organization that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent (or resistance) to lawful authority. Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws.
The difference between sedition and treason consists primarily in the subjective ultimate object of the violation to the public peace. Sedition does not consist of levying war against a government nor of adhering to its enemies, giving enemies aid, and giving enemies comfort. Nor does it consist, in most representative democracies, of peaceful protest against a government, nor of attempting to change the government by democratic means (such as direct democracy or constitutional convention).
Sedition is the stirring up of rebellion against the government in power. Treason is the violation of allegiance to one's sovereign or state, giving aid to enemies, or levying war against one's state. Sedition is encouraging one's fellow citizens to rebel against their state, whereas treason is actually betraying one's country by aiding and abetting another state. Sedition laws somewhat equate to terrorism and public order laws.
I am no lawyer and I cannot judge what wording laws ought to have, but I can see offences that need to be remedied. For example, British citizens or British Residents, who train or fund the training of young men to fight against British soldiers in a war zone, or who volunteer to fight or actually fight, should not be able to claim the privileges of living here. They should either return to their country of origin or be subject to a law that results in their being imprisoned. They should remain in prison unless their view changes or until the conflict ends. There needs to be a limit on free speech - the so called Shouting "Fire!" in a Theater” limit. Speech so inflammatory as to possibly lead to violence, damage or injury should not be allowed.
Framing such legislation is bedevilled by the European Human Rights Act, which Labor incorporated into English law, but it really should be possible to protect our society against terrorists.
Turning now to lesser crimes. Much petty theft is to feed the habits of drug addicts. There is little point in putting these people in prison, where incidentally they seem to be able to get hold of drugs. I firmly believe that abstinence is the only way to get addicts off drugs. Methadone is a hopeless cause. Decriminalizing is stupid. Most addicts would rather be off if possible; it just doesn't seem possible. Then again, addicts have an addictive personality and need to get addicted to something less damaging. Whether it is exercise, yoga, mountain climbing, religion, work, AA, or property developing probably doesn't matter. Diversion therapy is better than talking therapy, antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy and certainly better than prison. I happen to think that psychiatry has taken a wrong turn. Antidepressants seem to be mainly placebos and the Freudian type of digging up the past just makes people relive their pain. Many doctors I know believe in distraction therapy – you just have to get on with your life.
I am told that there are 370,000 heroin addicts in the UK and that 285,000 are on a methadone program. Methadone, I am told, doesn’t give you a high but medicates the withdrawal symptoms. In any case only 3% of people on methadone come off drugs completely. Cold turkey with proper support works better.
What about financial crimes? These should be dealt with by repaying the money and a fine equal to half the amount stolen. This may involve confiscation of assets and imprisonment if the money can’t be found. In prison they should work until the money and fine is repaid.
Is there any place for rehabilitation? Perhaps there is for younger criminals. They might get three attempts at it then incarceration until too decrepit to do their crimes. Prisons have been too much Universities of Crime, so freshers should be separated from sophomores and sophomores from final year students. Graduates are in for good.
What about education? Too many in prison are illiterate and innumerate. This is a condemnation of our educations system. Clearly this should be remedied before they go to prison, but perhaps young men can be rescued after the offence and before incarceration. There used to be Reform Schools. I guess they were thought too brutal.