This country doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. One day the politicians are saying that jails should be abolished because they just don’t work. The next day they’re up in arms about democracy within the jails they want to abolish.
Maybe we should have Jack Straw and Ken Clarke standing outside polling booths deciding whether the individual voters have sufficiently good character to be allowed into the polling booth? After all, the Saudis have the Morality Police, why can’t we have the Democracy Police?
I must have met thousands of criminals in my job. Unlike with the police, the crims don’t clam up with me. Unlike Probation, they don’t have to appeal for my mercy. I’m the one they open up to. I’m the one who gets to pick their brains and see what makes them tick. I work in criminal defence.
First of all, there are no rules as to what makes a criminal. Often I hear a mum say, “The other two are happy and off to university, but this one; he’s just bad.” Sometimes, there is no excuse for the way that people are. Perhaps they are just born that way.
However, I’m interested in that much larger group. The one’s who have had a tough life, who are dysfunctional, who maybe wouldn’t be in jail if they’d had the same life as your or me. For this lot, if they can be reached, then they should be reached.
The one thing that nearly all of them have in common is their selfishness. Often they have a victim mentality. They are angry at the real victim for causing them to be sent to jail. It’s true that victims do exaggerate their suffering to the court, perhaps to maximise the sentence, or to maximise their compensation. But for the person who did the rape or the stabbing to feel anger and blame toward their victim is a very dysfunctional reaction.
It’s the negativity that tires me sometime. They are sat in jail with nothing to do all day, and could so easily catch up with their education. However, if you’re halfway through the course and get transferred to another jail, it’s a waste of time, so they don’t bother entering the course.
These self-obsessed “the world is against me” negative traits are typical of the people who get sent to jail. If anything, I’d say that for anyone who thinks this way, it would only be a matter of time before they get sent to jail. So the question is: how to make them a little less self-obsessed?
The wonderful thing about politics is that it’s not a discussion about what you want. It’s a discussion about what kind of world you want. It’s not a discussion about how you feel. It’s a discussion about how you’d like the world around you to feel. In other words, it is an exercise in looking beyond oneself. For people in jail, it is an exercise in looking beyond their self-obsessed thoughts for once and asking what kind of a future they would like.
I’m not disputing the fact that many prisoners would dismiss politics as “They’re all the same” or “They all lie”. But equally, there would be many prisoners who would enter into a conversation of a type they’ve never had before. Perhaps they’d learn something about themselves and become a better person. Perhaps, on their release, this will help them fit into a society that they’ve failed to fit in with before.
Last night I was in the police station looking after an 18 year old kid that my firm has represented since he was about 13. It was a robbery allegation. No violence, but nasty enough. He’d previously done 18 months for a GBH and spent the first half in a Young Offenders Institute and the second half in an adult jail. The difference was stark.
The YOI was all about building them up and giving them life skills. The moment he went into the adult jail, they were on the wing with no prison officers to supervise. It was dog eat dog, face slashing, daily defending yourself and your cell. All the most violent were gathered together in one wing and allowed to get on with it, till the day they were released back into our world.
The question I ask: is not whether a person who has committed a crime against society deserves the same rights as a person who has always been of benefit to society. I think not. I think the person who commits a crime deserves to lose their liberty.
But I don’t want them locked up like animals. I want them reformed. I want them to engage with the society that they’ve so far failed to fit in with. If that means that in one small way, giving them the vote can help, then I say give them the vote.
Thanks to @Andrea_UrbanFox for encouraging me to write this today.