Mother, shall I build a wall?
I’ve spent a lot of time in prison lately. Before the overactive imaginations of my readers are too engaged and you feel the suspicions you have had about me for a long time are confirmed, let me explain that I was just visiting. Spending time in prisons with parishioners is a regular part of a priest’s work: as long ago as the 1970s, I was visiting members of my then youth club in Salford in the ‘Strangeways Hotel’. It was sad to see youngsters of fourteen or so kept on remand before trial, sometimes for months, in such a brutalised place. So brutalised you may recall that the adult prisoners organised a riot which began in the chapel and rapidly spread to other prisons. In short order, there was an enquiry and a series of reforms to prison conditions which helped somewhat. Oftentimes, the kids were in Strangeways for breaking and entering into shops for cigarettes and other misdemeanours, and one can only believe that they brushed shoulders with so much criminality whilst incarcerated that, far from helping them reform, they were in fact learning greater criminality. More recent visits to prisons included one to a teenager in the Doncaster area who had been sleeping rough and had been selling soft drugs under threat of violence from a cartel, but he was the one who paid the penalty, and then there was the one to the near neighbour in Sheffield who had been conned into storing drugs overnight for a neighbour who knew a bust was nigh: she was given a year in prison when arrested that night for possession.
More recently, I visited Lincoln prison with the chaplain and came across distressing stories of crimes which richly deserved the denial of freedom and for which the culprit needed not only to be reformed but also to be punished. However, in equal measure, I came across stories of crimes which were committed out of desperation, poverty, mental illness and sheer youthful ignorance (as desperately foolish and horrific as that student was to throw a fire-extinguisher out of a building during the student fees demonstrations isn’t there just a little bit in all of us that understands how seriously daft things can be committed in the heat of the moment by hot-headed youth?). A recent Mumford and Sons song tells us ‘where you give your love is where you live your life’ I wonder if another line might have read: ‘who you put in prison tells you the values of your society’, for too many of those in our prisons are the desperate and the lonely and the powerless, whereas we look upon the powerful in our financial institutions and elsewhere who daily reek more havoc than the joyrider or the streetwalker and walk away scot free and sometimes with bonuses. A little icon for me this week has been the total inability of the FA or others to in any way punish Wayne Rooney for his on field assault on Wigan Athletic’s James McCarthy. The violent elbowing of the midfielder has resulted in a mere three match ban, if the same attack had happened on the street by a youngster on drink he may have faced a custodial sentence.
There is something deeply wrong with our criminal justice system: nowhere in western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales; black people disproportionately inhabit our jails compared to white people; we imprison more and more people each year, an average of about 3% per annum and the remand population increased by 6% in the year prior to 2008; re-offending is higher amongst those given custodial sentences as against those given community orders and, finally, Roger Houchin, a Scottish prison governor, recently completed a study building on historical studies and intuitive understandings that there is a direct causal link between poverty and imprisonment. I could go on about ever more disquieting figures, but the reality is that things are not as they should be. Most recently, I argued on Radio that prisoners should have the vote restored to them because fundamental human rights are inalienable and we would not want to go the way of Abu Ghraib. As I did this, I knew I was speaking counter to the wishes of 94% of the country.
Today was most my most recent visit to a prison, a local one that is in the transition from being a jail to being a detention centre for illegal immigrants, deportees and others. There will be minor adjustments to the architecture, and the staff, I know, will treat their new wards kindly and well and with great compassion, but the fact remains that we live in a country which takes those who, for whatever reason, are fleeing the violence and intimidation of their own country and criminalise them in ours: they will be subject to the same high walls, the same jangling keys and the same confined spaces as a thief or thug. We build many protective walls around ourselves in life, not all of them physical, but the most fearful surely are the walls behind which we keep the foreign, the unknown, the weak and the lost.