But what about...
There are too many other problems in society to care about before I start giving even the slightest thought to criminals in prison. Marcus Rashford’s campaign showed we should be looking after the kids. Poverty is rife, household bills are rising.
Before demanding homes for convicts after they’re released, we should be thinking of helping our veterans first. Why should a crim have a roof over his head if one of Our Boys doesn’t?
We should have more police stop and searching, not less. I know that violence and drug dealing are a blight on our inner-cities.
And don’t even get me started on showing compassion for crims when there are so many victims who don’t get any help, don’t get any compensation.
These arguments are strong and it is important to listen to them. It’s important to understand that at the heart of them is the idea that we are failing vulnerable people in society in a multitude of different ways.
My suggestion, however, is that all these things are intimately linked with our prison system and how we treat the people who come into contact with it. Although we lock people away behind walls and bars and leave them out of sight and out of mind, they are not separate. They are a product of, and a part of, our society.
I want to share here just a few of the stats and facts that might make you think twice if you’ve ever thought any of these things.
First, let’s look at childhood experiences. In 2019-2020 1 in 3 (yes, that statistic is correct), or 4.3 million children, were growing up in poverty. An empty belly before school, the heating turned all the way down, an overcrowded house. This is not to say that people growing up in poverty are more likely to become criminals, but it’s not hard to see how these circumstances could lead to poorer outcomes in life.
Aside from the staggering levels of poverty in the UK though, is the fact that 1 in 4 people in prison have been in the care system at some point and 29% experienced abuse in their childhood. 41% witnessed violence in the home. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that these experiences could have had a detrimental impact. If you care about the kids, you need to care about the adults these kids become, too.
Then there’s the veterans argument. Yes, we should be looking after the people who have served in the armed forces. So why aren’t we? Actually, why do we think it’s acceptable that any human being at all is sleeping rough? If you can accept that a veteran deserves a roof over his head, is it really such a far leap to believe that no one should sleep on the street? At any one time there are over 2800 veterans in prison. Each year, 12% of people released from prison go through the gate homeless.
It is hard to comprehend how hideously institutionally racist stop and search is, unless you have first hand experience. Black communities have campaigned for years against the way it is deployed unjustly and inequitably and the data backs this up. Section 60 of the stop and search law allows a person to be stopped without any reasonable suspicion. And this has led to a situation where Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people. If white people were stopped at the same rate, American research shows that they would be found with drugs at a much higher rate.
At the same time, the grassroots organisations, the workers out in the community, have seen their funding slashed and burned. There used to be 3600 Sure Start centres providing a variety of free support services. 1 in 3 have now been closed and funding reduced by two thirds.
And finally, there is the point about victims. People who commit offences cause untold damage to the community and to individuals. But the unfortunate truth is that longer prison sentences and more prison beds do not reduce crime. There is no link that shows increased incarceration leads to less crime. We are not supporting victims by doing what we do now. In fact, sentences of six months or less actually create more crime. So victims are being failed twice by our current system.
If you care about any of the big, unjust issues of society – poverty, racism, homelessness, mental health issues – then it is important to recognise how our current system of incarceration perpetuates and exacerbates all of them.