Prison is full of lawbreakers, but not all lawbreakers go to prison
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This article was originally written in 2022.
How do we decide who should be punished for their crimes, and who should not? Why do the police target their resources on investigating some people, while others get away with their crimes?
In recent weeks, it seems that journalists would’ve had an easier time if they’d reported the days that a politician did not break the law, rather than when they did.
The MP David Warburton had the party whip removed when allegations of drug-taking and sexual harassment were made. When a photograph emerged of him sitting next to a vase of tulips and lines of what is allegedly cocaine, Mr Warburton was not arrested, nor was he hauled down to the local station for questioning. Mr Warburton, instead, checked himself into a private facility for ‘severe shock and stress’.
This comes at the same time that we hear Child Q, a 15-year-old Black girl, was strip-searched and made to remove her sanitary pad while at school, under the pretext of an allegation of cannabis possession. She is also in therapy for trauma, saying she may never ‘feel normal again’ after the incident.
One was criminalised although she broke no laws, one was not, although photographs emerged.
The conservative MP Imran Khan has been convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Prior to his trial, he was not remanded to custody. 28,349 other people last year were not afforded that luxury, even though one in ten of them would be acquitted or receive a non-custodial sentence when their case finally did reach court. It is reported he will likely face jail time for this offence, but is allowed to await his sentencing at home. 18,493 people last year were sent to prison before sentencing, many for lesser crimes than the sexual assault against a child that Mr Khan has been convicted of.
While the tax avoidance in Rishi Sunak’s household is not, technically, illegal, it’s interesting to compare it to the fact that one-third of criminal convictions received by women are for non-payment of the TV licence. An absurd situation where avoiding millions in tax is acceptable, but women are tarred with a criminal record for avoiding a £159 payment.
The photographs showing the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and MPs breaking the law and partying while the rest of us followed lockdown laws were not, initially, enough evidence for the Met police to bother investigating. Yet section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows a police officer to stop and search a person without suspicion. In 2020/21 9320 suspicionless stop and searches took place. Black people were stopped under this law 14 times more often compared with white people.
After the Good Law Project initiated formal legal proceedings against the Met Police, Downing Street finally came under investigation. The fines that have started to pour in demonstrate a culture of lawbreaking throughout government. Yet it is only fines that will be issued. No prison time will be handed out. This offence is not deemed serious enough to warrant incarceration. Yet in the year to June 2021, of the 41,000 people sentenced to prison, 61% of them had committed a non-violent crime. If prison is designed to keep society safe from violent and dangerous offenders, why do certain people find themselves in custody for non-violent crimes, while others do not?
The rot of lawbreaking within our government goes beyond the suitcases of wine and the ambushing with birthday cakes, however. The government’s policy at the start of the pandemic to discharge elderly patients to care homes, without a negative covid test, has been ruled illegal by a high court. And this cost lives. Thousands of lives. Yet we know that no one will serve time for a policy that killed people.
Why then, had I spent the day in prison at an unsuccessful parole hearing with Titch, an inmate serving an Indeterminate for Public Protection (IPP) prison sentence? He’d been recalled to prison because he’d informed his probation officer he’d relapsed on drugs. He was returned to prison, not for committing an offence, but for openly asking for help with his addiction issues. Titch has served an additional year for that drug relapse. The parole board knockback meant he would spend another year in custody, in the hope he could convince them next time around that he was safe to be released.
Meanwhile, The Sunday Times reported last year that of the 12 lavatory areas tested in parliament, all but one showed traces of cocaine.
Some people appear to be above the laws of the land that they themselves set. Prison is not the place we send the wealthy, ruling classes. Instead, it is filled with adults who experienced care in childhood. 3% of children in the UK are care experienced, yet 25% of people in prison are care leavers. It is filled with people who cannot read or write. The average reading age on the wings is 11 years old. It is filled with people who have experienced trauma and abuse. Over half of women in prison have survived emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood. It is filled with people suffering profound mental health issues. Self-inflicted death is six times more likely in prison than in the general population. 55,542 incidents of self-injury were recorded in 2020.
These damaged people are the people the police choose to investigate. These damaged people are the ones who end up filling the landings, traumatised further by an overcrowded and vermin-infested prison estate. The next time our politicians tell us they want to be tough on crime, implying toughness is only shown through punitive prison sentences, it would do us well to remember that we have a choice in who we investigate, which criminals we target, who ends up in prison. Because law-breaking now runs through the very core of our law-making institutions. But only certain people end up doing time.