I write this on the centenary of the House of Commons speech by Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, in which he famously said “ …The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country”.
In the same week I sent five twenty-somethings to prison, four men and one woman. ‘Banged up’, as it is said. They deserved it, but for different reasons. Two had taken a claw hammer to the head of the householder they burgled. They were dangerous. The others had a string of unsuccessful community penalties and probation sessions behind them. Rehabilitation was seemingly going nowhere. The time had come for punishment. The public would have had a fit if I had done anything else. That is not what Rowan Williams has aptly termed ‘custodial fundamentalism’, it is common sense. Spare a thought for judges! The first sentencing decision was taken in the Garden of Eden and it is not getting any easier!
The papers are full of the unprecedented crisis in prison numbers, to which I have just added another five. The statistics tell me of my five at least three will re-offend soon after release. That is profoundly discouraging. For those serving sentences under a year there will be little or nothing in the way of work or programme in prison. Some of them will lose their homes and jobs (if they have them) while inside. The longer sentences will offer much more, but in overcrowded and underfunded conditions in which some truly remarkable staff do their best to prevent bad people becoming worse and to deliver them from what Ken Clarke has recently termed ‘the revolving door of crime and prison’. Roll on his ‘rehabilitation revolution’! It could not come too soon, whatever your politics. Who does not want to see more criminals turn into law abiding citizens?
The prisons crisis may change, but it is unlikely to disappear. It is no surprise that the bible has nothing good to say about prisons. So often they are associated with the spirit and power of death. Depriving people of freedom as a means of punishment feels deeply counter-intuitive to Gospel people. But in some cases prison is the best we’ve got in a fallen world.
No Christian can feel comfortable with what Philip Slater, the American sociologist, called the ‘toilet assumption’ about prison – a societal belief that social unpleasantness like criminality, once flushed out of sight, no longer exists. Yes, prison works while my five are inside, but after that…? The problem, as we have found, is that the toilet backs up!
Churchill was right. What goes on in prisons is done in our names. They should contribute to the health of a society of which they are a part. They must never be invisible institutions. Yes, they will be places of punishment but they must also be places of work, education, reparation and rehabilitation. We ought to feel ‘ownership’ of our prisons as we do our schools and hospitals. Released prisoners need mentors, employers and friends. Government is desperate for fresh thinking and practical solutions. Christian people must seize the moment to help.
His Honour Judge David Turner QC is a Circuit Judge based in London.
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