Thursday, January 8, 2009

Prison freedoms - within and without

I am inherently anti-authority, anti-government. You would, perhaps, expect me to be 'liberal' in all particulars.

So would I.

It was interesting to find myself out of sympathy with a fine writer and commentator called Erwin James. He has been in prison, he educated himself in prison, it could be said that he redeemed himself in prison. He knows a great deal about prison conditions and what has to be done with and to the men and women who have to serve long sentences.

But when I read what he had written about a visit to a prison in Scandinavia, I had to dissent or at least to comment. He suggested that all long-term prisoners should be allowed internet facilities, to help them to communicate, to help them to educate themselves.

Because of a case that had been reported in that particular week, I bridled - rather a lot - about what he was saying and about his tone. After all, long term prisoners (by definition) have committed some of the most horrible and most hurtful crimes. How should they be treated? What sort of 'freedoms' are appropriate if you have put yourself beyond the pale?

excerpts from Erwin James's blog:

" .... prisoners at Skien (in Norway) are allowed access to the Internet via computer in their cells. Access is monitored and firewalls are set up to avoid any embarrassing security breaches. In the UK few prisoners are allowed access to computers, never mind the Internet. A friend of mine, who has been in prison for decades was allowed to have a lap top in his cell four years ago. His mother and I clubbed together to buy it for him. Now the lap top is malfunctioning and needs repairs - but it would be cheaper for him to purchase another laptop. The only problem is the prison now has a different governor who does not like prisoners having computers in their cells. If my friend hands out his lap top he will not be allowed to have a replacement - “no more computers in cells,” says the governor. The Norwegian prison is secure and the prisoners are not going anywhere. But while they are in they are provided with opportunites to improve and feel that they are still connected to the world. Is that such a terrible thing?"

1. John Selwyn Gilbert Says:
November 27th, 2008 at 10:25 pm

Just this week, a mother described the effect of her teenage daughter’s murder to a court. I believe her statement said that ‘it tore the heart out of her family’ and I can well believe it. The man who committed the murder will be in prison for a very long time and, in this case, the need for prison to impose punishment on that man may be held to over-ride the other possibilities of prison, reform, re-education, rehabilitation amongst them. I am against Titan prisons, I believe that prisoners should be treated as human beings and helped to become something less than transgressive. But that particular man has robbed that particular teenage girl of her entire life and her parents and her sibling will never have anything except half a life between them.

Do you really think he should have access to broadband?

Erwin replied, as one would expect, thoughtfully:

" ... The majority of people who go to prison in the UK will be released, one day they will be your neighbour or my neighbour - I want a prison system that lets people out less likely or motivated to cause further harm or distress to others ..... The more we detach prisoners from society - the harsher our attitutes towards them while they are inside - the harder we make it for them to fit in when they get out."

And get out they will, he emphasized. "thanks to the fact that we do not sentence people to death in this great country, he (the prisoner, almost any prisoner) still has his life to live."

3. John Selwyn Gilbert Says:
November 29th, 2008 at 9:03 am

I cannot disagree with almost all you say and I have been struck by the wisdom (hard won) that you bring to these issues. I am old enough to remember - with absolute revulsion - what it meant when a man or woman was executed. Children - I was a child then - lingered by the radio waiting for the eight o’clock time signal that would tell them that a life had been ended. It was horrible. It disgusted me then and it makes me cry now. Capital punishment is not the answer. It is not even the question. The question, the problem, is what you do with a human being who makes him or herself less than human by the actions taken, who ‘tears the heart out’ of another human being or a family. I am aware, though I am not a lawyer, of the saying that ‘hard cases make bad law’, that the case I referred to and that mother’s moving statement should not, must not, overwhelm rational discussion or compassion. Most prisoners are not monsters. They are silly, greedy, drunk, stupid, irrational or just plain unlucky. And some (but relatively few) manage to re-invent themselves in prison and can be helped to do so and can be helped towards a useful life. But are some irredeemable? Is there a point at which society should say - this is too much, this is beyond civic compassion or common sense, this person is beyond help? If so, what on earth is to be done about it? Do you lock criminals convicted of murder up with a jar of hemlock? It would probably be the individuals convicted in error who would be the first to drink it. And there are always individuals convicted in error or convicted because they are mentally unstable or inadequate - that is another issue and another problem and yet another complication.

So - questions and more questions; I am afraid I have no answers, though your comments and the opportunity that blogging offers have made me think a little more seriously about some of my ideas.

I cannot forget that the mother of a murdered child also receives a life sentence of pain, guilt, remorse, anger and regret and that - in spite of a lifetime pretending to be a bleeding heart liberal - there is a bit of me that cries out for vengeance on that mother’s behalf.

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