Thursday, 20 October 2016

Prisoners of austerity

A couple of years ago I had some spare money and decided to donate it to a charity. There are so many charities that command out attention – all of them worthy, but some more fashionable than others. So I thought that I would try to seek out as unpopular a cause as possible and did an internet search on just that. The result (and I wonder if you can guess it?) was a charity that supports ex-prisoners into work, for example by paying for training, or travel fares to job interviews. Whether this is truly the most unpopular charity I don’t know – it might come up on a search engine just by having those words somewhere on its website – but it seemed plausible and I donated accordingly.

I was thinking about this because of the news this week of a murder in Pentonville prison. Violence in prisons is getting worse and the connection with my charity search is that, I suppose, most of us don’t really care. Of all of the problems and injustices in the world somehow those that befall criminals bother us least. After all, they are the dregs of society so at best why should we care and at worst they probably deserve it, right?

Wrong, I think. We sentence criminals, quite properly, to the punishment decreed by the courts. That may include incarceration, but it doesn’t include being subject to violence up to an including murder. And as so often, the dictates of morality and those of practicality are linked: if our prisons are brutally violent not only is that morally repugnant it also makes the chances of rehabilitation remote.

Prison violence – including violence against staff - is rising for a simple reason: funding cuts and consequent understaffing. Austerity economics has a cheery make-do-and-mend, belt-tightening sound to it, but the reality after several years of cuts is stark and is happening right across the piece. Sometimes the consequences are direct: roads fall into disrepair, libraries close, the court system clogs up or the armed forces can’t fulfil the basic requirement of protecting the nation. Other times the consequences are indirect: social care provision disappears creating ‘bed-blocking’ in hospitals. In fact, the problems of prison violence are in part due to the inadequacy of (in particular mental) health services.

For years it has been a truism that you can’t solve public service problems by ‘throwing money at them’ – the alternative always being reorganization, subcontracting and privatization – which easily mutates into the absurdity that money doesn’t matter at all. The consequence is that, for a while, things hold together. Savings can be made, a bit; people working in services can work harder, a bit; cuts can be made, a bit. But, gradually, the public sphere breaks down. I think that that is where we are getting to now in the UK – a spreading paralysis and crisis in every area of public life.

At the root of all this is a dishonesty. The small-state political Right could say that the government should get out of huge swathes of public provision and cut public spending accordingly. Or the social democratic Left could say that government must deliver public provision and raise taxes accordingly. Instead, we have lived for decades with the pretence that we can both have extensive public provision and have spending and/or tax cuts. That pretence has now run out of steam, and the choice will have to be faced up to, unless slow decline and periodic scandal are to continue.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece. Of course, Chris, the fact that the rehabilitation of prisoners is itself now seen as the 'job' of a charity rather than that of an enlightened state is significant. I fear that a punishment ethos against parasites (bed-blockers, asylum seekers etc.) and 'bad people' (anyone who falls out with the law, often out of desperation and neglect rather than greed) attract vast amounts of hostility for corrupting the social tissue. This will be one of the themes of my talk at Royal Holloway next week.

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