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Prison doesn’t work – but nor is it just for the working class

When Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce were sentenced to imprisonment the other day, shockwaves ricocheted through the media establishment. Steve Richards, a political writer at the Independent, was on the frontline of reaction, describing the sentences as “crazy”.

Within days, we were hearing sob stories about the pains of fame when banged up at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. “They wake up not just having a sentence to serve in prison,” said Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies, “but as the best-known prisoners in the place and having to go through all that – the difficulty of catcalls and the like.”

Prison is a scary place. Of that there’s no denying. Violence, sexual abuse, intimidation and bullying. The stripping away of your basic liberty. You don’t have to be a former cabinet minister to experience this. But it takes a former cabinet minister put in prison for those among the political establishment to speak about the horrors of jail life.

In many ways, Huhne’s experience will be significantly less terrifying than that of his cellmates. He has lived a comfortable life so far, rather than the poverty that precedes so many sentences. He has, to our best knowledge, been relatively healthy, unlike 70 per cent of the prison population, who suffer from two or more mental health disorders. On being freed, he will be unlikely to return to politics, but could earn many times his six-figure ministerial salary in all sorts of other spheres. This, compared with most convicts who return to a harsh world where no-one would employ them even if the jobs existed.

And yet Huhne’s eight month sentence, of which he will most likely serve only two months, is “crazy”. What does this mean? Richards didn’t care to elaborate, so there are several possibilities. It could mean that the sentence was disproportionate. His coalition partner David Burrowes wouldn’t agree. Indeed, many get banged up for considerably longer for perverting the course of justice – this is a serious crime, and certainly not just a matter of speeding.

John Kampfner, the former New Statesman editor and prominent Lib Dem activist, suggested it was “crazy” in a different respect:

Yes, but as friend’s Facebook status reminded me, at least now there’s one ex-banker and one neoliberal economist in jail.

Indeed, the aghast reaction of the chatterati to the Huhne and Pryce sentences builds into a wider narrative of prison being an unjustified punishment for non-violent crime. Why do we lock up those whose crime does not feature a bloodied knife or a crowbar?

The answer is, as Kampfner rightly points out, that most of the time we don’t. Our justice system ensures that low-level – and crime considered a threat to the establishment, such as the London riots – gets a full truncheon-whack. Desperate people will be sure to never again be desperate. And those who can still wear a smug smile while committing their crime are treated to drinks receptions at Downing Street.

With the largest prison population and the worst re-offending rates in Europe, it is clear that we must move to a system where prison is focused rehabilitation rather than state revenge. But white-collar criminals are often more in need of rehabilitation, as they do not have to live with the scarring experience of physical crime.

Nordic countries are often held up as beacons in the sphere of justice. Far fewer working class people, often drawn to crime through poverty,  So let’s not forget about Iceland, which jailed bankers for corruption after the financial crisis. (And by the looks of things, prison works.)

In the meantime let’s liberally drench our eyes in tears of pity, and ask again, who could possibly put a middle class man in prison for breaking the law?

2 Comments

  1. All very interesting. I too was struck by this sickening attitude of the undeserving and the deserving criminals, ie the low-life scum and the shirking poor of Broken Britain who deserve to go to jail, but surely not such high flier criminals who somehow don’t deserve jail time at all. It’s one rule for the poor and another for the rich, with the occasional scapegoat thrown-in to help deter ‘revolution’ and suggest the illusion of justice & fairness for ALL?!

    In light of that view of crime what about political protesters, or those who can’t pay their TV license because too poor, or can’t pay their Council Tax because too poor. Both can result in prison for non-payment. These are likely to become especially prominent in light of emerging Welfare Reforms, the Bedroom tax, Council Tax increases, etc.

    How can these ‘crimes’ be deterred without the threat of prison? You can’t get money out of those without money or property. Fines are meaningless. You just have to imprison the poor in a debtors jail for all they have left is their liberty, such as it is. Of course, in the Monopoly world the rich can in effect pass GO and buy their way out of jail!

    I am personally hit by both the Bedroom Tax and a 75% rise in my Council Tax (luckily I still get a 25% single person discount!) where previously as a self-employed person on a very low income I paid nothing!

    I’ve no money to eat never mind heat! I may even have to steal to eat. So when is a crime not a crime? At least that way the homeless can get a roof over there head!

    I’m considering signing-on as my only means of survival. I’d be almost £30pw better-off and could then afford to pay my £25 Bedroom Tax (£12) and Council Tax (£13) combined, and be able to heat and eat! Snakes & Ladders! I live in wonderfully deprived Tameside!

    However, I may then lose my poverty-liberty and end up on Workfare! But if I do then it will be Subterfuge, Subversion & Sabotage!

    Love, Light & Laughter
    Steve Starlord

  2. vincent says:

    I agree with Steve’s comments above about the struggle those of us at the bottom of the socio-economic scale have to face on an everyday basis.
    Just one question: why is that non-payment of rent(I rent a bed flat from the council as a single man) treated as a CCJ (County Court Judgement)and yet non-payment of Council Tax is treated as a crime (Magistrate’s Court) where you could go to jail for simply being too poor to pay up. Its the same people I owe both sums to.
    Ive got my rent arrears sorted into an agreement where I pay £20 every 2 weeks from my dole and also I was paying £10 per fortnight council tax arrears direct to the council themselves until I got bailiff letters demanding that I pay them for about 3 years arrears.
    Im sure I wasn’t eligible to pay for large portion of that time as I was a low earner and showed my payslips every time I changed jobs or signed on and had ups and downs of income.
    I can’t be arsed with the TV licence or the water or gas nowadays. I need to eat. Gotta pay the electric as Im on a key meter so I need it to keep fridge running and put toaster or microwave on when required.
    I hope things improve jobwise soon for you steve

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