Peter Hitchens has written a good piece on prisons. I don’t agree with parts of it, and it has its usual Hitchenesque flourishes (blaming rock music and so forth), but is a much more thoughtful piece than I expected. Mr. Hitchens asks what is the point of modern-day prisons, and avoids the usual tabloid line of claiming that prisons are simply recreational camps:
This is not to say (as I will be accused of saying by thoughtless contributors) that the prisons are nice places to be. As long as the prisons are warehouses, they will be squalid, fearful and ineffectual. Readers of this weblog would hate prison. It is not a ‘holiday camp’, but a sort of hell, where the worst rule, and so do not suffer.
Actual criminals, men of violence, cruelty and guile, flourish in the anarchy of the modern prison. God help the poor innocent person thrown into one of these places. In a disciplined prison, such a person would at least be safe from violence, pressure to take and supply drugs, and extortion, and have peace in which to read or study.
In our lawless warehouses, he will be victimised and denied any peace or solitude. It is these awful institutions that are regularly condemned by HIM Inspectors, who do not seem to realise that it is the liberal policies they support which lead to the results they condemn. The fact that it never gets any better should be a clue, but apparently not for these people.
He also criticises the closure of specialist psychiatric hospitals, and the subsequent jailing of mentally ill patients who should never have been jailed.
One of his points is that the abolition of the death penalty increased the number of people in prison, which, in isolation, is correct. He also claims that abolishing the death penalty led to a rise is murders, as the main deterrent was removed, an argument which is impossible to prove or disprove (murder rates a few hundred years earlier were higher, and more people were executed).
Yet his most interesting argument is that many criminals are already doomed to a life of crime by the time they enter prison:
They ignore the blindingly obvious fact that it is now very hard indeed to get sent to prison. Offences which would once have resulted in quite severe sentences now lead to no more than a caution, as we saw last week. And that is if the police can even be bothered to investigate them and pursue the culprit, which they often cannot, or the CPS is willing to proceed, which it often isn’t…
So the fact that there is a high rate of reoffending amongst former prisoners does not reflect the failure of the prisons. It reflects the long, earlier, failure of the criminal justice system to deter crime. Grasp this, and you will have the key to the matter. Fail to grasp it, and you will remain forever bamboozled by conventional wisdom.
I think two of the ways to reducing prison numbers is to decriminalise drugs and give people more options in life. Peter Hitchens wouldn’t agree with that (at least not the first part), but I do think he is correct in the need to reform prisons and the need to punish people properly in order to act as a deterrent.
Whatever you think of him, his article is well worth a read.
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