Peter Hitchens on prison


by Rumbold
17th November, 2009 at 10:26 pm    

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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  1. James Graham

    RT @pickledpolitics: Blog post:: Peter Hitchens on prison http://bit.ly/20BDtv ยป damn! Thought that said IN prison. :(


  2. pickles

    Blog post:: Peter Hitchens on prison http://bit.ly/20BDtv




  1. damon — on 17th November, 2009 at 3:11 pm  

    Yes it was an interesting article, and such a frustrating subject to hear being discussed in the media. Liberals on the one side, and Jon Gaunt, The Sun and Talk Sport radio on the other.Liberals don't always get my sympathy on this one.
    It's the ''we lock up more people than anywhere else in Europe'' line that gets on my nerves. And America locks up about 4 times as many (but that's not mentioned).

    I think it's somewhat like Hitchens says. People behave worse in the UK than they do in Spain or Portugal. Maybe prisons should be more austere, where you have to earn rights to have privileges such as a newspaper.
    And while I'm on my soapbox: forget regular TV. Have only educational programmes on an in-house prison tv station, so instead of watching The Bill they're watching stuff from the History Channel and BBC World.
    And part way into their sentences, I'd let them have the possibility of going on hikes out on the hills in places like Dartmoor, the Pennines and Scotland.

    Maybe get some guys from the Army or the TA to take them out on some forced marches across the hills and teach them some camping and survival skills.
    But only if they were co-operating, and only if they earned that right by passing some basic tests in education classes. (Like learning all the countries and capitals of South America or something).

  2. persephone — on 17th November, 2009 at 3:37 pm  

    I would not let them have TV. Instead do something to save the environment – for eg cycling to create energy which would be used to power the prison to save on running costs & any excess sold to meet prison costs. Also, doing organic farming for their own food.

    Also, doing work to pay off compensation for victims hospitalisation, counselling etc before being considered for parole and treats.

  3. Clairwil — on 17th November, 2009 at 4:37 pm  

    Hitchens book the Abolition of Libery expands considerably on the above issues and is actually a worthwhile read. Parts of it didn't have me rolling my eyes but there are some valid points in it.

    I do have a bit of contact with ex-oofenders or rather freshly released offenders though work and am constantly struck by how narrow their horizons are and their low expectations.

    Their lives revolve around drugs, fighting and little else and prison only contains that lifestyle rather than do anything useful to challenge it. Even getting these guys to a point where they realised that an appointment at 10am means you aim to get there for 10am rather than swan in three days later at 4:30 would be an achievement.

    They are neither punished nor rehabilitated and that's an outcome that should concern everyone across the political spectrum.

  4. damon — on 19th November, 2009 at 10:43 am  

    Pity this subject wasn't seen as much a goer. I think it's one you can have great fun with.

    ''What would you do?'' etc. Not so much being entirely serious, but just letting go of your secret thoughts when ever you've heard this issue being discussed.

    The problem in reality is that you come up against what is possible under EU rules and what is not. It's not possible for example to send prisoners on long sentences away out of the UK for a number of years, to be held in British jails in leased prison complexes that could be built in countries that have a lot more land (and cheaper costs) than us.

    I'm not talking about ''Midnight Express'', but that it wouldn't hurt for some serious criminals like armed bank robbers doing 15 years to do the first five in some pretty austere (and cheeper prison), where they could do some forestry work in the forests of Siberia, and be longing (and co-operating after a few years out there), to get back to a UK prison, and buckle down a bit and not be some big shot status prisoner like I hear that armed robery gangs have had in prison in the past.

    When they behaved, they could earn the right to attend the friday night film club in the prison cinema, (and even be given a beer or two and some popcorn and sweets, and then watch some classic movie – before which a pre-film introduction from a member of the 'prison film society' would give a short talk on the film they were about to see.

    Free association would have to be earned, with prisoners whose presence was a hinderance to re-habilitation being forced to spend more time in solitary, for their benefit and reflection, and to stop their negativity infecting the wider population.

    But this needs the prison population to be smaller. It's too expensive and unmanagable on a wider scale. So there comes prevention. What to do with juveniles who have been getting ito trouble? What happend to ''approved'' schools? Intensive engagement in boarding school like conditions perhaps? Young people who are clearly failing at 14 and 15 need to be resucued (sometimes) by some radical intervention.

    Peter Hitchens gets paid for letting loose his fantasies in the Daily Mail. Easy money, I wish I could get some.

    Btw the Washignton Sniper was executed the other day. I don't support the death penalty, but I don't think his death is such a big loss either. If Barack Obama doesn't see it as such a terrible thing in some circumstances, then I wonder if he's right.
    Is John Allen Muhammad's death by state execution such a big loss?
    I really don't think it is. He's gone now. Just history.

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