Learning Together was the umbrella for the Cambridge University conference on prisoner rehabilitation. The attendees, some of them convicts out on an early release programme, gathered at the Fishmongers’ Hall to, well, learn more.
Visual aids are an important instructional tool, without which education runs the risk of descending into lifeless scholasticism. Such aids were helpfully provided by attendee Usman Khan.
Khan had been recently released halfway into a 16-year sentence for terrorist offences because a) he had been judged to be a reformed character [“Khan has bigged up,” in the opinion of Judge Lord Justice Leveson] and b) our prisons are terribly overcrowded.
He was wearing an electronic ankle tag and wasn’t allowed to enter London, but in this case his probation officers made an exception. Khan’s experience was deemed too valuable for him to miss Learning Together.
Hence he attended several workshops before taking a short break. From that Khan emerged slashing and stabbing with two large knives. Two people were killed and several others wounded before Khan himself was shot dead.
One of the victims was Jack Merritt, 25, the idealistic Cambridge criminologist who had organised the conference. Jack believed Khan was living proof of how a life can be changed for the better. He chose a wrong case study.
In the wake of the tragedy, every paper in His Creation has proposed various measures. Yet they all have one thing in common: in line with much vaunted British pragmatism they deal with the symptoms of the problem without touching upon the underlying philosophy.
Philosophy is for the French and other continentals. The British are about practicalities, not abstract theories – and proud of it. Alas, without grasping the underlying abstractions, the practicalities will be allowed to fester.
However, do let’s proceed inductively by first considering the only three possible methods of tackling the problem of prison overcrowding. One, not to send criminals to prison. Two, not to keep them there for long if they regrettably have to be given custodial sentences. Three, to build more prisons.
Of the three, only the third requires investment in both physical plant and personnel. The first two cost nothing and, critically, vindicate the key premises of modernity. Hence some combination of them is a perfect solution for everybody – except Jack Merritt and other victims of evil recidivists.
Since repeat offenders account for 57 per cent of violent crime in Britain, at this point I have to leave the comfort zone of practicalities and consider the underlying assumptions.
The dominant political system in Britain (and the West in general) is based on the premises variously called liberal, liberal democratic, socialist or social democratic. I call them demonstrably wrong in their understanding of man and the state.
Presumption of human goodness. This came to the fore with the debunking of the founding religion of the West, according to which all men bear the mark of Original Sin.
The formative assumption of our civilisation was that Original Sin requires redemption, both collective, provided by Christ, and individual, provided by personal efforts of imitatio Christi.
That, along with other anachronistic ideas, was dumped into what Corbyn’s role model Trotsky called the rubbish bin of history. Courtesy of Rousseau and his followers, man was assumed to be perfect until society spoiled him.
The expedient of perfecting the primordial noble sauvage thus boiled down to the opening of the paths leading to virtue. Therefore, if some people behaved imperfectly, that meant not enough paths had been open for their innate goodness to come through.
Comparing the two assumptions, one has to be an obtuse fanatic not to see that the entire history of mankind vindicates the first one and debunks the second.
People are sinful and some are evil, manifestly and, in this world, irredeemably. Once we’ve established that, we can segue into the second underlying assumption.
The role of the state. The state has many roles, but only one of them goes back to the very reason that states were instituted among men. And that’s not to keep people equal, educated, healthy and solvent.
All these are derivative and consensual, meaning debatable. There’s only one iron-clad function the state has to perform to justify its existence: keeping people safe from external and internal enemies.
That means having an adequate defence capability and a justice system capable of protecting good people from bad ones. Corollary to that is the understanding that, when budgets are planned, the first decision to be made is the amount necessary for the state to do what it’s fundamentally for. All other needs, real or perceived, must be financed out of the funds left over.
The role of prison. I’ve twice appeared on the BBC, arguing that prison is an essential element of justice whose sole purpose is to protect Her Majesty’s subjects from evildoers. Part of that process may be rehabilitation, but it’s the least significant part. (I was allowed a total of 20 seconds before being outshouted by frenzied lefties.)
Prison is a punitive, not educational or religious, institution. It’s there to punish committed crimes, deter subsequent ones and communicate to the public that justice is done.
Once we’ve defined the problem this way – but only once we’ve done so – the practical solutions will offer themselves.
Our policemen should function as crime fighters, not social workers. They should be given every chance to do their job, which includes having sufficient strength in numbers.
Policemen should be allowed to exercise their judgement in stopping and searching suspects from groups that are statistically more crime-infested than others. Given the choice of spread-eagling on a car bonnet a tweedy middle-aged gentleman or someone who looks like Khan, a policeman mustn’t be accused of racism if he’s good at maths.
Our courts must be instructed to pass stiff sentences, especially for violent and terrorist offences. When a human life is taken or credibly threatened, no parole or early release should be on offer – including with life sentences.
That would drastically increase the prison population, and we must have enough prisons to allow for that – whatever it takes in effort and expenditure. And there’s also another way to reduce overcrowding.
In extreme cases, the death penalty is the only just punishment. Perhaps the standard of proof there should be upgraded to beyond any, as opposed to reasonable, doubt. However, abolishing capital punishment altogether doesn’t uphold the value of human life. It trivialises it.
Offsetting murder or especially terrorism with merely a few years in prison is cruel and unusual punishment imposed on society. For, unless they are attenuated, the tectonic waves murder sends through society may eventually destroy it.
Getting back to the question in the title, what have we Learned Together? If history is anything to go by, precisely nothing.
We’ll continue to treat criminals as poor lost souls, more sinned against than sinning. They’ll still receive derisory, almost apologetic sentences from which they’ll be released early, provided they, like Khan, make a convincing show of ‘bigging-up’.
We’ll neglect to prosecute most crimes against property, and will treat crimes against the person with avuncular tut-tuts. And yes, whenever more people are murdered by Muslim fanatics, we’ll continue to insist that Islam has nothing to do with it.
Moreover, we’ll prosecute those who disagree for racism. Such is justice in modernity, and it’ll change only when modernity does. Which means never.
P.S. The other day a reader posted my photograph on Facebook, and it received more ‘likes’ than any of my articles. That makes me think I’ve missed my true calling: I should have been a male model, not a writer.