Yesterday I appeared on the BBC Sunday Morning Live show, on the panel discussing imprisonment.
Since this subject, like most others, tends to divide people along political lines, I feared that the other panellists would gang up on me. I was wrong: providing partial support was Andrew Pierce of The Mail.
But then there was Afua Hirsch, a human rights development worker, whatever that means. Propping up her corner with expert opinion by TV link was a gentleman who once served time and has since developed an understandable interest in the penitentiary system.
Miss Hirsch and I differ on the very definition of prison. Rather than punishment for crimes, she sees it more as an educational and therapeutic facility for the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Hence, according to her and the ex-convict, we have too many people in prison: other institutions would serve the educational purposes better.
My contention was that protecting us from criminals is among the state’s few raisons d’être. Otherwise it’s not immediately clear whence the state would derive its legitimacy.
Therefore the number of prisoners is a moot point. We should have as many as it takes for the state to protect us.
Prison’s principal role is to punish and thereby deter crimes. Rehabilitation, a notion dear to my opponents’ hearts, would be welcome, but it comes far down on the list of desiderata, if at all.
The ex-convict was aghast. Didn’t I know that most released prisoners reoffend within a few months? Miss Hirsch nodded vigorously and looked at me in a way that suggested she wouldn’t mind seeing me inside one of the facilities under discussion.
Actually, those sentenced to non-custodial punishments reoffend as often as those sent down, the valid difference being that at least the latter can’t hurt us while inside.
The ex-convict obviously didn’t realise that everything he was saying supported my argument. After all, the commitment to mythical rehabilitation has been practised for at least two generations. Surely the recidivism rates prove it isn’t working?
When a system fails so spectacularly, the fault usually lies with its design, not the mechanics of its operation. There’s this truth impossible for Miss Hirsch’s liberal mind to grasp: rehabilitation isn’t what prisons are for, and some people can’t be rehabilitated anyway.
To realise this one has to acknowledge that evil, like good, is innate to human nature and in some people it predominates. But that route may lead us as far as original sin, and of course Miss Hirsch can’t possibly believe in such retrograde rubbish.
Rates of reoffending can be significantly reduced by one expedient only: imbuing people with respect for, and fear of, the law.
Respect for the law is a cornerstone of any successful civilisation, and creating it is a reciprocal process. The old cliché works: justice must be done (by the state), and it must be seen to be done (by the people).
A crime, especially a violent one, sends shockwaves through the community, and they can only be attenuated when commensurate punishment is meted out. If this doesn’t happen, respect for the law goes down and crime rates go up.
That’s why Britain, formerly one of the most law-abiding Western nations, is rapidly turning into one of the most lawless. We have the highest rate of violent crime in Western Europe, and London is leading New York in every crime category except murder (the gap is closing).
Fear of the law is an essential complement to respect. Those contemplating an imprisonable offence should be afraid of retribution.
Andrew Pierce manfully came to my defence. Prison, he said, should have “an element of punishment”. More than an element, actually: punishment is all that prison is about, but I can’t complain: some support is better than none.
Miss Hirsch was aghast. Being in prison is awful, she said, what with poor people being deprived of their freedom. Quite. That’s the whole point: the bad people inside lose their freedom to enable the good people outside to enjoy theirs.
This isn’t to say that prisons should be hellholes. Civilised countries can’t have that. But what civilised countries must have is prisons that scare potential criminals away.
Because of the prevalent liberal mindset, so vividly exemplified by my opponents, this isn’t happening. We don’t have enough prisons, and those we do have are overcrowded and understaffed.
Over 7,000 warders have been made redundant in recent months, and the power of both governors and officers has been curtailed. Thus prisons are controlled not so much by the authorities as by the most feral convicts.
Really hardened criminals dish punishment out, rather than being on the receiving end of it. Anarchy reigns, with thousands of meeker inmates murdered, drugs flowing freely, and warders being assaulted.
The issue came up of extending sentences already served when the prisoner is deemed to remain a menace to society. This to me is an affront to the rule of law: keeping people in prison on the statistical likelihood of their reoffending violates the notion of due process.
When a man has served his time, justice demands that he be released. Sentences should be long enough to begin with, and they shouldn’t be routinely cut in half by tariffs. Yet judges are instructed to be lenient (550 sentences were toughened up on appeal last year).
Miss Hirsch unwittingly agreed by saying that short sentences are just awful. Alas, she wasn’t arguing in favour of longer ones: she believed that, rather than being sent down for a short spell, a criminal shouldn’t go to prison at all.
Actually, if our prisons worked as they’re supposed to, I’d be in favour of short sentences for a first offence, to give criminals a taste of much longer ones to come if they reoffend. However, I didn’t make that point, nor many others: time had run out.