From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Dostoyevsky rules


August 5. In an addendum to the June 22 diary, I noted a further still-birth in a woman’s prison.  As ever in this rear-view country, a set of inquiries has been launched, but their findings have been pre-empted by a whistle-blower in the person of Tamsin Morris, a lawyer who previously managed the mother-and-baby unit at Styal Prison.

She revealed that four months before the event she had written to the local MP, the Mayor of Manchester, and the Ministry of Justice, raising concerns about conditions for pregnant women in prison.  Together with the charity Birth Companions, she had drawn attention to the failure to record the number of women in prisons who are pregnant, the unavailability of appropriate termination procedures, inadequate pregnancy testing, and inconsistent antenatal services.  Pregnancy tests were only offered on entry to the prison and could be declined by the prisoner.  Thereafter there were no further tests, and no national record of pregnant women prisoners. 

In the Styal case, no care was given until the prisoner unexpectedly went into labour.  It is possible that in this prison, and across the sector, some minor reforms will follow.  The question remains, as I argued in my entries for June 2 and June16, whether the coronavirus presents an unmissable opportunity to reform and essentially inhumane and destructive penal regime.  As the pandemic persists so also does one of its more unacceptable consequences, the imposition of widespread solitary confinement in prison cells as the only available means of preventing mass infection. 

We arrive at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century with, at best, a partially modernised version of the system that began to be constructed in 1842 with the opening of Pentonville.  There has been a long debate about the function of incarceration. Proponents of rehabilitative justice have largely been defeated by the advocates of retribution.*  Ever since the introduction of solitary confinement where the prisoner was supposed to repent and reform through a prolonged period of spiritual meditation, there has been scant evidence that rehabilitation works.  After nearly two centuries of inquiry and adjustments to the system, the recidivism rate in England and Wales (the proportion of prisoners committing crimes on release) stands at 50% after one year.  There is ample evidence not only that prison does not reform, but that the experience of incarceration is destructive of mental and physical health, more especially with the renewed use of solitary confinement.

The prisons should be front and centre of public policy in this pandemic for two reasons.  The first is that of opportunity.  Dominic Cummings promises that a ‘hard rain’ is going to fall on the civil service.  Were he to focus his iconoclastic tendencies on the Ministry of Justice, then history would indeed go round a corner.  There are European examples of how to do it better.  In Norway a much smaller proportion of the offending population is housed in civilised, small-scale accommodation where the prisoners are treated with a basic respect.  The result is a vast reduction in both public expenditure and the recidivism rate, which stands at 20% over two years.  In Britain, perhaps ten per cent of the current prison population needs to be behind bars to protect the rest of society.  Outside, the plethora of electronic surveillance devices, which so alarm privacy campaigners, could be applied to the task of monitoring the behaviour of potential repeat offenders.

The second reason is more basic.  Dostoyevsky’s much travelled dictum still applies: ‘A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.’

So also will be the verdict on how we have learned from this crisis.

*Victor Bailey, The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal, 1895-1970 (London: Routledge, 2019).

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: on National Pride …

April 21stBritish readers will recall the carefully crafted address by the Queen on 5th April.  It studiously avoided saying anything about the Government whose leader had so embarrassed her over the proroguing of Parliament last Autumn.  Instead it concentrated on national character:

I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.  And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future.

The question of whether we still have any right to take a national pride in the response to coronavirus has been thrown into relief by the revelations in the press over the weekend, particularly the 5,000-word piece in the Sunday Times.

The generalised ‘attributes of self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and fellow-feeling’ remain valid.  Indeed, they have proved stronger than the Government initially feared as it hesitated about imposing a lock-down.  The street protests against restrictions on movement in the USA reported this week demonstrates what can happen in the absence of such resolve.  That said, there are also worrying reports about a sudden growth of domestic abuse inside closed-down families which may yet disfigure the celebration of fellow-feeling.

In terms of public policy, however, shame is the more appropriate sentiment.  Just ask yourself this question, of all the countries fighting the pandemic, which are seen as a model to be followed?  South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany and some others.  No-one is viewing the daily British news conferences for lessons about what they should be doing.

It is not as though we have no inherited strengths.  We have an economy strong enough to withstand emergency bail-outs worth many billions of pounds.  We have a sophisticated production and distribution system which has ensured, unlike many developing countries, that there is still food in the shops.  We have a health service which, in contrast to Trump’s America, covers the whole population.  And once we led the world in the specific field of pandemic resolution.  No longer.  According to the Sunday Times:

“Several emergency planners and scientists said that the plans to protect the UK in a pandemic had once been a priority and had been well funded for the decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But then austerity cuts struck. “We were the envy of the world,” the source said, “but pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years, when there were more pressing needs.”  [to judge from a TV interview I saw, that ‘source’ is Sir David King, a former Chief Scientific Officer]

The planning had atrophied.  The funding had been cut.  And once the crisis began, the wrong decisions were taken by a Cabinet whose members had been appointed solely on the basis of their attitude to Brexit.  Its leader fulfilled all the expectations which his career had predicted:

“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” the adviser said. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

What we still have is a world-class scientific community (though universities, including Imperial, are going to be very hard hit by a combination of the pandemic and Brexit).  It may yet be that those working on a vaccine at Oxford and elsewhere will come up with the solution that will save the world.  Then, and only then, will we have a cause for national pride in how we responded.