from David Vincent: Solitary confinement

June 2.  Solitary confinement as a device for punishing and reforming prisoners was introduced in Britain in 1842, with the opening of Pentonville Prison.  It was believed that if the prisoner was kept in isolation, visited only by the prison chaplain, he would meditate on his sinful life and over time re-build his moral being.  It was recognised that the regime placed a dangerous stress on the mental health of the prisoners, who were subject to frequent visits by medical staff to monitor their condition.  From the outset the regime was criticised for its inhumanity, most notably by Charles Dickens, but the State clung to the device, albeit in a weakened form, throughout the nineteenth century.

Solitary, or separate, confinement finally disappeared between the wars, but it has lately returned not as a deliberate penal policy, but as a by-product of the growing crisis in the prison system.  After 1990, a ‘punitive turn’ in the political discourse led to a doubling of the UK prison population to the current level of 92,500.    Following the financial crash of 2008-2009, the expanding numbers collided with a long-term retraction in public expenditure.  Prisoners were locked in their cells because of infractions of the rules, or to protect them from other prisoners, or because there were insufficient staff to monitor them when they congregated with others. 

On 30 May 2018, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons sent an ‘Urgent Notification’ to the Ministry of Justice on conditions in Exeter Prison.  He was particularly concerned about the ‘designated segregation unit’ where ‘there was a special cell which was completely bare and contained no furniture, toilet or bed.  Prison and regional managers had approved the use of this cell for those judged to be so vulnerable as to be in need of constant observation, and it had been so used 17 times in the previous six months. There was supposedly an inflatable bed available for use in this cell, but it could not be found by staff during the inspection, and inspectors saw video of a prisoner on constant watch being located in the cell without it.’   Other prisoners were discovered to be in self-imposed solitude: ‘We found prisoners isolating themselves in their cells,’ the inspectors reported of Birmingham prison, ‘refusing to emerge because of their fear of violence.’

Everyone with an interest in prison reform knew that there were only two solutions to the crisis.  Either the State invested an unfeasible amount of money in new prisons and more officers, or it significantly reduced the prison population in order to let the existing staff do their jobs properly.   Caught between their traditional commitment to law and order, and their continuing embrace of austerity, successive Conservative governments were unable to commit to either course of action. 

Then came the coronavirus, and suddenly a pathway opened up.  It would be possible to make a significant start on reducing prisoner numbers under the cover of the medical crisis.  On April 4, just a fortnight after the lockdown began, Ministry of Justice said that up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible for the end of custody temporary release (ECTR) scheme, in addition to freeing pregnant women and mothers of babies. The government also committed to releasing vulnerable prisoners, of whom there are about 1,200, through compassionate release. 

But, as so often in the current crisis, the target was missed, and by such a margin as to suggest that the Ministry of Justice had completely lost its nerve.  By the end of May, seventy-nine prisoners had been released under the ECTR scheme, together with about twenty-two pregnant women and mothers of babies.

Faced with the contagion spreading throughout the packed prisons, the regime imposed draconian lockdown conditions.  With social distancing impossible in the overcrowded buildings, solitary confinement returned for more than twenty-three hours a day and all prison visits were suspended.  On its own terms it worked.  Deaths in prisons have been lower per head of population than had been feared.  To date, twenty-two prisoners and nine staff are known to have died of Covid-19.  But the psychological suffering has been immense.  Since lockdown conditions were introduced on 23 March, there have been nearly as many suicides as medical deaths.  Five suicides were reported in the last week of May* (this compares with eighty over the whole of 2019, itself a figure which would have shocked the Victorians).  As we debate the opening of schools, the Children’s Commissioner has complained that children in prisons are only being allowed out of their cells for less than an hour a day, with destructive consequences for their education.

Amidst the coronavirus crisis, there are visions of building a better world.  The prisons represent an inexcusable missed opportunity.

*Guardian, 28 May 2020.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: time to have another drink … or three

May 23. In South Australia we are opening up: restaurants and pubs are once more open for business – but only for seated customers and with a limit of 10 people inside and 10 outside. What these businesses appear to be doing is limiting your stay to an hour so they can serve more customers. At first our state government said restaurants could open – but not serve alcohol. There was a backlash and mockery about this ‘no alcohol’ idea so it was quickly scrapped. NO ALCOHOL – how ridiculous to suggest this!

Australians love their alcohol and the authorities apparently felt that patrons might ‘forget’ about social distancing. One is aware that these venues need to be viable and the profit made on alcoholic drinks is significant compared to a cuppachino.

As the shutdown got underway 2 months ago, the jokes about alcohol proliferated across social media. Basically, the theme was: we are all drinking more than normal and that’s OK because life is tough and we NEED our alcohol to survive.

No question a glass or two of Barossa Shiraz is a pleasure with a good home cooked meal. It’s a question of excess and the behaviour that goes with it.

In South Africa they closed the bottle shops – not deemed the source of ‘essential’ purchases during the shutdown. Some bottle shops were attacked and looted by mobs. Online purchases went ahead. I think the ban was in part an attempt to reduce domestic violence. All violence. Car accidents, stabbings and shootings declined. Trauma cases presented at hospital declined by two thirds.

‘It’s not all been bad. One of the benefits of the alcohol ban has been that the reduction in drinking probably led to a quarter, or 9,000, fewer trauma cases in hospital wards every week, according to Charles Parry, a researcher at the South Africa Medical Research Council.’

Think of that! 9,000 fewer trauma cases in South African hospitals!

Coming back to South Australia, what has been startling on the local evening news is the number of horrific road accidents involving drivers who are found to be way over the regulation .05 blood alcohol level. One woman was 7 times over the limit and had 2 young children in the back of her vehicle. I am surprised she could even crawl to her car. And all this is at a time when there are far fewer cars on the road.

Our police have not been road testing for alcohol or drugs due to the fear of covid-19 transmission. Our absolute number of road deaths is relatively low, but so many of the dead and injured are younger people. It’s not so much us retired people, locked down at home, who are out driving under the influence.

From our government fact sheet on ALCOHOL AND DRUGS IN ROAD CRASHES IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA. June 2019.  ‘Overall, 36% of drivers and motorcycles riders killed test positive to either drugs or alcohol or a combination of both for the 5 year period 2014-2018. This means over a third of vehicle operators killed each year are driving with an illegal BAC and/or drugs in their system.’

Alcohol is such a strong theme for Australians when they want to express that they are having fun. It’s often portrayed as a ‘blockey’ thing – those beers (‘stubbies’ or ‘frosties) at the ‘barbie’ on Saturday ‘arvo’. Mateship stems from such times.

I was thinking of this theme of our indulgence in alcohol when we collected the papers this morning. The local Advertiser is a typical tabloid with catchy headlines and little worth reading. It did not disappoint!

The Advertiser, South Australia. May 23, 2020