Kim Kardashian’s trip to the White House on Thursday to talk prison reform with President Trump has prompted a great deal of merriment on this side of the Atlantic. Even the Justice Secretary David Gauke and his Prisons Minister Rory Stewart joined in the fun on Twitter, with David Gauke liking a tweet made by Rory Stewart linking to the story titled with a bemused, “Well ...”
But behind the unlikely meeting of America’s most Instagrammed star and its controversial leader lay a serious intent. The purpose of Kardashian’s visit to the Oval Office was to raise with the President the troubling case of Alice Marie Johnson, who in 1996 was sentenced to life without parole for a first-time non-violent drug offence under draconian federal drug laws. Kardashian, who first learnt of Johnson’s case through social media, was there to plea mercy for Johnson and press for her release under an Obama-era clemency scheme.
Whether Johnson’s case was any more deserving of Kardashian’s attention than the other countless victims of the US’s punitive criminal justice system is perhaps beside the point. It’s not as if she is the first celebrity to be selective in the causes she chooses to support. Nor is Trump the first politician to court the rich and famous in an attempt to boost his own profile. But at least in this case the meeting has served to highlight a wider injustice.
Arguably, Kardashian’s preparedness to use her own fame to try and bring about a positive change should be applauded and not mocked. Especially so in area of social policy that has all too often been shunned by image-conscious celebrities in the UK.
To be fair, America’s penal system is in a more parlous state than here, despite a significant decline in standards of safety and decency in English and Welsh prisons in recent years. And in a country where one in 20 black men are in prison in some states, it is perhaps not surprising that the cause of prison reform has drawn support from a number of black American celebrities in particular. Although David Lammy MP’s recent review of racial disparity in the criminal justice system found that black people in England and Wales are proportionately more likely to be in prison than in America.
While sentencing practice in England and Wales has not reached the extremes of the US, we are still an outlier in the developed world when it comes to the use of life or indeterminate sentences. England and Wales have more than twice as many people serving indeterminate sentences than France, Germany and Italy combined—the highest in Europe by a significant margin. 2,500 people are in prison serving an indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) despite its abolition in 2012. One fifth of these were sentenced to an original tariff of less than two years, but are now held years past their original tariff expiry date. 101 of this group are now over a decade past original tariff expiry.
Meanwhile, prisoners are experiencing some of the worst treatment and conditions in decades after steep cuts to Ministry of Justice budgets have left our overcrowded prisons struggling for staff and resources. Despite a recent increase in staff numbers following a recruitment drive, they are still a long way off 2010 levels. Rates of violence and self-harm are at record levels and many prisons are failing to deliver even basic standards of decency according to inspectors.
On the same day Kardashian was meeting President Trump in the White House, HM Inspectorate of Prisons issued an urgent notification over safety concerns at HMP Exeter, including a shocking 40% rise in the numbers of self-harm incidents since the prison’s last inspection in 2016. It was also revealed at the same time that Bedford prison had been placed in special measures by the Ministry of Justice, bringing the total number of prisons in England and Wales under these arrangements to 11. In any other area of public service, these developments would constitute a national scandal.
This is not to say that the cause of criminal justice reform is without its champions among the UK’s great and good. The broadcaster John Snow, the rapper, poet and political activist Akala, and the author Martina Cole are among the handful of British celebrities who have been willing to put their heads above the parapet and advocate publicly for prisoners’ rights. A small number of high profile figures have also been active in promoting the employment of former offenders, including the businessman Richard Branson and chef and entrepreneur Jamie Oliver.
Establishing prison reform as a cause célèbre means charities need to play their part in better explaining their mission to the public. But the rich and famous could also be a bit more open minded in the causes they choose to endorse. If more would take a leaf out of Kim Kardashian’s book, it might not break the internet, but it could end up making a real difference.