I have been doing a lot of admin this week (yawn) and now I'm waiting for a visit from the police to come to my home and confirm I'm human. What are you? I'm human. When they are satisfied that I am I can visit my dad. My dad is in maximum-security prison after an unreliable career in armed robbery. He already served ten-years and was finally promoted to an open prison - you know the ones - the kind we reserve for our white-collar criminals like celebrity politicians Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken. Annoyingly my dad didn't write a best seller in the last few months of his stretch. He didn't have time because he absconded on the second day - he just couldn't resist the green grassy pastures of West Sussex. After 3 months on the run he was "found enjoying a pint at a pub while watching England's opening World Cup game." In a quaint Bristol Village.
Of course I don't see my father as the 'dangerous' man the BBC warned the public about. I see him as my dad. Having a pint. He is a man with strong instincts and that can often carry him in the wrong direction. I love him and I understand him but I do not endorse his crimes. I know that there are consequences to actions - his example has taught me that - and I believe that there should be.
What I can't understand is the treatment we are meting out on our prisoner population. And what I fear are the consequences of our actions. Yes, our actions, and inaction, and that of our elected representatives. What price will we pay for our cruelty?
Suicide rates in prison are now the highest that they have ever been. Last year 84 people took their lives, a rise of 41% in the previous 12 months. This is a catastrophe. Prisoner-on-prisoner attacks have leapt to an epidemic 16,000 - and those are the attacks that were reported. I am no expert but I believe this surge in violence can all be explained by the fact that my 56-year-old father is forced to shit in a bucket. I must explain that the majority of prisons have been updated and no longer use the "slopping out" technique (that's shitting in a bucket for the rest of us), but because of overcrowding remand prisons remain the most archaic, running amok with rats and cockroaches. My dad gets a regular visitor, he named him harry, makes it easier when they're a pet I'm told.
We are trained to picture our prisoners as pampered. Maybe this is why the idea of caged men forced to defecate in bins that they sleep beside is so foreign to us its suggestion makes us laugh nervously or turn away. But we must look at this problem straight on. I will not dwell here on cancellation of exercise, deliberate sleep deprivation, and physical assaults on prisoners by guards. These and other abuses stem from the basics - and the basics are simple. If you stick a lion in a cage and make him sit in his own shit and piss, pacing up and down for 23 and a half hours of the day, he's going to get violent. He's going to get angry, and if we saw him go for his keeper we would cheer him on. We are the keeper in this scenario. We are own enemy. And we are debasing ourselves. The Woolf Report states that conditions in our prisons have deteriorated to the notorious times of the Strangeways Riots. If we do not demand that they improve they will get worse.
No wonder we would rather examine Kim Kardashian's arse. It's easier.
Loss of liberty is a terrible punishment. We all know this. It is the worse thing we can think of to punish transgression. Which is why imprisonment is employed in every society around the world. Yet (in the UK at least) we also recognise the possibility of rehabilitation and in principle so does our system. Perhaps there are a few hardliners out there who would like to pay twice as much tax to keep people in prison longer but most of us accept that people serve time for their crime and are then released back into society. Logically we also understand that treating men like animals does not facilitate this transition.
Criminals are just humans who have fallen by the wayside, out of society's structured paths. Perhaps because of human weakness, like greed or pride. Perhaps because of society's weakness, in education or opportunity. Some of them are just plain old psychopaths. This does not exempt us from addressing overcrowding, shortage of staff, rises in violence, rises in suicide, and other effects of government cutbacks. I don't know how to change these things either. But we must all start asking ourselves and each other how we can begin. Because in dehumanizing these people we are dehumanizing ourselves. I didn't know what to call this piece. "Prisons in crisis" just isn't sexy. "Celebrity shits in bucket" I figured would garner more attention. I have settled for a combination of both. Perhaps if we can all compromise - and reconcile our conflicting desires to punish and to sustain hope, we can address the crisis in our prison system.
Georgia Brown, with Tania Edwards