Locked up, sold out

The fact that we still lock up pregnant women is an indictment
of how society writes off people who commit crime and refuses to
look at what causes them to do it, argues Melissa Benn.

The recent damning report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons on
the state of Birmingham local prison showed the cyclical nature of
this, the most intractable of social issues. Little it seems has
changed under New Labour. The prison population is still inexorably
rising. Since 1997 the number of women in prison has increased by
29 per cent.1 We are still locking up significant
numbers of pregnant women and mothers with babies despite
government promises to come up with a more humane system of

But tidying up Birmingham prison or building sunnier secure
units for offending mothers will not solve the problem of crime
anymore than a privatisation of prisons or a massive prison
building programme. Here, New Labour have proved themselves worthy
inheritors indeed of a Thatcherite legacy. The chief difference is
that New Labour comes down hard on (some kinds of) crime in the
hallowed name of the community rather than the authoritarian

But what’s most striking about the state of British prisons and
prisoners is how stale and shallow the debate has become. We talk
endlessly about our fear of crime, dwell compulsively on the
hideous details of some kinds of offences such as rape and murder.
But what is missing is any sense of political curiosity, let alone
concern, about what drives the majority of people to commit crime
and what happens to them when they do.

As a culture, we have developed an insatiable need to look
around the insides of celebrities houses, to discover every detail
of their marriages, affairs, triumphs and failures. The nation
obsessively discusses what happens when six minor media figures are
voluntarily locked away for a week in a comfortable roomy house in
aid of charity.

Yet in our daily lives, particularly in cities, we drive past
vast buildings in which thousands of people are living, often in
constrained and filthy conditions without batting an eyelid. There
is a parallel with poverty here. In all major cities the rich and
the poor live cheek by jowl yet most people will travel miles,
literally and metaphorically, to bypass the homes of those who are

Surely, the defining feature of our current economic and
political landscape is a belief that some problems, or perhaps it
is problem people, are forever doomed to squat dangerously in our
midst. Such people are threatening our hard won virtue and social
security and there is nothing that can be done about it. Previous
eras in which more questions were asked about what drives people to
crime or even poverty or both, and more radical solutions posed,
are now marginalised as alternately dangerous or absurd.

But it is also part of our belief system to accept that prisons
are dangerous places largely for those who work in or visit them,
rather than those who dwell in them. Who can forget Jodie Foster’s
FBI agent Clarice Starling’s first visit to see Hannibal Lecter in
jail, in the original Silence of the Lambs? Here, what is
portrayed is the supposedly extraordinary danger that the
incarcerated will always pose to the innocent outsider .

The prison minister Paul Boateng has frequently referred to the
dangers facing staff in British prisons. In fact, assaults on staff
constitute only a small percentage of crimes that occur in our
jails. Look instead at the statistics on prisoner harm. In 1999
alone there were 107 self-inflicted deaths in British prisons and
other penal establishments. Between 1990 and 1999 1,350 people died
in the prisons, psychiatric hospitals and police cells of England
and Wales.2 Some of these murders were bloody beyond

But failing to see the danger that prison poses to inmates is
not the only way in which we take a one-sided view of the criminal
justice system. New Labour’s catchiest slogan ever was “Tough on
crime, tough on the causes of crime” yet one never hears a modern
politician talk about the pretty obvious link between poverty and

In popular discourse, crime is now all about willed agency
rather than muddle and desperation. Most women, for example, are
sent to prison for theft and handling offences, rather than the
more personally threatening crimes of burglary or robbery, or for
drug offences.

Yet are we really tough on greed? Early last year, it was
revealed that the last successful prosecution for insider trading
was in 1991. As the Guardian asked at the time: “Imagine
the public outcry if there had been no successful prosecutions for
mugging for nearly a decade?”

What is so depressing about all this is the lack of public
argument. We are ruled by a consensus on everything from education
to economics. But this so-called common sense is also a form of
political paralysis, an acceptance that economic success and social
security rely on the effective writing off of large sections of the
population. And having written them off, we cannot then think or
speak of them as human beings.

1 Howard League for Penal Reform, Women
in Prison
, Fact Sheet, 2000

2 J Sim, One Thousand Days of Degradation:
New Labour and Old Compromises at the Turn of the Century.
Social Justice, Vol 27, No 2 (2000)

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