Joined-up sentences

These are tense and troubling times: almost certain war with Iraq
putting a match under the Middle East powder keg; invasion by
asylum seekers polluted, according to The Sun (28
January), with disease and terrorism; immigration so out of control
that government wants to withdraw from the European Convention on
Human Rights; billions of pounds wiped off share values. In this
harsh moral climate, London School of Economics professor Richard
Sennett expresses pessimism about the whole future of welfare. It
is not the best time to argue for the rights of young offenders –
that great scourge on society – but, as great oaks grow from little
acorns, the makings of a social time-bomb always began many years
in the past.

More young offenders receive custodial sentences. More young people
become parents. By extension, more young offenders are parents. As
the inmate population rises year on year, the proportion of young
fathers will also increase, but their needs, and those of their
children and partners, are generally ignored.

Prisons are institutions that deny individuality and
self-determination – the privately-run Ashfield young offenders
institution, from which 170 inmates are being removed because of
the appalling conditions, is an admittedly extreme example of a
deep-seated problem. Outside, a young man may be a son, brother,
partner, father, but inside he will lose much of his identity. Too
bad: in the popular mind, he has only himself to blame. In the
popular view, a careful construct of both media and politicians,
teenage mothers are feckless and promiscuous, using pregnancy as
the passport to public housing and benefits, while the fathers of
their children are judged fly-by-nights who drop their seed at
random. Some no doubt fit the stereotype but many do not.
Nonetheless, they are all tarred with the same brush, a contempt
that extends to their offspring.

There is universal acknowledgement of the trauma children suffer
from the loss of a parent through death or divorce, but none where
the relationship is severed by imprisonment, despite the fact that
the child may witness the parent’s removal in terrifying
circumstances. While custody confers social invisibility on the
offender, so little heed is given to the impact on his family as to
imply that they share his guilt. Often, they become pariahs and
victims of reprisal.

Prison alienates and degrades. Life inside is brutal and aimless,
frightening and supremely tedious, underscored by the drug culture
that infests mainstream society. For those from society’s margins,
life outside can be equally bleak. The challenge to motivate the
repeat offender, who regards imprisonment as an occupational
hazard, is enormous, particularly as each episode behind bars
results in greater desensitisation and a deeper absorption of
negative values. Prison staff, similarly at the mercy of the
system, must also manage the constant meddling of politicians and
perpetual vacillation in the current moral climate.

When particular crimes catch the public imagination and the media
whips up a moral panic on behalf of “the people”, politicians feel
obliged to react, usually with some ill-conceived strategy that
makes matters worse. Within the space of a year, two diametrically
opposed sentencing policies appeared: first, life imprisonment
after a third conviction, no matter the offence; second,
non-custodial sentences for the first two burglary convictions.
Rehabilitation depends largely on a unified understanding of the
purpose of custody; without that, prisons are just

Last year, the Howard League for Penal Reform successfully
petitioned the High Court for the protection of the Children Act
1989 to be extended to young people in custody. However, the onus
for implementation will not fall on the Prison Service and,
inevitably, councils have reacted with dismay to the prospect of
additional burdens on already overstretched resources.

Young fathers in custody are themselves often little more than
children. Custody fractures lives, resulting in despair inside and
out. The collapse of existing relationships is almost a given and
suicide rates among young prisoners are alarmingly high. Offending
behaviour should not abrogate the rights of the individual: once
the sentence is served, the slate is clean.

Stock Exchange whimsies notwithstanding, Britain is a rich country
and one of the world’s safest, yet its record on child welfare is
appalling. Post-Laming, it is surely time for inclusive children’s
policies that fully embrace the young offender and his

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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