The media dehumanises and vilifies prisoners, just as they do with immigrants and benefit claimants. They revel in public shaming and so do we. They tell us we need to be tougher on crime and that our justice system is too soft. We nod along, despite the UK having longer sentences than ever and the highest prison population in Western Europe. We’re told, without any sense of irony, that prison works but at the same time is not a punishment.
We allow our thinking about our justice system to be driven by populism and vindictiveness. Instead of prisoners being released on licence part way through their sentence, with strict conditions attached, so that they can be monitored as they reintegrate back into society, they’re ‘let out early’. Instead of prisoners being vaccinated in line with the public as a matter of fact, they’re ‘jumping the queue ahead of their victims’.
When lawyers simply do their jobs by representing their clients and ensuring their basic right to due process under the rule of law is adhered to, they’re derided as ‘activists’ or ‘ambulance chasers’. Swingeing cuts to Legal Aid are justified with the deliberate misrepresentation of statistics and a sense of revulsion that it might cost any money at all for ‘vile’ criminals to dare try and defend themselves.
I saw a lot of selfish, dishonest, manipulative, and aggressive behaviour from many other prisoners. Some of the people I lived with over the last couple of years were quite clearly a danger to the public. Some had committed horrific crimes that can’t really be rationalised in any way. But most were not intrinsically bad people.
As soon as you argue that it’s OK to treat some other people inhumanely, you become part of the problem
Some prisoners are innocent. Some were not guilty of exactly what they’d been convicted of, even if they had done wrong. Some were unfortunate to have ended up in prison rather than receiving a non-custodial sentence (inside, it was generally agreed that going to court for sentencing was like flipping a coin).
Some had just made mistakes – in some cases a single mistake – and were paying for that. Many had owned up to their mistakes at the first opportunity. Some really did deserve their prison sentence, but still weren’t bad people. Some were ‘bad’ people, by any definition of the word. But even then, few people are truly irredeemable.
Regardless, people are more than just what they did. As soon as you argue that it’s OK to treat some other people inhumanely, you become part of the problem. If we as a society choose not to believe that, then we can stop pretending that we live in a civilised country.
We recognise that morality is not always black and white and laud complex characters in fiction, yet are sanctimonious, judgemental, and vengeful in reality. We treat justice as some sort of zero-sum game, where anything potentially positive for the accused or the convicted must be a negative for the victim. And we tell ourselves that prison could never happen to us or anybody we know and care about. But it can.
Our prisons are overcrowded, with shockingly high levels of suicide and self-harm.
What you won’t ever hear about are the acts of kindness and common decency you see every day in prison, just as you would in any community of people. You won’t have heard about the genuine concern and support shown by prisoners towards the man who walked into his cell one afternoon to find his cellmate in a pool of blood with his wrists slit. Or about the hundreds of pounds raised by prisoners from their own wages for the family of a young prison officer who died suddenly. And you won’t be aware that when everybody was clapping for carers for 10 weeks last year, we all joined in too. To report these things would be to remind you that the men and women in our prisons are still actually human beings.
Our prisons are overcrowded, with shockingly high levels of suicide and self-harm. Many have high levels of violence and drug use. Some of our prisons were originally built in the Victorian era and are no longer fit for human habitation.
Despite the misery and the punitiveness, reoffending rates remain stubbornly high for many types of offender. A lack of support sees many prisoners released into homelessness and the stigma of a prison sentence is a serious barrier to future employment. The stark reality is that our prisons are little more than minimum-cost warehouses, with little concern given to what happens to someone after release. Do we really believe that they’re working?
The best people to tell you about what the problems are in prisons are prisoners, but as a criminal, your opinion no longer counts for anything. It’s a catch-22. It’s why I’ve written this anonymously. What I was convicted of doesn’t matter. Whether you believe me or not when I tell you that I have had two and a half years of my life stolen from me for something that I did not do doesn’t matter. What matters is how we treat people when they are at their lowest, whether they deserve to be there or not.
This article is from a special edition of The Big Issue magazine. Get a copy of ‘Locked Up in Lockdown‘ in The Big Issue Shop or purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.