Paul McNamee: The insights from inside

The poorest and weakest get criminalised. Now tell me they don’t deserve help and compassion

I judged a writing competition last week. It was for prisoners. I agreed to do it some time ago, full of enthusiasm and bold intent. When it came to it, I met the pile of papers with sighs and harrumphing about ‘other things to do’. What a fool.

Organised by the Prison Reform Trust, the competition invited those inside to write on the topic of A Good Officer, wherever that took them. There was a general entry section and one for under-21s. I was knocked over by it all. The majority of entries talked about what made a good prison officer, either from personal experience, or by watching how they treated others. There was a brilliant, clear-sighted piece that looked at the impact of privatisation on staff and inmates. I joined Erwin James, editor of Inside Time and general wise man on penal affairs, as a judge. The overall winner is a remarkable bit of writing. I can’t reveal the name yet, but it is an urgent Catherine wheel of writing, sparking and fizzing and taking you inside, in to the smells and the fears. Hot dog, that is some writing! We will print it in The Big Issue in the coming weeks.

One thing that struck me was a thread pulling all the entries together – empathy. All, in some way, touched on how important it was for guards to find a way to make a human connection to the men and women inside, to understand and to allow growth and change. Many thanked guards who were like this.

If you think this is hand-wringing, liberal nonsense, here’s a cold hard reason for encouraging such behaviour from guards. It’s good value. It slashes the chances of reoffending. That is going to help all of society.

Again, you might say, well if they’re inside they’ve done something wrong and they are there for punishment.

That is an overly simplistic generalisation.

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Some of the things I read this week were from scared kids. As Erwin told me, they are coming from poverty, places of violence and complete lack of opportunity. They don’t want to become criminals.

Clearly there are some people who need to be kept from the rest of us to keep us safe, but there is also an increased desire to criminalise sections of society. Hundreds of people have been sent to prison in England and Wales in the last six years over council tax debt. At The Big Issue we’ve discovered that frequently the increased incidence in council tax debt is not because of a feckless lack of personal fiscal responsibility, but because of no choice. If there is a personal or familial catastrophe and this results in a financial crisis and you’re right at the bottom with no savings and no help network to catch you, then you make a decision – rent and food or council tax. Council tax gets moved to the side. And as local authorities bounce debt from their books to debt collection agencies, the debt spirals and the possibility of breaking it recedes. And so it is that the poorest and weakest get criminalised. Now tell me they don’t deserve help and compassion when inside.

(Of course, they shouldn’t be inside in the first place. There should be ways to stop this happening. THAT is where investment should go).

Clearly there are some people who need to be kept from the rest of us to keep us safe, but there is also an increased desire to criminalise sections of society

Part of the government’s current rhetoric is the pledge to give prisons more money. However, like much they are coming up with, this is hollow. It is to show they are tough on crime, to make the population fear that crime is spiralling and that they’re the no-messing crew coming down hard to sort it. They’re totally for law and order (except when judges don’t find in ways they like).

Boris Johnson pledged an extra £100m in August to improve prison security. I haven’t found anything in that pledge to say they’d focus on getting more prison officers and more help for prison officers to let prisoners develop while inside because there is an acknowledgment that such a move will improve security and help slash reoffending.

Perhaps rather than clang loudly they should first listen. I can send along the entries to the Prison Reform Trust’s brilliant competition. That’d be a place to start.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue