A very young man, imprisoned for terrorist offences, is released. Shortly afterwards, he grabs a machete ( a very big sharp knife) and lashes out wildly harming three people. The police variously rally fast , the wounded are removed to hospital. Sunday in Streatham.
Rolling news coverage of something like this is a nightmare because everybody and anybody is interviewed, who might know or have seen anything, to keep the story going while we find out the few facts.
The following day we report that the wounded have been secured, the assailant is dead and start looking for the next “hook” – the thing to keep us interested. At the moment the story is concentrated on the fact that the assailant was released early, that although he was observed to be militant, this didn’t affect the process – so why wasn’t he kept in for the whole of his allotted sentence ?
Surely we don’t believe that if he had served longer it would necessarily have rehabilitated him to live differently ? When are we going to bite the bullet that, for the most part, prison is a punishment. Rehabilitation is almost incidental, much more to do with the individual than the stretched few who believe in it. And we have other problems with British prisons: they are overflowing, antiquated and the men and women who run them are increasingly under duress and alienated.
Watching a tv news programme recently, I heard somebody saying that whichever prison was under discussion, offered “full back up and counselling support.” You will forgive me if I say that this sounds suspiciously like somebody offering a pair of elastic stockings to the sufferer of chronic variscosity. There is a great difference between offering offload and time out to the effective executor of a good service, and the sticking plaster on an often poisonously unsafe system which is, for the most part, where we are up to.
Even if lots of public money (whatever is left over from HS2, Crossrail, the Northern Powerhouse, the emergence from Europe and so on, telephone number sums bandied left and right) is allotted to building new prisons (there are a few already in process) until some harsh home truths have been faced about what the prison service is, how it functions, how its monies are allotted and what its endgame is – the risk is throwing good money after bad.
Because whether it is a new building or an old building, overcrowding is overcrowding. It makes every facet of prison life harder to manage. And harder to endure. And as it is relatively new and not widely accepted that the stresses and strains of being a policeman or a fireman or a social worker or a teacher or a medic need ongoing support and help and often more than that, the prison service will find itself further down the list. And who is going to offer this support and help ? And will it count against you, generally with your colleagues or more widely, on your work record ? Stress is one of those catchall terms, with more holes than a colander.
In the past, a stressful job meant that you grew roses at the weekend. In an increasing number of employment models, there is no weekend. If you are shortstaffed, fewer people have to work longer hours and that idea comprises several aspects too – keeping a job, earning enough money almost always means overtime, overtime means tired out, tired out means bad temper, bad temper means doing the job less well – and the standoff between inmate and turnkey solidifies into disappointment, distemper and communication breakdown. It isn’t what we want. It’s what we’ve got.