Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Column, February 26, 2008

THERE’S no doubt that North Wales needs a prison.
There’s also no doubt that the UK doesn’t need any more at all.
That might seem contradictory, but given the state of the prison system, which is not just creaking at the seams, it’s burst and overflowed into police cells, it’s not as daft as it sounds.
It’s hard to have a sensible debate about this because you are dealing with convicts and from the time of Elizabeth Fry onwards prison reform has always had to contend with the impulse to lock ‘em up and throw away the key.
There will always be a few who would like our prisons to resemble an oubliette, but unless we wish to return to mediaeval standards of human rights we have to look to creating something a little more enlightened.
The fact is that the vast majority of prisoners do not actually go there for a long time. Whether they should spend longer there than they do is a different debate and one I’ll come onto in a while, but for most convicts are looking at a few months or a very few years behind bars before they are released back into the community.
The question is, what do we want to have happened to them in that intervening period for our, not their, benefit?
Now, I would suggest that for our, not their benefit, it would be best if they had not become a more hardened criminal, chock-full of criminal ideas garnered from their cellmates and just bursting to try them out on an unwitting public.
I think it would be best that prison is unpleasant enough that they don’t wish to return, but equips them with the tools to make sure they don’t. And by that I mean the social skills to make themselves a law-abiding citizen, not a more successful criminal.
And this is where a prison in North Wales comes into it. At the moment convicts are carted off to Liverpool or elsewhere, where it’s not as easy for family to visit. Research has shown that prisoners given a reason to want to be out are less likely to end up back inside and one good reason not to get banged up is your family. You aren’t given that motivation to go straight if your family can’t visit you.
As you read this you have to resist the temptation to say: “Well, they committed the crime, they’ve brought in on themselves.” They have, but I don’t see anything in the penal code that says wives, partners and children should be punished as well.
So putting prisoners closer to home makes sense if we are trying to encourage them to want to be at home rather than in prison.
But notwithstanding that, what we definitely don’t want is an extra prison in North Wales just to accommodate the vastly-expanding UK prison population.
The UK now has the largest prison population in Europe and last week it reached the crucial 82,000 mark where there were more prisoners than there were cells for them to go in.
All this might, might, just be justified if we had the most peaceful, law-abiding streets in Europe as a result of banging up so many of our citizens. But we haven’t.
The Magistrates’ Association was squawking in protest at a gentle suggestion by Jack Straw that they should look at alternatives to sending people to prison. But we send too many people to prison for short stretches for ‘acquisitive’ crimes like minor theft and fraud, and not anywhere near long enough for crimes of violence.
Petty thieves and fraudsters, pain in the backside as they are, should not be sent to prison where they just cost us more money. People who resort to violence should know that in all likelihood they will spend a long time behind bars.
We can’t go on like we are, jailing so many people that the prisons are so-overcrowded we are forced to release people early when some of them should definitely be staying behind bars.
And a North Wales prison is a good idea if it helps cut North Wales re-offending rates. It must not just become a dumping ground for an ever-growing prison population that is doing nothing to actually cut crime.

IT was a bit odd the way the BBC reported the weekend’s rugby.
It wasn’t the weekend when Wales went top of the table, the only team unbeaten so far and with a massive points advantage should it come down to that.
No, no, it was the weekend when England got themselves back in contention.
Odd that.
But it did nothing to dampen the joy of watching two Italians make the mistake of thinking they had caught Shane Williams, only to be left grasping at thin air as he crossed the try-line.
To explain how he managed this you need to consult that famous fan Welsh rugby, Albert Einstein (fact, would I lie to you?). It’s all to do with relativity.
You see Shane is so quick, he’s actually faster than light, so what the Italians were grabbing at was the image of Shane, while the real Shane was several yards ahead of himself. Simple really.
You want to know why he looks so young? He’s moving so fast he’s stretching time – a year for mere mortals is a day for Shane Williams.
Shane Williams is so fast, when he turns the bedroom light off, he’s in bed before it goes dark.
Speeding bullets want to grow up to be as fast as Shane Williams.
The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, but only because it wants to catch Shane Williams.
When Shane nips down to the shops, he’s so fast he meets himself on the way back, and he can help himself carry the shopping.
There’s gale-force winds, hurricane-force winds, and shane-force winds – that’s when you’re in trouble.
Other rugby-players are dial-up, Shane Williams is broadband.
Shane’s so fast that if you look carefully during matches, you’ll see his shadow on panting on the sidelines, taking a breather.
Roll on Ireland .

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