Over the previous two columns, I have argued that the British prison system is shot through with abuse and oppression and not “fit for purpose”.
But what is the alternative to the retribution oriented criminal justice system currently in place?
The first question which arises is whether criminals are simply evil people who need to be controlled through security, force and power - or whether they are vulnerable individuals with very clear problems that should be addressed.
If they are evil, then clearly the strategy of lock up, discipline and punish is rational. But if, like myself, you feel that such a view is based on demonisation, then you will notice that prisoners are typically troubled individuals, who have been deeply maltreated or suffered great hardships.
Offenders need more focused help and treatment. They certainly do not need more pain, suffering and mistreatment at the hands of a cold- hearted and retribution oriented prison service.
This would involve an intense care programme to begin with, as well as longer term action to make sure offenders have enough education and social skills, a roof over their heads and general economic stability in their lives.
Such programmes would be far more effective at engaging with young offenders - as well as being far cheaper than prison into the bargain.
We should certainly take a realistic view of offenders’ behaviour - but also of their potential.
In the main, prisons should be phased out. We certainly should not have more prisons built, as New Labour - or Hard Labour perhaps - shortsightedly insists on doing.
The vast majority of prisoners should not be in jail, but should be housed and treated in the community - perhaps in special halfway houses.
As a last resort, certain prisons could be changed into places for this purpose. But massive refurbishment would be necessary, as all the razor wire and the walls barring access to the community would have to be taken down.
Lockable cell doors should be abolished and so too should any bars on windows. This would free up a lot of the expenditure that is required in locking prisoners up “securely”.
The most immediately dangerous offenders could be securely watched while they were receiving their specific treatment.
There would be a huge expansion in counselling for all offenders. The number of mental health workers should be vastly increased and the volume of prison officers gradually phased out.
This could fund itself very easily. Release of just one prisoner from a category C prison would pay for 12 offenders to have one-to-one counselling sessions of one hour’s duration two or three time a week for a whole year.
This sort of individual work would be required by law for the offender, as part of his or her sentence programme in the community.
Of course this would need properly trained and caring social workers - not obnoxious moralists who all too often put prisoners off. Perhaps ex-offenders who had overcome their problems could be involved too.
Probation officers could also be retrained so that they would not be punishment officers sitting in judgement, but rather engaged with the offender to discover the roots and triggers of the offending behaviour in question.
Counselling would also be needed to deal with alcohol, drug or other forms of addiction, such as obsessive behaviour, sexual issues, and so on. The primary focus would always be rehabilitation.
This would amount to a massive cultural shift in crime policy. And it would entail a large reduction in the number of police and prison officers needed.
Rather than identifying potential “dangerous individuals”, as New Labour is currently proposing, the system I outline here would ensure proper prevention and proper care.
Counselling should also be provided as a matter of course for victims of crime. There should be some way in which feedback can be given from any victims of crime to the offender.
Humanisation of both offender and victim would help both sides to come to terms with what has happened.
I realise that all this requires a massive shift in the way that we look at crime in this society. But clearly something radical needs to be done.
We urgently need to heal our societies that have been wrecked by decades of rampant neo-liberalism. So let us get down to abolishing prisons - we have only our own humanity to win.