Page 4, 21st May 1971

21st May 1971
Page 4
Page 4, 21st May 1971 — Crime and Punishment

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Crime and Punishment


• rHIS book (`The Punitive Obsession') is a plea for a complete re-thinking of our penal system and it is based on solid, hard facts. It would require a particularly ob s t inate, uncompassionate and unimaginative person not to be affected by most of Mr. Giles Playfair's facts and arguments. But until people as a whole can be brought to realise that for purely practical reasons (if compassion does not appeal to them) a change must be made, politicians and governments, who subsist upon the votes of the electorate, will not be greatly moved towards radical reform.

Mr. Playfair traces the history of English local and national prisons from the eighteenth century to the present day and his book is aptly titled, because he shows that in most people's minds the object of prison is punishment. There must be few of us who have not said to ourselves on at least one occasion: "I'd like him to receive a dose of his own medicine." There are, moreover, many thinking, cornpassionate people who, while they are entirely opposed to the idea of revenge, think that retribution or punishment is in some cases necessary either for the good of the offender, the victim, the public or for all of them. While some may disagree with this view it is not one to be lightly disregarded.

The mother of a child who has been gravely assaulted and injured for life may herself be injured for life when she sees a man led away to a comfortable hospital. It is at least as wrong to ignore that mother's feelings as it is to put that particular offender into prison for a crime which his mental and physical structure may have compelled him to commit. Similarly, the feelings of a shocked public when some terrible crime is committed must be considered. It is not sufficient to say that they are uneducated, that they are yielding to vicious human instincts and that they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Whatever eventual action may be taken in any particular case, the feelings of the bulk of the population must at least be considered. You cannot lightly brush aside their anguish and anxiety.

Mr. Playfair shows conclusively that there is a vital necessity for reform. Can the country afford it? Must not hospitals and homes come first in the queue outside the Treasury door? Certainly. But there are steps which could be taken immediately which would involve neither heavy expenditure nor danger to members of the public. For example, an immediate start could be made by keeping out of prison (1) all those who are there merely for non-payment of a private civil debt. (This should happen soon under the provisions of "Henry Cecil," wellknown novelist and playwright, is the former judge Harry Leon, who has also 14,Titten several serious works on the law and judiciary. the Administration of Justice Act 1970); (2) most of those who arc in prison for non-payment of maintenance or rates; (3) many of those who are there for non-payment of fines; (4) many of those on remand awaiting trial. (It would surely be better to risk a few non-dangerous people charged with an offence not attending their trial than to keep the prisons in their disgracefully overcrowded state); (5) many of those in prison for drunkenness or drugtaking (as opposed to drug peddling). When the money is available (as it could be if the change in the law suggested below is made) suitable hostels should be built for these people.

C o fl temporaneously with these steps Parliament should be asked to repeal Section 38 of the Prison Act 1952 which re-enacts a section of the Prison Act 1877. This section provides that, if a prison is sold, the bulk of the price has to be paid to the Local Authority. The Act originally making this provision is nearly a hundred years old and it is believed that none of the Local Authorities, in whose districts there are outof-date prisons, rely upon these reversionary interests in their accounts. It would therefore be no serious injustice to take away their right to these monies. It was the existence of this section which made Lord Gardiner say that, although these prisons "ought to be blown up," the section made it impossible to get rid of them. But he gave no reason why Parliament should not alter the law.

At long last a Bill (unfortunately a private one) has been put forward to repeal this section. Once the section is repealed, old prisons on valuable sites could be sold and the money used for decent institutions, where potentially dangerous people could be housed with safety to the public and without degradation to the prisoners.

The suggestion for the repeal of this section of the Prisons Act is by no means new. The probable reason why such legislation has so far been resisted by successive governments is because it is very difficult to obtain satisfactory new sites for prisons. First, local inhabitants do not want such institutions to come into their neighbourhood. Secondly, prison officers and their wives may not want to be moved into the remoter parts of the country. Thirdly, it may be difficult for the families and friends of prisoners to visit them. No one would dispute that these serious difficulties exist. But they can be overcome. They were, for example, overcome when the prison at Grendon Underwood was . built. They can be overcome again if there is the will to overcome them. Nor is the existence of these difficulties any reason for not repealing the section in question, so that the money will be available as soon as sites are found.

There is a further difficulty in the case of prisons which are used to house prisoners awaiting trial. But, when a more enlightened attitude is taken about bail, this difficulty should only be a minor one and could be overcome by the building of comparatively small places where such prisoners could be kept in reasonable comfort near to the courts where they are being tried.

New prisons should be designed not on the basis that its inmates are to be punished but on two principles: (1) that the public must be perm a nently protected from people who are physically dangerous; (2) that the main object of keeping people in these places is to make it possible to put them back in the world as law-abiding citizens.

Places should, therefore, be built where potentially dangerous people could be safely housed but where they would as far as possible be able to lead fruitful lives with suitable work and entertainment and, if possible, conjugal visits. But such people should be detained indefinitely until it is certified by a body, such as that which deals with the release of prisoners from Broadmoor, that it is reasonably safe to let them loose.

The constitution of such bodies is a matter for consideration. Mr. Playfair says that no judge should be a member. He says this because he disapproves of some of the sentences passed by today's judges. He appears to overlook the fact that the judges have no alternative under the present law. Their duty is to protect the public, and the only way in which they can achieve this at present is to put dangerous men out of circulation for a very long time. It is indeed unsatisfactory that the judges and the judges alone can at present pass sentence, as they have wholly insufficient information to enable them to do so. A judge cannot speak privately to a prisoner.

Before sentence is passed on a person for a serious crime the sentencing authority should, among other things, have had many interviews with him so as to find out as far as possible what makes him tick the wrong way. Such interviews would be spread over at least weeks and possibly months. Only serious offences are now being referred to. This course would not be practicable in cases which are tried in ordinary magistrates' courts. But in serious cases a panel of, say, five men and women should be responsible for the sentences. The exact composition of such panels is a matter for consideration, but, in spite of what Mr. Playfair says, some judges would be valuable members, although there are practical difficulties in the way of their taking part.

But there are other matters to be considered. Just as the feelings of the mother of an injured child must be taken into account, so must the feelings of law abiding people who are in poor circumstances. Such people (and those who worry about them) could well complain when they saw dangerous men satisfactorily housed with interesting work, well entertained, safe from the danger of being run over by a motor car and in fact enjoying a higher standard than the low-paid lawabiding man. And all because they murdered old women or raped small .girls. Why shouldn't the money spent on these men be spent on me, such a person may legitimately ask? Wouldn't it be better for me to turn to crime? These complaints should be dealt with. What such questioners overlook is that the men who would be kept in these establishments would have lost their liberty, possibly for ever. There are not many people who would trade their freedom for any other kind of life.

Mr. Playfair could have dealt with the prison at Grendon Underwood in greater detail. There at any rate the majority of the prisoners consider that they are treated as human beings. One of the striking facts about the place is that, although probably only a minority of prison officers wholeheartedly agree with the permissiveness which exists in that prison, nearly all of them accept the principle that the inmates should be assisted by the prison staff, not simply controlled by them. It is a high security prison outside but very permissive inside. Only one man has ever escaped since it was built and he was recaptured within half-an-hour.

Grendon is a psychiatric prison, but many of the prisoners do not appear to be very different from those in other prisons. It may be that all need psychiatric treatment, but even without such treatment the method at Grendon could well be adopted in new prisons. The only real danger of this permissiveness would be the bullying of one prisoner by another or the establishment of baronage. According to the Medical Superintendent at Grendon the danger of baronage has been largely got over by enabling anyone who owes too much to another prisoner to bring the matter up at a prisoners' meeting, when almost invariably the debt is cancelled.

Unfortunately it would be quite impossible at present to build all new prisons on the lines of Grendon because there arc only comparatively few people there and each has his separate room. But when the people who are unnecessarily in prison have been turned out, the situation should be very different. Prisons could then be built where for the first time in English prison history the inmates would all be treated as human beings.

And, if special remand prisons are built, they should be built on the principle that the people detained in them are innocent until proved guilty and should therefore be given as comfortable a form of detention as can reasonably be arranged. The present treatment of most prisoners who arc remanded in custody is a gross injustice.

Mr. Playfair's careful and comprehensive book has been published at the right moment and it is to be hoped that one way or another the sad story which he tells will become known to all members of Parliament and to as many members of the public as possible.

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