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Strangeways documentary should strengthen not weaken Ken Clarke’s new approach on prisons

Posted on 17 May 2011 | 10:05am

Reshuffle stories are a bit of a nightmare to deal with. The press write whatever they want, the broadcasters blather away about it, the ministers get a bit jumpy, the ones being tipped for promotion get jumpy in a different sort of way, and all the Downing Street media operation can do is say nothing.

So a year plus in, the fact that David Cameron can count in the dozens rather than the thousands the speculative stories about his next Cabinet must count as something of a news management success.

When such stories do appear, they tend to have the names Lansley and Clarke in there. My hunch – based on no knowledge at all – is that the latter may be more at risk than the former. Too many Tories appear to be going around the place saying the Justice Secretary is more of a Lib Dem than the Lib Dems.

I imagine that in such circumstances the last thing Ken Clarke would welcome is any support from me, but I will give it nonetheless. The Strangeways documentary series on ITV is the latest evidence I cite in support of his desire to take a different approach on prisons to the hang’em and flog’em brigade as represented by the right wing media. He knows that some people have to be locked up very securely to protect the public and to atone for their crimes. But he knows too that many in prison will just keep on returning unless their mental health issues are properly addressed.

As I watched the second part last night, I was wondering whether when in Number 10 I would have encouraged the Home Office to give the go-ahead for such a frank, warts and all account of life inside one of Britain’s toughest jails. There will certainly have been a lot of discussions about it, and probably strong views on either side.

But though the films have shown up problems galore, I think it was the right thing to do, not least to show what a difficult job the prison officers and medical staff do. Some of the nursing staff last night were like saints.

It also does highlight, without any pushing of an agenda, the extent to which mental health issues are so prevalent in the prison population.

Shining a light on that, however harsh and however upsetting and depressing the impact might be, at least allows people to make more informed judgements about issues many would rather never have to think about.

It is very easy for right-wing papers and Tory MPs keen to please them to paint a simple picture. It is to Ken Clarke’s credit that he knows things are more complicated than that, and would be to David Cameron’s credit to give him time to try to make real change, hard though it will be with cuts and media opinion not exactly working in his favour.

*** As the big build up to the major sporting event of the weekend continues – namely the Football Focus predictions league table play-off between me and Alan Sugar, my old pals at the Beeb can barely contain their excitement. Dan Walker of the BBC has already put up part of our end of season discussions, and you can see me and Lord S in discussion on West Ham, Tottenham, and what makes Alex Ferguson the greatest manager of all time here

  • Olli Issakainen

    Chris Huhne has 100% backing by David Cameron.
    We who are familiar with football know only too well what this means…
    But I hope Eddie Howe will keep his job despite you announcing that you are available.
    As for Downing Street media operation, it was, of course, Andy Coulson himself who dominated the headlines before News Corp apparently decided to eliminate the political element in its bid for BSkyB.
    BBC editor Craig Oliver was also in the news just before he replaced Mr Coulson. He ran a legal tax avoidance scheme.
    As for prisons, most American voters endorse get-toughism and support the death penalty. The US has the world´s largest prison population. Without counting costs people in the US are convinced that harshest measures are always the most effective.
    And politicians there aim to please the voters.
    Inflation in Britain has now hit 4.5%! The target is 2%.
    I am puzzled why Messrs Cameron and Osborne can get away with their message on the economy.
    One example. George Osborne has complained about the structural deficit Labour ran before the financial crisis. According to OECD “structural deficit” was 3.5% in 2007.
    But in 1996 under the Tories it was 4%! In 1995 5.6%. In 1994 6.2%. In 1993 6.6%. And in 1992 5.2%.
    Yet Messrs Cameron and Osborne can go on about the supposed “mess” Labour left behind.
    But banks caused the mess – not structural overspending.
    Nobel-winning economist Christopher Pissarides has said that Mr Osborne “exaggerated debt crisis risk”. The truth is that prospects of sovereign debt crisis hitting Britain were “minimal”.
    Now Mr Osborne is taking unnecessary risks with the economy. He wants to eliminate the deficit within this parliament. But economist Ha-Joon Chang says that it is economically illiterate to do deficit reduction according to a timetable.
    This is the problem with Labour´s plan to halve the deficit in four years too. Labour should realise that growth would have halved the deficit anyway without any cuts or tax rises.
    Alistair Darling´s plan included cuts of £44bn.
    Last year only 5.3% of the UK debt matured and needed replacing. Under Labour´s plan debt would have peaked at 80% of GDP. Credit raters downgrade when the debt is 100% of GDP.
    Gordon Brown, who saved Britain from depression, now says that world is on course for next crisis. Globalised financial system is still unregulated.
    Labour should write a short memo on the causes of the financial crisis, and distribute it at least to all MPs.
    Strong resistance is now needed to counter the economic policy of the Tory-led government. If the BoE starts raising interest rates because of high inflation, Mr Osborne´s plans will be in tatters.   

  • J Wills

    It is indeed correct that Prison Officers and their peers carry out a tremendously difficult role with in secure establishments, such as HMP Manchester.

    It is also widely believed by those staff that change (for the better) should be forthcoming.

    However, it is a sad indictment on the Government that they wish to privatise this public service, simply with a view to garner profits for their friends and colleagues at the detriment of those the courts have deemed unfit to remain within society.

    An establishment such as HMP Manchester would fail within the private sector, as those highly dangerous criminals are farmed back to public estate, because they cost the private companies far too much by way of resources etc.

    As you state also, Prison staff can only hope that programmes such as this shine a light into their arena, with a view to allowing the public the opportunity of making informed opinions about issues that many would rather never think about.

    There are, after all, not very many people who would wilfully choose to be locked inside secure compounds with violent and dangerous individuals. With a meagre hope that they are performing some good to they communities which they serve. In the knowledge that the work they do is devalued by the powers that be, with a view to cost-cutting measures and target-driven objectives.

  • MicheleB

    I think if I hear one more Tory (or even more bitterly, one more pseudo ‘LibDem’) drone on about what they have to deal with I will thcweam and thcweam and stamp my feet.

    I might have been dazzled and euphoric at the time but I really don’t remember the same pathetic repetition in ’97 when Labour got in and REALLY inherited a mess, that of following 18yrs of Tories stripping all the progress that had been built up for 34yrs post-WWII, much of that having been majorly-funded by the Marshall Plan (and almost, nearly, paid back to US in full – I believe it subsequently was).

    As for Huhne, he can’t possibly have anyone’s 100% support.  The cracks were showing during Any Qs the week before the referendum.  What a tantrum, one that was apparently followed a few days later by something similar in Cabinet.

    I must admit though that I’m curious about the ‘transcript’ of the alleged conversation with his now-estranged wife (when she apparently talked of ‘taking the points’ or words to that effect).

    Whose transcript?

  • MicheleB

    Oooops, have I just posted on the wrong convo?   ….. blush.

  • Gillknighton

    So do you think that people develop mental health issues as a result of being in prison or is it the that they have experienced issues, emotional/ psychological prior to their crime/s or are drug/alcohol addictions the main problem.  When you say mental health issues you could be talking about long term mental health patients released into the community who have been administered prescribed drugs for years which cause serious and debilitating side affects, people who are addicted to illegal drugs or alchohol and maybe theyr’e are people who just give up the struggle to survive within the law or who find their selves in situations where they have to break the law to survive.  Then there are people who have committed serios crimes such as murder etc who as you say have to be locked up but they must also have serious mental health issues.

  • Janete

    I’m sure many of us would agree that there are preferable alternatives to the populist right wing hang’em and flog’em approach. But I’m not convinced Ken Clarke is promoting his alternatives because he has become a liberal minded progressive.

    Building new prisons and keeping prisoners locked up for longer costs money, so does effective treatment of offenders’ mental health problems. The current imperative is to slash public spending and any convenient arguments will be used to sell money saving policies to the public.

    I expect Clarke to get his way, shifting shorter sentences into the community, but will the alternatives be funded properly? Will there be adequate spending to tackle the extensive mental health aspect of offending? I very much doubt it.

    It reminds me of the arguments made in the 1980s to justify the closure of mental health hospitals. Better and more appropriate care could be provided in the community they said. Who would disagree with giving as many people as possible a more normal life experience? But they didn’t provide the funding a community based approach needed, leaving too many people isolated and uncared for.

    TorIies have a habit of using convenient arguments to hide their real (cost cutting) agenda. Yesterday, I heard Cameron highlighting the importance of preventative health programs and promoting healthy lifestyles as he announced a shift of this responsibility from the NHS to (cash strapped) local authorities. 12 months ago the Government withdrew funding for health promotion campaigns claiming it was insulting to preach to the public about their diet and lifestyle.

    I believe their real agenda on practically everything is to shrink the state. Let’s not be fooled if now and again their convenient arguments appear convincing. 

  • Justice Secretary is a pragmatist, realizes what he can do is limited He’ll be happy if he cuts re-offending by just 10% through the reforms being consulted on presently as a result of the green paper consultation. He’s too big a beast in the cabinet, has too much confidence and experience. I think he’ll be around for a while yet, he”s President Macaroon’s best asset.  Very shaming, th eway we treat the mentally ill in our “civilised” society.

  • Jo Willcox

    The Strangeways documentary illuminates the horrors of people’s lives. Many people with personality disorders end up in prison. They’ve often been brutalised in childhood and that’s why prison is a sanctury as it has boundaries and people who care for them. Though they (the staff) are working with such poor resources.

    That man who was banging his head against the wall needed sedation, I’m not sure why they weren’t allowed to do this…was it because he wasn’t detained under the MHA? In any case, it was saddening that he continued for so long in such distress. Not that I’m blaming the staff are pretty amazing and I admire them as that is a seriously hard job and being in that high pressure environment constantly on alert takes it’s toll.

    I worked in a PICU and the burn out for staff is high, but if they were better staffed, resouced and supported, it would make such a difference. The situations I experienced on the wards, well all staff could write a book…it would have the same conclusion…

    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” …

  •  re Ken Clarke latest on Rape’s seriousness 
    He was wrong – but in the right direction. There should be no such law as “rape” and here is why“The law of rape, as it has developed in this country, is a property law. The issue was historically one of a woman being “spoiled” – becoming “damaged goods” – as in “the goods” that belonged to either a husband or a father, possibly being no longer virginal, possibly even impregnated.This is important because it has twisted the way the law has been adapted over the years, with no one grasping the issue properly due to their confusion over the need for laws to protect and conserve societal mores, “property”, and crime victims’ need for justice.”follow the link for the whole case, which was put to the law commission last year at the suggestion of two criminal lawyer friends – but rejected by them – on political grounds, as I suspected they would.

  • Anonymous

    I agree very much with what you wrote having watched the documentary.  Ken Clarke’s comments on prison are supported by Home Office Research regarding reiffending, crowding etc.  It is also a disgrace at how many Crown Court trials are aborted on the day with a late change of plea.  The cost to us all as taxpayers is horrendous.  The only way to overcome this is to give a generous discount on sentence.  Further, having worked in the  system it matters little if a sentence is under 4 years and for repeat offenders they will still reoffend.  Further, we should hang our heads in shame at using prisons as care and psychiatric homes.  Too many of these unfortunate people end up with nowhere to go with inappropriate support in the community.  The old Psychiatric Hospitals may have been criticised but they did fulfill a need.  We also need to look at powers needed by prison medical staff who are unable to offer sedation to those causing themselves injury.

    I am totally amused by all this indignation regarding differentiating crime by seriousness as this is part of our sentencing policy.  We sentence people according to seriousness of crime in all areas.  The Sexual Offences Act does too.  Committing an act carries different penalties depending on the age of the victim, injuries, known to the attacker, position of trust etc etc.  Ken Clarke is bringing in different penalties for Rape and differentiating too.  He is not saying that predators or dangerous offenders will receive a reduced sentence for pleading guilty as the level of dangerousness would be paramount. He sought  to explain this by pointing up Date Rape against an unknown assailant.  I do not see anything wrong with this.

  • Gilliebc

    I’m not exactly sure what you are saying there Patrick ?

    But, for what it is worth, here’s what I think.
    e.g. If a 17 year old lad has consensual sex with his 15 year old girlfriend,
    I don’t think that constitutes rape.  But in law apparently it does!
    However, if a man forces himself on a woman after she says no, that clearly is rape.
    There are some preditory males out there no doubt.  But not a huge number in terms of %
    There are also quite a number of very silly women and girls out there as well!  who happily lead men on and then cry rape when they have a quilty conscience about what they have done.  It will never be possible to legislate adequatly on that type of rape. (imho).

  • J Wills

     There are far more people incarcerated within the confines of penal establishments suffering from debilitating and dangerous mental health disorders than the Government of the day would care for you to know about. Not all of these conditions stem from substance abuse/addiction, or indeed traumatic events. As was brought to the public’s attention in the latest programme about HMP Manchester, there are genuinely mad and bad people in our society. What is the Government’s answer to this problem?

    “Lock them up”

    Personally, I don’t have all of the answers myself, but as two posters above closely broach the subject. A society can indeed be judged by how it treats its criminals, though the way in which some of those ‘criminals’ (whose only crime is to be mentally unstable) are ‘looked-after’ then we should all hang our heads in shame.

    That said, there are truly dangerous individuals, with no concern for the value of property, or human life, that should be locked up. For as long as they are a danger to the public. This is one of the reasons the ISPP (Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection) was initiated. These people must prove that they no longer present a risk to the community to which they would be released, before being considered for even being downgraded to open conditions.

    There are also people like Jonathan Vass, who was released on bail, suspected of raping his partner, only to subsequently murder her. It was apparent that he felt no remorse for the heinous crime he had committed, save for the fact that he had been caught at all.

    As I stated previously, the care and maintenance of those within prisons is fraught with danger. Not only for the Prison staff, but for the charges within their care. If the Government do go ahead with their planned cuts and privatisation of Prisons, then the situation will only get worse, as HMIP (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons) have discovered that private prisons are often ‘run on the cheap’ to obtain as much profit per head of cattle (as they are seen by the company directors). They are unsafe and often unfit for purpose. Prisoners are allowed free reign, to continue with their criminal ways. Often running their empire from the comfort of their prison cell. The private security contractor fails to challenge this inappropriate behaviour, as the low wage they are paid “Isn’t worth the hassle or risk.”

    I believe the saying is “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t”