By David Breakspear

Cw: suicide, self-harm

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Once again, we witness more self-inflicted deaths in custody routinely followed by lessons not being learned, recommendations being ignored, and worst of all — even in cases where an inquest jury has delivered a unanimous decision on a failure to provide an individual with a duty of care — no action being taken against those who failed to provide the care that loved ones and families of those in prison have a right to expect.

Although it is supposedly committed to reduce reoffending, the government has a building programme which will create up to 10,000 new prison places by 2020. It is that figure that concerns me the most, as our prison system will be passed over to be run by the highest bidder, and the one that can provide the best return to their shareholders.

As I write this, it would be difficult for someone to put forward an argument that, in the government’s eyes, prisoners’ lives matter.

We have three so-called “independent” bodies who are tasked with monitoring our prisons and prisoners in one form or another. These are: HM Inspector of Prisons (HMIP), Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). Yet the rates of suicides and self-harm incidents, along with assaults on staff, continue unabated, and with the lack of recommendations implemented — even following a report from the PPO after a death in custody — are left unchecked. The private sector’s only concern is how quick they can get someone back in the unoccupied death pad.

All this in a society where, ideally, we have an obligation to behave morally and ethically in all aspects of everyday life and business practices. If we exhibit upstanding behaviour, it evidently goes without saying, those who follow will also act morally and ethically. But! What message are we sending to our fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters who may have only made one mistake, or committed a crime out of desperation and need — rather than hate or greed — when our own government, and those we trust to provide our loved ones with a duty of care, continually ignore the recommendations of those whose job it is to make sure that proper standards are maintained? (Along with decency and that very duty of care.) If the same rates of self-inflicted death and self-harm were happening within the NHS, for example, there would be a national outrage. And rightly so. But why should a prisoner’s life be any different?

Prison should not be the end of an individual’s life. Prisons have to become environments conducive to change. Prison can and should be an opportunity for the individual to begin a new life. Prisons should become centres of excellence, leaders in education provision.

It is said by many commentators with many accents, and in a plethora of languages and dialects, that prison, the loss of liberty, is the punishment. If someone is sentenced to ten months or ten years, they should not continue to be punished for every single day of their sentence. Once the punishment has been passed by a judge, a process should exist that enables the individual to pay their debt to society, in a joint understanding with that society: upon release, the individual is allowed to return back to their community with the chance to be able to get on with their lives, a right afforded to all.

To quote Atticus Finch once more: “You can’t understand someone else until you jump into their skin and walk around.” Therefore, who are we to not only pass our own judgement, but also to continue to judge throughout the individual’s sentence based on diatribes in the tabloids? (Who are left, unchecked, to continue to pour scorn on some of our most vulnerable in society.) Then, regardless of what work the individual has done whilst in prison, we continue to judge after their release.

I honestly fear for people in prison as we continue the trend of privatisation, where the cost of a mop head or a roll of toilet paper — which most of us take for granted — will always come before the person.

Featured image: Emiliano Bar via Unsplash

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