prison jail 1

by David Breakspear

CW: mentions suicide

Recently appointed Home Secretary Priti Patel stated in an interview that she wants criminals to “literally feel terror” at the thought of committing crime. In my opinion, to make a statement like that shows how far removed from reality some of our politicians are.

In America, a lot of the States still use the death penalty. I would say that is the ultimate consequential terror for anyone to face. In the UK, the final execution took place as recent as 1964; in fact, the death penalty in the UK was only, totally completely abolished in 1998.

If the sceptre of losing one’s own life is not enough of a consequence to stop breaking the  law, then what is the Home Secretary’s version of ‘terror’?

Prison has been used as a stick to punish for so long that it has lost the power of fear

Prisons, since their inception, have been and are places of terror, they are no holiday camp, of that I can personally assure you. Yet, people know this already. Old criminals or those newly acquainted should be aware of the terrors of prison. We read and hear, some see, the terrors that go on in our prisons, almost daily. BUT. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century the numbers of our prisons have fluctuated and due to policy changes (e.g. transportation), the number of prisoners have also changed but overall continued and still continue to rise. One thing, however, has remained a constant: terror or the threat of prison as a concept does not work. Prison has been used as a stick to punish for so long that it has lost the power of fear. Fear which has now become as weak as the policies that support it.

Why do people continue to commit crime whilst knowing the consequences could be so dire, and in some cases even tragic? I believe we have and have had the answers.

In 1897, French Sociologist, Emile Durkheim published a book titled Suicide. Durkheim suggests that there are four kinds of suicide, these being:

  • Egoistic – which happens through a sense of not belonging. Not being attached to a social group with its well-defined set of traditions, values, rules and aspirations.
  • Altruistic – opposite to egoistic in that there is a high level of integration. The group needs are more important than the individual.
  • Anomic – occurs when economic or social upheaval creates moral confusion, either positive, e.g. a cash windfall, or negative, e.g. loss of employment.
  • Fatalistic – high integration within a social group that is overly regulated and oppressive. Leading to a lack of self-identity.

These four kinds are based on the degrees of disparity of two social forces: social integration and moral regulation.

I believe it is possible to use the same four types as Durkheim suggests, to look at why need and want are a much more powerful and overriding set of feelings, thoughts, actions or beliefs than any notion of consequence. By studying and understanding these types in relation to crime, we could go a long way into helping create social policies that really do make a difference to an individual’s chances in life. I feel this would then go on to reduce crime, or at least reduce the actual need to commit crime.

It is time to take a different perspective. We have used the same techniques for far too long, and if anything, it has gotten worse.

People commit crime for several reasons. It is my suggestion, that in the way a doctor understands what is wrong with the patient through the simple art of questioning (paired with  the doctor’s training and experience) if we look at crime in a way that understands why or how that crime, or those crimes, was committed, we will be in a better position to prescribe the right medication. Which in turn will reduce crime and then the need for prison spaces, and of course, meaning less money being spent on crime, and as a result of policy, we will have more citizens paying taxes. Not only a healthier balance sheet but also a safer society.

We have used the same techniques for far too long, and if anything, it has gotten worse. 

By ensuring we have a prison system fit for purpose, we will, in the long run, save the tax paying public millions if not billions each year from direct and indirect causation, creating a safer community for our future generations.

I also believe we should remove the sense of shame attached to the criminal justice system and instil hope, self-belief, self-worth back in the individual. An identity if you will. We must break down the walls of isolation and self-doubt by allowing prisoners to contribute to a sense of belonging and increase the likelihood of a greater social cohesion beyond the prison gates and a smoother path towards reintegrating into the broader community.

Featured image CC BY-ND 2.0 Emily Flores

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  1. I agree with this. For me the whole concept of punishment is morally wrong. If someone turns to crime it’s mostly because society has failed. Until we become a civilised and just society we will never be able to fully address this problem.


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