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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

On the Ashwell prison riot

The recent riot at Ashwell prison shows that we really need to reconsider what we want from our prison system. We immediately ask why it happened and what we could have done to prevent it.

But these are the easy questions to answer, and the answers will come out with the result of the inevitable enquiry that will follow (announced on Sunday). We will probably find that prisons are overcrowded and understaffed. After all, recent reports on the Ashwell riot said that there were sometimes only 6 staff for 600 inmates, which is obviously not enough for a group of prisoners including high-level criminals. (although the prison was for class C prisoners, some of the inmates were ex-class B with the rating
downgraded to keep within the rules). On the good side, any enquiry is likely to say that the response was very good. Within a short space of time there were riot police on the ground, road blocks a mile away from the prison in each direction, and helicopters scanning the nearby fields. The police were thorough (or appeared so to the public), watching over those on their Easter country walks in police helicopters and paying visits to local residents to reassure them.

Any enquiry will need to give some reccommendations. Apart from the obvious issue of requiring more staff and more space, they may encourage the use of permanent, experienced staff over that of cheap contracted labour. The enquiry really should emphasise closer controls on prisoners. After all, this is a prison in which inmates are sometimes given keys to their own cell. Perhaps it would make sense if prisoners could not communicate across the whole prison. This may have prevented riots spreading, and prevented fires to the extent that we have seen. Some would argue that it was a disaster waiting to happen, and observers have already suggested that it may be the start of a series of riots this summer.

What we are less likely to hear is information about the nature of the argument that caused the bad feeling. It is also not likely to tackle the key questions lying behind it, but the politicians should be discussing these issues with urgency.

Why are people in prison?
-Is it a punishment?
-Is it a time away from society for reflection for the criminal?
-Are they locked away for their own safety?
-Are they locked away for our safety?
-Are they locked away to look after them because they are mentally ill and there is no other place for a mentally ill person to live?

Perhaps it is a combination of those reasons that depends from person to person. Maybe there are better alternatives than prison for some of those people. Prisoners who are kept away from the public for their safety deserve better conditions and we should aim to make their lives fulfilling. But the needs are different for those in prison as a punishment.

To me, it seems obvious that many people will not like being in prison as prisons are currently designed. Prison as a punishment is not likely to be a pleasant experience. In that case, we need some safeguards to prevent unhappy prisoners from trying to leave and find a better place. As long as the aim of prison is to make it unpleasurable, a large security force is necessary. What I am getting to is that a radical re-think of prisons is necessary to cater for our needs, and then we can fund them accordingly.

So why are the politicians not moving more quickly? I think it is their endless wish for everyone to like them. Politicians no longer go into politics idealistic and forward-thinking. They are sheep that follow the public and do not lead them. That is the reason why for so many years politicians have been similar irrespective of which party they belong to. I think they are waiting for debates in the newspapers to guide opinion on how to treat prisoners. There is disagreement round the country on the issue at the moment, but the Sun, the Telegraph and the Mail will surely help to find a concensus. Only when the most votes can be won, will politicians act.

The country is ruled by the media and even politicians are afraid to move without their support.

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