On being beastly to prisoners

Whoever thought it was appropriate to name the prisons of the 21st century after Titan must have bee

I am an inveterate scribbler, and since my retirement from the practice of the law I have been able to indulge that habit of my daily occupation (I suspect I was born with ink in my veins). This week has manifested that by the launch of a book of essays entitled The Penalty of Imprisonment. As with all publishers, there was a book launch at which I was expected to speak. But what does the author say on such an occasion? The invitation to the audience implores them to buy the book - and hopefully read it. But what else is there to say, beyond a self-opinionated puff or a boring executive summary? And the author cannot review his own work: it certainly would not be a judicial review. I can only conclude that the author should mouth the response of Pontius Pilate: "a gegraja gegraja." *

The use of the ancient Greek of the Bible reminds me of the brilliant theology student taking his final examinations for entry into the church. One of the papers required translation of a Biblical passage from the Greek into English. The student was an outstanding scholar, but his one weakness was that he was no linguist; he thought, however, that once he could accurately interpret the opening words, his Biblical knowledge would do the rest. The instant difficulty was that he read the words a gegraja gegraja as "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem." There is no record of what mark he received from the examiner.

Primordial being

Every writer spends a good deal of time reading, not always agreeably. My reading last week included a most disagreeable consultation document from the Ministry of Justice in which it justified its decision to expand the prison estate by building three new large prisons (2,500 inmates in each) called Titan Prisons. Titans were primordial beings of Greek mythology, enormous in size and strength, typical of lawlessness and the power of force. Whoever thought it was appropriate to name 21st-century prisons after them must have been out of his or her mind.

Any criminologist will tell you that in the large prisons the problems of incarceration are magnified, and that many of these problems can be eliminated in smaller institutions. The document is quick to deflect the charge that these monster prisons should be monolithic, 2,500-bed prison "warehouses". But what then is their penal purpose? They will provide "prisoner accommodation to an appropriate standard which delivers good value for money and which maximises opportunities to reduce re-offending through effective treatment and support".

This is nothing more than a political ideology (common to the two main political parties) of being beastly to prisoners ("tough on crime") within constraints of fundamental rights proscribing inhuman and degrading treatment, and punishment while not being troubled by the overwhelming evidence of the deleterious effects of incarceration. The politicians seem to be saying that they do not wish to be troubled with fact. Popular demand, as it is politically perceived, dominates.

Chink of sunlight

The gloom of the week's reading material had been matched by the weather. A week away in the south of France over the May holidays did little to restore the spirit. Torrential rain at St Pancras International on a Eurostar journey was unrelieved. Rain in the Languedoc persisted; only one and a half days of sunshine over the seven days provided any respite.

But a chink of sunlight crossed my desk this week. The Scottish Executive will this month be publishing a report of an entirely independent commission on prisons in Scotland. The members are being asked to find ways of reducing the prison population, which, like ours south of the border, has been spiralling out of control. They have been told that there will be no further move towards the private sector managing prisons. And so a ray of sunlight may begin to disinfect a part of the system that purports to dispense justice.

"The Penalty of Imprisonment: Why Sixty Per Cent of the Prison Population Should Not Be There" by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper is published by Continuum (£14.99)