The singer in the prison cell

Observations on human rights

Human rights, which are now so exciting both government and opposition, to say nothing of the lawyers, are funny things: there is nothing quite like them for making life wretched. The other day, in the prison in which I work, I discovered a man who, mentally disturbed, was making a terrible racket. He was singing at the top of his very loud voice, and he was banging on the door of his cell so that the entire building shook. The noise was far louder than any that would be permitted in an industrial establishment. It was the kind that drives you to distraction immediately; he had been at it for a day and a half, night and day.

The man was clearly unwell, but refused all medication to calm him. The prison officers were at their wits' end, and the other prisoners nearby were suffering sleepless nights. The question naturally arose of treating him against his will, by injecting him with a tranquilliser, both for his own sake and for the sake of all those around him. But human rights, as the law stands, forbade it. They require that no one may be treated against his will in prison, except in cases of dire emergency, but must first be transferred to a hospital. Alas, this was not a dire emergency, and there were no hospital beds to which to transfer him, at least in less than a few weeks or months.

In the name of human rights, therefore, both prisoners and prison officers had to endure what most people would find unendurable. And even the person supposedly enjoying the exercise of his rights was not benefiting by it: not only might he eventually exhaust himself, but he might fracture the bones of his hands, arms or legs against the door that he was striking with such ferocity. I have seen this happen more than once.

Furthermore, one could foresee that a prisoner, or even a prison officer, might take legal action against the prison for having made him endure such intolerable conditions. There is the matter of health and safety, the vengeful twin deities of our age. Surely, any noise that leaves you with tinnitus for a time must be injurious?

The conception of human rights under which this prisoner could not be treated against his will would have been all right if all men were islands, entire of themselves: if they were isolated inhabitants of rocks, to be precise, in the Outer Hebrides, each with no connection to any other. But this is not how men live.

I telephoned a lawyer. Was there anything I could do about this man? He said I should take such practical measures as I could to reduce the noise. What did he suggest? A padded cell? Padded cells have been outlawed - as an infringement of human rights.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bush, the working class hero