Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Louise Casey And Her Orange Bibs

Louise Casey is once again obsessed with her campaign to make prisoners wear orange vests when working in the community, as you may have heard in reports this week. The orange jackets with ‘community payback’ emblazoned on the front are so that prisoners can be spotted by the public as they sweep leaves or pick litter, and Louise Casey believes the sight of this will cheer us up. In other words, we can be self-satisfied when we see gangs of criminals sweating for the community under strict supervision.

But, hang on, isn’t that close to Daily Mail politics? These orange suits reek of political opportunism to me, rather than any sense of a progressive solution to a perennial problem. This is a focus group solution and a token one whose aim is to win votes above all else. There is nothing wrong with winning votes but not if what you are doing is tampering with social issues.

Orange is an odd colour to choose nowadays. It has an uncomfortable resonance with Guantanamo, where it symbolised a uniform of degradation that appalled most of us. Do we reject orange suits so strongly off the coast of Cuba only to welcome them in our own country?

Proper and constructive community work should be at the core of rehabilitation, and is for the good of society. But, I do not think this should be done for the benefit of angry onlookers or for the sake of Tabloid polls. If Labour plays the game of this kind of opportunism it will lose because others are better at it (you know who).

In general, the British criminal justice system does not make sense. It is understandable in political terms why new Labour have been so keen to banish the image that the left is soft on crime, but it is sad in social and ideological terms that Labour has in practice abandoned progressive solutions in this area. Britain is now proudly (or not so proudly) at the top of the league of EU nations for prisoner numbers and will soon reach the unprecedented height of 100, 000 prisoners. Our answer to that looming figure is to build Titan prisons and create yet more places, even though much of the research shows that bigger prisons are even less effective. It is rather like building an extra runway and hoping to solve climate change.

Why worry about prisoner numbers? ‘Prison works’ famously said Michael Howard with his Dracula smile. Well, in fact it clearly doesn’t. Over 70% of prisoners re-offend so, in effect, it’s largely a revolving door. Even if you have no care for prisoners or do not believe in rehabilitation, you might be concerned at the cost of prison to us as tax-payers. Each prisoner costs roughly £30 000 per year to keep quite apart from the associated costs of the creeking criminal justice saystem. These costs are only going one way.

But, for a progressive community such as the Fabians, it is the human and social cost of our prison system that goes beyond currency. Richard Wilkinson’s extensive research on unequal societies reveals that there is a correlation between inequality and a punitive criminal justice system.

I return to Louise Casey and her orange bibs. This policy seems to me to be part of a political game in which each side tries to out-do the other in the ‘toughness’ stakes, despite the Guantanamo repercussions in this case. Meanwhile real solutions remain out of sight.

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