David Honeywell

A judge recently caused outrage when while sentencing 26-year-old Richard Rochford for burglary, he said it was courageous to burgle someone’s home.

Judge Peter Bowers The Teesside Crown Court judge also said he thought prison did criminals “little good”. His remarks sparked criticism and Prime Minister David Cameron said burglars were “cowards” whose “hateful crime” violated victims. The case is local to me so I am aware of the problems we have here with drugs and burglaries. Often Judges comments are taken out of context but in this case, surely it has sent a message to other burglars that what they do is something to proud of? On the other hand, if we put aside our feelings of burglars to look at his comment that prison doesn’t work in more detail, does he have a valid point?

Politicians of whatever party have long been firm in the assertion that prison works – indeed the most simplistic slogan to the complex problem of crime and criminality is ‘lock em up’. From Michael Howard’s claim that ‘prison works’ to the Labour mantra ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ ever since the 1990s, both major parties have competed to be the party of law and order.

I can only draw from my own experiences as always. The harshest prison I was ever in was the army ‘glasshouse’. Its regime was unrelentless and its brutality brought me to tears. But it didn’t stop me going back a second time.

It hadn’t worked then because the one thing it didn’t address was the mental health issues I had and sadly, prisons are full of these cases. My stint in Durham prison in the 1980s didn’t stop me going back 10 years later either. But what did deter me from crime was the belief others had in me. As I have always said, education changed me but it wasn’t the books and study; although this was important for changing my thinking; it was the acceptance by a culture. The culture of academics did not judge and therefore I was allowed to climb the ladder without prejudice.

The prison didn’t change me or help me, I changed me, but without the support of others – this would not have been possible. Of course people need to be punished but also they need to be given the tools to change once they have paid their price to society. Without these tools, how can anyone expect them change?

Employers need to give them a chance and society needs to accept that people can and will change. Prison can never work as the only answer to crime. It is a belief that prisons are holiday camps which is felt by mainly those who have never been near a prison except what they have seen on films and through hearsay. They complain about all the privileges prisoners get.

Privileges have certainly increased since I was in prison in the 1980s and 1990s, but as was then, the more privileges, the more control staff had over inmates. When I was in prison in the 80s, we all had nothing so they couldn’t take anything from us except our dignity by making us use buckets instead of toilets and exploiting their ‘caged mentality’.

Things are much easier these days when it comes to basic human rights for inmates, but prison never has worked and probably never will.

Taken from Issue 16