What’s the point of prison?

Well over half of all prisoners in the UK have personality disorders and other mental health problems. What are we doing?

Paul Tritschler
28 September 2016

Credit: Flickr/Still Burning. CC 2.0 by-nc, some rights reserved.

Gifted to the people of the city by King James II in 1450, Glasgow Green is Scotland's oldest public park. It’s the site where Bonnie Prince Charlie's army camped in the year of the rebellion against English rule in 1745; where upwards of 40,000 people met in the first quarter of the nineteenth century to demand more representative government from the British Parliament; and where another 100,000 gathered in the mid nineteenth century under the banner of the Chartists.

From the 1870s to the early twentieth century, it was also the site of open air meetings held by the suffragettes, and where one of the world's greatest socialist campaigners—the Glasgow-born John Maclean—led mass anti-war rallies from 1914 to 1916, an act for which he was imprisoned.

It was also my local adventure playground.

Then as now, the gates of Glasgow Green opened onto a set of children's swings a short walk from where I lived in Glasgow Cross. Returning home from the park around noon one day in the summer of 1966, I was abducted by a gang of teenagers. I was with a boy from the same neighbourhood; he was much smaller than me, though we were both aged around nine. We had decided to wander into the Green to climb trees, chuck stones in the River Clyde and dive down the playground slide.

My companion managed to slip past the gang when they encircled us. I hoped he would raise the alarm but no help came. I was held for the remainder of the day in a derelict factory not far from my place of abduction and subjected to various acts of brutality and humiliation, including regular beatings. It was a forbidding place, strewn with broken glass, bricks and bits of metal. I recalled no rain that summer, yet there were dirty puddles all around.

Towards evening the gang argued about what to do with me. By that time I had cuts (nothing bleeds like the scalp), bruises and burns all over. In the end they used a crowbar to open the door to a small cupboard, crammed me in and jammed it shut. Shortly afterwards they left.

I heard their voices echoing into the distance and another door being slammed. It was pitch black in the cupboard and I couldn't breathe properly: my face was crushed against my knees. I had a glimpse of death—an experience that was magnified in my dreams for decades afterwards.

I didn't see my rescuer, just heard the door being forced open and a crowbar dropping to the ground with a clank. No footsteps or voices. When my eyes became accustomed to the light, I found my clothes and ran home to my family.

My parents made great efforts to persuade me to condemn the act of my temporary imprisonment and forgive, or at least understand, the human beings involved. But at nine years old this was too complicated, and insight arrived only slowly and in stages. They tried to explain the ways in which childhood deprivation has consequences for personality development, and how a culture of emotional impoverishment often continues into the next generation. I found it difficult to extend warm feelings towards any of my captors; it was easier to imagine smashing the mould from which they had been made.

I don't know how their lives progressed, but somehow my parents found out that their childhoods had been wretched, characterised by a combination of violence, poverty and neglect. Battered and abused by parents, step-parents and official ‘caregivers’ from the state, they sometimes slept outdoors—perhaps in derelict buildings like the one where I’d been held.

Encountering offenders in the course of my adult working life as a consultant for a criminal justice charity, I sometimes wondered how I would react if I was suddenly confronted by one of my captors. By this time I understood that children were more likely to spend time in and return to prison if they were born in circumstances that were lacking in love, raised in poverty, had lower literacy levels, and had failed in their relationships. They were also more likely to die poor and prematurely.

All this is well known, yet it is largely ignored or marginalized in prison policymaking. Successive UK governments of all shades have pledged to launch radical prison reforms and then shelved them: alternatives to custody, properly funded rehabilitation plans, and commitments to tackling poverty. Broken promises typically lead to the draining of hope. Britain's prisons are in a depressing state, and they are growing steadily worse.

Britain has by far the highest prison population in Western Europe, one that has doubled over the last twenty years because of ever lengthening sentences. Prison is also criminogenic, producing yet more crime and high rates of re-offending. There are also record rates of suicide, deaths in custody, cuts in trained staff (of up to forty per cent) and riot squad interventions. Despite figures released by the Office for National Statistics showing an overall drop in crime rates to their lowest level in thirty years, politically-motivated custodial sentencing has risen—a sure-fire vote winner and tabloid pleaser given public attitudes and misconceptions about lenient sentencing.

As Peter Dawson has said, the deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust and a former prison governor:

“Increasing sentence lengths has been a comfort blanket for every government of the last 20 years. However, the uncomfortable truth is that most of that expensive additional prison time is both unnecessary and wasted, with successive budget cuts leading many in prison to spend long, pointless hours behind cell doors with predictably poor results.”

Well over half of all prisoners have personality disorders and other mental health problems which are often made worse by the emotionally disturbing experience of prison itself. Many inmates are subjected to punitive disciplinary regimes and spend long periods confined in cells under overcrowded conditions. Bored, angry and frustrated prisoners correlate directly with the increase in assaults, suicides, murders and self-harm—all of which, as reported by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, have risen dramatically over the last five years.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, almost half of all women prisoners and over a quarter of all men have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Most of them had had a psychiatric admission prior to entering prison, and at least fifteen per cent of men behind bars show symptoms of psychosis. The rate among the general public is four per cent.

To my knowledge I’ve never met any of my abductors, either in a psychiatric context or in a prison, but I always thought I might. On one prison visit, however, I encountered an empty detention cell, and within this dreadful enclosure, more than two decades later, I returned to face my greatest fear. This stiflingly warm and almost airless space was barely the length of an adult—a cupboard really—and I sat there for a while, looking around and looking back to that day at Glasgow Green.

Individual members of the gang may have found their way to a cell just like this, and I pondered on their possible experiences and the sorts of solutions that prison is supposed to provide. Used as a punishment for those who have been shaped by cultural-psychological conditions or by society's failings, prison is more likely to perpetuate than remedy their damaging effects. Even if every demand for prison reform was met, how would incarceration alleviate social problems? What is it that we hope to achieve—to crush each person like a bug?

The only way to truly reform prison is to remove the reasons for its existence, and however unlikely it might seem, there’s more chance of abolishing capitalism than of introducing a system of prison reform that will eliminate crime, or significantly reduce it. As a system that thrives on class exploitation and inequality, perhaps capitalism itself should be a crime.

Back in the detention cell, my eye was drawn to a single line of graffiti etched onto the wall: “dont cry they dont give a cuant for you.” It may well demonstrate a deficit in literacy, but in its own way it’s just as poignant as Oscar Wilde's poem De Profundis, both drawn from the depths of misery, dejection and despair.

It’s a message that would have been fitting in my own place of confinement as a child, but this was intended to be shared with other prisoners and, by implication, fellow sufferers. To me it expressed anger and anguish, insight and camaraderie all at once.

Some might consider it meaningless or menacing, but in my reading this graffiti provided evidence of people reaching out to help others in some way. Suffering can’t be expressed by those who are unable to feel it, and in empathy there is always hope.

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