This week Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been defending himself against further criticism that there is a prisons crisis. A little over a week ago Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, told the Independent newspaper that overcrowding and staff shortages were directly related to the growing number of suicides in prisons. The very body which represents prison governors have said that staff shortages mean that it is impossible to run a safe and decent prison regime. The Howard League for Penal Reform has calculated that prison officer numbers dropped by 30% between 2010 and 2013, while the prison population has continued to increase. Attacks in prison are increasing, assaults on prison staff are increasing, and the prison service’s riot squad was called out two hundred times last year, a sixty per cent rise on the previous year.
In terms of the rise in prison population, Grayling puts this down, in part, to what he calls ‘the Savile effect’; the courts are now imprisoning more sex offenders and particularly historic sex offenders. Andrew Neilson of the Howard League, however, claims that the real driver is that remand in custody is being overused, alongside the fact that sentencers are being influenced by, and responding to, contemporary political rhetoric from the government about being ‘tough on crime’. Grayling’s response to this most recent spate of criticism looks more and more as though it is based on sticking two fingers in his ears, humming loudly and hoping that he can keep a lid on the crisis, at least until the next election when the problem will either no longer be his, or alternatively he’ll be in another government post.
In March 1996 a young man called Simon Sunderland appeared before His Honour Judge Robert Moore at Sheffield Crown Court, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He hadn’t burgled or robbed anyone, glassed anyone in the face, or committed any sexual offence against sheep or other livestock. Although many citizens of the ‘Steel City’ applauded the sentence, even the man who hunted him down and brought him to justice said at the time “I hate to think of him rotting in prison.” The crimes for which Sunderland, who at the time went by the moniker ‘Fista’, was incarcerated related to his activities as a ‘graffiti artist’ and were all charged as criminal
Don’t get me wrong. I am not for one moment saying that what Sunderland did was not, or should not be, a criminal offence. Francis Butler, the councillor who led the hunt for ‘Fista’ over a five year period, said at the time “No one living outside of Sheffield can imagine the chaos he caused over the years. He painted on everything: walls, public buildings….street signs, even a bus that had broken down.” As fast as the council cleaned off the graffiti, ‘Fista’ would redecorate. As I indicated earlier, Mr Butler felt no sense of triumph in the sentence. He said “My own personal view is that I imagine he had already learnt his lesson by the time he came to court.” Councillor Pat Midgeley felt that the sentence sent a powerful deterrent message, saying “This sentence should stop people in their tracks. It shows what people are beginning to think about public order offences.” At this point, it should be said that ‘Fista’ did appeal his sentence, having it reduced to 21 months by the Court of Appeal. Nonetheless, it would be hard to deny that Sunderland surely must have been made to suffer for his ‘art’. No sane person wants their liberty taken away, do they?
Except that, for whatever reason, prison did not deter Sunderland. Having been released from prison, he found himself back before the courts in 2002 for similar graffiti offences involving two bridges in Barnsley (although I would have thought that any attempt to add colour to Barnsley ought to have earned him the freedom of the town in any sane society). On Friday this week, Sunderland, now 41, is due back again before the Sheffield Crown Court for sentence, having admitted numerous further offences of damaging railway property in Sheffield, Rotherham and Chesterfield in 2009 by way of graffiti ‘art’.
In an excellent and thought-provoking article in the Guardian newspaper this week, Simon Jenkins said “The British are prison addicts. We scour the country for reasons to imprison. We jail for not having a television licence, for Googling in jury rooms, for smoking cannabis, for hacking a phone…”* The point he makes, in a nutshell, is that this is not a ‘prison crisis’ but one in our courts and parliament. We live in a culture which seems to have prison as some kind of all-encompassing answer or antidote to every ‘anti-social behaviour’ hard-wired into its DNA. That is all well and good if you also have a society which is willing to spend whatever it takes to build prisons and staff them appropriately. But if you want to keep imprisoning people, or remanding them in custody, and you are not prepared to allocate sufficient resources, then you are going to be sitting on a ticking time bomb so far as the prison population is concerned. If you want to send someone to prison because they can’t seem to stop rambling ‘in the buff’, well, you have to provide the resources to keep them locked up. But of course the reality is that the government either can’t, or won’t, allocate sufficient resources to ensure both the physical space to incarcerate an ever-expanding prison population or prison staff to watch over them. The result? Grayling fiddles while Rome burns.
And in all of this, very few people ask the real question: what is prison meant to achieve? What has prison achieved for Simon Sunderland, for example?
In her 2008 memoir ‘How To Survive Puberty At 25’, Nina Bhadreshwar recalls an interview she conducted with Simon Sunderland, during which she asked him ‘What would stop you doing graffiti?’ To this, Sunderland replied ‘Having my hands chopped off.’ A five year prison sentence, albeit reduced on appeal, and further court appearances for similar matters has failed to prevent Sunderland committing further offences of criminal damage. What is the answer? Longer and longer prison sentences? Some would probably endorse the answer that Sunderland himself gave, and have his hands surgically removed, with or without anaesthetic. Or does the answer lie in the realisation that society has to be more creative, particularly in situations where nobody has been killed, nobody has been physically injured, nobody has even had their personal belongings stolen or their personal security threatened.
The stock response to Simon Sunderland’s case is to suggest that if he simply cannot stop spraying on buildings, bridges and walls, he will have to go back inside for longer and longer periods to ‘keep him out of circulation’. Is this really the best that society can do in the 21st century? One way or another, resources are going to have to be found: either to keep people like Sunderland locked away in a regime that satisfies the lust of those who think the answer to every ‘crime’ is to bang up the perpetrator for long periods of time, or to support creative and imaginative ways of responding to behaviours we deem ‘anti-social’. Sunderland is not a murderer, rapist, violent criminal, robber or house-breaker, but it is possible that in less than two days time he will be back in a prison system that is – in spite of Grayling’s denials – in a state of crisis, under-resourced and with no clue as to what it is really now trying to achieve beyond the will of political masters whose interests really are no more than being re-elected. Is this really the best we can do?
*”How can Chris Grayling deny our prisons crisis?”: Simon Jenkins, 19th August 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/19/chris-grayling-prisons-crisis-inspectors-overcrowded-violent-jails
Mark Fletton is a former barrister. Now a writer and researcher, he lives in Exeter & is a hardened Sheffield Wednesday (amended after suitable bollocking) supporter.