Issues & Ideas | 16th September 2014

Reforming prisons and progressive politics

Reforming prisons Generally in this blog I have avoided complaining about the impact of […]

Photo: Getty


Reforming prisons

Generally in this blog I have avoided complaining about the impact of austerity. I largely accept the inevitability of the overall scale of cuts. I find the third sector’s favourite sport of semi-competitive shroud waving not only unedifying but counter-productive. The cuts really are impacting now but the public has, I fear, become jaded by hearing years of stories of alarm.

But for some reason when I read about what is happening in our prisons my capacity for a measured response disappears. I’ll try to explain why that is, but first the evidence of our prison crisis.

Overcrowding, self-harm and violence are up, while the number of educational and rehabilitative programmes is down.

There is more detail to be found herehere and here but in essence the picture is this: prisoner numbers are up, overcrowding is up, self-harm and violence are up, the number of failing prisons is up, while the number of prison officers is down, along with educational, therapeutic or rehabilitative programmes. For more and more prisoners – many of them serving short sentences for non-violent offences – a sentence means being locked up in a small shared cell all day, only to be let out briefly into a violent and dangerous prison environment.

So far public opinion remains unmoved. The minister, unsurprisingly, says there is no crisis. The opposition, equally unsurprisingly, thinks there are many more vote-winning examples of austerity to highlight – leaving the Observer and the Guardian to rail against, well, what we all expect bleeding heart liberals to rail against. Penal reform organisations like the Howard League do their best but they were complaining about prisons being inhumane and counter-productive well before the cuts impacted.

Whilst I won’t blame the cuts on Coalition indifference, in the case of prisons there seems to be an abdication of all responsibility. The author’s statement that “you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners” may sound like a cliché but it is one on we should reflect on right now. Prisoners have been judged for their crimes but their punishment should be a loss of freedom – not hopelessness, fear and squalor. On Dostoyevsky’s criterion it is ourselves we should be judging harshly.

Scotland and the crisis for progressives

Whether this Thursday’s result is a disaster or near death experience for the UK, the way the Scottish referendum campaign has unfolded is the most powerful indication yet of the enfeeblement of the Westminster political elite. Other consequential possibilities for humiliation loom large, including a strong showing for UKIP at the next General Election and a vote to leave the European Union.

For nearly all of our evolution, we only knew much about, or engaged with, people much like ourselves.

People are angry about other people, about their own lives and about the state of their country. Think of it this way. For nearly all of our evolution, from nomads to particle physicists, three conditions applied. First, we only knew much about, or engaged with, people much like ourselves. Those unlike us were assumed to be enemies or curiosities. Second, we lived under conditions of scarcity with relatively simple material expectations and needs. Third, we accepted and generally deferred to relatively fixed hierarchies of power and prestige based on religion, bloodline or more latterly class.

Since the Enlightenment, with occasional backtracks and by-ways, the West has been accelerating ever faster away from the conditions in which our social character and deep culture developed. Things cannot be reversed. Nor should they be because the progressive future involves transcending these conditions to reach a higher stage of human flourishing. This is the stage of cosmopolitan citizens inhabiting a cosmopolitan world.

But we now inhabit a disorientating and dark twilight world. We are forced to live among strangers, but without knowing how to understand, empathise and collaborate with them. We are obsessed with an individualistic and materialistic account of success, and then either find we can’t attain it or – almost as bad – that doing so is meaningless.

We need leaders who can confront us with the truth of the current crisis and inspire us with the possibility of transformative progress.

If this all seems too abstract it can be brought back to topical concerns. The first painful transition from tribalism to cosmopolitanism is reflected in wars of religion and identity, the upsurge of anti-immigrant feeling, and the inability of international governance to cope with international problems.

The second, from scarcity to post materialism, reflect the ailments of affluence. We rage about living standards while we wallow in personal debt. And the third, from tradition and deference to self-government, is expressed by our current contempt for our leaders, only surpassed by the incoherence of our collective aspirations (as Ben Page from IPSOS Mori famously put it, ‘The British people know what they want. It is very clear: American tax rates and Swedish public services’).

What then is to be done? First, progressives – however critical they are of the present – must always keep in view the vision of the cosmopolitan, post-materialist, and self-governing future. Indeed we should work harder to describe a practical utopia.

The sight of Clegg, Miliband and Cameron postponing their enmities and marching on Scotland shows what is possible.

Second, while the steps to transition will be largely taken by us not for us, we now need leadership like rarely before: leaders who can confront us with the truth of the current crisis and inspire us with the possibility of transformative progress. Instead we have futile and dishonest promises to slash immigration, extricate ourselves from global interdependency, cut energy bills, and restore trust in politics by electing this career politician in hoc to their increasingly unrepresentative party instead of that career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party.

The sight of Clegg, Miliband and Cameron postponing their enmities, defying convention and marching on Scotland shows both that it is possible to act differently and that it takes an emergency for political leaders to accept the need to question their stock responses. We must encourage them to link social transformation to personal transformation by questioning deeply the very idea of what it is to be a creative leader in these troubled times.


You can view full versions of these posts on Matthew’s blog, where they were originally posted.