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Friday, January 09, 2004
Two differents ways of being uncivilised

A short while ago I linked approvingly to Voice of the Future and his comments on top up fees and STDs. Another recent entry and the response to it is worthy of some attention. The post touched on the death of bleeding-heart liberal Stephen Tumim, focusing unsympathetically on his incessant demands that prisons be made ever kinder to the criminal, demands that eventually got him the sack by crime-slashing Home Secretary Michael Howard. It was answered by Plastic Gangster's Anthony, who noted Churchill's famous dictum that the treatment of prisoners is one of the tests of a civilised society. As usual, Churchill was right. If a country sanctions tearing out people's toenails in dungeons and a thousand other sadistic cruelties, you know there is something deeply wrong.

But it is just as important to realise that the dictum works both ways. If a society treats serial killers and child-rapists like unwelcome guests, reluctantly but reliably catering for most of their whims, providing for all the basics for which the law abiding must work very hard and ignoring any context in which prison should be and has to be a punishment and a deterrent ... if a society furthermore regularly jails such killers and rapists for so little time that they can be sure of missing only one World Cup ... if a society in addition reacts with total indifference to the miseries of millions of vulnerable people who feel like prisoners in their own home (and scarcely any safer there) while it promises not to jail burglars until at least their third offence - if a society does all these things repeatedly and continually, then you know just as clearly that something is deeply wrong.

We don't wrench the toenails from our prisoners: we 'punish' them as an absolute last resort for the most soul-destroying cruelties, and do so by providing comfortable accommodation with television, radio, books, newspapers, gymnasia and many other forms of entertainment. As a result, millions of people who have never been charged with any crime live as prisoners every day, and toss and turn in fear every night. I'm unsure which is worse, but I do know that both ways of dealing with prisoners fail a test that would be passed by any fully civilised society.

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