Saturday, November 11, 2006

Silencing the Untermensch

Britain is now the prison capital of Western Europe. We have the biggest prison population and the highest rate of imprisonment. We imprison 143 of every 100,000 people in England and Wales There are 76,000 people in jails in England and Wales. This excludes immigration detainees. In 2005 Amnesty International estimated that 25,000 asylum seekers were incarcerated in the UK. There are around 1,300 prisoners in Northern Ireland and 6,700 in Scotland. (All 2004/5 information). We have an unimaginative and reactionary Penal System.

When the Home Office is trailing proposals to prevent criminals profiting through the publicaton of their writing, it strikes me that the issue is rather wider than that of gaining insight into a particular crime, into the conditions of the mind which contributed to that crime. It goes beyond repressing a greater social and historical understanding of human fallibility and passion.

Any proposal to stop criminals profiting from their experience will censor the most telling source of information about life in the penal system. It will act to restrict the information which is publicly available on the way in which Governments treat those who are convicted of lawbreaking. It will restrict the reports of institutional sadism, corrupt and corrupting prison staff (surely a minority) and of inhumanly overcrowded prisons. It will limit the exposure of injustice or the consequences of bad or badly drafted law. And it will limit the ability of former inmates to relate those cases of compassion and mutual support which, despite the function of the Prison system as schooling for criminals, remain a part of the experience of imprisonment.

We have a Government which has shattered our liberties over the past near-decade. We have a Government which has the habit of misrepresentation. We have a Government which has facilitated the use of hearsay evidence, which has introduced the concept that the broad and subjective offence of causing harassment, distress or alarm exposes people to criminal sanction. We have a Government which ruthlessly suppresses dissent within its own Party and MP's and which is clearly bent on extending the suppression of protest and of criticism. The habit of imprisonment is instinctive to such people.

Writers are already exposed to the risk of prosecution for the offence of promoting or glorifying “terrorism” (again, a subjective judgement). When a sole protester in Parliament Square is subject to constant harassment, when a propaganda machine such has never before been seen in this nation is churning out co-ordinated vitriol which exploits the most base of prejudices, when Blunkett's reported panic and fury led to an instruction to call in the army and machine-gun the prisoners of Lincoln, we need each and every voice to seek to preserve the human and deny the inhumanity of those who would have us all be Subjects, those who would prefer to see all criticism or dissent silenced.

If we silence those who can speak of the experience of the British Penal System we are removing one of the diminishing number of checks and balances on the impact of the actions of Government Ministers. We are refusing the concept that there might be something to learn from the criminal, from his or her experience. We are capitulating to the definition of the lawbreaker as, forever thereafter, less-than-human. As Untermensch.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

The point you make is underlined by an article in today's Guardian about torture at Wormwood Scrubs prison - and Blunkett's veto on an enquiry.,,1946255,00.html


6:11 am  

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