Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Peter Hitchens on prisons

Peter Hitchens on prisons... the books he mentions are out of print, but I am interested in them.

Paul Beck seems to think there is a contradiction between opposing prolonged imprisonment, especially for indefinite periods, and supporting the use of prison as a punishment at all. Once again, I must direct his attention to a book of mine, called 'The Abolition of Liberty'. This is the re-engineered version of 'A Brief History of Crime', which I produced after 'Brief History' was subjected to irrational and ad hominem attacks which obscured its main arguments. 'Abolition of Liberty' lacks two chapters from 'Brief History', one on capital punishment and the other on the logical fallacies of 'gun control', which Britain's liberal commentariat were not adult enough to meet with reason. It has, in compensation, an extra chapter on the wrongness of identity cards. I don't mention these books in the hope of becoming rich. Royalties are tiny. It just means that those who are really interested in my arguments can learn where they may find them set out at length. People often don't know I've written them.

But the central point about prisons is this. They can be punitive and austere while remaining humane, a balance achieved once in this country and in my view achievable again. What is important about a prison sentence is not its length, but its effect, both on the imprisoned person and on potential criminals weighing the risks of doing criminal acts.

The 'prison works' argument advanced by many unthinking populist conservatives, that at least those imprisoned cannot commit crimes while they are locked up, is absurd. This is an argument for locking them up forever, and a counsel of despair. I would much rather that they were free, but so anxious to stay out of prison in future that they give up crime. Also, I doubt very much whether prisoners can be taught to read, or given basic work skills, or disciplined habits of life, in anything but a highly disciplined prison where the hand of authority is heavy. I am sure a first offender could be give an adequate fear of prison (and communicate that fear to his friends and neighbours) by spending a week or even less in one - but only if that prison were sufficiently austere, disciplined and punitive. An effective preventative police force and an unrestrained judiciary would also play an important part in such an arrangement. Sentences of more than ten years seem to me to have only one likely effect, namely the total destruction of the imprisoned person. But see the book for a historical essay on how a humane and effective penal system was achieved and, by implication, how it could be achieved again, and also for an extended account of a visit I made to Wormwood Scrubs prison in West London.

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