Victims of British justice
Eddie Ford thinks prisoners should be treated as human beings, and children as children
One way of expressing the anti-human barbarism of British capitalism is by looking at the prison population. The UK, bar the Czech Republic and Albania, locks up more people than any other country in Europe - worse than Turkey even. As of 2009 England and Wales incarcerates 152 people per 100,000 of the population (the figure is 153 for Scotland, while for Turkey it is ‘only’ 142). Yes, true, Britain has quite a long way to go before it catches up with the United States - leading the world with a truly grisly 776, or 2,310,984 prisoners if you include all pre-trial detainees and remand prisoners. But still not exactly something to be proud of, unless you have completely lost your humanity.
However, it does seem the case that some have indeed lost their humanity - and capacity to think rationally. From listening to some bourgeois politicians, and of course the half-mad rightwing press, you would believe that such appalling statistics were a sign of success, not absolute failure. Or, to use more prosaic home office-speak, by February 2008 prisons in England and Wales had exceeded their “operational capacity” - holding just over 82,000 prisoners, and representing a near-doubling of the English and Welsh total from the 42,000 in 1991. According to the latest ministry of justice figures, on May 28 of this year the prison population stood at 85,147 - perilously close to the “usable operational capacity” of 87,757, especially when you bear in mind that the number under various ‘home detention curfew supervision’ orders comes to 2,408.
Furthermore, as if things were not bad enough, the home office predicts that the population will rise to 110,000 by 2010. In other words, the British justice system - a laughable term - is fit to bust and is more criminal than the supposed criminals it pretends to be protecting us from.
Such a cruelly punitive regime is monstrously wasteful of social and financial resources, costing about £4 billion a year to house the current numbers, each prisoner notching up an average annual bill of £41,000 - so much then for the age of austerity and efficiency savings. This relentless increase has, of course, been driven by ever harsher and more irrational sentencing. Thus 129 people found themselves imprisoned for shoplifting in 1995, but by 2005 it was 1,400. Similarly, 3,000 first-time offenders in 2001 were sent to prison for petty theft. Compounding the misery, one third of petty offenders lose their home while in custody - while two-fifths lose contact with their families and another two-thirds lose their jobs, driving them back into a life of crime. Around half of all prisoners have a reading age less than an 11-year-old. Two in five prisoners lack basic literacy skills and four in five do not have basic numeracy. The number of women in prison has risen disproportionately - from 1,800 in 1994, to 4,500 in 2004. Some 40% of women going to prison have previously attempted suicide. And so on. This grim catalogue predictably results in re-offending rates of 59% within two years.
Another particularly acute, albeit depressing, way of gauging Britain’s civilisation quotient - or lack of - is to look at the way it treats children and young people, especially in the judicial-criminal system. On this the UK is a clear winner - congratulations: Britain’s got talent, just a shame that so much of it is behind bars. Hence Britain locks up many more children and young people than any other country in western Europe. The statistics for 2008-09 reveal that 64,803 youngsters were given “community remands” and that 6,556 were sent to local authority “accommodation” - effectively imprisoned - or were in actual custody. Which is to say that four times as many young people are imprisoned in the UK than in France, which has a similar population - in fact, as a proportion of the population Britain bangs up more than 14 times as many youngsters as Belgium or 20 times more than the Netherlands.
More precisely still with regards the UK statistics, 765 children aged 14 were imprisoned - with 10 and 11-year-olds being convicted or given reprimands (or final warnings) for 6,000 assorted offences. Over 70% of these were entirely non-violent in nature, while 66 of them were classified as “sex offences”. Of course, in England and Wales the age of criminal responsibility is 10, while in Scotland it is only eight. Quite obscenely, this makes the UK the worst offender for inflicting retributive punishment upon its youngsters in all of Europe - indeed, most of the world. Only countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Sudan and Myanmar/Burma have a worse record. Or, to put it another way, Turkey, Korea, Morocco, Uganda, Algeria, Uzbekistan, China, the Russian Federation, Egypt, etc have a relatively more enlightened position on this particular issue and set a higher age of criminal responsibility.
Which brings us to the recent conviction at the Old Bailey of two boys aged 10 and 11 for the “attempted rape” last October of an eight-year-old girl from Hayes, West London - making them among the youngest ever to be charged with such an offence in England and Wales. Earlier, the jury found them not guilty of actually raping the girl.
At the trial the court heard how the girl had been playing with a five-year-old friend near her home when the boys turned up and suggested visiting another friend. When the four children arrived at the block of flats where the friend lived, the boys allegedly pulled down their pants and sexually exposed themselves to the girl, who also pulled her pants down. This action was repeated in a lift to the block of flats and then in a shed containing the rubbish bins. According to the prosecution, she was “sexually assaulted” at the shed and then later “raped” in a nearby field. The next day the girl herself - in a recorded interview shown to the jury - told “specially trained” police officers how the boys had exposed themselves to her, pulled her pants down and allegedly raped her.
However, her story changed drastically after she was cross-examined via a video link. She then said that she had lied to her mother because she had been a “tiny bit naughty” with the boys and was worried she would not get any sweets as a consequence. When further questioned, she denied that any parts of her body had been penetrated by the boys and also admitted that she had agreed - or consented - to play with the boys and had voluntarily pulled down her own underwear while the boys exposed their genitals to her. She went on to say that she had not been “dragged” to the field by the boys - as originally made out by the prosecution - and agreed that her bruising and scratches could have been caused by one of the boys helping her over a fence into the park.
The boys’ subsequent conviction for “attempted” rape was based entirely on the girl’s testimony outlined above. As far as the defence counsel was concerned, there was “no useful medical evidence”, “no DNA evidence” and “no forensic evidence” to support such a verdict. The counsel for the eldest boy told the court that her client was a “normal boy” and “not a monster”. Rather, in her opinion, what we had was a typical children’s game - or experimentation - that “appeared to have got out of hand” to one degree or another. As she explained in court, “What this case is about is not a serious crime. It is about children. There is a game called, ‘You show me yours and I will show you mine’. Maybe it went too far, maybe it went to touching, maybe they were doing something they had seen on television, maybe they were playing that age-old game, doctors and nurses. They are kids. If [my client] had been a few months younger, he could not have been charged.”
Yet again, horribly, it does seem that John Major’s notorious exhortation to “condemn a little more and understand a little less” - perfectly encapsulating the hysteria surrounding the James Bulger murder and his “evil” 10-years-old killers - has been acted upon.
Now, obviously, we in the CPGB have no more idea than anybody else as to what exactly happened on that day in west London last October. However, what communists do know for certain is that the boys concerned should not have been put on trial in an adult court - even if the judge and lawyers on this occasion did make some sort of concession to the defendants’ age and dispense with the usual legalistic paraphernalia of absurd wigs and gowns, and the proceedings were kept short to help the boys follow what was going on.
No, communists argue that children should be treated as children - not as fake or pseudo-adults just to suit the whims of a vindictive and antediluvian judicial system. As well as being inhuman - Sudan is hardly a model to follow - the UK’s age of criminal responsibility is downright illogical. In the eyes of the law, you cannot get married until you are 16 or join the army until you have reached the school leaving age - technically defined as the “last Friday in June in the school year in which the child reaches the age of 16”. Nor can you vote until you are 18 years old - though, of course, communists fight for this to be lowered to 16.
That is, as things stand now in the UK, you are not considered to be a legal adult (or at least a provisional adult) until you are 16 years of age - in which case, you should not be trialled in an adult court if you are under that very same age. Therefore the age of criminal responsibility should be raised to 16 years, which would simply bring it into line with much of the rest of Europe. Hardly deranged ultra-leftism or libertarianism gone mad. Additionally, we also say that the current age of consent should be abolished. If children under the age of 16 want to sexually experiment, test the water, then they should be free to do so - but be provided with objective and moralistic-free advice and guidance if and when needed.
Then again, the vast majority of adults should not be put on trial in the adult courts either - or put through the mincer of the legal-judiciary machinery at all - given what should be the self-evident fact that they are more victims of a harsh and unforgiving capitalist society than victimisers or ‘criminals’. Let alone Mr Bigs or even Mr Medium-Sized. For that very small minority of people who require a custodial sentence of some description for the greater protection of society as a whole, then that should only be viewed as a temporary situation pending their rehabilitation back into society - they should be treated as human beings, not ‘bad’ people to be punished and defeated.
- The Guardian May 24.