Rehabilitation failure shows failure of whole prison system

Jon Venables has been sent back inside for two years. He was never given a serious chance of a normal life on the outside, reports Eddie Ford

The rather wretched and depressing case of Jon Venables gives us an insight into the failures of the British justice system. He and Robert Thompson, both aged 10 at the time, were the “evil” killers of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 - becoming the youngest people ever to be convicted of murder in English criminal history. Released in 2001 and given a new identity, Venables had been living and working in Cheshire until March, when the ministry of justice - much to the frenzied delight of the tabloid press - revealed that he had been returned to prison for a then unspecified violation of the terms of his release licence: Jack Straw, the Labour justice secretary, stated that this had resulted from “extremely serious allegations”.

We now know, of course, that Jon Venables pleaded guilty to charges pertaining to the downloading and distribution of child pornography and has been imprisoned for two years, has also been banned from using a computer or the internet for five years and will be placed on the sex offenders register for 10 years upon his eventual release. Afterwards, Venables read a statement to the court saying he was “genuinely ashamed” of the offences he had committed.

At the trial the details emerged that Venables had downloaded 57 “indecent” images - with 44 of them coming under ‘category one’ offences (nudity or erotic posing), three under category two, two under category three and eight under category four (penetrative sexual activity between children and adults): category five being the most serious level of child sex abuse, relating to extreme sadomasochism and bestiality. The category four images - newspaper reports leave unclear as to whether they were photographs or digitally created - included a two-year-old holding a man’s erect penis, a 12-minute video of an eight-year-old girl being anally raped and images of children as young as two being raped. In a police statement taken in March, Venables oddly declared that with these pornographic images he was “breaking the last taboo”, but insisted he had “no intention” of ever actually having sex with a very young girl. Additionally, Venables had pretended in various online chat rooms to be a 35-year-old woman offering to sell her eight-year-old daughter for sex, which in turn persuaded other men to send him child pornography.

Furthermore, the court also heard that Venables had been arrested on suspicion of an “affray” in September 2008 following a drunken street fight with another man, but the police concluded that he had being acting in legitimate self-defence and therefore ought not to be recalled to prison. Later in the same year, he was caught in possession of cocaine - however, given the extremely small quantity, the authorities deemed it to be for “personal use” only and he was cautioned rather than imprisoned.

Jon Venables’ unsavoury online activities were uncovered after he had contacted his probation officer in February, scared that his new ‘official’ identity had been compromised. The officer arrived at his home only to find Venables desperately, and quite pathetically, trying to remove his computer’s hard drive with a knife and a tin opener - being a rather unorthodox way to detach a hard disk from the motherboard. Unsurprisingly, the probation officer’s suspicions were aroused and the computer was taken away for examination - leading to the eventual discovery of the child pornography. Forensics on the hard drive also revealed that it contained numerous deleted files, the titles of which strongly indicated that they involved child pornography.

Once the trial was over, James Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus, angrily commented that “justice had not been done” - believing that that the two-year sentence was “simply not enough” and that the judge should have taken into account Venables’ previous crime of murder when passing sentence - ie, that he should have been locked up forever, with the key well and truly thrown away. As for Ralph Bulger, the father of James, he claimed that giving a convicted criminal a new identity - as in the case of Venables - was a “liberal experiment” that was never going to work: instead, we presume, Venables should have been thrown to the wolves.

Such vengeful sentiments - though understandable for unfortunate people like Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger, driven half-mad by grief and bitterness - have, of course, been cynically echoed and amplified by the tabloid media, seeing it as golden opportunity to bash the ‘do-gooders’ who believe in the principles of rehabilitative justice and to generally peddle their vile and almost medieval concept of irredeemable ‘evil’. Therefore in the world according to the Sun, Venables is “depraved”, a “monster” and a “beast” - who “could have been caged for a maximum of 10 years” and thoroughly deserved to be if it was not for the ‘liberals’ within the justice system.[1] Here we have the tabloids determining Venables’ life sentence.

Clearly, Jon Venables is a screwed-up individual - his fixation with child pornography amply confirms that. But, of course, he has long been screwed-up, hence his involvement in the hideous killing of James Bulger. Yet we should never forget that Venables himself is a victim of child abuse - first in the form of his violently dysfunctional family and then from the state itself, which treated this boy as a permanent threat rather than someone who desperately needed help, before effectively abandoning him to his own devices upon his release from prison (whatever the lurid and paranoid fantasies served up by the Daily Mail about how “the British state has gone out of its way to support Venables”).[2] Communists, however, argue that society has a obligation to help and rehabilitate someone like Venables, both a victimiser and a victim - like so many people, to one degree or another. After all, this is the person who when visited in his secure unit by a psychologist before the Bulger trial, found a boy lining up his bed with furry animals in order to “keep the bad things away”.[3] Yet, tragically, Venables was never given a serious chance at rehabilitation.

So, with almost dreadful inevitability, he was pulled into a cycle of decline upon his release. He became addicted to cocaine and Mephedrone, the so-called ‘party’ drug recently banned by the government (a stupid and irrational decision), and started to drink too much: far too much. The Observer learnt from probation sources that in the months before he was arrested Venables had been on a drinking binge - and that when drunk he had a tendency, extremely unwisely, to reveal his true identity to strangers. Thus a possible explanation for the “affray” and other minor skirmishes he had got into.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that in the months before he was arrested for accessing obscene images Venables’ mental health had undergone a serious deterioration. This should hardly come as a surprise. In the words of his QC, he had been living a “wholly abnormal” existence, punctuated by “vilification”, “demonisation” and “threats to his life” - always fearing media exposure or vigilante attacks (which effectively amount to the same thing). Police had even coached Venables in counter-surveillance techniques after he was told he would have to “live and hold a lie” for the rest of his life. No easy thing to do, even if you are a highly trained and motivated KGB or FSB operative.

Though Venables had managed to hold down a full-time job ever since his release - albeit one “close” to the minimum wage involving anti-social hours - it was nigh on impossible for him to form normal relationships under such aberrant circumstances. For example, under the conditions of his licence he was obliged - at least in theory - to disclose his real identity to anyone with whom he was in a “close relationship” (ie, a girlfriend). As you can imagine, such a disclosure would almost certainly act to kill the romantic moment or any putative relationship.

In that sense, Venables never had a chance - the system had stacked the odds hopelessly against him. So he cracked. Indeed, you could argue that it would have been a near miracle if he had not done so. His remark about “breaking the last taboo” - even if they are about digitally reproduced or fabricated images of child sex abuse, as opposed to real-life abuse - self-evidently demonstrate someone who is still deeply scarred. In this context, we should not forget that the murder of James Bulger did have a sexual component - something often overlooked in accounts of the murder trial. The toddler’s trousers had been removed and batteries were found beside the body, the police and others believing that James had been sexually abused/assaulted before being killed - with the batteries being inserted up his anus. The obvious implication being that James’s killers had themselves been sexually abused at some point and - in some shape or form - were doing to James what had been done to them; a study of Venables’ extremely troubled family background appears to substantiate this contention.

According to Valerie Sinason, director of the Clinic for Dissociative Studies in London, some sort of past abuse is invariably the trigger for consumers of child pornography: “One of the reasons for using child porn is to connect with your childhood self. If your sense of self has been fashioned through abuse, then you are orphaned without making that connection. In the image you might be identifying with the child or with the person who’s abusing the child. Either way, it’s a search for identity. And any excitement is a defence against terror”.[4] In her opinion, it takes considerable time for therapy to be effective - as long as eight to 10 years “to even get near the offence”, time that the disturbed and confused Jon Venables just did not get. And, of course, the dominant regime within the prison service, as Sinason reminds us, is for “confrontational forensic psychiatry” - a highly ineffective, if not positively damaging, form of therapeutic treatment.

Perhaps the worst indictment of the UK justice system comes from Edward Fitzgerald, who admitted that Venables is “almost relieved” to be put back in prison - realising that he was spinning out of control and had no means to counteract his destructive urges. In other words, Venables - far from being rehabilitated to deal with the world outside the prison walls - had been institutionalised, left powerless. In that sense, despite all the highly unusual and distressing circumstance surrounding the Jon Venables story, he is a typical prisoner - a victim of capitalist society, no “evil” Mr Big or psychopath. A fucked-up kid who became a fucked-up adult. Like most people in most prisons in most countries of the world.

Black lessons

Support for this contention comes from an unexpected quarter - Conrad Black, the notoriously reactionary former Daily Telegraph owner who has recently being released from his Florida jail, after serving less than three years of a six-and-a-half year sentence for massive fraud (involving millions) and the “obstruction of justice”. Famously described as a “millionaire living in a billionaire lifestyle”, Black is out on bail and is appealing against his conviction on an obscure constitutional technicality, thanks to his ability to hire the best lawyers money can buy - quite literally. Even then, he needed his fellow reactionary and millionaire, Roger Hertog to bung him $2 million in an unsecured bond in order to secure his release.

Whilst in prison, Black gave English lessons to some of his fellow inmates - and so talented a teacher was he, all 11 gained their high school diploma, despite five of them being totally illiterate at the start. Writing in the Canadian National Post, Black comments that Rousseau was correct that one-on-one teaching is the most effective and that he did the “obvious things” which are not at all “possible with a full class” - such as “adapting humorous examples from their own lives for sentence structure and the meaning of words”, and “assigning essay subjects tailored to their own interests”. Needless to say, his pupils - previously all but written off as hopeless, unreformable cases - responded enthusiastically to his pedagogical methods and became keen students, to the astonishment of the prison authorities.

More to the point are Black’s observations on his fellow prisoners and the prison system as a whole. He started to develop a genuine affection for the inmates, describing them as a “rich and varied canvass of personalities and experiences”. In typical Blackian fashion, he categorises them as ranging from “misbegotten innocents, almost saintly in their naive and stoical endurance of injustice” to “egregious but usually engaging scoundrels” - right up to the “invariably courtly and wryly entertaining alleged pillars of organised crime”. He found himself becoming an “impassioned champion of the 32-year-old small-time drug dealer who had six children with five women, none of them attached by the bourgeois relic of matrimony” - not to mention the “world-weary Cuban ex-CIA operative” and the “Sopranos-like former bill-collector of one of the New York mafia families”.[5]

Which is to say - just like Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer before him, to name just two - his own personal experience has given him a humane and rational insight into the reality of prisons and prisoners far removed from the loathsome prejudices promulgated by the rightwing media: the sort of media, of course, that Black himself made so much money out of. Prisoners are not congenitally “evil” or “bad” and in fact prisons are used as an auxiliary arm of the social services: dumping grounds for ‘superfluous’ people that the system has callously abandoned. As for the US penal system, Black could not be more condemnatory - viewing it as a “command economy based on the avarice of private prison companies”, a pernicious and self-perpetuating industry which is constantly “agitating for an unlimited increase in the number of prosecutions and the length of sentences”.

Black confesses that he does not “meet the usual definition of a socialist”, but is now convinced that “many” prisoners are the “victims of legal and social injustice” - a set-up “inadequately provided for by the public assistance system” and “over-prosecuted and vengefully sentenced”, representing “tens of millions of undervalued human lives”. From all this, Black concludes - quite correctly - that prison represents an “antiquarian and absurd treatment of non-violent law-breakers” and that therefore the “whole concept of prison should be terminated except for violent criminals and chronic non-violent recidivists”. After all, he argues, “swindlers and embezzlers, hackers and sleazy telemarketers are capable people” - very energetic and enterprising - and thus it only makes sense that they should serve their sentences by “contributing honest work to government-insured employers”, not left to rot.

As Conrad Black himself proves, even if communists suspect that he will not be donating his entire fortune to the workers’ movement quite yet, no-one is beyond redemption or rehabilitation. Not Jon Venables, not bank robbers, not reactionary millionaires. We call for the sweeping away of the inhuman and barbaric prison system, which leaves untapped so much raw human talent and potential.


  1. The Sun July 24.
  2. Daily Mail July 24.
  3. The Guardian July 27.
  4. Ibid.
  5. network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2009/11/14/conrad-black-the-transformative-effect-of-teaching-my-fellow-inmates.aspx