Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Hurd Disapproves of Mr Howard Because Mr Howard Does Not Dislike His Own Party

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Hurd Disapproves of Mr Howard Because Mr Howard Does Not Dislike His Own Party

Article excerpt

Prisons are depressing places. They fill any thoughtful visitor with a sense of waste. Waste of public money, but above all, waste of human potential.; the average criminal's principal victim is himself.

This creates a problem for those who have to administer the prison system and it explains the systematic intellectual dishonesty which many of them practise. In search of its future senior civil servants, the Home Office recruits idealistic youngsters; so does the prison service, at least in the higher grades. These individuals naturally want to do good, and it is very hard to do good in prisons. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, and when confronted with an unpleasant reality, it tends to go into denial and to create a make-believe alternative. That is what the Home Office and the prison service have been doing for the past four decades. Their make-believe is called rehabilitation.

The flaw in the notion that prisons can rehabilitate is both obvious and fundamental. Many prisoners are inadequates. As a result of a wretched upbringing, they find it difficult to form relationships or hold down jobs. But the idea that by putting a man in prison you can help him to function better in society is risible. Rehabilitation is a myth invented by high-minded officials to justify their activities to themselves. The 1990 White Paper was correct: prison is often an expensive way of making bad men worse.

Yet it is also indispensable; Michael Howard was right to insist that `prison works'. It performs three crucial roles: punishment, incapacitation and deterrence. The public's sense of justice would be outraged if the authorities stopped punishing criminals, and now that we have dispensed with corporeal sanctions, prison is the only alternative. Prison also incapacitates criminals, a point persistently ignored by those who complain about its cost. A man in prison cannot commit fresh crimes, or at least not against the general public. Finally, prison does deter. Most criminals stop committing offences around the age of 25, and the fear of going back to prison is a major factor in this.

By the age of 25, the average criminal will have acquired a significant amount of 'form', which means that future offences will probably mean gaol. Wives or girlfriends do not enjoy their lives being disrupted in this way and frequently issue ultimatums which are often successful. So the threat of prison puts an end to many criminal careers.

Law and order is a Hobbesian business, and we should be suspicious of anyone who argues otherwise, whether it be penologists advocating rehabilitation or lawyers talking about rights. It is always worth reminding those who administer the criminal justice system, especially the judges, that the right to order is not only one of the most important of all rights; none of the others can be securely enjoyed in its absence.

Michael Howard understands all this, which is why he has made himself so unpopular with the penological liberals, among whom we must now include Douglas Hurd. These high-minded ladies and gentlemen are seriously unhappy with recent developments in penal policy, for two reasons. Ie irst and less important is the Labour Party's failure to act as a check and balance. Whatever their private views - if they have any - Tony Blair and Jack Straw are determined to prevent the Tories from exploiting the issue of law and order at the next election. This means that any criminal justice Bill which Mr Howard proposes will receive minimal opposition in the Commons. …

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