There are plenty of good projects going on in prisons. There are therapeutic prisons like HMP Grendon; there are charities and educational organisations doing good work too. But they have to keep their head down a little bit. The first time I wanted to write about prisons, I had to go to the Ministry of Justice for sign-off. They weren’t worried about me writing an exposé of prison life; they were concerned about it being in print that there were philosophy lessons going on in prisons. They thought there might be an attempt to close the project down by people who think this sort of thing shouldn’t be happening. Public outrage is one of the challenges for any project involving prisons – you have to square what you’re doing with people who think prisons are all about retribution not rehabilitation.
Some people refer to prison as ‘bed and breakfast’. They themselves might be working long hours and struggling to heat their house and eat. In that context, the humane treatment of inmates – who get a roof over their head for free and so on – can be upsetting. For me, that’s a very good argument for trying to improve those people’s living conditions as well.
Since I used to visit my brother 25 years ago, the prison population has doubled. It’s been climbing at a much higher rate than the average population, so there’s a lot more overcrowding. As a result, the government is looking at building ‘super prisons’ in out-of-the-way locations. That seems like a wrong-headed plan. We know good family relationships give people a better chance when they get out. If someone’s in prison 200 miles from their family in the middle of nowhere, and that train ride’s expensive, you’re not helping them maintain those relations. Bigger prisons also tend to have worse gang issues than smaller facilities.
Since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, though, I’ve also seen more about the abolition of prisons. I grew up in an era when even the Labour party under Tony Blair was all about punishing criminals, promising to be tough on crime. There was no viable alternative to that, but it seems now that the idea of abolishing prisons is getting a bit of traction – I’ve even seen explainer videos about it on the BBC. Abolition is a complex issue and I’m not sure where I stand, but just the fact it’s in the conversation is grounds for hope that things will improve.
How do you get the middle-classes to care about this? That’s the million-dollar question. Because they’re the ones who will ultimately do something about it. I also teach children and, it’s funny, when I’m in primary schools I can feel the general public looking over my shoulder – it’s in the language you’re using, the setup of the classroom, what’s written on the noticeboard, and the expectations. That scrutiny exists because 93% of children go to state schools. When you go into a prison, you can feel the general public looking in the opposite direction. You can feel the abandonment – that’s why I can go into a prison classroom to teach and the textbooks are all from 1987. I haven’t figured out how you change this, but I’m hoping my book will bring a new audience to this forgotten world.