One of my favourite screenwriters is Aaron Sorkin, who is probably best known for creating The West Wing. The precursor to that series was a film called The American President and it is chock-full of great lines, many of which strike a chord during election season. However one scene has been going around in my head for the last few days. President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, speaks to his nation in an election broadcast about his opponent. He says:
"I've known Bob Rumson for years, and I've been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn't get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob's problem isn't that he doesn't get it. Bob's problem is that he can't sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."
Why has this quote been in my head all week? Because it goes a long way towards explaining why almost no politician out there wants to be caught caring about the men, women and children inside our prisons. It is hardly a vote winner is it? The prisoners themselves can't go to the polling station and it isn't an issue that will win the hearts and minds of the electorate.
Some of us do care though; some of us have to care because there are people we love inside those walls. Every prisoner is someone's parent, child, partner or sibling; a lot of them are in the wrong place and those who are not are, in some establishments, barely being treated decently let alone getting the rehabilitation work they require to cease offending. And I know this not only due to inspection reports, statistics and newspaper columns but because every time I visit OT there is another story, a tale that shocks me, that forces me to rearrange my face so that I don't show my surprise. It is usually an anecdote which is so much a part of normality for him that he no longer even realises quite how awful it is.
This weekend produced one of those stories but before that I have a few more issues to air, that my MP can't afford to care about. It took me about two hours to get to his latest prison and I still get nervous when it's a place I haven't visited before. OT's geographical location mostly impacts on me rather than him, he knows I will somehow manage to visit wherever he is located, psychologically though, surrounded by strange accents and people from towns he has never heard of, he is a long way from home. The impact on the visitor is a more practical one, at present each trip costs me £50 and about 11 hours of my weekend, only 1 hour and 45 minutes of which is actually time with the lad. I am lucky enough to have a car, I doubt if I could manage a visit if I had to rely on trains and buses to get there. You have your first prison reform idea right there, if a politician wanted to listen.
OT seemed OK generally, given his current circumstances, but those who moan about criminals languishing in their cells watching TV when they should be working really don't have a clue. He is in a Young Offenders' Institution for 18 to 21 year olds which is dangerously understaffed and there are not enough officers to adequately supervise the prisoners working. At present he is locked up for approximately 22 hours a day, any additional time out of his cell is dependent on the availability of education, work or other positive activities - this translates to another two hours a week in a literacy class (he has done this course 5 times, he is already literate, it was the only course he could get straight on) and one and a half hours in the gym. The boys are paid £8-10 a week for education according to Inside Time but because he isn't doing much of it OT gets a couple of pounds at best. That isn't a lot of money to buy essentials with, such as stamps and phone credit to call home. Then again his current association time is in the morning when I would be at work, so he wouldn't be able to speak to me in any case. Now personally I would vote for a party who sorted out work and education in custody but I'm well aware I am a niche voter, political success certainly lies down a more mainstream path.
Now OT is a care leaver, he has experienced significant childhood trauma, he has behavioural difficulties and mild learning issues, he is diagnosed with a mental illness - despite all of this he can handle himself, he is fairly together and would not be considered vulnerable in a custodial setting. There are other young people in his situation who are far worse off than him, just read Alex Cavendish's Prison UK post The Lost Boys Of Our Prison System if you need to be convinced of that fact. One of them was a cell-mate of his for just over a week, which is the story that I mentioned earlier. In his induction phone call home OT had mentioned that he was sharing with someone he didn't really get on with, "You should see who they've put me in with!" he had said. During the visit I asked him about this, he replied that the other lad had been moved. I joked (half joked, I am realistic) that I hoped he hadn't been moved after OT had lost his rag and thumped him. No, I was told, that wasn't ever likely "He was just a scared, freaked out little kid B, he was self-harming and everything, he was annoying as hell but I felt sorry for him." So why had he been moved? Apparently OT had woken up one night, or possibly during the day as there isn't much else to do, and found his young, vulnerable cell-mate attempting to hang himself. OT had stopped him and summoned help, possibly saved his life although he made light of it. I have no idea what this boy's crime was but it sounds to me like prison probably wasn't the best place for him to be punished in. Not only that but the matter-of-fact way in which OT described the incident was chilling, it isn't the first attempted suicide he has seen, it isn't even the second or third, and he hasn't only seen unsuccessful attempts either. Are we basically herding young, badly adjusted, traumatised young men together in one place to serve a sentence, then releasing them into the community expecting them to have learned their lesson? Even the "they got what they deserved" brigade must see how flawed that strategy is. With no opportunity for self-improvement or rehabilitation and another year's worth of violent, traumatic memories OF COURSE most of them offend again!
So hands up who has heard plenty of debate about crime, law and order and prisons so far in the run up to the election.....It is an issue that has scarcely been mentioned. Is the problem that the parties and their leaders don't get it? Or like the presidential candidate in one of my favourite films is it just that they can't sell it? I am sure Aaron Sorkin is right, that is how you win elections, but it is no way to run a country.