Star comment: We must look at our prisons

The broadcaster Sir David Attenborough tells a brilliant story of ants, which goes something like this.

Prison
Prison

It you put 100 black ants and 100 fire ants into a glass jar, nothing will happen. But if you shake the jar violently, the ants will start to kill each other. The black ants believe the fire ants are the enemy, the fire ants believe the opposite.

The same is true of society: men versus women, black versus white, faith versus science, young versus old. The enemy is not our opposite, it’s the person who shook the jar.

As we look to the dire state of British prisons, we might ask a similar question. Those inside are serving time to protect us from their misdemeanours and so that they can reflect on their crimes.

However, if we are to drive down the numbers, we also need to ask this: who shook the jar – why are they there?

For many, there are complex socio-economic factors. That is to say, there are underlying reasons why they turn to crime. If we are smart, we will become better at preventing crime, at addressing those factors, just as the nation is presently engaged in a unique campaign to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Prevention is always better than the cure.

There has to be a balance between punishment and rehabilitation, though it is a difficult one to strike. But it is a fact that for many in prison there is a underlying reason for them carrying out a crime; if we sort that problem out – if we stop the jar from being shaken – those people are, in theory, no longer a danger to society.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists says thousands of people with a mental disorder are currently in prison, when they could better spend time receiving specialist treatment.

People with mental disorders need help. It is the duty of a caring society to provide it. Prison must be about punishment and deterrent of course. But ask any senior police officer what one of the main causes of offending is and they will mention mental illness. It is therefore essential that those who are suffering know where they can go to get help when they need it.

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