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COMMENT: Do prisons work? From Reading Gaol to Wormwood Scrubs today's prison system beggars belief.

Rosamund Urwin's comment piece in yesterday's Evening Standard "Our prisons are a disgrace to civilised society" is excellent, as we've come to expect of her. She rails against the 'assaults against staff' the 'excrement (...) piling up in the courtyard', the chronic problems of violence and dysfunction caused by overcrowding. The portrait is damning for Wormwood Scrubs: "The annual cost for each prisoner is £40,000. You could send a child to Eton for less than that".



I would go even further than Urwin, asking whether prisons fulfil their purpose at all. Do they make society better or are they carpets under which to brush the undesirable, making things worse? What are the consequences of the short-sightedness of treating people like problems which will go away if removed from the public eye?

It goes without saying that some individuals are too dangerous to be given the same freedoms the rest of us enjoy. In defence of prisons, they may not do much to improve their inmates, but they do a decent enough job of keeping them from causing further harm. In the short term, that is.

The expression "off the streets" has become a well-worn cliché on this subject. Once the threat of coming face to face with a murderer or a rapist is removed from our headline-infected minds, we are happy enough to let the justice system dispose of prisoners as it sees fit. Prisons are a mental dustbin for those of us who don't have to visit relatives there or earn a wage in them. Out of sight, out of mind. Most of us switch off the subject once Crimewatch announces wrongdoers are behind bars. But what then? Does incarceration actually work? Without rehabilitation and restorative justice, what is the point of prisons? 

A former student recently gifted me a beautiful copy of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (by the way, incomplete as almost all editions are, omitting the steamy novel Telleny). Lucky for our culture, in a twisted sense, one of the all-time great wordsmiths of the English language wrote two chilling pieces on his first hand experience of prison: The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and De Profundis

While the latter is worthy of anyone's bookshelf for its chilling combination of linguistic brilliancy and bare naked sincerity from a master of Aesthetic artifice, it's the second which deserves a reread in the light of Unwin's article. 



The subject of Wilde's Ballad is no misunderstood hero or victim of a Prison Break-style conspiracy. He's an unnamed Redcoat (presumably a military man) who murdered his wife in anger. 

“He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.”

And yet prison does nothing to reform or improve him. He accepts his fate, musing at 

“This little tent of blue we prisoners call the sky".

But while the Redcoat attains a sort of peace because of the inevitability of his death sentence, the other inmates rot inside. Prison is a place of constant mental torture. It does nothing to improve inmates; quite the opposite. 


“No things of air these antics wereThat frolicked with such glee:To men whose lives were held in gyves,And whose feet might not go free,Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,Most terrible to see.Around, around, they waltzed and wound;Some wheeled in smirking pairs:With the mincing step of demirepSome sidled up the stairs:And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,Each helped us at our prayers.”

The speaker of Wilde's poem is visited by night time demons, and gradually broken by them. Isolation and a permanent climate of filth and fear make monsters of the once-redeemable inmates.

This last stanza is, in my view, the most damning critique of Western society and how it treats its offenders.

“The vilest deeds like poison weedsBloom well in prison-air:It is only what is good in ManThat wastes and withers there:Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,And the Warder is Despair”

Prisoners are made worse by the institution. The irony of the poem's ending is that the prison system kills and morally corrupts its inmates. It commits the very crimes it was created to redress.

“And there, till Christ call forth the dead,In silence let him lie:No need to waste the foolish tear,Or heave the windy sigh:The man had killed the thing he loved,And so he had to die.”

Wilde's portrayal of prison may be dated inasmuch as Britain has many reform programmes and offers chaplaincy support to those who leave the institution as well as those on the inside. And yet a reliable source tells me these crucial jobs are now being left to volunteers, as government cuts remove professionals from key positions.

This to me is the true scandal of today's prisons. Reoffending is at an all-time high and yet schemes which would try to make good a prisoner's experience of jail, making some attempt to support offenders who make the right choices, are shut down.

This government rewards failure of financial elites and ties the hands of erstwhile professionals who can prevent further crime or at least attempt to do so. Wilde's legacy is to teach us how easily we can incarcerate the wrong people and create make career criminals of one-time offenders. 

The current state of Wormwood Scrubs prison should make any political leader hang their head in shame. Urwin's account echoes and updates Wilde's powerful message. Criminals deserve punishment, but our prisons are not the solution.

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