I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, by an article in the Dundee Courier on 16th December 2014. We were invited to be shocked at the lavish fare on offer to prisoners in local jails. The headline and first sentence set the tone.

“Christmas feast for prisoners doing porridge”

Criminals doing porridge in prisons across Tayside will be treated to lavish Christmas meals with all the trimmings.”

Feast? Lavish? All the trimmings? That is not reporting. It is a verdict, that the prisoners are receiving high quality meals, by implication meals of the standard one would expect in a good restaurant and certainly of a higher standard than they deserve. The article is opinion masquerading as reporting.

The choice of the first word of the article is interesting. Criminals. Yes, prisoners have, by definition, committed a crime. But when should we use that word? While they are engaged in a criminal career? While they are in prison? For the rest of their lives? For the period specified by the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 until the conviction is considered “spent” and the offender is deemed to be rehabilitated? If the latter applies then prisoners serving a sentence exceeding 2.5 years would be labelled as criminals for the rest of their lives.

Labelling “criminals”

So what is the right time to call someone a “criminal”, and is it even a constructive term at any time? Colin McConnell, the head of the Scottish Prison Service said in August 2014 that it is unhelpful to refer to offenders and prisoners as criminals. He argues that such labelling makes rehabilitation harder.

McConnell was speaking at the International Futures Forum, whose website states that “the invitation to visiting speakers is simply to ‘make us think’ about an issue of importance”. Here is how the Herald reported the story.

The Herald’s story is disappointingly slanted and superficial for a quality newspaper. However, what is interesting is the tone of the comments under the story. McConnell is an expert in his field. Right or wrong, he made a serious and thoughtful point that deserves to be treated with respect.

The commenters are pretty well unanimous that McConnell is an idiot, unfit for his job. On the basis of skim-reading a newspaper article, a lifetime of prejudice, and ignorance of the subject, they are utterly convinced that they know better than McConnell. They do not merely hold a balanced opinion. They know beyond doubt that they are right.

Experts and ignorance

Experts are not necessarily right, and they do have to be challenged. But this should be on the basis of evidence, analysis and reasoned argument, not an instinctive reaction based on emotion and ignorance.

The Courier journalist, Jamie Buchan, seemed blissfully unaware of the difficulties and nuances that McConnell has to wrestle with; difficult issues that are hinted at in the title of McConnell’s talk, “21st Century Prison Policy: Humanity, Humility, Forgiveness and Redemption”. Buchan simply launched straight into his piece with the phrase “criminals doing porridge”.

Journalists and politicians should try to provide the analysis and reasoning that an informed debate requires. They should not be searching for populist, emotional triggers that will provoke an angry reaction. At least, that is not what they should be doing if they wish to be responsible. The Courier failed lamentably with that story.

Informed debate and cheap populism

The Courier failed badly again with their follow up on January 2nd 2015.

This is just the sort of story that makes me shake my head in despair at the irresponsibility of the press and populist politicians. Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP in the Scottish Parliament, is concerned that more is spent on prisoners’ meals than those of hospital patients.

Are prisoners getting better food than they should? Is the budget for their food out of control? Are the conditions for producing food comparable in prisons and hospitals? Do patients recovering in bed need as much as healthy prisoners? Fraser and the Courier address none of these issues. Fraser admits he doesn’t even know whether or not patients are getting enough nutrition. His concern is merely that the cost of hospital meals is too low. What is his measure for that? Prison meals cost more. NHS suppliers must be delighted. The problem, as he frames it, could be solved simply by the suppliers jacking up their prices.

This is just a cheap and populist attempt to exploit public antipathy towards prisoners and the idea of prisons as a place of rehabilitation rather than strict punishment. Such articles reinforce prejudice and make us more comfortable with our ignorance. Rather than challenging complacency and ignorance by promoting informed debate they close down discussion of the issues by pushing populist conclusions and painting those who expect a more thoughtful approach as naïve fools, politically correct “do gooders”.

Fraser comes out with the classic, populist politician’s justification. This “will not sit well with the public”. Instead of using weaselly phrases like that he should address the issues, acknowledge complexity where it exists, and explain to the public what an appropriate solution might be. That’s your job Murdo! You are paid a good salary and it is not to act like an ill-informed bore pontificating in a golf club bar.

A message for Christmas?

These articles are particularly disappointing at Christmas. This is the time of year when we are reminded of the wonderful gift that we all received but which we don’t deserve; the love of God shown in Jesus, who came to save us all from our failures and failings. Surely as a society we should recognise the humanity of all people, those in prison or not in prison, and allow prisons to mark this event as much as possible, like the rest of us do.

What a pity that a paper like the Courier can’t run a piece about the wonderful work that prison officers, chaplains, medical professionals and other staff do over Christmas to meet the needs of people who find themselves in prison. In Jesus’s words, “I was in prison and you came to visit me”, Matthew 25 v 36. Wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate, and inspirational, message for Christmas?

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18 thoughts on “I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story

  1. What a good piece. If these articles in our local and national newspapers were restricted to the annual and utterly predictable story bemoaning the supposedly luxurious Christmas fare “enjoyed” by people in prison (who by and large will be absolutely miserable over the festive period) that would be bad enough. Sadly, newspaper coverage on prisons is in this vein all year round. The effect of this damages us all because of a chain of consequences.

    The public believe these articles, and who can blame them? I believed them myself before I worked in prisons, because I had no-one to give me an alternative viewpoint. Believing these articles, the public then want to see public spending on offenders kept to a minimum or even cut. The government has access to plenty of research about the benefits of interventions (education, healthcare, vocational training, family-focussed work, additions support, offence-focussed programs, spiritual care, etc.).

    But whilst long term investment in reducing re-offending would clearly be to the benefit of all of us, an endless stream of these stories in the newspapers mean that, sadly, there are just no votes in spending in this area. I don’t think politicians like this – I do think that as a species they mostly want the best for the country – but they can’t afford to look long term when they are and always will be focussed on the next election. They’ll get more votes for cutting prisons spending than for increasing it.

    We need the papers to change their attitude, for all our sakes. Thanks for highlighting this issue.

    • Thank you for this measured and generous reply Anne. You are being kind to the politicians and you do have a valid point there. It is worth making a distinction between those who struggle to do the right thing, feeling they have to balance that against the instincts of the electorate, and the politicians who look for a cheap headline to try and grab a few easy votes. The former deserve sympathy. The latter deserve derision. One of the great things about social media is that ordinary citizens now have the chance to speak out and bypass mainstream media.

  2. The Courier is well known for poorly researched articles about local prisons Having tackled them myself on their use of the word abscond when an inmate fails to return from home leave I pointed out that the said inmate did not abscond merely failed to return. The Courier’s response was that the police used that word so that is why they used it. I tried to explain that abscond is to run away, not just fail to return. When I explained that their stories give the impression that the local neighbourhood is full of inmates running through it and detrimental to the area, they were not interested in their local area, just getting the ‘headline’ Typical lazy journalism.

    • Sadly the Courier is far from being the worst. From personal experience I’d say the Perthshire Advertiser is even worse. Most of the London and Scottish papers are as bad or worse. I felt a wee bit guilty at picking on Murdo Fraser. Politicians of all parties are guilty of this sort of populism, though my personal prejudice is that the Conservatives and UKIP are a bit more prone to it than others. Mr Fraser is a serial offender, however.

  3. Excellent article. I especially liked the comment that newspapers should write a constructive piece about the great work done by staff in prisons. At one point I was involved with prison libraries so was in and out of prisons quite a lot. I am fairly certain that people with negative and punitive views have never been inside a prison .

    • Thank you. It would be easy for a competent journalist to write a good article about the positive work in prison. Unfortunately it’s much easier to pander to prejudice rather than challenge it.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful piece which is sadly unlikely to enjoy the same circulation as the original drivel. Sadly journalism nowadays is not about brave investigative work rooting out wrong-doing and holding our rulers to account. It is all about populist drivel, pandering to the lowest common denominator with a diet of celebrity and easy prejudice against groups unable to defend themselves. The politicians are complicit as it is always handy to have handy scapegoats to divert attention from their deficiencies.

    The attitude we have towards offenders is a reflection of our society. It is a particularly ugly reflection.

  5. The Courier has always ran these sensationalist “What Prisoner’s get for Christmas Dinner” articles for as many years as I remember. But its not just this, what about the story they ran about the woman who appeared from the Cells for parking on Pedestrian crossing? That was an absolutely shocking piece of journalism with so much left out it could have been written better by a 5 year old.

    BTW as for Mr McConnell, well sorry he may not be an Idiot, maybe more akin to a Puppet. Hes saying what people want to hear. Criminals are criminals. Prisoners fall into 2 categories. First Time Offenders & Repeat Offenders. Many First timers get the Short Sharp Shock and you never see them again, Job done, well done, Tea and Medals for everyone. But the repeat offenders you can do absolutely nothing with them at all and all that happens is that we waste millions trying, maybe because the courts say they must complete this course or that course because it makes it look like, to Joe Public, that society is trying.

    People need to look at Criminals like they are Alcoholics. Alcoholics have to want to change in the first place, criminals are no different. there is no magic potion, no magic wand, no magic tablet to make either change their ways. You have no idea how many Prisoners get Libbed on Friday only to commit crime over the weekend and be back in jail on Monday or Tuesday, its unbelievable. The Best one I remember is a Guy getting libbed and he made it less than 500m before breaking into someones house and getting arrested. The amount of prisoners given the extra chance of freedom through Home Detention Curfew and cant even complete that, many actually hand themselves back in because its easier inside than it is at home.

    I once asked one of our regulars exactly what it would take to stop him from coming back in “£40 grand a year keep you out of here?” Short pause “nope” came the reply. Nuff said eh.

    Someone once told me that 95% of crime is committed by the same 2% So really its easy to reduce re-offending. Every time a repeat offender appears in court for sentencing the courts just need to keep increasing the sentence handed out, keep the criminals off the streets and the streets become much safer, its hardly rocket science.

  6. Just read that article in the Herald in the link in the original Blog. Oh Dear…. I take back my comment about Mr McConnell not being an idiot, hes an idiot. “THE head of Scotland’s prisons has claimed people who commit crimes should not be labelled “criminals” or “offenders” and should be viewed as “assets of community value”.” Eh? So now remember that the head of the Scottish Prison Service wants you, Joe Public, to no longer think of Sex Offenders and Pedophiles as such but as Assets of Community Value…. And remember that if you get your house broken into it wasnt by a Criminal, its been by an Assets of Community Value………… Laughable, nothing less. Sorry but if this was a politician saying this people would be asking for Her or His’ resignation.

    • You seem to be reinforcing the point I was trying to make. I can’t find any evidence that Colin McConnell has ever said we should view offenders as community assets. If you search for that all you’ll find is people who haven’t checked the story but are happy to call him an idiot or imbecile. What he said was;

      “A colleague, on a recent visit to New York, came across an article in The New York Times entitled ‘Saving an Endangered British Species: The Pub’. In this, he learned that with so many pubs closing, new legislation would allow people to petition to have their locals designated an ‘asset of community value’. He reflected that this terminology was ideally suited to describe our own desistance agenda – after all, on any given day it could be said that SPS holds nearly 8,000 “assets of community value” in custody.”

      Here is the source (PDF, opens in a new tab), from the Scottish Prison Service website. It’s easy to find. I simply searched for “Colin McConnell” and “assets of community value”.

      McConnell’s comments made sense in the context of his talk, and critics need to consider his argument and the context of the quote before dismissing his point.

      I said that the Herald reported the story in a slanted and superficial manner. I was being kind. They distorted McConnell’s talk, lifted a quote to use it out of context and turned “could be said that” into “should be viewed as”, which is very different.

      This is a great illustration of why politicians play safe and experts are reluctant to tackle complex and sensitive subjects in public. When they try the press distorts the story to make it more “newsworthy” then people pile in, hurling abuse without ever checking the source.

      You can see why journalists do it. They get a better story and hardly anyone goes to check the original. It’s understandable, but deplorable, and it is a betrayal of the role of the press in promoting understanding and debate of important issues.

  7. In reply to the poster who decried “Friday release” let me state thet the current early release bill going through Parliament will bring this to an end – Governors will have the discretion to release prisoners two days early to prevent this happening. This is vitally important since most services that a returning citizen needs are not accessable at the week end. This measure should help reduce the getting lifted as a last resort option at the week end.

    For everyone else I would suggest studying the recent organisational review of the SPS – transforming lives – unlocking potential. Therein you will find the mention of the asset based approach that seems to have got Mr McConnell much criticism. I have some disagreements with the SPS approach. But only in the sense that it does not formally recognise that the input of prisoners is an important asset that can be overlooked. If anything the SPS are to be congratulated on pursuing this direction even if the implementation is not entirely correct – the general direction is far better and more progressive than that previously stated.

    The criminal justice system is often full of paradoxes and the biggest, in my humble opinion, is that politicians set the agenda but are often the worst placed to try to get anything progressive done due to the expectations of the electorate, either real or perceived. There are no votes in being nice to inmates…and that is a problem for society as a whole.

  8. Pingback: I was in prison and you saw the chance for a cheap story (a reprise) – James Christie's personal blog

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