The monthly Althing debate was held in Tingwall Primary School at 7.30 pm on a wet and windy Saturday in February. No one was arrested.
Despite this, a lively discussion took place within the premises. Much of this was due to the contributions of four individuals – Kevin Learmonth, Bobby Hunter, Kathy Hubbard and Laura Friedlander – involved in the dispute.
The right honourable Chris Bunyan also occupied the position of judge to prevent their disagreements becoming overheated. It might have been as a result of his calm control that fisticuffs and low blows – of any kind – were avoided throughout the proceedings. There were also no reports of any violent disturbances involving these individuals in Gott or Veensgarth in the hours following their difference of opinion.
Perhaps this is just as well as the subject of the debate that evening was “prison works” – and one could only hope that any hours spent either within the Primary School or elsewhere would never lead to any practical experience of the issue.
Speaking initially in favour of this proposition was Kevin Learmonth who mounted an eloquent and ingenious defence of prisons. He claimed that while prison did not necessarily work for prisoners, there was little doubt it did for society as a whole.
In the middle of a recession, they provided work for people. For instance, the recent construction of a prison in north Wales had resulted in 1,000 jobs and £17 million in terms of investment for those in that community.
In a wide-ranging argument, he also felt that prison benefited society in other ways. Quoting the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, he noted that communities liked the idea of punishing people who had stepped outside the law.
The Victorian prisons that overshadowed some of our urban areas offered evidence of this, providing “a frowning warning of what awaited the wrong-doers” if they ever crossed that line. There were times, too, when people wanted retribution and vengeance and not justice. The mob that gathered outside the trial of the 10-year olds who killed Jamie Bulger on Merseyside gave testimony to this, showing – as surely as the murder itself – the vindictive and unpleasant side of humanity.
Also standing up and making the case for Porridge within the confines of the school canteen was Althing stalwart Bobby Hunter. He made his usual entertaining speech on the issue, including risking a few perilous steps along the tangled branches of his family tree during the course of his address.
His view was that “prison keeps baddies away from goodies. We all walk streets more safely as a result of their existence”. He claimed, too, that the prison system coped well with genuine criminals, though we should all feel a sense of shame about those who should not be there.
In this, Bobby was echoing a common theme throughout the evening and one that was echoed by Kathy Hubbard when she spoke for the opposing view. Much of her evidence was drawn from her own personal experience. She had worked within the criminal justice system for 21 years of her life, employed as a probation officer and in other fields. During this time, she had visited women’s open prisons, maximum security prisons, borstals, a sad and bewildering array of outposts where we choose to incarcerate our young and old, our misfits and maladjusted.
After she listed these, she declared that her familiarity with these places had not made her “dewy-eyed” about those who were imprisoned. There were a number she had met for whom “the key should be thrown away”. The rest of humanity was safer without their presence. The problem with prison was that many locked away within its walls should not be there.
This was an issue with which even those who argued that “prison works” were in broad agreement.
Too many of the population of both Scotland and the United Kingdom were found within its walls. Kevin admitted this in his address, noting that this country had a higher percentage of its people behind bars than virtually any other part of the European Union. Kathy noted the scale of the increase in the last two decades.
In her contribution, the final speaker Laura Friedlander spoke of the realities of what life was like for the people to be found there.
Prisons, she said, were far from the “holiday camps” that readers of the Daily Mail might imagine them to be – not unless the purchasers of that particular newspaper travelled to resorts where they were strip-searched on arrival; issued with ill-fitting second-hand clothes; provided with food that was often contaminated; confined in rooms measuring 10 foot by eight which they were forced to share with often unpredictable and violent strangers. There was little peace in these “tourist nirvanas” either.
Noise was relentless. There was constant anxiety. Even the soap with which you washed could easily conceal the sharp edge of a razor blade. In addition, there was the sense that many of your fellow residents had arrived at the wrong location. As many of 90 per cent of the inmates were said to be suffering one mental illness; 70 per cent displayed the symptoms of two.
All in all, both the contributions of the main speakers and the discussions that followed portrayed a prison system that was failing both its inhabitants and those whose task it was to look after them. Much of the evidence they presented – of continual drug-taking, persistent violence and re-offending – was moving and thought-provoking, giving a glimpse of a world where most of us had no desire to step or enter. It was little wonder that even with the eloquence of Messrs Learmonth and Hunter’s contributions, there was no great sea-change in the opinions of the audience with only two out of over 40 believing that prison worked.
They were all too conscious that, for all the enthusiasm and obvious affection that the Daily Mail had for the institution, prison did not work. They shared, too, Kathy Hubbard’s longing for a criminal justice system that had greater imagination and flexibility.
There was gratitude too – both for the information and opinions of those who had contributed to our evening – and the fact that the overwhelming majority of us within that room would be unlikely to be arrested on our way home. Few, if any of us, as we stepped within our cars longed to experience the grim realities of prison life for ourselves.