Society needs to take a hard look at punishment system


Victims of crime and offenders should not be seen as polar opposites, maintains Valerie Bresnihan, who argues that selective punishment does not make society any safer

The recent expression of feelings by the public on the announcement that Malcolm Macarthur was to be sent to an open prison raises several fundamental questions, not least of which is the true purpose of prison.

Macarthur is not the average prisoner, nor is his crime, yet cases like his make it difficult to consider both victims of crime and offenders in a balanced way. Society is poorly served when victims and offenders are seen as stereotypical polar opposites.

Macarthur has clearly served his time after 20 years and yet many are angry at the thought of his eventual release. Why are we not satisfied that justice has been served? Why does the official purpose of prisons - deprivation of liberty because of one's crime - not ring true this time?

Here are two of several possible reasons for this anger. Firstly, as Ms Lillian McGovern of Victim Support makes clear in her article of September 5th, there is the much-neglected pain of the victims' families. The present judicial system does not serve them well. We need to find other but complementary ways to promote healing. Restorative justice, for example, is a process where offender and victim meet, where healing of the victim is of paramount importance and where it is believed that everyone is redeemable. There is evidence that victim satisfaction rates are high in restorative justice programmes.

In Britain, there has been a pilot programme where families whose relative has been murdered may meet somebody who has committed a crime of murder. Are we ready for this in Ireland? Secondly, perhaps our anger has also something to do with our collective knowledge that we are being conned regarding the true purpose of prison. What are prisons actually for? One thing is sure: any given prison population is not some predestined outcome of the crime situation. It is a political response to it.

It is no accident that prison populations are largely made up of the most socially and personally disadvantaged in the country. Macarthur being a rare exception, the majority prisoner profile is one of extreme economic as well as social and personal deprivation.

Figures show a remarkably consistent tendency for early school-leaving to be associated with earlier first conviction and the accumulation of greater convictions. In other words, the more socially and personally disadvantaged the child, the earlier he gets into trouble and the more serious is his subsequent criminal and penal career. Recent research indicates that mental illness/disability act as significant precursors to crime.

Why are the alienated poor, who won't or can't cope, used in an effort to deter others?

We have only to glance at our tribunals to understand who benefits from this situation: a comfort blanket is readily available. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that this system of acceptable selective punishment does not make society any safer.

Politicians must be seen to do something about crime. It is easy to punish those unlikely to vote. In this regard, politicians are fully aware that the alienated poor are usually silent. It seems to be difficult for us all to absorb that our acceptance of poverty for others is a sad reflection on ourselves. Politicians rest easy at night knowing all this.

MISUNDERSTANDING the true purpose of prison facilitates the perpetuation of stereotypical polar opposites of victim and offender. Ms McGovern writes: "There is marked imbalance in the level of funding made available to deal with offenders and victims." The prison system helps the prisoner?

We have one of the most wastefully expensive prison systems in the world; our reoffending rates are one of the highest in the developed world. The availability of illicit drugs in Irish prisons is staggering and way beyond the acceptable norm. Mentally-ill prisoners are frequently put into solitary confinement as treatment. In the recent past, one man, a schizophrenic, spent more than 17 days in a padded cell, naked and defecating on and then eating his food.

It is said that boredom, depression and drug use are the dominant features of Irish prison life. A system that facilitates all this cannot help prisoners, neither can it benefit society. Having said that, prisons ought never to be expected to undo all the inequalities of extreme personal and social disadvantage.

Those who work with offenders are aware of the seeming inevitability of crime that accompanies extreme personal and social disadvantage. Their anger, too, is entitled to be heard. In this vein, Ms McGovern's remark regarding the inappropriateness of one contributor on the Prime Time programme about Macarthur was unfortunate.

For the record, and to clarify some confusion in this regard, on that same Prime Time programme no spokesperson of the Irish Penal Reform Trust was present.

Ms McGovern also suggests that we all need to take a long hard look at how we care for victims. She is correct.

We also need to take a long hard look at how our system punishes those who are - in the main - victims of that greatest of all oppressors: poverty. We need to consider how our society can be reconstructed so as not to produce marginalised, outcast and deprived people, some of whom will commit crime. If we do this, then we might have a lot fewer victims - of all types.

For our political leaders even to have considered spending so much on the Bertie Bowl while spending so little in redressing the considerable inequalities of social disadvantage is a sad indictment of our body politic. For the rest of us to be so indifferent to the poverty of others is a sad indictment of our sense of ourselves.

Dr Valerie Bresnihan is chairwoman of the Irish Penal Reform Trust and also a board member of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.