Prisons and sentencing

The Ministry of Justice for England and Wales (MoJ) wants to make money out of the punishment system of Saudi Arabia.

It has a “commercial” proposal — made with the apparent blessing of the UK secretary of state for justice Chris Grayling — whereby it will charge £5.9m for providing scarce UK civil service resources funded by the UK taxpayer to one of the most brutal legal systems in the world.

How has this happened?

Our story starts with Saudi Arabia and the sheer nastiness of its legal system. In the last two weeks this regime has had worldwide attention.

This is in part because of the case of Raif Badawi, a writer who was sentenced to be flogged 1,000 times in batches of 50 lashes — because he created and wrote for a liberal website, the Saudi Free Liberals Forum. His first official beating was two weeks ago in front of a mosque in Jeddah; the one scheduled for last week did not go ahead, it is said, for medical reasons. International horror at the punishment appears to have now prompted the case’s referral to the country’s supreme court.

But the Badawi case is not the only one to have received publicity. Last week Layla Bint Abdul Mutaleb Basim was dragged through a street in Mecca and beheaded. She died screaming her innocence. The execution was not done smoothly: a video shows her head was hacked off with three blows, with no anaesthetic. Again this procedure was a formal punishment — an example of the Saudi legal system in action. Read more

The Ministry of Justice – which is responsible for the prison system in England and Wales – decided in November 2013 that it will restrict books that can be received by serving prisoners. This week the excellent Howard League drew public attention to this, and yesterday a number of distinguished authors signed a letter of protest.

We need to be clear as to the nature of the policy. The relevant document is here (Word document, see especially pages 45 and 56). It is not a general “ban” on books as such. Prisoners will still have access to the books in the prison library and can have up to 12 books in their cell – but access to any books sent from outside prison – either purchased or sent by friends and family – will only be as rewards for good behaviour. The prospect of books, like trinkets, will be dangled to prisoners as treats.  Read more

Dawn arrests and long bail are two extreme examples of how the coercive power of the state can be applied to individuals.

The first is short and dramatic: a loud knock on the door in the early hours followed by your arrest and removal to a police station, whilst your is home is invaded and thoroughly turned over by a team of uniformed police officers. And the second is painful and ongoing: after the arrest and release on bail, then weeks or months – or even years – will go by without you knowing whether you will be charged or not.

In both situations, there has been a lot of attention by reason of the various police operations connected to the conduct of the tabloid media. Of course, this publicity is not surprising: many of those arrested are, by definition, professional communicators.

But neither dawn arrests nor long terms of bail are particularly a journalists’ problem. Both go wider; it is merely because they have happened to media folk that what has happened and its impact on those involved is clearer for others to see.

Are there any good reasons for these dawn arrests and the long bail? Is there, as a reporter would ask, another side to the story? Or are there wider problems here, which the current media-related cases are acting to bring to light? Read more

Here is a thought-experiment: imagine that you have asked some mischievous demon to conceive the most counter-productive way of dealing with crime. What fiendish scheme would this diabolic agent devise?

The demon could suggest a system where offenders are kept together with more serious and experienced criminals for months or years, and so can learn from them; where the offender is taken away from any gainful employment and social support or family network; where the offender is put in places where drugs and brutality are rife; where the infliction of a penalty can make the offender more, and not less, likely to re-offend; and where all this is done at extraordinary expense for the taxpayer.

A system, in other words, very much like the prison system we now have in England and Wales, as well as in many other jurisdictions. Read more