Now that post-Marxian vacuous liberalism is over, it is surely about time that we revived the vigorous writings of Thomas Carlyle and made him fashionable once again. He is too little read and admired these days, perhaps partly on account of his arguably controversial treatise ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’ (1849) — which, while well intentioned, may nonetheless these days ruffle one or two feathers on our university campuses, or within the BBC. But there was of course a lot more to Thomas Carlyle than simply a benign, if misguided, wish to abolish slavery while keeping a few blacks on as indentured house servants. He was very astringent on celebrity culture, economics, the French revolution and, perhaps most importantly, prisons.
Indeed, his treatise on prisons occurred to me when I was reading both last week’s unnecessarily humane leader column right here, and also a newspaper article about some of our violent criminal untermensch who had been kind enough to share on a social media site photographs of their very agreeable lives inside a prison in Dorset. Perpetually zonked out of their empty skulls on cannabis flown in via a drone, or on vodka which they got from God knows where, enjoying slap-up suppers of sirloin steak, injecting each other with body-building drugs, partying like it’s 1999, a collection of extremely violent grinning and gurning shaven-headed, tattooed imbeciles incarcerated for machete attacks, robberies and so on.
I could describe these people in more detail to you — but I will defer to another, more accomplished writer, because he does it much better. We have Thomas Carlyle to hand, who in 1850 had been enjoined to visit one of the new supposedly model prisons in London — and he shared with his readers the following description of its appalling inmates:
Miserable distorted blockheads, the generality; ape-faces, imp-faces, angry dog-faces, heavy sullen ox-faces; degraded underfoot perverse creatures, sons of indocility, greedy mutinous darkness, and in one word, of STUPIDITY, which is the general mother of such. Stupidity intellectual and stupidity moral… had borne this progeny.
Yep. That just about does it for me, I think, for the Scouse’n’Manc machete boys and the bank robbers of today. I even wondered for a second if Carlyle had been gazing at the same photographs which I had seen in the Daily Mail. But that would be impossible, of course. It was simply that the vermin then were much the same as the vermin now.
Our leader column agonised for a while and then came to the conclusion that prison wasn’t really working. There is a crisis in our system, the prisoners are running amok — HMP Bedford was the most recent occasion where these distorted blockheads had taken over a wing and had the screws running for their lives. They are made even more violent by the copious amounts of drugs they take and are able to order their narcotics — as you might order a chicken tikka masala — via their smartphones, of which, to guess from the reports, only one in 50 are confiscated. And then, when they are released — way too early, I would argue — they go out among the poor and offend again. They are not remotely chastised, still less rehabilitated, by their experiences inside. They couldn’t care less.
The Spectator’s conclusion was the familiar liberal conclusion — this proves that prison doesn’t work, given the reoffending rates and the palpable mayhem. We need alternative means of dealing with these people, we were cautioned to believe.
Balls. Prison completely ceases to be a deterrent if it is so pleasant as to provide a thoroughly agreeable sanctuary, affording a comfort not terribly different (and in many cases a lot nicer) from that which these people enjoy on the outside. This does not strike me as an original observation — far from it — but it is surely incontestable. The lesson in the UK is that the more pleasant we make prisons, the greater the rate of reoffending. And so the greater the number of people we need to bang up at the taxpayer’s expense. This seems so obvious as to be almost not worth mentioning — and yet because the element of punishment has been all but expunged from our criminal justice system, to the extent that any intimation of hardship is considered inhumane, and rehabilitation is seen as the only goal, it is a fact which is ignored.
We’ve been here before. Carlyle bitched a little bit about the comfort afforded by that model prison he visited 166 years ago: ‘No duke in England lives in a mansion of such perfect and thorough cleanliness,’ he observed, a little bitterly. In populist terms, it sticks in the craw to watch prisoners enjoying themselves with a higher standard of food and leisure activities than their working–class counterparts on the outside could imagine. It is, in some ghastly, primitive way, against natural justice. And yet if being nice to prisoners worked, and they stopped being criminals, we might all very happily sign up. But it doesn’t. Our incarceration rates here in the UK are about average for the world; our recidivism rates are well above average. Clearly we are doing something wrong.
The answer probably lies in a combination of the two approaches: the vindictive approach which instinctively I cleave to, along with a majority of the population. And the approach which always finds succour with the Guardian and latterly The Spectator. We should indeed incarcerate fewer people. But those we do bang up — the repeat offenders — should be afforded a magnificently unpleasant time, deprived of privileges, deprived of comfort, deprived of that most modern of things, self-esteem. Prison, then, as the last resort — but a truly punitive resort, nasty enough to deter even habitual offenders from succumbing to it.