David Shipley

Why do we send the wrong people to prison?

Inmates in HMP Pentonville in London (Credit: Getty images)

In prison, I met a lot of men who said they shouldn’t be there. They presented detailed mitigations, and listed all the flaws in the prosecution’s evidence. The truth is though, that most of us had been sentenced for crimes we’d committed. There were very few men inside who shouldn’t have been there.

Mark, though, did not belong in prison. I first met Mark in HMP Wandsworth when he became my fourth cellmate. He was a quiet lad, with dark floppy hair which he hid behind, avoiding my gaze. It didn’t take long to realise something was very wrong with him. We watched the news; we watched the soaps: Mark couldn’t tell the difference between them. He thought everything on TV was factual. The concept of categories confused him; he couldn’t understand that two people could both be actors, or both share a first name. I felt as though I shared my cell with a very young child.

Mark struggled to function. Leaving the cell terrified him, so he only went out to get food, avoiding showers, exercise, and any contact with other prisoners. I asked what had happened to make him so afraid. ‘Some people weren’t kind to me,’ was all he’d say. He tried to make dinner, and tea, in our kettle, ruining it. Mark seemed worried I’d be angry. I just felt pity for him, this lost child in a man’s body. We found another kettle.

I felt as though I shared my cell with a very young child

Mark told me he’d been released halfway through his 18-week sentence, only to be recalled for 14 further days inside. I couldn’t see the point; an 18-week sentence provides no time for education, training or any meaningful rehabilitation. If the original sentence was bad enough, the 14-day recall seemed laughable. What could it possibly achieve?

Although Mark kept hold of his court paperwork, he still didn’t really understand why he was in prison.

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