“Human rights with no money” – still time to avert a catastrophe

In a way, I’ve been very lucky. I cut my teeth in the world of human rights and prison reform mostly in the naughties (having started in ‘99), which globally I think was a golden decade for prison reform. Not because suddenly all the hawks became doves or there weren’t people being tortured or dying from preventable diseases in prisons but because there was a sense that none of the bad stuff was irreversible and that there was a true appetite in some countries to clean up their act and begin to adhere to international human rights covenants and instruments, and to appear civilized and respectable on the global scene. It was by no means easy but it was interesting, challenging and the balance of power and interests was such that it looked as though there was a real chance of winning for the good guys – and indeed significant victories were achieved. Prison health was back on the agenda, more sensible policies and practices were coming about for HIV in prisons, the new European Prison Rules came out in 2006 and one of the most significant global human rights compliance mechanisms, the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture came into being.  So bad stuff was going on as always, but good stuff was never too far away either.

The backdrop for all of this has been the War on Terrorism, which presented a number of challenges. Prison reformers and system professionals have had to think about how to tackle the resurgent issues of foreign nationals in prison, people on indeterminate sentences, people being held without trial and long-term prisoners. With many “leading” countries such as the US and the UK also on a hyperincarceration binge (because the expense was not an issue), the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key brigade used the predictable net-widening effects of (arguably unnecessary) anti-terror legislation which allowed for such things as indefinite detention, to lock up more “ordinary decent criminals”, most of whom come from vulnerable backgrounds and lower social strata and most of whom really don’t need to be in prison. Of course prison systems the world over are beginning to feel the bite bigtime as I warned last year but at the time of plenty and a decade of economic boom the financial cost of creating a less safe and less healthy society just didn’t figure in the debate and we had to make the argument against hyperincarceration on other grounds – public health, public safety, morality and so on.

The paradigm then was “how to do human rights with the War on Terror”. Now it’s “how to do human rights with no money”. All change.

Except very little HAS changed. Locking up more people is still making society less safe. It’s still increasing the threat of infectious diseases like TB and HIV to the general population. It’s still creating a generation of drug addicts. But the financial cost has also suddenly become unsustainable.

All is not lost though. Crisis leads to innovation. Just as, when I was working with the governments of Moldova and Kyrgyzstan 5-6 years ago and prison-driven HIV epidemics were hitting 3-5% IN SOCIETY, they had to introduce harm-reduction legislation despite bigger countries like the traditionally conservative Russia and George W. Bush’s US being totally opposed. They had no choice – defy (unfounded) convention or lose a third to a half of the country’s population to a deadly but preventable disease.

We are nearly at this point now. The most recent Bank for International Settlements report (the group of heads of central banks around the world) warns that countries potentially including the UK may not be able to bail out their banking systems and public sectors when Credit Crunch mark II hits. We don’t have to agree with their findings, but wouldn’t it make sense to stop wasting billions on  locking “bad” people up to make them worse, make everyone less safe, and less healthy?

As I suggested last year, you can easily cut the prison population by 30-50% by not remanding people who don’t need to be there and not jailing the very large number of non-violent offenders on short sentences. But you need courage. As a politician, you must step away from the megaphone and stop rattling your sabre, and think about the safety and welfare of the people who elected you, which of course now more than ever should include their financial safety and welfare. There is still time – the effects of the kind of moratorium that penal reformers are proposing would take 3-6 months to filter through the system. It shouldn’t matter who is in charge – socialists, liberals or conservatives – we are now talking about this being a matter of national safety and as such it must be above party politics.

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