…and in particular, this country. That’s not how I had planned to begin a blog, but there it is, in black and white, although that’s partly just because I can’t work out how to change the colours on this thing yet.
A few days ago, a young man who I have worked with for the last six years was imprisoned for manslaughter in the Victoria Station Killing. I would like to leave aside the fact that this is someone I know to be an upstanding citizen, less likely to stab someone than I am and that this doesn’t appears to be justice in the sense of the word that I know. I do believe in this country’s justice system, its courts and its police, less so its lawyers, and I believe that this was the right course of action and the right verdict in the eyes of the officers on the investigation and the jury of his peers who convicted him. I mean, they got it wrong, but I’m sure they thought they were getting it right.
What concerns me far more is the state of the institutions surrounding this man’s trial.
First of all, our news media. The media have recently been working hard to convince us not to expect much of them but I remain an optimist. I understand, we all understand, that a promising young man has lost his life, it’s a tragedy and it shouldn’t have happened. This is self evident, and yet this is what the media have chosen to focus on. Ream after ream of text repeating the same tired and overly emotive description of Sofyen Belamouadden’s final moments followed by responses from those who have read the media but not heard the evidence for the defendants demanding that they be hung, drawn and quartered in Sloane Square and that they be grateful for it. A trial appears to these people to be a formality.
Not for a moment do I suggest that the guilty parties shouldn’t be brought to justice, but while everyone’s so concerned about the loss of one young man’s life and potential, they are callously disregarding the loss of the same for another 17. The media whip us into baying for blood because it sells papers, but scarcely anybody stops to mention that guilty or not, and some of them may not be, 17 people are going to prison over this and their prospects coming out will not be good. Most had their A-levels interrupted to go to trial, they certainly aren’t going to get degrees (I know at least one who would have done) and employment prospects for former offenders are terrible in any case. An exception is here, but the vast majority of reporting on the subject follows this model (although that is a particularly bad example). With so much at stake, for the media to be creating such a biased circus is hardly fair on the young men or the jurors who can only feel under extreme pressure with these men’s entire futures in their hands (the jurors in cinema classic 12 Angry Men spring to mind). The jury in the case of my friend couldn’t decide unanimously on the murder charge, the response has not been to recognise the clear abiguity in the evidence that this shows but poorly disguised disgust that they didn’t send the scumbag down regardless.
Nobody is asking how a group (I refuse to say “gang” because they most certainly were not that in the sense that the media intends it) of teenagers came to the point where they were chasing another boy through central London with weapons including a samurai sword for goodness’ sake. As a youth pastor I see a lot of young people come and go. Rarely are they involved in crime, but those I meet who do have little respect for the law or its enforcers are not that way because they are hardened criminals with no morals. They have been failed by society. Maybe their parents didn’t do a great job? Maybe not, but that’s hardly the children’s fault and someone in turn probably let those parents down.
What are we doing about it (apart from closing their youth centres)? And let’s not lay that purely at the government’s door, what am I doing, what are you doing? Putting them in prison is not an answer, we need to be preventative, we need to make sure that all young people can grow up without suffering abuse, neglect or disillusionment and without being forced to seek love and acceptance from the kinds of groups who will lead them into these situations because as sure as eggs is eggs, many of those teenagers didn’t go into that tube station expecting someone to die, and now they’re in prison. Relationships between youths and the police in my area of London are often sour by the time they are into their teens. Blame for this is not the issue, what are we doing to remedy it? Why has this angle of the case been ignored? A cynical man might say that it’s because it doesn’t sell newspapers. Well it turns out I’m a cynical man.
And what about our prison service? I’ve little hands-on experience but intend to get a good look in the next few weeks. A wise teacher of mine once explained that prison was about “retribution, restitution, protection and rehabilitation” but our attitude today feels like we’re mostly concerned about the protection and the retribution. As long as we can box our convicts up somewhere, we’re a happy society. Well the boxes are full, ladies and gentlemen. We put people in a place where they can see their friends and/or family once every two weeks with a bucketload of others convicted of similar and worse crimes and minimal access to opportunities to better prepare themselves for life in the outside world, and we wonder why re-offending rates are so high. For goodness sake, merely emailing into the prison costs almost as much as writing a letter and has no option for reply (despite the ongoing efforts of the excellent Email a Prisoner). How can we expect these people to remain balanced, let alone reform? And what do we do about making sure they can reintegrate when they come out (how few people are involved in this for instance)?
In the midst of the recession we hear about the cuts to education, the civil service and the health service, but prison reform is not and never will be a vote-winner or a major page-turner. Youth centres are easy to close but no 15-year-old votes, so they’re much harder to open. The media screams about a young man slain two years ago and we lap it up as we ignore 17 more people today losing their liberty, their opportunities and their futures alongside an ocean of others failed by the UK’s government, penal system and ultimately its people. There is an awful lot wrong with this world and we’re all a part of it.