We cannot afford to dehumanize incarcerated citizens

Stuart Horner (an inmate of Strangeways prison) recently protested against the living conditions within HMP Manchester. Was this just a ploy for attention – Horner was given coke and pizza – or do we need to overhaul the prison system?

Stuart Horner’s one-man protest at HM Prison Manchester this month was a blip on the radar compared to the prison’s 1990 riots, but the man was not alone with his grievances about the national prison system. Hundreds of supporters gathered in solidarity at this Strangeways revival, although no doubt many were there for the spectacle. Horner has a flair for both histrionics and buildering, enough to grab our attention and score some soda and pizza, but whatever his motivation, his ‘point’ was a good one. There are countless reasons why one might protest the conditions at this and other British penal institutions, and this country’s prisoners deserve better than their present circumstances. Discourse about incarceration depends on its perceived purpose – is imprisonment meant to separate the criminal from society, punish them, rehabilitate them or combine those three objectives? Institutions like HMP Manchester are only accomplishing the first two, to the detriment of prisoners as well as the rest of society. Former inmates of HMP Manchester report that inmates spend the majority of their days confined to unlivable cells. The facilities are uninhabitable, dangerous, overcrowded and understaffed, and this pattern holds true for jails and prisons throughout the UK.

A criminal’s punishment cannot be administered in a way that dehumanises the criminal and hurts society. A ‘local’ prison like HMP Manchester is intended to hold bodies, but it does more harm than protective good if those inside are treated inhumanely, with easy access to drugs and little in the way of services aimed at health or personal development.

By its nature, imprisonment denies convicts their liberty. Any further deprivation is an injustice harmful to our entire society, not just those found guilty of crimes. Prisons without adequate means to tackle substance abuse, mental health issues and criminal rehabilitation guarantee a pattern of repeat offenders and recidivism. The criminal loses, future victims of crime lose and society gains nothing.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons’ annual report found the prisons of England and Wales to be in their worst state since at least 2005. Violent assaults towards inmates and staff are on the rise, as are instances of self-harm and suicide. Mental health issues affect the majority of male prisoners, yet rather than devote resources to buck that trend, public prisons have been stripped of funding and have lost a third of their staff. Rehabilitation is seemingly the last priority if it is even on the agenda, which indicates the people in these institutions are not perceived to be worth helping. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, separate devolved entities are responsible for prison assessments, but there too prisoners’ complaints are common and conditions are reportedly miserable.

We lock criminals away with few opportunities for personal growth, for physical and mental wellbeing, for a life during and after imprisonment. This aim is short-sighted and denies convicts their humanity as well as their liberty. No prisoner should be sentenced to squalor, to hopelessness, to abandonment by the society in which they live.

Stuart Horner may have gotten what he wanted after three days on that roof, but what he and so many other prisoners need is long overdue. Some of us may never see a protest like Strangeways in our lifetime, but there is certainly cause for outrage of that magnitude. Moreover, dissent towards the prison system should not be relegated to those within its grasp. Our acceptance or rejection of prisoners’ treatment reveals much about the type of society we wish to live in – whether that’s one that does best by the whole or does best by the select, privileged few.

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