British Expat Newsletter:
4 October 2006

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: Prisons
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Quotation and joke

This week

A BBC article about a postman who was sentenced to four months imprisonment, for burning mail he should have delivered, recently sparked off some debate on the British Expat forum. Whilst not making light of his crime – after all, the mail which he’d burned might have been crucial for some people or their businesses – it was generally felt that a prison sentence was daft and community service would have been much more appropriate in this case.

The signs are, though, that our members’ point of view is at odds with practice in the UK. According to the statistics, the UK’s prison population is at an all-time high, with about 85,000 people currently behind bars, compared with about 50,000 in 1993. England and Wales currently have the highest proportion of population in prison in Western Europe, at 143 per 100,000. Scotland is close behind, with 135 per 100,000; by contrast, Northern Ireland is towards the bottom end of the scale, with just 80 per 100,000.

(Europe is a long way behind the US, though, where a staggering 724 per 100,000 are incarcerated – 0.7 per cent of the population. Perhaps more scarily, many US prisons are privately run and their inmates made to work for commercial operations – uncomfortably close to a form of forced labour, depriving the market of properly paid jobs and allowing the companies concerned to keep prices artificially low.)

So why are so many people now doing time? Apparently it’s not because of the rise in crime; crime figures show that the number of convictions has remained pretty stable over the last ten years or so. The reason seems to be – in part, at least – an increase in severity of sentencing. Judges are now more willing to impose prison sentences for relatively petty crimes, and to impose a higher tariff than before where prison would have been indicated anyway. It’s been suggested that this increased toughness can be traced back to the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger in by two older children, and to then Home Secretary Michael Howard’s view that “Prison works” – a view which Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair echoed as he sought to shake off Labour’s image as soft on crime.

So what’s prison like in the UK these days anyway? Is it like the 1970s TV show “Porridge”, or are the prisoners all comfy in hotel-like rooms fully equipped with personal computers and every home comfort?

The answer seems to be somewhere in between. Looking at HM Prison Service’s own website, the picture is of an environment where prisoners are encouraged to become productive and well-adjusted members of society, and much the same picture is given by the BBC’s In-Depth feature. Prisoners are given the chance to develop trade skills, and to keep fit in relatively well-appointed gym facilities; and in their “free” time can play pool, socialise and study, or watch television (if they have one) in their cells. Food, though by no means of gourmet standard, is adequate and nutritious, provided at an average cost of £1.87 per prisoner per day, or £3.81 a day in Young Offenders’ Institutes. (By comparison, the MOD spends a daily average of £2.20 per head to provide meals in messes, and the NHS spends £2.50 for hospital meals.)

But that’s the ideal, and with overcrowding on the increase, in facilities which in some cases were built nearly 150 years ago, it’s perhaps not surprising that the cracks around the edges are beginning to run a little deeper. HMP Pentonville was recently the subject of a damning inspectors’ report which found that unemployed prisoners (nearly half of them) were cooped up in their cells for all but two-and-a-half hours a day on average, and that the catering facilities were overrun with cockroaches and other vermin. In Scotland, about 300 prisoners are due to receive compensation because sub-standard sewerage facilities forced them to slop out while in shared cells. And, most worryingly of all, there are roughly 20,000 incidents of self-harm every year – including 78 successful suicide attempts in 2005.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that there are so many. It’s estimated that about 90 per cent of prisoners suffer from some kind of mental illness. The Prison Reform Trust and the mental health charity MIND reckon that schizophrenia is more than ten times higher among male prisoners than it is among the general population. But the Government’s social exclusion unit has found that prisoners are twice as likely to be refused mental health treatment as people on the outside. And the Chief Inspector of Prisons has estimated that about two in five prisoners in prison health care centres should really be in secure NHS units.

Women appear to be at particular risk. Although women make up only just over five per cent of the prison population, they account for more than half of the self-harm incidents. But the most common offences for which women are imprisoned are theft and handling stolen goods, not violent crimes (which account for only one-sixth of women prisoners). Yet the results of imprisonment can be catastrophic for both the woman imprisoned and her children, as homes are lost and families broken up. The founder of the advocacy group Women In Prison, Chris Tchaikovsky, summed it up: “Prison is often a very expensive way of making bad situations worse.”

All this is not to suggest that prisons are bad in themselves, or that prisoners should be mollycoddled. The point is that people who commit crimes should face the consequences of their action in a proportionate way, not further damaged and excluded from any future opportunity of rehabilitation into society. One particularly powerful initiative in recent years has been the effort to bring prisoners into contact with the victims of crime. These “restorative justice” projects have the effect of helping both victim and criminal – the victim in resolving their pain, the criminal in realising what the crime has meant to other people’s lives. And, although there are some criminals who can’t be reformed in this way, the signs are that many can. A much more hopeful prospect than the knee-jerk reaction of condemning criminals to rot in jail.

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Does modern art make your blood boil, leave you cold, or float your boat? Are art materials expensive in your part of the world? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?

Virtual Snacks

Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:

You can find out more about UK prisons from the official websites:
Northern Ireland Prison Service
Scottish Prison Service
Prison Service in England and Wales

See number 2 on this list of worst April Fool’s hoaxes ever. Words fail me…
Museum of Hoaxes: Worst April Fools

Remember Norman Stanley Fletcher? Here’s an interesting guide to “Porridge”:
BBC Comedy Guide: Porridge

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • i need a certificate from tufty the green cross code how would i get one
  • deep fried scone recipe
  • supersex forum
  • ways to grow tall lots bbc
  • mark last crete
  • animalsex couple 767
  • burger van orkney
  • british politics condom flag
  • i started smoking sobranies
  • joke are guinness book of records and camilla parker bowles

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

British Expat Magazine


“Where is the justice of political power if it executes the murderer and jails the plunderer, and then itself marches upon neighbouring lands, killing thousands and pillaging the very hills?”

– Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese-born US philosophical essayist, novelist and poet (1883-1931)


Barrister: “M’lud, I wish to appeal against the verdict against my client on the basis of newly discovered evidence.”

Judge: “And what is the nature of the new evidence?”

Lawyer: “M’lud, I have just discovered that my client still has £500 left.”

This entry was posted in 2006 by Kay McMahon. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kay McMahon

Kay has been an expat for nearly 30 years. She set up the British Expat website back in early 2000, whilst living in London and missing the expat life. These days she spends much of her time lugging computers and cameras around the world. (Dave gets to deal with all the really heavy stuff.)

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