A party political broadcast by the Tories: Prison’s like a holiday camp

In its footling way, this low-level bullying of inmates is undoubtedly good politics

Share

Whatever Chris Grayling might be, the Secretary of State for Justice is no Joe Arpaio.

Mr Arpaio, for those unacquainted with him, has built quite a career as “America’s toughest sheriff” by persecuting the inhabitants of Arizona’s penitentiaries in various ways, such as reviving the quaint tradition of the chain gang and feeding them barely edible food.

Mr Grayling’s plans to make stir a touch harder for British inmates barely hint at Mr Arpaio’s repulsive publicity seeking brutalities and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. His declaration that male inmates must wear uniforms for their first fortnight in jug, work longer hours and no longer have an automatic right to watch the football on Sky Sports falls tantalisingly short of having them break rocks in the broiling Arizona sun and feeding them weevils. After a week in the cooler, Cool Hand Luke would grin wryly at the ninnyishness.

In a peculiar way, I find myself regretting the miserable limits to Mr Grayling’s draconian ambition. This in no way stems from any desire to see prisons made less palatable. As a tiresomely archetypal bleeding-heart liberal, who piously finds the notion of incarcerating non-violent offenders at all ridiculous, I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. What irritates about these ideas, in keeping with what passes for political debate in general, is their banality.

If the timing of this announcement left a sliver of doubt about the true purpose, the tone and language removed it. When, a few days before local elections, ministers crudely contrast the supposed gracious living in “holiday-camp” nicks with the gruelling lot of those on or below the average salary, the intent is plain. With Lynton Crosby running this long-range general election campaign for the Conservatives, it is clear that the Tories see sating the low- paid workers’ perceived appetite for scapegoats as the route to victory in 2015.

These prison “reforms” must be viewed as part of that context, along with the meisterplan to limit housing benefit to force people in London to relocate far from their roots, coercing the sick, depressed and incapable to seek imaginary jobs, and starving the disabled and their carers of the means to ameliorate the misery their conditions present. The tactic is to stoke up the resentment of the low-earning employed towards those pastiched by ministers and their mates on the right-wing tabloids as leading lives of luxury on the downtrodden taxpayer. To this end (though many will regard being mandatorily deprived of Jeremy Kyle as a boon), inmates will no longer be allowed to watch daytime telly, that current shorthand for the feckless scrounger.

Whatever the results of these changes, they are unlikely to be seismic. They might win the Tories a few votes from Ukip on Thursday, though this brand of right-wing posturing is probably more designed to feed into the general narrative that Mr Cameron has permanently buried Mr Nice Guy.

As for the prisoners, it is hard to imagine many rooftop protests, let alone full-blown riots, in response to being deprived of Judge Judy. It could be that this policy, if it deserves such a dignified term, has been hatched in part to provoke some kind of human rights challenge, enabling Mr Grayling and his chum Theresa May to renew their rhetoric about withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and ramp up the macho play-acting. Who knows, perhaps the almost satirically sexist restriction of the newbie uniform to male inmates will inveigle the Andrea Dworkin of HMP Holloway to go to Strasbourg in pursuit of uniform uniformity. No doubt any complaints, legal or not, from prisoners and penal reformers will be welcome in Downing Street as it prosecutes its cynical strategy to create and exaggerate dividing lines. This is not, of course, about saving money. The dog-whistle here, just as with the benefit recipients targeted by Iain Duncan Smith, is that regarding those down on their luck as lesser citizens, if not inferior human beings, is acceptable.

Perhaps the most significant thing about these measures is what they tell us about what would be known, on one of those daytime shows to which prisoners will be denied access, as the Prime Minister’s amazing, amazing journey. Little better encapsulated David Cameron’s ambition to govern as a humane centrist, when he came to power almost three years ago, than his appointment of Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary, with a remit to reform the penal system in a more meaningful way than his successor is willing to attempt.

Being a commonsensical old darling, Mr Clarke appreciated the lunacy of a system which wastes colossal amounts of money on incarcerating the harmless, and encourages recidivism rather than rehabilitation. By general repute, he was making promising strides in dealing with this lose-lose situation, but the Thatcherite tabloids, which still hate him for his perceived starring role in bringing her down, wouldn’t have it. The Sun, several of whose former and present staff could conceivably be sashaying through D wing in uniforms before long, attacked him relentlessly. Cravenly, Mr Cameron relieved him of his portfolio, and while Ken was consigned to the wilderness to rail at Ukip as the Cabinet’s closest thing to an alleged welfare scrounger (bless him, he is subsidised by the taxpayer to idle away his talents), in came Mr Grayling to win admiring headlines of the sort on view yesterday.

In its footling way, this low-level bullying of inmates is undoubtedly good politics. Joe Arpaio has been re-elected Sheriff of his Arizona county five times, and become a national celebrity, because there are plenty of votes to be plucked from the low-hanging fruit of picking on prisoners. None is to be garnered from sticking up for them, and one imagines that these idiocies were partially conceived to tempt Ed Miliband into fighting them, and thereby alienate the hard-working low earners whom Mr Crosby has obviously identified as the pivotal demographic in 2015.

And so we see the next two years shaping up ever more clearly, and ever more miserably, as a mind-numbing, turnout-suppressing cat-and-mouse game. The Tories will appeal to the lowest common denominators of human instinct, and Labour will take a vow of silence, as Mr Miliband did on Monday about his borrowing plans, to avoid walking into the traps. In concentrating his efforts on the barely relevant minutiae for tactical advantage, rather than focusing on the root problems of a perpetually failing system, Mr Grayling neatly sums up in microcosm the macrocosmic paradox that plagues this era. The greater the issues, the smaller the politics becomes.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen