Punishment and poverty of imagination

It is hard to conceive the effect of the deprivation of freedom and human dignity

Related Topics

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens’ bitterly sardonic fable for his times, the northern milltown teacher Mr Gradgrind insists his charges must not dwell on “wonder”, only on fact.

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts… You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” Imagination, to Gradgrind, is counter-progressive, unscientific, incapable of contributing to the moral good.

Gradgrind occurred to me when I heard this weekend’s headlines about “holiday camp prisons”, inspired by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s determination that such institutions should be made less pleasant so that offenders should not want to return to them. I occasionally teach creative writing in a prison reserved largely for sex offenders – an engagement which would already raise the hackles of the unimaginative.

Grown men – of whose offences I remain ignorant – apply themselves like the children whom Gradgrind taught, but in their case to writing exercises which stretch their imaginations beyond the high walls and razor wire. They write of their childhoods, of animal encounters, of experiences with nature. Not far over those walls, is that same countryside. In the prison courtyard, caged birds hop about in a wired aviary. The roof of the chapel in which I teach them is perpetually leaking.

Some of these men spend 23 out of 24 hours locked in their cells. Many are so despised by inmates in the nearby prison which supplies them with their meals, that they often find broken glass in their food. Some of the elderly men, serving long sentences, have terminal illnesses, and may die in prison, with little access to palliative care.

It is difficult for anyone, let alone a Gradgrind, to imagine the effect of the deprivation of freedom, and sometimes even basic human dignity, from such men. In another penitentiary, I visited a museum run by the inmates. Exhibits included contraband seized from prisoners: vicious hand-made weapons and DIY tattoo kits. There were Victorian photographs of prisoners reminscent of Francis Galton’s 19th-century photographs which claimed to diagnose criminality in the physical features of offenders. There were also wooden frames to which men were tied and flogged, as late as the 1940s.

As I looked around, a group of Boy Scouts were led around by their group leader. I watched her writing, at length, in the visitors’ book. Interested, I went to read what she’d written after they had bustled out. “Fantastic place. A pity today’s criminals don’t get this kind of punishment – they have it far to [sic] soft.”

Heaven only knows what her lack of imagination – this modern Gradgrind – had imparted to her own charges. Doubtless she had all the enhanced CRB checks to allow her to shepherd those young people. Doubtless she, and Chris Grayling, like Gradgrind, “stick to the facts,” in the discharge of their duties. But no one can legislate for empathy.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has over 40 years ...

Recruitment Genius: Weekend Factory Operatives

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is curr...

Recruitment Genius: FP&A Analyst

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A market leading acquirer and m...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fully qualified electricians re...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the Labour leadership election hasn’t yet got to grips with why the party lost

John Rentoul
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific