Punishment and poverty of imagination

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

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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.

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