Woolwich suspect’s broken teeth in prison sends a bad message

Michael Adebolajo’s head was pushed against a window by a prison guard, according to his brother
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Two front teeth. That’s what he lost. Smashed out of his mouth when an overzealous Belmarsh prison guard pushed his head against a window – so his brother claims.

The Prison Officers Association denies wrongdoing by any officer. And since the “he” in this case is Michael Adebolajo, one of the pair allegedly responsible for hacking Lee Rigby to death in Woolwich, the thought might flash up at news of such impromptu dental rearrangement: So what? So what if the guards did use excessive force?

Pause here for a moment and a civilised, non-violent instinct will likely try and butt in. Justice, we are supposed to remember, works through a justice system; it is not doled out ad hoc by prison guards or fellow inmates, who of course can't know all the facts. To think otherwise is to indulge in a Hollywood-style vision of prison life. Sometimes though, the temptation to turn a blind-eye lingers on. (Who cares about the odd tooth here and there? Isn’t the chance of an extra-curricular beating one reason to avoid any risk of jail?)

At the head of those who believe too much fuss has been made of the Adebolajo incident is leader of the Prison Officers Association Peter McParlin, who attributed the suspension of five guards last week over the affair to “political correctness”. The guards were simply doing their job, added a spokesman for the POA, and suspension sends the wrong message to both the media and prisoners.

The union is certainly right to warn against barrelling into a conclusion about what happened in the moments before Adebolajo’s teeth were unplugged. “Restraint” is no ballroom dance, particularly when – as is sometimes the case – the prisoner resists. At the same time, the POA spokesman sways away from reason in his belief that the guards’ suspension sends out a damaging message.

It doesn’t. Actually, to take such claims seriously backs up a principle worth stating, restating and stating again: rough justice is really no justice at all. It blurs the line between prisoners and guards. Back in 2003, massive abuse was revealed in Wormwood Scrubs prison, with officers choking, beating and psychologically torturing inmates. As they performed such acts, the Scrubs guards might have felt strong. In reality they behaved with a depressing kind of weakness – power morphing into cruelty.

Every observer will hope the Belmarsh guards did not use undue force. But, against the backdrop of a 2009 inspection criticising the prison for the “extremely high” amount of force used to control inmates, this investigation matters. It must draw a line between control and abuse. More than teeth are at stake.