Mark Steel: Jailing people has become an Olympic event

It's a matter of shame that we lag behind Uzbekistan and wartime Japan
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The Independent Online

When that paedophile was sent home by a judge, who blamed John Reid's directive, a bunch of Conservative politicians and newspaper editors must have literally wet themselves with happiness. Across rural Britain they'll have screeched joyfully in their conservatories while their wives mopped up the mess with a sponge, muttering: "This hasn't happened since the Belgrano was sunk."

Labour was so soft on crime they sent convicted perverts back home. And on the news the released man was almost begging to be jailed, until it seemed he'd carry on: "Stringing me up is the only language I understand, but instead Dr Reid has given me a job as clown-in-residence in an orphanage."

Except all that had been suggested was the overcrowding meant people shouldn't be jailed for "lesser offences", not that no one should be jailed at all. The judge might as well have said: "Due to the Government's guidelines I have no choice but to release all the leopards from Whipsnade into the town centre, and hope this doesn't result in a regrettable incident."

Somehow the logic is that the reason every jail is jammed is because the Government is too soft to send people to jail. But, inevitably, the Government has responded by insisting they'll find plenty more space to jail people. Maybe they'll outsource jails to the rail companies, confident they'd take a heaving crammed prison and say: "We could squeeze another 700 in there. And make them pay."

But first they're reopening the disused bits of prisons, the parts that were probably shut down by the Victorians as too barbaric. By the weekend, there'll be newspapers howling: "What about the sewers? There's plenty of room down there but John Reid is more concerned with the 'rights' of criminals not to be made to live in an underground pipe full of human waste than he is with our old-aged pensioners who fought at Arnhem."

Managers in the NHS might be called in, to bring in the method they use in hospitals, and tell half the prisoners there's no bed so they'll have to spend the night on a trolley.

None of this will satisfy the jailing brigade, whose next demand will be: "If there's no room in prisons, why not make the prisoners smaller? Why should prisoners be allowed to be the same size as honest citizens? They should have thought about that before mugging a pensioner!"

A true New Labour solution would be to pursue the same line they're doing with pensions. They could say that in the modern world with so many of us needing to be jailed, we simply can't expect the state to look after us when the time comes. So we should all take out private jail insurance, encouraged with an advertising campaign in which a smiling convict in a freshly painted cell beams: "I get to slop out when I want, with the bucket I want. I even got to choose which other prisoner raped me on the pool table - and all that peace of mind is thanks to Prisoner Choice Pensions."

So far John Reid's response has been to say: "I will see it through. If it needs endurance, if it needs determination, it will be there." It's like listening to Henry the bloody Fifth at Agincourt. Maybe he'll follow this up with: "When the darkest hour hath descendeth, when foes do gather and cowards flinch from moral duty, then I shall announce an inquiry of some sort into rearranging the Home Office, and that, my subjects, shall be our greatest triumph."

In any case, it's not him that's doing the enduring, it's the people in these institutions. There's not much bravery in saying: "No matter how strong the enemy we must stiffen our sinews, and remember at least we're not trapped 23 hours a day in a six-foot-square cell with a junkie who crawls on all fours and thinks he's a hyena."

The one thing you know John Reid won't do is take on the argument about prison overcrowding. He won't complain that vast numbers of prisoners have been jailed for offences such as failing to pay bills after their husband walked out, or not paying a TV licence. He won't suggest that 10 per cent of prisoners should be immediately moved into hospitals, having been diagnosed as "functionally psychotic". He might just accept they could be donated to circuses who could tether them to a post so that local children can poke them with twigs.

He won't explain that as we jail a greater proportion of people than any other country in western Europe, we should be sending loads of them home. Instead, he'll join in with the demands for more prison space, as if jailing people is an Olympic event and it's a matter of shame that we lag behind Uzbekistan and wartime Japan. Because the most important thing to get across in all this is that he's hard. Or, to use the technical term, "functionally psychotic".