You've nothing to gain but your chains

Here's an idea, Mr Howard. Instead of locking up criminals in expensive prisons, why not shackle them to the nearest lamppost?

Related Topics
There are some people - I would guess around 100 per cent of the readers of this newspaper and all their friends and relatives - who are deeply shocked by the notion of women giving birth in shackles. Indeed, by attempting to defend the policy of chaining pregnant prisoners like dogs, Ann Widdicombe last week pulled off a remarkable feat: she made herself even more unpopular than Michael Portillo.

I admit even I was momentarily appalled - mainly at the sheer incompetence of those responsible for this public relations fiasco. Yes, people escape from the slammer - they always will. After all, if men could escape from Devil's Island, Alcatraz and Colditz, then there is no such thing as an escape-proof nick. But the Home Office has never really recovered from the great escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst. I don't know where Michael Howard has been since the shackles story blew up (something of a great escape on his part), but his fingerprints are all over this. It's the perfect Conservative conference gag: "Now that's what I call hard labour!"

Obviously, it is absurd to handcuff a woman who is giving birth; here I am in agreement with Independent readers. Even one who thinks she might be going into labour is unlikely to do a runner. The Home Office line is that 20 female prisoners have escaped from hospitals in the last five years. But only one of them was pregnant. It seems quite incredible that her foolhardy escapade - she jumped from a first-floor window - should have been the basis for a policy as unpalatable as this.

Nevertheless, to react with mere righteous indignation is ingenuous. For there is no denying that there is a certain logic (albeit somewhat Swiftian logic) to the reintroduction of the shackle - even, dare I say it, for mothers-to-be.

Our society's system of criminal justice relies heavily on imprisonment - too heavily, in my view. A lot of us are, have been or will be behind bars at some point in our lives. Though it is still short of its 1988 peak, the prison population is high at around 50,000, or 0.15 per cent of the adult population - the second highest in the European Union.

And this despite the fact that less than 30 per cent of crimes are ever "cleared up"; despite the fact that a rising proportion of offenders never even make it into court; and despite the fact that less than 15 per cent of those convicted actually receive custodial sentences. If we sent as many of those convicted to prison as we did in 1900, the prison population would be four times larger!

Who are today's cons? Not, on the whole, the serial killers and rapists whose crimes make the front pages. In fact, the majority of prisoners have committed crimes against property or involving drugs - less than a third are in for crimes against the person. And most prisoners are serving sentences of less than four years. In this respect, the women in the shackles were typical. Sue Edwards (handcuffed throughout the birth of her baby girl) was serving three years for burglary. Annette Walker (shackled for 10 out of the 12 hours she was in labour) was jailed for four years after snatching a handbag containing pounds 5,100 - far from her first offence. Kathleen MacKay (chained for 24 hours a day in hospital when 22 weeks pregnant) was jailed for shoplifting.

In only two respects are they untypical, the fact that they are women, who are still a tiny minority (around 10 per cent ) of prisoners; and the fact that they were pregnant.

Locking up the likes of Sue, Annette and Kathleen costs money. Contrary to popular belief, the Tories have not starved the Prison Service of cash: on the contrary, expenditure on prisons has roughly trebled since 1982, and the ratio of inmates per prison officer has been halved. And yet the impression is inescapable that the prison system is not delivering (apart from a few babies, that is) Crime - or rather public anxiety about it - shows no real sign of abating, rates of re-offending by those released from prison are depressingly high.

Which is why the policy of shackles - at first sight so repugnant - is in fact an unrecognised stroke of genius. The only real mistake the Home Office has made has been to use shackles so sparingly - as a mere extension to imprisonment for those (such as pregnant women) who temporarily have to be let out of their cells, instead of as a complete alternative to incarceration.

This is my modest proposal (I leave the think-tank policy wonks to work out the details). Stop building new prisons; in fact, start demolishing them. Instead of locking up convicted criminals in expensive asylums where they merely teach one another even worse habits, simply shackle them.

It does not matter where. As the recent cases of manacled mothers show, shackles can be worn whatever the individual happens to be doing. And that is just the beauty of my proposal. Criminals will be able to lead virtually normal lives after they have been sentenced. They will merely have to endure the stigma and discomfort of doing everything - signing on, doing the shopping, betting on the horses, going down the pub - in shackles.

I emphasise particularly the stigma which attaches to wearing a chain, even without a large black metal ball attached. Annette Walker's letter published in the Guardian last week made this adundantly clear. "I was in pain, embarrassed, crying ... I wouldn't want (my children) to see what I am having to go through as they couldn't or wouldn't understand or believe this is happening to a human being who has never hurt anyone in her life physically. ... I hid under the sheet sobbing. ... The shame I felt in these chains ... I just wanted to die. ... It is so wrong, I have never been a burden to social services ..."

Well, no, Annette you didn't hurt anyone physically. You robbed them. Which is why you weren't a burden on the social services but a burden on the Prison Service. The fact that something finally made you feel shame - which implicitly you don't feel about being in prison - is really rather impressive.

The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. Shackles, after all, are inexpensive compared with prison cells. And there is no particular need for people to be shackled to prison officers, who cannot be expected to spend 12 hours at a stretch in the delivery suite every time a convict takes it into her head to give birth. No, lampposts will do for minor offenders. Perhaps we might even consider some purpose-built stocks, appropriately located in town centres.

Are you reading this, Mr Howard? Are you following my train of thought? Because I'm offering you two election-winning slogans for the price of one, you know. "That's the sound of the mums - working on the chain gang." And: "Burglars of Britain, unite. You have nothing to gain but your chains."

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace