On 31 August at Leicester Crown Court, Judge Timothy Spencer handed down a two-year suspended sentence to Ben John, a 21-year-old student, for possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist. He had downloaded bomb-making instructions along with 67,788 documents containing white supremacist and antisemitic material. Judge Spencer ordered John to read Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare, and also to think about Hardy and Trollope, returning to court every four months to be tested on his reading. For one commenter on the Mail Online, it was ‘worse than a prison sentence!’
Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were killed at London Bridge on Friday, at a conference on prisoner rehabilitation. Their murderer, Usman Khan, had been imprisoned for terrorist offences, and was released last year; the Guardian warned at the time that the police and probation services lacked the resources to deal adequately with a wave of prisoner releases. Khan was electronically tagged, and had been given permission to go to the conference. It seems he planned the attack, making himself a fake suicide vest. He was stopped from further bloodshed when members of the public, including other former prisoners at the conference, intervened to stop him. Police, responding to the hoax vest, shot and killed him. Merritt’s grieving father made this plea: ‘My son, Jack, who was killed in this attack, would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily.’
On 27 May, Sisters Uncut occupied the site of what used to be the largest women’s prison in Western Europe. Eight women climbed into the old visitors’ centre through a window. Others unfurled banners on the roof: ‘This is Public Land: Our Land.’ Supporters rallied outside. The police came – eventually more than 70 of them, mostly white men – and formed a cordon around us.
Prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they’re able to talk to their families while they’re incarcerated. Citing this fact, the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) two years ago capped the price of a call from a prison pay phone. Prisons had been offering exclusive contracts to a few phone companies, and were getting away with price gouging because only prisoners and poor families were burdened, while the phone companies and state governments made a killing. The price of a 15-minute call from any Maryland prison soared to $5.15, secured through nearly $5 million in yearly kickbacks to the state. Some prisons tried to raise even more money by replacing in-person visits with digital conferencing. Fifteen-minute video sessions in Knox County, Tennessee were costing $5.99; the state took a little less than half.
HMP Holloway, the largest women’s prison in Western Europe, shut down in July. Prison reform campaigners and charity workers argue that the ten-acre publicly owned site in Islington should be ‘reclaimed’ for the community and turned into social housing and a women’s centre. Instead, it’s being marketed to property developers. It could be turned into 500 flats worth an average of £500,000 each, giving the site a redevelopment value of more than £250 million.
Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation included in its first edition an appendix with vegetarian recipes, ‘Eating for Liberated People’. For utilitarians, the belly’s as good a persuasive route as the brain. The Transcribe Bentham project at University College London has put out Jeremy Bentham’s Prison Cooking, the perfect gift for a loved one spending Christmas in the nick.
The new rules that govern what prisoners can be sent in the post by families and friends have caused small tremors in the social media, calling them and their perpetrator, Chris Grayling, the minister in charge, mean, vicious, offensive and disgraceful. The aspect of the changes that has upset people most is that books are no longer allowed to be sent to prisoners. Other 'small items', such as underwear and handmade cards from children, are also prohibited. One odd thing is that these new rules were put in place in November. I remember there being some pieces in the newspapers and comments decrying the changes on Twitter and Facebook. But it didn't take fire as it has now. I don't know why an article about it by Frances Crook has gripped those who care about books and prisoner rehabilitation now, rather than in November when it actually happened.
When a new arrival is brought in to the cells in the police station in Dokki, Western Cairo, the first questions he is asked by his fellow inmates are: what happened today? What’s going on outside? Very little information goes in to such places, and very little comes out. When security forces took Hossam Meneai from his apartment in late January, he said the only thing he wanted to do was get a message to his mother telling her he was alive.
Of all the pages of comment and analysis I’ve read since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was suddenly pardoned on Friday by Vladimir Putin after spending ten years in prison, a note on the Facebook page of the film critic Roman Volobuev stood out: All day I’ve been thinking: 10 years in a Russian prison! You know what a Russian prison smells like? I’ve been to Russian prisons a couple of times for work and I still dream of that smell periodically. And now a man who’s been there ten years is in a nice hotel room, takes off his socks and walks barefoot on the carpet, or has a drink of Glenlivet and just lies down in the bath... and all that stuff about the Future of Democracy. That can wait.