57. Re-Evaluating Our Prison Systems

The entire prison systems (or industries) of both the United States and the United Kingdom are so unfit for purpose that they demand a serious rethink. In its lead editorial The Observer declared: “The prison system is a stain on our society.”1 It is also a dark blot on “the American way of life.” All too many inmates in both countries are being held in the wrong places and in the wrong ways: The mentally disturbed should be given hospital care and treatment, not cruel imprisonment.

Before focusing on the larger problem of the prisons ruled by brutality and fear, it is important to recognize that both countries have failed to come to grips with the challenges of mental health in their jails. The Prison Reform Trust (UK) has reported that at least 15% of men and 25% of women convicts are suffering from the symptoms of psychosis. Indeed, in most prisons there are psychotics who need to be confined to isolation units and are often in need of 24-7 supervision. The columnist Nick Cohen has written that “when the coalition subtracted political cost from economic gain it found those with disabilities were the easiest people in Britain to dispose of… People who ought to be mentally disabled patients are the inmates of the one British institution that treats them with greater disdain than the National Health Service.”2

In an in-depth report on the emergency state of Britain’s jails, the Financial Times concluded that “According to unions and justice campaigners, a toxic cumulation of budget cuts, harsher conditions for inmates and a steadily rising jail population has pushed prisons in England and Wales to the breaking point.”3 The prison population of 86,000 is now higher than when the government came to power almost five years ago on the promise to cut the numbers. At 149 people per 100,000 inhabitants, the incarceration rate in the UK is TEN times that of the Netherlands and is the highest in Europe. It has in fact doubled from just 41,800 in 1993, however it is one fifth of the outrageously high figure of 707 per 100,00 in the United States.

In the UK the high rate is in part thanks to the tabloids which depend on crime and punishment to counter their sagging sales. They repeatedly promote the notion that “prison works.” Politicians, in turn, don’t dare to contradict this false proposition. Almost one-third of crimes committed in the UK last year were made by ex-convicts. Evidence points out that wrong-doers serving community sentences instead of incarceration are less likely to re-offend than the 58% of those released after time in prison.4 Under the misguidance of the inept Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, prisoners living in inhumane conditions in the overcrowded jails are now kept from exposing their plight because they no longer can receive legal aid in any judicial review. Grayling caused a storm when he introduced a ban last April on sending books to prison inmates. This was a reflection not only on his attitude toward those imprisoned, but also on the more general social attitude that prisoners should be punished rather than educated. In August the outsourced contractor A4e withdrew from its deal to educate and train prisoners in 12 London boroughs because such rehabilitation efforts did not yield them sufficient profits.

To keep prisoners idle in a highly secure institution costs £36,800 (over $50,000) a year. Educating or training them in a college would cost far less! The President of the Prison Governors Association, Eoin McLennan Murray has said “The fact that they are left locked up in their cells watching daytime TV is our failing, not theirs.” This reflects the fact that prisoners watching television need fewer guards to watch them, that is, it lowers costs.

Austerity has also damaged the prison service: It has had to make cuts of about 20 percent overall. This has entailed closing down 18 of the smaller prisons over the past three years and reducing the staffing ratio from 2.9 for every inmate a decade ago to 4.8 today. Some 22,000 prisoners in England now are forced to share cells designed to hold just one person. To attack this problem, one misguided solution which has dominated the government’s projections is to build much larger prisons.

When the super-sized Oakwood Prison was opened in 2012 it was hailed by ministers as the blue-print for a new generation of giant money-saving jails which would be run by such outsourced contractors as G4S. Two years later this disgraced and much embattled security company is trying to cope with the chaos which reigns for Oakwood’s 1,600 restless inmates. The young, inexperienced and low-paid staff have to tackle the challenge of drugs, alcohol, and corruption. This huge prison has now been described in the Guardian as “the worst in the country.”5

There are now 28 large prisons in England and Wales each holding over 1,000 prisoners. The larger the prison, the greater its inhumanity. Attacks on wardens have risen dramatically in these institutions because the reductions in staff have made those remaining more vulnerable in an atmosphere brutalized by the unacceptable conditions. The National Tactical Response Squad, a special prison riot team, has been called out more than 200 times in the past year to put down serious disturbances. Justice Minister Grayling, fearful for his job, has declared “There is not a crisis in our prisons.” The chief executive of the Howard League for Prison Reform, Frances Crook, replied: “There isn’t a crisis, it’s an emergency.”

Sexual abuse in prisons both in the UK and the US is widespread but difficult to ascertain. It occurs between prisoners as well as between keepers and male as well as female inmates. Under-reporting of such abuse is inevitable for this is a “hidden issue in a hidden world” where video scanning is off-limits. “People who are sexually assaulted or raped are very unlikely to say anything because they are too scared, have been traumatized and will be bullied and victimized.”6

The national prison scandals are much aggravated by the fact that in the UK alone, some 200,000 children are deeply affected because a member of their family — usually their father — is in jail. The trauma of these kids is not recognized by the government nor by the public. The tabloids demean and the government restricts family visits to the prisons. Only charitable groups, like Barnardos provide limited support and understanding. Many of the children suffer mental health problems as a consequence and are three times as likely to fall foul of the law as others in heir peer group. However, there are no official records kept of their existence.

Member of Parliament Kenneth Clarke, who held the job of Justice Minister before Grayling, is an outspoken critic of this manifestly flawed prison system. He asked: “Can we have a criminal justice system in which we have more and more people in prison at great expense only to have more and more come out and commit more crime?”

Rehabilitation should be an overriding aim of any prison system, not punishment or cutting costs. I strongly believe that most jails in both the UK and the US should be closed as being excessively expensive, not fit for purpose, incapable of resolving any social problem, and are in fact counter-productive to society’s needs. A large proportion of those convicted of non-violent crimes should not be imprisoned but placed into the care of mental hospitals. Most of the others should be tagged, with their movements restricted and controlled. Only those convicted of violent crimes should be placed into high security institutions.

Life-changing electronic tagging is the best way out of the now historically outdated forms of imprisonment. Electronic tagging has now become widespread in the Netherlands where it successfully offers those who have been convicted the opportunity for genuine rehabilitation. What is stopping such radical change in the UK and the US? The prison industry: Too many jobs, profits and power are at stake.

Represented by powerful and capable lobbyists, officials of this industry will use their money, contacts and influence to undermine any large-scale reforms. Yes, there are better ways. There are alternative approaches to punishment and public safety. The wider public must push their elected representatives to transform these now socially obsolete institutions.


 

1The Observer, September 9, 2014, p.32
2Nick Cohen, “Scandal of prisoners who should be patients,” The Guardian, June 1, 2014
3Helen Warrell, “Jails at breaking point,” The Financial Times, August 23, 2014
4“Stuffed,” The Economist, August 2, 2014, p.10
5Steven Morris and Eric Allison, “Tales from the inside,” The Guardian, April 10, 2014, p.14
6Alan Travis, “Call for urgent inquiry into sexual abuse in prisons,” The Guardian, September 15, 2014, p.14

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56. Refocusing politics for a more Humane Program

What is the lesson to be learned from the highly invigorating referendum in Scotland? It is fair to say that ordinary people now feel they can express their points of view as never before. The internet has awakened the participation of millions in the political process. They want to make their country a better place in which to live. It also is evident that the exposure of the media is bringing about great challenges for political accountability.

It is obvious that enormous energy is being exercised in favor of change. Voters not only want to improve their living standards, they also want their thoughts for a better Scotland (Wales and England) to be heard. Aside from the complexities of devolution, how can the much desired improvements take place? How can hope be restored to the people?

The charge is often made that politics in the UK are “too clubby.” Instead of using primaries to select candidates for parliamentary seats, for example, the elite of the upper echelons of the Labour and Conservative parties select prospective members from individuals who have worked for them in Westminster. There needs to be far more competition and choice for the democratic process to succeed, for fresh ideas and innovation to be introduced into policy formulation.

Since coming to power in 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has pushed ”Austerity” on the people and offered ‘Quantitative Easing’ to the banks, the Treasury, and the City. This kind of innovation does not enhance the social harmony of a nation.

What needs to happen now is a shift in direction. This should be focused on greater economic fairness, mutuality, social awareness and cooperation (given by creating co-operatives like the John Lewis Partnership). It also will demand halting the steadily increasing economic division between the wealthier south and the poorer north as well as calling for a stop to the furtherance of the privatization of energy, transport, health, education and even prisons! The wide ranging reductions in welfare benefits — from cuts in legal aid to follies like “the Bedroom Tax” — also will have to be reversed. Altogether that is one gigantic challenge amounting to a social revolution.

Such basic reforms will require politicians and civil servants to rethink in ways which would be sensitively responsive to public opinion. The Tory writer, Roger Scruton, has written that “Conservatives are exposed to the complaint that they have no positive vision, and nothing to offer us, save the status quo — with all its entrenched occupation.” But then he wryly admits that “Thinking is an unusual and precarious exercise for Conservatives.”1

The opposition may “think” more deeply but have yet to light a spark in the electorate. The mass of voters — in both the United States and much of the European Community — have become singularly disaffected by the failures of the traditional political parties. In the United States the Republican strategy of bringing the Congress into a state of gridlock, and its politically driven refusal to cooperate with the executive branch, has resulted in public disaffection with the whole system. Alas, except for their goal of reducing the size of government, the Republicans lack a coherent outlook for the future. Like the Tories in England, they are deeply attached to preserving a way of life — which, in effect, is a Hollywood-style interpretation of the past.

Class solidarity, a modern version of tribalism, was important in the UK until Margaret Thatcher broke both the mining industry and the power of the unions. She replaced the public good with private greed, social justice with corporate capitalism, and society (whose very existence she denied) with a “me first” version of individualism in a toll-booth economy. Rather than halt this anti-social trend, the Labor party under Tony Blair simply furthered the power of the banks, the City and the private sector. This resulted in a dangerously unbalanced enrichment of a small sector of the population. When the Tories then returned in coalition with the Liberal-Democrats, they continued with the privatization of almost everything from the post office to transportation, energy, prisons and even children’s homes — all at the unwanted expense of the taxpayers.

The younger generation has become disaffected and deeply disillusioned by the “politics as usual practice” of both parties. They have been offered no solution to their job crisis and continuing housing shortage. The older generation is more vocal in expressing their weariness and disappointment with politicians, bankers, economists and even the police. Some have described the reaction as part of the “post-democracy” phenomenon.2 Both these groups sense that in combination with globalization and the amazing technological advances, their world is being swiftly transformed into a dislocating, if not an alien, planet.

Language itself reflects the rapid and camouflaged changes in socioeconomic perspective: “reform” now means privatization, “partnership” means selling out to big business, greater “efficiency” means cutting the workforce while “downsizing” generally means replacing workers with automation. “Rationalizing” suggests following the strictures of market fundamentalism. All reveal a degree of embarrassment with the harsh realities of capitalism.

There are groups in both the US and the UK, like the Social Economy Alliance, which are looking at how the best ideas from left and right could be joined together to provide a social alternative in economics. They are asking questions such as, how can social-based economics reduce unemployment and how can it work to create a more responsible economic sector? This Alliance is being launched amid evidence that not-for-profit companies and co-operatives are outperforming their profit-making counterparts.

A decade ago I spelled out at considerable length the ways our faltering economy could be changed. I proposed the end of money as we have known it, the transformation of corporations into cooperatives, and the introduction of universal “credits” for all citizens. You can find the prescriptions for in-depth reform in my book, Dollars or Democracy,3 which I plan to place on the internet in the near future. I have selected a short section of the concluding chapter to whet your desire for more!


1Roger Scruton, How to Be a Conservative, (2014)
2John Harris, “…politics as usual is finished,” The Guardian, September 12, 2014
3Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy,(2004)


DOLLARS OR DEMOCRACY?

12 CONCLUSION: COMPETITION OR COOPERATION?

Faced with an untenable world economy, I have tried to imagine and project a plausible scenario for a workable alternative. The revolutionary ideas I have outlined present an enormous challenge, but then, risk-taking always has been at the core of our present system. I believe that the incentive economy is based on such long-term principles as are most likely to effect human well-being and happiness.

We are not the captives of capitalism. We do have a democratic choice. We have it within our power to change the economy to suit our needs without resorting to violence or coercion. But this demands careful thinking, vigorous discussion and debate, followed by planning and decision-making. This book has offered you choices, not destiny.

There is no doubt that we are, in every way, living beyond our means. Not only is capitalism driving us head over heels into personal and national debts, but we are destroying the very carrying capacity of the Earth. The U.S. Academy of Sciences estimates that ever since the 1980s, human beings have been taking more natural resources from the living planet than the Earth can replenish.* In the very short term all of us are going to face up to the situation where capitalism’s so-called positive-sum game of growth gives way to the zero-sum game of dwindling spoils, deflation, and stagnation; where brother fights brother over limited water, air, dwindling oil supplies, and land. We are talking here about the survival of the human race on this planet—a provocative subject which laissez-faire market capitalists desperately try to avoid. The environment concerns each and every one of us. “Climate change is no respecter of national boundaries,” writes David King, the British government’s chief scientific adviser. Most of the important aspects of the environment are public goods. No one individual can enjoy a cleaner or healthier environment unless others do. The exclusion principle cannot be applied here. “What we do unto others, we do to ourselves.”

Theorizing about economics is one way of eventually making the seemingly impossible economically plausible. It can be a way of presenting economic configurations, which the experts do not want to take into account and which challenge the given truths of an era. The failings of the economics profession has been a recurrent theme in this book. Dishonest economic drivel, such as the “trickle-down theory,” “the Laffer curve,” and “Fedspeak” as practiced in Washington, have tended to give economics itself a foul name.

Yes, some economists have had good ideas for reform: the Brandt Commission in the 1970s proposed a global armaments tax the revenues from which would go to help the development of third world countries. Such a tax would also have cut down the murderous and steadily expanding trade in small arms. In the eighties, the Brundtland Commission proposed a tax on pollution both to save the environment and to promote third world education. In the 1990s James Tobin, a Yale economist and Nobel laureate, promoted the idea of a minimal tax on speculative financial transactions, like derivatives. Even a tax of a tenth of 1 percent would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for use in the underdeveloped world. But not one of these hopeful ideas has come into being, and no new reformist plan is likely to be more successful in the near future.

Despite strong opposition by John Maynard Keynes, the Bretton Woods economic conference some sixty years ago framed the victory of corporate and commercial property over human rights. For example, it was determined that foreign exchange reserves of other nations will be held in dollars. Instead of the poverty trap of debts which was being foisted on the less developed nations by the United States, Keynes tried to outline the possibilities of a world without debt which would depend on an international clearing union. But Keynes was blocked by Washington and damned the fundamental hypocrisy of capitalism writing: “We must go on pretending that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.” Governance rules were rigged against the poor countries. Washington used the dollar as a weapon to control the world’s weaker economies. This modern version of dollar diplomacy was described almost a century earlier by President William Howard Taft as “substituting dollars for bullets.”

Apart from the incertitudes of globalization, among the multitude of fundamental questions that most economists of the past generation have refused to ask are: Where is our economic world headed? What is economic life all about? Is “growth” truly the only way to create jobs? Do we really want to increase the GDP in order to convert the planet into a man-made environment of cars, roads, housing estates, industrial sites, favelas, and shopping malls? Can we be both economically fair and efficient? Is any kind of stability possible in a capitalist world? When will economic success be measured in terms of leisure time, environmental quality, and economic security? Could we stop using up our real capital—such as timber, oil and top soil—in such a way that future generations also have a chance? What will we have to pass on to our children? I should like the answer to that last question to be: a cleaner, greener, more secure, more cooperative, and generally more mutually satisfying world.

Personally, I reject an unjust world divided between a few billionaires living in guarded communities and billions of people living in deprivation. Money, banks, multinationals, shares, and even capitalism are all our collective creations, and we have both the ability and the duty to change these if they do not serve us well. The moral aspects of providing fairness and better distribution (particularly of food and water) are as important as those of technical advance. In giving the vast brushstrokes for a new economy, I believe the credit system and the incentive economy present the chance for marked improvements all around—particularly in ways to keep a society vibrant, spiritual, creative, and consciously aware of its desired direction.

* Due, in part, to industrial farming and the burning of tropical forests, more than 24 billion tons of top soil, or the equivalent of 4 tons for every human being on the planet, is now washed off into the sea every year.

55. For all voters in November’s US elections

NO COMPROMISE = NO GOVERNANCE

The “Tea Party” stands for No Compromise, so does ISIS.

All the Republican Party’s greats have governed through compromise*

Marriage = Compromise

Safe Driving = Compromise

The Law entails Compromise

The Tea Party’s record of “No Compromise” has been partly responsible
for government gridlock

So why vote for any political representative whose platform undermines
effective government?

VOTE these “nay-sayers” out of office this November


*See Blog 16. Oust the Obstructionists!

54. In praise of political mavericks

Praising mavericks may seem rather strange when the term originally refers to unbranded cattle. It derives from a western rancher, Samuel Maverick, whose claim to fame in the 19th Century was based on not branding his cattle. However, I associate the term with classical jesters, native tricksters, and outspoken fools.

Jesters and fools of the past had a status of privilege in the royal courts. Such whimsical instructors, who ignored the protocol demanded by those in power, were thought of as imparting divinely-inspired advice. They were privileged to by-pass all that was conventional, conformist or orthodox. Their wit and perceptiveness, as wonderfully characterized by King Lear’s ‘all-licensed fool,’ enabled them to break in, just as the unconscious can, to trip up reality.

The rising popularity of today’s mavericks is an indication of how turned off the electorates have become in both the US and the UK by the combative levels of political discourse. British history has been studded with star-ranking mavericks (Prince Phillip being among them). The best of the current crop is the ambitious mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is a potential contender to head the Conservative Party.

Boris Johnson claimed back in May that Britons were living “in a Boko Haram world” (linking the country to the dreadful events in Nigeria). This reflected the notion that the wilder and more combustible the remark, the better its distribution by the media. Boris has described the former Prime Minister as “just flipping unbelievable. He is a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness. Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall.”

Johnson has provokingly declared that “My chances of being Prime Minister are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive.” And on a radio show last month he suggested that “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increasing your chances of owning a BMW M3.”

Mavericks are admired for the ways they manage to evade giving direct answers. They are also careful never to be so precise that an answer to a question could ultimately be used against them. Some, like Nigel Farage, the UKIP (UK Independence Party) leader, are expert at demonstrating that they speak their mind and are not bound to any all-controlling political or party machine. The less a maverick holds on to normal standards, the more he will be appreciated for his ‘authenticity.’ Farage caused a media storm when, in an interview on LBC radio earlier this year he admitted that he would feel “uncomfortable” if a Romanian family were to move in next door.

George Galloway, an independent member of Parliament, has not only survived but prospered because he speaks his mind. He had been performing in Scotland this summer to packed audiences paying £11 per head. Unlike other politicians, he doesn’t mince his words: “There are those who wrap themselves in flags and blow the tinny trumpet of patriotism as a means of fooling the people.” And, as a strong supporter of the National Health System (much maligned by Republicans in the United States), he is applauded when saying: “If you fall down in the United States, the ambulance man must feel for your wallet before he feels your pulse.”

Icelanders have until recently been admiring the charismatic and maverick mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr. Outspoken and different, Gnarr was a comedian and writer who tapped into the widespread public disillusionment with both politicians and corrupt bankers following the 2008 banking collapse in his island nation. His message was a different one: “Stop whaling fin whales. Stop killing polar bears. Stop seeing global warming as an ‘opportunity’ for Iceland. Focus on sustainable tourism and creative industries… watch whales but do not touch them.”

American mavericks have not always been up to the literary standards of some of their British counterparts, but they have been politically successful. The term “maverick Republican” has been a label frequently applied to Senator John McCain ever since he came to office. He has even used this expression for his own kaleidoscope of contradictory propositions. One writer described him as: “the maverick, the former maverick, the curmudgeon, the bridge builder, the war hero bent on transcending the call of self-interest to serve a cause greater than himself, the sore loser, old bull, last lion, loose cannon, happy warrior, elder statesman, lion in winter.” But he can still come up with memorable declarations, as he did last winter: “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.”

Rand Paul, another possible presidential contender, came up with a truly maverick proposition that the fences built around US borders to keep out illegal immigrants could also be used against American citizens who wanted to leave the country! “I think this fence business is designed and may well be used against us and keep us in. In economic turmoil, the people want to leave with their capital. And there’s capital control and there’s people control. So every time you think of the fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in.”

Following mavericks sometimes involves more than merely being entertained by their charismatic energy. The most abysmal maverick of the 20th Century was certainly Adolph Schicklgruber — alias Hitler. Before being elected German Chancellor in 1932, he had performed to packed Berlin night clubs and playhouses in the 1920’s ranting and raving almost hysterically about capitalism, Bolshevism, the Versailles Treaty and, of course, the Jews. His audiences were often rolling on the ground with laughter — much to Hitler’s contemptuous dismay. His audiences thought this Austrian lunatic was so crazy that he was actually uproariously funny. History proved how disastrously wrong they were.

Mavericks, like McCain or George Galloway, are usually highly adept at pulling the political truth out of an uncomfortable situation. As parties, both the (US) Republicans and the (UK) Conservatives have been reluctant to accept the truth about the issues surrounding immigration. As an independent maverick with a highly relaxed presentation, Nigel Farage has forced the Tories to change their evasive tactics. No wonder all political machines tend to be suspicious of mavericks who generally are under obligation to no one.

Personally, I hope that we will not lose the fresh voice of mavericks from public life. They are vital to the democratic process. Those politicians who have the courage to speak out and challenge corruption and cronyism should be treasured, as they are rare indeed.  We need them and we need their jests to lighten and enhance our lives.