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A recent report in the Independent has highlighted government plans to ban ‘convicted criminals’ from ‘claiming compensation for injuries sustained in attacks, in prison or after release’. The policy relates to payments from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority – a body established by the Home Office in 1995 and which pays compensation to those physically or mentally injured as the result of violent crime. It is not yet clear whether the proposed policy will also extend to legal aid for civil claims against the prison authorities for failure in their duty of care. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said only that: ‘We will publish a consultation on victims and witnesses shortly, which will include awards made by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.’
If this proposal is genuine and ends up being implemented we will have severely undermined the basic principles of fairness and equality before the law. Furthermore, such policies bring into question the very nature of the relationship between the state and those whom it incarcerates. One of the aims of Her Majesty’s Prison Service is to provide ‘safe and well-ordered establishments in which we treat prisoners humanely, decently and lawfully’. But the removal of the right to compensation for injuries sustained in a prison attack enshrines into our penal policy the idea that not all victims of violent crime are deserving of our sympathy. Implicit in this move by the government is the idea that prisoners for want of a better expression, ‘had it coming’ by virtue of their status ‘outside the law’. Put simply, their position as socially undesirable outsiders – undeserving of sympathy or compensation – makes their violent injury somehow more acceptable.
Philip Davies, a backbench Tory MP, was unequivocal in his support for the proposal and was quoted as saying that: ‘It is an outrage and a scandal that so much taxpayers’ money is being wasted on compensating criminals, who most people would think lost the right to make these claims.’ Here the issue is one of economy rather than concern about the long-term consequences of physical or mental harms inflicted on those who may only be in custody for a short period. Budgetary concerns are placed before the welfare of other human beings since ‘we’ cannot afford to compensate ‘them’ with ‘our’ taxpayers’ money. Similarly, a ‘senior source’ close to the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke claimed that: ‘It is ridiculous that we are continuing to spend so much money on the injuries sustained by convicted criminals when so many victims of crime are still waiting for funds.’ Here we see a zero-sum game where ‘victims’ can supposedly only receive their money at the expense of ‘criminals’, the product of a false and dangerous dichotomy between people in our society crudely separated into ‘them’ and ‘us’ by the walls of our penal institutions.
Why a false dichotomy? Research examples are numerous that being classed as an ‘offender’ does not necessarily put one into a category that is mutually exclusive from that of being a ‘victim’. I shall pick just one, which demonstrates that people can and frequently do fall into both groups. A 2009 paper in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health asked women in two prisons about the impact of custody on their health and emotional well-being. Revealingly some actually viewed imprisonment as a respite from sexual abuse, exploitation and domestic violence. This is the reality of life for some of the ‘offenders’ on whom Philip Davies doesn’t want to ‘waste’ money should they get injured – they are sometimes people who view a loss of their freedom as a worthwhile trade-off for a break from a life of violent victimization. Yet, under this crudely constructed and populist policy, their status as ‘victim’ will end when they are delivered through the prison gate – perhaps for a relatively minor offence? And should they find themselves on the receiving end of further violence – not at the hands of their violent partner, but whilst in the ‘care’ of the state – compensation for their injuries will be denied to them.
Why a dangerous dichotomy? Clearly the government and its tabloid cheerleaders will be quick to associate this policy with individuals who are already public hate figures – even the Independent uses the example of Ian Huntley who attempted to claim compensation for injuries sustained following an attack from another prisoner. But what about the first time young offender on a short sentence who ends up scarred for life because a kettle of boiling water and sugar is thrown over him? Are such permanent injuries to be regarded as an ‘acceptable’ consequence of imprisonment to accompany his temporary loss of liberty?
The ‘othering’ of prisoners in this country has recently accelerated to a frightening degree for a supposedly civilised and tolerant society. Last year, comments made by the Prime Minister revealed much about his attitude to those in custody when he said in the Commons that: ‘It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison. Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote.’ It seems that in modern Britain even the mere contemplation of affording certain rights to those in prison can become a nauseous prospect for those charged with the ultimate responsibility for their care. The question for all us should be: if prisoners are destined to lose their rights, who might be next?