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Howard League blog · 26 May 2022

‘Son of a convict’ – law, human rights and the politics of punishment

Last week, I had the huge privilege of delivering the 2022 Howard League Lecture in honour of Lord Parmoor. You can watch a video of the lecture here and/or read the transcript below.

The lecture was titled “‘Son of a convict’ law, human rights and the politics of punishment”.


It is a huge privilege to join you this evening and to deliver this lecture in honour of Lord Parmoor. One of my dearest friends is an antiquarian book dealer, and when I mentioned this lecture, he was rapturous about the reputation of Milo Cripps in their industry for his talent, kindness and sense of fun. And certainly the Howard League’s gratitude for his philanthropy cannot be overstated.

It is lovely to see so many friends, old and new, here tonight. The indomitable Frances Crook, whose shoes I fill, was a big personality and since I was appointed, a lot of our supporters have been asking who I am, what I am like and how I came to be at the Howard League. Tonight, I hope to start to answer these questions. I will then share some of my early thoughts on penal reform – at this stage, very much the observations of someone on the outside. And will end with some thoughts about the kinds of things I think you can expect from the Howard League under my leadership.

First to me. I have called my lecture ‘Son of a convict’ because one of my earliest memories is of being in bustling markets in Fiji aged two or three, where we lived at the time. I would accompany my mum where she would bargain to buy our food. Whenever she bargained too hard, which was often, the market sellers would start shouting that she was the ‘son of a convict’ a local term for Australians who were trying to rip them off.

My mum hated it, it embarrassed her, in no small part because it was true. In the 1970s, being descended from convicts, as her side of the family was, was something Australians kept to themselves.

That inter-generational shame has abated over my lifetime, and six years ago at the ceremony when I was made an Honorary Master of the Bench at Middle Temple, I mentioned that my convict ancestors would be spinning in their graves that I had been so warmly embraced by the English legal establishment. Afterwards, a few horrified retired judges approached to check that I had been joking about my criminal heritage; while others stood on bemused because they knew I was not.

A good number of my ancestors were poor working-class people who committed crime and faced transportation. My seven-times great grandfather, William Bufton, worked in a soap factory to support his wife Hannah and their nine children. In 1851, he was convicted in Southampton of stealing tallow from the factory, and with 279 other men was transported on the Marion to Western Australia. He served his ten-year sentence, building up the colony as a convict labourer, and aged 50, my age now, was pardoned and joined by his family. William died in 1871, and remains the only person buried in East Perth cemetery whose tombstone is not facing towards the setting sun. Lest anyone forget he was a convict.

I come from a country founded as a penal colony, with racism at its core. When I was at law school, we were taught that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ – a country without people – when it was colonised. A legal truth only overturned by the High Court’s Mabo judgment in 1992. And I saw this racism up close growing up.

My dad had a clerical job in a bank, which took us to Fiji, and on return to Australia meant that I spent most of my primary school years living in small towns in the bush. From an early age, I saw high levels of alcoholism, poverty, violence and an underclass of indigenous people. For many of my classmates, going to prison was a cultural rite of passage, one that some of them were experiencing before I’d finished high school. There was always a lot of talk among my school mates about prison, that sparked a lifelong interest for me.

There was no high school in our town, so the bank paid for me to go to a private school in the city. And that education and the opportunities that it afforded me are the key reason that I am here today. I did well at school – got involved in national debating, under the tutelage of Karyl Nairn who is here tonight – and ultimately went to law school, because I didn’t have the stomach for medicine.

I always wanted to help people. I understood that I had been very lucky in life and I felt an urge to give back. I did a history degree and a law degree, realising that while I didn’t love reading judgments, law could be a powerful force for social change.

I qualified as a solicitor and barrister in Western Australia and swiftly made my escape to India, where I worked for the then leading human rights NGOs in South Asia. Based in New Delhi, we took individual cases, and on my first day, I was allocated a case involving a man who was an ‘undertrial’ in Calcutta. He had been awaiting trial for murder – an undertrial – for 22 years. I started reading into his case on the Monday, and that Thursday he died. He was 41 and had been in prison since he was 19. Never tried, never convicted, dead in a Calcutta prison.

A good number of my ancestors were poor working-class people who committed crime and faced transportation.

For the next few years, I worked on civil and political rights cases – torture, executions, freedom of religion and speech, and the treatment of women in prison and refugees. Regularly old Afghan men, trying to explain what had happened to them, would take off their shirts to show me the scars from torture, or show me pictures of their children, whose decapitated bodies had been mutilated by the mujahideen. It was challenging work, but gave me a strong stomach and motivation to work in human rights.

After India, I worked in Geneva in the UN system for a year, before doing my Masters in Public International Law at LSE and moving to Cairo to be with my then partner. I was saved from riding a horse around the pyramids each day by getting a job as a lawyer at INTERIGHTS.

My time in Geneva had turned me against international politics in the context of human rights – too many governments buying off votes by building bridges in poor countries – and returned me to law as a tool. My boss in India, Ravi Nair, a journalist, had always said that you can talk about torture at fancy conferences and elaborate endless protocols, but until you have police officers in the dock for beating confessions out of suspects, nothing will change. And INTERIGHTS allowed me the opportunity to use litigation to change law.

For the next ten years, I worked with local partners to bring test litigation to regional human rights courts. It was strategic litigation – where the goal of the litigation was more than helping the individual client but using their case to challenge bad law, policy or practice through the courts. Every one of our cases was a David vs Goliath contest – my client, the human rights victim, against the mighty State which had violated their rights. But because justice and evidence was on our side, we rarely lost.

Before becoming the legal director, my cases were mainly about equality – the first indirect discrimination case before the Strasbourg case; cases of sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence, including the first judgment in which domestic violence was deemed a public rather than public matter; and then Opuz v Turkey, the first time the European Court of Human Rights found that the failure to protect against domestic violence was sex discrimination under the Convention.

I worked with amazingly brave and patient clients, and with courageous lawyers who were working in hugely challenging circumstances.

While I wasn’t a prison specialist, I’d always been fascinated by prison and would use every opportunity to go to prisons around the world. One of my greatest successes was working with my friend, the incredible Egyptian human rights activist journalist Hossam Bahgat, to use the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to release several men who had been held in shocking conditions, tortured and forgotten in underground cells in in a Cairo jail, imprisoned for their religious views. The Egyptian government was so committed to the regional human rights arrangement, the African Commission, that it released the men when we agreed to drop the case. They knew they’d lose and couldn’t bear the international shame and loss of face for being a human rights violator. In 2022 Britain the idea of fearing international shame for an adverse human rights ruling seems wonderful, if unrealistic.

After ten years at INTERIGHTS, nursing a baby who was on an international flight with me every month, I was approached to apply to become the director of JUSTICE. A membership charity of nearly 60 years standing, I worked with JUSTICE’s amazing supporters and staff – many of whom have come along tonight – to return JUSTICE to its roots of reimagining how the justice system could work.

JUSTICE works primarily on fairness and accessibility in the justice system, one starved of funds and inspiration, attached to century-long traditions. We did wide-ranging work to drag the system into the 21st century, to increase fairness and accessibility, and I led work on judicial diversity, which is a matter of personal as well as ongoing professional concern.

In respect of crime, we looked at the big challenges in the criminal courts and considered how they could be dealt with differently, leading to reports on mental health, the prosecution of sexual offences, racial disparity in youth justice and, most recently, and published after my departure, on the operation of the Parole Board. As the pandemic hit, we also held the world’s first trial of a virtual jury trial, independently academically evaluated and adjusted to ensure participation and fair trial.

While JUSTICE’s work stopped at sentence; I took every opportunity I could find to go into prisons, attending loads of Parole Board hearings for a glimpse behind the prison gate. Most often the prisoners would be the adult version of the kids I went to school with: people who had grown up with few opportunities, many of whom couldn’t read, and had taken bad decisions in bad circumstances. Struggling with alcohol and drugs, without the social scaffolding of support that many of us take completely for granted.

I have inherited an amazing organisation, staff and legacy. Unfortunately the Howard League’s voice is more necessary than ever.

The final thing I did at JUSTICE, that cemented my route to this podium, was that one Sunday afternoon five years ago, I gave a lecture about my career at Cambridge. Over drinks afterwards, I was approached by a strikingly beautiful young man who introduced himself as Jack Merritt. He told me that he was running the Butler Law Course at HMP Warren Hill as part of Learning Together. He thought I might find it interesting and that his students would love to hear from me.

For the next couple of years, I taught on the course, working with Jack and his students whom I found remarkable. Most of them were lifers, mostly convicted of murder, though a number of them had never actually killed anyone because they were serving 20-plus years for joint enterprise. This is a legal outrage that overwhelmingly criminalises young black boys for the company they keep; and on which you can expect to hear more from us in future.

Most of the students at Warren Hill were like my relative William Bufton, from poor working class, and minority communities, and hadn’t enjoyed school or engaged with education. Many had been told that they were dumb and shouldn’t bother, and yet here they were, reading and discussing Supreme Court judgments; reflecting with maturity and insight on the operation of criminal trials, suggesting ways that the system could work better. A number were exceptionally bright, including one man who was frequently, successfully, judicially reviewing the prison. Others were talented actors, musicians, writers and an award-winning poet. A number of them who were convicted as children have since had a favourable tariff review, meaning that they have had their sentences reduced for exceptional progress in prison; progress that the sentencing judge could not have possibly foreseen. And I find myself incredibly proud of them.

The course was run with kindness and respect and opened my eyes both to the power of education to change lives, but also to the incredible resource of talented, bright, people locked up for years on end. And I am pleased to say that the first person we recruited when I joined the Howard League – through a competitive recruitment process – was the man who was leading the course when I first went to Warren Hill, Steve Gallant, who is here tonight and whose upcoming book I will be forcing you all to buy in a year’s time.

So to the Howard League, of which I’ve been a member for a number of years. I sought this role with mix of heart and head. The heart was William Bufton, the men at Warren Hill and Jack; and the head was the potential of blending test litigation with campaigns and policy work to reform a failing prison system. A system that we all know doesn’t work.

I have inherited an amazing organisation, staff and legacy, bolstered in size and profile by Frances. The Howard League has achieved a lot over its history, and every day I am inspired by the commitment and drive of our staff – whether dealing with the press, taking evidence for reports or taking calls from children in custody – to change the lives of people in prison.

And unfortunately the Howard League’s voice is more necessary than ever.

I have spent much of the past six months talking to our members, partners and others in the sector and have been blown away by the good will for the Howard League and for the support for our core vision of less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. Only yesterday I was at a great Prison Service Insights event in Warwickshire, where a number of people came up to me to whisper, ‘I am really glad you’re here. The Howard League can say things that we believe but can’t say’. And I have heard that a lot in recent months. I don’t sense any bad will actors in this space – everyone, from prison leavers to prison governors, civil servants, NGO actors, all understand that our system can do and be better.

Before I start talking about prison, I want to emphasise that I am new to this space, and I am conscious that this is a room packed full of years of experience – professional, academic, personal – of the prison system.

That said, though I am new, I already have too many things that I would like to talk about.

So I am not going to speak about all the challenges that keep me up at night – ever longer sentences that would mean that my students at Warren Hill if sentenced today would be in for 30, rather than 15 or 18 years, and what that would mean for them and their chances on the outside.

Our prisons were struggling before the pandemic, and it has undoubtedly exacerbated a dire situation.

I’m not going to speak about what I think is a credibility crisis of an overwhelmingly white justice system often failing to understand and then criminalising and imprisoning disproportionate numbers of black and Asian people, many children; the high rates of self-harm and suicide of prisoners on remand, held with convicted prisoners, half of whom will be found not guilty or whose sentence will be less their time spent on remand; or increasing political interference by the executive in the fair operation of the Parole Board and what that means for rehabilitation and release, let alone our constitution.

These things all keep me up and I expect that we be working on them in the years to come.

I have decided that tonight is for the big picture and, as a newcomer, I am going to focus on the politics of prison, which troubles me more than anything else.

This is a critical time for penal reform – though crime, with the exception of fraud, has been falling for the past 30 years, we find ourselves on the brink of another ‘prison-building orgy’, to quote Anne Owers 20 years ago.

We already imprison more people than anywhere in Western Europe, bar Scotland. And while the political direction of travel north of the border is to question the value of prisons – to talk about the root causes of crime and to challenge penal populism – here prison is accepted as the answer.

Our prisons were struggling before the pandemic, and it has undoubtedly exacerbated a dire situation.

First, there was the lost opportunity. While other countries protected prisoners’ lives by releasing in some places thousands of people on short sentences for non-violent offences, including women, here we released only 316 people. Mercifully to no criticism from the then Opposition. Our only way of containing the virus was to lock people in cells, often for 23 hours a day. This was to stop the spread of the virus, and it mostly worked; only 195 prisoners have died to date.

But such extreme measures have come at a huge cost – education, work, therapy, external programmes were all suspended.

Our recent survey of our 1,000 members in prison and another 1,000 family members told stories of isolation, hopelessness and crumbling mental health. While in the community, Covid feels behind us, in many prisons people who don’t have prison jobs are still in cells 22-and-a-half hours a day. This is in part because the pandemic came at a time of significant disruption to prison staffing, with many prisons now having 60 to 70 per cent of staff having only worked in a prison during Covid, with everyone locked in their cells. The prospect of opening up the cells of people who have been isolated for so long, with inexperienced staff, is understandably cause for concern.

Beyond Covid, pick up any copy of Inside Time or read any inspection report and you can’t help but despair at the state of prisons – the overcrowding – 15,000 men double-bunking; leaking rooves; rat infestations; cockroach infestations; drugs; low literacy; violence; sky-rocketing levels of self-harm and more deaths in prison in the past year than in any other year since records began.

Beyond mental health, access to health care is poor, particularly for women, with two recent cases of babies dying to mothers giving birth alone in their cells, despite their cries for help. In one case, the vulnerable mother had to chew through the umbilical cord of her dead baby and wasn’t found for 12 hours. I am sorry if this is shocking, but it should be. While no one thinks that this is acceptable and there are certainly some enlightened programmes and prisons which are run in ways that minimise harm, the overall picture is bleak.

And while the number of children in prison has decreased, something to which the Howard League has proudly contributed, the percentage of ethnic minority children has continued to grow unabated. Now 52 per cent while only 18 per cent of the general population. We are locking up black boys in record numbers and locking them away for ever longer sentences.

The bottom line is that our prisons stand in crisis. And the answer of the government is to pile another 20,000 people in over the next four years.

I know from our survey results and letters from our many members in prison that they feel forgotten, disposed of, and severely punished – not by having their liberty taken away, but by terrible conditions and prospects. Our system intends that all but 65 of them will one day leave prison, and yet we don’t set them up to prosper. And many don’t – 48 per cent of people leaving prison will have reoffended within a year, released to homelessness, drug addiction and little support. Last week’s inspection report of HMP Bronzefield revealed that 65 per cent of women were leaving to unsustainable accommodation. And I have lost count of the number of times that I have been in meetings with the Chief Inspector of Probation when he raises alarm that of the 70,000 people under the supervision of probation who have a problem with drugs, only 3,000 a year are referred to drug treatment. People are being set up to fail.

Almost everyone is doing their best, but it is a system in trouble. With too many people for the state to properly care for, and, despite some amazing initiatives and programmes from the third sector, resources spread too thin to support most people away from crime when they leave prison.

I won’t go on about all the problems but urge you to read Angela Kirwin’s amazing book, Criminal, which is coming out next week and provides a comprehensive overview of what’s wrong and a powerful case for change.

The bottom line is that our prisons stand in crisis. And the answer of the government is to pile another 20,000 people in over the next four years.

Here context is important.

As we all know, in 2010 the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government oversaw the biggest cuts to state spending since the Second World War. And ever since – some Covid measures aside – the dominant fiscal policy of government has been austerity, resulting in drastic cuts to social support.

A quarter of local government jobs disappeared with youth workers working on knife crime the first to go; drug support services, boxing clubs… no longer funded. As ever, women and children have born the brunt and child poverty has soared. While the third sector and the public have stepped up with kindness and generosity; it can never be a substitute for proper government provision. The social scaffolding that holds up society has been swiftly and steadily dismantled.

The justice system was also slashed. The Ministry of Justice’s budget was cut by 40 per cent in real terms, savaging the scope and amount of legal aid. The Crown Prosecution Service lost funding, there were reducing sitting days in court, law centres were closed… creating a system on its knees. Even before Covid, there was a huge backlog in the Crown Court, with victims waiting for their day in court with all the anxiety and stress that involves, the degradation of evidence as memories fade and defendants held on remand for years.

We have been assisting an 18-year-old remanded to the high-secure estate in May 2019; his trial was repeatedly rescheduled due to problems with co-defendants during Covid and wasn’t heard for 23 months. And in January this year, a 15-year-old boy contacted us having been on remand for nine months. His trial kept on being pushed back without a bail package in place, which we managed to sort out for him in March. This sort of delay has become the norm, with thousands of lives on hold.

All of this has been exacerbated by the economic impact of Brexit and Covid, and we now have a cost-of-living crisis meaning that things are only going to get worse. More people will be poor and are going to struggle, with all the desperation and poor choices that can bring.

And in this context, rather than invest in the approaches and programmes that are known to cut crime and keep communities safe, the government’s answer is to build more prisons. Admittedly, they will be nicer prisons, with some laudable programmes for employment if you’re lucky enough to be sent to one of them; but most people won’t be.

The building project alone is going to cost £3.5billion; the same amount that Jacob Rees-Mogg announced last week will be saved by cutting 91,000 civil service jobs. And the prison-building will also land future generations with ongoing costs. It currently costs £52,000 a year for a woman, roughly £30,000 a year for man and you could send a couple of children to Eton for the cost of imprisoning any one of the children who call our help line each day. In purely financial terms, it’s madness.

And it becomes unconscionable when you consider that the government’s own evidence shows that prison doesn’t deter crime. On occasion we’ve had prison ministers acknowledge as much. Government knows that short sentences are more likely to result in reoffending than community sentences, that cost a fraction of what it costs to keep a person in prison. Yet magistrates’ sentencing powers have recently been extended to 12 months, meaning there will be more people serving short sentences.

Rather than invest to solve and address the unmet needs of society and its vulnerable people, governments of both colours have sought to punish and imprison their way out of a mental health crisis, a drug addiction crisis, and now the beginnings of the cost-of-living crisis.

Time and again, big picture policy is developed against the evidence base. And let’s be clear, reoffending costs £18billion a year – that’s the total cost of Crossrail since 2007, every year. And this is what happens when policy choices are made in the knowledge that they will result in feeding rather than disrupting cycles of crime, that is policy creating victims of crime.

Add to the context that the government is dismantling the constitutional framework that protects people in prison, but also the rest of us, from government overreach. Recent years have seen judicial review, that allows us to challenge government decision-making, curtailed; an ongoing attack on the independent judiciary, who have a critical role as a check on executive power and who are often the last point of call to protect the rights of people, like prisoners, who lack power at the ballot box. And most urgently, last week’s announcement in the Queen’s Speech of a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act.

A lot has been said about the importance of the Human Rights Act, so I won’t go into its virtues. Suffice to say that it is an elegant, balanced piece of legislation that has brought the protections of the European Convention of Human Rights to people in this country in a way that I know from my practice other European countries envy. In the criminal justice sphere, the Human Rights Act has allowed access to justice for victims of crime; required action by the police to investigate cases of domestic violence; has protected children in custody from abuse.

Yes, it provides rights to people in prison, as it should. Their lives are entirely controlled by the state, they are highly vulnerable and it is right that their treatment by the authorities is subject to challenge. For example, late last year, having lost in the Supreme Court, we submitted an Article 3 – inhuman and degrading treatment – application to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of a 15-year-old who was held in segregation for 55 days; without access to education, without gym, with no purposeful activity of any kind. Any confident, mature democracy accepts that such challenges have a place. When they don’t, it puts our whole system in danger.

So this is the climate. Twelve years of retrenchment from the social investment known to prevent crime; devastation of the criminal justice infrastructure and curtailing the rights of all of us to challenge the authorities when the system goes wrong. And then piling 25 per cent more people into prisons that often devastate lives, knowing that they feed rather than stop cycles of crime. Burdening the public purse for generations.

And in this mess, where is Her Majesty’s Opposition? Are they calling for evidence-based policy? Criticising government for locking up too many people, feeding more crime, creating more victims? Perhaps they are calling for more diversion and more community sentences, that are known to reduce reoffending? Following the new prison-building, are they pledging to decommission those older prisons that are undoubtedly disrespecter-of-people places No. The Opposition has declared this Government soft on crime. Accused it of being a government that only cares about criminals and not about victims. The Opposition, we are told, will be the party of law and order.

Apparently, there are votes in it. And while we don’t yet have any policy development from the Opposition, the ambition appears to be to out-flank the Conservative government on crime.

This isn’t new as politics goes. The last sustained explosion in the prison population was overseen by the Blair government, which added its own 20,000 lives to the prison machine. They used ASBOs to criminalise children and people with mental health problems, and introduced the appalling indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection (IPP) in 2005. As you will know, this sentence saw more than 8,000 people imprisoned with a minimum jail tariff but no maximum for a range of crimes. Those on an IPP sentence were placed on licence indefinitely after release, meaning they can be recalled to prison for administrative breaches, and often are. It has resulted in untold suffering for people in prison, their families and children – the uncertainty and endlessness of the sentence has resulted directly in self harm and suicide; the indirect costs to their sense of self cannot be known. My dear friend Lord Brown of Eaton-upon-Heyward has described the IPP sentence as ‘the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system’. And it remains.

To its credit, the Coalition government abolished the sentence in 2012 – to strong opposition from Labour, which accused it of releasing dangerous criminals. Yet, ten years later, 3,000 people remain behind bars – most many years, in some case a decade, over tariff. Late last year, Lord Blunkett, who was the Home Secretary who introduced the IPP sentence, declared that he’d got it wrong and called for his own party and the government to remedy the injustice. He was not supported by his own side. And pending a report of the Justice Select Committee, the Government isn’t doing anything.

The truth is that this is a country in which neither of the main political parties is prepared to stick its neck out to pursue evidence-based, humane criminal justice policy. From time to time, we have a Justice team, as we had a few years ago with David Gauke and Rory Stewart, who listen and take account of the evidence. But they moved on. Recently, I was momentarily delighted by the current Lord Chancellor who reportedly said that he didn’t care if he was accused of being soft on crime, provided that his employment initiatives at Five Wells worked. An encouraging morsel, but the direction of travel of the political dialogue remains punitive.

The difficult truth is that crime is primarily the by-product of social failure. Rather than invest to solve and address the unmet needs of society and its vulnerable people, governments of both colours have sought to punish and imprison their way out of a mental health crisis, a drug addiction crisis, and now the beginnings of the cost-of-living crisis.

You can expect the Howard League to call for intellectual honesty and moral courage in the political discourse, to reinforce the evidence base through research and litigation, and to help open windows for the public into life in prison, communicating why prison is not the answer to crime.

Rather than engage on the widely understood drivers of crime, it’s easier to engage in cheap talk about a law-and-order crisis. And we really are reaping the seeds of this now, because across the system – but particularly in the courts and in prisons – there is now a crisis of the gravest order. The challenges faced are both immediate but are also likely to be far-reaching. Only a fundamental review of the pipeline between courts and custody and a sweeping reassessment of what the system’s priorities should be, is going to steer us away from a future doomed to decades of sclerotic, failing justice and prisons that continue to damage people and moulder at the fabric of society.

Unfortunately, there is little to no sign that our politicians understand this. None of the political parties have a serious programme of reform when it comes to criminal justice. The two main parties appear committed to an arms race of political rhetoric that puts us back decades. Both the Conservatives and Labour seem content to rely on naïve assumptions that the answer to crime is ever-lengthening prison sentences, for an ever-lengthening rollcall of offences, with no accounting for what that means – not just for the criminal justice system, but for wider societal responses to the poverty, the addictions and poor mental health that drive so much what comes before the courts.

Taking away a person’s liberty is the most serious power of the state.

It has serious consequences; for the individuals taken into custody, for their victims, for society. It comes at a huge personal cost – for the mental health, physical safety, life chances and the sense of self for thousands of people in prison. It rips families apart, takes parents away from their children; and children away from their childhood.

It is serious business. And yet in this country it is a well-worn playground for cheap political point-scoring and vote-grabbing. That needs to change.

This is why I think the Howard League is so important. This is a system that requires opposition. And we are committed to providing that opposition – to providing challenge based on evidence and decency.

And how do they get away with it?

Well because crime is driven by complex social problems, and it takes time and investment to arrive at evidence-led solutions. Dealing with crime isn’t easy and it’s much easier to tell people that they will be safe if we just lock people up. Unfortunately dealing with crime isn’t that easy.

Focusing on just throwing more people in prison means that the authorities don’t have the bandwidth to provide proper support and treatment to people who need it to become pro social; and to grapple with the tough issues. And there are serious challenges. I agree with Nick Hardwick that prison reform has struggled to deal with the difficult cases, particularly with violent men. In responding to crime, we need to meet the public’s legitimate concerns about safety. But that is too important to be left to saying that more people in prison, on even longer sentence are the answer.

The public tend to trust politicians on prisons, I think, because prisons are closed spaces. While often people are curious about life inside, most don’t have the opportunity to go into prisons. Most people don’t read Inside Time. Occasionally, a TV programme like Jimmy McGovern’s amazing Time comes along that offers a primetime glimpse of life behind bars, but otherwise prisoners are easily vilified and forgotten. Just as my ancestors were, when they were put on ships and sent to the end of the earth.

While it’s progress that over 200 years later, we don’t transport prisoners abroad, we still shift social problems and difficult people out of sight and out of mind. We lock them up across the country, meaning the public is left with the fearmongering of politicians and portrayals in the Daily Mail rather than their own more personal, empathetic experience.

In the words 20 years ago of the US prison activist, Angela Davis: “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”

I think the Howard League has an important, ongoing role to bring these people back into public view. I look forward to working with others to give voice to the experiences of people banged up, and it comes at a time when the experience of people who have been to prison is being valued as a resource.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I suspect that politicians overstate the public’s punitive bent. I don’t know what questions are asked in the polling, but if you provide people with information about what causes crime, what prevents crime and how prison works I have little doubt that the dial will move.

There are people in communities up and down this country that know what it’s like to experience crime, but equally know the damage that prison wreaks. There are people who understand that we all walk a fine line.

I will be working with our staff, trustees and members over the coming months to refine the best possible contribution for the Howard League in this space, but you can expect us to be calling for intellectual honesty and moral courage in the political discourse, to be reinforcing the evidence base through research and litigation, and to help open windows for the public into life in prison, communicating why prison is not the answer to crime.

I am hugely grateful to everyone who has welcomed me so warmly in this new role and look forward to working with the incredible people in this sector – many of them driven to campaigning through their own personal pain and determination to right injustice. And to working with our members and supporters, including those members in prison and their families.

This is my first speech at the Howard League; I very much hope that when I am giving my last, I am not talking about myself and certainly not about prisons much at all; that we will have politicians who are honest about the drivers of crime and who don’t shy away from policy that works, that they are responding to a public with a much better understanding about the realities of criminal justice. That government will be building communities rather than prisons.

It’s a tall order, but I am made of tough, convict stock, have always been a fighter and feel up to the challenge. Thank you.

Andrea Coomber



  • JP says:

    “For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”

    Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516

  • Sue Killick says:

    An amazing lecture; such insight! I feel your “ battle instincts “ will set the bar high for the HL in the coming years Andrea, thank you. Every prisoner needs you!

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