Why we protect vulnerable prisoners

Yesterday the two men convicted of murdering the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, when they were teenagers were jailed “at Her Majesty’s pleasure” (effectively a life sentence), one for a minimum of fourteen years and the other for a minimum of 15, and the story has received extensive newspaper coverage, understandably given its significance in the history of British race relations — it uncovered a systematic racism in the London police and led to the abolition, nine years later, of the “double jeopardy” law which prevented anyone being tried twice for the same crime (the law still exists in the USA although people are sometimes tried on other charges). On two different talk radio stations this morning (Nick Ferrari on LBC and Vanessa Feltz on BBC London), I heard discussion of the “vulnerable prisoner” status the two men would be given, which would result in them being held in segregation (along with sex offenders) to prevent them being attacked by other prisoners. Feltz even invited listeners to discuss whether the use of taxpayers’ money to protect these two was justifiable.

I was shocked that a radio presenter is even asking whether protecting someone from being raped, murdered or otherwise physically harmed is “worth the money”. Mind you, the BBC did air a pre-recorded joke about the possibility of George Michael being raped when he was sent to prison last year (and when I complained, I was told they had to consider everyone’s tastes). One reason they protect vulnerable prisoners is that it is a simple matter of preventing crime, and attacks by self-righteous lags on unpopular prisoners is just as much crime as the act that prompted the victims’ imprisonment. It is not supposed to be a perk of being imprisoned for some crimes (like holding up terrified bank workers or householders with a sawn-off shotgun, for example) that you get to victimise those guilty of lower-class offences.

But another reason is that some people who are sent to prison for sex murders, acts of terrorism and the like are in fact innocent, and it is well-known that some of them have faced the same treatment some members of the public would like to see meted out to Norris and Dobson. These include people like Stephan Kiszko and Stephen Downing, both of whom were now known to be innocent but at the time were believed to be every bit as guilty as Norris and Dobson are. Even prisoners with developmental delay have faced extreme abuse from other prisoners, with one such young woman (featured in an inside-prison TV programme a few years ago) committing suicide because of it.

Of course, some might argue that if we still had the death penalty, we would not need to house men like these at all (although when we did have it, it did not apply to people who were the age Norris and Dobson were at the time of Stephen Lawrence’s murder). However, we would also have put to death people like Kiszko, Downing, the Guildford Four and others who had been framed by unscrupulous police and are now known to be innocent. If we allowed other prisoners to murder the unpopular inmates, prison would become tantamount to the death penalty. I question whether the protection afforded by segregation is significantly more costly than keeping in someone in prison in general: the safety is mostly afforded by spending more time alone under lock and key, and it must be a pretty lonely existence. While it is to be expected that someone might suggest that their protection is not worth the money on a radio phone-in, it is quite unacceptable for the presenter to be suggesting it to their listeners.

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