Letters: October 2023

Felicity Gerry and Andrea Coomber respond to Bill Keller on the Americanisation of UK prisons; Andrew Simms weighs in on our recent “green growth” Conversation; plus more

September 06, 2023
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Travesty of justice 

Bill Keller’s deep exploration of the prison system in England and Wales is a shameful indictment of those responsible for this beleaguered public service. They must know that it is in everyone’s interest to build a rehabilitative culture, not one of hopelessness that throws up endless barriers for those safe to release.   

Some will say that it is time to worry when a journalist such as Keller, with such considerable experience of documenting the horrors of the US prison system, finds so many similarities with the UK’s. In truth, the worrying should have begun long ago, when successive governments pushing hyperventilating “tough on crime” rhetoric allowed the UK prison population to double. Campaign organisations have raised the alarm repeatedly, but politicians, journalists and judges have—for the most part—looked away.  

While some states in the US have “de-carcerated”, and other jurisdictions have much more open arrangements for long-term prisoners, the UK has moved in the opposite direction. Keller reveals the disastrous and harrowing consequences, especially for “joint enterprise” lifers (often young adults) who are imprisoned under a law that doesn’t require them to have made any decisive contribution to the crime, and who would be perfectly safe in the wider community. 

So far this year, thousands more have trodden the path to a penal system that suffers from horrendous violence, acute overcrowding, staff shortages, racial disparities, alarming rates of self-harm, poor health and education services and a failing probation service. Ultimately, these conditions fly in the face of findings that recognise the social benefit of a focus on reform and rehabilitation, while instances of prolonged solitary confinement fly in the face of international law. 

The challenge is to develop systems that do not require punishment as a precondition for helping people rejoin society; to deliver public education on the benefits of alternatives; and to create the political will to do much better.

Felicity Gerry KC, Libertas Chambers, London and Crockett Chambers, Melbourne

Bill Keller’s article was thoughtful, perceptive and utterly depressing. It is appalling that those responsible for the system in England and Wales seem content to let the prison population grow and grow with little or no consideration of the consequences. We were relieved that, with our help, Keller was able to gain access to some of these broken institutions.

In the first seven months of 2023, the number of people in prison increased by more than 4,000—well on course to meet the government’s own projection of a 25 per cent rise in five years. 

The result is conditions that do nothing to help people turn their lives around and move on from crime. Those released from prison encounter a demoralised and fragmented probation service that has been asked to do too much with too little for too long.  

This country is sleepwalking its way to the mass incarceration—with all its related harms—that the US now finds itself trying to undo. Keller’s article should be a wake-up call to politicians of all creeds to base prison policy—and our political discourse—on what they know works to reduce crime. The stakes are too high to do anything less.  

Andrea Coomber, Howard League for Penal Reform

Historic hatred

I enjoyed Hella Pick’s article about the history of antisemitism in Austria, but I was surprised to learn that she had no compunction about returning to her native land. 

There was one related story that came to mind. The award-winning 2004 documentary film Watermarks told the history of Vienna’s famed Jewish women’s swim team from the 1930s, and chronicled their reunion in Austria 65 years after fleeing the Holocaust. 

One woman, then living in America, had previously decided to resettle in Vienna. She stayed until Kurt Waldheim—suspected of complicity in Nazi crimes—was elected president. At that point, she returned to the US.

I have visited Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck and enjoyed all three cities, but, as a Jew, I wouldn’t want to live in Austria. 

Dan Liftman, Florida

Growing green

The problem with simply advocating “green growth” as Sam Fankhauser does is that, in economic terms, it is a meaningless concept. Growth is just the trend in the financial value of all exchanges ­happening in the economy, measured by GDP.

To be green it would have to be compatible with safe limits to global heating, and the maths doesn’t remotely work. Growth is closely linked to the pollution driving climate chaos. It can be a bit cleaner or a bit dirtier, but more growth ultimately means more emissions. And even if we could cut emissions enough to cancel out the impact of future growth, we need to achieve absolute reductions in pollution now in order to prevent dangerous warming. For wealthier industrialised nations, that could mean year-on-year cuts of around 20 per cent. The prospect of decoupling growth from emissions to this degree is a unicorn—it’s magical thinking and a distraction.

We have known for years that, in wealthier countries, much higher levels of human wellbeing are possible at significantly reduced levels of consumption. Kate Raworth is right to say “We must end our economy’s structural dependency on endless growth.” We may be politically addicted to growth as a measure of success but it’s a faulty compass, directing us away from the possibility of achieving a higher quality of life for all within planetary boundaries.

The good economic news is that improved health, wellbeing and working lives can all be delivered by the immediate implementation of a real Green New Deal, saving energy with massive and rapid home retrofitting, the switch from private car dependence to efficient public transport, and the shift to renewables in the power supply.

Andrew Simms, New Weather Institute

I am surprised that nowhere in your “Conversation” was there any mention of Dieter Helm and his work (and book) on “natural capital”. This shows very clearly that it is not economic growth per se that is the problem, but the rate at which the world’s renewable natural resources (its “natural capital”, such as fresh water, fertile soils and indeed the planet’s entire ecosystem) are being consumed. 

The survival of humankind ultimately depends on our consumption of these resources being no greater than the rate at which they renew themselves. Currently we are consuming them at well over the renewal rate in many parts of the world, and general economic growth will in practice only exacerbate this. If GDP growth is totally decoupled from our consumption of natural resources, then it can safely increase. But not otherwise.

Helm was chair of the government’s Natural Capital Committee, which was set up in 2012 and reported to George Osborne. Osborne must therefore be included among the politicians who have considered this issue, though apparently with remarkably little effect in his case. The committee published a number of reports on the work it had done, but was wound up in December 2020.

Richard Burnett-Hall, via the website

Uncivil disobedience

In his recent article on protest law and the sentencing of climate activists Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland, Alan Rusbridger quotes from Lord Hoffmann’s judgment in R v Jones. Rusbridger contends that the quoted passage supports his argument that the courts have been treating climate protesters too harshly and out of line with previously accepted practice with regards to civil disobedience.

However, in his judgment, Lord Hoffman not only explicitly stated that protesters engaging in civil disobedience should “behave with a sense of proportion” and “not cause excessive damage or inconvenience”; he added that “they vouch the sincerity of their beliefs by accepting the penalties imposed by the law”.

Last year, in Cuciurean v Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Justice Coulson quoted from Lord Hoffmann and noted that the culpability of a protester would be higher if he did not act with a sense of proportion, did not accept the penalties involved or had caused excessive harm.  

His Honour Judge Collery, when sentencing Decker and Trowland, also noted this principle. His sentencing decision is explained precisely because the defendants had not followed the “bargain” or “mutual understanding” between protesters and the authorities. They had behaved in a way calculated to cause maximum disruption, the harm caused was high and they both had previous convictions in relation to protest. They were also both on bail at the time of the offence.

The sentence was therefore in accordance with the courts’ approach towards civil disobedience.

Tony Dowson, Wiltshire

Plunder the sea

Guy Standing makes a magnificent argument for the dissolution of the monarchy. The seabed—together with the medieval land grab of the so-called Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster—should be returned to the public ownership from which they were stolen.

Derek Ruskin, via the website

The monarchy should have been abolished a long time ago and your article proves how parasitical they are. They don’t give a damn about protecting the environment, unlike the image “King” Charles likes to project.

Caroline, via the website

Going nuclear

The nuclear “ladder” metaphor is dangerous in assuming one can always go down a rung. This also assumes the other side would respond likewise. It might rather be encouragement to raise the stakes, “weakness” having been shown.

A more grim and realistic metaphor is an escalator, which keeps going “by itself” as both sides desperately look for the off switch, failing to find it before the escalator reaches the top floor of a generalised thermonuclear exchange.

The present decision-makers at the top of the US administration are not reassuring... I was 17 when Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War came out. I used every penny I could raise to buy it. I was then—as now—terrified by the prospect. 

If only our dear leaders were as terrified now. Certainly on the US side, I see no equivalent of John Kennedy. Joe Biden is no John Kennedy. And (as was Kennedy) he’s surrounded by hawks. Not good.

David, via the website

Home truths

While Right to Buy remains, further subsidised housebuilding is entirely pointless. We need capital gains tax on main homes (set at 90 per cent for second homes and those owned by non-UK citizens); 500 per cent council tax on homes empty for over six months (or for over six months of the year in total, to catch holiday homes); and “proper” social housing developed or bought where people want to live. 

Everything else is just fiddling while Rome burns. Greenwich, where I live, grows filthier by the month as monstrous tower blocks swallow the sky. Building more for endless speculation does not solve the housing problem, but worsens the consequences of it.

Angus Bearn, via the website

Bibliophile’s bliss

“Archive Books” is a funny name for such a chaotic treasure trove as Alan Rusbridger’s favourite bookshop, as it conveys the idea of a database of books that lets you quickly check what’s available. But such an approach would not be desired, as 90 per cent of the fun is in the discovery of hidden gems via acts of serendipity.

When entering such places (or on the usual bibliophile’s trip to Hay-on-Wye), I wish each book could talk and reveal its own history.

leidner, via the website

There is a similar bibliographic treasure trove in Eastbourne called Camilla’s Bookshop. I used to frequent it as a kid 40 years ago. Amazing place.

clickety6, via the website

Bonkers or banal?

Thanks to Stuart Jeffries for the very thoughtful article. It’s less helpful to just say people who believe in conspiracy theories about low-traffic neighbourhoods or 15-minute cities are crazy or stupid, as many default to, and more helpful to bring in a critical observation about how freedom itself appears to be viewed by those expressing such views. 

The freedom from/freedom to distinction is a constructive observation. Perhaps that’s a pathway to substantive discussion with conspiracy-motivated publics, helping to peel back the onion of sensational and outlandish statements to get at what may otherwise be more mundane and relatable concerns about government process, surveillance overreach and the every-day impacts of transportation policies. 

What I find so fascinating is how and why people are bypassing otherwise sensible arguments against LTNs and other planning efforts and seizing on these dark fever dreams to make their case instead!

wesleyR, via the website