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April 01, 2008

Theodore Dalrymple says that Lord Woolf is wrong: we are not imprisoning the wrong people - just too few of the right people

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple, a former prison doctor, takes issue with Lord Woolf, the fomer Lord Chief Justice. Dr Dalrymple argues that we are not imprisoning the wrong people - just not enough of the right people.

Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, recently made a public statement that the wrong people were being sent to prison. As former Lord Chief Justice, of course, what he says attracts some public attention: for surely such a man must know what he is talking about?

Alas, high office is not evidence of ability to think in a logical, coherent or connected way. I do not think that Lord Woolf can really have meant what he said; or, if he meant it, have realised its implications as far as his own career is concerned.

For, as head of the judiciary while large numbers of the wrong people were sent to prison, he cannot himself evade responsibility for that lamentable, indeed atrocious, situation. There can, after all, be few aspects of any dictatorship worse, short of outright murder, than that of incarcerating large numbers of the wrong people.

But are large numbers of the wrong people being sent to prison? What is the evidence for this?

The first category of people whom Lord Woolf has helped wrongfully to imprison, in his own estimate, is that of asylum seekers. Here he give the impression that asylum seekers declare themselves on arrival to be such and are immediately and wrongfully imprisoned. But this, surely, is not so. Asylum seekers in prison have either committed some crime, or have had their applications for asylum turned down as being without foundation, which is to say that they entered the country illegally. They are in prison awaiting deportation. Of course, it is perfectly possible, likely even, that some applications are turned down wrongly: no system that handles a large number of cases will fail to make mistakes, especially in matters that are intrinsically difficult to decide. But the only way of avoiding wrong decisions is to make no decisions at all.

While it is possible to argue that failed asylum seekers should be handled in some way other than by sending them to prison (though it is difficult to see what it would be other than de facto imprisonment until their deportation can be arranged), it is misleading to suggest that our prison numbers are swelled to any great extent by such cases.

The second category of people over whose wrongful imprisonment Lord Woolf presided is that of the mentally ill. Here Lord Woolf seems to have fallen prey to a superstition as gross in its way as that in miracle-working religious images, though less aesthetically pleasing.

The figure of 70 per cent is often bandied about for the proportion of British prisoners who have mental abnormalities, and for whom Lord Woolf wants treatment and rehabilitation. The unexamined assumption behind this is that such treatment and rehabilitation exists and is known to work; for if it does not, and if the mental abnormalities that allegedly cause criminal behaviour are in fact refractory to any kind of intervention, the logical consequences are precisely the reverse of what Lord Woolf appears to think that they are. Such people, allegedly victims of a mental abnormality that "makes" them commit crimes and that is incurable, ought to be subject, for the safety of the rest of society, to preventive detention.

The vast majority of the alleged abnormalities that have been diagnosed among prisoners are in any case of no explanatory or exculpatory value, and in my view have been made by psychiatrists with a vested interest in expanding their power and their field of activities. Depression is now diagnosed with frivolous ease; and the diagnosis of personality disorder depends largely upon the pattern of behaviour that the person exhibits. We know that person x has personality disorder y because he does antisocial act z; and then we think we know that person x does antisocial act z because he has (or should it be "is"?) personality disorder y.

It is true that there are a relatively small number of prisoners with illnesses that could be alleviated in hospital, and that it is a scandal that they are not. But the scandal comes about because of deficiencies in the National Health Service which, despite huge increases in funding, is quite incapable of dealing with even this small number of potential patients.

The third category of people whom Lord Woolf was for a long time complicit in wrongfully imprisoning, in his own opinion, is that of people who are not dangerous. Here Lord Woolf demonstrates either his total lack of compassion, his utter indifference to the fate of those people who do not live on his private Olympus, or his complete lack of imagination.

The idea that only dangerous, by which presumably he means violent, people should be imprisoned gives carte blanche to pacific burglars, that is to say burglars who do not normally attack householders.

Even if it were possible to predict dangerousness with any certainty (and, after all, burglars are more likely to commit violent acts than others, by the very nature of their activity), it seems to me an astonishingly crude view for an ex-chief justice to hold that the only people from whom society needs protection are those who are physically violent.

Of course, if there were some way other than imprisonment of protecting society from people such as burglars, something less restrictive and possibly less expensive, all well and good; but Lord Woolf should say what it is. As he very well knows, or ought very well to know, community sentences do not work. It would hardly be too much to say that one of the biggest causes of crime in Britain is Lord Woolf (and those of his ilk).

If Lord Woolf truly believed what he said, he would hang his head in shame that he had presided over so many thousands of wrongful imprisonments: for the number of prisoners wrongfully imprisoned increased greatly while he was Chief Justice. He did not resign his position; I do not know for certain, but I think it unlikely that he declines either to draw his pension.

This is not because he is a bad person; rather, to quote Lenin with regard to one of our sillier authors, he is a good man fallen among Fabians, whose regard he seems to desire above all things.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.


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Well worth reading. I didn’t know it was GBS that Lenin was talking about, but in my search I looked up the following nuggets:

(1) A Lenin quote: “The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.”

(2) An interesting link between J.K.Rowling’s Order of the Phoenix and the Fabian Society. It’s here, you can go directly to it using Ctrl-F and the search string “a better explanation”. Enjoy!

(3) Only Chesterton seemed to have the measure of Shaw, in Heretics.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 9, 2008 09:22 PM
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