Steve Mcnaught writes of his personal experience and questions why some forms of prejudice go unchallenged
‘Every person has a story’
Eight years to this day I was in a cell next to a murderer. He was serving a life sentence, having been sentenced when he was 17, and back then I remember looking at his face and wondering how he could ever be 28. A murderer – an act that might make you recoil; a man surely defined entirely by such a grievous offence. But his case had arisen from a drunken fight and a wildly thrown punch – he never intended to kill, yet had tragically taken a life. In the cell next to him was a drug dealer, who had played a leading role in supplying MDMA (Ecstasy) across the South East. A drug dealer, but also a father of two young children and with no prior offences – driven into crime after a period of unemployment and alcoholism.
To define these people solely by their crimes, without looking at the circumstances that arose before in their lives, would be very easy to do. But such an act would be no different from picking up a book and glancing at its cover. You won’t know the story, just how it first appears.
Society consistently judges people who have fallen foul of the law, not just after they have been sentenced and put in prison, but even after they leave. Is it relevant that 72% of prisoners have multiple mental health difficulties (Prison Reform Trust, 2019); that in many ways they are products of a failing society, rather than emerging like some random nuisance with evil embedded in their hearts?
I went to prison for a series of armed robberies committed in my early 20s. I will not go into the circumstances around these, for they are written about extensively elsewhere (see ‘Just Sky’ and forthcoming book by Ben Machell, ‘The Unusual Suspect’), but I had never been to prison before. And I ended up spending 7 years in 23 American and British jails. What I witnessed in that time was not a line-up of hardened convicts. It was instead a microcosm of society at large, composed of people who had made the wrong choices, many of them having experienced abuse and victimisation themselves. A sizable proportion had come from fractured families, brought up in deprived areas, swiftly caught up on the conveyor belt of care home, borstal and prison. Few could read and write well; even fewer had a secure job lined up when they were due for release. Locked up for around 22 hours a day, a great many turned to drugs – a well-known route of escapism relied upon since their teens. The few prison jobs and classes available rarely offered real hope for successful reintegration back into society. Out of that environment, I was released, aged 28. Seven years of my life had passed. Society had changed. Support was few and far between, but some sources – like the Princes Trust and Crisis – offered a helping hand. I wanted to start afresh, but I also wanted to make a difference. I had seen, first hand, how writing could change people – not just the writers, but readers. It enabled a form of creative expression that bolstered confidence and self-esteem, enabling people to discover new aspects of themselves and acquire vital skills. Equally importantly, it could break down stereotypes and stigma towards people from disadvantaged backgrounds – even towards prisoners and ex-offenders – by conveying their stories to others. If a reader understands a person’s story, the former labels that were applied begin to slip away. Suddenly, that person becomes relatable. No longer a label or statistic, but a human being.
For hundreds of years, those from minority ethnic backgrounds were actively enslaved, discriminated against and exploited. It continues, in varying degrees, to this day. The ‘rationale’ offered by those responsible for it varied from pseudo-science to warped social arguments. Yet, today, it is widely acknowledged by society that such prejudice is totally unacceptable.
One thing all forms of prejudice have in common is the failure to consider all the circumstances, background and potential of the person being discriminated against. They are instead judged upon some unchanging and arbitrary characteristic: the colour of their skin; the fact they may look or act different because of a disability; that they may speak differently or cannot afford the latest fashion in clothes. And so on. In other words, prejudice stems from an inability to put yourself in the other’s shoes.
When looking at today’s society, there is one form of prejudice that continues unchecked. It is completely acceptable for the media to support it; even for law makers and public authorities to embrace it. In every institution and level we can find evidence of it, to some degree. It differs from all other forms of prejudice in respect to going largely unchallenged. Why? Well, like with the prejudices based on colour and other characteristics hundreds of years ago, there are ‘good reasons’ for having it. Only a progressive minority – as with hundreds of years ago – protests otherwise.
So what is this prejudice I speak of?
It is the discrimination against people with criminal records.
If someone transgresses against the rules of society, to some extent they should expect to face exclusion and discrimination. And in many ways the intensity of this exclusion should correlate with the seriousness of their crimes, as defined by the harm they inflicted on others.
And yet, unless we are to judge someone’s transgressions for their entirety of their lives, what is the point of that other principle that society also claims to embrace and support: rehabilitation? Where is the place for redemption where every person who finds themselves subject to the penalty of law can expect a life-term punishment, irrespective in many degrees to the nature of their offence? If we are to treat criminals in this manner, would it not be better just to execute them all?
The fact is, even this latter sentiment is embraced by some. And it all stems from a failure to understand – to cast another group as completely alien and ‘other’ to ourselves. The circumstances by which they entered crime are irrelevant. The behaviour they have demonstrated subsequent to their formal punishment under law is likewise void. What matters is some arbitrary label applied to them, based on a miasma of stigma and demonization: they are criminals.
What about in cases where a person may have broken the law in their youth, perhaps in exceptional circumstances, having expressed immense remorse and going on to turn their lives around? Taking it further, what about in cases where someone may go on to actively contribute to society – helping others who might take similar paths, reaching out to ensure others facing prejudice in all its kinds are able to overcome that?
You might think that, surely, these cases break out of that psychological and social barrier of criminality. Of course these cases are different, you might argue.
You would be wrong. The prejudice continues, regardless of a person’s circumstances before and after they committed an offence. One has only to consider that 82% of former prisoners have reported difficulties in getting employment because of discrimination regarding their convictions (UNLOCK, 2016).And amongst these statistics are personal stories, individuals trying hard, like every other citizen, to be part of society – but ruthlessly pushed out to its fringes. Some are more targeted than others, depending on the profiles they keep. But you can rest assured, if the media or general public find out about their past, it will be used against them – regardless of its relevance – at every turn.
Winston Churchill once famously said that: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.”
He was right, yet if we were to judge present society by its treatment of crime and criminals we might find ourselves wishing to look away. People, as a rule, have an instinctive feeling for unfairness. However, the media – in large part owned by billionaires closely affiliated to right wing interests – consistently scapegoats and marginalises those groups who are easiest to attack. People with criminal records remain the Number One target, followed shortly after by refugees. There are many reasons for this, but a lot stems from the convenience of having a group of ‘irredeemable, violent reprobates’ who can keep wider society fearful, distrustful of each other and pliable to authorities.
If we are to be serious about social inclusion, why should it be totally fine to be prejudiced against one particular group, based on the same kind of reasoning that was used to discriminate against other groups? It is very convenient to decry prejudice that is not socially acceptable, whilst embracing prejudice directed towards ‘fringe’ groups. Just because the press and those in power support such prejudice. Just because we don’t have the emotional or intellectual insight to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.
The alternative: condemn each person based on their transgression against the law at some point of their lives. Disregard the circumstances of this and the behaviour they demonstrated after the formal term of their punishment. Continue to exclude, discriminate and attack them at every opportunity. What you are left with is a cruel, dysfunctional society, one that would cast a whole segment of the population aside to its own harm, one where indeed most people who have offended go on to re-offend. Ask yourself what that society looks like, and you won’t have to look very far.