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Archive for February, 2014

So this guy’s convicted for his involvement in an armed robbery when he’s like 23. Sentenced to thirteen years, which the system expects him to sit out mostly inside a small cage in a secure building somewhere with lots of other people convicted of similar crimes. While he’s appealing the conviction, he’s bailed and gets to go back home, to wait and see if they’re going to come get him and put him in that cage until he’s 36.

By some bizarre quirk of admin, he slips through a crack. These cogs of the bureaucratic machine over here get the wrong idea about what those gears over there are doing, and vice versa. Nobody comes to take this guy to jail. Nobody tells him he’s off the hook, either, because he’s not, but a clerical error means it never becomes anybody’s job to take him to prison.

Thirteen years go by. This guy starts to relax a little, never completely, just a little. Starts to think maybe they’re not going to come for him. He gets married, has four children, learns a trade, starts a business, builds a house for himself and his family. He’s a guy in his mid-thirties now, living a decent, unremarkable, commendable life. Insofar as he was ever a renegade tearaway in his early twenties, he’s a reformed character. A model citizen.

Then a piece of paper or a spreadsheet somewhere comes along, tells a bemused clerk in an office that it’s time to release this guy from prison, where (so the system understands) he’s been quietly serving a thirteen-year sentence.

After some confusion, the local police department realise they’ve got a rather overdue errand to run. They turn up at this guy’s house, and take him to jail.

He was allowed to phone his mother-in-law first, so that his two-year-old daughter wouldn’t be left alone in the house.

Some people are suggesting that this is all pretty fucked up. That whatever administrative cock-ups might have been made in the past, nothing is served by following through on this rigmarole to the bitter end of the dotted line now, and punishing a man who’s worlds away from the person who, back in the 90s, may have let someone borrow his car who then committed a crime – let alone depriving a mother and four children of their husband and father.

I guess if you’re the sort of communist who refuses to venerate the blindly consistent following of arbitrary rules regardless of the individual circumstances, and places greater value on distracting and confusing concepts like humanity and compassion, I can see how you might think like that. But if you don’t want jobsworths robotically enforcing whatever’s written down in black and white, allowing lists of checkboxes to define the way the world is, then what do you think the whole criminal justice system is even for?

I guess the point of prisons, besides keeping criminals locked up where they can’t keep hurting the rest of us, is to serve as a deterrent. Leaving aside whether or not this works even slightly, the idea is that people will be persuaded not to commit crimes because they don’t want to be locked in a cage – but for those people who do nevertheless live their lives in a way that society has deemed unacceptable, presumably something similar is supposed to happen to them. Unless you run a private prison, you don’t want former convicts to commit more crimes and have to be locked in a cage again. They’re meant to be put off that experience, and steer clear of a life of crime in the future. They’re meant to be shaped into better people, who do productive and valuable things, like raise children, learn a trade, start a business, build a house. You know. Model citizens.

Is prison meant to turn Cornealious Anderson into a model citizen? Is it meant to instil in him a respect for authority, a fear of punishment by the system, which will keep him on the straight and narrow in future? Is the life he’s been building and living for the past decade insufficiently virtuous, and is putting him in prison while his children grow up going to improve it?

Of course, even if locking this guy in a cage almost until he’s 50 does no actual good to anybody, and only damages and destroys relationships and things that currently exist, and rectifies nothing that happened in the past – even then, we should probably lock this guy up. If we just let him get on with his productive, valuable life as a husband and father, it might set a precedent. Other criminals might end up going free, instead of serving their time – and we’ve seen what kind of nightmares ensue when we let that happen. Precedents are important.

Cornealious Anderson is currently sitting in jail. Here’s hoping this convicted criminal fails in his latest appeal, and can finally be brought to justice. Because some principles are just too important too abandon, even when they make literally everybody worse off.

(h/t This American Life)

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Pointing out the inhumanity, cruelty, viciousness, and not-remotely-disguised contempt for dehumanised individuals which drives modern Tory welfare policy is always something I can get behind. But the graphic at the top of this post is entirely the wrong way to think about all of this.

It’s not a “handout”
It’s not “welfare”
It’s not “something for nothing”
It’s money from the government from a fund you have paid into, for when times are hard.
And it belongs to you.

The Irritable Duncan Syndromes and the Kate Trollkinses of the world are fixated on whether people (at least, people who start with very little) think they “deserve” anything they didn’t “earn” themselves. Within a certain unbalanced, unfair, and totally rigged framework for what constitutes “earnings”, of course. If you’re in possession of a single penny you didn’t come by through some means arbitrarily deemed acceptable to our capitalist ideals (run a bank that loses everyone else’s money: good; inheritance: good; £56.80 a week from the state to stop you starving or freezing to death and to cover the bus fare to your full-time unpaid workfare placement: fuck off, scrounger) then they’re on the attack, letting you know exactly what society thinks of you.

Obviously people deserve better than this. But arguing that people deserve to be paid back by the welfare state, because it’s something they’ve contributed to before, plays directly into the right-wingers’ game.

They point at the likes of White Dee, screech about outrageous entitlement, and deny that she deserves any of the government-provided assistance she’s getting. If your response involves pointing at the things she might have done in the past to make her worthy of her benefits – National Insurance contributions or whatever – you’re giving too much ground to the conservatives’ premise, and simply lowering the bar for how much people have to prove themselves to you.

It’s a start, don’t get me wrong. It takes compassion and a sense of perspective to lower that bar as far as I’ve been seeing a lot on the left recently, and there’s a lot of important support for people who’ve been deemed insufficiently “deserving” by many. But you can take it even further by not playing their game at all.

I don’t think White Dee deserves the financial help to live a decent, bearable life just because she’s paid some taxes in the past, or in some way “given back” to the society she’s now counting on for support.

I think she deserves that help because she’s a human being and this is the twenty-first century, for Christ’s sake.

If you want to carry on trying to filter the deserving from the undeserving poor, making your list of who really needs help and checking it twice to make sure nobody’s snuck on there looking for a free ride, you need to know that, at the moment, your way of doing things is making cancer patients go for months without a penny due to a “backlog crisis” in assessments; stopping people’s benefits for having a heart attack during a work capability assessment; oh, and costing hundreds of millions of pounds as a result of the official government policy of throwing people out of their homes if they’re taking up slightly more space than they could conceivably be crammed into.

If, alternatively, you wanted to try being humane and generous and giving everybody something resembling a fair chance at making a decent life for themselves, then the side effects would include vastly reducing the levels of indignity and suffering inflicted on the poor by the state. And on the negative side, well, some people would get enough money that they wouldn’t have to starve to death or worry about ending up homeless, even if they didn’t work for it.

Wait, I mean – some poor people will get that. That’s the only way it’s actually news.

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Yep.

The system is fucked. When it’s working well, it fucks people over with maximal efficiency. We need something wholly different, not just to patch some things over in a way that’ll hopefully suck a bit less.

A caution: While you’re burning the system to the ground, be careful of the people inside it, propping it up. They’re not the enemy. In a way, they’re a victim of it just as much as you are.

Classroom discussion questions

1. In no more than twenty words, what would an acceptable replacement to the current system look like and how can it be achieved?

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