Notes of an accidental jailer

THE LEAST EXPERIENCE OF PRISONS teaches you that they’re criminal universities for prisoners; they morally corrupt all law-enforcement officers; they make criminal the societies they’re intended to ‘protect’.

Like every human creature I have ever met or heard of, I am in part evil. Between the convicted and the unconvicted, the only differences I can see are those of fact, or of degree, not that of essence. Morally, we’re all in the nick; but most of us are lucky, prudent, or our private evil’s licensed by our laws.

Criminal law, in any society, is a haphazard approximation — usually with a time-lag of at least 50 years — to whatever this society supposes absolute law to be: the law of God, of Marx, or of a terrified Caribbean general. The varieties of crime — and therefore ‘criminal’ — in the world today are eccentric, extensive, totally irrational.

But even when the rules are understood, their application fluctuates from man to man. I was once accused of a crime in company with fourteen others. Two of us only were acquitted, since we could both pay for lawyers.

Unless a man is rich or of strong nerve, the real trial happens before he ever sees a court. The first 24 hours after arrest — especially the first hour — determine subsequent police procedure. If he’s alone, frightened, friendless, he’ll convict himself — whether guilty, innocent, or ‘guilty in fact but not by evidence’.

Are coppers monsters, then? Do they use violence, perjury, can they be corrupted? And if they do and can, who is “to blame” for this?

Direct knowledge — let alone common-sense — must tell us violence is used. You’re one, they’re six, it’s 3 a.m., you ‘don’t want to co-operate’ … what on earth must happen? When your ‘case’ comes up (one of hundreds they’ve handled — perjury ceases to be a ‘problem’), are they going to ‘tell the whole truth’ against their profoundest professional instincts? In the criminal world, if a discreet man with fivers falling out of his ears offers money to a man much poorer, yet momentarily powerful, how likely will the poorer man be to refuse it?

But let us consider the policeman’s problem. In countries where it’s realised what coppers are and must be (i.e. in every one, it seems, except our own), he’s not subjected, as he is in England, to the contradictory public pressures of both ‘getting his man’, and being a knight in shining armour. Further, because of his perilous power, he’s exposed, throughout his professional life, to terrible moral dangers. To be a good copper, and a good man is, in these conditions, almost to be a saint. In addition, he’s lonely: for despite archaic (largely bourgeois) legends of the public’s trust in him, he’s really a soldier of an occupation army. Also, his job’s bloody dangerous, come to think of it.

What is detestable in England isn’t coppers, isn’t criminals, but the wilful dishonesty of the right-thinking public that expects an idiot like Dixon of Dock Green to get results … and thinks of the ‘criminal classes’ as if such a ‘class’ were hereditary and permanent. What we should feel for coppers, and for criminals, is positive pity: if only for this reason — the intense sadness of their lives. (And may I add a current example of this high-minded obliqueness — which my gentle readers will like less, I imagine — and that is the shocked indignation of those who sat down in Trafalgar Square, at their subsequent treatment by the police. What sort of world do they think they live in? Don’t they know ‘civil disobedience’ is militant — or meaningless? Didn’t Gandhi’s followers get their way in the end precisely because they understood what they were doing? Aren’t there hundreds of thousands of Continental Europeans who’ve suffered, often anonymously, for their ideas? Can’t they realize the honour, and effectiveness, of a political prisoner is that he’s treated worse? Of course they’re right to protest! But the tone of injured amazement — ‘they can’t do this to me’ — is immodest, unrealistic, and ‘respectable’).

And what of the Courts? First, it has always seemed to me bizarre that men (barristers — not even solicitors) who spend half their lives pleading cases this way or that for fees, should suddenly be deemed objective underneath a judge’s wig. Any experience of their conduct and pronouncements must give them top marks for knowledge of the rules (the Law), often for ‘impartiality’ (within the limitations of these laws) — and no marks at all for any direct knowledge of the ‘criminal world’. It is as if there were a kind of doctor called a Diagnostician, who’d never been inside a hospital, not even lanced a boil — but who could decide, simply by hearing others, what fatal operation was best for you and me.

I cannot take any judge — or magistrate — seriously for a second who has learned of crime only at second hand, like a voyeur peering at a brothel. Nor anyone who judges yet who has not seen, himself feeling it in the flesh, the physical and moral consequences of his sentences — including hanging.

So what, clever boy, do you propose? As usual, a totally impractical idea, that better men than I have long known before, and which no doubt will — in several hundred years or so — become a commonplace. Namely, that the responsibility for criminals is society’s. We now accept that children, or the sick (but not yet the mentally sick, or the very old), should be cared for, and protected by those of us who are adults in good health. In any society I’d not be ashamed of, a criminal act by one of us should immediately be the intense, prior preoccupation of at least half-a-dozen of his fellows. The ‘prison’ I envisage is one where every malefactor would find at once surrounding him a dozen who, recognizing their own evil in him, would try to help him out as a voluntary human duty (and a f—g nuisance it would be, admittedly).

This means, of course, a reform not of prisons, but of ourselves: since ‘prison reform’ is an illusion, or at best a palliative. So long as we are inwardly attracted by crime, as we are — just look at any of the mass media if you’re doubtful about this — we will have prisons, and remain criminals outside them. Until we face our own, we shall project it onto others; and crime and criminals will attract us as deeply as they repel us. Criminal law, and law-enforcement officers, make crime: if you don’t believe me, consult the shades of Beria or of Himmler … though they, of course, were foreigners.

In spring 1945, by an extraordinary series of accidents, I found myself ad hoc ‘governor’ of a German prison containing 1,200 (approximately — no one knew the exact number) prisoners, some Allied, some German, some political, some criminal. My ‘duty’ was to let out only the Allied politicals; but by the time I was superseded, everyone was out except for a hundred or so (‘or so’!) German murderers, rapists, bludgeoners and so forth. My only regret now is at my timorous prejudice against letting everybody out while I still could— against letting these demons out into a safe, pure world where 15 million Europeans had just recently been murdered legally.

So one of those released murderers might have killed you?’ I hope I am true to myself in saying I’d rather he did, than be responsible for what I saw inside that prison.

COLIN MACINNES is the author of three remarkable novels of London life in the fifties, City of Spades, Absolute Beginners, and Mr. Love and Justice. His recent book of essays England, Half English gave him the reputation of “England’s most sensitive recorder of the contemporary scene.”


First published in ANARCHY Number 10, December 1961