Covid-19: Welcome to the real meaning of Prison

By Mark Leech FRSA, Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales

I have often said that ‘liberty’ is what matters most and ultimately the deprivation of that liberty is the punishment which the court imposes when it sends people to prison.

The public have said in response to me: NO!

‘Deprivation of liberty’ is not a punishment, it is not enough prisons, they say, should be harsh, austere with attenuated regimes, no rights, basic amenities and with little residual freedom of movement or choice.

‘If you can’t do the time don’t do the crime’ – a ridiculous assertion that ignores the 11,000 unconvicted remand prisoners and, in addition, those who go on to be acquitted or given non custodial sentences; this isn’t Alice in Wonderland where we have sentence first and verdict last; this is real life.

But now perhaps now they need to rethink that in light of their own Covid-19 experiences?

What the public have consistently failed to understand, but perhaps now start to grasp and accept, is the severity of what ‘deprivation of liberty’ actually means?

Now, perhaps, with the self-isolating sentence that the Coronavirus has imposed on everyone, they may just be able to grasp the concept of what I have been saying?

Where people are self-isolated and are confined to their own homes, with all its inherent luxuries of sofas, microwaves, telephones, televisions, bathrooms, showers and where they still complain that they confined in some kind of ‘prison’ – that has always been my point.

None of that, all those material things, mean anything without the freedom to leave all of that behind.

I can lock you in a 5-star hotel bedroom, with all possible facilities, but if I then confine you to that room, and do not permit you to leave, what at the start seemed like heaven soon starts to become a living hell.

So hopefully the coronavirus outbreak pandemic will make people realise that the ultimate personal human need is for freedom of movement; to go out for a drive at 3am, to go out and watch a movie, to go the local Snooker Hall or pub or take a flight and go away for the weekend – it is the deprivation of THAT freedom which is the essence of true punishment itself.

We do not need to go further and humiliate and degrade people with overcrowded, vermin-infested, under-staffed, dangerous, conditions; confinement itself, as people are finding, is actually punishment enough itself isn’t it?

That is what Scandinavian countries and cultures have long realised; shouldn’t we at least give it a try?