Thursday, 23 February 2017

Locked up!

Phil and I have just finished watching our latest HBO box set. Knowing that we had in the past enjoyed watching NYPD Blue, Homicide - Life on the Streets and The Wire, our son bought is The Night Of. Or perhaps its full title is What Happened The Night Of. Whatever its actual title we just finished watching this gripping, tense, depressing series.

It tells the sad tale of Nasir Khan, a young man of Pakistani American family who, in the process of just getting on with his life in New York, finds himself accused of murder. All the circumstantial evidence points towards him and the police do not investigate any further. Denied bail on the grounds that he has extended family in Pakistan and, despite being born in the USA, never having been to Pakistan and possibly not even having a passport, he might be a flight risk, he is remanded to Rikers Island to await trial.

There he has to learn to survive. Which means that he learns to be brutal when he has to, shaving his head and gradually acquiring more and more tattoos. He learns to help smuggle drugs into the prison and becomes addicted.

Even when the trial falls apart and the system finds him not proven guilty, which is not quite the same as being found officially innocent either, we know his life will never be the same as before. Everything around him is tainted by the events of The Night Of. His community regards him with suspicion. His relationship with his mother is ruined. His father has lost his livelihood. His family's life has been changed utterly. And even the young attorney who defended him has seen her professional life and opportunities reduced.

All in all it is a sad indictment of the police investigation system, the judiciary system and the prison system in the USA.

Years ago I read Cormac McCarthy's book All the Pretty Horses in which young John Grady Cole ends up in a Mexican prison and has to fight for his life every day of his stay there. The brutality of the prison guards and their turning a blind eye to violence meted out by those prisoners who were at the top of the prison hierarchy shocked me. But well, that was Mexico and it was years ago, 1940s to 1950s. Surely things like that did not go on now.

Apparently they did and still do.

Of course, all I know of American prisons comes from novels and films and TV series. I knew the name Rikers Island and knew it was a prison but little more so I googled it.

It "has a budget of $860 million a year, a staff of 9,000 officers and 1,500 civilians managing 100,000 admissions per year and an average daily population of 10,000 inmates." So the prison is the size of a small town.
Here's some more:

"it has become notorious for abuse and neglect of prisoners in recent years, attracting increased media and judicial scrutiny that has resulted in numerous rulings against the New York City government. Rikers Island is also notorious for numerous assaults by inmates on staff (uniformed and civilian)
resulting in often serious injuries making Rikers Island one of the most dangerous places to work. In May 2013, Rikers Island ranked as one of the ten worst correctional facilities in the United States."

And more:

 "Violence on Riker's Island has been increasing. In 2015 there were 9,424 assaults which was the highest number in 5 years.On the other hand, murder is rare on Riker's island with none recorded in 2015 or 2016 as of the end of November."

So what we see in films and TV series may be quite true to life.

Are things any better in the UK? I have to confess to knowing less about our prison system, or at least to having watched less stuff on TV about it. But news reports suggest we have many of the same problems. Possible to a lesser degree still there and, by all accounts, growing. Here's a link to a news report about proposed legislation to "shake up" some aspects of prison administration.

I notice that it talks about the introduction of league tables and performance standards. Having seen league tables in operation in education, I have more than a few doubts about their effectiveness. As with schools and hospitals, I find myself wondering if running prisons on a business model is really the best idea. The fact remains that too many people are locked up in institutions that are too big and which are understaffed.

This is the 21st century. Can we not find a better way to run things?

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