Like most other institutions, prisons cannot run on repression alone. Prisoners’ conformity to the rules doesn’t come solely at the end of a baton: there needs to be a carrot as well as a stick. The main carrot is time off for good behavior.

In Britain, a prisoner given a three-year sentence normally gets 18 months off for good behavior. If he breaks the rules, the warden can—or rather could, until a recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights—remove from seven to 28 days of his time off for each offence. The system minimized wrongdoing and ensured the smooth running of the prison.

The European Court has found this system arbitrary and an infringement of human rights. It has ruled that henceforth the person deciding on the punishment of the prisoner must not work for the institution in which he is held. Furthermore, the prisoner must have legal representation at any hearing within the prison concerning his possible punishment. Thus the court has transformed at a stroke the withdrawal of a privilege—time off for good behavior—into the violation of a human right.

Cui bono? Obviously the lawyers: there now will be more work for them to do at public expense. But will the quality of the prisoners’ lives improve because of this ruling?

It takes very little knowledge of prison conditions to know that it will be a disaster for prisoners, except for the most violently psychopathic among them. The worst kind of prison, as every prisoner will tell you, is the one run by the prisoners rather than by the prison officers: but that is precisely the kind of prison that this ruling will promote. By reducing the authority of the warden, the court has increased the authority of the gang leaders. By turning disciplinary action into a complex, expensive, legal-bureaucratic process, it will discourage the staff of our prisons from taking action to punish infringements of the rules. There will be more bullying and intimidation of prisoners, and more violence among them—all brought about in the name of human rights.

The decision is crude legal utopianism in action: the idea that we can bring about a perfectly just world if only we have enough legal procedures at our disposal. No sense of reality, no understanding of the ironies of human existence, enters the minds of the judges. In its politically correct rejection of existing local conditions and traditions, the European Court, like the European Community it represents, must have Burke turning in his grave. Such shallowness masquerading as political virtue can lead only to disaster.


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