Sunday 5 June 2016


This blog ends with an extract from the conclusion of Jago Stone's autobiography: The Burglar's Bedside Companion (1975) - see my website for further details of this remarkable book. Jago was a fine writer as well as a talented artist and as you will discover by reading to the end of this blog he makes a powerful case for prison reform.

Let me make my position clear. I think the state of our prisons and our prison system is a disgrace. Forty and more years have passed since Jago wrote his heartfelt critique and matters have only worsened. A nation should be judged in good measure on the quality of its penal system when assessing its degree of civilisation. We emerge from such accounting as semi-barbarians. There is something rotten in the state of Britain and it is our prisons. No political party seems willing to risk losing votes by taking the lid off this scandal. We are locking up more and more people and many of  these prisoners should never be in jail in the first place. I say 'we' and although I understand  these penal actions are not directly ours I do not hear cries of protest. Collectively, we would rather avert our attention from this scandal. But we shouldn't. If we do, our society is diminished.

Behind Bars

A former colleague of mine has now served around three years of his sixteen years sentence. This is not the place or time to discuss the particulars of his case. He was an acquaintance at work for whom I had respect. After I had left that field of work I discovered that he was on trial and after his sentencing and imprisonment decided to write to him in jail. I assumed his guilt and I wanted to extend the hand of my friendship. Sixteen years deprived of liberty is a tough punishment.

Nearly forty letters, fifteen emails and one prison visit later, I am better appraised of the consequences of locking people up in overcrowded jails with prison staff suffering from stress and

low morale. I realise that many of these prisoners are themselves suffering mental health crises that are long-term and predate their incarceration. Some are innocent and cannot afford the legal fight for their release. All are forced to endure a system that is systemically rotten. A blot on our social conscience. Of course there are those in jail who should be there and society needs protection from their violence. But when so ever such violent criminals are released after serving their sentence, heaven help the poor innocent who is their next victim because prisons are notoriously bad at rehabilitation. People get worse in prison, not better, by and large.

All this Jago knew. He served the best part of two decades behind bars. Here is the extract:

'Nobody worries about the man who steals another man's wife, but the same man will be sent to prison for stealing another man's property. The whole of our legal system has been built up to protect property. That is why train-robbers get 30 years and a rapist only two.

Every "criminal" I have met has a particular problem. If there are 600 men in Dartmoor, you have 600 problems. We cannot help those men to relate to society by locking them away. I speak, of course, about people who have offended against property and not about those who, for some psychopathic reason, have offended against people ... my long association with violent men in prison taught me that basically they are sick men who can only find self-expression by violence. Violent criminals are not born violent. They are made so by society ... Society's lust for revenge is not the answer. An emotive reaction to any problem of any kind is bound to increase the problem. As history shows it is the normal reaction of the warmonger ...

I owe my present style of life to the practical  concern of other people who have helped me. I do not owe it to any system of penal reform or any set of moral clich├ęs.

The only formula for  helping people - and it works  every time - is the outstretched hand of another human being, offered with sincerity'.

The Prisoner

Jago says much more on the matter of prisons and I will provide more extracts in the course of these next two years before the completion and publication of my biography. His was a life worth knowing more about and understanding with compassion. His views on prison reform certainly stand the test of time.                        

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