Seek out uncongenial company in 2017

Ben Summerskill, Director at the Criminal Justice Alliance - 6 January 2017

hmp-birminghamThe painfully predictable riots at HMP Birmingham just before Christmas caused one prison reformer to share with Twitter the firm view that ‘everyone’ knows we need to reduce the population of Britain’s overcrowded prisons. It was a guileless insight into a worldview that made me sit up.

‘Everyone’ in congenial sitting rooms across north London might well know that we need to reduce the prison population. ‘Everyone’ might know it in the offices of criminal justice charities. ‘Everyone’ might know it in the HQs of progressive newspapers.

But if everyone in Britain really knew it, we simply wouldn’t have the largest prison population in our history. Similarly, there’d be a sense of public outrage that a sclerotic prison service could leave hundreds of healthy men locked up for 23 hours a day with inadequate exercise and no hot water and then be surprised to find that – at some tipping point – they get angry.

This snapshot of received wisdom reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a veteran human rights campaigner. She explained to me excitedly that she’d spoken the evening before to a meeting of 120 people. ‘And do you know Ben, every one of them agreed with me!’

I couldn’t help thinking at the time – but was too polite to say – that if you’re in the business of influencing, and you’re spending your evening in a room where 120 people all agree with you, you’re probably in the wrong room.

As a student three decades ago I remember once protesting at the clothing store Benetton. (I can’t recall exactly what we were outraged about at the time.) We’d enter the shop looking respectably intent on making a purchase. We’d then unfold as many sweaters as we could before the security guard threw us out. I doubt it made any difference to Benetton, but it was very therapeutic for us.

It reminds me starkly that the only real reason for being involved in advocacy of any sort is to change people’s minds. About the pointlessness of so much imprisonment, for a start. And each of us will only ever do that if our new year resolve is to spend even more time in 2017 in rooms with people who don’t agree with us.