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A View from Inside Crime in England

I went through the English justice system a fair number of times (strong addiction to shoplifting) and got some picture of what it looks like here in England. I never went to prison, luckily, but I met and got to know quite a number of people who did. I spent several hundred hours doing community service, a sort of mild detention done in the United Kingdom (UK) for 'less serious' offences. It involved doing community work on weekends, usually of a manual/repetitive nature. I think I have a little bit of insight into what led to me getting into crime in the first place and what helped me to kick it.

In the UK there are all kinds of people with all kinds of reasons for being in the criminal justice system. I never met anybody who was in it because he or she had been starving or couldn't feed the children, although there have been cases well-publicized in British newspapers of young mothers apparently stealing food for their children and being sent to prison for minor shoplifting offences. I myself didn't meet many women involved in crime, and the men I met were mostly habitual 'offenders,' hooked on the various aspects of criminal activity, like myself.

The ex-prisoners and men heading for prison that I met mostly seemed to fall into three camps: (1) men with chronic addictions to drugs or alcohol; (2) men like myself with some kind of chronic criminal distress such as looking for easy money, the thrill of stealing, violence, etc.; and (3) men with little education and with home backgrounds in which there was a history of crime, aggression in the family, etc. In most cases, I would say it was a mixture of these elements.

I don't know how much choice a lot of these men had. It felt like I had a choice and repeatedly decided to go stealing, get the money, etc., but perhaps this isn't exactly true. I guess it all comes down to discharging the associated distresses. I found that for me, being caught and treated by the criminal justice system was a stimulus to discharge, which I was lucky enough to be able to do because of some dedicated support from Co-Counsellors. Discharge was evidently not very available to the other men who had been caught, but I did my best to encourage it. Discharge did seem to help them a little at times. From these experiences I'm convinced that a criminal justice system that actually promoted discharge and allowed people time for that would be of great benefit. It would also have to be non-permissive and backed up with a great deal of resource. Some of the patterns, especially the aggressive and addicted ones, are potentially very dangerous.

I got treated less harshly by the courts, the police, and the criminal justice system in general than would have been the case had I been black, younger, or more working-class. I know from my personal experience that both sustained and petty crimes are rife in the middle and upper classes-it's just that they take forms which are not considered harmful by the system, or that the people committing them are considered more likely to be able to 'turn themselves around'; or that the offenders simply overawe and smooth-talk their way out of trouble more successfully or they make use of any of the other tricks and benefits of superior class positions. Result: the prisons in the UK are full of black people and people from working-class and poor backgrounds.

I didn't get out of crime by being punished or by having my liberty taken away every Sunday for almost a year, but these probably did serve as a basis for my seeing that what I was doing was not good or helpful or in my own interests. Stuck in the addiction of crime, it was hard to see beyond it. And I am someone who had opportunities through education, class, and relaxed viewpoints to see that there might be other ways to live. My main addiction was to easy money and to danger and self-humiliation. The addiction felt to me like a survival matter, but it wasn't. I think it is even tougher for people brought up since childhood to be engaged in crime, from families and neighbourhoods where crime is the norm, which it is for a lot of people. Even in the area in which I was brought up-a white, lower-middle-class suburb on the edge of town-crime was a major activity for many teenage boys.

I've become very interested in how we're going to get a society that isn't full of people trying to make their own way in money. In the late-capitalist UK, everything boils down to how much money you have. There are so many people making a living from crime in one way or another, and such restrictions placed in the way of earning an honest living (all this gets more and more intense as the wealthy shareholders accumulate more and are willing to share less), that things are pretty well dug in. In a way it's true that there are now a lot of people in our society who can't make a living any other way. Once you have a criminal record, it's much harder to get a job. Most of the people you know are in the black market or the criminal world, and there isn't much interest in rehabilitation from the authorities, only in punishment. So I think we're going to have our work cut out for us.

A'reformed shoplifter'

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00