With the prison population in England and Wales reaching a record 85,706 earlier this month, and showing no sign of slowing in the near future, The Fear Factory’s cogent critique of our warped criminal justice system is both timely and very welcome.
So how have we ended up with the largest prison population in Western Europe, when we imprisoned just 45,000 people in 1993?
Using interviews with practitioners, former prisoners, politicians and journalists the 60-minute documentary patiently argues that since the late 1970s there has been an “arms race between the two political parties about being tougher than the other” on law and order.
Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, Rod Morgan, the head of the Youth Justice Board between 2004 and 2007, highlights how “we have become more interventionist, more punitive – dragging more and more kids into the system and dealing with them more punitively.” Juliet Lyons, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, concurs, pointing out “sentencing has got harsher”, which will surprise many as it “flies in the face of what we often read in the papers.”
Representing the popular press Chris Roycroft-Davies, an ex-leader writer at The Sun, argues the tabloids are simply reflecting the public’s craving for “proper sentencing”. It’s a common sense argument, but one the film has little time for, noting that while violent crime makes up just 3 percent of total crime, it makes up 45 percent of the media-crime reporting. Furthermore, Morgan’s maintains “the sophisticated evidence about public attitudes” show “the public are not very punitive. Infact their attitudes are quite supportive of quite liberal measures.”
David Cameron’s brief dalliance focussing on the social factors behind anti-social behaviour in 2006 is a perfect example of the detrimental influence of the right-wing press. Double teamed by a braying media mob and the Labour frontbench, the new Prime Minister was attacked and ridiculed for wanting to “Hug a hoodie”. “It was a political lesson for every politician”, argues Martin Narey, former-Director General of the Prison Services. Cameron certainly didn’t need telling twice, bluntly informing the Police Federation in the aftermath of the media storm, “I am a Conservative. I believe in punishment.”
What to do about the current crisis? Mentoring and intensive fostering are briefly discussed, as is the fact the Youth Justice Board’s budget is skewed towards custody rather than early prevention. Positive first steps no doubt, but there is a feeling of the filmmakers ducking more radical, far-reaching solutions to this ongoing crisis.
This though, is a minor criticism of a compelling and well-paced documentary that turns the popular punitive logic on its head. Contrary to hysterical newspaper headlines such as “Youth jail is like a holiday camp” (Daily Telegraph) Narey argues “If we were really determined to reduce crime and future victims, I honestly, honestly believe we would send fewer young people to prison.”
In short, The Fear Factory should be compulsory viewing for every journalist, politician and interested member of the public. Better still it should be stapled to the front of every right-wing tabloid that continues to brazenly feed the public’s ignorance of crime in search of naked profit and political influence.