After a long spell away, I’ve decided to cover a topic which may not be furiously relevant or all over the tabloids, but one which has exercised my spleen for many a year, and which I never cease to find fascinating. It’s an issue that the press rarely seem to pick up on, even though it is they that give it the most coverage. I’m referring to the issue of prisoners appointing themselves as moral arbiters, particularly with reference to cases where children are involved.
The abduction, murder or abuse of children is vile, and it’s not exactly rocking the boat to point that out. We are all aware of it, and there are few people clamouring for the release of offenders such as Ian Huntley or Roy Whiting. But not a single case involving a child seems to pass without the press informing us that the prisoners incarcerated alongside the suspect are taking a personal interest. In a recent example Karen Matthews, the mother of the abducted child Shannon Matthews and herself accused of child neglect and perverting the course of justice, was placed on suicide watch following threats from fellow prisoners. This is very far from an isolated example, and it begs a vital question: Are these people the least self-aware morons on the planet, or what?
In the course of the papers’ coverage of the death threats and bullying of prisoners such as Karen Matthews, it is difficult to find among the often quasi-approving text any detail of what those doing the bullying were convicted of themselves, but I’m willing to bet that at best a minority are in for shoplifting or public nudity. In general, we’re talking GBH convicts, armed robbers and, without question, murderers. So what has brought about the conversion that miraculously changes them into saints where a high-profile case involving children is concerned? Everyone has the right to an opinion, of course, and it’s one of a few rights that is (and should remain) unaffected by a criminal conviction. But would these people’s rushes to moral judgement not, perhaps, have been better employed before they smashed a glass in someone’s face or stabbed a complete stranger?
There’s an old joke, the telling of which I will make a complete mess of now, for your delectation.
A man driving down the road is arrested by police who suspect that the vehicle he is driving has been stolen. He is charged with the offence and is told he can face trial by jury or by magistrates. He asks for clarification of the difference between the two. “Well,” he is told, “the magistrates are court-appointed legal experts who will listen to the evidence and judge your case on its merits. A jury would consist of twelve of your peers who will do the same”. “Peers?” says the man, “what does that mean?” “Well, twelve ordinary people, just like you.” replies his counsel.
“In that case,” says the man, “I think I’ll take my chances with the magistrates. I’m fucked if I want to be judged by twelve car thieves!”
Not, I will grant you, very funny. But it raises a point which I can’t help thinking is often ignored – that the very worst people to judge a moral quandary are those who have been proven morally suspect. Most people in jail, whatever you may think about the vagaries of the legal system, are there for a reason. They’re not nice people, and their morals are not what you might call … how to put this … remotely intact. So instead of yelling death threats after lights out or planning to smuggle a Stanley knife into the shower block, could they not just try and sort out the motes in their own eyes first? Put some thought into why they are behind bars, maybe consider some remorse for their victims, look at changing their ways?
The “justification” that is often given (and swallowed by many who should know better) is that people who harm children – or allow them to come to harm – are in a special class all by themselves. The scum of the earth. As though there is some kind of league table. Now, I’m not saying that my own moral judgement is without its flaws, but if your one claim to the moral high ground is that the person whose life you took, whose body or safety you violated was born before Bros released their debut single “I Owe You Nothing”, then you’re desperately ill-equipped to judge anyone. More fool anyone for trumpeting your entitlement to do so – you may be a different sort of bastard, but you’re still a bastard.
The legal system will have its say on Karen Matthews, as it has and will do in the future with other suspects. And it is far, far better equipped so to do than a bunch of criminals.