At dawn on March 13 this year - a Sunday - immigration officials raided the home of Verah Kachepa, a Malawian asylum seeker who had lived here for five years. They took Verah and her four children Natasha, 20, Alex, 17, Anthony, 16, and Upili, 10, to the Yarl's Wood detention centre.
Natasha said she was forced to undress in front of two officials, one male, one female. 'It's nothing I haven't seen before,' said the man, according to Natasha. The family was released ten days later. (The Children's Commissioner for England said in 2005 that conditions at Yarl's Wood violated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.)
Verah's former husband left - leaving a scene of domestic violence and debt - and is now living with the niece of Malawi's former dictator, Hastings Banda. The family had applied for asylum on the grounds that the still-influential Banda family might harm them were they to return to Malawi. The Home Office refused the application and they were finally flown to Malawi on August 25.
Verah had raised four children on her own for five years. Natasha's fiancee, Tom Sanderson, who she'd been with for four years, was injured fighting with the British Army in Iraq. Alex had been offered a job as a nightclub DJ. The family had deep roots in their community. On the day they left, 200 people gathered in support outside the family's home in Weymouth. 'They've drawn together the town,' said one resident. Yet they were treated like common criminals and then deported.
On Tuesday, Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced that 1,023 foreign prisoners had been released when they should have been considered for deportation.
The classic description of the noble swan is that it is calm and regal above the water while paddling furiously underneath. The Home Office under New Labour is the exact opposite. A gaudy monstrosity above, it flaps and mugs, screaming for attention with headline-catching initiatives here (banging up suspected terrorists without trial), flourishes of bureaucratic cruelty there (deporting the Kachepas, for instance), and technocratic turds (ID cards) everywhere. Below the water, however, lack of exercise and cramp (Clarke is famed for having two main courses at lunch) mean there doesn't seem to be an awful lot going on. It's the political equivalent of a Davina McCall vehicle.
It's been said that Charles Clarke's career will be finally laid to rest should one of the released murderers, paedophiles and rapists (totalling 17 out of the entire bunch) kill, assault or rape again. It's much the same as the way the media scrambled to find out if any teachers on the Sex Offenders Register, permitted by Ruth Kelly to work in schools, had taken too close an interest
in their charges.
If any of the 1,023 did commit further crimes, that - it goes without saying - would be terrible. But there is a more fundamental reason why Clarke should go - the disgraceful state of our prison system. The Government's own figures show that almost 60 per cent of convicted criminals re-offend on their release. So, statistically speaking, we can expect around 600 of Clarke's crew to be up to no good.
Many right-wingers think prison is a doddle - how many times have you heard someone on a radio phone-in expound knowledgably that 'prisons are more like holiday camps these days'. Then again, many panty-waister liberals see prisons as abattoirs of round-the-clock rape and shankings. In reality it's probably a happy medium. Punishment is a concept that appeals to all of us but if so many people go on to re-offend after leaving prison, you'd be forgiven for asking just what the point is of locking them up in the first place. Punishment has failed to make a difference other than to merely delay the committing of more crime. Similarly, you could say that, if we can predict that so many will return to crime, why let them out at all?
There is, in fact, an easy answer to this problem. It does, however, have one major drawback: it is nauseatingly liberal and therefore does not have the power to generate shrill headlines in the way that the deportation of asylum seekers, illiberal anti-terrorism laws and ASBOs, so beloved by our right-wing press, do. What are we talking about? Rehabilitation.
The Government has a 'Reducing Re-offending Action Plan' with which it hopes to shave re-offending rates by ten per cent by 2010. Precedents aren't good. A National Probation Service initiative launched in early 2003 and called 'What Works' failed miserably to meet a more modest reduction of five percent (rates actually increased). As a cynic might expect, these plans are short on detail and long on guff such as 'develop a strategy...' and 'undertake a joint pilot...'. Currently, as few as ten per cent of prisoners complete programmes designed to reduce re-offending.
It's been said, by right-wing former Tory Home Secretary David Waddington no less, that prison is 'an expensive way of making bad people worse'. There are, however, cheap and easy ways to combat re-offending. Easiest and cheapest of all is to jail criminals close to their families. Research shows that prisoners jailed long distances from home naturally receive fewer visits which can impact on their behaviour while inside. It can also lead to family break up meaning prisoners have nowhere to go on release and are more likely to return to crime.
Another inexpensive idea is to improve prisoners' diets and teach them how to eat healthily on the outside. A study conducted in 2003 showed that improving the food in prisons cut violent behaviour by 35 per cent. Yet the Prison Service refused to accept the study's findings or fund any further research.
In his book, 'Pretty Straight Guys', journalist Nick Cohen explained how it's actually cheaper and safer to educate and care for young offenders individually rather than the current policy of stacking them all up in institutions where they learn from each other about how to be better criminals.
These are only a few of the element - aside from literacy programmes and counselling - and admittedly they're not going to work for everybody. The likes of Daily Mail and Express readers, however, regard raising levels of comfort in prisons above a bucket in the corner and 23 hours a day locked up as elevating criminals to the silk smoking jacket and soft toilet papered splendour of Noel Coward in the Italian Job. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that prison officers use access to therapy and rehabilitation programmes as tools of control: 'Do as I say or you don't get to go to your workshop.' Which is a little like the scene in 'The League of Gentlemen' where satanic Restart Officer, Pauline, stops one of her clients from attending a job interview because it would mean him missing the Jobseeker Club's session on how to get an interview.
And yet it should be an article of common sense that the fewer people re-offending, the safer society becomes. It might - maybe, just, maybe - prevent another Stephen Ayre or Damien Hanson. Itwould also save the £11 billion that re-offending costs the UK every year. Unless, of course, people are trapped in a prurient sado-masochistic addiction to headlines of rape and murder, and pouring money down the drain.
Although not a vote winner for politicians, particularly those with an authoritarian itch like the current bunch, it's in all of our interests to treat prisoners humanely. Concern for public safety should be reflected in a greater concern for the prison population. Had Charles Clarke given such mundane and unpopular matters deeper consideration, he could have stood in the House of Commons on Wednesday and said, 'Yes, it was a terrible mistake that these people were freed and not deported but our own figures show that thanks to our rehabilitation programmes, very few of these people pose a risk to public safety.'
If Clarke (and his predecessors) had been just a little more compassionate, and not wasted time and resources persecuting the likes of the Kachepa family for hard-man headlines, he might have saved himself from a shanking of his own.