On my way home from work one day last week, I heard a bit of news that left me feeling very unimpressed with Jack Straw. It was his decision to keep Ronnie Biggs in jail and not parole him, even though the Parole Board had recommended it.
Ronnie Biggs is a bit of an anti-hero to people of a certain age in this country. He was one of the Great Train Robbers. He was locked up for the crime but then escaped and spent three decades on the run before deciding he wanted to come back home to this country after a series of strokes.
While he was on the run and in Brazil, he rather inadvisedly made some recordings with the remains of the Sex Pistols (post-John Lydon) and some of the words of one of the songs are still clear in my memory: Ronnie Biggs was doing time/Until he done a bunk/But now he says he’s seen the light/And sold his soul to Punk. I say inadvisedly not because of the sentiments, I actually rather liked the apparent lack of remorse shown at the time and it still appeals, but because the song was bloody appallingly bad and Ronnie just couldn’t sing. That was one of my first memories of the man. I had been too young to be aware of the furore surrounding the Great Train Robbery.
So he came back to England and was sent to jail to finish his sentence. Ten or so years later, he’s still in jail. He’s not the Ronnie we knew and loved. I heard his solicitor say how he is completely incapacitated and would be unable to reoffend. He cannot walk, he cannot talk. I didn’t hear it all because while the solicitor was speaking, I was screaming at Jack Straw (not that he could hear me) for being such a bastard.
I later saw Ronnie’s son, Michael, give a press conference on television about the decision. He filled out the gaps. His father cannot walk or talk or read or write. He can barely communicate. He cannot eat or drink. He is completely incapable of reoffending. Michael showed so much dignity I was really moved and impressed by his whole demeanour.
It makes me question our leaders: for a start, I thought our criminal justice system, and prison especially, had two main purposes: to rehabilitate offenders and to protect society from them. As far as I am aware and, if I am wrong, Mr Straw is absolutely welcome to put me right on this point, prison is not about Society having its revenge on offenders. If that were so, couldn’t we just forget about prison sentences, probation and community service orders? Just erect pillories and stocks in town and city centres and allow us to throw rocks at petty offenders and we could publicly castrate rapists and murder murderers. That’s revenge.
So, if prison isn’t about revenge and it is about rehabilitation and protecting the public, why does Ronnie Biggs have to stay in jail? He is no longer a danger to society and we are no longer able to tell if he has rehabilitated or not and I’m not too sure just how relevant that is now in his case, anyway. He’s a dying man.
I hope that Ronnie’s family and the people working for him are successful. I hope he is released and that he does not die in prison. I think a society which allows people who are no longer a danger to die in prison is something I want no part of. I want to be able to hold my head high and say that the society of which I am a part is a compassionate society.