Musical but not comedy in English jails — Straw

Last autumn our most debased and shameless tabloid newspaper, Murdoch’s Sun, denounced with its usual fake indignation a ‘comedy workshop’ at an English prison, attended by a convicted Muslim terrorist and other assorted evil-doers.  Did the minister responsible, the so-called ‘Justice Secretary’ patiently explain to The Sun the reasons for restoring prisoners’ self-respect by teaching them valued skills that would reduce the chances of their re-offending after their release?  Here’s a clue:  the Justice Secretary is one Jack Straw, former Home Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, and half a dozen other exes.  Now read on:

By JOHN KAY, Chief Reporter
Published: 21 Nov 2008

AN al-Qaeda terrorist involved in a plot to bomb London was taught how to be a stand-up COMIC at his top-security prison, The Sun can reveal. Evil Zia Ul Haq was enrolled on an eight-day “comedy workshop” at Whitemoor jail, along with murderers and rapists.
An inquiry was launched today by the director of high security prisons to consider whether further action was needed, the Ministry of Justice said. A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test in relation to prison classes.” Once they “graduated” they were due to get a certificate and display their new talents with a comedy show for fellow lags and guards.

Last night Justice Secretary Jack Straw canned the “totally unacceptable” course after The Sun alerted him. He also vetoed a plan by the Category A Cambridgeshire prison to set up its own comedy club.
[The Sun, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]

The Daily Telegraph helpfully expanded on the Justice Secretary’s prompt remedial action:

…[J]ustice secretary Jack Straw stepped in and closed the course after three days, The Sun reported. “As soon as I heard about it, I instructed it must be immediately cancelled,” he said. “It is totally unacceptable.”  Senior managers in the Prison Service, who were also unaware of it, take the same view. “Prisons should be places of punishment and reform. Providing educational and constructive pursuits is essential but the types of courses and the manner in which they are delivered must be appropriate.” … A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test [in relation to prison classes].”
[Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]

This was too much even for Mr Murdoch’s down-market Times, whose columnist Libby Purves wrote:

A month ago … I recorded the dismay spreading through the UK Prison Service as a result of Jack Straw’s banning of a well-established comedy course at Whitemoor Prison. Some nasty little toe-rag outed it to indignant tabloids looking for something to get cross about.

The result, you may recall, was the Justice Secretary’s ruling that comedy in prison is “totally unacceptable”, “not a constructive pursuit”, and that all inmate activities – even if not funded by taxpayers – “must be justified to the community”. Comedy sounded too much like fun…

A PSI – Prison Service instruction – followed this, laying down formally that all activities must now be judged not only by whether they do any good but by how they “might be perceived by the public”. Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and patron of several prison arts projects, robustly described the PSI as “lunacy”. Organisations that take arts into prison … were scared, disheartened and in some cases had projects abruptly cancelled by understandably nervous governors. Nobody, after all, has defined the parameters of a “public acceptability test”… Even obviously humane projects bringing together prisoners and families found themselves threatened. It has been a difficult time. It still is. And it shouldn’t be. Prisons should be free to do whatever contributes to rehabilitation, purpose and human connection. The “public acceptability test” still needs harpooning.  [The Times, March 2, 2009 (emphasis added)]

Ms Purves’s column went on to praise, in moving terms, a production of the great musical West Side Story by a mixture of prisoners, prison officers and a few professional actors from Pimlico Opera, in Wandsworth prison, the biggest in the country.  The production, said Ms Purves, sent two vital messages.  The first and most obvious one was about the futility and cruelty of street gang violence:

That second message is about work: co-operation, learning, taking direction and how it takes the sweated patience of theatre to create, in a live moment, a magical emotional unity between audience and performers.

Similar praise for what was evidently an outstanding and deeply moving production came from Fiona Maddocks in The Observer on 15 March:

Rejoice in these jailhouse blues

Jack Straw is clamping down on arts inside prisons. If he’d been at HMP Wandsworth last week, he might just change his mind …

Between his Wagner performances at the Royal Opera House last week Bryn Terfel slipped into Wandsworth prison in south-west London. He had a free afternoon and responded to an impromptu invitation. After visiting a few cells, the world’s most famous bass-baritone volunteered to join a group of inmates in a song…

Together they sang “Somewhere”, the yearning ballad from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. For anyone incarcerated in one of the largest prisons in western Europe together with 1,643 other male offenders, the lyrics have unbearable poignancy: “Peace and quiet and open air/ Wait for us/ Somewhere…/We’ll find a new way of living/ We’ll find a way of forgiving/ Somewhere.

Even the austere Financial Times was moved, Peter Aspden writing:

We were, of course, all expecting the barnstorming “Officer Krupke” to be rich in dramatic irony (“Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get. We ain’t no delinquents, We’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!”) and so it proved, especially when the last verse was sung extra-lustily to the prison project’s patron, former cabinet minister Michael Portillo, smiling sheepishly in the stalls.

There was still more poignancy in store when the entire male chorus, inmates every one, sang the lyrics of West Side Story’s loveliest melody: “Some day, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living…”  It can’t be often that the mise-en-scène of this particular musical is as moving as its substance, but that was certainly the case here, where its theme of redemption passed for much more than mere romantic conceit. [FT, 6 March 2009]

A friend who works as a volunteer at Wandsworth prison was also there:

[L]ike Libby Purves, I was at the opening night of this amazing show last Friday … Those of us who work as volunteers (monitoring day-to-day conditions and events in prisoners’ lives in HMP Wandsworth), know … about the inestimable value of drama and the other arts in prisons … And [Libby Purves is] absolutely right too about the quality of the production — the audience wouldn’t stop applauding at times — and what it must be doing for the prisoners taking part. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry much of the time — so, like many other people, I did both. Just imagine prisoners singing: Gee Officer Krupke….We never had the love every child oughta get…We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood.. Deep down inside us there is good…! And: He don’t need a judge he needs an analyst’s care…It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed… He’s psychologic’ly disturbed…! And so on. Hilarious stuff. But I wondered about the men singing it. Did they sense the irony? What did they feel? Learn?

I’ll try to find out from some of them in the near future when reality re-imposes itself.

Jack Straw’s ignorant, cowardly fiat, surrendering instantly to The Sun’s bullying, very nearly caused the abandonment of this hugely worth-while project.  He didn’t, you’ll notice, attempt to defend the ban on ‘inappropriate’ courses such as training in comedian’s skills in prisons, nor to deny their potential value as rehabilitation tools, boosters of morale and self-respect, bonding and community spirit.  His sole concern is whether any activity is publicly “acceptable” — acceptability, it seems, defined not by what is acceptable to Lord Ramsbotham or to others who understand that the punishment of being sent to prison is the withdrawal of liberty, not ill-treatment and mindless deprivations while behind bars: acceptability defined purely, or impurely, by what is acceptable to The Sun newspaper.  How low can a minister entrusted with ‘justice’ sink?

The Justice Secretary

The Justice Secretary

But what should we expect of Mr Straw, Justice Secretary — indeed also Lord Chancellor in his spare time?  He was the Foreign Secretary at the time of the Blair government’s illegal attack on Iraq, the senior minister whose own department’s legal advisers had warned him in writing that an attack on Iraq would constitute the crime of aggression, but who apparently had not had the courage to relay that warning to his Cabinet colleagues (we would have heard about it by now if he had) nor to resign when it was brushed impatiently aside by Mr Blair.  He was the home secretary who, as recorded by Wikipedia, “brought forward the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, increased police powers against terrorism and proposed a reduction in the right to trial by jury. These policies won praise from Margaret Thatcher who once declared ‘I trust Jack Straw. He is a very fair man.’ They were deemed excessively authoritarian by his former students’ union, which in 2000 banned him from the building…”   He was was responsible for allowing General Augusto Pinochet to return to Chile. In 2000 he turned down an asylum request from a man fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime, saying “we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concerns if you haven’t done anything wrong.”  Only Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Jack Straw have served continuously in every Labour cabinet since Labour’s triumph in 1997.  We have accumulated ample evidence by now of what kind of politician the Justice Secretary is.  Nothing that he does should surprise us.


4 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    Truly disgusting. I was speculating in a lecture this morning about whether the punitive moralism of Blair’s New Labour might be on the wane under Brown. Perhaps we shouldn’t get our hopes up while the likes of Straw are still hanging on.

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    Those of my generation remember a Stalinist thug called Jack Straw who was the President of NUS in the early 70s. Oddly, Straw doesn’t seem to mind this, as is shown in this letter published in the Independent on 16 November 2004:

    ‘Dear Comrade Editor: In his report on President Arafat’s funeral ceremony in Cairo (13 November), Robert Fisk uttered such a malicious libel against me that I am certain that even the late George Carman QC would have taken my case without fee.

    ‘Mr Fisk called me an “old Trot”. There is a very long list of old Trots who really were Trots who will be as outraged as me by this calumny. (These types can usually now be found in the City, appearing on quiz shows or ranting in certain national newspapers.)

    ‘Whatever other frailties I may have (many), I have been consistent in my opposition to Trotskyism and the false consciousness it engenders. (I was first taught to spot a Trot at 50 yards in 1965 by Mr Bert Ramelson, Yorkshire industrial organiser of the Communist Party.)

    ‘Yours fraternally,

    ‘Foreign Secretary
    ‘House of Commons

    ‘PS. Further reading. Isaac Deutscher: Trotsky (3 vols). Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, V I Lenin 1919 (a prescient warning about Trotskyist adventurism).’

    We, especially those who were at Cambridge, also remember another Stalinist thug called Charles Clarke, who led SocSoc and the Cambridge Students Union (not the Union Society). We also seem to remember that Clarke spent some time in Cuba helping Castro gather in his sugar and learning how to create and run a Socialist paradise — but as Clarke’s Wikipedia entry makes no mention of this, our memories are obviously at fault and in need of reeducation.

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this latest ministerial act of cowardice.  It exemplifies why I expressed my doubts, in a comment last week, as to whether those politicians who currently denounce the surveillance state would sing the same tune if they ever found themselves in office.

  4. Karen says:

    A post-script to the Pimlico/West Side Story saga: last Wednesday Kevin Wood, the prisoner whom everyone who saw the show singled out as being particularly special, was released from court, a free man.  Wasfi Kani‘s letter, amounting to an offer of a contract for the Grange Park summer season, was read out.  A number of the West Side Story cast had gone along to court to support Kevin. (Well, not the prisoners, obviously.) As the Judge released Kevin, he added: “And Mr Wood, may I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your review in the Financial Times?”.  Kevin now has a contract for 3 shows at Grange Park and another company has offered him a job in the West End later in the year.

    You couldn’t make it up, or rather, you wouldn’t —  it’s too much of a fairy story.  Please could everyone cross everything that this man makes a safe transition into his new life?

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