Notebook

What Churchill knew about prisons

Michael Gove and Chancellor George Osborne are shown around Brixton prison

Something interesting is going on in the criminal justice system that I suspect we’re going to hear more and more about. As part of what could be a revolution in right-wing thinking about dealing with crime and its causes, the Government is splashing out £1.3 billion on new prisons.

The plan is to replace outdated Victorian institutions – those buildings that sit like grounded hulks in the middle of our cities – with prisons suited to the 21st century that will have education at their heart. Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, will oversee it all; his guiding principle will be the rehabilitation of prisoners.

Admittedly this is taking place alongside massive overall cuts and has a lot to do with selling off prime real estate, but the idea is a good one for two reasons.

First, if you don’t rehabilitate offenders, there’s no point sending them to prison in the first place. We punish people who commit crimes “as a precaution against future offences of the same kind”, said William Blackstone as long ago as the 1760s. But today more than half of prisoners go on to reoffend on release: crime is reduced only while the cell door is locked shut.

Secondly, prioritising rehabilitation is morally the right thing to do. Winston Churchill recognised this as a great reforming home secretary before the First World War. There must be a “constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment,” he said. Churchill had been held captive by the Boers; he knew the agony of whiling away the hours, days and weeks with nothing to stimulate the mind. Prisoners “must have food for thought,” he told a friend. Education would stop them wasting their lives.

I hope Gove gets it right. For the state to take away someone’s liberty is a big step. It is second only, I would argue, to confiscating their children. If the justice system was fulfilling its grave duty, it would be locking up offenders – but releasing them as law-abiding citizens.

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I have a love-hate relationship with my smartphone. I hate the fact that I am addicted to social media, the news, checking my email. But like Charlton Heston and his rifle, you’d only pry my iPhone from my cold, dead hands.

Being in constant touch with friends and family can certainly bring enormous relief in moments of genuine worry. This happened a few weeks ago, on Friday November 13, when my middle brother and his fiancée went to Paris on an unfortunately timed weekend break.

As the news broke of the suicide bombs and shootings there, we were able to get hold of him within minutes on WhatsApp. They were safe, far from the Stade de France. Then news of the Bataclan bloodbath emerged, which we forwarded to him. “OK, that’s actually pretty close to us,” he said, and they headed to safer place.

Thank goodness: they didn’t get caught up in it. And I’m glad we didn’t have to wait for him to find a payphone to tell us.

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The poor Archbishop of Canterbury was given a kicking for admitting to “doubts” about God after the Paris attacks. The next day, he told the BBC, “I was praying and saying: ‘God, why – why is this happening?’ … Yes, I doubt.”

It was naive to say something like that as the leader of the Church of England and not expect the newspapers to pounce. But according to the commentator Matthew Parris it was also “theologically shallow”. In The Spectator, he even offered the Archbishop a little RE lesson on the subject of the Problem of Evil, ticking him off for forsaking his God.

Only an atheist could write so complacently on the subject of religious doubt. What’s wrong with the godly occasionally asking God what he’s playing at? Even the Psalmist asks in despair: “Why sleepest thou, O Lord? Awake! … Why dost thou forget our affliction and oppression?”

I once knew a Benedictine monk who paraphrased the Problem of Evil more bluntly. At the root of it, he explained to a roomful of his teenage pupils, is the question: “Why is God such a s—?”

Will Heaven is the comment editor of The Sunday Telegraph