Does Gary Glitter deserve the vaccine? This question was raised by Piers Morgan on ITV’s This Morning and it fascinated me as a debate. The very notion that this even needs to be raised is a shocking indictment of our collective lust for revenge. Let me first say that Gary Glitter is a despicable and perverted paedophile who deserves to be in prison for the heinous crimes he has committed. However, the very idea that the government should be creating a priority list that includes the morality of its citizens based on their convicted crimes is a mandate for authoritarianism. In this period of time when many people are concerned that the government is using lockdown as a way to increase absolute control, it is absurd that we would then request that they withhold the vaccine based on their own morality criteria.
The issue here is that Gary Glitter has been utilised in a way that will draw people into agreeing that prisoners should be low priority for the vaccine. They have chosen a man so vile that it is hard to disagree with. However, where do you draw the line? Is it just paedophiles and rapists who should not receive the vaccine, or are murderers included in this immoral lineup of the damned? What about ex-convicts who have been released since committing these crimes? Or, to make this selection more simplistic, do we simply say all prisoners, no matter their age or condition, must be offered the vaccine after the rest of the population has been vaccinated?
It is estimated that the Coronavirus vaccine will only be effective if at least 80% of the country is vaccinated. This includes prisons where Coronavirus cases have increased dramatically over the beginning of the year, in line with the rest of the country. Prisons are not isolated places – officers travel in and out each day, prisoners are released on a daily basis across the country and they receive deliveries regularly. To write off the prison population as undeserving of a vaccine before the righteous population outside of the prison is a nonsensical self-sacrifice based on pride and intolerance.
Furthermore, the Lammy Review of 2017 made it crystal clear that minorities are overrepresented in prisons. The BAME population represents 13% of the UK, yet they make up 27% of the prison population, with black men being 26% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody. Thus, to not include prisoners on the designated priority list assigned to age and health would be to further disadvantage these communities who are already sceptical of the vaccine due to a generational distrust in the government for these very reasons.
Although it may seem as though I am getting sidetracked from Gary Glitter and the question at hand, this all feeds into a wider debate of sentencing, rehabilitation and punishment. The right-wing media use stories such as Gary Glitter receiving the vaccine before others who are more deserving as a way to perpetuate this idea that we need to ‘get tougher on crime.’ It is a slogan, that along with his xenophobic Brexit rhetoric, won Boris Johnson the election. If you read any right-wing tabloid there will almost certainly be a story such as ‘How London’s knife crime epidemic is putting terrified tourists off the capital’s hotspots’ or ‘Britain’s softest judges exposed,’ (both of which are, of course, from The Sun). Although Britain’s prison population has skyrocketed since the 1950s and sentences have increased dramatically, especially for knife-related crimes, there has been no decline in criminality, in fact, quite the opposite. Thus, one must conclude that getting tougher on crime and criminals perhaps does not work and we should instead be focusing on rehabilitation.
To the east, we have a multitude of examples of rehabilitative justice systems where rates of recidivism are extremely low such as Norway which has a rate of about 20%. On the other hand, to our west, we have a damning example of where our criminal justice system is heading. A May 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report on state prisoner recidivism found that of prisoners that were released about 68% were arrested within three years, 79% within six years, and 83% in nine years. Reducing crime is, evidently, not a matter of punishing criminals but instead rehabilitating them.
To say to a prisoner, especially one who is vulnerable to the Coronavirus, that we are not giving you the vaccine because of the mistakes you have made in your life, is to say you are worthless and no longer have a purpose in this society. The likelihood of that person reoffending is extremely high because once someone is made to feel useless, why would they then try and contribute to a society that has written them off?
The relinquishment of someone’s liberty after they have been convicted is the punishment, not the vengeful destruction of their soul, through being thrust into a drug-filled, violent maze of concrete walls and metal bars. Gary Glitter will most likely not see the light of day again, however, most prisoners will, and it is fundamental they return to society rehabilitated rather than further criminalised.
We do not give every criminal a life sentence because everyone can change. Should an injured criminal on the side of the road be given medical attention? Yes, of course, because no matter the history of that person’s life, they are entitled to the same level of health care as everyone else. It is for this same reason that we cannot write off prisoners as less worthy of receiving a vaccine because it would set a dangerous precedent for the ways in which the government could use Coronavirus and the vaccine to extend authoritarian control.
To conclude, I would like to mention Jack Merritt, the young man who was stabbed to death during the London Bridge terror attack in 2019 after leaving a prisoner rehabilitation event. After his death, his father said, “Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge… we know Jack would not want this terrible, isolated incident to be used as a pretext by the government for introducing even more draconian sentences on prisoners, or for detaining people in prison for longer than necessary.” For a grieving father to say this with such fortitude after the gruesome death of his son is a testament to his son’s life and cause.
Therefore, in order to eradicate incidents such as these and to prevent inspiring people like Jack from being murdered, the answer is not writing prisoners off, increased sentencing, and more prisons; it is rehabilitation and trust. The notion that a vaccine should be withheld from prisoners is a small issue within a much larger and far more tragic one.
By Max Coleman