Friday, May 23, 2008

The context of crime, neglect and ill health

In the news recently has been coverage of the story of the sad death of seven year old Khyra Ishaq, who may have died of starvation. Her mother and stepfather will be charged with neglect, a criminal offence.
Several sources recognise that poverty and neglect are linked, and it can be argued that poverty is not a matter of choice, but neglect is. Also linked to poverty are issues of crime, drug and alcohol use and obesity, all of which are considered major topical social issues, and all of which have an element of choice to them. But is it that simple?
I have often considered that crime and ill-health are linked by wider contexts, yet politically, both are treated as very different issues.
In the UK our jails are full; the population bulletin for May 16th 2008 states the population in prisons in England and Wales stands at 82,682. This represents around 148 per 100,000 of the national population. In contrast, the United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, some 738 per 100,000.
Some people argue that we should be increasing our capacity to incarcerate criminals, for example Stephen Pollard writing in the Spectator suggests: “Britain certainly imprisons a higher percentage of its population. But this is a meaningless measure, since it takes no account of the proportion of the population who commit crimes. Allow for the extraordinary proportion of the UK population which commits crimes, and Britain has a low imprisonment rate. Whereas Britain imprisons 12 people per 1,000 crimes, Spain imprisons 48 and Ireland 33”
Taking Pollard’s argument further, we would need to quadruple the amount of incarceration, having spaces for a third of a million inmates, representing around 590 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population.
This raises a question for me. If it is true that such a large proportion of the British population commits crimes, why is this so?
Our understanding of crime itself may lead to problems. Crime is not the name for an action – it is the name given to a class of actions performed in a particular context. Some of these actions are directed at the authorities who forbid them. The punishment of the actions will not remove the context that characterise those actions. You can’t stop someone from being a criminal by punishing what he or she does. If that was the case, we wouldn’t need larger prisons. If punishment was a viable solution, crime would have ceased thousands of years ago. In the film KPAX, when the character Prot is asked by his psychiatrist why they don’t have laws on his planet, he replied ‘Because every sentient being in the universe knows the difference between right and wrong’.
Most humans know the difference between what is right and what is wrong, so why do so many choose to do what is wrong? More importantly, what is the context that these actions take place in? I would argue that it is the same context that gives rise to drug and alcohol problems, obesity and neglect. Nacro’s 2006 briefing paper suggests crime impacts upon health, which may be true, but they miss the point that crime is a symptom, as is poor health, of a wider contextual problem. And the context isn’t simply inequalities, social exclusion or poverty; in fact, these are as much symptoms as crime or illness.
What then, is context is it that gives rise to the symptoms I have described? Part of the context is our way of thinking, characterised by ideas that ‘more is better’ in terms of money, material possessions and power. To begin to challenge the global high rates of crime and illness we urgently need to think differently about ourselves and the worlds we inhabit, and, as Bateson put it, make steps towards an ecology of mind.
In the United States at the end of 2001, 10% of the population owned 71% of the wealth, and the top 1% controlled 38%. On the other hand, the bottom 40% owned less than 1% of the nation's wealth. Similar distribution patterns are found in other countries. Those people that control the wealth also control the media, at the very least have a major influence upon governments, and they control the prices we pay for everything, from food to petrol.
Unfortunately, those with power tend to want to retain it. They have absolutely no reason to change the way they think; after all the current mind-set works for them. This is western democratic society and it is the context that inculcates crime and preventable illness; a combination of our epistemology, one that values power, and a society that manifests power through wealth.
Putting myself in opposition with Gregory Bateson who was an atheist (I would call myself agnostic), I also believe that as spiritual beings (even atheists might appreciate the sacred), we may be able to challenge this context through a quiet revolution, a revolution of showing love, kindness and forgiveness. The wealthy cannot take their money or their power with them on the next stage of their journey, and I doubt that any of them will be much happier; that is assuming that they are happy at all.

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