Pure Poison IconA quick look at David Penberthy’s by-the-numbers tabloid beatup today on the sentencing of a prison guard to jail time for punching a prisoner in his custody twenty times after that prisoner spat at him through the bars.

Here’s the footage (click to watch):

VIDEO: Prison guard caught bashing inmate

Here’s how Penberthy spins it:

Court tells prison guards to go and get screwed

It’s not until the fourth paragraph that Penberthy acknowledges what Terry Dolling did, with a sarcastic “breaks your heart” over the prisoner’s injuries.

Instead we get an ode to the miserable life of the prison guard (with no call for improvement other than not minding if they beat people up with the frustration of it all), ending with this support for their strike over the sentence:

The men and women who work in our prisons get paid bugger-all and endure the most hellish conditions, and if a court reckons that their day job should now include remaining happy and relaxed as they get spat at by people with communicable diseases, they have every right to clock off until sanity is restored and community standards are upheld.

Penberthy doesn’t advocate in this piece better pay for prison guards, or improved working conditions. (Unless cathartic prisoner beatings are supposed to be a “perk”.) Instead, he attempts to direct any of the sympathy we might feel towards these workers against the false implication that the magistrate held that being spat on was fine, just because it remains a criminal offense to use your position of authority over someone in your care to violently assault them.

The switch-around from the usual “no excuses” attitude to criminal sentencing to “the courts are too harsh” might seem a bit strange, until you remember that all we’re seeing is the tabloid’s classic simplistic “goodies versus baddies” reporting. The prisoner is a “baddie”. It doesn’t matter what excuses he had for whatever behaviour put him in there in the first place – he’s a “crook”. So he deserves whatever he gets. Even if that is a brutal beating by those who apparently trust the courts to punish people appropriately (otherwise on what basis was the prisoner there) but think they can’t be trusted to punish people appropriately and want to dole out punishment themselves. The guard is a “goodie”, so if he wants to beat up a “baddie”, then that’s fine and we should look for whatever extenuating circumstances we’d usually ignore. The courts that are by definition too “soft” on the “baddies”, are by definition too “hard” on the “goodies”. And whilst we’d usually damn anyone going on strike, in this case it’s the “goodies”, and they’re not really protesting for better conditions or pay or anything that would cost their corporate employers anything, they’re just protesting the courts we’re training our readers to despise, so we’re happy to cheer them.

Which is why I suppose this astonishing remark by Public Service Association Matt Bindley in the Daily Telegraph version of the story went straight through to the keeper:

“He’s got to face the humiliation now of being treated like a criminal when he’s not – even though the courts have found it that way,” he said.

Assaulting people doesn’t make you a criminal? Which part of the video above shows Dolling reasonably restraining someone? It shows a man getting his revenge. And if it’s now in guards’ job descriptions to administer brutal punishment in place of the courts, then why have them at all? Why bother running prisons? Why not just have a gang of vigilante guards roaming the streets administering beatings to anyone who pisses them off?

Cheered on by people like Penberthy, who describes a guard beating a prisoner twenty times as “a perfectly defensible and fairly approximate human response to what had Dolling had just been forced to endure”. (Please watch the video again.)

The only way I can see to be comfortable with what Penberthy apparently wants in our prisons is if you are utterly confident in the courts to correctly determine guilt, but not to determine appropriate punishments, and you want a system in which we employ official Prisoner Assaulters to regularly beat up prisoners with the assumption that it won’t in any way turn them into more violent offenders when they’re eventually released. You want a system in which putting on a uniform gives a person special powers to violently punish anyone who they feel has wronged them, rather than leaving it to the justice system of which they are supposedly a part.

The prisoner’s assault by spitting was of course a crime, and it would be strange indeed if he was not charged and punished accordingly. And the guard was undoubtedly provoked, and his sentence should of course be much lower than it would have been if he had not first been assaulted. (And I’m sure it was.) But a mitigating factor is not a defence, and twenty punches is not reasonably restraining a prisoner.

What’s most disturbing about this coverage is the attitude it conveys that if someone thinks of themselves as a “goodie”, and their target as a “baddie”, then they are justified in brutally assaulting them. What a message.

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