With close on 90 thousand inmates in UK gaols – more than any other country in Western Europe – and a re-offending rate that costs our economy somewhere between nine-and-a-half and thirteen billion – it’s clear that things are very wrong. I was personally shocked to find filthy, noisy, unhygienic prisons, sometimes little more than warehouses for criminals, banged up for twenty-two, or more, hours a day. A large proportion of such people are often the most needy in society – illiterate, drug-addicted, unemployed and/or mentally ill – so what they desperately need is education, training and drug-rehabilitation programmes, together with some structure and purpose in their lives, and the chance of secure employment on release. Yet many are released back to their chaotic existences, with only the standard £46 discharge-grant, and no hope of a job or housing. Little wonder that they frequently reoffend, if only to feed themselves or escape the risks of sleeping rough. Some of those offences, such as small-time benefits-cheating, are comparatively trivial yet severely punished, whereas the fat cats often escape unscathed. MPs fiddle expenses, banks rig the currency markets, multi-million-pound global companies pay highly skilled accountants to dream up wheezes to minimize their taxes, but some of the most blatant fraudsters continue to receive huge bonuses and then to stash their wealth away, far from the reach of the taxman.
This is just one aspect of the troubling inequality in our society – a central theme in The Tender Murderer.