Shoplifting, Prison and Drugs

Submitted by Janine on Wed, 08/30/2006 - 16:45

Last week, a report suggested that shoplifters should not be sent to prison.

Sounds sensible to me. I can't see that the general public needs 'protecting' from a serious and imminent threat from shoplifters, and prison is more effective at turning shoplifters into burglars or multi-functional criminals than into 'reformed characters'.

I caught a 5-minute snatch of Radio Five Live's phone-in on the subject, which was, unfortunately, bombarded by the hang-'em-flog-'em brigade. One sentiment was "A criminal is a criminal, full stop" - as if serial murder and dropping litter are the same thing. Another was that Daily Mail chestnut, "Prisons are like holiday camps" - usually uttered by people who have never been near one. (I could be persuaded that some holiday camps are like prisons, but that's another subject.)

A phone-in discussing what to do with people who rob shops did not, sadly, discuss what to do with shops that rob people. And all the discussion focused on the poor, hard-working corner shop owner having his/her livelihood endangered rather than Big Mr Tesco, who recuperates in profit in about ten seconds what he loses to shoplifters each year. (That's a guess, and possibly a caricature, by the way - feel free to post the correct arithmetic below.)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that fact that most shoplifters are, apparently, people with drug problems. One of Radio Five's studio guests was a former drug user who used to shoplift, bringing a welcome perspective to the discussion, even forcing some callers to rethink their 'hardline' attitudes. (Not all though: one bloke had "no sympathy": charming!).

One caller claimed that people with drug problems should get help rather than nick from shops. Indeed they should. But this caller obviously had a rose-tinted view of the availability of help to drug users. A few years back, we had a problem with a crack house on our estate, and wanted to arrange help for people who wanted to get out of a downward spiral of drug abuse. Could we get any help? Not a sausage.

I spent about three weeks ringing every drugs-help agency in the phone book. Some had closed down. Those who did answer did not do outreach work because it was too dangerous or they didn't have the resources. Ringing the local council was a joke. I asked the National Drugs Helpline if they produced stickers with their phone number on that we could put around the estate. No.

But it's OK, many of them said, because the police offer counselling to anyone they arrest for drug use. Right. I'm just guessing, but isn't the moment after you've had your collar felt and been thrown in a van/cell probably the time that you are least likely to accept help?! Oh, and how about helping people before they get into trouble with the law ...

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Comments

Submitted by Clive on Mon, 09/04/2006 - 01:38

Do workers, or people whether they're workers or not, have a right to free health care? Or free education? Or somewhere to live?

There's a sense, yes, in which all rights are historically constituted (and I suppose also fall under the heading of what Marx called the historical-moral component of the value of labour power); but surely there are also 'rights' we have by virtue of being human beings - human rights. It doesn't seem to me that by suggesting we have a right to free health care now - ie, under this system - we are attributing to capitalism the ability to provide for our needs.

On the contrary. Isn't it part of the critique of capitalism that it *can't* deliver these elementary human and social rights? I don't mean this just in a 'transitional demand' kind of way, but much more generally. People all over the world have a right, it seems to me, not to live in poverty, blighted by disease, violence and oppression in a multitude of forms. Expressing this as a *right*, far from 'carrying into the labour movement bourgeois ideology', is saying in the simplest and clearest way possible that capitalism is an inhuman system.

Submitted by Janine on Wed, 08/30/2006 - 23:39

I am not a drugs worker. Beyond some human sympathy and encouragement, I wouldn't know how to help someone get off drugs. Neither, to the best of my knowledge, is anyone else who is involved in our TRA. We are entitled to demand the state helps us. Our role is to articulate and fight for our community's demands. That is "self-reliance", not some anarchistic approach that lets the state off the hook.

I work for London Underground (a state-owned enterprise). It doesn't always run the most reliable, safe, accessible, value-for-money Tube service that I think people are entitled to expect (understatement). So what should London's working-class communities do? Come on, show some self-reliance - dig your own tunnels and run your own underground railway?!

Submitted by Janine on Fri, 09/01/2006 - 17:56

One big difference between Marx's suggestion and yours is that on our estate, people would have to organise their drugs counselling service as well as going to work. Very few people would have the time, and if they had, there is much more useful, political, organising work they could be doing rather than covering the gaps in state provision.

But also Arthur, I object to your suggestion on trade union grounds. The health service / local authorities should employ more drugs workers as part of expanding its services to tackle the issue of drug use. Getting volunteers to do this instead not only lets the state off the hook, it also undermines the fight for proper jobs.

Submitted by Clive on Sun, 09/03/2006 - 18:36

I don't understand why the argument that 'free drug counselling' is the same as 'full fruits of labour' would not also apply to 'free health care'. Surely 'free drug counselling' is just a particular demand under the general heading of 'free health care'. If we're in favour of an NHS - one under workers' control if we can get it, but one anyway - why not demand that it provides proper care for people with drug problems?