Young Black Men In British Prisons: Why So Many?

There are two much touted answers to the above question, both of them wrong. On the one hand are the “anti-racists” with their thinly veiled gospel of Marxist rhetoric. To them, any black man who ends up on the wrong side of the law is the victim of racist oppression, which is itself the result of the class structure and the evil profit motive. The other answer is what might be called the racist viewpoint, that there are so many blacks in prison because they are genetically inferior or otherwise predisposed to commit more crimes than whites. The current writer would like to posit an alternative hypothesis.

While it is often wrong to interpret complex social issues in an overly simplistic fashion, it is still a valid proposition (as posited by Occam’s Razor) (1) that complex solutions should be avoided. My solution is simply that in every society there is an underclass, and blacks, in particular young black men, are a major component of that underclass. As a member of that underclass myself - albeit a white one - I think I know what I am talking about.

So how is it that this underclass is so deprived? There is a Biblical saying that to he that has more will be given and that he who has not, even that will be taken from him. This may seem a strange moral for a religion which preaches humility and modesty in all things, but this principle holds well in the secular world. In practical terms this means that once you fall into the gutter it is very difficult to pull yourself up out of it. I will give one specific example.

In Brixton Prison in 1996 I met a black man in his thirties who related to me his life history. When he was younger - the early eighties - he had sold drugs and controlled prostitutes. He also had a legitimate business - he was a market trader. He had been “busted” for drugs and for living off immoral earnings. He kept bad company, and, when he came out of prison he had nowhere to live. After his last sentence he had been out of prison less than 48 hours when he was arrested yet again. Coming out of Wormwood Scrubs with nothing more than a discharge grant and the clothes he stood up it, he rented a room in a “hotel” and began dealing in drugs to make some much needed money. He got into an altercation with one of his customers and ended up being charged with robbery.

What will happen to him next time he is released? He has no home, no property to speak of, no qualifications, and no prospects. For such a man to make a legal living is, well, optimistic. Who in his right mind would willingly employ a three time loser? (2) This is one young(ish) black man. There are of course many, many young and not so young white men in the same position. Misfortune is an equal opportunity employer. So what is to be done about such men? What can be done?

My solution - indeed the only solution - is the abolition of the insidious means-tested benefits system and the institution of a basic income. This would lift the unemployed and the unemployables right out of the gutter. The likes of this man could live at a subsistance level on their basic incomes, but any money they earned over and above that, not being means-tested, would be a real gain. Such men could surely find poorly paid work for a few hours a week to supplement their basic income and turn it into a living wage.

Many objections are raised to the concept of basic income; ostensibly these objections are economic, but on closer inspection they are “moral” objections. The usual one is that nobody should get something for nothing. I remember a certain Conservative politician named Michael Heseltine advocating not basic income but workfare. A man who was able-bodied and unemployed should be made to work for his benefit, he said. I saw a recent estimate of Heseltine’s personal wealth; it goes without saying that he is a millionaire many times over. It probably didn’t occur to him that he is receiving interest for nothing, hundreds of thousands of pounds or more a year, yet he begrudges a poor man a few pounds a week.

One ostensibly bona fide objection to basic income is that the cost of administering it would be prohibitively expensive. I think not. There are now something like 60,000 people in Britain’s prisons. The cost of accommodating prisoners is far more expensive than paying a free person a basic income, and if the prison population had received a basic income, perhaps half or more of them would not have turned to crime in the first place. When one adds to this the cost of policing, the cost of criminal trials - which can easily run into hundreds of thousands of pounds - and all the other associated costs, a basic income paid to the criminal element would actually save money.

It would also lead to hundreds of thousands of poor people being lifted right out of the poverty trap, and all the associated evils and temptations, a cure that cuts across all barriers of race and class.

If a non-means-tested basic income is not introduced in the not too distant future, society will become increasingly polarised between the haves and the have-nots as more and more menial and unskilled jobs are lost to machines. And more and more of the underclass consigned to the gutter. The new technology, in particular the silicon chip, is one of the greatest boons ever bestowed upon mankind. Without a basic income, this boon will become a curse.

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