“The values of a reasonably just society will reflect themselves in a reasonably just law. The better the society, the less law there will be. In heaven there will be now law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb. The values of an unjust society will reflect themselves in an unjust law. The worse the society the more law there will be. In Hell there will be nothing but law and due process will be meticulously observed” (Grant Gilmore, 1977).
I’m sitting in Queens University Library applying the finishing touches to my Criminology Theory module, supping a large latte and letting my brain settle after an unexpected flurry of activity earlier this morning. I knew my gas was running low and decided to nip down to the local shop as soon as I woke for a top up. At 07.45 it’s still pitch black, the warmth of the winter sun not yet warming or shedding light on one. Was walking past a parked van when I spotted a bundle of clothing perched under the right front wheel. This being Northern Ireland I woke up pretty quickly and my night vision focused on the bundle which was now moving and grumbling. It was an aul fella. His legs had buckled under him and he’d obviously been there for a while. I came to the assumption that he had lost the feeling in his legs and furthermore that I would not be able to carry him. He lived round the corner from me but there was no way I could even get him off the ground and onto the wall without doing myself an injury as he was a complete dead weight. I thought to myself what on earth am I going to do now I can’t leave this aul boy just lying there.
My/his saving grace came in the guise of another middle aged fella like myself who ain’t exactly as fit as he/we used to be. Long story short we threw the aul fella’s arms over our shoulders and dragged him to his house and into his armchair. My fellow Samaritan said “Now fer feks sake sit in that chair and don’t be going out for the rest of the day.” As we huffed and puffed on our way back to the shops we established we knew each other but that had been twenty odd years since we’d been in each other’s company. He told me the aul fella might have had a drink and that he had seen him on the way ‘too’ the shop and said he’d help him on the way back if he was still there. We then thanked each other and explained pleasantries, laughed it off and headed our separate ways.
This then got me thinking, as it always does, of the ‘what if’s?’ What if he’d been lying there all night – he’d be dead that’s what. Why is he on his own? If council estates are such places of anti-social, inhospitable, violent, crime ridden places; why then were too middle aged ex-reprobates able to show a bit of humanity and carry a body, not yet dead, home? This man could have died not more than forty paces from my front door. At the end of the day it’s done, it’s over, he didn’t die and life goes on but this event has left me with a sour taste in my mouth. How many people are stuck in their houses, bungalows, flats who cannot make it to the shops, who have no-one to help them. The responsibilisation era left behind by Thatcher is still alive and well today. Let the people be responsible for themselves and take that responsibility back into the community. Well, I am community and what me and the other fella did was community but it happened via chance and good fortune and willingness of bad backs to hold out.
Some people might say “the aul fella was probably pissed.” So what if he was. He should be able to have a drink and live a life, if it’s alcoholism then how did he make it too the shop and not back. He was only going to get cat food. When I mentioned to a fellow student that I might call in on him on the way home they advised me not to as I didn’t know what I might be getting myself into. I told them to Google “The Bystander Effect” when they got hooked up in the library. The old familiar knot in my stomach rose from the dead. The very same one I’d been using to question prison policy and practice for the past six years and ironically the question of my essay. The quote above was on the first page I opened of “Thinking about Punishment” by Michael Tonry and thought to myself – somebody’s trying to tell me something here.
I had planned to write a New Year blog about how amazing it was to turn my TV up, watch and Listen to the fireworks on London’s embankment and compare my emotions to a similar time and place in HMP Brixton 2008. Then, in Brixton one month after being given a twelve year sentence, I was able to see the fireworks appear over the roof tops as they were simultaneously launched from the embankment on the telly and think to myself “Will I make it?” Unfortunately that will have to wait for another day as I really must get this essay done. However, I will leave you with a question and a thought. What is community? If we were all to find it within ourselves to call round to see an old person or someone who might just need to talk to someone for an hour; how much better would our society be. After all community starts within and this morning myself and the other community person needed that event like a hole in the head but we took a deep breath and got on with it. It’s a simple observation – ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ – walk away and pretend it never happened or sit and be proud of yourself and know that each one of us has community within.