South of the River – Sympathy for the Devil

So Tuesday night was the concluding part of The Moorside and again I was glued to the TV. There was a scene where Julie Bushby walks out of court after the verdict and passes a man speaking to camera. “Pure evil …” he starts, presumably referring to Karen Matthews.

Whenever there is a horrific act, and the abduction of Shannon was a horrific act, the popular verdict seems to be that the perpetrator is an evil individual. Well I don’t buy it, it doesn’t make sense to me.

There are plenty of terrible, horrific, evil acts committed in this world: the murder of Baby P, the Yorkshire Ripper murders … I don’t need to list them. The people who commit them are certainly mad, bad or dangerous to know. They might be weak, manipulated, psychotic, vicious, unthinking, any or all of the above, but evil?

It’s a convenient label but it only works if you see the world in black and white. It’s good versus evil – which side are you on?

As I’ve mentioned before, I suffer with depression. One of the problems I have to battle against is ‘black and white thinking’. When something goes wrong I have a tendency to think that everything’s gone wrong, I lose perspective and I focus on the negative. What I have learned is that I can change that mindset. I have chosen to take that black and white, negative view, but I can chose to take a more rational, balanced view.

Understanding that mental health issues don’t just happen to you, but that you are a player, you have agency, is really important to overcoming your problems.

Karen Matthews, certainly as she was portrayed in the drama, clearly had mental health issues. She was probably depressed, she certainly had low self esteem and a lack of assertiveness. She did an awful thing, but the question now is do we want her to change? If we do, telling her she’s “pure evil” is really not helpful.

This idea that people who do bad things are evil is, I think, how we’ve got into such a mess with our prisons. The prison service is currently at breaking point. Prisons are very, very scary places both for staff and prisoners. There are too many people in too small a space, with too few people to look after / manage them.

Prison is supposed to have two sides: yes punishment, but also rehabilitation. Rehabilitation has always been the poor relation, but it doesn’t seem to get a look in these days.

Britain locks up more of its population than any other country in Europe. Yet British people aren’t any worse than any other nationality. If you see the world in black in white, as good versus evil, then anyone who does something bad is evil. What do we do with evil people? We put them in prison.

Now of course murderers and child abductors should go to prison, but half the prison population (I’m probably exaggerating, but you get my point) are there for not having a TV licence or shoplifting. Prison, especially when there’s no rehabilitation on the menu is not going to help them sort their lives out.

When I visited the rail trainees at Holbeck the other week, the staff were talking about their project in Liverpool where they are working with men coming out of prison. Training them for work that they can do, that pays a proper wage, where they are valued as trainees/staff and as colleagues and friends, actually works. They have a tremendous success rate for keeping people from re-offending. These people are taking the opportunity and are changing themselves.

We have to look beyond simplistic labels such as ‘evil’ and give people the tools and opportunities to change their own lives.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.


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