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March 19, 2007 | by  | in Film |
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Scum (1979)

Due to several recent high-profile violent crimes committed by prisoners released by the parole board, there has been much talk about prisons and sentencing. Most of this discussion, from politicians and the media, is about how prisons are too luxurious and sentences too short. Of course, most of this populist discourse has been short on facts and evidence. They describe a simplistic solution of prisons, wanting more brutal and longer jail terms, which have no real affect on crime rates. Often it can cause the crime rate to go up as it has in America. Welfare, employment opportunities, and poverty all have a far bigger influence on crime rates. However, prisons have more to do with hiding away the failings of this society than protecting us from crime.

Few films have portrayed the horror of incarceration better than Alan Clarke’s Scum. Set in a British Borstal (reform school/youth prison) Carlin, played by a young Ray Winstone, has a reputation for being a hard case. After he is transferred from another borstal, the guards beat him up, just to show their power over him. Then the head bully also beats him, to let Carlin know his place in the prison pecking order. Carlin takes the beating while he bides his time, just waiting for the right moment. When he finally makes his move, it is an explosion of gritty realist violence that results in Carlin becoming the leader of the prisoners. The brutality does not end there because the system of punitive internment is based on violence, enforced by violence and is a breeding ground for violence.

We see this played out all through the film, but it reaches peak ferocity when the prisoners struggle to retain what little of their humanity they have left. They take collective action, which threatens the powers-that-be, which is a crime that they will never tolerate.

Prisons break up communities and families, dehumanise the prisoners and guards, and are an unnecessary drain of resources. All this does is perpetrate the inequalities and social injustices that breed crime. Better schools, health care, jobs and a higher standard of living would be a much more effective way to bring about safer communities.

However, spouting the usual get-tough-on-crime rhetoric is easier for politicians than is attacking the root causes of crime.


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