Every now and again I hear people on the radio express true fear at how much crime there is in their neighbourhood. What I’ve only realised recently is that it isn’t crime itself that these people are fearful of, it is the idea that they will be unfairly and unjustly affected by crime.
No one ever says that they are frightened that their next door neighbour is fiddling his taxes. This has a negative effect on society, so why aren’t we scared? Simply, it is because it does not have a direct, negative, and unfair effect on us personally. The only effect is indirect. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who are scared of fraud (which, let’s face it, is much the same thing) because the idea that someone could phone us up and extract information from us which could be used to take money from our bank accounts is one with a clearly direct, negative, and unfair effect.
It isn’t crime we are scared of at all, it is injustice. And this is perhaps why some crimes are perceived as worse than others. It wasn’t long ago that I saw the story of a fourteen year old girl who had punched an 87 year old full in the face on a London bus. The whole country will have been outraged at this. One radio commentator I heard even said, “It doesn’t matter what the woman might have said or done first, there is never an excuse for hitting an old woman.” Well, is there ever an excuse for hitting anyone at all? With the exception of self defence or the defence of another, the law says no. But would we have such a horrified reaction if the fourteen year old girl had punched a twenty-one year old male athlete? I doubt it. How about if I said that the male athlete was in a wheelchair and she punched him from behind whilst laughing? Well now we would be horrified and disgusted again.
So what is the pattern here? It all comes down to the concept of fairness. If two people have an absolutely fair fight, that they both wanted to have, and one comes out on top, we wouldn’t generally say that he has done anything all that wrong. But if he has picked a fight with someone who doesn’t want one, or worse, with someone at some kind of disadvantage, perhaps because they are physically weaker, or because they are elderly or just a kid, or because they are disabled in some way, then the fight would be seen as unfair and the individual concerned would be rightly condemned. The law applied is exactly the same, but our sense of fairness dictates that the crime is far worse.
And this is why some crimes are viewed as worse than others in prison. There is actually two separate pecking orders of crime in British prisons. The first is in terms of power, and the second is in terms of morality. In terms of power, murderers are at the top, followed by other serious violent offenders, then gang affiliated criminals and armed robbers etc alongside drug dealers, before coming to the drug users, burglars, and shoplifters, then the really ‘minor’ offenders (including fraud etc), with sex offenders being at the very bottom. Meanwhile, in terms of morality, non-violent offenders claim to be at the very top, followed by violent offenders, then the murderers and at the bottom there are the sex offenders again. There are slight variations in these pecking orders from one prison to another, but this is the general consensus. Not everyone would agree, but that tends to be because everyone wants to be at the top. What is most interesting about this though is that, in either of the pecking orders, individual prisoners can throw themselves out of their category of criminal right up or down the order. For example, someone who killed a child would not be classed among murderers, they would be classed among nonces (mainly sex offenders). Similarly, a non-violent offender convicted of accessing child pornography would not be classed as a non-violent offender in terms of morality at all, they too would be among the nonces. The same goes with the elderly. If someone was to kill an old man, they would be significantly lower in either pecking order than someone who killed a person their own age.
The general rule is that the less able your victim was to defend themselves, the lower down the pecking order you sink. This includes the chauvinistic idea that women are less physically able. So, if your victim was a woman, you go down the pecking order a bit. If they were disabled, you sink down again, relative to how severe their disability is. If they were elderly or just a child, you move down the order again, relative to just how old, or just how young, they were. If your victim is seen as an illegitimate one and you used violence, you sink lower still. If they are seen as legitimate and you used violence then you move up the power pecking order, but down the morality pecking order. If your crime had any sexual element at all, you drop right to the bottom. The lowest of the lowest of the low are those who offended both sexually and violently against a baby. I was in the same prison as someone convicted of this once. Without going into details, his life was a misery and he got very used to taking a beating.
As I said, the less able the victim is to defend themselves, the lower you are on the pecking order. But there does seem to be an exception. If you are the member of a gang of some sort, this can throw you right up or right down, and there is no guessing which. I once knew someone who was protesting his innocence (which makes no difference to your placing I’m afraid) but who would have been in in the lower half of the pecking order, though not at the very bottom. The problem was, he was Gooch (a Manchester gang), and in his case his low status was seen as such an embarrassment to his gang that a contract was actually put out on him. Instantly he lost position and fell to the bottom of the pile. Meanwhile, I knew someone else who was even lower in the pecking order but whose brothers were still in the gang he had been part of, which ensured his standing. He rose right up the list and now rubs shoulders with people at all levels without any repercussions.
What I should make clear is that you cannot opt out. This is not a school yard where you have different groups all segregated with the guarantee of a small group which opts out and watches all of the rivalry between the others with disdain. In prison, opting out means opting into the lowest group of all. If you don’t condemn paedos, you’re one of them.
This is all built upon a notion of fairness which goes back decades, but which has some distinctly unfair aspects thrown in. On the one hand, it makes sense to say that someone who picks on people weaker than them is lower than someone who only fights with people their own size. It’s a pretty simple rule. But it is far from fair to say that this only applies if you don’t have the support of others who are of higher standing. And given how unfair that is, it is even more unfair to say that anyone who isn’t happy with that and who decides to do their own thing as an outsider will be treated with suspicion and cast amongst the lowest of the low. However, it is a reflection of society in general. We are not scared of crimes, we are scared of being unfairly and unjustly affected by crime. And this notion of fairness is built upon the very same idea that the more vulnerable someone is, the more despicable any crime against them would be. We are not scared of crime itself, we are scared of injustice.