“Well, it’s quite obvious that prison doesn’t work – they’re full of innocent people. I know, I’ve visited them and spoken to the inmates,” declared Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke at a press conference last week. “Every other one told me how they’d been ‘fitted up’ by the police and the courts. It really is quite shocking how inefficient our criminal justice system is, banging up people for crimes they clearly didn’t commit.” Explaining that the Department of Justice’s newly announced plans to close several prisons wasn’t simply a cost-cutting method, Clarke used the press conference to outline his department’s new policy on crime and punishment. “We want to put the whole issue back into the community – rather like the ‘Care in the Community’ policy of the Thatcher government, when we closed down all the expensive psychiatric hospitals and put the mentally ill back on the streets to fend for themselves,” he told the gathered journalists. “With ‘Crime in Community’, we’ll be putting criminals back where they can best – and most cheaply – be dealt with: the wider community.”

The Secretary of State was keen to emphasise that this new policy initiative wouldn’t mean murderers, rapists and paedophiles being indiscriminately released onto the streets, unsupervised and unmonitored. “I think people just have to look upon it as an extension of the existing system of allowing serious offenders out ‘on licence’,” he says. “Obviously, we’ll let local communities know who these undesirables are, and it will be up to them to deal with them – it will be like the ‘old days’, when everybody knew who the local weirdos and scumbags were, so that whenever a crime was committed, they just went round and tarred and feathered them, or something. It’s the same with ‘Crime in the Community’, if these released criminals are suspected of re-offending, then locals can just send a lynch mob round to their hovel.” Clarke believes that this new initiative will also benefit offenders. “Everybody agrees that one of the reasons for the high rate of reoffending by released criminals is that our system doesn’t allow them to be sufficiently reacclimatised to life outside prison,” he opines. “Well, this way they’ll have no problem in understanding their position in normal society – they’ll be left in no doubt whatsoever that they are worthless, loathsome, scum. A few good beatings should deter them from reoffending.“ The policy could bring wider benefits for taxpayers. “It could save us a fortune in police investigations,” he says. “I mean, what need will there be for all that time-consuming and overtime heavy detective work, if we know who the criminals in the local community are already?”

He is also of the opinion that the policy is another example of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ in action. “People are always claiming that they want more involvement in the justice system – here’s their chance,” he declared. “Instead of moaning about rapists and the likes being allowed to roam the streets, they can go out and beat up a nonce – not a suspected one, but the genuine article, convicted by a court of law!” As part of the new policy of getting communities to take more direct responsibility for local crime, Clarke wants to see the establishment of more schemes designed to manage criminals at a local level. The Wiltshire village of Hardy Mount, for instance, has already embraced the concept of ‘Crime in the Community’, setting up its own, privately funded and run, community prisons. “I can accommodate up to six of the bastards in here,” says retired shopkeeper Ron Wacklee, proudly showing off the prison cells he has constructed in his cellar. “Obviously, I’m not a high security unit, like Doreen down at the Post Office, so I can only take the likes of burglars and drink drivers here, rather than rapists and murderers. Nonetheless, the government still pays me a bloody good rate for holding the buggers for them! Who says crime doesn’t pay, eh?”

Entrepreneurs like Wacklee have already allowed the Ministry of Justice to close three prisons, bringing massive savings for the taxpayer. However, prison reform and human rights campaigners have raised fears that localising the penal system in this way will result in a decline in standards for prisoner accommodation and care. Not surprisingly, Wacklee disagrees. “Listen, I give these scumbags three square meals a day and let them slop their buckets out weekly,” he says. “Not only that, but I change their bedding once a month, that’s better than some hotels, for God’s sake.” Nevertheless, questions have been raised over Wacklee’s policy of allowing local villagers to come to the prison and poke the inmates through the bars of their cells with sticks. “It’s only on Sundays, for goodness sake, and people are only allowed one poke each” the exasperated jailer sighs. “Besides, it’s a local tradition going back centuries. They should think themselves lucky, over in Rump Mount they throw their own excrement at their prisoners every third Tuesday.”

But the residents of Hardy Mount haven’t stopped at just taking in offenders displaced by the closure of local prisons, they have also established their own system of justice for minor offenders. “Every other week we hold court hearings in the back room of the Conservative Club, for people caught speeding, drunk and disorderly, that sort of thing,” explains Wacklee. “It’s presided over by old Harry from the newsagents. He knows all about the law – he’s seen every episode of Rumpole of the Bailey.” The court can hand out various punishments, ranging from fines and prison sentences, to the stocks and birchings. “It’s bloody brilliant,” declares Wacklee’s neighbour, farmer Doug Gropes, as he leads two young female prisoners – recently convicted of lewd behaviour after being caught wearing short skirts in the local mini-mart – from the coal bunker he has converted to cells, to the village green to carry out their sentence of twelve lashes each across the buttocks. “The last time I did anything like this I was arrested for abduction, false imprisonment and sexual assault. Now it’s all legal!” In addition to having cells for local offenders at his cottage, Gropes has a more extensive establishment in a converted barn at his farm for long-term prisoners, and prides himself for the humane treatment they receive there. “I make sure they get plenty of exercise out in the fresh air,” he says. “Some of them are out tending the fields from dawn to dusk, whilst others work in the factory we’ve got in the old milking parlour and pig pens, producing cheap electrical goods. The profit margins are amazing.”

Kenneth Clarke is delighted with Gropes’ initiative. “For years now I’ve been telling David Cameron that the real trouble with prison is that all those inmates are economically unproductive – not a single one of them actually makes any kind of financial contribution. Crime does not pay income tax, as I told Dave at the last Cabinet meeting,” he enthuses. “Put them to work – it’s an obvious solution to the problem of spending cuts, isn’t it? With a source of cheap forced labour, many expensive capital projects would be able to proceed within current Treasury spending limits. Wouldn’t that be a perfect way for paedophiles to pay for their vile crimes – by building new school buildings for minimum wage?”