GERALD is 49, and has spent more than half his life in prison. His weaknesses are heroin, and a penchant for armed robbery. The dossier on him runs to more than 300 pages, and includes robbing banks at gunpoint. The most recent incident occurred three years ago, when he broke the terms of his parole and attempted to rob a mobile-phone shop, threatening the owner with a syringe of blood.
He is now reapplying for parole, and, in his statement, declares that he is not a violent person. With the irony of a seasoned professional, the parole-board assessor regards this claim as “arguably surprising”.
Everyone was, throughout Parole: A calculated risk (Radio 4, Friday), scrupulously polite to one another; and I wondered whether our subjects were behaving themselves especially well for the benefit of the fly on the wall. Nevertheless, Rex Bloomstein’s documentary gave a valuable insight into the workings of a system which, in recent months, has attracted enormous criticism.
After the proposal to release John Worboys, the reversal of that decision by the High Court, and the subsequent resignation of the chair of the Parole Board, there was never a better time to examine what goes on in those parole-panel assessments.
Much has changed in the past 25 years. Prisoners can be represented by solicitors, and victims are given the opportunity to provide statements. Psychologists and prison staff are all consulted; and, in Gerald’s case, contribute to a picture of a genuinely reformed individual. He will be released, under strict conditions; and, as the man from the Parole Board was happy to tell us, the proven failure rate in such cases is very small. The trouble is that even one failure can be catastrophic for victims and for the reputation of the Board.
In The Compass: The future of English (World Service, Wednesday) Robin Lustig interviewed several fiendishly brilliant Silicon Valley types who reckoned that they could create a device that would translate directly from any language to any other in a natural, conversational idiom. Of course, technotypes and futurologists share the tendency to be wildly optimistic in their predictions, but the joy of science fiction is the opportunity that it provides to play with ideas.
Gone are the days when The Grapes of Wrath would be machine translated into “Angry Raisins”. The level of sophistication in Artificial Intelligence has moved on, and the assumption that we would all be translating in and out of the few most spoken languages — primarily English, Mandarin, and Spanish — is no longer necessary.
In India, devices are already available which recognise the dialects of people who might, through illiteracy, be otherwise shut out from the digital economy. And here are us Anglophones thinking that all we need is translation software which makes everything we say very loud and very slow.