Creating a scandal: prisons and how to get rid of them.

Author:Wilson, David
Position:Crime and punishment

Let me start by quoting from two different sources--both taken from work published in 1990. The first is from the Labour peer Baroness Blackstone in her book Prisons and Penal Reform (1990), part of the Counterblast series published by Chatto and Windus at the height of Thatcherism:

Britain has a disastrously expensive and inhumane penal system, which is compounded by a huge injection of resources into building more prisons. Placing so much emphasis on building prisons is a sad reflection on the innovative abilities of the government. A little more imagination, rather more attention to the evidence in front of them, and greater political courage would have led ministers down a quite different path. It would have led them to a sustained effort to reduce substantially the prison population. Indeed, reflecting the days before New Labour would become 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime', Baroness Blackstone ended her book with a demand that the prison population be cut by half--to around 24,000 people.

The second quote comes from the Norwegian criminologist Thomas Mathiesen, whose book Prison on Trial was also first published in 1990, although I am using the second edition, which was re-issued in 2000. In this quote Mathiesen echoes Baroness Blackstone and optimistically predicts that reason will eventually persuade policy-makers that prison is illogical:

Victim work and offender work will certainly prove more satisfactory than prison, and we may envisage further contraction, possibly abolition. This would be congruent with the whole weight of evidence on prisons. In actual fact, anything else is tantamount to acceding towards irrationality. From our vantage point some sixteen years after these books were written we can see that New Labour has presided over unparalleled growth in the penal system--indeed rather than the prison population falling by 24,000 since coming to power in 1997, New Labour has put around an extra 30,000 people behind bars. As a result of this government's enthusiasm for mandatory minimum sentencing, there are now more life sentenced prisoners in Britain than in the whole of western Europe combined. New Labour has presided over more penal privatisation than the sum total of its Tory predecessors, despite no less a person than Tony Blair himself claiming that Labour opposed prison privatisation 'in theory as well as in practice' (Blair, 1993). And as well as our highest-ever prison population, we also have the deja vu of our current chief inspector of prisons echoing all of her predecessors about how awful the experience of incarceration actually is in this country.

It would seem that no-one would currently agree with Mathiesen that there might come a day when contraction and eventual abolition of prison is possible, and that to do otherwise is 'irrational'.

Indeed 'commonsense' justifications of prison suggest that 'prison works' in various ways:

-- by incapacitation--it takes people out of society and thus gives commnities a rest from those who have broken the law

-- through individual and general deterrence--it makes those who might be thinking about committing a crime think again

-- by punishing those who do actually commit crimes-by rehabilitating--it helps those who have committed crimes to think through the causes of their offending so as to change their behaviour by developing new skills, which they are then able to put to good use on release from custody.

These justifications are now so widespread and accepted among our politicians, media commentators and indeed many members of the public that no-one actually bothers to question whether they are actually true or not--whether they are 'nonsense' rather than 'commonsense'. The one place that we can forget about 'evidence--led practice' in relation to public policy is when prisons are discussed. After all--as a mountain of research testifies, much of it emanating from the Home Office--these justifications are at best aspirational and at worst simply lies.

Here it would be easy to unmask these false justifications by patiently pointing out the realities about who gets imprisoned and who does not, the relationship--or otherwise-between the crime rate and the rate of imprisonment, what happens to people when they are inside, and especially what happens to them after they are released in relation to being reconvicted. We'd point to the fact that four out of every five young offenders are reconvicted within two years of leaving jail, that one out of every two adult men is similarly reconvicted, and that just under one out of every two women suffer the same fate. Would a school that failed to teach two out of every three of its pupils to read and write, or a hospital that killed one out of every two of its patients, continue to receive widespread political and popular support? However, we know all of this too; we know that prison fails by almost every measure that it sets for itself; we know that prison is a useless, outdated, bloated Victorian institution that is well past its sell-by date; we know, in short, that prison is a fiasco. How then do we create a scepticism about what prison was, now is and what is claimed for it by its supporters--that broad coalition of media commentators, big business and politicians of both parties whom we might term the 'prison-industrial complex'?

I want to make a case here in support of Mathiesen from the perspective of describing the preconditions that I think have to be present for contraction and abolition to take place. For although I absolutely agree that using prison is irrational, especially in relation to the numbers of people who we send inside, who all evidence shows are largely minor property offenders who could be more effectively dealt with through community penalties, and while I agree that Features Crime and punishment prison is counter-productive, or to quote a former Tory minister, 'an expensive way of making bad people worse', what I feel has been absent from this debate is a 'road map' of how we get from where we are to where I for one would like our public policy to be. Therefore I would like to use an historical example of decarceration and analyse how that decarceration occurred in the hope that this might guide us in our own attempts to stop the seemingly inexorable growth in prison numbers under New Labour. And here I acknowledge that I have been attempting to create this road map for some time, most recently in my book--Death at the Hands of the State--which is published by the Howard League for Penal Reform (2005), and which I hope can also be read within the honourable tradition of European penal abolitionism.

In making this road map, I do not intend to discuss 'alternatives' to imprisonment--a subject worthy of much greater consideration--for two reasons. First, there are now so many alternatives to imprisonment, both in the statutory and voluntary sectors, that in effect what we have witnessed is the phenomenon of the prison population increasing hand in glove with the development and growth of these 'alternatives'. In short, we have what Stan Cohen (1986) described several years ago as 'net widening, and mesh thinning'. By this process suitable candidates are found for prison and for the alternatives to prison. Second, given that this is so, what I think we really need to do is take the debate away from 'alternatives' to imprisonment, which have increasingly been subsumed by and into the 'prison-industrial complex', and start discussing the real alternative to imprisonment, which is of course decarceration and eventual abolition.

There are several historical examples of decarceration that could be chosen. Examples are the decline in prison numbers in the old West Germany in the 1980s, which for a time provided a great deal of hope for penal reformers in this country; the Netherlands between 1950 and 1975, when their prison population fell from 6500 to 2500, despite an increasing crime rate; and the decarceration of young offender institutions in Massachusetts in the 1970s, under the leadership of Jerome Miller during Michael Dukakis's tenure as state governor. Each of these examples offers some insight into the politics of decarceration. For example, it is quite clear that Dukakis was seen as 'soft on crime' during the presidential...

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