Naming the prison for what it is: a place of institutionally-structured violence

David Scott, The Open University

 

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Photo of prisoners on social media following HMP Birmingham Disturbances – Source: ibtimes.co.uk

 

Headline after headline in the British Press in recent months has placed a spotlight on prisoner violencePrisoner violence, especially that perpetrated by prisoners against prison officers, has been consistently portrayed as reaching epidemic proportions.  Statistics have been rolled out again and again detailing rises in assaults on staff, prisoner homicides and general levels of prisoner interpersonal violence in the last four years.  Yet much of the recent media focuses only on the physical violence perpetrated by prisoners.  Whilst such interpersonal physical violence should not be ignored or downplayed, it is only one kind of prison violence and by no means the most deadly.

 

Individual Pathology?

Violence is regarded by many people to be immoral and the perpetration of physical violence considered problematic by most people in most circumstances.  Official condemnations of prisoner physical violence, from the Justice Secretary, politicians, penal practitioners and penal reformers certainly have not been in short supply in recent times, but often explanations of prison violence have been reduced to prisoner individual pathology.  Pathologically violent prisoners have a deprived nature and inherent tendency towards violence (in other words, prisoners are dangerous, violent and irrational people who would be equally, if not more, violent on the outside). Analysis has rarely gone beyond this framework of understanding and it has been the approach of the current government, exemplified in the recent white paper on prisons. Physical violence by prisoners is being taken seriously and this is because it is not only the most visible form of violence but also because prisoner violence presents a direct threat to the state’s monopoly on the use of force.  But the problem of prisoner violence, and the problem of violence within prisons more generally, cannot be reduced to an increase in the number of violent prisoners alone, if at all.

 

The problem with the “individual pathology” argument is that ignores the brutal fact that prisons are inevitably structured according to the dictates of domination and exploitation.  Prisons are distinct moral places where normal moral conventions for daily interactions between prisoners and penal authorities can be neutralised. Physical violence in prison should not then be dislocated from the permanent and irremovable situational contexts and structures of penal confinement. Hierarchical and antagonistic relationships are naturalised in prisons and result in an ‘unequal exchange’ between people ranked differently, creating a form of structural vulnerability.  This is a key generator of conflict, antagonism and physical violence. Systemic exploitation takes many different forms in the prison place, such as through the informal prisoner code or bullying.  For prisoners, physical violence can be a way of acquiring goods and services, keeping face or fronting out problems.  In social hierarchies there are always winners and losers, with the losers open to physical (and sometimes sexual) exploitation.  Though the physical violence of prisoners is often relatively minor (with the exception of 2015 in recent times in the UK there have been only small numbers of prisoner homicides) victimisation and exploitation are routinised and part of the social organisation of the prison.  But this is not the only form of prison violence.

 

Prison Officer Violence

For a long time physical violence by prisoners against prison officers was taken for granted as a part of prison life.  With the promotion of a “zero tolerance” policy by the Prison Officer Association in 2012 this appears to have changed.  However it still seems to be regularly accepted that physical violence can and will be deployed by prison officers where and when deemed necessary.  Prison officer violence is also connected to the asymmetrical penal hierarchies.  Although staff cultures differ in their intensity across and within prisons, the hierarchical nature of the prison place exacerbates the ‘us and them’ mentality. Physical violence against prisoners is sometimes viewed by staff as not only necessary but also morally justifiable.  Violence is used for the right reasons to control the less eligible prisoner, something which has been referred to by Richard Edney in 1997 as “righteous violence”.  Prisoners are placed beyond the realm of understanding and the norms of common humanity.  They are Othered.  Using violence against prisoners has also in the past been used as a means of gaining respect and status as well as providing ‘excitement’ in the otherwise bleak and monotonous routine.

 

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Prison officers control and restraint – source: videohit.tv

 

Prison officer autobiographies in recent years are a valuable source of information on the nature and extent of prison officer violence.  They inform us that for prison officers the location and timing of physical violence is often carefully chosen.  Sometimes it takes place in concealed and isolated spaces of the prison where the officer cannot be easily seen; other times officers may utilise the opportunities given to them by prisoners – such as targeting unpopular prisoners during prisoner disturbances or on the way to the segregation unit or applying greater force than necessary when applying restraints.  More indirectly, prison officers can facilitate prisoner-on-prisoner interpersonal violence by turning a blind eye, such as leaving the cell of a potential victim open; failing to patrol hot-spot areas known for prisoner assaults; or failing to intervene when physical violence erupts between two prisoners.

 

That prisons are drenched in violence does not mean, however, that physical violence is constantly exercised.  Physical violence may well be rare events in certain penal institutions, but this does not mean people live free from the shadow of violence. What is always present though is the fear of violence.  The exercise of violence can be explicit, as for example through the structured humiliations and denials of dignity within the daily role of the prison officer – strip searches; control and restraint; locking people into a cell and so on – or it can be implicit when prisoners conform because they know physical violence will follow if they do not.

 

Institutionally-Structured Violence

This is, however, a further form of violence in prison.  This silent, invisible yet potentially deadly form of violence has been named as institutionally-structured violenceInstitutionally-structured violence refers to the harmful outcomes created by the deprivations structured within penal regimes that restrict access to necessary life resources, thus negatively impacting upon health, wellbeing and intellectual, physical and spiritual development.  Operating independently of human actions, institutionally-structural violence has a permanent, continuous presence in the prison place and in the end produces suffering and death.  Rather than a perverse or pathological aberration, institutionally-structured violence is an inevitable and legal feature of prison life. Institutionally-structured violence is constructed through the operation of the daily rules, norms and procedures of penal institutions and impacts upon how prisoners and staff interact. Institutionally-structured violence exists when autonomy and choices are severely curtailed; human wellbeing, potential and development are undermined; feelings of safety and sense of security are weak; and human needs are systematically denied through the restrictive and inequitable distribution of resources.

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HMP Manchester – Source: prisonuk.blogspot.co.uk

 

 

A person can never be truly free in prison – everywhere they will be restricted by invisible (and sometimes quite visible) chains that place significant limitations upon human movement. Restrictions on prisoner contact and relationships are structurally organised and whilst physical violence is relational and dependent upon a number of contingencies, institutionally-structured violence is embedded in, and socially produced by, the situational contexts of daily prison regimes.  Most obviously, we think of this in terms of prison conditions, crowding and the spatial restrictions created by the architectural dimensions of the prison place itself.  Prisons are a specifically designated coercive spatial order controlling human freedom, autonomy, choices, actions and relationships.  External physical barricades regulate the conditions of social existence through sealing the prisoner from their previous life, whilst internal control mechanisms survey constraints on the minutiae of the prison day.  Security restrictions on prisoner movements – such as access to educational and treatment programmes; religious instruction; work and leisure provision – are carefully structured and regimented around predetermined orderings of time and space.  The architecture of the prison place determines the location of events and distribution of bodies and in so doing also highly regulates relationships, and subsequently physical violence.

 

The harm generated by the general lack of privacy and intimacy; the ‘forced relationality’ between prisoners sharing a cell; insufficient living space and personal possessions; the indignity of eating and sleeping in what is in effect a lavatory; living daily and breathing in the unpleasant smells of body odour, urine and excrement; the humiliation of defecating in the presence of others are all examples of institutionally-structured violence.  Yet if these visible daily spatial constraints were all there was to institutionally-structured violence then prison reformers’ calls for improved prison designs, conditions, greater forms of autonomy and enhanced resources allowing prisoners to choose how they live their lives might be considered sufficient. But sadly they are not.

 

Prisons are places of estrangement.  They will always be places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons are places which constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, alienation and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons are lonely, isolating and brutalising experiences.  Prisons are places of dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of their basic human needs. Combined with saturation in time consciousness / awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death.  For prison officers cultures of moral indifference and neglect are facilitated in such a culture where prisoner shared humanity is neutralised and the pain and suffering of fellow humans ignored.

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Source: BBC News

 

Abolish Violence

The starting point is to name the prison for what it actually is – a place of institutionally-structured violence.  This entails denaturalising taken for granted deprivations structured within daily penal regime and acknowledging that prisons produce a specific moral climate that is more likely to dehumanise and dehabilitate than positively transform an individual.  Through articulating the brutal mundaneness of everyday prison life so corrosive to human flourishing and wellbeing we can facilitate a new culture that can assist in making the full extent of prison violence more visible.

 

Prisons are the enemy of the people, not their protector.  Prisons life is an unfolding human tragedy for all those caught up in exploitative and oppressive relations. Focusing on prisons as a form of institutionally-structured violence also highlights the tensions around promoting the criminal law as a means of responding to social harms such as sexual violence.  Indeed, the punishment of sexual violence has not only led to the reinforcement of state legitimacy but in the USA at least to further expansion of the penal net among poor, disadvantaged and marginalised women.   The belief that prisons can be used to ‘control’ male violence and create greater safety and public protection are today key ways of legitimating the prison place: by focusing on institutionally-structured violence it is possible to challenge this logic.  The prison cannot provide a means of increasing the safety and well-being of anyone, be they ‘victims’, ‘offenders’ or ‘bystanders’.

 

When focusing on ‘institutional structures’ though we must be careful the argument is not reduced to a crude form of social pathology.  There is also always the danger that such analysis can lead to the denial of human agency.  Human choices are constrained by social circumstances, not determined by them.  So we should acknowledge that current patterns of interactions in prison can be challenged.  Prison authorities and prison officers should be encouraged to talk openly about the harmful consequences they see on a daily basis: they, alongside prisoners, can bear witness to truth of current penal realities and should be allowed to do so without negative consequences.  Whilst it is impossible to change all the structural arrangements of the prison place, there are still everyday operational practices and cultures that can transformed.  Emancipatory humanitarian changes can be introduced to mitigate the worst excesses of institutionally-structured violence.  Some need deprivations can be removed and many daily infringements of human dignity can be greatly reduced.  Cultural changes can be made to promote a democratic culture providing first a voice to prisoners and then a commitment to listen to that voice with respect and due consideration. Finding new non-violent ways of dealing with personal conflicts and troubles in prison would also reduce the extent of physical violence and would help de-legitimate cultures of violence.

 

Yet prisons can never free themselves of violence entirely.  Prisons systematically generate suffering and death.  We must then urgently, vigorously and robustly call for a radical reduction in the use of prison.  Quite simply, violence can never be used as a weapon against violence.

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