Prisons: Dangerous for Whom?

Dr. David Scott, The Open University and Professor Joe Sim, Liverpool John Moores University

prisons barbed.png

Image source: https://www.canva.com/photos/misc/MACZiQ4q0iU-freedom-will-prison-barbed-wire-fencing-run/?query=prison

 

Prison officers have been in dispute with successive governments since 1972 when the Prison Officers Association (POA) threatened a national strike unless staffing levels at HMP Gartree were increased. Two inter-related themes have dominated these disputes since then: the control of prisons and staff safety. In terms of the first theme, the issue for the POA, contrary to their public pronouncements, has not been about prisoners controlling prisons. This is a myth. In the vast majority of prisons, prison officers remain firmly in control. Rather, the POA has always been concerned with outsiders – probation officers, social workers, academics, managers, and ‘bean counters’ – coming into prisons, exposing the authoritarian use of their discretion and calling them to account.

Alternative Explanations

In terms of the dangers prison staff face, the picture is much more complex than the POA and the media suggest. First, eight prison officers have been murdered since 1850.  It is 53 years since the last prison officer in England and Wales was killed by a prisoner. In contrast, according to the charity INQUEST, 4,640 prisoners have died in prison since 1990, 2,075 of these deaths were self-inflicted. Ministry of Justice figures show that up to March 2018, there were 467 incidents of self-harm per 1,000 male prisoners, a rise of 14% over the year. In women’s prisons, the rate was 2,244 incidents per 1000 prisoners, a rise of 24%. So whose safety counts in prison?

Second, the cuts have been blamed for the rise in violence. Clearly they are an issue. However, the pre-cuts prison was also a place of danger for prisoners. Between 1990 and 2010, according to INQUEST’s data, there were nearly 2,500 deaths, 1,404 of them self-inflicted. Furthermore, the focus on the cuts does not explain the lack of safety for prisoners, and the appalling regime, in prisons such as Liverpool which was well-staffed. The POA has highlighted the lack of staff safety for decades when prisons were full of experienced staff, so their argument about the cuts to these staff also does not add up. The cuts might have intensified the crisis, they have not caused it.

Third, what about the dangers prison staff face compared with other occupations? In 1923, there were similar claims about violence against them after an officer was murdered. However, a committee of inquiry concluded that prison work was less dangerous than the work done by railway workers, miners, quarry workers, police officers and factory workers. In 1919, another official inquiry into the conditions of service for prison officers, observed that ‘the life of a warder is more dreary than that of a policeman, but not so dangerous’. Historically, compared with other occupations, prison work has been relatively safe and this remains true today.  According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)in 2017-18, 144 workers were killed in Great Britain in different occupations including construction, agriculture and manufacturing. The dangers prison officers face compared with other occupations becomes even more problematic when considered against the fact that the data from the HSE seriously underestimates the actual number of workplace fatalities in the country.

Fourth, the recording of prison assaults has changed. Like the recording of crime, such changes can have an impact on what appears to be an increase in assaults or crime. In April 2017, there was a change which simplified how incidents involving staff were recorded. According to the Ministry of Justice, this, in turn, ‘simplified how incidents involving staff are identified, however, it is possible this has increased the recording of incidents’. There have also been incidents in the past when claims by prison officers about the rate of prisoner violence have been questioned. A prison officer had claims published in both The Times and the Civil Service Gazette in 1882 that prison staff at Chatham Prison were victims of assaults with ‘fists, stones and bricks’ virtually on a daily basis.  Yet, when these claims were investigated by the Prison Directors, they found that there had been two serious assaults in the year and twelve trivial cases, consisting merely in physically resisting the officer’.

Fifth, the health and safety of prison officers can also be compromised by factors totally unrelated to assaults by prisoners. Musculoskeletal problems, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and depression have also been found to contribute to days lost at work. Indeed, the National Audit Office (NAO) pointed out in 1999 that sickness arising from accidents at 5% and assaults at 2% ‘represented a small proportion’ of absences from work among prison officers. In 2004, the NAO also noted the number of days lost as a result of depression, anxiety, stress and nervous debility rose by 53% from 116,744 days lost in 1999-00 to 178,625 days lost in 2002-03. The number of days lost as a result of accidents rose from 824 to 1201 while the number of days lost as a result of assaults increased from 397 to 693.

This issue also has a long history.  A report in 1919 observed that prison officer retirements ‘on the grounds of ill-health are abnormally numerous’. For all of the POA’s well-publicised concerns about the health and safety of its members, these issues, on the few occasions they are mentioned, come a long way behind the endless focus on assaults on staff. This is not an argument for saying assaults are unimportant. However, it is to say that assaults need to be put into a broader perspective in relation to what the prison does. It is the dehumanizing prison environment, rather than pathologically violent prisoners, which presents the greatest threat to the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of prison staff.

Finally, there is the question of staff on prisoner violence.  Official reports and inquiries have consistently denied the extent of prison officer violence. The famous Gladstone Report of 1895 recognised that there could be under-reporting of prison officer assaults, noting that ‘there may be many individual cases of hardship in which the prisoners, for obviously possible reasons, are afraid or unwilling to complain’. Yet the same report repeated the claims made in a number of official reports and commissions before and since, namely that if there is a problem, there cannot be ‘any ground for the charge other than the general à priori argument that in a large body of men there must be some black sheep’.  However, accounts by prisoners, and prison officers themselves, dispute the idea that prison officer violence is caused by individual ‘bad apples’ working in state institutions which are essentially benevolent, caring and humane.

Insider Accounts

Prisoners’ accounts of life inside have consistently testified to their often-brutal treatment at the hands of state servants since these accounts emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. However, they have also been consistently dismissed, their credibility tarnished by the authors’ ascribed status as convicted criminals. And yet, prisoners’ accounts have proved to be true when initially dismissed, for example, in the beatings experienced by prisoners after the demonstration at Hull prison in 1976, particularly black and Irish prisoners. Even if the state’s ‘truth’ about prisoners’ accounts was correct, the accounts by prison officers themselves, provide clear evidence that violence against prisoners, and their endless degradation, is more common and widespread than is officially recognized.

The autobiographies of prison officers reveal not only the authoritarian nature of the staff culture but also a number of other systemic issues, such as the lack of concern for the health and safety of prisoners and the derogatory language used to dehumanise them. One officer described having to ‘deal with a staggering array of crackheads, smackheads, drug dealers, arse-kickers, pimps, nonces, time-wasters and toe-rags’.  As for violence against prisoners, he noted  that ‘the general understanding is that if a con pisses off a screw, then the officer will give him a good kicking’.

Then there are the systemic issues of prison officers generating violent confrontations and / or  using ‘Control and Restraint’ techniques ‘to inflict as much pain as possible to inmates’; sanctioning prisoner on prisoner violence; ferociously abusing prisoners after disturbances; and blaming prisoners for violence:

We then overheard them discussing with a senior officer which one would claim on their report that the inmate had attacked them first and therefore had to be restrained. I stood there and could not believe what I had just heard, especially as I knew how calculated the attack was. … I am ashamed to admit it, whilst I never physically assaulted an inmate in such a way I did provide backup stories to help cover other officers.  This was not out of choice but rather through peer pressure, and it was the pressure to perpetrate such lies that contributed to my reasons for resigning from the service.

Finally, there is the largely hidden but systemic issue of legitimating violence against prisoners, where according to one account ‘some of the most unruly women would purposely pick a quarrel with an officer and force her to call for assistance. She would then struggle, kick and scratch, and eventually an officer from the men’s prison would be called in to assist her to the punishment cell’.

The Media

None of these systemic issues were discussed in the media during the most recent prison crisis. Rather, television and radio presenters uncritically disseminated the POA’s arguments. Their spokespersons, and serving and ex-prison officers, led the broadcasts, abetted by abject, ill-informed and extraordinarily leading questions by presenters who simply repeated the POA line on safety. The nadir was reached on Channel Four News in August. When asked ‘Do you feel safe, do your colleagues feel safe?’ a serving prison officer from Birmingham prison replied that ex-military personnel working in British prisons said they felt safer in Afghanistan and Iraq. The BBC proved no better on this occasion. Balance was totally compromised especially on the short, news items broadcast on the hour on Radio 4 where the only voices heard belonged to prison officers or their representatives.

Conclusion

The contemporary crisis in prisons is profound. However, it is not the first. There was a similar crisis 40 years ago where the same themes were prominent. Successive Conservative governments, in thrall to the POA, and hypocritical law and order crusades, did nothing. The result? The Strangeways (HMP Manchester) disturbance in 1990, the longest in British prison history. In government, the Labour Party was no better. Nor are their contemporary spokespersons on justice who are also in thrall to the POA, and to commonsensical, law and order discourses, while engaging in sheer political opportunism. The fact is that the crisis is too serious for such appalling posturing. If a future disaster is to be averted, politicians need to implement policies which will radically transform prisons and the wider criminal justice system. Given the puerile state of contemporary British politics, that seems to be too much to hope for in the current climate.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson, Keir Irwin-Rogers and Katie Tucker for their support with this blog.

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Podcasting through the prison wall: Ear Hustle Season 3

James Mehigan, The Open University

San Quentin Prison

Image source: Jitze Couperus/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

 

San Quentin is probably California’s most famous prison. Johnny Cash recorded his second prison album there in 1969 and it even gets a mention in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Fans of Louis Theroux will remember his visit to the prison for his 2008 documentary Louis Theroux: Behind Bars. Though the reach of San Quentin’s reputation may stretch from Nobel Laureate to the BBC, it is unusual to hear a prisoner’s perspective on life as one of the 4,000 or so residents of California’s oldest prison. That is why the podcast Ear Hustle is essential listening for anybody interested in prisons, criminology or the justice system.

The name ‘Ear Hustle’ comes from the prison slang for over-hearing or listening in. The show is a collaboration between a visual artist who volunteers at the prison, Nigel Poor, and Earlonne Woods, a prisoner serving a sentence of 31 years to life for attempted second degree robbery. Poor began volunteering at the prison in 2011 and established a radio project with prisoners in 2013. She and Woods work together to tell the stories of the prisoners incarcerated in a way that is unusual, sensitive and thought provoking. In comparison with Theroux’s documentary which treated the prisoners with something of a lurid fascination, Ear Hustle treats each of its contributors with empathy and understanding.

Previous seasons have covered a variety of topics including the politics of sharing a space of 4.5*10.8 foot (137*329 cms) with cell mates, known by the slang term ‘cellies’. They have looked at the challenges of being both a parent and a prisoner as well as how prisoners keep pets. A slightly recurring theme relates to sexuality, the prison taboo which the podcast tackles head on. There is an episode on LGBTQ life in an institution where nobody is openly gay, and an episode discussing the way in which prisoners access formal and informal conjugal visits. There is also an interview with a prisoner given a long sentence as a teenager who is due to be released and is thinking through how the dating scene will deal with questions of incarceration and virginity.

On the more serious end of the spectrum is the saddening discussion of death row. San Quentin serves as California’s death row for men and houses some 700 men sentenced to die. This death row is bigger than the entire death rows of Texas (243) and Florida (374) and it may be the largest death row in the world. Although nobody has been executed at San Quentin since 2006, these prisoners live inside a ‘prison within a prison’. The Ear Hustle producers reached out to death row inmates through the prison paper and managed to interview some. The whole episode is touching and saddening and brings out the inherent barbarity involved when the state decides to take human life.

There is a risk when empathetically collecting first-hand accounts, that the narrative is one which over-romanticises the prison and the prisoner. So it is worth saying that Ear Hustle is not particularly guilty of this. It is clear throughout that the presenters are concerned about the plight of the victims of those interviewed as they choose their interviewees and their topics. In one memorable episode a trafficking victim confronts a trafficker about the nature of his crimes in a restorative justice symposium. It’s tough listening, but it is fantastic to hear a victim use the discussion so effectively.

Listeners can take what they want from the show but for me it is hard not to view it as a cautionary verse about the value of the European Convention of Human Rights (‘ECHR’). The abolition of the death penalty in Protocol 13 means that there would be no death row episode. On the other hand, the weakness of Article 8’s protection of private and family life means that there would be no conjugal visit episode for Ireland or the UK. So, for at least sex and death the ECHR has changed the lives of UK prisoners compared to their American cousins.

This impact can also be seen in the insights the show provides on how parole operates in California. In the UK the parole process has been shaped by Article 5 of the ECHR. Getting released on parole, known to prisoners of San Quentin as ‘getting a date’ is not subject to the same hard-won protections. For example you can hear the prisoners discussing whether the Governor of California will accept the release decision of the parole board. Such a refusal would be a breach of a UK prisoner’s human rights today.

Season 3 started on 12 September 2018. It promises to expand on the insights and stories presented in the first 2 series and I’ll certainly be listening. Though it’s not just a podcast. There is an Ear Hustle website, which includes the transcripts of each episode (some prisoners without access to the podcast on prison radio have the transcripts posted in by family members) and a Twitter account. Perhaps more interestingly, an Instagram account with pictures from inside the prison helps bring a face to the voices that you come to know on the podcast.

This entire online platform, with its music, pictures and sounds helps bring the human voices out through the wall of the prison. It is hard to imagine a UK prison allowing such an innovative use of technology, but it would help to reach across the divide between the prison and the community it serves. We can only hope that it could be replicated here soon.

Gangs and serious youth violence: Is the Centre for Social Justice using statistics responsibly?

Keir Irwin-Rogers, The Open University

fake news

In the 12 months to March 2017, 61 young people aged 16-24 died as a result of knife crime in England and Wales. Violence between young people in the UK is a problem that I think merits serious attention, which is why I have been supporting the cross-party Youth Violence Commission as an academic advisor for the past two years.

During many meetings, roundtables and conferences on youth violence, I have been struck by people’s fixation on gangs whenever the issue of youth violence arises. Admittedly, I myself focused closely on ‘youth gangs’ for a number of years while I conducted research for the Dawes Unit – a specialist team within the social business, Catch22. During this time, I became increasingly concerned by what I considered to be significant limitations in the empirical evidence base on gangs.

As part of my own research, I recently contacted the Metropolitan Police Service to request their most up-to-date data on violent crime in London. In particular, I wanted to find out the proportion of violent offences that were being flagged as gang-related. Given the prominent place of gangs in government policy initiatives and the media, the results were not what I was expecting:

In 2016, just 3.8% of knife crime with injury (fatal, serious, moderate and minor) had been flagged by the MET as gang-related.

In light of the FOI statistics, I was taken aback by some of the claims made in the Centre for Social Justice’s recently published report, It Can Be Stopped: A proven blueprint to stop violence and tackle gang and related offending in London and beyond. Developing a clear agenda and narrative in its opening paragraphs, Iain Duncan Smith’s Think Tank state:

“It is estimated that gangs are responsible for as much as half of all knife crime with injury…”

I was keen to find out the reason for the discrepancy between the figures I had received from the Met and the claim being made by the CSJ in their report. The source provided to support their claim was the Metropolitan Police Service’s 62 page Business Plan 2017-18. With no page number provided by the CSJ (alas!), I proceeded to hunt through chapters on the Met’s vision, finances and performance frameworks. Upon reaching the end of this document, I had failed to find any reference to such a high proportion of knife crime being attributed to gangs.

This begged the question: why were the CSJ misdirecting their readers to a reference that did not support their claims?

I emailed the CSJ to bring this ‘mistake’ to their attention, and asked if they could point me in the direction of the real source on which they based their claims. While waiting for a response (which I have still not received), BBC Reality Check came to the rescue.

According to the BBC, the CSJ based this particular claim on data from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). This indicated that in the year to March 2017 there had been 4,446 reported offences of knife crime with injury. If you remove the cases in which the victim was over 24, and then exclude incidents of domestic violence, this leaves 2,028, which represents 45% of the total.

In a stunning leap of faith, the CSJ have assumed that all of the remaining 2,028 cases were consequently gang-related. To be clear, the claim being made is that knife crime with injury offences involving victims 24 years of age and under, which are not incidents of domestic violence, can all be assumed to be gang-related.

This is utterly implausible. The proximate reasons for knife crime with injury offences involving young people are numerous and varied. Many incidents are triggered by isolated episodes of disrespect that have nothing to do with street gangs. The CSJ may well consider this reality an inconvenience to the gang narrative they attempt to conjure throughout their report (which contains a whopping 478 references to the term ‘gang’).

The claim that gangs are responsible for as much as half of all knife crime with injury not only flies in the face of the Met’s own statistics (discussed above), but of other recent publications, because it is patently absurd. Certainly, it is possible that police statistics are to some extent unreliable, based upon shaky assumptions and/or limited intelligence. If the CSJ believes this is the case, then calls for better data on gang-related violence ought to be accompanied by measured statements about the existing evidence base – not wild claims that lack serious foundation.

Finally, the maxim about ‘people who live in glass houses’ sprung to mind when I saw the CSJ demand in this very report (see recommendation 39 on p.120) that people ‘desist’ from using ‘flawed…statistics’ to fuel ‘false narratives’.

While there is some sound research and analysis in It Can Be Stopped, it will continue to be overshadowed by the CSJ’s refusal to acknowledge their error and be honest with the public about the available (and limited) evidence on the scale of gang-related violence in London and the rest of the UK.

Knife crime, we can all agree, needs to be treated seriously. But doing so requires a rigorous evidence base, accurately and faithfully represented, if we are to avoid counter-productive, knee-jerk policy responses.