Anti-racist criminology? A recall

Rod Earle, The Open University

In November 2016 the Youth Justice Board announced that 47% of the custodial population of young men in England and Wales was composed of men and boys from black and minority ethnic groups. The reductions in the level of youth incarceration, from over 3,000 in 2006 to less than 900 in 2016, have been very unevenly distributed. It leaves a custodial population almost half of which is non-white, and which has barely reduced at all if you are from a black or minority ethnic group. In the United States, racial disproportionality is subject to sharp critical scrutiny partly because of the phenomenal scale of US imprisonment rates, but the disproportionality here is worse. Even worse is that this is neither new or news and largely escapes critical attention. Coretta Phillips’ book, The Multicultural Prison, reports as much and notes that clear racial disparities in British prisons date back to the 1990s. Why is race so obscure to criminology and criminologists and yet so blatant in criminal justice?

In both the USA and the UK there are stark racial disparities in policing and imprisonment. In both countries 2016 was heavily marked by racial politics and few people would deny that race was a dominant feature of the 2016 US presidential election. A White challenger to a Black incumbent was itself unprecedented, but the background was provided by the Black Lives Matter campaign protesting at the fatal neglect of black communities in the US and the lethal violence of their policing. Donald Trump emerged triumphant on the back of what some commentators referred to as a ‘whitelash’.

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Image source: RISE

 

In the UK, the successful Brexit campaign took a leaf out Enoch Powell’s 1970s racial rhetoric which, according to Stuart Hall and colleagues in Policing the Crisis, “spoke straight… to the fears, anxieties, and frustrations [of the white] national collective unconscious, to its hopes and fears”. The referendum result shocked many, and revitalised concerns about how racism circulates under the surface, only to emerge to fuller public view during periods of particular political turbulence. In Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall and colleagues analysed how in the 1970s crime, race and policing were implicated in the configuration of a seminal political crisis.  Since then crime has risen to, and receded from, the political frontline and race has almost evaporated from mainstream political discourse. So, where’s the bad news?

The political consensus among white elites is that race is irrelevant. Because race does not exist at the biological level, and is thus ‘unscientific’, it is logically inconsistent to attribute harmful effects to it. The continuing, all-to-real, empirically unequivocal, distribution of harmful effects according to race are thus relegated from social, economic and historical processes to the personal realm of sentiments, such as fear, guilt and anxiety. Racism is understood as a residual problem of atavistic, ignorant individuals failing to sufficiently modernise themselves; a personal defect to be exposed and condemned rather than a structural feature of society to be dismantled.

In the rush to do away with the term ‘race’, a variety of competing terminologies, such as ‘implicit bias’ and xenophobia, focusing on fear of ‘foreigners’ or migrants, have drawn from concepts of ‘difference’, ‘culture’ and ‘alterity’. They often do so as if such fears were a natural human propensity, an evolutionary and thus innate predisposition to be wary of ‘strangers’ that is hard-wired into us. This euphemistic strategy proceeds innocently enough without acknowledging that concepts such as ‘difference’ and alterity, posit a normative (white, Eurocentric) state of being against which the “other” or the “different” stand out, usually with far from innocent or benign implications.

White disavowal of race, race-blindness, is frequently accompanied by a strategy of deflection that situates any residual symptoms in the ‘passions of the popular classes’. Where racism does manifest, according to this perspective, is among the fragmented white underclass; ‘chavs’ in the UK, ‘white-trash’ and ‘rednecks’ in the USA, ‘petits blancs’ in France. Among these sections of society, cut adrift from the relentless march of progress and ill-equipped to adopt the omnivorous, cosmopolitan appetites of the middle class, racism is conceded to be a problem: an irrational reaction based on the atavistic fantasies of the unsophisticated masses. Within this elitist perspective, the role of the state, the most powerful structuring force in society, and other powerful collectivities, are erased from the picture.

The value of insisting on race is that it connects the subject matter of human division to history and ideology, to theorising and to struggles for emancipation and egalitarianism. Retrieving race from the hostile post-racial miasma swirling around Muslims for example, or refugees and migrant populations can help to situate people in particular contexts that foster more active resistance and greater resilience. It can reanimate anti-racism.

Criminology is a discipline heavily implicated in racial projects. There is thus an urgent need to revisit race and re-present arguments that can challenge its enduring corrosive effects. One way of doing this is to ‘recall’ the concept of anti-racism.  The procedure of ‘recalling’ refers both to the process of memory as recollecting the past, but also to the procedures of commerce in which a manufacturing company might recall a product that has been identified as having a defect or being deficient in a way that can be remedied. The recall demonstrates a commitment to fixing the problem and returning it to its proper functioning. For some criminologists familiar with sentencing procedure, ‘recall’ will also be familiar as the process by which a prisoner released from custody is returned to their former state of incarceration because they may be at risk of disappearing while they continue to pose a risk of causing further harm. Perhaps this meaning is also appropriate, bringing ‘race’ back into view, and preventing its disappearance while there is so much work still to be done proving that it is has ceased to exist as a threat.

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Source: Socialist Worker

Recalling anti-racism is an urgent critical task because the neo-liberal reconfigurations of racism have become exceptionally vigorous. Post-racial delusions, white privilege, indifference and impunity conspire against an effective anti-racism. There is a lot of work being accomplished that has pushed anti-racism to the margins and reduced race to an individual moral failure or a fantasy from bogie wonderland. Criminologist cannot turn away from race, particularly while there is so much mounting evidence of its corrosive presence in criminal justice, and so little understanding of how racisms produce race. The sporadic or ambivalent attention to race within criminology relegates the issue to the supplemental sidelines when it needs to be recognised as central and constitutive. Anti-racism in criminology can produce the wished-for non-racism, but non-racism cannot produce anti-racism. For criminologists recalling anti-racism, going back to the drawing board, can involve creating new and public spaces for questioning the relationship between race, prison and punishment. The evidence is out there.

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.

Prison deaths: a case of corporate manslaughter?

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Attention has finally fallen on the crisis of safety in British prisons. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Some argue that prison has always inherently been, and remains, a place of degradation which is systematically generating suffering and death. A place where the victims are overwhelmingly prisoners – a fact that might be obscured by the loud voices of the Prison Officers’ Association.

On the other hand, there is something peculiar in this present crisis. It feels like a perfect storm of rising prisoner numbers, cuts in staffing, widespread demoralisation among prisoners and staff, all combining to deliver evidence of a record year for killing and self-inflicted deaths.

In this context, but specifically following the news of the fatal stabbing of Jamal Mahmoud at HMP Pentonville in November 2016, Emily Thornberry, the local MP, called for an investigation into whether an appropriate “duty of care” had been extended to the deceased during his time at the jail. Indeed, one commentator noted that Mahmoud’s death had come “as little surprise given the substantial rise in violence at the troubled local prison over recent years”, violence which had been documented in “report after report”.

Caught in the Act

Such a call seems appropriate and timely. In 2011, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (CMCHAct) was extended to the prison service, so that a prison itself, through the actions or inactions of its senior management, can be held to account for deaths within its walls.

A prosecution under the Act requires a failure in the way in which the organisation is managed or organised which amounts to a gross breach of its duty of care. This in turn requires evidence that the failure fell “far below what can reasonably be expected”. That may include consideration of the “attitudes, policies, and systems of accepted practices” of the organisation, while a substantial element of the failure must be at senior management level.

Now there is no doubt that the Act was introduced ostensibly and primarily to deal with the failure of common law manslaughter to hold large, complex, profit-making companies to account for multiple fatality disasters. In this respect, it has hardly been a success. Thus, at the time of writing, over eight years after the CMCHAct came into force, there have been 19 successful prosecutions under the Act – none, arguably, against a company of the size and complexity that could not have been prosecuted under the pre-existing common law.

But is there a case for testing the Act in the context of deaths in prison? I would argue that there is, on at least two counts.

Sharp practice? Alex G./Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Danger zone

First, prisons are especially dangerous places. According to HSE data released last month, fatal injuries (as opposed to fatal illnesses) to workers in 2015/16 totalled 144. Almost a third of these (43) occurred in construction, with the other most dangerous sectors being agriculture and manufacturing (each with 27 recorded fatalities). Notwithstanding the significant limitations of HSE data, such figures pale into comparison when compared with the numbers of killings and self-inflicted deaths in British jails.

In 2011, the year the Act was extended to cover prisons, there were 190 deaths in prison; this year, there have been over 300. All in all, since 2011, there has been a consistent, year-on-year increase in the numbers of such deaths, which total nearly 1,400 for the period. It seems almost inconceivable that none of these 1,400 deaths involved at least sufficient evidence for a prosecution to be taken under the CMCHAct.

Second, we know, and have long known, that it is precisely “attitudes, policies, and systems of accepted practices” which generate deaths and violence in prison. Just as we also know that some institutions are more poorly managed than others.

It is, sadly, also too easy to identify clusters of deaths in specific jails. For example, there have been 17 self-inflicted deaths at HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes since 2013 – the latest, 41-year-old artist David Rayner, was found in his cell on August 25.

Bleak outcomes. sean hobson/Flickr, CC BY

Ignored recommendations

More generally, a constant stream of inquest findings, inspectorate, investigation and monitoring reports, and inquiries into prisons from Baroness Corston to Lord Harris, reveal consistent failings and are able to produce rigorous, evidence-based recommendations to protect the health and safety of prisoners and staff in British jails.

The vast majority of these have been systematically ignored. But the fact remains that this volume of evidence would strongly indicate that in the case of many deaths in prison, management was likely aware of risks to which they failed to respond, a key element of the senior management failure test under the law.

Many deaths in prison are the result of gross breaches in the duty of care through attitudes, policies and practices woven into the fabric of the prison service. The time is overdue for the CMCHAct to be tested there. This is not to imply that effective reform of prisons can come through the law. In fact, the best way to reduce prison violence is through an explicit policy decision to make prison the last resort of sentencing policy in an effort to massively reduce the prison population. It now stands at a near-record level of 85,000, and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe.

However, a successful prosecution under the Act would provide a powerful, symbolic message that the routine, systematic deaths of those to whom the state and the prison service has a duty of care cannot continue without legal accountability.

 

This article originally appeared in the Conversation on the 1st of December at: https://theconversation.com/prison-deaths-a-case-of-corporate-manslaughter-69729

 

Prisons systematically generate suffering and death: thinking beyond reform

David Scott, The Open University

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HMP Woodhill, Buckingham, England: Source: BBC

 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing feature of imprisonment today is the tragically high number of self-inflicted deaths [SIDs].  At 120 SIDs per 100,000 people, prisoners are 10 times more likely to take their own lives than those living in the wider community.  On 18th November 2016 the one hundredth (100) prisoner killed themselves this calendar year.  This equates to one prisoner taking their own life every 3 days in prisons in England and Wales.  The official data also indicates that a prisoner attempts to kill themselves every 5 hours and that a prisoner is recorded as self-harming every 20 minutes. By the 24h November 306 people had died in prison in England and Wales in 2016 (on average of nearly one person a day).  All this evidence points to the fact that prisons are places of terrible harm and death.

 

A history of death

Whilst current explanations of the high number of SIDs have been reduced to prisoner mental health problems and reduced numbers of staffing, deaths in prison cannot be restricted solely to prisoner vulnerabilities and regressive policy changes in the last six years.  The officially recorded figure indicates that self-inflicted deaths in prison have risen substantially for the last four decades.  In 1986 there were 21 recorded ‘suicides’ in prison. This number, however, leapt by over 100% in 1987 to 46 recorded suicides. Official data show that there was another major incline of recorded deaths only seven years later, in 1994 when, for the first time, more than 60 SIDs were recorded; and yet again, four years after that in 1998, when more than 80 people took their own lives.  The highest number of prisoner SIDs prior to this year was in 2004, when 96 prisoner SIDs were recorded for that year.  Yet though less people died, because of the lower prisoner population at that time, at 127.2 per 100,000 prisoners, the ratio of death was actually higher in 2004 than in 2016.  What is important to note is that there have been large number of prisoner deaths since the prisons were ‘reformed’ in the early nineteenth century, indicating how deeply entrenched death is in the everyday workings of prisons.

 

Alongside the sheer number of SIDs, in recent day’s concern has quite rightly focused on the clustering of six SID’s from 2015 – 2016 at HMP Woodhill, a high security male prison in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.  Yet sadly this is not an aberration – cluster deaths have plagued prisons for years.   For example, from 1987-89 11 SIDs were recorded at Risley Remand Centre. Five young men aged from 17 and 19 died while on remand at HMP Armley from May 1988 and February 1989, whilst from August 1991 to March 1992 four young offenders, including a 15 year old, took their own lives at Feltham YOI. Six women hanged themselves in a three-year period from 2002 to 2005 at HMP Durham H wing, whilst from August 2002 to September 2003 six women took their lives at HMP Styal. Previous cluster deaths at adult male prisoners include the five prisoners who killed themselves at HMP Whitemoor from 19 November 2006 and 10 December 2007.

 

To understand, then, why so many people die in prisons, we need to think beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis confronting prisons.  This means challenging assumption propagated by the media, politicians, prison reformers and the POA that staffing levels and prisoner mental health lie at the heart of the problem.

 

Prison staff

Among traditional prison officer cultures the prisoner is often considered as “inferior” or “lesser”, and so rather the being treated with respect, care and decency, prisoner relationships with prison officers have often been based on indifference and neglect.  According to one study, the legitimate terms for prison officers who adhere to a traditional working personality when referring to prisoners can include:  Nick Names (Smithy, Jonesy); Second Names (Smith, Jones); 1st names; Prison Number; “Dicks”, “dickheads”, “cunts”, “bollocks”,  and “wanker”.  The legitimate terms for prisoners when referring to staff were “Boss”, “Officer”, “Mr”, and “Sir”.  These forms of address by disciplinarian officers become a means of institutionalising lesser eligibility and informally maintaining a psychic divide.   In this same study of prison officers it was found that prisoners were described by officers as:

 

“Selfish”, “pathetic”, “childlike”, “untrustworthy”, “ill-disciplined”, “irresponsible”, “bad bastards”, “overly demanding”, “inadequate”, “dangerous”, “layabouts”, “toe-rags”, “needy”, “druggies”, “contagious”, “scum”, “poor copers”, “manipulators”, “wasters”, “users”.

 

Negative categorisations justify neglect and lead to the blaming of prisoners for their own dreadful predicament.  Those who harm themselves or attempt to take their own lives are labelled by some prison officers as childish and pathetic manipulators whose harming act is part of a ‘general display of attention-seeking behaviour’.  Controversy has arisen in the past regarding the apparent complacency of staff and the neglect of prisoners who are experiencing serious emotional difficulties On March 11 2004 Arif Hussain took his own life at HMP Full Sutton whilst in the jails segregation unit.  Eye witness testimonies described how Arif’s “screams of agony were ignored by staff for hours”.  When he later repeatedly rang his alarm bell for attention, rather than respond to him the night staff switched it off.

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Prison Officers, HMP Risey.  Source: BBC

 

This negative attitude to the lesser prisoner is not restricted to prison officers alone.  A prison operational manager in a recently published book by a prison governor is quoted as saying:

 

Sometimes I think, ‘oh fuck, if the guy wants to kill himself, fucking get on with it’ but when I’m on the shop floor I can’t demonstrate it can I? These guys on dirty protest, I’d like to throw my own bucket of piss over them myself, but you can’t do that because it’s not humane.  Doesn’t stop you thinking it though does it? I have to make sure that the staff hold that moral ground.

 

 

The current focus on prison officer numbers is predicated on the assumption that there is now less care for prisoners by staff.  But the evidence above indicates that prison officer numbers and prisoner care cannot be easily quantified.  Neither is it obvious that close prisoner-prison officer relationships mitigate the harms of imprisonment.  A study of self-harm and SID’s of women prisoners in England and Wales in 2007 found, perhaps counter-intuitively, that “feeling closer to correctional staff increases a woman’s risk of self-harm and suicide ideation only in England”. This might help explain why the data appears to indicate there is no obvious correlation between historical rates of self-inflicted deaths and in prison officers staffing levels.   Certainly, if we explore the data over the last hundred and fifty years in terms of prisoner self-inflicted deaths and prison officer- prisoner staffing ratios we find that in the last four decades there are record rates of recorded self-inflicted deaths at the same time as there have been record high levels of prison officer – prisoner ratios.

 

Individual pathologies?

The other main reason proposed for the high number of deaths is prisoner mental health problems. ‘Suicide’ risk has for a long time been connected to ‘abnormal’ people with serious mental health problems. The suicidal prisoner is considered to suffer from fear, depression, despondency and hopelessness and a general inability to adapt to prison life. They simply do not have the personal resources to cope with the deprivations of imprisonment. Whilst this argument around mental ill-health is clearly of significance, as an explanation of the actual deaths of prisoners it has proved remarkably limited. The problem is that even if a person who takes their life has mental health problems this alone cannot tell us why they took their life at that specific time or indeed provide any insight into the distinct set of interpersonal dynamics leading up to the act.

 

It has proved exceptionally difficult to identify the manner in which mental health problems actually relate to suicidal attempts or to differentiate the ‘suicidal’ from the rest of the prison population. One of the key revelations is the evidence of the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among prisoners, with a number of recent studies identifying exceptionally high levels of suicidal ideation (i.e. thoughts about taking own life): 46% of male remand prisoners have thought of ‘suicide’ in their lifetime, and 40% of male prisoners and 55% of female prisoners experience suicidal thoughts in their lifetime, compared with 14% of men and 4% of women living in the wider community.

 

Whilst many people in prison do have mental health problems, those who commit ‘suicide’ are less likely to have a psychiatric history than those on the outside who take their own lives.  There has in fact been a systematic failure of identification by the Prison Service of those who are likely to attempt to take their own lives.  Under the current Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork [ACCT] policy only around 1 in 4 prisoners who successfully end their lives are identified as a risk of ‘suicide’.

 

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Sarah Reed, who died in HMP Holloway in February 2016: Source dailymail.co.uk

 

The pains of imprisonment

There is one further explanation of SID’s that has not been fully explored in the media or in contemporary policy but one which appears to fit much better with historical and contemporary evidence: prison through its daily workings systematically generates death.  Life in the prison place should be seen as a humiliating and unsafe experience perpetuating fear and loathing on a daily basis. Dividing prisoners between ‘copers’ and ‘non-copers’ provides only false assumptions about who may be suicide prone. Most prisoners only just about cope.  The real pains of imprisonment are not to be found in the given quality of living conditions, relationships with staff or levels of crowding, but in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away.  Deaths in prison should not be considered as aberrations or malfunctions of the system but rather located in the daily processes of imprisonment itself.

 

Adaptations to imprisonment are not a permanent state of affairs but open to erosion, meaning that even small changes in the prison world may reignite underlying difficulties a person has in coping with life inside. Coping mechanisms for everyone, irrespective of the numbers of prison officers or the extent of prisoner mental health problems, are tenuous. Coping and non-coping with prison life are matters of degree that fluctuate over time and all prisoners are vulnerable to suicidal ideation.  There is no let-up in the deadly harms generated by the prison place, but at certain points some prisoners (perhaps virtually all) feel they can no longer face them.

 

A suicide attempt may then be a frantic and desperate attempt to ‘solve problems of living’. If the response to this situation is hopeless and there is an explicit or implicit expectation that the individual will take their life, this negative communication may erode any sense of hope and facilitate a suicide attempt. SIDs then should be conceived as a social problem where those who take their own lives are responding to given temporal, spatial and emotional contexts of the prison place.

 

Beyond reform

We will not find a solution to the current problems of SID’s by employing more staff or updating failed policies of the past that focus on risk.  Indeed, the large number of different policies and procedures over the last 50 years indicate just how badly the Prison Service is failing to protect people in prison.

 

Interventions should be directed at helping people vulnerable to suicidal ideation to develop new meanings and alternative strategies that can help them take their lives forward. Central is the nurturing of hope and the prison is the very last place to try and do this.

 

The most rational solution then seems to be for the adoption of social policies that can provide immediate humanitarian support to people who are suicidal and the diversion away from prison for wrongdoers who are especially vulnerable to the development of suicidal ideation. Given the high numbers of both SIDs and prisoners with suicidal thoughts, this raises key questions regarding the use of imprisonment at all.

Of Dangerous Nexuses and How to Survive in a Post-truth World

Giulia Zampini from the University of Greenwich presents thoughts on the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative conference

 

The Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) at the Open University organised a launch event on 9th November, 2016. The one day conference was free to attend, opening its doors to scholars across disciplines, students, third sector and campaigning organisations. As the name suggests, the aim of this collaborative is to establish cross disciplinary and cross field networks to investigate the harm and evidence nexus in relation to various aspects of the criminal justice system and beyond. Following the zemiology turn in criminology, replacing crime with harm is regarded as a useful way to shift the focus away from narrow definitions of crime and criminal justice towards broader engagement with the notion of harm in pursuit of social justice. In their own words,

HERC’s research can be summarised as “evidencing harm and harmful evidence” which encompasses a range of areas such as the use of evidence in the criminal justice system and the harmful practices of public and private institutions. The notion of harm is increasingly central to new initiatives in policy and practice. However, policy-makers and practitioners fail to regard their own institutional practices as harmful to health and wellbeing and fail to recognise that institutional neglect can severely impact on people’s life chances.[1]

Scholars and campaigning organisations alike hope that by ‘evidencing harm and exposing harmful evidence’ change should follow. In other words, there is an assumption that producing and exposing evidence of harmful institutionalised practices – ‘speaking truth to power’ – will eventually result in change for the better. In an ideal world, public institutions should be responsive, accountable and open to change. However, in reality, institutions are perceived as stubborn, neglectful, and blind to their own failings. Thus, state institutions are regarded as harmful, and not evidence-informed.

For someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about evidence, what it means to people, how it is constructed and how it is used, I am painfully aware of the manners in which it can be at once emancipatory and treacherous. If evidence is always granted an emancipatory role – if evidence is assumed to provide better, fairer, more neutral grounds for justifying claims in seeking change – then there is a risk that it becomes misleading. Though evidence is often portrayed in the evidence/policy nexus as the thing that will make policy fair and just, the reality is that there is a complex interplay between evidence and policy, and that evidence is neither neutral nor apolitical. Similarly, the relationship between evidence and harm should not be conceived as a linear one, but as a complex interplay; we must critically engage with both sides. A key aspect of my own work has been to understand the ways in which evidence is (mis)understood and (mis)used by institutions whose putative role is the prevention of harm. More important, I question what can and should be done when we realise, as we increasingly are, that these institutions are responsible for causing the most harm?

Professor David Nutt, keynote speaker for the day, is a classic example of a scientist who has taken on the task of producing and using evidence as political ammunition to question an institutionalised truth that has caused immense harm, namely that ‘drugs are bad, therefore they should be criminalised’. His solution to address this simplistic logic was to compare harms, not only across a variety of legal and illegal substances, but also by comparing activities as mundane as horse-riding with illegal activities such as ecstasy consumption. When confronted about this comparative choice by a politician – for whom the thought of comparing a legal activity with an illegal one was unacceptable – a painful truth became clear: the idea that harm is not tied to the legal status of an activity is simply unthinkable. Indeed, the illegal-because-harmful nexus has been sustained for decades despite being misleading and dangerous. Harm must be understood as a much more complex, multifaceted and non-linear process. The intricate design and comprehensive nature of the harm index developed by David Nutt in collaboration with other scholars – motivated by his persistent efforts to shift the debate from criminality to harm – has gone somewhere to addressing this. This work has also gained Nutt the reputation of a maverick in political circles. And yet, he has attracted the attention of portions of the public, contributing to bring this debate outside policy and science.

The modern state and its institutions have continuously positioned themselves as protectors of their people from harm, so any evidence to the contrary (of which there is plenty; i.e. that the state and its institutions cause a great deal of harm) is seldom well received. It is often when people and communities are personally affected by harms perpetrated by institutions, as the case of justice4paps made clear, that they mobilise to attempt to change the culture and practices within them. And yet, as in the case of this campaign seeking justice by exposing police brutality, communities are routinely silenced and discouraged from pursuing change. In the end, the most harm is suffered by those who are institutionally and positionally weaker in society; the marginalised, the homeless, sex workers, LGBT communities, ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. These groups were at the very heart of the discussions throughout the day, as they embody the very contradictions that exist within a democratic state. That is, a state moved by the values of inclusion and universal rights but governed through social, economic and cultural hierarchies. This discrepancy lies at the very essence of our contemporary politics; something that was felt even more acutely on the particular day of the conference as we absorbed the news that the US had elected Donald Trump as its leader.

Narrative after narrative, paper after paper, it was clear that both institutions and majorities in the nation-state go through a process of ‘explaining away’ and re-legitimising every time they are questioned and critiqued. Focusing on symptoms rather than causes, never engaging with the systemic nature of the problem, and routinely shifting the burden of responsibility away from the system and toward the individual: these are favourite tactics, which also lie at the very foundation of the modern criminal justice system. Jo Phoenix’s contribution, highlighting the struggles of legitimation involving sexual deviants, was a timely reminder of the limitations of the sociology of deviance in accounting for what happened after decades of moral and political struggles: only those who could adapt to hetero/mononormativity were mainstreamed and welcomed into the licit and moral economy, leaving the ‘sluts’ and the ‘paedos’ stuck in the landscape of immorality and criminalisation.

During the panel on gendered and racialized harms, I was reminded once again that evidence is a double-edged sword. One of the panellists noted that the World Value Survey was used to evidence British tolerance in a radio debate, which reminded me of Trevor Phillips’ argument that Britain is the least racist country in Europe (because the levels of integration – measured by mixed parenting as main indicator – are higher than anywhere else). To use evidence in this way is extremely dangerous; it panders to the belief that we are on an exponentially growing curve of progress, and that things can only get better. The World Value Survey is an invaluable tool, but it remains a data set that needs to be carefully interpreted. It is paramount that we make clear the difference between data and evidence. Data never speaks for itself. Evidence is a construct; it is built from our interpretation of data. It is our responsibility to be open and honest about this process of interpretation and construction.

In an age where every statement from policy maker and pundit alike needs to be justified as evidence-based, or at least notionally evidence-informed, our transformative efforts need to be rooted in openness and engagement; we must not fall into the trap of hiding behind the false neutrality of evidence, or else we risk further polarising debates. If both we and our political opponents are making supposedly evidence-based claims, then how can anyone judge the validity of those claims with any level of confidence (particularly considering many people do not know how evidence is constructed in science)? Perhaps, it is not incidental that we are increasingly living in this ‘post-truth’ regime. The public is saturated with contradictory truth claims. The world of science is often too complex, pessimistic, and full of caveats and uncertainty to provide people with that (false sense of) protection the state offers.

Safety and security are among the cornerstones of the modern state. They served to justify its creation and its expansionary aims, and continue to be used to justify its existence, running concurrently and in opposition with democratic liberal values of inclusion and universal rights. This paradoxical state of inclusion/exclusion is what we currently find ourselves in at every level of political engagement, and with every group that challenges our sense of stability, security, and identity. Going further in our struggle for inclusion and universal rights, we must find strategies to address the divisiveness of current politics. Else, we run the risk of alienating and excluding people who will likely turn to the state and its rising populist leaders in search of protection and the very inclusion and rights we seek to obtain.

 

[1] http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/herc/events/exploring-harm-and-evidence

This post was originally published on the University of Greenwich Law and Criminology Research blog at http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/lawandcrim/2016/11/22/88/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own, and are not necessarily representative of the University of Greenwich or any of the organisations mentioned in this post.

Criminalise or ‘disappear’ the young? No path to a ‘Great Meritocracy’

Ross Fergusson considers the stark choices that the policy swings of successive governments now present to many 16-17-year-olds

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(Image source: http://discoversociety.org/2016/11/01/great-meritocracies-dont-disappear-their-youngest-casualties-mrs-may/)

Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference elaborated her plans to ‘transform Britain into a Great Meritocracy’.  She stressed the unfair division between ‘a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation’.  A major study has just shown that the 1980s generation are already half as wealthy as their 1970s peers.

A faltering recovery

One of the factors most damaging to young people’s income prospects is an early period of prolonged unemployment. The recessions that followed the Global Financial Crash of 2008 brought unprecedented unemployment levels amongst 16-24 year-olds in the UK. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data show that the subsequent slow recovery in youth employment may be faltering. About 30 per cent of 16-17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) have been recorded as unemployed over the last two years, and last month’s figures show a new high of 35 per cent  (which is likely to have risen further since the summer).

But if the law was being adhered to, no-one aged 16-17 should be unemployed or NEET. The Education and Skills Act 2008 requires every 16 and 17-year-old to be in full-time education or training, or in full-time or part-time work that includes release for regular training. The one part of the parliamentary debate about the Act that triggered objections concerned the sanctions that apply to those who contravene its requirements – especially sanctions which would place them in detention centres for persistently refusing to comply. The Labour government rejected these concerns and forced the legislation through, but in 2011 the coalition government suspended the clauses which required Local Authorities and employers to monitor attendance and punish refusal. Participation remains compulsory, but it has never been enforced.

Why? Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs had raised high-minded objections to the Act. They argued that 16 and 17-year-olds, who are legally deemed mature enough to marry, bring up children and serve in the armed forces, should enjoy freedom of choice not to participate in any form of education or training (or work). But the coalition’s reassertion of these principles coincided conveniently with its ‘austerity’ policies: monitoring and enforcement would have been far beyond the capacities of shrunken Local Authority budgets.

The unknown status

The effects of non-enforcement have been predictable. Department for Education figures for 2015 in England show that the numbers of 17-year-olds who were known to be NEET were exceeded by the numbers of ‘not knowns’ who had in effect ‘disappeared’ from Local Authority records. Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated that the ‘participation’ statuses of more than 100,000 16-18-year-olds were unknown.

Prioritising 16 and 17-year-olds’ supposed ‘freedom of choice’ releases the state from some long-established commitments to their welfare. This is troubling when their limited chances of getting a job, earning a genuine living wage and being able to afford somewhere to live are left to ‘the market’: the Low Pay Commission has shown that the real earnings of 16-17-year-olds fell by 17% between 2009 and 2013, and their median hourly pay fell by more than £1 to £5.03.

All in all, the youngest adults’ freedom of choice means that many of those who have gained least by way of skills and qualifications from 11 years of compulsory schooling face stark choices between unemployment, poverty-level wages and extending an unproductive school career. At this point, ‘disappearing from ‘officialdom’s’ view’ is the most rational and appealing option for many of them – one that is lent apparent legitimacy by the government’s indifference to enforcing the law that requires them to ‘participate’.

Tackling inequality justly and fairly

This version of freedom of choice is self-evidently one with tangible consequences for future financial (in)security and prospective poverty.  If the current government is serious about the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling intergenerational inequality, it must break the silent consensus which the coalition allowed to evolve between young people who believe their best option is to ‘disappear’ themselves, government departments that are content to accept their invisibility in official data, and Local Authorities that are forced to ignore it for lack of funding. Policies that veer between the ill-advised and socially unjust extremes of criminalising young people for ‘being NEET’ and colluding with it are no path to any kind meritocracy – least of all a great one.

Ross Fergusson is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University

An extended version of this article first appeared in the on-line not-for-profit publication Discover Society, with the title: ‘Great Meritocracies Don’t “Disappear” Their Youngest Casualties, Mrs May!’

A number of the themes of the article are developed in: Fergusson, R. (2016), Young people, welfare and crime: governing non-participation, Bristol: Policy Press.

Bloodbaths and prison staff: Considering the actual state of our prisons

David Scott, Open University

hm-manchester-at-night-noise-demo-october-2016

[HMP Manchester. Photo source: David Scott]

On the 3rd November 2016 the government published Prison Safety and Reform, its vision of the future of the Prison Service in England and Wales.  Claimed to be the “the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”, at the start of her foreword, Justice Secretary Liz Truss approvingly cites the words of nineteenth penal reformer Elizabeth Fry:

The better the actual state of our prisons is known and understood, the more clearly will all men [sic] see the necessity of these arrangements by which they may be rendered schools of industry and virtue.

Liz Truss clearly places great weight on “evidence” and “data”, yet the portrayal of the ‘actual state of our prisons’ in the media in the days preceding and following the white paper (including The Guardian editorial on the 3rd November) has mystified and mislead rather than generated knowledge or understanding.

elizabath-fry

[Elizabeth Fry. Source: anglotopia.net]

Prisoner violence and rehabilitation

One of the key goals of Prison Safety and Reform is to remove obstacles preventing the rehabilitation of prisoners.   The reason given for the failure of prisons to rehabilitate is prisoner violence.  The white paper notes that since 2012 there have been significant rises in recorded incidents of prisoner violence and that in 2016 there are 65 assaults in prisons every day.  As “reform can only take hold in a safe and disciplined prison environment” it is essential, the white paper informs us, to dramatically reduce prisoner violence so we can achieve “a more stable estate, in which staff and prisoners have the time and headspace to address the causes of re-offending”.   Whilst Prison Safety and Reform  provides a number of alleged reasons for the increases in violence, the one placed most prominently in public spotlight is the decline in numbers of prison officers.

The day before the publication of Prison Safety and Reform, Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Office Association [POA], received enormous publicity when he claimed that as a consequence of a 25% reduction in the number of prison officers in the last six years, prisons were now places of “carnage and bloodbaths”.  His claims were evidenced with a mixed set of data pointing to the high levels of recorded prisoner violence, self-inflicted deaths and recorded assaults on prison officers.  These apparently intimate connections have been taken as ‘common sense’, by politicians and media commentators alike.  No-one in the media has highlighted the limitations of the statistical evidence presented in the white paper or by the POA.   Yet a number of their assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny. Let us consider three:

(1) decline in prison officer staffing levels;

(2) the rise in recorded assaults on prison officers;

(3) staffing levels and self-inflicted deaths of prisoners.

Our dedicated and brave staff

Prison Safety and Reform draws upon statistics showing:

The number of Band 2 to 5 frontline operational staff reduced from 29,660 on 31 March 2012 to 23,080 on 31 March 2016. As violence has increased it has become harder to retain existing staff, thus creating a vicious cycle of staff pressure and violence.

The white paper states that recent reductions in prison staff levels have led to increased prisoner violence and placed intolerable “operational strains on the dedicated and brave staff that work in our prisons”.  Consequently there is to be an immediate increase in prison officer numbers (in total 2,500) and new reforms aiming to facilitate prison officers who are not just “security guards and minders but also mentors” with a dedicated case load of six prisoners.  In so doing “frontline staff will be given the time and the tools they need to supervise and support offenders so they can turn our prisons into places of safety and reform”.

When studying numbers of prison officers through an historical lens we can see they have risen in recent decades to their highest ever levels.  The real problem is that the prisoner population has doubled from around 40,000 in 1990 to nearly 85,000 in 2016.  Prisons have never had high numbers of paid staff.  In the eighteenth century some prisons only had 1 paid turnkey (prison officer) for every 100 prisons.  Even by the mid-nineteenth century the vast majority of prisons still had less than 10 staff, largely because prisons at this time were run by ‘prisoner warders’, who undertook nearly all of the key functions of the prisons, including locking and unlocking other prisoners.

From the 1870s with the professionalisation of paid prison staff, official data on frontline staff- prisoner ratios began to stabilise at around 1 member of staff for every 6 prisoners.  Yet evidence from prison officers, such as H.U. Triston in the 1930s, indicate that at the start of the twentieth century the ratio was more like 1 prison officer to between 20-50 prisoners.  From the 1950s the official staff-prisoner ratio fell for four consecutive decades, so that by 1990 the prison officer-prisoner ratio was 1 prison officer to every 2.3 prisoners.   Because prisoner populations doubled, the prison officer-prisoner ratio increased to 2.8 prisoners by 2010 in public sector prisons.  Following the recent staff cuts, by March 2016 the ratio had increased to 1 prison officer to every 3.6 prisoners, which brought public sector staff ratios largely in line with private sector prisons.  If the proposed new 2,500 officers are factored in, the ratio of prison officers will fall to 3.3 prisoners in public sector prisons.

birmingham-prison-2011

[HMP Birmingham, 2011. Source: Newsrt.co.uk]

But things are not quite as simple as the sound.  This data only tells us so much.  Important considerations missing include the amount of hours officers work in the prison in a given week, the quality interactions between prison officers and prisoners, and the security classification of a particular prison. Over the twentieth century the amount hours worked in prisons by prison officers reduced dramatically, falling from as high as 72 hours a week to as low as 39 hours and since the late 1960s prisoners have been separated across the penal estate based on security risk.  Prison officer-prisoner ratios have been as low as 1 prison officer to every 1 prisoner in dispersal / high security prisons but as high as 1 prison officer for every 8 prisoners in lower security prisons.   Significantly, and despite a new emphasis on prison officers performing a rehabilitative role from the 1920s onwards, no comparative decrease in prisoner reoffending rates can be mapped onto changes in staff-prisoner ratios.

Punch bags and crying wolf

In the recent media coverage of prison reform POA General Secretary Steve Gillan highlighted the remarkable increase in the number of recorded assaults against prison officers.  He noted the POA “will not stand by and watch our members become punch bags on a daily basis”.  These sentiments are reproduced in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform.

Prison safety has declined since 2012. Levels of total assaults across the prison estate and assaults on staff are the highest on record, and are continuing to rise. Comparing the 12 months to June 2016 with the calendar year 2012:

  • total assaults in prisons increased by 64%;
  • assaults on staff rose by 99%;
  • the number of self-harm incidents increased by 57%

The white paper calls for “a robust and swift response” to the rise in assaults.  It also highlighted that killing a prison officer would result in a life sentence.  Yet any talk about violence against prison officers and their likelihood of being murdered by a prisoner should be considered in historical context.   Since 1850 only eight members of staff (and not all of these prison officers) have been killed in prisons in England and Wales.  The last prison officer to be murdered at work was Derek Lambert, who was killed at Portland borstal by a prisoner in 1965.   It was the first murder of a prison officer for some 30 years in England and Wales and proved to be an isolated incident.  Not only is serious physical violence against officer by prisoners rare, but there are also many examples of prisoners going to their aid in dangerous situations, such as during prison disturbances.

On the 6th November, following disturbances at HMP Bedford, the POA were once again reasserting claims regarding prison staff numbers and prisoner violence.  The media accepted their claims without question. During the HMP Bedford disturbance no prison officers were injured, but almost immediately the POA made claims to the BBC and The Guardian that the disturbance was directly linked to the lack of frontline staff and provided further evidence that prisoners are starting to take control of prisons.  In so doing the POA ignored the fact that the largest prison disturbance in UK history in April 1990, which involved 25 different prisons, occurred at a time when staff-prison ratios were at an all-time historical low.  Prison disturbances are generated by people living in inhuman and degrading living conditions, denial of voice, prison officer brutality and being treated like animals.  They certainly cannot be reduced to staffing levels alone.

poa-logo

[Prison Officers Association. Source: http://www.poauk.org.uk]

The current focus of the media and white paper on prisoner violence and assaults on prison officers has only utilised data from the last 4 to 6 years.    In the period from 2000-2009, however, there was also a 61% increase in prisoner violence.  This rise was not at the time tied together with prisoner deaths or data about reported assaults on prison officers, the latter of which were actually declining. The POA noted in 2011 that on average, one prison officer each week required hospital treatment following an assault by prisoners, indicating that there were 52 serious assaults a year on prison officers.   Concerned in particular about the failure of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute prisoners (a punitive approach rather than one focused on safety), on the 17th April 2012 POA General Secretary, Steve Gillan, called on all prison officers to “always report assaults”.  Crucially, the data on assaults on prison officers cited in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform is detailed only from 2012 onwards.

steve-gillan-poa-htm

[Steve Gillan, Prison Officer Association. Source: tuc.org.uk]

What the POA has not called for is for prisoners to always report assaults by prison officers.  That prison staff violence continues to be a problem was evidenced earlier this year at Medway Secure Training Centre when BBC Panorama, 11th January 2016 caught staff brutalising and assaulting child prisoners on camera.

Carnage and bloodbaths

Ironically, there is evidence indicating that prisons really can be deadly for prison officers.  This data, however, refers to the life expectancy of prison officers following retirement.  At only 18 months this is one of the shortest life expectancy rates of all occupations.  The toxic and deadly fumes that prison creates are not just restricted to prison officers, but to those whose voice is generally not heard in the white paper Prison Safety and Reform: prisoners.

Prison Safety and Reform reveals that there were 107 self-inflicted deaths [SIDs] in prisons in the 12 months to September 2016.  Whilst data on prisoner SIDS over the last four years appears to support the claims of Prison Safety and Reform, when placed in historical context the connection between prisoner deaths and prison staffing levels is much less clear.  Research by Professor Joe Sim has uncovered detailed historical evidence indicating that prisons have always been places characterised by violence and death.  Whilst historical data is inconsistent, and there are significant difficulties with making comparisons regarding terminological differences between SID’s and suicides, the data indicates there is no obvious correlation between a decline in rates of self-inflicted deaths and rises in prison staffing levels.  Officially recorded SIDs in the last four decades have risen substantially.  In 1986 there were 21 recorded suicides in prison but in 1998, for the first time, more than 80 people to their own lives.  Even high levels of SIDs pertained in the 1990s and early 2000s, predating data cited in Prison Safety and Reform by a number of years. Thus, when looking at trends over the last four decades we actually find record high rates of recorded self-inflicted deaths at the same time as record low levels of prison officer – prisoner ratios.

The evidence cited above should be read carefully and with great caution, but given the strong commitment of Liz Truss to deliver ‘evidence led penal policy’ recognition of the narrow focus and restrictive timeframe placed around statistical evidence in the white paper is undoubtedly important.  As is media scrutiny, for the currently uncontested POA data presents an account of current prison realities that inevitably directs us towards a specific set of solutions: more prison officers and more prisons.  Such an uncritical adoption in the media of the POA informed explanatory framework not only closes down opportunities for a more informed debate in a time when we have record numbers of prisoners, but it also rules out alternative policy solutions, such as those that would reduce the number of prisoners and close our degrading and inhuman prisons rather than build new ones.