Build communities, not prisons

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

buildcommunities.JPGImage source: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-fq2W0bJAAKE/UEBDMMO_jyl/AAAAAAAADIk/EQx2Nm74aaw/s1600/buildcommunities.JPG

 

The prison industrial complex is large and growing. Prison building and expansion projects generate trade exhibitions, mail-order/Internet catalogues, and direct advertising campaigns that seek to engage architects, construction firms, investors, food, landscaping and plumbing supply companies, and other firms that specialise in fixtures and fittings for large industrial building. There is no doubt that the building of prisons creates a market of both temporary and permanent employment opportunities and can appear to increase the economic potential of the lucky local community that agrees to house a prison in their area.

If we look more carefully, however, at what the prison industry is, does and costs, prison building programmes become less attractive.

Economic benefits?

In 2003, researchers King, Mauer and Huling carried out the first study to use statistical controls to measure the effect of a prison on the local community, including its impact on the local economy and on employment and per capita income trends.  The study examined 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York and looked at 38 prisons located in upstate counties.  The full report can be found here: Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America, but some of their key findings indicated that:

  • In 25 years, there was no significant difference or discernible pattern of economic trends between the seven rural counties that hosted a prison and the seven rural counties that did not;
  • Residents of rural counties with one or more prisons did not gain significant employment advantages compared to rural counties without prisons;
  • Unemployment rates moved in the same direction for both groups of counties and were consistent with the overall employment rates for the state as a whole;
  • During the period from 1982 to 2001, these findings are consistent for the three distinct economic periods in the United States, and in fact, the non-prison counties performed marginally better in two of the timeframes;
  • Counties that hosted new prisons received no economic advantage as measured by per capita income;
  • From the inception of the prison building boom in 1982 until 2000, per capita income rose 141% in counties without a prison and 132% in counties that hosted a prison.

When comparing new prison towns across the USA with other towns of a similar size, Besser and Hanson also found that there was no discernable differences between unemployment rates between 1990 and 2000 between the towns.  Like King et al., they concluded that building a new prison did not create jobs for local unemployed people.

At a similar time to the above studies there was a further comprehensive analysis of prison towns in the USA which explored the impact of prison building and job growth in the USA from 1976-1994.  In a follow up study, expanding the period to 2004, the evidence shows that rather than promoting economic prosperity and creating new jobs, in both urban and struggling rural communities, prisons may actually impede employment growth.  Hooks et al. (2010) conclude that ‘our research into employment growth suggests that prisons are doing more harm than good among vulnerable counties’.  The reasons why prisons failed to provide economic stimulus to the local economy included:

  • There were not necessarily new jobs as prison officers moved from other prisons to fill the new jobs;
  • There was the possibility of adverse local impacts of prison labour through prison industries and low cost prisoner labour;
  • There may be a paucity of local skills and direct connections to the services required by the new prison.

Despite the initial promises of economic prosperity that it is assumed can be made from opening a prison, these promises are not borne out in practice.  Moreover, no prison can generate income or be ‘cost efficient’. Prisons cost a lot to run and they drain resources from other areas of social life, such as hospitals, schools, housing or social services.  Investing, instead, in local services, programmes, health and education sectors or other community-focused initiatives would be a far better use of resources and, incidentally, are more effective than prisons at PREVENTING crime, as opposed to responding to it after the fact, as prisons do.  That is, the idea that increased funding for police and a larger prison estate will solve and economic problems is a myth.

Human costs

Setting the obvious economic shortcomings to prison building aside, let’s think for a minute about the human and social costs of prisons.  Firstly, there is no evidence that prisons effectively do very many of the things they claim to do.  This has been repeatedly demonstrated through society’s years of experimentation with the prison and in numerous academic considerations (see Mathiesen, 2000 for example).  Prisons do not deter crime, they do not ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners, they do not prepare people well for law-abiding lives in the community.  The only functions that prisons serve well relate to pain and suffering: they deliver punishment and incapacitation and, symbolically: they are a demonstration that ‘justice’ is being done and that the ‘system works’.

Prisons are places that cast out, ostracize and de-socialise members of our communities and society.  They are places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, anger, alienation and social and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons offer only a lonely, isolating and brutalising experience.  At best, prison environments are dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of basic human needs. At worst, they are places of violence, suffering and physical and psychological pain.  Combined with saturation in time consciousness/awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death (Scott, 2016).

For prison officers and other prison staff prisons are toxic environments.  Stress, illness and sometimes also death are perils of prison work.  Prisons do not encourage health, education, renewal, care, compassion, decency or any of the other values that most societies and individuals cherish.  Instead, they stimulate humiliation, illness, anger, hatred and punishment.  They are places that encourage moral indifference between staff and prisoners, where the shared humanity of prisoners and staff is neutralised and where the pain and suffering of one another is ignored.

Rather than investing in criminal justice and building more prisons in a time of economic austerity, we should be demanding investment in our communities, in our social lives and in programmes that centralise the importance of social justice – for everyone.

 

This article first appeared on the Reclaim Justice Network site, at: https://reclaimjusticenetwork.org.uk/2017/06/29/build-communities-not-prisons/

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When Justice is (not) blind…

Evgenia Iliadou, The Open University

 

(…) And now, I am finding myself in Eleona’s prison trying to hold on. And I am thinking: Everything is allowed in their “conscience”. They say that their irrational purposes are more important than a life. They are not crazy. Craziness is an alibi. It is arbitrariness, by taking advantage of their anonymity and their hierarchical position.

(Irianna B.L, 09/06/2017, freely translated)


The aforementioned excerpt is from a recent statement from Irianna, a 29 year old PhD student at the University of Athens, whose life course dramatically changed and interrupted when she was confronted with the Greek (in)justice.

Irianna’s ongoing court adventure began in 2011, when her partner was accused of being related to anarchism and, also, to a terrorist group. Irianna was initially prosecuted and released, but was afterwards (in 2013) accused for “possession of illegal firearms with intent to distribute them for criminal activities and for being part of the same terrorist group as her boyfriend had been accused and acquitted”. This accusation was firstly based on the fact that her partner faced charges of being a member of the terrorist group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire. However, in 2013 Irianna’s partner was found innocent of all charges against him. The accusation was secondly based on a DNA sample, which, according to the medical forensic expert, was “extremely insufficient in the degree that in no case whatsoever, could a definite outcome be the result.” On 17 July 2017, the court rejected her appeal and, thus, Justice was dispensed: 13 years in prison without any mitigating circumstances being acknowledged, and no right to bail. 

It must be denoted that Irianna’s case is not the only recent case concerning the unfair treatment in the Greek justice system. Along with Irianna, Perikles who is Irianna’s partner’s housemate has also being accused of being a member of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire. He also had an unfair trial and been charged with 13 years imprisonment, similarly to Irianna, although he is facing serious health problems. Furthermore, from 2012 onwards, Tasos Theofilou was also facing charges for being a member of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, as well as numerous other accusations. Theofilou was brutally stigmatised by the mass media, which released his personal information and photo to the public and also represented him as a terrorist. After spending five years in prison, in 7 July 2017 he was found innocent for all the accusations against him. During the court rehearsal Theofilou stated, “I have not committed any of the crimes I have been accused of. I have only committed one crime, which includes all crimes; I am an anarchist”.

Practises of stigmatisation, criminalisation and targeting of people associated with the anarchist movement are not something new. Justice’s strict and severe treatment as far as anarchists concern is overwhelming. It is an undoubtable fact that in Greece, although a European democratic state, ideologies and political beliefs (i.e. anarchism) are, in a sense, put on trial. What is even more overwhelming, however, is how justice treats people who are indirectly related and linked via their acquaintances, social relationships and life, with anarchism.

injustice.jpg
Image available at: http://sekp.gr/irianna-v-l-sekp/


There are four lessons the State desires to teach us through Irianna’s and Theofilou’s cases. Lesson one: social relationships are “put on trial”. That fact has been wisely emphasised by Irianna’s partner as follows: “if you are a friend with someone, who is friend with someone who…”, you are in danger to find yourself being accused of being a criminal and a member of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, because you socialise with people. Lesson two: our life itself is an eventuality; one day, one could possibly find one’s self in Irianna’s and Theofilou’s place. Irianna and Theofilou could be me, but they could also be you in the reasoning, as stated above, “if you have a friend who has a friend…”. Lesson three: What we learn from the above two lessons, is that we must live in a constant fear and terror that one day somehow, somewhere we will experience the same situations with Irianna and Theofilou, unless we remain silent, with limited social life and politically inactive. Also, that we should feel fear and terror of Justice and the State itself.

It is more than astounding and devastating when one realises the extent of the unbearable injustice, stigmatisation, discrimination, violence and suffering that people are exposed to in a so-called democratic state, like Greece. It is almost seven years since Greece was in a severe financial crisis, followed by multiple austerity measures, which are causing a lot of suffering and social harm to people (i.e destitution, homelessness, unemployment, suicides, collective depression etc). However, why have no actions have been taken in order accountability to be given for Greece’s bankrupt and deptocracy, misuse of power, misery and suffering? Why has justice not been dispensed in this case, whilst for cases like Irianna’s, Perikles’s and Theofilou’s it has been dispensed with the most severe way?

Justice should be objectively and neutrally dispensed. This condition is often poignantly illustrated via the expression; “Justice is blind”. Justice should be blind. Though, what reality demonstrates is that justice is not blind, but on the contrary it turns a blind eye, particularly, when crimes are committed by the powerful. This is the fourth lesson the state desires to teach us: justice has a class structure. What is justice for the powerful is injustice for people in the lower social strata.

These are not just lessons, but also an indirect warning for all citizens to show obedience, to keep quiet and live in apathy and ignorance, by being detached from any political movement, which dares to criticise and doubt the powerful State. It is also a frightening reminder of our positionality in the society and of who rules our lives. It is horrific to realise that we do not rule our own lives.

These kinds of practises challenge the foundations of democracy. Although, in Greece we celebrate the Restoration of Democracy Day each year, in a country where political beliefs are penalised, we cannot talk about democracy. On the contrary, we should talk about a Junta covered with a democratic veil. 

For more information concerning Irianna’s case and petition see here (English) and here (Greek)

Abolitionism in Question(s): Part Two

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

 

A

  1. Can prison abolition work in large urban centres and inner cities with high crime rates and where ordinary people are fearful of being victimised?

Abolitionism is about building communities of inclusion and strengthening social bonds.  We are less likely to be fearful of ‘crime’ if we feel a sense of connection to our local communities.  Fear and insecurity around ‘crime’ are often closely tied to people feeling socially isolated.  Fear of victimisation is significantly decreased when there are strong local communities and support mechanisms for people to participate in community activities and opportunities to get to know their neighbours better.  Although measuring the relationships between communities ties and ‘fear of crime’ is complicated by other variables (most notably because social and economic inequalities often blight high crime areas sharpening tensions and conflict rather than fostering closer human connectedness) there is empirical evidence from Nordic Countries, which themselves are grounded more holistically in welfare policies and economies promoting social integration, indicating that stronger culture promoting the welfare of others and collective solidarity has a significant impact on both perceptions and recorded rates of ‘crime’.

 

  1. Isn’t it human nature to be self-interested and to take advantage of others? Don’t we need a tough and harsh criminal justice system to keep these natural human impulses under control? 

It is inaccurate to suggest that human beings are “naturally” interested mainly in themselves.  No person is an island and we are all social beings.  We cannot thrive without the help and support of other people.  Human nature and human survival is dependent on us being grounded in notions of mutual aid and collaboration and we may well have a natural or innate predilection to help and care for other people.  There are many historical and contemporary examples that can be drawn upon to indicate that human beings have a natural propensity to care and support people, sometimes even those that they do not know.  There are everyday examples of human beings helping others when they are in trouble, from small acts of kindness like offering advice on directions when someone is lost to attempts to rescue other unknown people when their lives are imperilled (with the classic example of given here of the people who in flimsy lifeboats in coastal towns across the UK would risk life and limb in treacherous waters to rescue survivors of ship wrecks).  There are also wonderful tales of hospitality to strangers when people have been dependent on others for guidance and assistance, most recently evidenced in the accounts of George Mahood or Peter Mortemor, whose travels  across the UK were dependent upon the generosity of the general public.

 

  1. Don’t we need criminal justice responses that morally condemn and punish those who have broken the law?

Blame and moral condemnation are based on the assumption that people should ‘get what they deserve’.  However, this idea often begins at the wrong starting point, that is, at the point when someone breaks the law.  But – for the sake of argument – if people really should get what they deserve, then how do we make sense of unjust and unequal societies where we do not all have the same choices and options?  We may well make choices, but often these choices are heavily constrained by limited options and we do not all live in circumstances of our choosing.  When we decide to lay the blame for a misdeed solely on the shoulders of an individual we fail to recognise the complex web of social, political and economic factors that may have also played a role.  Even philosophers of law who are strong advocates of prisons and punishment have acknowledged that it is impossible to achieve justice through the penal law in a structurally unequal society.

 

Davis

 

  1. Prison abolitionists only focus on traditional forms of crime, with identifiable offenders and victims – what about providing an appropriate symbolic response to harms with no obvious victims?

Abolitionism recognises that problems, troubles and harms exist – they step outside the normal boundaries and parameters of legal definitions of “crime” and think about the wider harms that come to people at the hands of states, corporations and – most importantly – the criminal justice system itself.  So abolitionism is very well suited to dealing with new problematics and wrongful conducts whatever their origin.  They also recognise that the symbolic message of punishment can be interpreted differently by different people.  The penal law has never proved very effective in sending a symbolic message to its intended audience of law breakers and this is likely to remain the same whatever the criminal activity in focus.

 

  1. Doesn’t prison abolitionism focus too heavily on individual, inter-personal crimes and ignore the structural issues that cause harm and violence – like gender, race, class inequality?

Abolitionism is a way of saying NO to certain responses to problematic and harmful events.  It calls us to beware of punishment and warn that it will not deliver justice.  Justice is a central concern of abolitionists, but they focus on the broader concept of ‘social justice’. They argue that there is an obligation to build a social structure that can meet the needs of all social members. Abolitionism calls for redress not just for individual and interpersonal harms but the harms generated by social injustice.  Abolitionists promote interventions that can help build pro-social attitudes and solidarity as well as calling for a much more equitable distribution of wealth.  The harms, violence and suffering of the prison are then situated within the structural violence of societies and abolitionists call for not only radical alternatives to the criminal process but also for radical alternatives to societies that systematically fail to meet human need.

 

  1. Don’t prison abolitionists just suggest alternative punishments rather than alternatives to punishment?

Abolitionists fundamentally question the rationale of prisons and punishment – they question all institutions and practices predicated on the deliberate infliction of pain.  They promote transformative rather than restorative justice – it is about transforming the lives of ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’ and of society as a whole.  Making changes might be difficult, but the intervention must be predicated upon principles where both the means and the end of the response to the problematic conduct are concerned with building respect, dignity and a more socially responsible society. Abolitionists have called for non-penal alternatives to punishment such as voluntary therapeutic communities and other intentional communities populated by lawbreakers and their families; places of sanctuary and refuge for both offenders and victims; mediation and conflict handling services; and the total reorientation of our response to ‘crime’ away from the offender and towards meeting the needs of victims.

 

  1. Is there any evidence that abolitionist alternatives are cheaper, more humane, or more effective?

Prisons are both exceptionally expensive and impersonal.  They do not and cannot establish an attachment with the law breaker.  Community solutions for many ‘crimes’ have been proven to be more effective and value for money.  Voluntary and community led interventions which have directly engaged with people in their own community have often proven to be the most effective of all (see for example Outside Chance, Liz Dronfield, 1981).  Because abolitionist alternatives are not grounded in the deliberate infliction of pain, inevitably they will be much more humane than any prison sentence could ever be.

 

  1. If societies did away with prisons, wouldn’t we lose legal safeguards that only the criminal law and the certainty of imprisonment can deliver?

Prisons are lawless institutions run often on personal authority and an imperfect application of rules.  Due process and following guidelines and rules are important.  It is significant that any alternative in place of the criminal process has appropriate oversight and accountability.  Alternatives require an awareness of the dignity and human rights of all parties, and a sensitivity to the ethic of care to ensure fairness and humane treatment.

 

C

 

  1. It remains unclear what should happen if things go wrong – what happens when people don’t not wish to participate in mediation process, when the offender might be asked to give too much in mediation process, or power differentials between parties are entrenched?

No crime or harm is exactly the same as another.  The uniqueness of every fracture that occurs in society or in our relations with other people demand a unique response.  There needs to be a raft of alternatives rather than only just one (see this article for example).  The appropriate response needs to be negotiated with all the parties involved.  The needs of the individuals and the safety of victims, future victims and of perpetrators should be top priority.

 

  1. You say that there are a lot of alternatives available – but surely you have to match any suite of alternatives to the historical and political conditions of a given society? How could it ever work?

Alternatives need to be generated from the ground up in a given community and society.  Ideas from other places and cultures should be used as inspiration.  We need to adopt what works best within the social, political and economic conditions of any given society and not be bound by outdated or moralistic traditions.  Abolitionism is a step-by-step process.  Alternatives to the criminal process must be understood within the wider envelope of a commitment to social and transformative justice.   Alternatives mean building a society in which the conditions are suitable for a wide range of interventions that can handle troubles, conflicts and disputes of all kinds.

Prison Abolition in Question(s): Part One

 

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

 

Prison abolitionists question the moral and political justifications of imprisonment and call for the radical reduction or elimination of the use of prisons as they are currently constituted.  Abolitionists are concerned about the harmfulness that prison causes to those imprisoned, victims, families, prison staff and society at large.  They are also concerned with the continued failure of prisons to fulfil any of their stated aims or purposes.  Below we consider a range of questions that often arise whenever the idea of prison abolition is raised and offer some detailed, but concise, responses that may be used as a resource for those who are new or wish to learn more about abolitionist ideas.

 

1

  1. Why call for abolition and not prison reform?

Over the last 200 years, many societies have experimented with various prison reform interventions.  Yet no reform initiative has ever improved the effectiveness of the prison.  Moreover, the foundations on which imprisonment is based are fundamentally flawed.  Prisons are designed to exact particular kinds of punishment: loss of liberty and rights, social isolation, and austere material living conditions.  They are coercive environments in which genuine treatment/rehabilitation/care cannot be provided because they are incompatible with the delivery of punishment. Additionally, pain infliction – no matter how lenient or harsh – is an ineffective means of changing behaviour.  There is no evidence it works under any circumstances but much evidence that punishment (especially severe punishment) encourages violent or otherwise undesirable behaviour.  Thus, the idea that the particular punishment that prisons deliver will transform people and encourage (or force) them to lead better lives upon release is fundamentally flawed.  In an intentionally punitive environment, reform measures are futile.  Through easing moral concerns about the inevitably negative impact of pain infliction, penal reform can actually make it easier for governments to reinforce a given society’s reliance on the prison and increase prison expenditure and expansion. The important lesson is that no measure of reform can ever remedy the harms generated by the prison. 

 

 

  1. What about all the dangerous people that are currently held in prisons?

It is important to recognise that, for the most part, prisons aren’t ‘filled’ with dangerous people.  In England and Wales, around 60% of the prison population are held for non-violent offences.  And, of the 40% who have committed a violent offence, very few indeed have been deemed so dangerous that they cannot be released (as of 2016 only 54 people were serving whole life sentences).  The imagined monsters of our nightmares – that is, the serial killer or the otherwise wildly dangerous individual – are exceptionally rare.  The average person who enters prison has low educational attainment and poor literacy/numeracy skills, is unemployed and comes from a lower income or impoverished background.  There is a stronger link, therefore, between poverty and prisons than there is between dangerousness and prisons.  In the U.S. around 16,000 people die each year as a result of street crime.  Contrast this with the 55,000 who die as a result of corporate criminal negligence.  A similar story can be told in many other countries around the world that promote the interests of (Neo-liberal) capitalism above the needs of their people. The way we all think about dangerousness and the structures we put in place to protect ourselves from various dangers needs to be reconsidered.  Prisons, and the harms that prisons respond to, distract us from thinking more carefully about a wider range of dangers that are more imminently and universally harmful than ‘street crime’.

2

Source: http://engineering.nyu.edu/news/2010/05/06/can-we-fight-corporate-crime-forbes%E2%80%99-neil-weinberg-thinks-so

 

  1. Don’t we have to lock up violent people, murderers and people who sexually offend in order to keep those most vulnerable in society safe?

Serious interpersonal crimes are, of course, a grave concern for any society.  The reduction of violence (in all its forms), harm and unnecessary human suffering sit at the centre of abolitionist thought. Placing people in prison to punish them for what they have done has been repeatedly proven NOT to work and, in fact, frequently stimulates rather than calms violence.  If heightened public protection and reduction in violence and harm is what we hope to achieve – particularly for women, children and other vulnerable groups – then we first need to consider why acts of violence, such as domestic and sexual violence (for example), occur in the first place.  These types of crimes are associated with power imbalances and social structures that objectify, demean and treat women, children and other vulnerable groups as less than fully human.  Societies that tolerate inequalities or that refuse to fully recognise the rights and autonomy of all social members are complicit in the violence that is then perpetrated against these groups.  When horrendous interpersonal violence against vulnerable people happen our first priority must, of course, be to ensure the safety of the person concerned.  However, removing a perpetrator of interpersonal violence from society altogether and placing them in isolated, brutal conditions is surely the worst action to take if the goal is for them to learn to live more safely alongside other social members.

 

  1. But what about those who perpetrate “hate crimes”, shouldn’t they be locked up?

Similar arguments put forward in the previous response also apply here.  Additionally, if the goal of a justice system is to denounce or condemn particular actions and to try to prevent them happening again, then imprisonment is not the most efficient means of achieving these goals.  Prison environments are full of power imbalances, racial and sexual violence, discrimination and hierarchical social relationships.  All of these elements of the prison environment can, therefore, reinforce the same ideas and social divisions that those who perpetrate hate crimes bring into prison with them in the first place.  Prisons utilise and reinforce imbalanced and harmful power relations and are more likely to exacerbate hateful ideas rather than challenge or reverse them.

 

  1. Prisons work because they provide an effective deterrent. Shouldn’t there be serious consequences when someone breaks the law?

Of course there should be a proportionate response when somebody does something wrong.  No prison abolitionist would disagree with this idea.  But, the logic that ‘prisons are there because they threaten a consequence or act as a deterrent for crime’ is false.  Firstly, there is no evidence that deterrence works – we simply cannot measure an action which does not happen.  Secondly, on the basis of the evidence we do have – over 200 years of experimenting with the use of imprisonment – no matter how lenient or harsh the punishment given, there is no discernible deterrent effect on rates of crime.  This holds true at different points in history and in different jurisdictions.  It is even true in places that continue to use the death penalty.  In States that retain the death penalty in the U.S. the murder rate is HIGHER than the States which do not use this ultimate form of punishment.

 

  1. We can’t just let people go free – what about the victims and their desire for revenge?

The needs and desires of victims are not well served by current criminal justice practices or by the use of the prison.  Many victims want a) never to be harmed again by the perpetrator and b) for the perpetrator never to harm anyone else in this way again.  Very few victims of crime actually call for revenge.  Moreover, revenge itself can be profoundly damaging for victims who may become “consumed by the wound”.  And, in this way, a response to crime motivated by revenge can fail victims as much, if not more, than it fails perpetrators and society at large.  There is no doubt that when a serious harm occurs something must be done in response.  There must be some attempt to realign the imbalance and the injustice that has occurred.  But this should be tangible and meaningful and, crucially, not produce further harms – to anyone – including the perpetrator.  Most importantly – for victims – sending someone to prison certainly does not ensure that person will never commit the same crime again.  And, in fact, in some cases it can make it more likely for the person to return to crime upon release.   So, if the goal is to prevent a perpetrator from ever committing further crimes, prison is not the answer.

3

Source: http://asianworldnews.co.uk/localnews/suicide-in-prison-82-prisoners-took-their-own-life-in-2014/

 

  1. But aren’t prisons proven to be an effective means of rehabilitating offenders?

No.  They aren’t.  Prisons have continually failed to ‘solve’ people’s problems through ‘treatment’ or other ‘rehabilitation’ strategies.  Prisons are, first and foremost, places of punishment.  Rehabilitation and punishment are incompatible.  As the saying goes: ‘you cannot teach people to be free in captivity.’  This means that the basic structure of the prison is ill suited to showing people how to live safely in a free society.  The idea of rehabilitation is also too narrowly focused on trying to change or ‘treat’ an individual.  Prisons are more closely linked to poverty than they are to dangerousness (see Question 2 above).  The individualised focus of prisons mean that they are unable to address any of the social conditions – education, limited employment or housing options, community support structures – that need to be met for people to be able to live better and more safely in society.

 

  1. Should we not just lock people up and throw away the key to keep them off our streets?

We cannot lock our way out of the crime problem.  The ‘crime of the streets’ is generational – many lawbreakers desist from ‘street crimes’ as they get older and another group of people (the next generation) become lawbreakers. Following a policy of incapacitation therefore requires disproportionately long sentences and a constant influx of new and younger prisoners.   Where would indefinite detention ever end?  Locking people up for short or long periods of time may only delay, intensify or displace crime problems.  It can also create ‘capacitating’ effects in the sense that new lawbreaking skills can be learnt in prison, in response to the damaging and anti-social environment of prison life.  Additionally, when a family member is sent to prison it increases the chances that further family members will also follow the same path.  Prisons are part of the crime problem, not a solution to it.

4

Source: https://uk.pinterest.com/hope4hurtkids/incarcerated-parents-h4hk/

 

  1. Aren’t prisons an essential part of modern society that helps to reinforce the rule of law?

It is sometimes argued that protecting the rule of law requires that the guilty are punished.  However, should the rule of law not be accountable first and foremost to those it is intended to protect, as opposed to those it rules against?  By focusing on actions against perpetrators as a measure of the law we lose our focus on compensating, responding to and caring for victims.  Thus a major reconfiguration of the way the legal system works would be the first step towards abolition.  This is especially urgent in the modern world where prisons – more than ever – are little more than symbols of an older, antiquated, bleak, inefficient and technologically backward time.  The time when inefficient practices that do little to protect victims and even less to address the complex needs of perpetrators (and in most cases worsens their needs) is rapidly slipping away and should be consigned to the past.  A new approach to thinking about how a modern society manages harm, crime and victimisation is long overdue.

5

  1. If not prisons, then what would we do instead?

There is no single solution.  The idea that there can be one is another myth that the use of the prison perpetuates.  There are a number of alternative responses that could be utilised, including, for example:

  • Focusing on victim needs, compensation and care
  • Adopt a ‘do no further harm’ principle in any new policy decisions taken
  • Non- punitive detention (for perpetrators who have extreme and complex needs)
  • Intensive community supervision
  • Intensive therapeutic intervention
  • Civil law measures
  • Peace bonds, enforced by strict supervision

Relying on the idea of imprisonment to solve our social problems has made us lazy and thoughtless.  Creating and living in a peaceful society takes a significant amount of on-going work.  It requires that we build social justice and community capacities, investment in the economy, education, housing and in human beings.  Removing the prison from the social equation must be a starting point, not the end goal.  Once we relinquish our reliance on these harmful and ineffective institutions, we can then begin the building process of finding fairer, more just and equitable solutions to our deepest and most fearsome social problems.

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

David Scott, The Open University

 

image-1 

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.

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.

Just another Scumbag Millionaire? Green, BHS and the State of UK Regulation

Steve Tombs, Prof of Criminology, The Open University

Trotting out the phrase “the unacceptable face of capitalism” as part of a “damning” House of Commons Work and Pensions and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees report on the collapse of BHS may make for good headlines but does nothing in terms of progressing reforms towards any more effective system for controlling the behemoths of corporate capitalism.

While the headline versions of the report make much of Sir Philip Green’s “systematic plunder” of the company, a closer reading reveals a systematically flawed system of regulation, one untouched by the financial crisis of 2007, still under attack as a burden on business, and likely to be further weakened as the realities of Brexit become increasingly apparent.

The report – or at least its popular reception – is a classic instance in individualising corporate offending. Sir Phillip Green, and to a lesser extent Dominic Chappell, are the equivalents of the ‘Scumbag Millionaires’ of the 2007 financial crisis, the headline The Sun ran across its front page cover of Fred Goodwin, Stephen Hester, Andy Hornby and Tom McKillop as they sat before the UK Treasury Select Committee hearings of 2009 into the banking crisis.

Thus a key aspect of the debate surrounding the demise of BHS and its systematic plundering, not least of its pension fund, is whether Green will be stripped of his knighthood, itself intimately linked to whether or not he will fulfil what the report calls his “moral duty” and make a large cash payment to the pension fund. But in this latter call, we see the resort to moral duties as an indictment of the state of law and regulation of corporate activity, both in terms of the corporate person (by definition, an a-moral, legally constructed entity) and its directors, senior managers and shareholders. Indeed, the report is less than sanguine about the abilities of The Pension Regulator to secure restitution for the 22,000 pension holders who have been the victims of what is no more nor less than theft and fraud – an all too typical scenario in deregulated, neo-liberal version of capitalism that has long dominated the UK political consensus.

Sir Phillip Green before the Common Committee, 14 June 2016

Sir Phillip Green before the Common Committee, 14 June 2016

Source, The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/philip-green-tells-tory-mp-to-stop-looking-at-him-weirdly-in-bizarre-committee-exchange_uk_5761178fe4b03f24e3dadd3d

The whole affair – which the Committee’s report and media response to it seems somehow to represent as aberrant and a-typical (hence the ‘Unacceptable Face of Capitalism’ epithet) – in fact sheds light on other routine ways of doing business in the UK. One of these is the normal practice of squirreling funds offshore into tax havens – something Green achieved through his wife’s ownership of Taveta Ltd – and which the Panama Papers revealed, as if such revelations were necessary, is simply one element of industrial scale personal and corporate tax avoidance. And in this business of ‘aggressive tax planning’ – an anaesthetising term if ever there were one – the UK, and its financial services, those which Cameron and Osborne long sought to protect from over-burdening EU legislation – is a world leader.

This affair also tells us something about the craven attitude of UK media and political elites to leading business figures. Until very recently, Sir Philip Green had been lauded as an archetypal entrepreneur, the turnaround kind, the businessman who could not only speak for the best that is competitive capitalism but in fact was fit to advise Government: this is the same Phillip Green who was called upon by the Coalition Government in 2010 to advise on cost savings at it prepared for its ‘Emergency Budget’. At the time, Minister Francis Maude said of Green that “He’s shown how he can turn around big complex businesses. Government is a huge complex organisation, and while it’s not the same as a business, a lot of the same disciplines are needed.”

This is simply one instance of the craven attitude that successive Governments, since the days of New Labour at least, have portrayed in front of entrepreneurs. Recall it had been Gordon Brown when becoming Prime Minister in 2007 who called for a ‘Government of all the Talents’, and invited a series of unlikely bedfellows (and they were mostly fellows) into a labyrinthine of advisory – non-elected – posts. One notable such appointment was (Lord) Digby-Jones, former head of the employers’ organisation the CBI. On resigning his post as Trade Minister in 2009  Digby-Jones argued that “top businessmen” – and not  “incompetent politicians” – should run major Government departments: “Health, education, business, transport, defence and security are too important to be left any longer to enthusiastic amateurs and their honest and hard-working but risk-averse civil servants.”

Finally, this whole shabby episode reveals much about the systematic and ongoing failings of a patchwork regulatory system. None of the regulators involved – Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Financial Reporting Council, the Pensions Regulator, the Insolvency Service and the Serious Fraud Office – come out of this tale with their already-hardly-stellar reputations enhanced. And for all the talk of regulatory reform, improved systems of corporate governance, greater transparency for private business – all of which grace the pages of this 60 page report – little is likely to transpire in any of these areas. We’ve been here before, many times, not least in the series of Governmental inquiries which followed the 2007 financial crisis, which in sum resulted to virtually no meaningful regulatory reform. Perhaps the most lauded were the proposals in the Vickers Report, that a ring-fence to be erected between investment and retail banking. Subsequently, even Andrew Tyrie the Conservative Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, said of the proposed UK fencing that it is “so weak as to be virtually useless” (Armistead, 2013). A handy catch-all verdict on the state of business regulation in the UK.

This is the story of BHS, of 11,000 jobs lost, of 22,000 pension holders impoverished. It’s a story not of rogue, vilified, condemned individuals. It’s the story of an economic system based on structural irresponsibility, a supine political and media elite, and a regulatory system unable to mitigate capitalism’s inherently destructive effects.

 A slightly earlier version of this blog was originally published on 26 July, 2016 at openDemocracy UK, https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/steve-tombs/unacceptable-face-of-capitalism-what-collapse-of-bhs-shows-us-about-uk-economy