Prisons and Matters of Life and Death

Dr Deborah H. Drake, The Open University

 

On 27 September, 2018 Safe Ground held their annual Symposium.  For those who don’t know, Safe Ground is a charity that designs and delivers therapeutic arts programmes in prisons and the community. Their annual symposiums are always amazing events – lively and interesting and aimed at having hard conversations about prisons and punishment.  This year, the programme included performances and panel discussions.  The format and tone of the day invited a wide range of perspectives, ideas and experiences that stimulated all manner of discussion, emotion, inspiration and reflection.


Safe Ground’s symposium title this year was: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and, as might be expected, many of the discussions focused on deaths in custody.  One of the key issues that kept emerging again and again from the panels, performers and presenters was the voluminous recommendations that have emerged out the inquiries that have followed deaths in custody over the last twenty-five or so years and the fact that many of the recommendations have failed to be implemented.  This is interesting…and scandalous.  It calls to mind questions on what prison policy makers, prison managers and senior-level prison officials must really value and what they don’t.

After every death in custody, there is a coroner’s inquest (for some compelling research that explores this, see: Deaths After Police Contact, by David Baker).  Often it is also the case that the charity Inquest will become involved to help bereaved families and friends to investigate the circumstances of their loved one’s death.  In addition, there have been individual cases of deaths in prison custody where a special investigation was launched.  For example, after the murder of Zahid Mubarek in 2000, his family and others pressurised the Home and Justice Secretaries to launch an inquiry and the House of Lords finally launched a Public Inquiry; the report on which, was published in 2006.

So why is it that so many recommendations after deaths in custody are ever fully implemented or that attempts at implementation are not universal across the whole of the prison estate? The most charitable of possible explanations of why this might be the case, could be that prisons are just hopeless at implementing change quickly and that they are working hard to address their operational shortcomings so that it is very difficult to get every establishment to comply with detailed changes of practice at the ground level.  However, is that really what is behind the failure to address the practices that seem to lead to deaths in custody?

Could it be the case that the reason inquiry recommendations that follow deaths in custody are rarely fully implemented across the prison estate is simply that the prison system has an underlying indifference and disregard for the lives of those it holds in custody?  Of course, the official statement of purpose of the Prison Service says that it has a duty to look after people in custody with humanity.  However, their track record demonstrates that prisons pose a serious threat to human life and that they do not take this duty as seriously as they take other aspects of their work, such as security and control.  It seems to me that, on the basis of the evidence, no matter how high the death count rises, no matter how many recommendations come out of death in custody inquiries, no serious change is likely to follow.  The reason for this is, quite simply, that the changes that would be required to reduce the death count are just not seen as important, necessary or vital enough to the order, control and security of prisons.  It is also probably true that a death or even numerous deaths in custody are not perceived as embarrassing enough to the Prison Service.  Whichever way you look at it, though, there is a repeated lack of due care and attention given to the recommendations that follow a death in custody inquiry by the Prison Service and, as a result, this must surely mean that these lives do not matter enough for the Prison Service to make significant changes to their working practices.   This is a bold claim.  But looking at the Prison Service’s relatively recent history, it becomes clear that the Prison Service just does not value the lives it has in its care as much as it values other aspects of prison practice.

On Friday 9 September 1994, six prisoners in Whitemoor’s Special Security Unit escaped.  All six prisoners were immediately recaptured.  On Tuesday 3 January 1995 three prisoners escaped from Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight.  They were all recaptured five days later, still on the Isle of Wight.  Two inquiries were immediately launched to examine the events that led up to the escapes.  The swiftness with which these inquiries were launched is, in itself, worth noting because it demonstrates an immediate willingness for responsibility-taking on the part of prisons officials.  No matter where the chips fell (and fall they did, but that’s another story), there was an immediate and widespread understanding throughout government and the Prison Service that something needed to be done and that practices needed to change (see this article for example).

Together the Woodcock and the Learmont inquiries produced 191 recommendations.  A substantial number of these recommendations related to security and control measures.  Almost all of these recommendations were implemented – not just in maximum-security prisons (from which the two escapes occurred), but across all parts of the prison estate.  The implemented recommendations resulted, within a few short years, in a huge range of new practices, policies and procedures that significantly altered the working and lived experiences of staff and prisoners and they remain much of the basis for security and control measures in practice in prisons to this very day.

Of course, security and control matter in prisons.  If you’re going to go to all the trouble of having a prison system, then prisons should, at the very least, be secure and controlled.  No argument there.  However, what is important to take from the Woodcock and Learmont inquiries is just how efficient, swift and complete the Prison Service can be in implementing recommendations when it really wants to.

So, why might the Prison Service have been so proficient in implementing these recommendations and yet so woefully inadequate at successfully implementing the many recommendations that follow deaths in custody or, even, just creating prison practices that result in less frequent losses of life?  The answer seems obvious.  The lives of prisoners just don’t matter as much as an embarrassing high-profile escape and, by association, as much as security and control measures.  That’s really what it comes down to.  Someone from the Prison Service might argue back at me and say: ‘yes, but these were escapes from maximum-security prisons and no one would want dangerous people out on the loose, posing a threat to the general public.  These escapes caused a real depth of fear in the communities where these prisons are located and the shock waves reverberated around the whole of the country.’  All of this is true.  However, what about the threat that prisons themselves pose to the general public – to those men and women who find themselves behind bars (i.e. they’re members of the general public too) and who subsequently wind up dead? Let’s try and look at this from the perspective of the threat to human life that escapes pose versus the threat to human life that prisons themselves pose.

Since the Woodcock and Learmont recommendations have been implemented – to the best of our knowledge – no one has been killed by an escaped prisoner.  In fact, I found no recorded evidence of an escaped prisoner in the UK having killed someone.  However, between 1994 (when the Whitemoor escape took place) to 2018, there have been 4,278 deaths in custody.  These can be broken down as follows: 1898 self-inflicted deaths; 2290 non-self-inflicted deaths; 82 other, non-natural causes; 8 restraints (source: https://www.inquest.org.uk/deaths-in-prison).

The danger and risk to human life that prisons pose, certainly seems to warrant a significant re-thinking of the way prisons are organised and managed.  The question, however, remains whether the Prison Service can begin to value the lives it has in its care at the very least as much as it values security and control.

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Government policy is characterised by being petty and vindictive

Dave Middelton, The Open University

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What sustains a Government in power? Having the number of MPs to win votes seems pretty important you might think (although the Tories threw away a working majority and now have a very narrow lead and need the support of the DUP). As does having support in the country (see recent YouGov poll here.) However, neither of these can quite explain the success of the current Tory Government who should be in far more electoral trouble than they are. Of course, some people will point to a divided opposition and this remains true.

But that is to assume that the Tories themselves are united which is clearly not the case. What is sustaining the Government currently is a politics that can best be described as petty and vindictive. Unfortunately this pettiness and vindictiveness has plenty of support throughout the country and can be seen in many policies introduced over the past 20 years or so.

The most recent example is the so-called Windrush scandal in which the Home Secretary has been made to resign over an overtly racist policy introduced by her predecessor with the explicit aim of “encouraging” people to leave the UK. (Here is the BBC doing their best to emphasise the personal tragedy for Amber Rudd).

windrush

The hostile environment policy introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary was a policy that was racist both in its intent and application. What is so disappointing is that this policy received no real critical examination in the media (and very little in Parliament) until it emerged that black citizens, who clearly had the right to be in the UK, were affected. This came to light following an investigation by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman.

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The policy and its political fallout is largely treated as if it was an accident, an oversight, and even a personal tragedy for Amber Rudd. But, it was not an accident it was a deliberate and sustained attempt to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation toward black citizens in a somewhat vain attempt to meet targets which despite the lies to the contrary clearly existed.

It is not clear how many ‘illegal’ immigrants there are in the UK (the Office For National Statistics warns that methods of calculating the number are seriously flawed), but what is clear is that this policy and its accompanying ‘leave now’ vans were designed to intimidate a particular community. Why is tackling so-called ‘illegal immigration’ seen as so important to a Government that surely has more important things to worry about?

Theresa May in defending the policy constantly ignores the human suffering she has caused preferring to remind us that there are people in the UK illegally. It is an obfuscation that plays well with the Tory grassroots and the mass media and it completely misses the point. Although the right wing press play along. (Heres the Daily Mail’s reporting of May’s defence of the policy.)

There is no need to consistently victimise people who do not have the means to fight back. This is a policy based on a vindictive and empathy lacking political elite whose own lives are rarely, if ever, touched in a negative way by the programmes they introduce.

The “hostile environment” policy is no aberration. The disabled, single parents, unemployed, refugees, those who rely on benefits have all been treated, in one way or another, to versions of the hostile environment.

The Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake showed brilliantly how difficult it has become in the UK to claim benefits.

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Rather than social security, as we used to call it, being a safety net for those in need it has become a bureaucratic means of humiliating individuals whose only crime is to have fallen on hard times.

We now know that as a result of the stress caused by the ‘hostile environment’ policy more than one person was driven to suicide.   The website Calum’s List lists 63 known cases of deaths attributable to cuts in benefit. The figures for the number of suicides attributed to austerity programmes and particularly those involving the targets to reduce benefits are difficult to ascertain as coroners rarely report “Government policy” as a cause of death, but a recent report suggested that at least 81,000 people have taken their own lives shortly after receiving suspensions to their benefits (https://archive.is/zhvCc#selection-597.0-605.36).

Perhaps this will be more shocking if we name some of these people. On November 17th 2017 the Manchester Evening News reported that 38-year old Elaine Morrall died in her freezing home after her benefits were stopped. (Manchester Evening News)

Elaine

On 10thDecember 2017 The Independent reported that 32 year old singer-songwriter Daniella Obeng died in Qatar where she had gone to find work after her disability benefits were stopped. (Independent)

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On June 22nd 2017 the Disability News Service reported on the case of Lawrence Bond a disabled former electrical engineer who died of a heart attack after being told that he was fit for work. (Disability News Service)

Lawrence

But, it is not just the suicides, though if I were a Government Minister I would not want them on my conscience (assuming, of course that Government ministers actually have consciences). The strain that ordinary people are placed under as a result of being denied benefits or being investigated by the Home Office is cruel and usually unnecessary (this blog shows the effect on some of the people who get caught in this bureaucratic trap). For the victims of these deliberately created hostile environments life becomes like living in a Kafka novel.

Socialists are often accused of pursuing a politics of envy and yet the real politics of envy is not those who seek a more equal society but those who seek to maintain a society which is structurally unequal. The vindictiveness of those who enact laws and regulations aimed at the most desperate and vulnerable members of our communities is a national scandal that the occasional ministerial resignation does nothing to change.

Whilst the papers and broadcast media were full of pity for Amber Rudd and enthusiasm for her successor, they fail to notice the number of people who are the real victims of the policies Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Theresa May are responsible for enacting. And, whilst it is tempting to think that a change in government would end the hostile environment for ethnic minorities, the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable in our society ultimately we need a change in our culture which will probably only occur in a completely different type of society from the one we are living in now.

 

This post was originally published on Dave Middleton’s blog Thinking and Doing, at: http://davemiddletons.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/government-policy-is-characterised-by.html

Learning lessons from the past: What the Government can do right now to do to radically reduce the prison population

 

David Scott, The Open University

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The prison system is now widely considered to be in crisis, with the most recent damning revelations coming from a BBC documentary about Sodexo run jail HMP Northumberland

Source: Chroniclelive.co.uk

 

Prison does not work. Prisons are antiquated institutions that are particularly ill-suited to dealing with people with complex social needs or in response to people who have perpetrated acts of violence.  More than half of adult prisoners are reconvicted within one year of release; there were record numbers of self-inflicted deaths in 2016; and there have been a spate of highly visible prison disturbances across the country in recent months.

 

These and other intractable problems – such drug taking, mental ill-health, demoralised staff, violence, fear, insecurity and difficulties in maintaining order / control – were all exposed in the BBC Panorama programme on HMP Northumberland earlier this week.

 

Reducing prison populations in the past

The Average Daily Prison population in England and Wales stands today at 85,000 people and this is more than double what it was in December 1992.  The current prison population is also an incredible eight times higher than that of the late 1930s.  In 1908 more than 200,000 people were sent to prison that year, largely for very short sentences.  The Average Daily Population was 22,029 that year.  Yet, by 1918 the Average Daily Population had more than halved to 9,196.

 

By the late 1930s the Average Daily Population had stabilised at around 11,000, significantly with less than 40,000 people sentenced to prison each year.  The Average Daily Population was to fall below 10,000 again shortly after the start of World War Two.

 

The prison population in England and Wales was dramatically cut through diversion schemes; genuine alternatives in place of prison sentences; the abolishment of imprisonment for debt; and by allowing time for fines to be paid by offenders.

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Lady Constance Lytton, a suffraggette, prisoner and sister in law of Liberal prime-minster

Source: npg.org.uk

 

The main reason the prison population collapsed, however, was because there was a political commitment to do so.  There was recognition among politicians that prisons were brutal institutions that did not work.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a number of wealthy and influential people experienced imprisonment – suffragettes, prisoners of war, conscientious objectors to World War One, political prisoners and those imprisoned for their (homo)sexuality.

 

Rich and influential former prisoners, like the suffragette Lady Constance Lytton, who was sister in law to a former Liberal prime-minster, talked openly and wrote about the pain and unnecessary suffering generated by prisons.  As such a bad conscience about using prisons was created among the political elite.  Despite many changes in prison policy over the last 100 years, prisons remain in many ways the same today.

 

The current government agenda

The Conservative government will shortly release its new Prisons and Courts Bill.  It is set on the path of building five new ‘super-sized’ prisons and increasing capacity of the prison estate by 10,000 places over the coming years.

 

Yet, the historical and contemporary evidence overwhelmingly shows we cannot build our way out of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in our prisons on a daily basis.  What is required are policies, like those of 100 years ago, that can immediately reduce the prison population.

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HMP Berwyn under construction in 2016

Source: Wrexhamprison.com

 

Alternative policy proposals

The policy suggestions are simple but not easy.  A starting point would be to halt plans to build the five new mega-prisons.  There should be an immediate prison building moratorium.  A clear and unequivocal message should also be sent to the judiciary that in cases of relatively harmless offences or where the person who has broken the law has considerable vulnerabilities, that a prison sentences should, if at all possible, be avoided.

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The call for penal reductionism is sometimes referred to as “playing the get out of jail free card”

Source: pinterest.com

 

The age of criminal responsibility should be raised as soon as possible to 16 years and diversion schemes introduced which keep young people out of the criminal process.  Petty but persistent property offenders should be dealt with in their own community through schemes that help build a collective sense of safety and redress for the harm done, as well as fostering notions of respect and responsibility for all.

 

The vast majority of women prisoners have been sentenced for petty and non-violent offences and could be released through probation, home monitoring or amnesties.  Sentencers could also pilot the introduction of prison waiting lists for women offenders.

 

Residential therapeutic communities have been shown to work in addressing problematic behaviours and drug usage and could be expanded to help deal with the estimated 45,000 ‘problematic drug users’ in prison.  There should also be further priority given to diverting people with mental health problems from the criminal process.

 

Politicians and members of the public need to once again recognise that prisons are places of intense pain, harm and suffering.  Rather than defending the size of current prison populations, our high ranking politicians and members of the judiciary should profoundly regret the existence of the prison at all.

 

Public education, informed rational debates and deep-seated reflections on exactly what the prison is and what it does to people, are urgently required.  Perhaps then, calls for a radical reduction in prison population will be warmly welcomed.

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.