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.

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

David Scott, The Open University

 

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

 

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

 

Individual Pathology?

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

 

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

 

Prison Officer Violence

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

 

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Prison officers control and restraint – source: videohit.tv

 

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

 

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

 

Institutionally-Structured Violence

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Source: BBC News

 

Abolish Violence

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

What is Convict criminology?

 Rod Earle, Senior Lecturer in Youth Justice, The Open University

‘In order to explain a cultural product it is necessary to know it. And to know it, in matters of thought and emotion, is to have experienced it.’ Bronislaw Malinowski, Anthropologist, 1884-1942

Rod Earle

Imprisonment is much studied by criminologists, but rarely experienced directly. As the study of crime has grown in recent years, prison officers, police officers, probation staff and social workers have contributed positively to the discipline of criminology, and helped to swell its ranks. Many people from these professional backgrounds have successfully made the transition to careers in criminology. You might say that they have taken to it like ducks to water. More recently, there are signs that something else is possible, something new: ex-convicts are making their way into criminology.

How does an ex-convict study crime and punishment and make sense of their personal experience? What research questions does an ex-convict have about prisons, punishment and rehabilitation? Do they teach criminology differently? Do they understand prison life better or have special insights into issues of crime and punishment by virtue of their experience? These are the questions that drive something that has come to be known as convict criminology: the study of criminology by those who have first-hand experience of imprisonment.

Convict criminology perspectives are currently dominated by US experience and publications. These emerged from the United States in the late 1990s through a group of academics, and an organisation, Convict Criminology, that supports and encourages prisoners and ex-prisoners who are interested in studying criminology. Academics without experiences of imprisonment helped to get the US Convict Criminology group started and remain welcome because they help those with prison experience and less conventional academic backgrounds to develop their academic skills and analysis, complete their studies and secure academic positions.

Part of what fueled the growth of US convict criminology was the enormous expansion of the US prison population from the 1970s onwards. The reasons for this growth are complex, and patterns of growth vary from state to state but the overall upward trend has been relentless. Moreover, if you are a black person in the USA you are seven times more likely to be sent to prison than if you are a white person. In the UK there are three young African Caribbean men in prison for every one at a Russell Group university and the rate of disproportionality in prison populations is actually greater than in the USA, though the scale is much smaller.

The fact that most convict criminologists are white men is not a random accident, and the way the two institutions, prison and university, operate at the bottom and top of the social hierarchy are open questions ripe for analysis. This analysis needs to be explicitly gendered and focus on the intersectional dynamics of masculinity, class, race and ethnicity. Women’s routes into, out of, and through prison vary significantly from men’s. When more than 90% of prison populations are composed of men, the available population of formerly imprisoned women is inevitably considerably smaller. As a result their opportunities to contribute to convict criminology are fewer and further between. While convict criminology is composed mostly of white men, it can benefit from an engagement with critical race theory to examine how ‘whiteness’ intersects with other aspects of biography, criminology and prison experience. This will help it to avoid ‘speaking for others’ and generalising experiences that are specifically conditioned by gender, ethnicity and class. In doing so, convict criminology can fashion distinctive critical contributions to criminology that unsettle and expose the ways in which universities reproduce privilege and hierarchy while prisons foster disadvantage and marginality.

Convict criminologists draw inspiration from C Wright Mills classic text The Sociological Imagination. Mills argued that linking aspects of personal biography to social structures and history was the core business of social science. For Mills the special craft of sociology rested on the insight that ‘personal troubles cannot be solved as mere troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues’. By bringing together people with direct experience of imprisonment and criminological expertise, convict criminology tries to expand the criminological imagination. We may not know best, but we know prison well, and in ways other criminologists do not, and cannot know it – from experience. In the UK these experiences and expertise have not yet been brought together in any systematic way to examine if and how they can help to re-conceptualise various aspects of penal policy and how they can contribute to criminological theorisation. My forthcoming book, Convict Criminology – Inside and Out (Policy Press 2016) makes a start and develops my own case and perspectives, but the potential for convict criminologists to contribute more collaborative and distinctive insider perspectives is under-developed.

My experience is restricted to three months incarceration and 16 months of research fieldwork, spread over three English prisons, two of them separated from the first by over 100 miles and more than 30 years. For as long as I have worked around the criminal justice system and criminology, having personal experience of imprisonment has troubled me, albeit in a low-key kind of way. I didn’t realise how much I would appreciate working through these private troubles by connecting them to the public issues that I have found so compelling in criminology: issues of social justice, ideas about freedom, the problem of men, the role of law, the possibilities of social order and the significance of history. I am still troubled that I risk claiming too much for my very brief experience of imprisonment.  I’ve now spent more hours in prison as a researcher or a guest than I have as a prisoner. But there are two kinds of time inside and they do, I think, in the end, make a difference to anyone approaching the prison again as a scholar, and particularly as a criminologist.

Something of this difference resides in a remark I recall reading from a former Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. Reflecting, in a newspaper article, on his work revealing and reforming the way prisons operate, he noted that for all the good reform does, it was ever the case that prison ‘sits on a road that leads ultimately to the concentration camp.’ ‘Society’, he said, ‘neglects this awkward fact at its peril’. It is something, an immanent truth rather than an awkward fact, that prisoners sense more intuitively than most. As a result, convict criminologists, ex-prisoners writing sociologically about their experience, the institution of prison and the way society works around crime and punishment, may have something to enrich criminology. In anthropology Malinowski found a craft for more fully appreciating our ways of being human.  I think convict criminology develops this anthropological potential. It can provide evidence that prisons demonstrate the ways we fail.

For more information about convict criminology see the website: http://www.convictcriminology.org/