Remembering and forgetting the Woolf Report

By David Scott

Lord Justice Woolf’s Prison Disturbances April 1990: Report of An Inquiry (1991) is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and progressive reports in the history of prisons in England and Wales.

The Woolf Report (1991) was commissioned in the aftermath of the disturbances at HMP Strangeways between 1 – 25 April 1990. The Strangeways disturbances were the longest in UK penal history and sparked riots in twenty-five further institutions, including Glen Parva, Dartmoor, Cardiff, Bristol and Pucklechurch. On publication the Woolf Report was acclaimed as the blueprint for prison policy for the next three decades. So, should those of us looking to end the barbaric penal regimes pertaining in prisons in England and Wales today, still be looking to Woolf for inspiration nearly 30 years on?

Prisoners on the roof at Strangeways Prison in 1990. Photo Credit: Rex

First of all, the proposals of the Woolf Report were not really that innovative. Many of the assumptions of the Woolf Report are based on the ideas of penal realism and the concept of “humane containment”, first articulated in the 1969 Home Office white paper People in Prison. Recognising that prisons are expensive ways of making people worse, penal realism calls for a minimum use of custody; minimum use of security with greater links between the community and the prison. Prisons should contain prisoners in safe custody and daily conditions and practices grounded in universally agreed basic standards.

Yet although the report went beyond merely a focus on ‘security and control’ and also advocated ‘justice’ as the third of his key themes, he tied this commitment to the Prison Service to follow its own Statement of Purpose. Prison authorities are under an obligation to look after prisoners with humanity and to help to encourage their charges to live a law-abiding life both whilst in custody and after release.

Second, the proposals of the report were not really that progressive. Although Woolf made 12 central recommendations and a further 204 supporting recommendations, his proposals were largely policy signposts that were not very specific in terms of their application and he largely restricted his analysis to administrative questions, offering minor adjustments and revisions to the aims, policies, and procedures of the prison.

Further, his apparently liberal reforms were often justified on a consequentialist basis which were predicated on prisoner responsibilities and, in the long run, reducing re-offending. This included his promotion of ‘justice’ (which meant procedural fairness and decent living conditions). Prisoners had a legitimate expectation, not an absolute legal right, to be treated humanely. The commitment to decent prison conditions was predicated upon prisoners acting with responsibility. Lord Justice Woolf was:

… not seeking to achieve more comfortable surroundings, greater luxuries or increased privileges for prisoners for their own sakes. To think that would be to fundamentally misconceive the argument. We are seeking to ensure that a prisoner serves his sentence in a way which is consistent with the purpose behind the courts decision to take away his liberty and his freedom of movement, while ensuring he is treated with humanity and justice.

Prisoners were conceived to have privileges that could be earned by good behaviour, rather than inalienable rights. Further, the main aims of the report were undoubtedly to restore the authority, legitimacy and stability of the prison service and ultimately to create an environment that would reduce the likelihood or prevent a re-occurrence of the events of April 1990.

The liberal line adopted limited the report and failed to evaluate the deeply problematic nature of punishment or examine those intractable and inherent problems reflecting the deep malaise in the prison estate. Rather than open up the agenda to questions regarding the actual legitimacy of imprisonment, the aim of the report was to silence such radical critique. The parameters of legitimated knowledge remained relatively unchanged by the report, as did any progress towards a genuine commitment to assess the role of prisons from a human rights perspective.

Given its historical significance, it is important that those lobbying for penal change remember the Woolf Report, but this should be as an illustration of how official discourse co-opts progressive ideas. As a blueprint for the future of how we deal with human wrongdoing though, we should forget the Woolf Report. The consensus on prisons that must emerge in our historical conjuncture has to go beyond penal realism and embrace the genuinely innovative and progressive ideas of penal abolitionism.

Contra Woolf, this means focusing on the responsibilities of the powerful rather than prisoners; prioritising the accountability of the state and its agents rather than emphasising that of its subjects; conceiving justice in terms of social justice and the promotion of human wellbeing and the meeting of need for all; and questioning the very moral and political legitimacy of the penal apparatus of the capitalist state.

For those wishing to bring an end to the penal barbarism of the present, inspiration should not come from Woolf, but rather from the grassroots abolitionist movements and all those struggling elsewhere around the globe for the defunding of the police and its replacement by peace officers who are committed to safety and protection. It is only by situating progressive penal change within the context of tackling existing social divisions and the development of social policies that can deliver better housing, education, welfare services and jobs that we will find solutions to the problems that have haunted penal regimes since their inception.

This blog was originally posted on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website:

Further Reading:

Dr David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.


What would a world without prisons be like?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

We take prisons for granted – but how effective are they? Are there better alternatives? In a new BBC ideas video, David Scott and Deborah H. Drake ask what a world without prisons would be like. The video is available to view at:

The video is accompanied by Scott and Drake’s Abolition in Questions: Part One, a previous HERC blog post, which is available to view at:

Why educate prisoners?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski considers the arguments for educating prisoners. Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski is a PhD candidate in Criminology, Associate Lecturer, and Regional Manager in the Students in Secure Environments team, at The Open University.

‘Why educate prisoners’ is a question that is always implicit in UK penal policy but, rarely ever explicitly addressed. For instance, the most recent government review of education in prisons which was conducted by Dame Sally Coates in 2016 failed to address this question directly. Admittedly, the review focused on prisoners’ access to education and the quality of education provided. However, it was a missed opportunity to state or restate the reasons and benefits of educating prisoners to their full potential. This blog addresses this question head on.

Prison education historically

Although widely known for their brutality, the Victorians were the first to recognise the futility of simply locking people up in the pursuit of punishment without doing something to address the underlying issues that brought them to prison. Their solution was to give prisoners access to learning and instructional activities (another term for education). Indeed, this has become one enduring feature of the UK’s criminal justice system. However, when it comes to Higher Education in prison, the approach is currently somewhat chaotic, which means that for many prisoners, access to Higher Education can be a lottery, depending on the particular prison that they find themselves in.

For example, structural barriers such as the so-called ‘six-year rule’ has the effect of restricting and discouraging engagement with the limited Higher Education opportunities available to prisoners. The six-year rule requires prisoners to be within six years of their earliest release date, in order to secure a student loan to fund their undergraduate degrees. This clearly restricts the number of prisoners who are eligible for loans and blocks some students from accessing HE. Indeed, no other cohort of potential Higher Education student is subject to any such condition.

Education as a human right

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Muñoz, “learning in prison through educational programmes is generally considered to have an impact on recidivism, reintegration and, more specifically, employment outcomes upon release. Education is however much more than a tool for change; it is an imperative in its own right.” (Munoz, 2009). However, like other civil, political, economic and social rights denied to prisoners, the right to education is inequitable to what is available to their peers in the community.

Education as a public good

According to the Ministry of Justice, “research evidence strongly suggests that education in prison can help people desist (move away) from offending”. The UK has one of the highest rates of reoffending in the Western world and this comes at huge costs to both taxpayers and victims. Encouraging engagement with education in prisons should be a priority as it has been shown to work in reducing reoffending.

According to official sources, 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school. Out of 101,600 learners, under the previous OLASS (Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service) contracts for prison education, only 100 prisoners participated in a full Level 3 course (equivalent to ‘A’ level) in 2014/15, with none participating at Level 4 which is equivalent to first year undergraduate or above (MoJ, Unlocking Potential, 2016). Recognition of the importance of education in prisons appears to have been lost (Coates, 2016). Considering that most prisoners will eventually be released back into the community at some point, there is a need to ensure that they develop the right skills and gain useful qualifications whilst in custody, to help facilitate their successful reintegration back into society. Thus, they may be better able to avoid the ‘revolving door’ that prison can be for many people.

A safer working environment

Many people would agree that the prison presents a difficult and challenging environment for both prisoners and staff, especially those working on the Wings. For instance, the threat and use of violence is a constant feature of daily prison life and it has been noted that “There is no evidence punishment works under any circumstances but much evidence that punishment (especially severe punishment) encourages violent or otherwise undesirable behaviour.  Thus, the idea that the particular punishments that prisons deliver will transform people and encourage (or force) them to lead better lives upon release is fundamentally flawed.” (Drake and Scott, 2017). Conversely, a prison full of people engaged in purposeful learning activities which can help improve their well-being and is likely to generate a different, more positive atmosphere.

Academic research conducted by the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), a network of academics with an interest in prison education suggests that education in prison serves many purposes and significantly improves prisoners’ sense of well-being, an antidote to what Sykes (1958) describes as the ‘pains of imprisonment’. Other benefits include increasing human and social capital, knowledge, skills and employability.

A practitioner’s perspective

As someone who has been involved in education in prisons for almost two decades now, my experience has provided me with unique insights and knowledge about the value of educating those in custody.

As a student in prison, I found a culture where learning was disincentivised, almost frowned upon. The idea that you could put your time to better use than education was ever present and that can have a draining effect on a student.

As a regional manager for a university with students in prison, my role involves working with the prison authorities to facilitate higher education (HE) study in their establishments. My experience in this role has helped to highlight the many difficulties faced by both prisoners who wish to engage in higher level study and prison staff who are tasked with supporting them.

I also lecture Year 1 criminology students and have a number of prisoners in my student group. In my experience, these students are amongst the most dedicated and committed you can come across. This is magnified when you consider the conditions under which prisoners are forced to learn and study.

In summary

The benefits of educating prisoners are numerous. For example, education can aid prisoners’ personal development and improve their sense of well-being, thereby contributing to an improved prison environment for prisoners and staff alike. In addition, it can help to reduce the financial cost of reoffending and the number of victims of crime, thus helping prisoners with their successful reintegration back into society. This, I believe, is a key objective for the prison service.

This blog was originally posted at OpenLearn – – and is accompanied by a short film at BBC Ideas

OU’s Legal Eagles on Prison Radio

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Hugh McFaul discusses the Open Justice radio project Legal Eagles. Hugh McFaul is Director of the Open Justice Centre and Senior Lecturer in The Open University Law School.

In ‘Beyond the Gates’ Steve Tombs and Zoe Walkington highlight the important role The OU has played in opening up educational opportunities to students in prison. Of course, this longstanding commitment to providing access to higher education goes to the heart of the OU’s founding ideals of being open to people, places, methods and ideas. However, it also provides a great foundation to develop innovative ways in which OU students studying inside and outside prison can work together. An innovative example of this is the Open Justice Prison Radio Project Legal Eagles which features on this week’s Radio 4 Law in Action programme.

Hugh McFaul, Open Justice Centre and Sarah Couling, OU law student outside HMP Altcourse with BBC Radio 4 journalist Joshua Rozenberg after recording for Law in Action.

The project was established by the Open Justice Centre  in 2017 and brings OU law students into HMP Altcourse to work with prisoners to promote public legal education. Students travel to the prison in north Liverpool to agree legal topics that will be dealt with in a special Legal Eagles broadcast on the HMP Altcourse radio station. The production of the programme is a collaborative effort, with OU law students leading on researching answers to the prisoners’ legal questions and the prison radio team using their skills on the production of the broadcast. Participants in the project feature in the Law in Action programme which gives an important insight into the strength of the relationship between The OU and educators working in prisons.

Legal Eagles is one of several Open Justice prison projects which aim to provide opportunities for learners based inside and outside prison to collaborate on public legal education projects. We have been working with the St. Giles Trust since 2017 to provide support to prison-based peer advisors. The St Giles programme involves final year OU law students making up to four prison visits to work with groups of Peer Advisors, under the supervision of qualified lawyers, to identify and research areas of law that relevant and useful to the wider prison population.

Recent examples include:

  • In HMP Send, OU students developed a housing toolkit that included information about current housing legislation. This was a useful, practical and quality resource package that the Peer Advisors use to provide specific and in-depth housing advice to other prisoners. Prisoners do not have access to the Internet so a toolkit like this is especially useful.
  • In HMP Cardiff, the topic chosen by the Peer Advisors was family law, including issues around contact orders – This was particularly useful as many male prisoners are estranged from their families and need advice and support on how to re-connect on their release.
  • In HMP High Down, the project concentrated on producing resources that enabled the Peer Advisors to give advice on IPP sentences, licence conditions and the parole process, all areas of advice very much in demand in that prison.
The Open Justice Centre’s partnership work with the St Giles Trust has been shortlisted for a national pro bono award.

A key aspect of the success of the project has been the truly collaborative nature of the work undertaken by OU students and the prison-based Peer Advisors:

The Open Justice students have given our Peer Advisors in the prisons a real opportunity to develop, learn and become more professional but more than anything they have provided a forum where students and prisoners can meet as equals, learn from each other and discuss a whole range of relevant issues. The sessions I have observed have been the liveliest and most stimulating I have ever witnessed inside a prison.

(St. Giles project leader)

OU students have responded very well to the challenge of taking part in the project and have described the experience as transformative:

I didn’t anticipate, the effect that this journey that I was about to embark upon would have upon my life as both a law student and a person.  My fellow students, The Open University tutor, the inmates who we worked with and the staff at the prison, made this experience one that I will never forget, and the experience is a must for any law student.

(OU law student participant)

Programmes are planned in six prisons in England and Wales for Spring 2020 and, subject to funding, we plan to in the increase the number of prisons included in the project in 2021.

Beyond the Gates

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs and Zoe Walkington discuss the Open University’s role in delivering education to students in prison. Zoe Walkington is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology, both at The Open University.

The Open University is 50 years old this year, and as part of its celebrations we were keen to reflect upon and champion something that we feel has been a vital contribution of the Open University in its history – the education of students in prisons.

The OU first opened to 22 students in two prisons in 1971; and there are now close to 2,000 learners studying with the OU across 150-plus 150 prisons and some 50 Secure Hospital Units. Almost a third of these study on modules and programmes in the arts or social sciences.

While the OU is not now unique in providing education to students in prison, we are by far the largest provider in this context. This is something of which we are very proud. That is why we developed the idea for a film that would reflect the experiences of some of our students studying in prison. At the same time, Beyond the Gates raises awareness both of the obstacles faced by those studying in a prison environment and about the issues we, as a university, face in trying to provide prisoner education within the current political context.

The Virtual Campus is a secure intranet system which has been developed for use in prisons

OU students in prison are also great testimony to the benefits of learning together. In the film, we capture the voices of some of our Associate Lecturers, many of whom find the experience of working with students in prisons to be both moving and humbling. The film also captures the vital work of the OU Students in Secure Environment (SiSE) programme. SiSE works proactively with students in prison, to widen participation to all areas of our curriculum, and to try and provide the same learning experience for students in prison as for those ‘on the outside’. We’re proud to work in an institution that is open to some of the most marginalised learners in our communities, confined in places that are perhaps at best boring and monotonous, at worst degrading, violent and inhumane. Studying can, we hear in the film, take a student’s mind, for a while, metaphorically ‘beyond the gates.’ And the benefits of that study are something from which the student can benefit when they are, quite literally, beyond the gates, walking free, with choices to make and fulfilling lives to lead.

Sense and Solidarity in the Debate on Transgender Prisoners

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.  In this spirit, we would be happy to receive blog posts as comments or responses to this or any other post we publish.

In this article Mike Nellis sets out some of the issues on trans prisoner policy debates. Mike Nellis is Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice in The Centre for Law, Crime and Justice at the University of Strathclyde.

I agree with Richard Garside’s (Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice) helpful suggestion that the pressing practical problem of whether male-born transgender women should be housed in women’s prisons should be settled, in particular cases, by soliciting the views of women prisoners themselves. It is a ragged, imperfect solution, but no better (more ethical) options are currently available to the Prison Service, once trans women sentenced to custody, rightly or wrongly,  have become their responsibility. I also agree with Garside’s  readiness to use the prefix “male-born” in this debate; it is more or less relevant in different situations, and may actually be irrelevant in some, but the sexual assaults perpetrated by male-born Karen White in New Hall women’s prison understandably put it on the policy agenda. Sarah Lamble, anticipating that such limited prison democracy will always lead to the rejection of  trans women, has accused Garside of falsely polarising the interests of transgender women and women prisoners, and of bad faith: “Keeping prisoners in conflict with one another”, she says, “and whipping up fear of marginalised groups is a classic strategy to ensure prisoners don’t collectively challenge the system that is actually the real source of harm against them”. I don’t think that’s what Garside was doing. 

Lamble’s critique of Garside’s argument isn’t premised on the constraint of what is or should be currently available to the Prison Service and moves away from practical issues to paint a bigger political picture of what is at stake, perfectly valid, if not beyond contention. She reframes Garside’s concern from a theoretical standpoint which is far removed from his, indeed its polar opposite, bluntly premised on the notion that ‘trans women are women’, as if this were both self-evidently true and intrinsically progressive, disdaining disagreement with this as a “noxious” thought-crime. From such an abstract standpoint, any non-trans women prisoners and penal reformers who question the right of male-born trans women to share penal space are easily rendered misguided, un-woke and pernicious. The fact is, this “no-difference” view of trans women is by no means axiomatic and is not simply made so by forcefully insisting upon it. It is contested by sufficient numbers of women, and by enough feminists with progressive credentials, so I don’t feel entirely uncomfortable questioning its progressive potential myself.

Gender fluidity is a given and must be accommodated by societies: it will be a struggle on multiple levels. But the case for arguing that trans people should be treated with dignity and respect and, when vulnerable, entitled and enabled to be  safe – if that is what is at issue here – does not depend on a claim that they are exactly the same as people whose gender identity is comfortably and perhaps unthinkingly tied to their biological sex. Social acceptance on these terms would be too long coming; some, probably the majority, of non-trans people would not accept the truth of it. Transgender people can and should be respected and accepted regardless of their difference. “We are all more simply human than otherwise”, Harry Stack Sullivan used to say, and the forms in which our humanity is acceptably expressed are more varied than we used to think.   

If, for Lamble, there is more than respect for difference at issue here – if her argument is that the activism of transgender people is intended to relativise and disrupt all prevailing conceptions of gender identity, and that this is desirable because a)  that is the only way transgender people will feel or be fully recognised or b) some kind of collective human liberation would result from it, well, let that argument proceed in the spaces that are open to it. I’d rather the lives of people in prison were not pressed into service to advance this  larger argument, because most trans people will not find themselves in prison. Let’s not pretend that, whatever new social and psychological possibilities the “no-difference” argument opens up, that its articulation helps to address the specific practical problem  that Garside was wanting to solve. Equally, let’s not pretend that seeking tenable  solutions to here and now problems – reducing fear and harm, settling interpersonal and institutional conflicts, as far as they can be – always forecloses necessary, longer term political change. It might, but it need not. The tension here is an old one, and the advice Stan Cohen (1988) offered years ago in It’s All Right for You to Talk, adapting Mathiesen’s idea of “the unfinished”– warning practitioners not to heed the kind of theory which  requires sacrificing here and now kindness, empowerment (or democracy) for the sake of putative political transformation in the future – remains valid. Combine the two. Let the former inform the latter. Be the change you want to make.

Difference is defensible. Whilst the parallel is inexact, colourblindness – seeing no difference – proved limited, and often offensive, as a pseudo-form of anti-racism, and I need convincing that transgender politics will play out differently, if difference is denied and nominal assimilation into the gender mainstream made into the core demand. The denial of difference by male-born transgender women and their academic allies can create strange optics: it can all too easily look like a covert, patriarchal colonisation, or appropriation of female subjectivity and female space, which is why some feminists are, at the very least, wary of it. This may not accord at all with the inner experience or aspirations of some, even most, transgender women, but it seems unwise to rule out the psychological possibility of it, and the oppressive actions towards vulnerable women that might flow from it. Transgender women need not be depicted as paragons of virtue or expected to affect a persistently gentle demeanour in order to gain moral recognition, but  as Lamble rightly says, “the reality is that hurt people often hurt other people. These painful enactments of trauma are prevalent in women’s prisons and will play out whether trans women are present or not”. All true, but what if this already bleak scenario is compounded by a traumatised trans woman? What state of mind, exactly, was Karen White in when she committed those sexual assaults? Who did she think she was?  

Lamble pushes the implications of her “no-difference” argument to extremes, believing, it seems, that she is wielding the sword of truth against a deluded and indifferent hegemony. It’s not the way to win friends and influence people. “These groups” she says, “feed false claims that trans rights and women’s rights are in conflict with one another, despite the fact that many women-only organisations and service providers have been successfully operating with trans inclusive policies for decades.” The a priori judgement that false claims are being made here – the “no difference” notion, again – hinders clarity of thought: in the abstract it may be the case that trans rights and women’s rights don’t conflict (both can be grounded in human rights), but in specific concrete circumstances, depending on what the particular individuals perceive, need and want, they might well conflict. That conflict then has to be practically addressed, not just theorised, or reframed. Lamble’s point that “many women-only organisations and service providers” have become trans inclusive is relevant but not decisive: as she  is elsewhere keen to affirm, prisons are not spaces like any other, and what works in other organisations can’t simply be assumed to work equally well in them. But – sometimes – they just might, and I’m not quite as negative as she is about the prospect of women prisoners democratically accepting a trans woman alongside them (see Kushner 2018). It would need to be a carefully managed process, and acceptance  would not always be the outcome. The response to rejection needs consideration. Lamble’s warning about setting precedents for prisoners to “democratically” include and exclude other categories of disliked people is fairly made, awkward but probably not intractable. 

Solidarity on the Left – if that is where Lamble positions herself – is notoriously friable, and it never helps to misrepresent putative allies. Lamble claims that Garside “selectively takes the problematic behaviour of some individuals and attaches it to trans identities as a whole. Such framings portray trans women as if they are the greatest threat to non-trans women in prison”. I don’t see Garside doing this at all: he focussed very specifically on “the problematic behaviour of some individuals” and proposed a practical, raggedly  democratic solution to that possibility. Nowhere does he imply “that women’s prisons are places of ‘safety and refuge’ until trans women come along”. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is well aware of the limits and deficiencies of women’s prison’s, and equally concerned that we “create real places of safety and healing in our communities”. It will take serious, relentless political struggle to do that and a high degree of solidarity among activists will be needed to mobilise consensus on it. Whatever its merit in advancing transgender interests more generally, I’m not sure that Lamble’s critique of Garside, for all its intellectual bravura, actually gets us closer to that.


Cohen S (1988) It’s Alright for You to Talk: Political and Sociological  Manifestos for Social Work Action.  Oxford:  Transaction Books.

Kushner R (2018) The Mars Room. London: Jonathan Cape

Mike Nellis is Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice in The Centre for Law, Crime and Justice at the University of Strathclyde.

Why context matters in the trans prisoner policy debates

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.  In this spirit, we would be happy to receive blog posts as comments or responses to this or any other post we publish.

In this article Sarah Lamble sets out some of the issues on trans prisoner policy debates. Sarah Lamble is a Reader in Criminology & Queer Theory at Birkbeck, University of London.

‘Let women prisoners decide’ on trans policy sounds democratic but is misleading and risks feeding a wider trend of anti-trans groups using women prisoners for their own political agendas.

In a recent blog post, the Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) argues that non-trans women prisoners should decide whether trans women should be able to ‘share space’ with them in prison.

To suggest that prisoners should determine trans prison policy sounds, on the surface, like a reasonable and laudable position. Certainly prisoners get very little say on the policies that impact their daily lives and should have greater opportunities to feed into decisions that affect their wellbeing. However, what the CCJS Director is actually arguing is that some women (i.e. non-trans women) should decide the fate of other (i.e. trans) women. The argument only makes sense if you already assume that trans women are not women – which is consistent with the Director’s views as expressed on social media. But putting aside the noxious debate about whether ‘trans women are women’, let’s consider the actual context of his argument.

Over the past year or more, mainstream media and social commentators have been peddling false and misleading information about trans people in general and trans prisoners in particular. These reports—many of which are unreferenced, not properly fact checked and rely on anecdotal and decontextualized examples—consistently portray trans women as inherently dangerous to other women and as disproportionately likely to be sex offenders. This is the wider context in which the argument is made to ‘take it to the prisoners.’ But if you tell one group people that another group of people are sex offenders and then ask the first group if they want to share space with the second group, the answer is very likely going to be no. This is particularly the case in prison, where there is little status lower than someone deemed a sex offender.

If we did put the question to prisoners, which specific prisoners are we going to ‘let decide’? There is certainly no consensus on this issue outside of prison, so why would one expect there to be a consensus inside prison? 

Prisons, like society more broadly, include people with a range of views, and this means that prisoners include people with both trans-positive and transphobic views. Prisoners are not immune to the discriminatory social norms that are pervasive in society.  Though it may be unpalatable to admit, there are some prisoners who don’t want to share spaces with a whole range of other women. There are white women who don’t want to share space with black women; straight women who don’t want to share space with lesbians; British-born women who don’t want to share spaces with migrants. Are we also going to let these women decide and endorse a segregationist logic in prison?  These kinds of identity-based separation strategies often result in greater punishment for marginalised groups, as evidenced in the enduring racial segregation practices of California prisons and the Virginia prison which came under fire for separating women who were deemed too ‘butch’ / ‘masculine’.

We should be very wary of arguments that pit one group against another, particularly in prison, where scarcity of support combined with competition for resources means that prisoners are routinely and actively discouraged from solidarity with one another. Keeping prisoners in conflict with one another and whipping up fear of marginalised groups is a classic strategy to ensure prisoners don’t collectively challenge the system that is actually the real source of harm against them.

Prisoners have very limited autonomy and control over their lives when locked up. We should be supporting them to exercise greater agency, particularly around issues that increase their chances of surviving the harsh reality of prison. However, if women prisoners were given a choice about what issues they most want a say over, it is unlikely that trans issues would be top of the list.

It is concerning that many of the individuals currently bestowed with ‘expert’ status on trans prison issues have no experience of working directly with women prisoners, no credible history of researching trans prison issues, and very limited engagement with wider LGBTQ+ communities. Instead, these individuals regularly quote from ‘reports’ written by groups who have recently sprung up to ‘defend the rights’ of non-trans women in the wake of growing efforts to support trans people. Many of these groups make anti-trans arguments sound reasonable and legitimate to those who are understandably concerned by the news reports they hear but have little knowledge of the issues. These groups feed false claims that trans rights and women’s rights are in conflict with one another, despite the fact that many women-only organisations and service providers have been successfully operating with trans inclusive policies for decades.

Many of these same trans critics, until recently, have shown very little interest in women prisoners or prison issues more broadly – but are suddenly ‘concerned’ about the well-being of women in prison. For those of us who have been working with women prisoners for decades, it’s hard not to be dubious of their motives. If these groups are concerned about women’s well-being in prison, where is their outrage about male prison guards who sexually assault women in prison? Where is their concern for the appalling lack of support for women leaving prison?  Why are these groups not setting up campaigns, media strategies, fundraising pages and information websites to address the crisis of women dying in prisons

Current discussions about trans prison policy are being reduced to a question of trans people’s ‘feelings’ versus non-trans women’s ‘right to be safe’. But this framing mis-locates the problem of danger. It not only denies the violence that many trans people face in prison, but selectively takes the problematic behaviour of some individuals and attaches it to trans identities as a whole. Such framings portray trans women as if they are the greatest threat to non-trans women in prison. 

As the CCJS Director said to the Times: “Women who end up in custody are individuals who’ve often experienced quite grotesque and traumatic male violence so being asked to share their places of safety and refuge with individuals who they not unreasonably consider to be male and a threat to them — regardless of whether they are or not — is deeply problematic.”

The implication here is that women’s prisons are places of ‘safety and refuge’ until trans women come along. Such claims deny the reality of prison life: the mistreatment, abuse and harm that women face in prison. It also ignores the violence that non-trans women enact on other women, including the numbers of non-trans women in prison for sexual offences.

The CCJS Director and others are right to point out that many women in prison have experienced immense trauma. But claiming that separating trans women from non-trans women is necessary to protect women from further trauma, misunderstands how trauma plays out, particularly in prison, and misconstrues the processes required to heal from trauma. 

Trauma and vulnerability, particularly in prison, can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Survivors of violence can be triggered by all sorts of things; not just the appearance of a person who reminds them of their abuser, but a colour or smell, an article of clothing.  Part of the process of healing from trauma is learning to differentiate one’s abuser from others with a similar characteristic and learning to distinguish between an object that reminds a survivor of her trauma and that actual event itself. This healing process is difficult for many survivors but is worsened by the oppressive, controlling and inhumane prison environment where any form of therapeutic support (if available at all) is structured by an overall punitive regime. 

These challenges are heightened by the fact that prisons are filled with other people who have also experienced deep trauma with very little resource or support to navigate it. In these circumstances, many people respond to trauma not only through vulnerability, but also through conflict, self-defensive and sometimes self-destructive and violent behaviours. The reality is that hurt people often hurt other people. These painful enactments of trauma are prevalent in women’s prisons and will play out whether trans women are present or not.

The problem with framing trans women as an inherent or perceived threat to other women, is that this conflates problematic individual behaviour to group identities. This is a longstanding strategy for propagating discrimination and oppression. It is the same tactic that has been deployed by anti-gay campaigners, who portray gay men as paedophiles and lesbians as unfit mothers. The current demonisation of trans women in general and trans prisoners in particular follows a long history of stigmatisation and scaremongering, which dresses up prejudice and discrimination under the guise of concerns for safety.

The public at large doesn’t have time to fact check every media article they come across. So it is understandable that many people are being swayed by transphobic news articles and ‘reports’. This is made worse when such views are legitimised by people in positions of power who use their professional authority and access to media platforms to amplify and reframe trans-hostile views as though they are simply part of ‘reasonable debate’. The underlying problem is not a lack of debate but rather that the debate is being shaped by misleading and inaccurate information. These ‘debates’ are not simply about philosophical or political differences; they are having a direct impact on prison policy and prison life. The current framing of these debates locks people into intractable positions that limit our capacity to confront the key problem that actually needs to be addressed: how to reduce both interpersonal and state violence and how to create real places of safety and healing in our communities.

Dr Sarah Lamble is Reader in Criminology & Queer Theory at Birkbeck, University of London and has been involved in prisoner justice work for more than 15 years.

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:

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.

When Prison Means Life: Child Lifers and the Pains of Imprisonment*

David Scott, The Open University



Source: Medway Secure Training Centre, BBC / ‘The Justice Gap’


Why No Scandal?

The experiences of children in prison have failed to create the kind of scandal which might be expected in a modern, progressive and civilised society. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, yet there seems to be both public and political acceptance of their incarceration, despite mounting evidence of its terribly harmful effects.  Although the number of children in prison has fallen enormously since 2007, there are still more than 800 children in prison, of which 42 are under the age of 14.  We also need to situate this also within the context of social backgrounds of the children we imprison.  43% of children in prison are from BAME backgrounds (which is a significant rise in BAME child prisoners in 2007 when it was 24%) and significant numbers of children in custody have drug problems, learning difficulties, mental health problems and have witnessed or experienced physical or sexual violence.  Although only 1% of children and young people are in care, more than 35% boys and 61% of girls in custody have previously been in care.  Indeed, children in care are much more likely to be sent to prison than to go to University (where the figure is about 10%).


Child Life Sentences

A child prisoner includes children who are held in Secure Children Homes; Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions (the later hold around 70% of all children in custody)When talking about when prison means life for children I mean two things: 

  • First, any sentence which authorises the detention of a child potentially encompassing the rest of their natural life (including sentences of “detention for public protection” and “detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure”)
  • Second, when a child loses their life after being given a prison sentence. Here sentence length is irrelevant as the point is that their imprisonment has actually brought an end to their natural life.


According to the most recent MoJ statistics the following life sentences have been handed down to people under the age of 18 by year in England and Wales:

Table 1: Child Life Sentences

Year Child Life Sentences
2006 19
2007 26
2008 25
2009 23
2010 19
2011 15
2012 14
2013 13
2014 21
2015 14
2016 8


From 2006 – 2016 197 child life sentences were handed down.  The average age of the person at the time of sentencing is 16 years, but life sentences have been handed down in this period to children as young as 13.


The main life sentence for children is “detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure” (DHMP) but from 2004-2012 290 children were also sentenced to “detention for public protection” (which were sentences for “dangerous offenders”, Criminal Justice Act 2003 Ch. 5). Although this sentence was effectively abolished in 2012 with The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 a number of those sentenced are still in prison Although the government is not at that time able to identify the exact number of child lifers, the  Children Rights International Network (CRIN, 2015) estimate that the figure serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure or other sentence over 14 years in duration is around 400.


Despite the fall in the number of children in custody England and Wales still has the highest incarceration rate for children in Western Europe.  It also stands virtually alone in the use of child life sentences.  Of the 28 different countries in the European Union, life imprisonment for children has been abolished in 22. Two children have been sentenced to life imprisonment in France in the last 25 years and one In Ireland.  There are currently two children serving life imprisonment outside of the United Kingdom in the EU today.



Source: Hiaki Deck Educational Resources


Reducing Culpability

The original meaning of detention at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ was first introduced with the Trial of Lunatics Act of 1800.  Yet at the time detention “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was not to be a place of punishment but intended as a place of safety for those considered ‘insane’.  With the Children’ Act of 1908 – which abolished capital punishment for children – detention at “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was introduced for children aged 10-16.  The term was adopted to imply that children had a reduced degree of culpability for murder and that they should not bear full responsibility for their actions.  It indicated that it would not be appropriate to impose a life sentence on children. It was only in 1983 that the then Home Secretary explicitly linked detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure with the mandatory sentence of adult life imprisonment.


Further, in most of the countries within the European Union the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) is 14.  The MACR for children in England and Wales is 10. Yet whereas on the one hand children are held legally responsible for their actions from the age of 10, bizarrely, under the Pet Animals Act 1951, children under 12 are not deemed legally entitled to buy a pet.  Indeed, in most instances we as a society recognise we should treat children very differently to adults.


Without doubt, we should like our historical forbearers and many of European neighbours and consider life sentence for children as a form of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ and totally unsuitable for a civilised society.  Life sentences for children cannot be justified


When Prison Takes Life

The regimes experienced by child prisoners as one of deliberate harm which leads to thousands of children being physically, psychologically and emotionally damaged every year.

Indeed, child prisons are places of suffering, violence and death.


According to data from INQUEST 78 people under 21 took their own lives in child prisons from 2007-2017 and in total 318 young people under the age of 21 have died in penal custody between 1990-2017.



Source: BBC / Open Democracy


Coping with prison life a tenuous, relative and fluid concept that ebbs and flows over time. The real pains of imprisonment are to be found 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. It is also clear that custody is experienced differently by young people. Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults. It has long been noted how suicidal ideation is heavily influenced by the nature of responses by significant others and the ‘end of hope’. Young people also have less life experience on which to rely to help to deal with problems associated with prison life, or to manage a suicidal impulse when things are looking bleak and hopeless.


Where do we go from here?

I would therefore like to make the following three brief conclusions:

  • Immediately abolish life imprisonment for children and look to house children who do series wrongs in places of genuine care and safety
  • Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility immediately to 14 so that we match most other European Union Countries and call for an independent review to explore the possibility of raising this to 16 as soon as possible
  • Recognise that the pains of imprisonment are potentially deadly for children, and therefore we need to think again about what we mean by child prison as a ‘last resort’.



* This paper was originally delivered in the House of Commons, London, England
15th November 2017




Build communities, not prisons

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

buildcommunities.JPGImage source:


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: