My Life Began At Forty

As co-Directors of HERC, we’re delighted and privileged to publish this contribution from ‘outside’ the OU. As you read this stunning piece, you will understand why it absolutely belongs here. Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs

 

My Life Began At Forty

Michael Irwin

On the 29th August 2007, prison officers in England and Wales went on strike. I only knew this when it was shown on BBC News as there were no staff on the wing. At the time I was on remand on HMP Lewes and decided there and then that the world had gone mad and that the general public should know what goes on in the institution of prison. I started to write with pen and paper and record the events that were unfolding on a daily basis. This has now been turned into a book called My Life Began At Forty.

I was arrested at Gatwick Airport on the 19th June 2007 with 1.1 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the lining of bag I’d collected in the Caribbean. At the time I was addicted to cocaine, and the alcohol intake was just as bad. After a few months of detox I got my half sensible head back on and started to write. I ended up receiving a twelve year sentence for drug trafficking, six in prison and six on licence and decided to put my ‘Time’ to good use.

I served my sentence in six different prisons starting at HMP Lewes then moving on to HMP’s Brixton, Rye Hill and Highdown in England and then transferred back home to Northern Ireland and HMPs Maghaberry and finally Magilligan. There are many prison books out there and one of the unique features of my story is that I served in two different jurisdictions and was able to compare and contrast as I progressed through the system.

It was Erwin James who once said ‘no one will fully understand the strength it takes to get through a day in prison.’ My story not only captures these struggles it also captures the battle that goes on within one’s self. It explores the mind numbing boredom of lock ups, the chaos of the wings, isolation and vulnerability compared to the endless illogical bureaucracy of a dysfunctional  prison and criminal justice system.

My book also tells of the struggle to gain an Open University Degree in prison. As a man in his forties (soon to be fifty), the education system in prison was not really set up for me. The education system is more to do with the tick box culture of getting half of the population to level one or two in basic maths and English. As far as the system goes in England and Wales, a prisoner must be serving a sentence of four years or more to even be considered for an OU degree. So, in a way I was lucky that I got a lengthy sentence.

I completed my OU openings course in HMP Rye Hill in 2008 and, due to a plethora of administration errors by the prison service (not the OU), it was only when I arrived in Northern Ireland in 2009 that I was able to start my first module, K101 (An Introduction to Health and Social Care). My book describes how on the one hand I got the most amazing support from the education department at Magilligan to the loathing of prison staff who saw me as a threat as I had half a brain.

My Life Began at Forty Cover.jpg

This of course was true in a way as the more knowledge I attained via my OU coursework the worse I got. The more I understood the angrier I got. I started to challenge and question policies and decisions designed to protect me under the alleged duty of care provided by the prison system. I became a mentor and a prison Listener which allowed me to see that my problems were not that great when compared to others. Considering the level of suicides in our prison system today my book gives a unique insight into how this develops, how it festers in the psyche and how unequipped the criminal justice system is to deal with social inadequacies in our society.

Before I went to prison I was living in Cape Town and living a hedonistic life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. My addiction spiralled out of control and my money dried up and ultimately led to my trip to the Caribbean. What my book also delves into is the fact that I had lost everything. It explores how a person has to deal with these harsh facts of life in a closed environment and how one lives a parallel life. Without the support of family and friends would I have made it?

These questions are asked and answered throughout the book, the goal posts continually shift over time, place and circumstance and illuminates how family ties and peer support are crucial when serving a prison sentence. I continually speak of family throughout the book and this brings the reader back into reality and perhaps thinking, could I do this, could I survive it?

It’s been ten years since I first put pen to paper. I scribbled on court benches, police cells and hospital beds. I typed it up when I had time and out of sheer tenacity I now have a finished product. My story is one of hope and how as human beings, even at the lowest of low, when there is no way out we can find the strength to dig deep, put one foot in front of the other, survive the day and get to the end. Several of the world’s top criminologists have already read the unedited version and suggested ‘for anyone studying criminology this is a must read. Get it out there Michael.’

I now have a BA (Hons) in Criminology and Psychological Studies from the Open University and an MSc in Criminology at Queens University Belfast. Next stop PhD. My message is simple ‘never, ever give up.’

As Friedrich Nietzsche stated “Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage – it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”

 

Vickie Cooper and Steve Tombs added:

My Life Began At Forty will be published at the end of April. To pre-order at a discounted rate, go to crowdfunder.com and type in Michael Irwin. Michael can be contacted at micsirwin@gmail.com

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

David Scott, The Open University

 

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

 

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

 

Individual Pathology?

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

 

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

 

Prison Officer Violence

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

 

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Prison officers control and restraint – source: videohit.tv

 

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

 

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

 

Institutionally-Structured Violence

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Source: BBC News

 

Abolish Violence

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Prison deaths: a case of corporate manslaughter?

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

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

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

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

Caught in the Act

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

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

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

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

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

Danger zone

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

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

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

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

Bleak outcomes. sean hobson/Flickr, CC BY

Ignored recommendations

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Prisons systematically generate suffering and death: thinking beyond reform

David Scott, The Open University

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HMP Woodhill, Buckingham, England: Source: BBC

 

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

 

A history of death

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

 

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

 

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

 

Prison staff

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

 

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

 

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

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Prison Officers, HMP Risey.  Source: BBC

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

Individual pathologies?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The pains of imprisonment

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

 

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

 

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

 

Beyond reform

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

 

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

 

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

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

David Scott, Open University

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[HMP Manchester. Photo source: David Scott]

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

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

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

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[Elizabeth Fry. Source: anglotopia.net]

Prisoner violence and rehabilitation

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

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

(1) decline in prison officer staffing levels;

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

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

Our dedicated and brave staff

Prison Safety and Reform draws upon statistics showing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punch bags and crying wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carnage and bloodbaths

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

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

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

Prisons: Places of Harm and Dehabilitation

David Scott, The Open University

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HMP Manchester [Strangeways] – Photo by David Scott, 2016

Prisons: Places of Harm and Dehabilitation

On the 4th October UK Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, delivered her speech Prisons: places of safety and reform to the 2016 Conservative Party Conference.  For Truss the UK ‘justice system’ is “incorruptible” and “the best in the world”.  If we follow the principles of meritocracy, it will become a “justice system of all talents” that “works for everyone” providing “justice for all”.  Although Truss digresses away from prisons (to talk about the courts and a new Bill of British Rights) her central arguments focus on how the Conservative government is “going to make prisons work”.  Sadly her speech is nothing but the same old story, harking back to the “making prisons work” rhetoric employed by Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw in 1997, as well as regurgitating an idea with a 200 year record of abject failure.

Truss starts her speech by talking about a prison governor who was assaulted by a prisoner but still came into work the following day. She later highlights the “abuse, intimidation and violence” experienced by prison officers, citing data claiming to show that last year prison officers were attacked on average 15 times a day [5,423 recorded attacks in 2015].  In a key message directed to our “brave” and “dedicated” prison officers she states: “I promise you this – I will do everything in my power to protect you”.  Prisoner assaults are from now on to be treated as “serious crimes”.  Further protection will come via more intensive drug testing and greater prison officer numbers and authority.

Harmful Evidence used for Political Legitimacy

Before we go any further let us consider some of these points in more detail.  First the official data.  Over the last few years the Prison Officers Association [POA] has called for a “zero tolerance” approach to prisoner violence and encouraged members to report every single incident that could be considered an assault.  As a result, the recorded number of “attacks” on prison officers has dramatically increased.  Prison officers have also allegedly been encouraged by the POA to seek medical assistance irrespective of obvious injury, the end result being that such incidents appear in recorded medical data sets.  What we do not know – what is not actually indicated such data – is the seriousness and harm of the recorded incidents.  The apparent deliberate manipulation of data therefore means we should treat such claims of evidence with considerable caution – as indeed should the UK ‘Justice Secretary’.  Further, drug testing has been a tried and tested failure in terms of measuring or deterring substance usage in prisons for more than 20 years.  More rigorous testing will not solve the problem of Spice or any other ‘drug’ in prison: substance usage is systematically generated by the pain, isolation and difficulties in building and sustaining relationships in prisons.  Drug testing does not change this.  Nor does it alter the wasting of life, boredom and loneliness of the prison place.  But what about the increases in prison officer numbers? Truss in her speech makes a commitment to employ 400 new prison officers.  Yet what this fails to take into account is the recent decline in prison officer numbers in the Prison Service of England and Wales and the deep underlying structural problems confronting prisons.  More prison staff will not address the daily inhumanities, harms and degradations characterising prison life.   Further, the introduction of the 400 new staff is only a remedial measure to address the most obvious problems associated with the recent staff cuts, for new prison officers will only be employed in “prisons that have seen sharp rises in violence in recent years”.

A Distorted Picture of Violence in Prisons

For Truss, the priorities of reform are on identifying prison officers as victims of prisoner violence and protecting prison officer safety, but there is no mention in her speech of prison officer violence or prisoner safety, or the truly terrible reality that in the last year we have seen the highest rate of self-inflicted deaths in prison ever recorded in England and Wales.  At best, the account of violence by Truss is partial.  At worst, it gives a distorted picture mystifying the true reality of violence in prison. We know that the data of violence against prisoners by prison officers is much more difficult to record than violence perpetrated by prisoners.  This is because of the nature of officer violence (it could involve violence during restraint procedures) and that prisoners may fear repercussions if they report violence by officers. There is also problems regarding whether the prisoners account will be believed by other prison staff charged to investigate such incidents.  That violence against prisoners by prison staff occurs, however, is evidenced in prisoner and prison officer autobiographies as well as other official accounts, both historical and contemporary.  Further, the hidden ‘institutionally-structured violence’ and the harmful outcomes generated by the prison place are also neglected in the speech by Truss.   As of the 29th September 2016 there were 84 Self-Inflicted Deaths [SIDS] in prisons (and 43 awaiting classification).  Sadly this number is only going to rise in the final three months of this year.   A prisoner is recorded as attempting to take their own life every five hours and a prisoner is recorded as self-harming once every 20 minutes.  The seriousness of such events cannot be questioned.

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Liz Truss, Justice Secretary – Source: www.pressandjournal.co.uk, 2016

Wanted: Obedient, Disciplined and Reliable Staff

A further, and quite significant proposal from Truss in her speech is a commitment to employ more prison officers who are from the armed forces.  In her words “Who better to instil the virtues of discipline? Who better to show what you can achieve in life with courage and integrity? [Personnel from our armed forces] will help our prison officers lead the change.”  This policy commitment is revealing for a number of obvious reasons.  When the ‘reformed prisons’ of England and Wales were being introduced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, prison reformers felt that ex-servicemen would be ideal to run prisons, both as governors and prison officers.  The prison reformers wanted obedient, disciplined and reliable staff to replace the old ‘turnkeys’ and prisoners who had ran the prisons and jails in the UK before that time.  The emphasis of ex-service men (and women) as prison officers reflects a particular penal ideology – one not just of reform but also of authoritarianism.     The infamous ideas of ‘hard fare, hard bed and hard labour’ that underscored the Victorian prison regimes overseen by Sir Edmund Du Cane were built on such punitive assumptions.  Questioned in terms of efficacy and morality, the implementation of Du Cane’s harsh regimes were often associated with ex-servicemen prison officers.  Whilst this proved largely mythical – prison officers have never been exclusively from the army, air-force or navy and so on – it led the Gladstone Report of 1895, which itself arose due to public outrage against the Du Cane regime, to undertake a detailed survey of the number of ex-service men in the prison system in the 1890s.  The call by Truss for greater discipline clearly indicates a vision of more punitive times to come.  Truss also blatantly disregards the fact that currently there are a large number of ex-servicemen prisoners.  The disastrous failure of current policies regarding the care and re-entry of ex-service personnel into society will not be addressed by increasing their employment as prison officers.

The Human Costs of Prisons

Truss also leads us to consider the  ‘the human costs of prisons’ beyond merely those of prison staff, but her focus here is primarily in terms of victims of ‘crime’.  Yes, there is some recognition in the talk that prisoners have problems.  Contradicting her point on meritocracy, she shows awareness that prisoners are some of the most “damaged” people in society.  Truss notes problems around literacy, mental health and sexually-violent victimisation.  But her concern is not with prisoners because we as a society fail to meet their needs before, during or after prison. Instead of prisoners squandering their time in prison Truss would rather have them undertaking “purposeful activity” in an endeavour reduce recidivism rates.  The key beliefs of her position though are crystal clear – prisoners should be made better people in prison in the interests of law abiding others.  Prison reforms are for those on the outside rather than those we house behind the prison walls.

Truss talks of her “optimism” and the need to join her as a “champions of change”, whilst at the same time recognising that most ex-prisoners re-offend, more than half within one year of release.   Her assumption is that prisons are places of potential reform if managed correctly.  The grand solution, as discussed above, is to give prison governors and prison officers more powers and to spend £1.3 billion to “sweep away our decaying Victorian jails and putting in place new modern prisons”.  What is missing though is any reflection on two important factors driving this change.  First, a number of the Victorian prisons are built on land which is highly attractive to property investment.  Either through pulling down the prisons or transforming the existing buildings into gated communities for exclusive accommodation, the selling off of such Victorian prisons could generate sizeable capital.  Second the proposed new prisons are to be ‘supersized’.  Such large new prisons, housing between 1,000 – 2,000 prisoners, are cheaper to run, are less staff intensive and could swell the volume of private prisons in the UK.  Such reforms are evidence of placing profits over people and looking to solve social problems through penal confinement.  What Truss misses is that prisons always have been places of harm and dehabilitation rather than safety and reform.

Throughout her talk – which actually offers little new – there is no mention of the vast evidence from 200 and more years that ‘reformed prisons’ have never achieved the goals that she aspires to.  The vision presented by Liz Truss is one of discipline and policies which only exacerbate despair. It is one which must be challenged.

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/