Crime and punishment have always been bedfellows. But what if many of the assumptions that we make around the justification of that punishment are simply false?
Joining us to discuss the current state of the British prison system and what can be done to improve it, former prison monitor and criminologist Faith Spear and Dr David Scott, senior lecturer in criminology at the Open University.
Prisons have been described as many things from the cathedrals of pain, to the warehouse for the vulnerable. But after decades of failure, how do we rethink the simplistic crime and punishment narrative and begin to solve our prisons dilemmas if re-offending rates are so incredibly high in the UK? Surely something terribly wrong with prison rehabilitation without proper rehabilitation. This vicious cycle that we all pay for continues. This poses a fundamental question about how we as a society view the role of prisons and the people who run them.
Rehabilitation a myth
“In every prison there is a monitoring board”, Faith Spear tells Renegade Inc. “They’re all volunteers, and then there’s a chairman that leads it. Their size varies depending on the size of the prison. Their role is to go in and be the eyes and the ears for the secretary of state. We would write a report every week for the governor of the prison and once a year an annual report would go to a secretary of state for justice. Whether he or she would read it, that is another matter.”
With regards to the state of the British prison system, Spear has visited every category of prisons including women’s prisons and also youth estates.
“They’re in a pretty bad state, really,” she says. “There’s a lot of apathy. There’s not a lot of hope. The actual structure of a lot of the prisons aren’t very good. There’s a lot of rubbish. I’ve seen rats, I’ve seen piles of rubbish, I’ve seen all sorts.
The prison Spear monitored was an open prison, with a main road that ran through it. The main block was located on the one side and workshops on the other. This meant lots of things could be dropped off without people knowing.
“What you see in the news about drones dropping in drugs and mobile phones, well you don’t need drones down there,” Spear says.
“They can just be dropped by the next train. Someone could just pick it up. There’s a lot of things like that go on in prisons.
“But I was able to spend a lot of time with the prisoners, with members of staff and governors. I had that authority. I could pick up my key and go wherever I wanted, and I didn’t have to actually tell anyone where I was going. I always arrived unannounced and got in.”
Apart from at night. The governor is meant to know if monitors enter the prisons at night, perhaps because there are things occurring in the dark he or she would prefer the monitors not know about.
“If you’re a monitor, you should be able to go in 24/7,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to get permission from the governor. That’s not his remit to say where they can go in or not.”
The criminologist says prison staff levels have been so reduced, it is impossible for them to know what is going on in the prisons.
“You’ll find that one member might have a whole wing to look after,” she says. “It could be up to say 60 or 70 prisoners, to just one staff member.”
Rehabilitation doesn’t even come into it.
“It’s not possible to rehabilitate prisoners,” she says. “And even with rehabilitation, whatever you throw at them, whatever courses or education that you give them, if they don’t want to change that’s not going to do anything is it?”
Prisons a humanitarian disaster
Dr David Scott tells Renegade Inc. that prisons are a ‘humanitarian disaster’.
“Quite frankly, prisons have never been effective as places of rehabilitation,” he says. “If we go back to the very introduction of the reform prisons which were called ‘penitentiaries’ in the early days, which were introduced around 1810-1820, they were places which created suffering and pain, but very very poor in terms of actually what they were designed to do, which is to rehabilitate.”
The criminologist says that although there are a small number of cases of people who’ve been in prisons in Wales who have been rehabilitated, the norm is that people get sent to prison and actually they get profoundly damaged and traumatised by the experience.
“Because prisons are a place, fundamentally, of suffering,” he says. “Prisons are places which are about loss. They are zones abandonment.
“They are institutions where we place unwanted people, the people we don’t know what to do with.”
And as Faith Spear points out, there’s nothing for prisoners to do. No one knows what to do with them once they’re in prison.
“Often they’re in a in a cell for up to 23 hours,” Spear says. “And if you didn’t already have a mental health issue, I’m sure you would have after spending that kind of time in such a small confined space”.
“Even this morning, I was at the justice select committee listening to the secretary of state for justice who was saying: ‘prisons are not for punishment, going to prison is the punishment’. But I don’t believe them. Because they are punished, once they get into prison.”
The reality of life behind bars: What comes after?
Former inmate, Carl Catermole was sentenced to 26 months in prison in 2011. He spent some of it at HMP Pentonville prison. Since his release, Catermole has become a carpenter, a published author, and a media pundit about prison issues.
“When I got through the gate, the first time away was like an icy cold bucket water over my head,” he tells Renegade Inc.
“They say that they’re going to provide you with all of the support you need, a clean grey tracksuit. They give you this ridiculous print-out filled with all these absolute lies. It is really hard to keep in contact with your friends and your family.”
Catermole says the biggest problem with prisons, is not so much the physical conditions, it’s the mental deterioration.
“You get further and further away from your community, ” he says. “The community which you’re supposed to reintegrate into, then come out become a contributing member to upon release.
“When I went into a supermarket after I got released, I found that I was looking at all the flavours of Pot Noodles and there was so much information: prices, flavours, all these thing you have taken away from you.
“You don’t even have cash behind bars. It almost made me cry being in that supermarket. And that’s pot noodles. What happens when you have a relationship and try to care for someone?
“I was there for a year on a two-and-a-half-year felony. What would happen if you’re inside for 10 years and you’re meant to come out and be a functioning person. It’s a real mountain to climb.”
The myth of deterrence
The central idea of crime and punishment is that you go to prison and the punishment enacted there deters you from going back. But that doesn’t show up in the figures now. So what is really happening?
“You’re not dealing with issues of why people find themselves in prison in the first place,” Spear says. “If they are victims themselves, if you don’t deal with any of those issues, then you go and put them in prison, it’s just going to escalate. Mental health issues are at record levels. In prisons, self harm is at record levels and you think why? Why are you continually putting people into a position like this when you know it’s not going to do any good?”
It seems as though prisons exist to hurt people.
“The idea that we can put somebody into a particular place, that we can actually somehow use that place to either rehabilitate them, incapacitate them, deter them from doing future offending has proved to be a totally void idea,” Dr Scott says.
“We know for a fact that the deterrence argument is a complete and total whitewash, because you can never measure deterrence, because you can’t measure what doesn’t happen.
“There is no empirical evidence at all that deterrence works.”
Deterrence policies also assumes that prisoners are rational people with something to lose.
“When you look at the people that we send to prison, and you look at their impoverished backgrounds, whether they’ve been homeless, or in care or so and so forth, they have nothing to lose, so deterrence doesn’t work on that level,” he says.
Incapacitation doesn’t actually work either. And this, you would think, would be the strongest defence for the prison. But in reality, prisons are simply a displacement of crime in the first instance. Prison also has a ‘capacitating effect’. It can actually increase people’s capacity for criminal behaviour because they learn new skills from the prisoners around them.
“It’s a criminal university,” says Dr Scott. “It’s an institution. What happens when people are released, instead of not offending, they offend at a higher rate to make up for the time that the loss while they’ve been in prison,” he says. “If we are saying that somebody should be dealt with because they have hurt somebody and they’ve harmed somebody, then it is not logical to then argue that the way to deal with that is to inflict harm upon them. Because that’s simply reproducing the harm.
“If you really want to address somebody who’s done wrong, you need to get them in a situation where they can actually rebuild their lives. And we’ve put them in a place where they can go forward and then they would have something to lose.
“Fundamentally, the issue is that we seem to have an attachment to punishment. We seem as a society to assume that punishment is the best answer.
“An abolitionist would argue that fundamentally, punishment and the deliberate infliction of pain and harm should not be the default position, because it is a profound moral question. Because when we are inflicting harm against somebody, it clearly needs to be justified.”
Drug use in prison is often a means for prisoners to anaesthetise themselves against punishment and isolation.
“Very much so,” Spear says. “They’re so bored. There’s no stimulus in prisons. There are pockets in some prisons where they did some excellent work, but generally speaking there’s not a lot going on for them. So it seems like you want to lose yourself and forget about the situation that you’re in, because there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Faith Spear says there is a drug problem in every prison, even the new so-called ‘mega-prison’ in North Wales.
“If there’s a problem in society with drugs, there’s going to be a problem in prison,” she says. “It’s not like you get to the gate and it all changes.”
A good cop, fighting a bad war
A recent episode of Renegade Inc. focused on the war on drugs featuring former policeman, Neil Woods who talked about his experience as a good cop fighting a bad war:
“It didn’t take me very long to realise that the war on drugs just couldn’t work because it doesn’t take very much time investigating drugs to realise that the flow of drugs is never ever interrupted,” he says. “Since drugs were banned they’ve got cheaper, they’ve got stronger and they’ve got more varied, and there is no interruption to it at all.
“I put people in prison for over a thousand years and in any city, I only interrupted the flow of drugs for about two hours.”
Dr David Scott says the criminalisation of drugs is actually something which is likely to increase the actual prison population.
“Just take two examples, the US and Portugal,” he says. “In the United States in the early 1970’s, they had a prison population of around 300,000 people. They then inaugurated the war on drugs, and by the turn of the century there was 2.3 million people in American prisons. And the drugs issue had actually been the fuel of that mass escalation in the prison population.
“You then look at the case in Portugal, which since the turn of the century has looked to decriminalise drug usage, and therefore people are not being sent to prison. In terms of their substance usage, whatever that substance usage may be, there will still be some kind of moral and cultural critique and condemnation of drug usage. But quite frankly, the criminal law was not involved in that. And what you find is not an escalation in drug use. Drug usage actually started to decrease. And America and the United Kingdom could learn a lot by looking at the Portugal model.”
Tune into the rest of the episode above to find out what a 21st century rehabilitation program should look like.