Prison reform legitimises prison

This is an extract from a paper “Gove’s reforms are legitimating the pains of imprisonment” published in 2016 by the Centre for Crime and Justice in 2016. The original article can be read in full here.

Ever since John Howard started visiting prison their inhumanity and ineffectiveness has been self-evident. Faced with a clearly failing institution it is not difficult to see a multitude of possible reforms.  Indeed any history of the modern prison shows that since its emergence approximately two hundred years ago proposals for reform have always been on the agenda.

These reforms start out with high aspirations, sometimes they temporarily improve things, but sooner or later their impact fades and prisons’ failure becomes evident again. When this happens proposals for reform emerge again.

But why has prison reform got such a history of failure?

The crisis, reform, legitimacy, claw back and amnesia cycle

To understand this failure we need to understand two things.  Firstly what is prison for? And, secondly, what is prison reform for?

Ultimately prisons are a mechanism for the infliction of state punishment.  Punishment is ultimately about the infliction of pain. Its very logic demands that it ‘hurts’. If prisons existed as a genuine response to crime or to protect us from harm they would not be filled with the most socially excluded of our society. Those failed by our education system, the mentally ill, children who have been in care, victims of sexual and gendered violence, people with learning difficulties and the homeless are all massively over represented in prisons.

This targeting of the weakest and most socially excluded members of our community is never highlighted by prison reformers. Instead ‘reforms’ are about finding better ways of managing them and helping them ‘desist’ – from crime not social exclusion.

Prison reform is kept marginalised by the penal system unless, like now, it faces a legitimacy crisis. The number of people incarcerated has continued increasing whilst funding has been cut, violence is at record highs and the crisis has become increasingly hard to hide with, for example, emergency services being called out every 20 minutes to one of England and Wales prisons. Something has to be done. 

Reform initiatives normally involve addressing the educational, vocational, health or re-entry needs of prisoners. However, these inclusionary policies undermine prison’s punitive and exclusionary function. Therefore although when faced by a crisis of legitimacy prisons engage with reform, when the crisis passes (thanks in no small part to the contribution of the ‘reforms’) these flowers in the desert find themselves in a hostile environment.

Their inclusionary nature conflicts with the fundamental purpose of prison. As they are no longer required to legitimise prison they are subjected to a process of punitive clawback.

Prison reverts to its natural penal function until, sometime in the future, the inherent violence, or unacceptable levels of deaths or the damaged state of those released precipitates a new crisis of legitimacy. Prison reform will then again be needed and allowed another brief flowering. And so the process continues. The amnesia of reformers allows them to again recycle their initiatives which briefly thrive until, having legitimised the punitive prison again, they can again be discarded.

If not reform, then what?

Prison has failed.  Our priority must be to firstly downsize it and secondly to look outside the criminal justice system for genuine solutions to social problems. By recognising that prison is inherently exclusionary, a violent institution that fails, we can stop trying to make it work and instead focus on far more productive alternatives.

The size of the criminal justice system, as Nils Christie has highlighted, is not determined by levels of ‘crime’ but by political choices. There is no ‘natural’ rate of imprisonment and our first priority should therefore be prison closures and a general downsizing of the criminal justice system. A previous attempt to understand ‘reoffending’ by exprisoners concluded that the main characteristic of the prison population was not criminality but social exclusion.

The prison, as Angela Davis has observed ‘becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.’ Prison, reformed or unreformed, is not the solution to homelessness, mental illness, educational disadvantage or learning difficulties. The real solutions to social problems lie outside the criminal justice system.

If we step back and identify these underlying social problems we soon recognise that effective solutions lie within social justice rather than criminal justice initiatives.  The education disadvantage suffered by those imprisoned – who have often experienced the school to prison pipeline – requires radical changes to our overall education system rather than the provision of more educational opportunities in prison. The epidemic of mental illness requires investment in community services not improved anti-suicide strategies in prisons.

Homelessness, the life experience which is most likely to send someone into the prison system, is an avoidable social ill as initiatives in a number of cities have shown. Inequality, poverty, and other forms of social exclusion are not natural. They are a product of social arrangements and the resources which are poured into criminal justice could be far more effectively redirected to addressing the problems prison seeks to hide away.

Prison reform is ultimately futile because it accepts that the problem is the one defined by the criminal justice system. It perceives the crisis within our prisons as a temporary malfunction. It accepts that those subject to policing, court proceedings and penal sanctions are the legitimate and correct targets of punitive action. It believes criminal justice can solve social problems. It refuses to look elsewhere.

Ultimately it is through social justice solutions that we can transform the underlying conditions that generate the problems that the criminal justice system is failing to disappear.

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