Prisons cannot be places of rehabilitation

This blog was written in 2016 in response to the publication of A matter of conviction: a blueprint for community based rehabilitations prisons by Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). Despite the very specific context the critique of prison reform remains relevant today. The answer to prisons failure is not prison (reformed or not). It was originally published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on their blog here.

There is a growing crisis in Britain’s prisons.

2016 will see a record number of self-inflicted deaths as prisons become increasingly unsafe and violent.

It is in this context that the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) last month published A matter of conviction: a blueprint for community based rehabilitations prisons.

At a time when prison’s crisis is increasingly becoming a crisis of legitimacy, the RSA’s intervention offers a vision of the prison beyond its immediate crisis. As the report boldly states the RSA’s blueprint is about ‘imagining a different future and a new “normal” … in which the future prison would be a safe and secure environment for staff and prisoners’.

Such a vision, at a time of crisis, suggests that the systemic failure, pain, violence and abuse of the prison is both temporary and resolvable.

Prison failure = Prison Reform

Throughout the RSA report, it is the critique of the contemporary prison that is its strongest point. Prison is clearly failing and the evidence for this failure flows through the report.

But how is this evidence of failure utilised? By a belief in the potential of a reformed prison.

For example, the report states that ‘prisons are not healthy places’, before utilising this as evidence to support its aspiration to create ‘the healthier prison’. Underlying this insistence that the answer to prison failure is prison reform is the assumption that those incarcerated need to be in prison.

Prison is a punishment; it is ultimately about the deliberate infliction of pain. The epidemic of self-harm and record levels of self-inflicted deaths being experienced in our prisons is clear evidence that imprisonment is experienced as pain.

For the prison to maintain legitimacy requires that its infliction of pain is seen as necessary and beneficial. Whilst the ideologies of retribution and deterrence routinely contribute to this, they are inadequate at times of crisis. The ideology of rehabilitation tends to be deployed to provide a justification that the pain is being inflicted for the benefit of its recipients.

Alongside many other examples of prison’s failure, the RSA highlights high reoffending rates. This, it argues, represents prison’s failure to rehabilitate. To remedy this failure, it proposes that government ‘create a rehabilitation requirement’ and impose it on prisons.

If only it were that simple! From Fenner Brockway’s observation, in the 1920s, that ‘if reform is to become the principal object, the prison system must be scrapped altogether’, to Frances Crook‘s acknowledgement, in 2016, that ‘the idea that we can create a structure that rehabilitates people is flawed’, reformers have acknowledged that prison cannot rehabilitate.

The report offers no new theory of rehabilitation, or indeed practical proposals for achieving it. Ultimately, all it can offer is a belief in the prison system’s ‘potential impact on reducing reoffending’, together with some isolated examples of current initiatives which suggest rehabilitative benefits.

These examples are generally on a small scale and generously resourced. Flowers do grow in the desert, particularly if well-watered, but that is no reason to believe deserts are appropriate places for the cultivation of flowers.

Prison Reform = Prison Legitimacy

What makes A Matter of Conviction particularly depressing is that the RSA is an influential organisation with access to significant resources. It is in a privileged position that allows it to make a difference. By refusing to look outside the criminal justice system, and committing itself so totally to the institution of the prison, its impact is likely to be harmful.

In his foreword, the RSA Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, talks of the RSA’s ‘commitment to social inclusion’ and the ‘need to address the causes of social problems’. The focus in the report on prisons as the solution, and the refusal to examine who is imprisoned, means this initiative ultimately does exactly the opposite.

Prisons are designed to exclude and stigmatise and are used almost exclusively against the poorest, most marginalised and most socially excluded.

The RSA initiative has two potential impacts. Firstly, it could improve the experience of some serving prisoners. Secondly, it will help legitimise the prison as an institution and its targeting of the socially excluded for state inflicted pain.

The history of prison reform does show that, on occasions, it can have an impact on the daily lives of prisoners. However, despite the humanitarian motivation of reformers, these impacts are not always beneficial. As former prisoners George Dendrickson and Frederick Thomas observed in the middle of the twentieth century,

cruelty and good intentions often go hand in hand. So it is perhaps not very surprising that many of the least tolerable aspects of life in Dartmoor and other English prisons are the result of the godly and humanitarian zeal of past reformers

Progressive reforms tend to be short-term. Despite often being acknowledged as successes they are inevitably subject to punitive clawback.

For nearly all the ‘flowers in the desert’ cited in the RSA report I could cite similar initiatives from the nineteenth century. The only reforms which were sustained were those that added to prisons’ punitive armoury. Solitary confinement may have been introduced by reformers keen to save the prisoner’s soul in the next life, but it was retained by gaolers who appreciated its capacity to inflict pain on their mind and body in this life.

Look beyond prison

It is the success of reforms in re-establishing the legitimacy of prison that explains their failure to be sustained. As the crisis abates, the reforms are no longer needed and however brightly they may have flowered they are left to die, only to be ‘discovered’ by a new generation of reformers when imprisonment faces another crisis of legitimacy. The crisis, reform, legitimacy, claw back and amnesia cycle continues.

If the RSA could have the imagination to look beyond prison and focus instead on how the community can contribute to the lives of ex-prisoners, it would have the opportunity of creating a lasting legacy.

It is not prison that we should be seeking to legitimise but social inclusion and solutions to the causes of social problems. These can be found only outside the criminal justice system. That is where we should be focusing.

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