Why penal reductionism must be at the centre of prison reform 

Once you are in it is difficult to get out.

It is well established that prisons do not reduce re-offending. For individuals released from custody in 2014-15 (the last year where detailed statistics were published by the Scottish Government) 60% of those serving a sentence of less than three months were reconvicted. While reconviction rates for longer sentences are lower, almost a quarter of those serving between 2 and 4 years were reconvicted (Scottish Government 2017). So what effect does the prison have?

The prison of course makes a massive impact on individuals, families, communities and society. Counter to current prison policy, we suggest that it is crucial to examine the effect of prison itself, rather than continuing to pathologise those within it as “bad” or “anti-social”, constantly positioning the prison as a site where these people can be repaired and from which good can flow. Indeed, there is strong evidence that criminal justice system contact can be criminogenic, with young people who are drawn into the justice system less likely to desist than those who engage in the same behaviours, but do not experience an intervention from the criminal justice system (McAra and McVie 2005).

Similarly, in 2008 the Prisons Commission highlighted that even short periods in custody disrupts positive and supportive relationships in the community and, notably, that the physical geography and institutional regimes of prisons discourage independence and personal responsibility, institutionalising (and we would add traumatising) many of the people who are sentenced to this form of punishment. Imprisonment can also create or exacerbate problems relating to housing, child care, employment and discriminatory public attitudes[1].  For instance, a 2016 YouGov survey commissioned by DWP found that that 50% of employers would not consider employing an offender or ex-offender (House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee 2016).  Thus, for many people, imprisonment reinforces barriers to paid work, secure housing and personal and family wellbeing; all of which are factors supportive of desistance.

Progression – a game of snakes and ladders

An issue of particular concern to SPARC is that for those serving long or life sentences it can be incredibly difficult to progress through the system.  Progression is central to how lifers and long termers are managed. Prisoners are meant to incrementally graduate to lower levels of security, ultimately as a means to test and monitor their levels of responsibility and safety, ultimately achieving parole – a process that we have elsewhere likened to a game of snakes and laddersas many prisoners are downgraded and held back. While we know that the average tariff a person on a life sentence serves has almost doubled between 2000-2012 (Howard League Scotland, forthcoming), the number of “lifers” in Scotland who are serving time over their tariff is not routinely made publically available.

Our own advocacy/research work suggests that those who are most likely to experience delayed progression through the system are those who are already the most disadvantaged: those with addictions, poor mental health, difficulty building relationships with officers, those who are less able to advocate for themselves.  Yet, even when people in custody do face these barriers, the availability of places on courses which are required to reduce risk or move on to the next “stage” of their sentence can create considerable delays.

This raises fundamental questions about justice, fairness and what are people in prison being punished for?  We contend that it is unacceptable for people to be held in custody solely for reasons relating to poor mental health, addictions or a lack of resources.

This issue takes on a particular urgency and salience in Scotland because the number of sentences imposed is disproportionality high here. Speaking at the Howard League Scotland in March 2018, Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit noted that the number of people serving life sentences has steadily risen over the last 15 years, with “lifers” accounting for 19% of the prison population.  The comparable figure across European countries is 3%, with lifers accounting for 0.9% of the prison population in France and 6% in Turkey. Indeed, Scotland has more than double the number of lifers than France (1,083 vs 489).  Together, the UK and Turkey have more lifers than the rest of Europe combined, including Russia[2].

This is troubling for a country which, ten years ago, sought to position itself as in line with the apparently more progressive approach of the Nordic/Scandinavian jurisdictions. Professor Van Zyl Smit concluded that this raises questions about how Scotland responds to serious crimes and the utility of mandatory life sentences. These must be used only in circumstances where no other sentence will do, as the effects of being of life licence retain a person permanently within the criminal justice system, undermining their ability to return to “full” citizenship.

Within a custodial environment instruments of care become tools of punishment 

The Prisons Commission was also critical of what it termed Scotland’s “warehousing problem”, or the unnecessary use of prison to hold people suffering from trauma, abuse, victimisation, addictions and poor mental health.

We would agree that this is an unnecessary and unproductive use of custody which must be curtailed. However, we also want to build on this point to suggest that very often when a “care” or personal development need is identified in prison, the response is framed in terms of addressing offending behaviours e.g. expressing frustration, distress or anger may lead to a referral to anger management course; or a desire for more contact with children may lead to a parenting course.

This is problematic because it has the effect of re-framing what are often structural problems such as poverty, or genuine health needs such as mental illness, as personal choices and failings (Kendall 2002); which can in turn warrant an additional criminal justice response.  This is perhaps seen most clearly in the response to addictions.  While we would argue this should be seen as a health issue, not least because the prison environment can exacerbate or shape drug use in particularly harmful ways[3]failing to manage or overcome an addiction can delay progress towards release, effectively imposing additional punishment on those with addictions.

Prison harms 

Finally, and most importantly, our reliance on prison must be reduced because prison harms.

Reviews of research suggest that time in prison is itself damaging to cognitive function (Meijers et al 2015). Research on Scotland by Prof Lesley Graham has further established that those who are in prison have higher mortality rates, of two to more nearly six times higher, than those in the general population, even when controlling for social deprivation. Such work establishes, unsurprisingly, that confinement of human beings is deeply damaging, and this damage should be carefully considered.

This is reflected in the higher than average rates of drug and alcohol use and poor mental health identified by the Prisons Commission.  While detailed data on the prevalence of mental health problems in Scottish prisons has been argued to be lacking, research suggests that mental health is one of the most important health issues in prisons, with the majority of prisoners having at least one mental health problem[i](Gillies, Knifton and Dougall 2012). While areas of good practice have been identified, mental health services in prisons have been argued to be under-resourced, leading to significant unmet need[4](ibid).

Mental health problems can be fatal.  When we look back to deaths in custody in 2013, which is the first year in which at least some of the families in question are not still awaiting the outcome of a fatal accident inquiry, seven men committed suicide and a further two died in an “Event of Undetermined Intent/Overdose”.  The deaths of these men equate to over a third of fatalities in custody in that year.

Finally, prison also harms families and communities. Supporting a person in custody requires a considerable investment of time, money and emotional labour from families. Concerning, it can also create or exacerbate poor relationships between families and the criminal justice system, undermining both feelings of citizenship and penal legitimacy (Jardine, forthcoming).

When we recognise this harm, we are compelled to scrutinise even the best intentioned use of imprisonment. The best way to reduce these harms is to reduce our reliance on this damaging form of punishment.

This post is based on SPARC’s presentation at the 10thAnniversary of the Scottish Prisons Commission 

References 

Gillies, M., Knifton, L. & Dougall, R. (2013) Prison Health in NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde: A health needs assessment. Glasgow: NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Accessible here: https://strathprints.strath.ac.uk/42745/1/FINAL_PRISON_HNA_REPORT_2012.pdf

Graham, L. (2012) Justice Committee, Transfer of prison healthcare to the NHS Written, submission from Dr Lesley Graham: http://www.parliament.scot/S4_JusticeCommittee/Inquiries/Dr_Lesley_Graham.pdf

House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (2016) Support for ex-offenders: Fifth Report of Session 2016–17, London: House of Commons. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmworpen/58/58.pdf

Jardine, C. (In press) “Eroding legitimacy? The impact of imprisonment on relationships between families, communities and the criminal justice system”, in Condry, R. and Scharff-Smith, P (eds.) Prisons, Punishment and the Family: Towards a New Sociology of Punishment, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kendall, K (2002) ‘Time to think again about cognitive behavioural programmes’ in Women and Punishment: The Struggle for Justice, Carlen, P (ed), Willan: Devon

McAra, L., & McVie, S. (2005). The Usual Suspects? Street-life, Young People and the Police. Criminal Justice5(1), 5-36. DOI: 10.1177/1466802505050977

Meijers J, Harte JM, Jonker FA and Meynen G (2015). Prison brain? Executive dysfunction in prisoners. Front. Psychol. 6:43. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00043

Scottish Government (2017) Reconviction Rates in Scotland: 2014-15 Offender Cohort Edinburgh, Scottish Government.  Accessible here: http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0051/00517255.pdf

Van Zyl Smit, D. (2018) Life imprisonment: an appropriate ultimate penalty in Scotland?, Lecture hosted by Howard League Scotland, 12 March 2018.

Endnotes

[1]There is a large body or research evidencing the harm and damage caused by imprisonment.  See, for example, Kendall (2002);

[2]http://www.heraldscotland.com/NEWS/16079679.Scotland_told_to_scrap_automatic_life_sentences_for_murderers/

[3]For instance, a desire to avoid detection in MDT’s can encourage the use of more addictive substances or legal highs

[i]The authors note “The most comprehensive and robust data on the prevalence of psychiatric disorder in the prison population in the UK are from a 1998 Office of National Statistics study of 1,250 men and 187 women aged 16 – 64 years imprisoned in England and Wales (Table 3) [29]. The prevalence of mental disorder in the prison population was high; over 90% of prisoners had one or more psychiatric disorder (psychosis, neurosis, personality disorder, drug or alcohol dependence). Dual diagnoses were extremely common; 80% of prisoners had two or more psychiatric disorders (most commonly a major psychiatric illness and substance misuse) and 12 – 15% of prisoners had 4 or 5 co-existing disorders.” (Gillies, Knifton and Dougall 2012: 59)

Inequality, Security and Punitivity in Institutions: Academia on Strike

University academic staff in the UK (61 out of around 130 total in the UK) have been on strike for over 14 days now,  and many of us in SPARC have been directly participating in the industrial action joining the pickets, cancelling classes and otherwise directly intervening in the dispute.

The immediate issue at stake is pensions. After killing off a final salary scheme several years ago, university employers now are seeking to undermine the very scheme they came up with to replace it – a pension with a defined benefit – as well as reduce the amount they pay into pensions. Staff affected would lose any guarantee of a minimum retirement payment and instead be exposed to the full force of market winds, possibly getting out of the pot less than they put into it, and losing the security of a liveable income in retirement after decades of service.

Those concerned about prisons and prisoners – the core audience of SPARC activities – may wonder why they should care about academics’ retirement packages.

Here’s why:

MARKETISATION: While the pensions dispute has been the catalyst for the strike, many of the conversations on picket lines have been about how to fundamentally transform universities and resist the growing marketisation of higher education. When we talk about the value of education, those discussions have become less interested in how university shapes our critical faculties, develops our ethics, engages our interests and builds our confidence. Just like the criminal justice system across the UK, the university has been reduced to its economic and market value. Staff and students from across departments, faculties and career-stages – including lectures, professional services staff, graduate teaching assistants, and librarians – have come together to question the growing rhetoric of students as “consumers” of educational “products” which are delivered for profit.  Questions have been asked about the way in which universities as institutions are structured and organised, and implications this has for the dignity, wellbeing and mental health of their employees.

INEQUALITY: These developments have created a system of inequality within universities – ironically one of the main institutions meant to be interrogating, exposing and reducing inequality in wider society. The pain of the neoliberal university has not been felt equally across the academia, however. A great divide has opened up between those at the top and those at the bottom. Principal and Chancellor salaries are now averaging £300,000 and senior professors are now bypassing normal pay rise and promotion processes to secure £100,000+ salaries. Against this, the staff who carry out the bulk of teaching and its smooth running – PhD students and administrators – are paid a fraction of this, without guarantee of long-term job security or progression.  Increasingly, people in the university work in precarious positions, and zero-hour contracts, this means many of the most valuable staff are treated as a disposable workforce. If it is not challenged, this precarity will serve as a barrier preventing individuals without other sources of financial security from pursuing an academic career.  Our teachers and researchers will become less diverse, not only limiting social mobility, but also the vibrancy of our scholarship. Additionally, other employers are taking note. If the universities are successful at dismantling the conditions of our pensions, then we believe other pension schemes are likely to be targeted. But other union members are also taking note and can be encouraged to fight back if we secure a good deal.

ACCESS TO EDUCATION: To meet the new market demands universities are receiving new architectural makeovers in the hopes they become more attractive to the more privileged and fee-paying students. Universities in the UK have embarked on the largest transformation of campuses and overseas recruitment in half a century – which is supported by the best case scenarios of borrowing and return on investment to finance construction and international expansion. The pensions dispute, however, is the result of a worst case scenario risk assessment of the market in which pensions are invested. In the race to produce shiny modern campuses comprising ‘hubs’ that will attract the best local and international students, universities have less funding and resources to develop pathways to education for those locally who have long been excluded from this essential part of transforming social mobility and life chances. The university is becoming more like the prison as an institution that reproduces and entrenches, rather than challenges, any existing vulnerabilities. This dispute is therefore also a powerful stand against the erosion of universities’ commitment to improve and welcome the communities surrounding them.

SOCIAL MOVEMENT LEARNING – This industrial action has had one of the highest levels of support and participation in a generation. The strike has involved an unprecedented numbers of days of action in which thousands of staff, including lecturers, professional services, graduate teaching assistants, and librarians, across the UK are coming back day after day to the picket lines. Staff have united in creating a painful, but felt to be necessary, disruption to university life. And while they are significantly affected, students from all backgrounds and programmes have been joining in to support the action, recognising that the fight against precarity and poor working conditions is their fight, too, no matter their career path. University annual and technical staff have been honking their horns in support while barred from sympathy striking. This solidarity, across disciplines, universities, pay grades, and role in the university has not only created an energising sense on the ground of a united community but demonstrated the power of collective action, which SPARC seeks to emulate and learn from. The sustained commitment to action forced the employers group back to the negotiating table and led to university managers at some of the most influential institutions to back off the pension proposals to support their own staff and the strike demands. Direct, coordinated action works and can inspire social change in other sectors. What we can learn from this is that penal reform will be at its strongest and most successful when there is a coalition of support seeking to change the criminal justice system.

RESEARCH IS ACTIVISM: The premise of the pensions fight is the familiar refrain of a ‘pensions black hole’. In this dispute, however, we have economists, mathematicians, lawyers, statisticians, philosophers and accountancy academics questioning the assumptions and figures used to devise this black hole. These informed and expert questions have challenged the methodology and the findings of a pensions shortfall. These informed questions and critiques show how research is a powerful tool of political action and change. High quality research is essential to activism, a core point in the SPARC manifesto.  New connections and solidarities are being formed amongst staff who have never previously met, despite often working at the same university for years.  These debates are also continuing online, where academics have been able to share research evidence that challenges many of the fundamental assumptions underpinning the pensions dispute.  Research, activism and campaigning materials are being co-created online and on the picket.

SOCIAL JUSTICE ACROSS INSTITUTIONS: Ostensibly, the strike is about pensions, but there are more fundamental issues involved that are symptomatic of growing social injustice across Britain. By taking and supporting strike action we recognise that lives are at stake. For those inside and outside the university, opportunities are being truncated, mental health is degrading, possibility is disappearing, and equality is being eradicated. These injustices are happening in the university, but also within the prison. In this moment we can begin to see the pervasive impact of neoliberal world we find ourselves in.

These strikes have been challenging: we value our students and our research.  For many, taking strike action has been a (financially painful) last resort. The strikes have shown that there is power in collectivism – when we come together we can gain ground that we might never have thought possible, and begin conversations about issues which had previously been sidelined or ignored. It is clear that these are important messages for penal reformers. Transformation is achievable if we can also see that penal reformers and university strikers share the same problems, endure the same impediments and seek the same goals with each other as well as many other sectors of society. Supporting social justice through positive institutional transformation is central to SPARC’s aims, as is our belief that education, collective action, and research is a powerful force for personal and social change. These actions can empower us all to challenge dominant or previously unquestioned assumptions or discourses. It is these same arguments that are being made everyday on the picket lines. It is clear that these are equally important messages for penal reformers. Seeing the connections between penal reform and the strike we can gain the collective power necessary to build a social movement intent on achieving equality and justice.  We continue to strike about the university pensions, but we do so knowing that we stand firmly against the political causes of social injustice across the UK today.

Ross Kemp Behind Bars: Hiding from the hard questions in Barlinnie

Last week we saw actor and documentary maker Ross Kemp spend time in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison, in an attempt to address a question which has long troubled academics, policy makers, and those sentenced to custody: what are prisons for?

That Kemp and his documentary team selected Barlinnie to explore this question seems very much to have been a deliberate choice, taken to capture the viewer’s attention through multiple references to Barlinnie’s “dark history” and “stone walls”.   However, while Barlinnie’s age, scale, and history may make for a striking setting for a television documentary, they are somewhat atypical of modern prisons in Scotland.  As a recent inspection report of Barlinnie notes, while the vast majority of men in Barlinnie are accommodated traditional, “imposing” Victorian halls, this reflects Barlinnie’s place as one of Scotland’s oldest and largest prisons.

This focus on traditional, or even clichéd, symbols and stories of prison life persist throughout the hour that we spend with Kemp in Barlinnie.  The only workplace we see within the prison is the kitchen, where the emphasis is placed on the need to manage any risk of violence rather than the work being done.  Kemp suggests that “potential weapons” abound in the prison kitchen, noting the potential harm that can be caused by knives, boiling water, and even soup.  The residential hall where we spend the most time is E Hall, where men who require protection from the remainder of the prison population due to the nature of their offence, serve their sentence.

We also explore the prison exercise yard, where interviewees attest to the dangerous nature of the prison environment, before being shown an array of weapons and mobile phones which have been confiscated by officers.  This then seems to serve as justification for showing viewers a detailed cell-search, including a strip-search of the individual under suspicion.  While his identity is concealed, there is no reflection on the invasive nature of broadcasting this element of the prison regime for public consumption, nor any consideration of how this person might feel as a consequence.  The only glimpse we see of the individual as a person, rather than a faceless prisoner, is when the officer thoroughly searches a pile of immaculately kept letters, presumably from his family.

There are intriguing moments where some of the more complex issues facing those living and working in prisons are alluded to.  For instance, the difficulties of sentence progression for those serving indeterminate sentences are highlighted in the account of one man who remains in Barlinnie six years past the “punishment part” of his sentence, as a consequence of a heroin addiction he developed to cope with the prison environment.  When Kemp asks if he has been rehabilitated, he responds that he is not sure if it is growing older or rehabilitative programs that have led him to change, but in any case this doesn’t matter while it is his addiction, rather than his offending which is keeping him in custody.  This raises questions relating not only to the progression process for life sentences, but also whether addictions can or should be addressed within the criminal justice system.

The prison officers interviewed by Kemp also provide a more sophisticated account of life in Barlinnie.  From the officer working with protection prisoners who emphasises the need to see the whole person and not just their offence, to the officer running the gym who highlights the critical importance of relationships in creating a well-run prison, these officers provide insights which would have made a more challenging and engaging documentary than the continuing emphasis placed on violence and offending by Kemp and his team.  However, it is not only their accounts which are neglected.  We also do not see the library, the education centre, the prison radio station, the visiting room or any other space which might allow for a more rounded view of the lives of the men serving their sentences in Barlinnie.

These choices of the production team to limit what the audience see of Barlinnie are important.  Sociologists who study prisons frequently highlight that these are places where individuals are denied full adulthood, in that they are not trusted to choose when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, when to use the phone, where they would like to work or what possessions they may have.  The limited view of Barlinnie presented by Kemp reflects this process of infantalisation, but here it is not the prisoners who are not afforded full trust or maturity, rather it is the audience themselves.  This emphasis this documentary places on common tropes of imprisonment, such as drugs, violence, beasts, “banking”, fear, and cell-searches undermines attempts to meaningfully interrogate questions such as “what are prisons for” and “do they work”.

Kemp concludes the hour by posing what is perhaps the most interesting question documentary: are we as a society doing everything we can to support those who want to change their lives?  This inevitably requires acknowledging our shared humanity and recognising the whole person, not simply seeing them as a “prisoner” or an “offender”.  This documentary may have set out to ask hard questions about our prisons, but by not trusting the audience to understand the complex nature of both the prison and lives of those within it, it instead presents a simple narrative which is unlikely to open up a constructive debate around these questions.

SPARC Response to Parole Reform Consultation

The Scottish Government ran a consultation in Sept/Oct 2017 on reform of parole. Download SPARC’s response. Among other points, it draws attention to the drastically declining rate of parole release and the increasing rate of parole recalls in Scotland. Did you know that in 1994 nearly one-third of lifers considered for parole received it, but by 2015-16 barely more than 1 in 10 did? Or that the rate of recalling people from parole increased 800% between 1997-98 and 2013-14? Parole is working to keep people in prison for longer and longer periods, in the absence of evidence that prisoners today are worse than those in the past. Instead a system meant to support people’s release to allow for community and family reintegration is doing the opposite. Is a risk paradigm making us safer or encouraging over confinement?

Declining Chances of Parole: Parole Release Recommendations by Sentence Type
The table below shows how sharply use of parole has declined over the past two decades. In 1993/94 prisoners on determinate sentences had a better than 50% chance of earning parole; by 2015/16, they had barely more than a 25% chance. This data comes fromthe Parole Board for Scotland’s own annual reports.

1994200320102015-16
Determinate Sentence
  considered for parole692766483480
  release recommended368345124125
  release rate53%45%26%26%
Life Sentence
  considered for parole119212263366
  release recommended34554844
  release rate29%26%18%12%

Parole Recalls as a Percentage of Total Parole Caseload 2005/6 to 2013/14 [TABLE CORRECTION – written parole response missed out a line of data]: The two tables below combine statistics from Criminal Justice Social Work and Prison Populations to compare the reported parole caseload in a year with the number of people recalled from parole to prison in the same year (receptions). The data should be read very cautiously, and this offers only a rough guide, as receptions are a proxy but not a perfect guide to numbers of people entering prison (one person may be received multiple times in a year) and reporting periods between agencies differ slightly. However, it is remarkable in itself to note the general trend showing that in the mid-2000s the number of parole recalls amounted to less than one-third of the total parole population in the community, but by 2013/14, parole recalls amounted to half of the total parole caseload. ADP means the average daily population of people in prison, and this shows that by 2013/14, the number of people in prison for a parole recall was equivalent to three-quarters of the total caseload of parolees in the community.

2005/062006/072007/082008/09
CJSW  Parole Caseload1325119211031047
Parole Recalls ADP397515611600
Parole Recalls Receptions347467412421
Recalls as % Caseload (Receptions)26%39%37%40%
Recalls as % Caseload (ADP)30%43%55%57%
2009/102010/112011/122012/132013/14
CJSW  Parole Caseload984875917921949
Parole Recalls ADP622682702713693
Parole Recalls Receptions440520491453472
Recalls as % Caseload (Receptions)45%59%54%49%50%
Recalls as % Caseload (ADP)63%78%77%77%73%

Rising Parole Recall

In the 1990s parole recall hardly existed. Latest figures show huge increases in the number of people recalled to prison and the number of people in prison for parole recall. This data comes from official prison statistics for Scotland; 2013-14 is the latest available year.

Parole Recall in Scotland picture