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.

Snakes & Ladders: Regressive effects of sentence progression

snakesandladdersSPARC participated in the Edinburgh Conference on Reducing the Use of Imprisonment (Surgeons Hall, 8-9 June 2017), presenting a paper exploring divergent experiences of prisoners serving life sentences. Through ‘sentence progression’, prisoners are meant to transition to lower levels of security, testing their levels of responsibility and safety, ultimately achieving parole. However, while some prisoners obtain parole ‘on time’ (serving no more nor less time in prison than the minimum they were sentenced to do by a court), others are held back in prison sometimes for years, or even decades. Personal and research evidence suggests there are a range of reasons for this, and we argue that amongst these, administrative delays and non-criminal conduct, rather than criminal or dangerous conduct of the prisoner, often are to blame. Hence, the process of ‘progressing’ through a sentence may in fact have a regressive effect on prisoner’s lives. We argue that three prevailing logics of punishment – risk, rehabilitation and institutional order – obscure  unpredictable and sometimes excessive journeys through prison.

Snakes and Ladders web version (MS Word)

Snakes and Ladders PPT (Powerpoint)

What society needs to learn from people with convictions

Clinks, an organisation that supports voluntary organisations working with ‘offenders’ and their families issued a call for responses to this question: “What do offenders, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn?”. It will publish responses sometime in 2017. SPARC has submitted a response as follows…

We are not children who “need to learn”.

The question that is put out for response – “What do offenders, prisoners and ex-offenders need to learn?” – insinuates that as a group there are things we ‘need’ to be taught. Not only is this framing of inquiry slightly offensive, it has authoritarian and paternalistic overtones that keep us in our place at the bottom of society where we need constant interventions into our lives. The invitation to hear from those with first-hand experience as ‘prisoners and ex-offenders’ is welcome, but risks itself becoming a means of re-drawing a line between an ‘us’ and ‘them’. Even well-intentioned efforts to help others can be a way of othering and demonising, rather than humanising people. There is a long-standing tradition in penal practice, research and reform of infantilising and denying the agency of those involved in criminal justice. We have re-framed the question to support our position that user voices should not be used just to gain information (to support development of services or better rates of rehabilitation) but should help shape the very debate over reform itself and what the problems of punishment are.

What society would benefit from considering is what people in the system themselves want to move their lives forward. The majority of us feel that support, understanding and guidance would serve both people with convictions and the tax paying public better, in the place of constant interventions delivered from above. Too many services are organised around one size fits all diagnosis of what people need. By ignoring the individual realities of a person’s situation, and their own ideas about the kind of support they need, means that any help becomes prescriptive and reinforces the idea that people are not capable of taking control of their own lives in positive ways.

What we have found has helped us the most both in prison and on our journey out, is the help and understanding on a personal level from those who treated us as people, and as adults, no different from themselves – with strengths, flaws, goals and vulnerabilities. Meaningful, genuine encounters – 15 minutes with a member of staff listening and hearing you – has had a more real, positive and powerful impact than ‘offender change’ programmes, which officially document our rehabilitation.

Prisons and contact with the criminal justice system is inherently damaging.

Prisons are inherently damaging places to be, both for the people locked in them as well as the family they leave behind. Ideas of prisons as holiday camps has taken hold in the media and in public imagination whilst the idea of a loss of freedom remains too abstract. It’s not what we’re given in prison that should be the focus of concern, but the fact that these things – whether tellys or Xboxes or DVDs – do not compensate for what is taken away. Taken away from family and friends, from our lives on the outside, but also taken away from a sense of normality and autonomy and placed in an institution where just about every dynamic is about control and disempowerment. These losses de-skill and dehumanise us, yet these skills and this sense of self-efficacy are the main sources we need for support on release. That is, ‘reintegration’ support is needed because of the effects of prison itself, and criminal justice, on people. Too often, reintegration is treated as a reflection of an individual’s deficits, as if committing an offence demonstrates complete incapacity in all areas – to maintain family relationships, housing, a job.

The public read about a prison that we have never experienced – where life is like a holiday camp and you get to do whatever you want. Not only do the tabloid media get it wrong, for their own reasons, but prison services often mislead about how ‘normal’ life on the inside is.

Prisons are not filled with the country’s most dangerous criminals.

Whilst imprisonment is admittedly necessary in any civilised society in order to lock up those who have committed the most damaging, serious forms of harm – it has turned out to be a dumping ground for those of us society has failed. It has become a waste management solution where the lowest of the low in society can be dumped, rather than dealing with wider social problems of poor quality jobs, inadequate housing, and lack of mental health support. Crime is at an all-time low, yet our prisons are still overcrowded – with one in three males accruing a criminal conviction in Scotland and one in four in England and Wales. How can this be? Society needs to consider its culpability in the failure of so many of its citizens, and appreciate that prison could, and does, happen to anyone – we are more alike than we are different.

We have a civic future if prisons and society allows us the time, space and capacity to do work towards it.

Research on education and democracy shows that by helping someone build their educational attainment they are more inclined to take part in valued aspects of community activities. Participating in society this way is clearly a factor in reducing offending, but reduced reoffending, we believe, should not be the main aim of education, or of education in prison. Education is a prerequisite of robust democratic societies; reduced reoffending is the happy by-product of this. Civic participation increases as levels of education increases – especially liberal arts forms of learning, which encourage freethinking, creativity, empathy and curiosity. Societies and prisons need to learn that we are not all in need of basic literacy and numeracy courses, or employability skills courses (which lead neither to qualifications or actual jobs). And society needs to learn that prisons often use opportunities like education (as well as family visits) as a carrot and stick to ensure disciplinary compliance in prison. Personally we have heard people complain about prisoners getting an education amongst other things, even people close to us that qualify their comments with – but you’re different because you’re doing so well.

The attitude of politicians towards people with convictions gaining any kind of civic identity can be illustrated by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments regarding prisoner voting, the very thought of which apparently made him ‘physically sick’. Never mind that the UK has been in violation of European rulings since 2005 for its blanket ban on prisoner voting. This sends a clear message that people with convictions are not welcome as full citizens – despite the rhetoric about rehabilitation. We also reject the idea that we are not citizens when we enter prison, and that prison can act as a ‘citizen recovery’ service, as it has been touted by the current head of Scottish prisons. We do not lose our status as human beings, adults and citizens by having convictions.

How academia, the media and the public interact with people with convictions matter.

Questions like the one posed for this paper show how even third sector and academic attitudes towards people with convictions are entrenched with negative assumptions. These assumptions are based on the belief that people with convictions are all stupid individuals who are one intervention away from being taught that our way of living is wrong and we can be saved from a life of crime. We reject such infantilising and patronising thinking, which sadly is embedded in much of what we have read about desistance models. The media continue to run stories about the ned – the chav, the neet – who is forever causing trouble wherever he goes due to his low level of intelligence and lack of respect for society. This is eaten up by the public who according to the media are outraged at the luxury we live in when in prison and the opportunities we are given. Society needs to learn that some of us have caused the worst possible harm to others and to society, and having been through this, we are now seeking meaningful ways to re-join and contribute to our communities. We cannot do this when we are disempowered, pitied, de-skilled, de-humanised and told by others what it is we need to learn.

Health Inequalities in Scottish Prisons

SPARC recently responded to the Health and Sport Committee’s call for responses to contribute to their current inquiry into healthcare provision in Scotland.

  1. What do you consider are the current pressures on health and social care provision in prisons?
  2. How well do you consider that these pressures have been responded to?

In general, the move from SPS healthcare provision to the NHS has been a positive development as it moves Scotland towards a vision of the person imprisoned as a full and equal member of Scottish society, with the same rights to care as anyone else. However, evidence to date suggests that in practice this commitment has not been realised. Here we refer to the Royal College of Nursing Scotland’s comprehensive review of this transfer Five Years On (2016). We are sure the Committee is fully aware of this report but we wish to be added to the voices of those seeking for its powerful findings to be taken into account. We find its method and approach robust in flagging up key issues in provision of health and social care for those in prison.

The key pressures this report identifies, and which is consistent with our own experiences and awareness of the research relate to:

  • An inability to adopt a prevention focus due to extensive staff time devoted to medication management of those in prison;
  • Lack of continuity in care before, during, and following a prison sentence impacting on the cost effectiveness and efficiency of health care delivery in prison;
  • Relatedly, this finding suggests more than coordination issues between SPS and NHS staff but a more fundamental need to understand and address possible organisational culture differences between health and punishment sectors – from experience we have seen ‘prison security’ and prison personnel staffing issues affect medical delivery (for example, the timings of medication rounds is a direct function of prison and NHS staff shift times and prisoners may receive an evening dose at 4 in the afternoon on weekends, when prison staff levels means after this many are locked in cells). In addition, NHS staff should never, under any circumstances, be required to provide medical interventions to primarily support SPS security and control, this violates the principles of equitable medical care and erodes trust between prisoners and medical staff. Nor should medical staff prescriptions or treatment plans be amended post hoc by SPS. Instances of both have been seen or experienced by members of this group;
  • Finally, staffing levels and pressure generally on staff emerged as a consistent finding and one which requires consideration to maximise optimising health care, outcomes, prevention focus and effectiveness and efficiency issues; however, a core concern of our collective is to ensure that problems within the prison system do not become arguments for expanding the prison system or expanding the prison’s budget compared to other settings where health and other outcomes (i.e. the community) are better supported. Hence, we express concern about the repeated use in the RCNS report of the idea that ‘prison offers the best chance of catching people’ and addressing their health needs. Prison is never the best place to work with people, all other factors remaining equal.
  • Lack of data and understanding of health issues and provision gaps: The RCN wrote that: ‘It is not possible to evidence the impact that the transfer has made on tackling health inequalities and addressing the health care needs of people in prison. This is because there are still some gaps in our understanding of people’s health needs in the criminal justice system and a lack of national reporting and quality outcomes data for prison health care’. An annual prison health report on the existing health inequalities, systemic improvements and kinds of provisions that make up the NHS work, e.g. budgets, would be useful to ensure continual prioritisation and awareness of the issues. The Government needs also to demonstrate more explicitly how prison healthcare is integrated in their national vision of stronger, safer, fairer and healthier Scotland. Therefore, prison healthcare must be recognised as a distinct area of service provision within the long-term strategic plans for Scottish health. Finally, the lack of data reflects wider gaps and progressive loss in knowledge: for example, the most recent published statistics on the prison population date from 2013-14 (with significant disinvestment of resource in producing official statistics on prison populations in Scotland in the past 10-15 years). Effective policy making and transparent democracies require clear and open understandings of who is imprisoned, where, why and for how long. We are concerned that prison healthcare will fall under the same opaque reportage and loss of public oversight.

The fact that 66 deaths in prison custody since 2013 remain undetermined (SPS website) receives far too little Government and policy scrutiny despite extensive recent media coverage:

Staffing and other resource issues likely play into this, but we challenge those concerned with the health and social care of those in prison to prioritise explaining, resolving and providing closure to families of people who die in state custody.

We are not aware of national reporting on prison healthcare and would welcome some mechanism for this. However, we also worry about the emphasis in the RCN report on inadequate assessment of health needs. While we welcome better understanding of these needs, it is important to set this in the context of extensive, almost relentless and often dehumanising assessment processes in prison where people are regularly required to recount multiple times issues of deep personal concern such as personal traumas, drug and alcohol issues, literacy issues, abuse issues and more. We urge a focus on care, prevention and positive, supportive relationships with professionals over endless inquiries (often in front of multiple strangers) in order to achieve perfect recordkeeping.

  1. To what extent do you believe that health inequalities are/could be addressed in the prison healthcare system?
  2. What are the current barriers to using the prison healthcare system/ improve the health outcomes of the prison population?

Health inequalities cannot be addressed effectively when health is viewed as a factor in reduced offending: The new NHS model of prison healthcare has sometimes been presented and justified as an improved form of medical provision primarily because it will help with reducing reoffending[1]. This directly undermines an agenda of reducing health inequalities because it implicitly values NHS provision in prison mainly in terms of its contribution to crime reduction. Healthcare, whether in prison or anywhere else, should be discussed only in terms of treating people who are in need, supporting citizens and improving health and wellbeing in Scotland in general. Prison healthcare should be motivated by the same ethos and vision as the recent National Clinical Strategy for Scotland which stated that: ‘Quality must be the primary concern – all developments should seek to ensure that there is enhancement of patient safety, clinical effectiveness and a person-centred approach to care’[2]. A key challenge to rectifying health inequalities, therefore, is the dominant ethos of the prison system in which all services delivered in this setting are assessed instrumentally in terms of reoffending outcome measures.

Health inequalities cannot be effectively addressed without recognising the harms of prison itself: Prisons, no matter how well they are run or designed, are innately damaging. Reviews of research suggest that time in prison is itself damaging to cognitive function[3]. 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[4]. Such work establishes, unsurprisingly, that confinement of human beings is deeply damaging, and this damage should be carefully considered. A discourse has emerged of talking about people in prison as having lower cognitive function, greater health needs, more chaotic lives and so on; and while this may have some evidential support, it diminishes those in prison as a damaged ‘them’ and obscures the extent to which being in prison itself is a health risk and a mortality risk.

Importantly, this risk to health and wellbeing extend beyond the person in custody.  Drawing on large-scale US survey data, Wakefield and Wildeman found that the prison has become an institution which creates and reinforces deep social inequalities, increasing the risks of poor mental health, homelessness and infant mortality for children of an incarcerated parent[5].  While imprisonment rates in Scotland are not comparable with America’s “prison boom”, it is nonetheless clear that supporting a person in custody requires large investments of time, emotional support and financial resources from some of Scotland’s poorest families and communities.  Positioning families as a source of support to render prisons more “survivable” is therefore at odds with adopting a prevention focus or reducing wider health inequalities.

Health inequalities, therefore, cannot be addressed effectively until the harms of prison are addressed, and this includes taking into account Scotland’s high imprisonment rates in policy making and reform. This point also emphasises why we should never talk about prison as ‘being the best chance’ to deliver any public service. If the prison system operated adopted a Hippocratic oath, we would have strong doubts that it is achieving this.

[1] E.g. Michael Matheson: ‘However, factors outside of the control of the criminal justice system affect reoffending. The work of this group has found that reoffending is a complex social issue and there are well established links between persistent offending, poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental illness. When transitioning from custody to the community, gaps in access to vital support services and basic needs can hamper attempts to desist from offending’

[2] National Clinical Strategy for Scotland, February 2016:2

[3] 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

[4]Justice Committee, Transfer of prison healthcare to the NHS Written, submission from Dr Lesley Graham:

[5] Wakefield, S. and Wildeman, C. 2014 Children of the prison boom: Mass incarceration and the future of American inequality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press