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Another broken promise – Ministry of Justice announcement to postpone plans to reduce female prison population
The plight of women in prison aptly demonstrates some of the issues I have with our current government. There seems to be a pattern of u-turns, postponing on strategies and little remorse or concern shown for the impact of these decisions. Now I don’t know if this is to do with focus on Brexit, or some other reason that only those in the corridors of power can know. What I am concerned about is the cavalier way this government back tracks and displays levels of incompetency that anyone else would be sacked for. I am concerned because these tactics affect lives, they impact on people’s health wellbeing and survival. Women in prison suffer disproportionately compared to men, and it seems, they are easy target to disregard. They are also a prison population which is predominantly low risk and would benefit from assistance, welfare and support, much more so than punishment and retribution. By the way, I also firmly believe there are plenty of male prisoners and young offenders in the same boat – as do others. Women in prison, including those who are also mothers (up to 66%) (Epstein, 2014) do however face greater impact for a variety of reasons. It is these reasons which make the recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice to postpone plans to reduce the female prison population all the more galling.
An article in the Guardian states ‘women account for 5% of the prison population of in England and Wales but have much higher rates of deaths, suicide attempts and self-harm than men’ (Syal, 2018). The focus of the multimillion pound government strategy to reduce the number of women being imprisoned for non-violent offences was to set up community prisons and provide more support for female offenders. The postponement was reported to be due to spending pressures, which is also affected spending on the prison system more widely. This is a strategy which has been developed over several years and this postponement must surely test the patience of those reformers who have campaigned for this change. Indeed, Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust has expressed disbelief that a strategy which had widespread support is being treated in this way. He also added that to cite the postponement as an issue with cost is contradictory, given better support in the community and the aims of the strategy to reduce the numbers of women in prison would actually reduce costs to the Ministry of Justice. Women prisoners have complex needs, with mental health issues, abuse, debt, homelessness, poor education as well a significant number having child care responsibilities and with a prison sentence, facing the very real prospect of losing their child to the social care system (Baldwn, 2017).
The MoJ strategy embraced multi-agency working and even found a way to navigate achieving its aims under the current Transforming Rehabilitation arrangements, with the National Probation Service working with the police, mental health charities and courts to co-ordinate better support services and better arrangements to help women due for release. The need for this was clear as a report by Inquest (2018) showed that 116 women died post release during 2010-11 and 2016-17. In addition to increased incidences of self-harm and suicides, and given that 84% of women are imprisoned for non-violent offences (ibid), it was clear that not only should something be done, but also that something could be done. The benefits were evident in saving money, reducing risks to women prisoners and not compromising on public protection. The report by Inquest (2018) also shows that the disproportionate number of women on short term sentences (62%) reiterates the need to reduce this, given the disruptive effects on housing, jobs and childcare. Deborah Coles of Inquest suggest this postponement by the MoJ will costs lives and that the harms of the justice system to women need to be acknowledged.
This need for change is also supported by the Magistrates Association, who also report that help and support is much more effective than short term sentences. Given this arena is where the decision to sentence occurs, it is an important move to get magistrates thinking differently about the delivery of justice. This is not just about considering community sentences, but also to consider how the court room can be a place for different approaches to those offenders – male or female – who present complex needs, experiences of abuse and discrimination and who require more than stern words and retributive acts of punishment.
There have long been concerns about the rising numbers of female prisoners, given that this is attributed to increasing punitiveness in sentencing decisions (Hedderman, 2004). There is a strong case for using community sentencing where this is appropriate (Corston, 2007; Prison Reform Trust 2011; Baldwin, 2015), i.e. for non-violent and low risk offenders. This is evidence from campaigns (e.g. from the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, Women in Prison, Make Justice Work) to reduce the use of custody more generally, but especially for women and mothers who break the law. A recent edited text on the plight of mothers in prison further emphasises the need for a different approach (Baldwin, 2015). It collates contributions from academics and practitioners working within the prison system, managing the needs of mothers and mothers to be, as well as those research these issues (e.g. Baldwin, 2015; Epstein, 2012; Minson 2014). A core theme is that short term sentences create a narrative of continuing disadvantage, felt for generations (Baldwin, 2015). It also demonstrates the long-term effects of the imprisonment of mothers, as a ripple effect which impacts the mother, their child, other family members for a length of time way past the length of the sentence – what Baldwin (2015) has referred to as a ‘sentence which keeps on punishing’. This text reiterates the potential for change starting with the courts, where different approaches would have a lasting impact and lead to more positive outcomes.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of evidence which shows a different way to deal with offenders is possible, the evidence is there, the options are there and until recently, some degree of political will and investment was also there. I hope this is a postponement and not just another broken promise. This seems to be a pattern for this government, and there seems to be no one holding them to account when such decisions are made. It may well be because the prison population is a group we can all too easily disregard. However, given that these are people who have faced a life of disadvantage and whose reformation would benefit all of us who wish to feel safe in our communities, this view is misguided. The problem is, it seems it is all too easily accepted.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Baldwin, L. (2015) Mothering Justice: Working with Mothers in Criminal and Social Justice Settings, Waterside Press.
Baldwin, L. (2015d). Rules of Confinement: Time for Changing the Game. Criminal Law and Justice Weekly, 179 (10).
Corston, J. (2007). The Corston Report: A report by Baroness Jean Corston of a Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office.
Epstein, R. (2014). Mothers in Prison: The sentencing of mothers and the rights of the child, Howard League What is Justice? Working Papers 3/2014, Howard League for Penal Reform.
Hedderman, C. (2004). The ‘criminogenic’ needs of women offenders. In G. McIvor
(ed) Women Who Offend: Research Highlights in Social Work 44. London: Jessica
Inquest (2016) Still Dying On The Inside: Examining deaths in women’s prisons (see https://www.inquest.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8d39dc1d-02f7-48eb-b9ac-2c063d01656a)
Minson, S. (2014). Mitigating Motherhood: A study of the impact of motherhood on sentencing decisions in England and Wales, Howard League for Penal Reform, London.
Prison Reform Trust (2011). Reforming Women’s Justice: Final Report of the Women’s Justice Taskforce. London: Prison Reform Trust.
Syal, R. (2018) Ministry of Justice postpones plans to reduce female prison population, The Guardian, 2 May 2018.
Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.
My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.
My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.
There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.
Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.
As I am outside the prison walls on another visit I look at the high walls that keep people inside incarcerated. This is an institution designed to keep people in and it is obvious from the outside. This made me wonder what is a University designed for? Are we equally obvious to the communities in which we live as to what we are there for? These questions have been posed before but as we embark in a new educational environment I begin to wonder.
There are city universities, campuses in towns and the countryside, new universities and of course old, even, medieval universities. All these institutions have an educational purpose in common at a high level but that is more or less it. Traditionally, academia had a specific mandate of what they were meant to be doing but this original focus was coming from a era when computers, the electronic revolution and the knowledge explosion were unheard of. I still amuse my students by my recollections of going through an old library, looking at their card catalogue in order to find the books I wanted for my essay.
Since then, email has become the main tool for communication and blackboard or other virtual learning environments are growing into becoming an alternative learning tool in the arsenal of each academic. In this technologically advanced, modern world it is pertinent to ask if the University is the environment that it once was. The introduction of fees, and the subsequent political debates on whether to raise the fees or get rid of them altogether. This debate has also introduced an consumerist dimension to higher education that previous learners did not encounter. For some colleagues this was a watershed moment in the mandate of higher education and the relationship between tutor and tutee. Recently, a well respected colleague told me how inspired she was to pursue a career in academia when she watched Willy Russell’s theatrical masterpiece Educating Rita. It seems likely that this cultural reference will be lost to current students and academics. A clear sign of things moving on.
So what is a University for in the 21st century? In my mind, the university is an institution of education that is open to its community and accessible to all people, even those who never thought that Higher Education is for them. Physically, there may not be walls around but for many people who never had the opportunity to enjoy a higher education, there may be barriers. It is perhaps the purpose of the new university to engage with the community and invite the people to embrace it as their community space. Our University’s relocation to the heart of the town will make our presence more visible in town and it is a great opportunity for the University to be reintroduced to the local community. As one of the few Changemaker universities in the country, a title that focuses on social change and entrepreneurship, connecting with the community is definitely a fundamental objective. In this way it will offer its space up for meaningful discussions on a variety of issues, academic or not, to the community saying we are a public institution for all. After all, this is part of how we understand criminology’s role. In a recent discussion we have been talking about criminology in the community; a public criminology. One of the many reasons why we work so hard to teach criminology in prisons.
For those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.
We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).
This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons* was philanthropic and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.
This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.
For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.
*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.