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Professor Andrew Coyle 3 July 2012
Almost 40 years ago I first walked through the gates of Edinburgh prison and found myself in a world of which I had no previous knowledge; a world which existed in parallel with but quite separate from the everyday world which I shared with millions of other fellow citizens. From that very first day I asked myself the question, “What is this thing that we call the prison?” Throughout the following 25 years I moved from prison to prison and in due course governed several of them, including two of the most iconic in the UK. In the late 1980’s I became Governor of Peterhead Prison in Scotland. At that time Peterhead held those prisoners who had been assessed as being the most disruptive and dangerous in the Scottish prison system. All of them had been involved in riots, in taking hostages or in escape attempts from other prisons. When I went there as Governor in 1988 I walked into a world where there was continual violent confrontation between staff and prisoners. The normal uniform for staff each day included a riot helmet, body armour, and perspex shields. Prisoners were locked up in isolation for 23 hours each day; a number of them wore only blankets and had covered themselves in their own excrement. It really was the end of the line. Many prison systems have one prison which is “the end of the line”. It is frequently referred to as “The Hate factory”. Peterhead was that prison for Scotland in the late 1980s. In 1991 I was appointed as Governor of Brixton Prison. Brixton was built in 1819 and is the oldest prison in London. In the 1850s Wandsworth Prison was built to replace Brixton; Brixton remained. In 1990 Belmarsh Prison was built to replace Brixton; Brixton remains in use. I went there in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident in which two IRA prisoners shot their way out of the prison. Just prior to that it had been subject to its first independent inspection. In his report Judge Stephen Tumim described it as “a corrupting and depressing institution”. In his own inimitable way he reported that the only good thing he had to say about it was that there were “some fine examples of lead work on the roof of what had been the Governor’s house”. Around the same time the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture also inspected the prison and concluded that the conditions in which prisoners were held were “inhuman and degrading".
I shall never forget the first day I walked into F Wing in Brixton. The wing held 230 prisoners who had been remanded in custody by the court for psychiatric reports. The walls were painted bottle green. Permanent semi-darkness meant that artificial lighting had to be kept on all day. The all-pervading smell was overpowering; a combination of urine, faeces and stale food. And the noise: an unrelenting cacophony of keening, wailing, shouting and banging, which went on even during the night. Each cell had a large flap in its door. These were normally open. A face, usually a black face, peered out from most of them, hungry for human contact. The last thing which these prisoners, many of whom were severely disturbed, needed was to be confined in such conditions. If a man was not unstable before admission to F Wing, he was likely soon to become so. And in each of these prisons for which I was accountable I still asked myself, “What is this thing we call the prison?” And increasingly I came to realise that if I, with all my experience of prisons, was unsure of the answer to that question, was it any surprise that the courts, politicians and the public were even more uncertain. The media for much of the time is schizophrenic. In the early 1990s it often publicly criticised the hellhole that was Brixton. Yet, when I began to bring a degree of humanity and care to the prison I was castigated for turning the prison into a holiday camp. As I attempted to bring a degree of transparency to the prison, I knew that I was making headway when The Independent newspaper carried a front page headline: “The shame of Brixton is the shame of the nation”. This was their way of repeating the old prison truism that the values of a society are reflected in the way that it runs its prisons. For many years now the main focus of my work in the International Centre for Prison Studies has been in the international arena and I have been a close observer of prisons and imprisonment in every region of the world. In the 1990s I spent a lot of time in prisons in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in the countries of what had previously been the Soviet Union. Prisons where overcrowding did not mean three persons in a cell built for one, as it had done in Brixton. Overcrowding there meant three prisons in each bed, sleeping in eight hour shifts. Bunks beds tiered to the ceilings, crammed into rooms with little air and virtually no natural light. Conditions which were breeding grounds for infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and later HIV and Aids to the extent that one Minister of Justice described a prison sentence as equivalent to being sentenced to death. I have visited prisons in sub Saharan Africa and South East Asia, prisons built in the 19th century by colonial powers, still in use today. Prisons where there is no running water, where there is a drastic shortage of food, where prisoners languish for years awaiting trial because the authorities have no transport to take them to court. I have seen prisons in Western Europe which are in mediaeval castles, totally inappropriate for use in the 21st century. I have seen many prisons in Latin America where violence is endemic. Prisons where staff do not go inside the prisoner areas, where gang battles result in several murders each week and where staff only response to is be equally violent in their dealings with prisoners.
I have been in prisons in the United States of America where prisoners spend their entire day locked in complete isolation with no human contact; and will do so for the rest of their lives.
What constitutes imprisonment? A description of all these different features of imprisonment leads to another set of questions. What actually constitutes imprisonment? Obviously imprisonment involves deprivation of liberty and freedom of movement. But to what extent should that be relative or absolute? In a famous English judgement in1982 in the case of Raymond v Honey, Lord Wilberforce said: Under English law a convicted prisoner retains all civil rights which are not taken away expressly or by necessary implication. That is a worthy sentiment, but what does it mean in practice? What does it mean, for example, in respect of the right which all human beings have to family life? In the United Kingdom this right is severely limited when a person goes to prison. Direct family contact will be relatively infrequent, with short visits taking place in a very public place and minimal physical contact. In many other countries around the world quite different arrangements. The best arrangements are in countries where families are allowed to spend extended periods, often of several days in special flats or units, living together as parents, spouses or children. This is as yet unthinkable in this country, where the press and the public would regard such arrangements merely as an opportunity for prisoners to have sexual relations – and what would be left of the pain of imprisonment if that were to be allowed? In other countries the focus in these matters is not only on the prisoner but also on the rights of her or his children, partner or parents to have a family relationship which is more than minimal When a person is sent to prison, does he or she forfeit all civil rights, or is it the case that some civil rights have been suspended? A live example of this matter in this country is that of voting in elections. In the majority of European countries either all prisoners have the right to vote, or the limitation is applied on an individual basis. Yet in the United Kingdom our Prime Minister has said that even to contemplate such an arrangement, never mind to introduce it, would make him “physically ill”. So, 40 years after I first entered the world of prisons and after all the experience which that entails, I am still asking myself that original question: “What is this thing that we call the prison?”
Who are the prisoners? One way of beginning to answer that question is by considering who is sent to prison in different societies. The picture which emerges is an interesting one. In all societies, those who are convicted of the most serious crimes: murder, serious sexual violence and physical
assault, will be sentenced to imprisonment, although the length of time for which they are imprisoned may vary considerably. In addition, many societies use prison as a way of dealing with those who are at its margins; however those margins are to be defined. In many countries they are likely to include similar groups. For example, those who are mentally ill. That was what I found in F Wing in Brixton Prison over 20 years ago. In the intervening years the problem has, if anything, got worse. In the press cuttings which arrived in my emails this morning were just a few examples. The Governor of Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow spoke out yesterday about the large proportion of his prisoners who had identifiable mental illnesses, saying that they could fill one of the large wings in the prison. He said that these are people who should not be in prison and whose condition was being exacerbated by their imprisonment. The same set of cuttings brought a report from Australia which had found that 90% of indigenous women in prison in Queensland and 73% of males have a diagnosed mental illness. Nearly half of them have been imprisoned four or more times. These are examples of inappropriate and expensive misuse of imprisonment. And yet, one can see why this happens. In many situations the mentally ill person exists on the margins of the community, below the radar of any supportive social or health service. They only come above the radar when they are accused of committing a crime. And the part of the system in which they pop up is the criminal justice system; a system which is singularly ill-equipped to deal with their problems. So they find themselves caught up in what is known as the revolving door syndrome. And that revolving door continues to revolve. Today’ press cuttings also carried a report from New Zealand that the Prison Service there is just about to open a “high dependency unit” for aging prisoners who cannot look after themselves and who “struggle with incontinence”. The response from the Chief Executive of the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation was an interesting one. She did not express concern at this development; instead she expressed surprise that it did not already exist. In many countries increased prison populations reflect the consequences of the so-called “war on drugs”. In a number of regions there is a growing recognition among governments that the exclusive use of criminal justice mechanisms to deal with personal drug abuse is contributing to the problem rather than resolving it. This change of attitude is most obvious in an increasing number of Latin American countries where societies have been devastated by drug abuse. Today’s press cuttings report on a decision from the Constitutional Court in Colombia which has approved the government’s proposals to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. Those who are caught in such possession are to receive treatment rather than be prosecuted. This development mirrors similar proposals in Costa Rica, Uruguay, Ecuador and Argentina. In many jurisdictions prison is used as a means of dealing with those who are at the margins of society on other ways, often because of their colour or their ethnic origin. Another truism in this regard is that if one wishes to know who are the marginalised groups in any society, one need only look in its prisons. In Central Europe it will be the Roma, in Australia it will be the aboriginals, in New Zealand it is the Maori. The situation is little different in this country. The definition of which groups constitute “the other” is a dynamic one. In a world of increasing global movement of people it has come to include people who are non-nationals. In several Western European countries over 40% of prisoners are now foreign nationals. (The rate in England and Wales is currently given as almost 13%.)
What happens inside prison? Having said something about who is in prison, let me now turn to the issue of what happens to people inside prison. People who have been convicted of a crime are sent to prison by a court as a punishment for the harm they have done. The law of England and Wales is quite clear on this point: The court must not pass a custodial sentence unless it is of the opinion that the offence, or the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence. (CJA 2003) One group which has always understood that the primary aim of prison is to punish a person by deprivation of liberty is the prisoners themselves. They are under no illusion that imprisonment is punishment. They have resisted the amelioration of terms and of attempts to use such descriptions as corrections, institutions and inmates. They know that they are prisoners and that they are in prison. The point of framing the law in this way is to emphasise that courts should not use imprisonment for other purposes. Those who appear before the courts should not be sent to prison in order to receive drug treatment, or be treated for mental illness, or in order to be educated or given training in work skills. There are other agencies which are much better equipped to deal with these matters than the prison. However, that is not the end of the story. Once a court has decided that someone has to be sent to prison because of the gravity of the crime which has been committed, another set of equations should kick in. There is a responsibility on the part of those who are responsible for prisons to ensure that those who come into their care receive support for their mental and physical health problems, for their substance addition, that they are given assistance to improve their education, that they are given training in work skills, that they can maintain and develop links with their families. That is indeed the task of those responsible for running prisons. But that should not be why persons are sent to prison in the first place. In sentencing someone to prison the court is expressing society’s disapproval of a wrong which has been done. An indirect outcome of that disapproval is that it may pass a message to others who may be in danger of committing similar offences; this is what is known as deterrence. Inevitably, the degree of disapproval which is shown through the punishment has a relative aspect: the more serious the crime, the greater the level of disapproval and the more severe the punishment. For example, historically murder of another human being has been regarded as the most serious of crimes. That is why, when the punishment of execution was abolished in this country a decision was made to replace it by an indeterminate sentence, known as life imprisonment. From the outset, this did not mean that the person would necessarily spend the rest of life in prison. It was anticipated that in most cases the person would spend a lengthy period in prison and would then be released into the community under supervision for the remainder of life. Over the decades the period to be spent in prison has increased progressively as public expectations have hardened. Thirty or so years ago a life sentence for murder would normally imply that someone would spend about ten years in prison. No longer. Tariffs of 20 and more years are now common. One will read press reports
complaining bitterly that the judge imposed a tariff of “only 30 years”, taking no account of the fact that this tariff implies a minimum time in prison rather than a maximum. As sentence lengths at the higher end have increased, there has been what is sometimes described as a “silting up” throughout the system. Put briefly, this means that offences which might in previous years have attracted a non custodial sentence now result in a prison sentence and that these sentences have become progressively longer. The most obvious example of this development has been the Indeterminate Public Protection sentence which has led to an explosion of prisoners serving indeterminate or life sentences and a consequent inability on the part of the National Offender Management Service to manage these prisoners adequately and on the part of the Parole Board to make appropriate arrangements to consider the case once the tariff has expired. Since the beginning of the 20th century those responsible for managing prisons have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to assist prisoners to use their time in prison positively with the aim of encouraging them to live law abiding lives on release. These developments occurred in parallel with the development of the new academic discipline of criminology which regarded crime as an aberration from the norm and that, rather like a young tree which is growing in a crooked manner, people who committed crime could be trained to live law abiding lives. This led to the growth of what became known as the theory of rehabilitation and throughout the 20th century a new breed of experts began to work in prisons, social workers, probation officers, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists and assistant governors, who took on the task of rehabilitating men and women who had originally been sent to prison as punishment for the crime they had committed. As long as this view of the prison as a place of potential rehabilitation remained within the prison system, it had the potential for good. When it moved beyond prison itself and came to be regarded as one of the primary purposes of imprisonment by governments and by courts it took on some unrealistic overtones. It led, for example, to the redefinition of rehabilitation in the much narrower context of what became known as “reducing reoffending”, a concept which was at best ill-defined and at worst quite misleading. This was a concept which answered the political demands of the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. It became a target for the Prison Service in England and Wales, although its delivery was not within the gift of the Prison Service. That did not prevent the National Offender Management Service from developing a series of processes which were intended to deliver the outcome of reducing re-offending: a plethora of programmes and courses with a bewildering list of acronyms. As the years went on it became clear that these initiatives were not delivering the desired holy grail. The answer was to increase their number and intensity. Bodies such as the Parole Board responded to these developments by using involvement in these courses as a measurement of an individual prisoner’s suitability for conditional release. Failure to complete a smorgasbord of these courses, even when this was because they were not available, meant refusal of parole. These programmes continue to be offered in prisons, although it is becoming clear that belief in them as a good in themselves is not as strong as it was, especially among politicians who need to have examples of short term success. And so in recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on what is now called “payment by results”. In principle this concept has
potential. It recognises that the experiences of persons after they are released from prison are likely to be more significant when it comes to their future behaviour, and also that rehabilitation, in whichever guise, is more likely to be successful if non-criminal justice support agencies are involved. What is not at all clear is why the government sees the need to involve “the market” in this process. Why involve third parties in this endeavour? Why not develop a model, for example, which pays the person him or herself directly “by results”? Rather than penalising someone for bad behaviour, why not reward a person for good behaviour? The short answer to that may be the need to continually feed the criminal justice sector market which has developed in recent years. I have already referred to the international press cuttings which have come my way in recent days. Allow me to quote two more from Brazil. A Reuters report of 26 June: Brazil will offer inmates in its crowded federal penitentiary system a novel way to shorten their sentences: four days less for every book they read. Inmates in four federal prisons holding some of Brazil's most notorious criminals will be able to read up to 12 works of literature, philosophy, science or classics to trim a maximum 48 days off their sentence each year, the government announced. And another from Brazil only yesterday: Inmates in a Brazilian prison can shave time off their sentences by becoming living sources of green energy. All they need to do is turn the wheel of a bike connected to a power generator. For every 16 hours of pedalling the prisoners have their sentences reduced by one day. The generators the prisoners put in motion charge batteries, which are taken to the city center to power some of the street lights. Two bikes are enough to light six bulbs. I hesitate to mention these examples as government ministers in this country may claim them as their own.
Conclusion Let me end with some positive thoughts. Forty years on I still find myself asking the original question, “What is this place we call the prison?” I also frequently recall one of the letters which Vaclav Havel, the late President of the Czech Republic, wrote to his wife Olga while he was in prison. It's interesting, though, that I never feel sorry for myself, as one might expect, but only for the other prisoners and generally, for the fact that prisons must exist and that they are as they are, and that mankind has not so far invented a better way of coming to terms with certain things. So, what might be “a better way of coming to terms with certain things”? For the foreseeable future there will still be a need for prisons. However, just as we aim for honesty in sentencing so we should aim for honesty in imprisonment and recognise that the prison can never in itself be a place of reform. Prisons are expensive resources where people are sent as punishment for the harm they have done and in the hope that somehow they may
benefit from that experience. If we acknowledge this, we can go on to identify the essential features of the prison of the future: It will have a close link to the courts which send people to it. It will be use as a place of last resort, as an alternative to other disposals which will become the norm It will hold a small number of people Its staff will be recruited locally and trained according to local needs It will have strong links to the community in which it is based Throughout their sentence prisoners will be given access to local resources and facilities which they can continue to use after release.
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