Posted tagged ‘prison’

Captive students

June 13, 2011

If we believe, as I do, that one of the more important purposes of criminal justice is to protect the public and, by that token, the rehabilitation of offenders, then across much of the world we are going about it in a pretty odd way. Too many people are sent to prison and, when they get there, they enter academies of crime that will in many cases ensure that this visit will not be their last one. Nor will this be solely a problem for the prisoners, because during their various (usually all too brief) interludes outside they will tend to be able to pack in an extraordinary amount of crime.

One of the few ways of doing something about this is to offer prisoners an education. I have previously in this blog referred to my own somewhat modest efforts to do something about this. But now I read that, in Indiana in the United States, the Governor is cutting funding for prison education and is, moreover, moving to ensure that whatever provision is made is strictly vocational.

Given that research in Indiana has shown that prison education reduces recidivism by 29 per cent, it might be thought that it is a more than sensible investment. In reality of course most people don’t want to see prison as being about rehabilitation, but about punishment. However, treating prisoners with dignity and offering them a future is in everyone’s interests. As public budgets are under stress all over the world it is to be hoped that this particular lesson is not forgotten.

Locking them up

December 17, 2010

In July 2010 the Irish prison population was 4,473, up from 3,926 a year earlier. This was a rather dramatic increase of 14 per cent, and results in Ireland having 99 prisoners per 100,000 population. But by international standards that is not huge: England has 148 per 100,000, Scotland has 134, the United States a whopping 737. Germany has 94 per 100,000, Norway has 66, and India has a mere 30.

Penal policy in most countries is shockingly unenlightened, and is more often than not based on prejudice, backwardness, ignorance and intolerance. Politicians press for custodial sentences for all sorts of conduct in the (probably correct) belief that this plays well with voters. In the meantime, prisons are often unpleasant overcrowded crime academies that turn minor delinquents into hardened criminals who will pop in and out of prison for much of their lives, causing havoc during their periods of liberty.

In addition, we manage to put people in prison who are of absolutely no danger to the public (or at least, aren’t until we get them in there, after which all bets are off). It is amazing that we have still used prisons to punish people who cannot pay fines, though thankfully the Law Reform Commission in Ireland has recommended that this insane practice should stop.

It is good also that the current Conservative/LibDem administration in the UK is giving some thought to this issue, with the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke suggesting that for many people prison does not work – something that would have been regarded as heresy in the Conservative Party until very recently (and perhaps still is).

But for all of us, the world over, we need to understand the limits of custodial punishment, and its social impact. We need to grasp the obvious truth that sections of the population that are disaffected and feel they have no stake in society represent the most significant risk to good order and public safety, and that locking away the most difficult members of this group actually makes everything worse. Addressing that is where the priority should lie.

Can’t pay, so off to prison?

November 10, 2009

You probably though that the debtors’ prison was a Victorian concept popularised by Charles Dickens in his novel Little Dorrit, and that it is of historical interest only. Well, yes and no. If you owe me a hundred Euro I cannot get you sent to Mountjoy prison. But if you owe €100 to the state because you have not paid a fine for a minor criminal offence, then you can indeed be imprisoned. Not only can you be, you probably will be. According to a report in the Irish Times, the number of people sent to prison for this reason this year will reach 4,000 – which, to put it in perspective, will be a quarter of all those sent to prison in 2009.

This state of affairs is appalling, and is unacceptable in today’s society. Though the figure of 4,000 may include some who are simply refusing to obey the law, the overwhelming majority will be people from lower income groups for whom the fine is a financial problem. But in any case, using prison for these purposes is simply stupid in terms of criminology – prisons should house those (and only those) who are a danger to society.

The news that we are imprisoning people in this way should spark outrage. The only bit of good news is that the practice may fall off with the enactment shortly of the Fines Bill 2009, under which other means will be prioritised for addressing the non-payment of fines. But even then, some will be sent to prison. And as long as this happens, our whole system of addressing non-payment of fines is a disgrace. As a society, we should not tolerate it.

Time to re-think prisons

August 21, 2009

Exactly 57 years ago today, the notorious French penal colony of Devil’s Island off South America was finally closed, and the remaining prisoners were either repatriated to France or were released to live in French Guiana. It is estimated that over the 100 years of its existence the prison housed some 80,000 convicts. Some of them were what we would now call political prisoners, some were serious and hardened criminals, but some just repeat offenders guilty of minor crimes; some, including the famous Captain Alfred Dreyfus, were wholly innocent. Many of the convicts never left the island, which was notorious for its terrible climate and disease-infested conditions.

During its later years as a prison, Devil’s Island was the subject both of Hollywood movies (the most famous was probably Papillon) and of highly critical commentary, in France and elsewhere, and by the time the prison closed it, and the penal principles under-pinning it, had been wholly discredited. The idea that prison should be a place of horror and deprivation and total isolation from society of convicted persons had been accepted as wrong, indeed reprehensible.

And yet, we need to ask ourselves from time to time how much we have really learned. Do we really have a more enlightened view now? Do we really understand the importance of rehabilitation as a way of reducing crime, while also of course caring for and protecting the victims? In fact, do we have any serious understanding of crime and the penal system at all? We have been hearing over the past week or two of the growth of the Irish prison population – a doubling over the past two decades – and the inclusion amongst inmates of some who are manifestly no threat to society, and to further issues to do with prison conditions and over-crowding.

Right now, Ireland still has a relatively low prison population by international standards, but on the other hand we attach little priority to organising a penal system that works and provides a benefit for society. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is currently working on a white paper. This should look at criminology in a radical way, and should aim to wean us off the idea that we can brush away our social problems by containing offenders in prisons. That is not a project that has ever worked, anywhere. It’s time to have something better.

Learning behind bars

January 29, 2009

While cleaning out some old papers and documents the other day, I came across a notebook I had used for a short while in 1974. Written in big letters on the cover were the words ‘Gedanken im Gefängnis‘ (‘Thoughts in Prison’). Yes, it was a prison diary. Not what you might think, though. In fact, exactly 35 years ago today, on January 29 1974, I visited a prison for the first time in my life. The institution in question was a small prison, not far from where I was living at the time in Germany. It contained a mix of inmates, some of whom were there on remand, and some were there for the long haul; a significant proportion had been convicted of murder.

How did I get there? A friend of mind was the prison chaplain, and in conversation with him I had indicated that I was interested in finding out more about it, and about prison life, and about what we as a society could do to help rehabilitate prisoners (this was a phase of my life in which I was very committed to political and social activism). On that day, and on a few occasions over the following months, I visited this prison, usually to join the prisoners for their evening meal. At the end of each visit I wrote down my impressions in the notebook. And what came up most in the conversations was the prisoners’ desire for more education. As you would expect, most of them were poorly educated, and back then there were no real opportunities to make up for that while serving their sentences. So I would come back with various educational books, and would also outline to them some of the more basic bits of education I had enjoyed myself.

In my life as an educator in various universities I have, at least on and off, maintained my interest in prisons and in the potential of education to make a difference. When I was Dean of the Law School in the University of Hull, I set up an agreement with the Governor of Hull Prison (which was largely a remand prison) under which staff from my Law School provided evening courses for prisoners. The two most popular options were family law, as many prisoners had family issues of one kind or another, and (this being a remand prison) the law of evidence. My colleagues joined ion this, initially with some enthusiasm, but over time found it difficult because the population changed so frequently, making it difficult to establish a rapport with a class. But I did get a visit one day from a former prisoner in my office, who told me that what we had offered by way of legal education in the prison had changed his life, and that if I ever needed anything – anything, he stressed – I needed only to ring him.

We are not, so we think, a Victorian society, and yet we have made remarkably few changes to the basic principles of prison life. We sometimes talk about, but in reality seem not to care about, the rehabilitation of prisoners, and we seem content that once they first enter through a prison gate they are likely to be regulars. Ireland has, by international standards, a small prison population, but as a society we care very little about them, and it takes vocal and courageous people like the Governor of Mountjoy Prison to remind us from time to time that we are failing these fellow members of our community. Maybe it is time for me to take an interest again.