In the context of serving as part of an independent Prisons Review Team in Northern Ireland, I have spent a lot of time in the last 18 months struggling with a specific and very challenging question: Can prisons promote desistance?
I suppose some people might not immediately think of the ‘desistance-supporting prison’ as a possible oxymoron; Michael Howard did reflect a certain strand of public opinion when he declared that ‘prisons work’; although if you can bear to revisit his 1993 speech to the Conservative party conference (and not many criminologists can) then you’ll find that he didn’t really define effectiveness in terms of desistance or even reducing reoffending. He had other objectives in mind.
People better acquainted with desistance theory and research will probably see the problem straight away (as will may people who work in or have been to prison). If desistance is about becoming more mature and responsible, about developing stronger social bonds and about a positive shift in identity, it’s not hard to see why prisons look like a profoundly unpromising context for desistance. They take responsibility away (and might even encourage immaturity); they break positive social ties (and enable new negative ones); and they confirm and cement criminalised identities. In important ways, the very nature of imprisonment itself is liable to frustrate desistance, and most desistance scholars agree therefore that we should use imprisonment very sparingly.
And yet, some people do change in prisons (and not just in the dramatic stories of people like Jimmy Boyle or Tookie Williams). For some people, imprisonment does become a kind of opportunity; a chance to re-assess the past and re-consider the future; a means of straightening out and connecting with services that might provide the sorts of post-release support that we discussed on the blog a week or two ago.
Some prisons seem to be better at enabling this kind of personal development than others. Looking at it in international context, for example, recidivism rates are much lower in Nordic countries (but is that just because their welfare provision is more generous?). By contrast, a few years ago I visited a prison in Romania where I found it hard to imagine how prisoners (17-20 in a cell, with minimal staff supervision or support) could think beyond how to survive the next few hours, never mind planning their longer term futures.
Perhaps less dramatically, but no less importantly, the work of Prof Alison Liebling and Dr Ben Crewe in the Prisons Research Centre at the Cambridge Institute for Criminology is revealing that in order for prisons to be places where prisoners feel able to develop themselves, five other other aspects of what she calls the ‘moral quality’ of the prison need to be right. These include:
- Bureaucratic legitimacy: ‘the transparency and responsivity of the prison/prison system and its moral recognition of the individual’
- Organisation and consistency: ‘the clarity, predictability and reliability of the prison’
- Humanity: ‘an environment characterised by kind regard and concern for the person’
- Staff professionalism: ‘staff confidence and competence in the use of authority’
- Help and assistance: ‘support and encouragement for problems, including drugs, healthcare and progression’
These findings — as well as those of desistance research — informed the attempts of the Prison Review Team in Northern Ireland to try to elaborate what features a prison system that supports desistance would need to have. Those interested in these questions can read the team’s conclusions at: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/prison/docs/2011-10-24_Owers.pdf
I think there are some important insights and ideas contained in the report — and would welcome comments and discussions about them here — but my experiences working with the team, visiting prisons, talking to prison staff and prisoners, still leave me convinced that when it comes to imprisonment, less is definitely more. Trying to create and run the ‘desistance -supporting prison’ remains one of the most challenging of tasks in criminal justice: but that’s no excuse for not trying.