Does prison work?
Does prison work?

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Does prison work?

1 The purpose, efficacy and regulation of prisons

Richard Sparks presents a series of views about the purpose, efficacy and regulation of prisons. The audio programme was recorded in 2001.

Participants in the audio programme were:

  • Richard Sparks Professor of Criminology at the University of Keele and is now Professor of Criminology at the University of Edinburgh;

  • Rod Morgan Professor of Criminal Justice at Bristol University;

  • Larry Viner a London magistrate;

  • Alison Liebling an academic at the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge;

  • Tim Newell Governor of Grendon Open prison;

  • Eric Cullen head of Psychology at Grendon Prison;

  • David Wilson head of operational training for the Prison Service.

Activity 1

After listening to the audio programme bear in mind the following questions:

  • How has the programme added to your knowledge of the prison system?

  • What do you now think the purpose of imprisonment should be?

  • Why do you think Grendon ‘works’?

Does prison work? part 1 (11 minutes 7 MB)

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This is Side 2 of D3 15 audio cassette 2. This side looks at how various researchers have addressed the question 'Does Prison Work'? It relates directly to Book 3 Chapter 2 & Book 2 Chapter 5 of the course. It's presented by Richard Sparks of Reele University.
Let's be clear, prison works. It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice.
Michael Howard, Home Secretary speaking at the 1993 Tory Party Conference, reasserting prisons role in his law & order agenda to the delight of his audience. But how do those who work in the prison system or have first hand knowledge of it react to his views? Roland is a lifer at Grenden Prison.
I don't think he really realises what prison is. I don't, you know, I think this is a political statement on his part. It doesn't do anything for me at all and it doesn't do anything for a lot of other men I've talked to who hear that kind of thing because, you know, we've come from other establishments, we see what they're like, we experience what they're like, you know. It doesn't mean anything. It's their containment institutions.
Rod Morgan, Professor of Criminal Justice at Bristol University.
It depends how you interpret what the Home Secretary said. I mean, prison clearly works in the sense that whilst a person is in prison they're not committing crime and his remarks can be interpreted to mean little more than that.
If we take the broader functions of imprisonment, however, you can take a variety of perspectives. Prison can be said to work in the sense that the public require that there be some sort of retributive response to crimes about which they are seriously concerned and that they will only be satisfied in that respect if the person receives the most serious punishment that can be imposed - the person is locked up. But if you want to make someone better, whatever being better might mean, you want to make them literate, you want to give them job skills, you want them to face up to the seriousness of their offending behaviour, whatever it comprises, the worst conceivable place in which to do it is a prison.
Larry Viner, a London magistrate.
The Home Secretary is talking through his hat. The statistics that are available for the amount of people that re-offend within leaving prison of two year period are astronomically high. And that doesn't take in to account the clever ones who are offending and not getting caught-.
Alison Liebling, of the Institute of Criminology in Cambridge.
My feeling at the moment is that prison is being over used, that expectations of what it can do are very high and that if we're realistic we have to start from where we are, I do believe you could make the experience of prison more constructive but only if it's applied to a smaller proportion of the offending population.
Tim NeweII, Governor of Grenden Prison.
It concerned me that we were being faced with a change in emphasis in the way the prisons were being used through that approach and, although one can see that it appealed to a certain trend present in society at that time with one or two reactions to events of that period, nevertheless anybody working in the criminal justice system realises that prisons are very damaging places for individuals and that we should use them as sparingly, as necessary.
They work for certain needs of society but they don't work as a main approach and a main sort of guideline of the criminal justice system.
Eric Cullen, Head of Psychology at Grenden Prison.
Although there are a number of disparate, very positive programmes to address offending behaviour, it's only quite recently that the prison service has got its act together in terms of co-ordinating those and looking to other models of, of treating behaviour like Grenden for direction and so it's been hit and miss for a very long time and most prisons are primarily about clothing, sheltering, feeding and containing large numbers of' inmates.
David Wilson, Head of Operational Training for the prison service.
I think though before we make too many broader statements about does prison work we've really got to satisfy ourselves that we've answered the question, what is prison for.
I mean, is prison about keeping people in custody or is prison about rehabilitating people once they are in custody? Is there some synthesis between those two answers?
Well, I don't think there's really any consensus at all about whether prison is for one or for the other and it seems to me, as a prison governor, that I, I can be criticised, or the prison service can be criticised for being too austere and having too, keeping people in unnecessary secure conditions and at the same time can be criticised, often by the same newspapers, groups of people, for not doing enough about stopping people trying to escape. And so I think the debate really hasn't yet been fully resolved enough to answer the question, does prison work.
Deciding whether or not prison works seems on closer examination to be a complex and uncertain matter. David Wilson points out that we first have to be clear what we want prisons to do. Maybe prison works if it securely contains. But Morgan suggests that for prison to work it should deliver a just penalty.
Then there is the hope that prisons might also act constructively to change offenders attitudes and behaviour. But we've also heard that prison can be an actively damaging experience. It seems that for prison to work it must have some bearing on the community's safety. But what does this tell us about who should go to prison. What should happen to them there?
The prison service has summarised its objectives in the form of a mission statement.
Her Majesty's prison service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and to help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.
The first thing that any prison system must do and it's first legal obligation is to ensure that people who are sentenced to prison by the court stay there. No prison system is worth its salt in terms of its, its prime functions if it doesn't put security at a fairly high - it shouldn't be security at my price because any worthwhile prison system has to be taking risks because we expect people who have been to prison to lead law abiding lives on their release.
And if they come out of prison as the Woolf enquiry report put it "alienated and embittered" and thus less likely to subscribe to the values of justice represented by the criminal justice system, less likely to have respect for the law, less likely to have respect for the rights of other citizens, then the prison system has failed and, furthermore, it's undermined the very purpose of the criminal justice system.
So, any prison system that's worthwhile has got to remember that the vast majority of its charges are in prison for days, weeks, months, rather than years. We estimate, and I'm talking now just about the sentence population, that approaching 80 percent of all sentence prisoners are in prison for less than a year. So it's a transitory experience.
It's true the minority of them will go back time and time again but for most prisoners prison is a transitory experience. So it makes no sense to run any prison system such that after this relatively transitory period people come out less capable of leading a law abiding life.
So how well to prisons deter or rehabilitate? Presumably, if a prison can, in principle, work it can also fail and maybe a prison designed mainly to deter or simply contain might be worse at rehabilitating. Sooner or later, and mostly sooner, they all come out. But will they or we have benefited? The evidence is not encouraging.
Prison doesn't deter them. In fact, sometimes I would say, if anything, because of the, the name of prisons as they are at the moment, it tends to ingrain certain attitudes and people that really should be taken away. So you, you're sending people back on the streets in a lot of ways from other institutions, who are more bitter, who, who have a pr-, a tendency maybe to become more violent. So the, nature of their offending behaviour tends to get worse rather than better.
People appear again and again who have served custodial sentences for whom it has obviously not made any difference. People regularly commit offences on bail because they know they're going to go to prison and they want to get as much as they can before they go in. It's arguable that where somebody knows that they're going to go into custody that they represent a greater risk to society than somebody who isn't going to go in.
The evidence is that the more people there are in prisons the more damaging the experience is for those who are going through it, particularly in overcrowded situations where there are, there's a great emphasis on numbers and where programmes and activities can't be fully developed with paying due care to the individual. That's not to say that the programmes within prisons don't in fact help individuals, and our experience here is that many men derive considerable benefit from what we're able to provide at Grenden, but for the vast majority of people coming into prisons there isn't that opportunity and there isn't that experience for them and therefore the separation from home, the disruption to their family life, their economic life has considerable long term consequences.
End transcript: Does prison work?
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Does prison work? part 2 (6 minutes 4 MB)

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But Mr Howard has professed a readiness to see the system expand further.
We shall no longer judge the success of our system of justice by a fall in our prison population.
At the time that the Woolf Report came out in 1991 the prison population had fallen fairly significantly and was fairly stable and most people reading the Woolf Enquiry Report agreed that there was an agenda for change there to which they could commit themselves.
Following the Woolf Report the government issued a white paper in which they said that they had accepted nearly all of Lord Woolf’s recommendations. However, since then times have changed, I'm afraid, quite dramatically. The fact that the Home Secretary has himself said that prison works appears to have encouraged sentences to make more liberal use of imprisonment, both the numbers going to prison and the length of sentences, and so the prison population has risen dramatically from the low 40s to between 51 and 52 thousand now.
There isn't room for manoeuvre and, furthermore, the Home Secretary has said that he wants prisons to be made more austere and various things are being done to realise that objective.
If the population continues to rise, if we continue to have, towards the end of this century, the sort of overcrowding that we've had in the past, then I fear that the Woolf agenda will go out of the window and we'll have further troubles in our prisons.
The concern is that a rising prison population makes it 'harder to address prisoners' problems or have decent human relationships and without these the potential for personal damage is profound. Alison Liebling has studied suicide and self harm in prisons.
We had quite an increase in 1987 from about 20/25 suicides a year to about 40 or 50 suicides a year and the numbers have stayed pretty high since then, In fact, last year it was about 61 and there's every sign that's it's going to be about that sort of figure this year.
Other countries are showing the same kind of increase so the numbers are-high quite high. You need to look at rates to work out whether or not they're more or less than in the community and what the research shows is that even if you take the same population out in the community the rate is higher in custody than it is outside.
There are lots of possible reasons but the simplest is that, first of all, we imprison a very vulnerable population. If you were to describe the most at risk population in the community you would describe, at the moment, the young male population, those who are socially disadvantaged, people who are alcohol and drug addicted, people who don't have work and stable ties, and that's the prison population.
So, they're vulnerable before they come into custody but then you have to look at what the stage is that they're at in custody. Often it's a period where family ties are finally cut. If relationships have been a bit dodgy then once they get into custody they're often ended and also they have survived the experience of prison. And so the two things together can make life in prison very difficult.
The mental process of coming into this institution can be horrendous sometimes. You know, stripping you of your identity as you come through the gate, you know, in through the reception. We, we don't get it here but I've seen it and I've felt it in other establishments. You're just totally stripped of your identity and if you're coming in for a fairly minor offence that can be so horrendous sometimes that you don't get over, even after you've time your init-, small period of time, your three months and been discharged and you're still trying to get over that stripping of, your identity because there's no process within prison that puts your identity back into you again.
If I think of cases of prisoners I've interviewed after suicide attempts, the reasons probably fall into categories. I think, first of all, a major problem is family and outside responding to an intolerable situation, either a visit not turning up or the ending of a relationship - in the case of some women, children being taken into care - an intolerable relationship problem, but then there can be reasons to do with what's going in prison. Bullying can be a factor, particularly for young male prisoners. I mean, all sorts of problems that people can through whilst they're in custody.
Sometimes prisoners use this word boredom. They'll say, I did it because it because I was bored, but when they're given time to talk about that in a bit more detail they often end up with the word depressed or fed up or a different set of words. So, I think there's often a kind of superficial explanation and then there's a much deeper explanation that only comes out if people are allowed the time to express themselves properly.
Perhaps we're not really clear on what we do want from our penal system. There's a tension under the prison is meant both to satisfy the rising demand for retribution and yet to deliver safe custody and positive regimes.
The unfair expectations on the prison service are almost never talked about and I think it's something I know staff feel quite strongly about, although they don't often thing about it in these terms, that what they're being asked to do is, first of all, look after groups of people who nobody else has ever looked after or wants to look after and then they're expected to solve all the damage that's been done over sometimes a very long history in whatever time they have - 12 months - and then they're held accountable when things go wrong. And I think they're in an impossible situation, the impossibility of their task is not really acknowledged.
One finds increasingly as a prison governor that people don't just happen to come into prison on day one with no previous record or criminal career, they come in with a great deal of past history and past involvement with social services. They have very distinct problems in their lives, be it unemployment, lack of job skills, be it addictions – either to alcohol or to drink - have no formal educational qualifications and the, of course, and sadly, they're stigmatised by having the label 'offender' or 'ex-offender' applied to them.
So that question is a much broader one and it's not simply the responsibility of the prison service to do something about that.
End transcript: Does prison work? part 2
Does prison work? part 2
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Does prison work? part 3 (13 minutes 8 MB)

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So, what can usefully be done in prisons? David Wilson again.
It's about remaining focused about what we can do as a prison service in terms of offender behaviour and treatment programmes which tackle directly why people were coming into prison in the first place, tackling things to do with addictions, either drug or alcohol, tackling issues to do with a specific offending behaviour, giving them the opportunity to make change. And that's the big thing that I would say about prison. Prison at its best offers opportunities to people. The best prisons offer the most opportunities.
Grenden is a Category B prison which is run as a therapeutic community. Most of its prisoners have committed offences of violence and many are serving life sentences. Governor, Tim Newell.
What we have demonstrated through the 32 years of Grenden's work is that when people are given an opportunity to actually take responsibility for themselves and seek to change the direction of their lives with the support of a community of fellow prisoners who’re also thinking along those lines and with the help of a few skilled and dedicated staff, it is possible to achieve communities in which real change can take place. And the evidence is that both from immediate behaviour patterns within the prison setting there are remarkable changes in people's behaviour and secondly, the evidence is of a, a long term change in people's eventual likelihood of reconviction.
Governors Wilson and Newell argue that for prisons to work they must provide opportunities for change. But would their favoured prisons look austere enough to satisfy the Home Secretary or the press?
What we provide within Grenden are five small communities of 40 prisoners in each community and some 15 staff. Each individual has an accountability to the community for their behaviour, for the work which they do. They have areas of discretion in organising the activity of the wing, in making decisions about the wing and certain power is delegated to that community in order to organise its time.
But the main purpose of people coming here is to examine their past and their present behaviours in order to improve themselves in their day to day functioning with each other and eventually, in the long term, hopefully to address their offending behaviour through that process. We try through the process of-providing this environment to eliminate fear which exists in most other prison settings because it's only through being able to trust each other, and particularly to trust staff, that people can begin to be honest about very painful early experiences they have had, very painful current experiences. The experience of deprivation of one's liberty is not an easy experience to go through and we take that for granted quite often, many of us working in prisons, but in Grenden people are actually able to express what if feels like to lose your freedom, whereas in many other places it's something that you can't really expose and can't deal with because it is so painful that you may not be able to handle the anger and the frustration, the tears which flow from that deprivation that you're experiencing.
So, does this make Grendon a holiday camp? Both Roland the lifer and Mr Newell the Governor say not.
The way I felt when I first came inside was that I was forgotten, that nothing was going to be done for me. I was the big bad boy, which I was, but I was never going to be allowed to forget that, that it was going to be continuously drummed in to me in a very forceful manner from the day I got in there to the day I got out. That doesn't do anything for your own self esteem, if' you're trying to break out of that, or if the people working within the system are trying to get you to change, if you've got part of that system it's continuously putting you down with a sort of a thumb on your head.
So what happened is that I was going out there, even though I said, like loads of inmates would say, oh, you’ll never see me again. You have those sort of good intentions but the underlying thing, the thing that makes you tick hasn't really changed and maybe has got worse, as I said. And the next thing you know you're re-offending again.
If you haven't had that help at those initial stages of coming inside as a raw recruit to prison, say, you can go out and not realise the basic faults that you have unless they've been sort of, pointed out. So you're going out no better than what you were when you came in.
I think Grenden's changed that inasmuch as the way I'm, I'm talking about how I perceive myself and, and the way the system is running now. I would never have looked at things like that, in that depth, before. I would never have looked at myself in that depth before. I never saw the need. I always felt that really the world owed me a living for past grievances that were quite genuine, that had been committed to me, you know.
And I'd never got over that. I'd always had a hang up about that. I'd always felt that I needed my pound of flesh - consequently, my offending behaviour because I didn't get my pound of flesh. And one of the things that Grenden's helped me to realise is to make me look back at my past, see where things stemmed from, why they happened the way they happened, why I've carried them on, and then learn to change things about my here and now attitude to life, to people, to myself. So these are the things Grenden's given me, the chance to change and to grow and to become, a little bit more of a more rounded normal human being.
This certainly isn't a soft option. .It superficially sometimes does appear to be a rather easy place to be in and that's because in order for the prison to work there has to be an open and good communication between people and so there is a friendship between staff and prisoners which is not evident in many other prisons.
But if' you actually asked prisoners of' their experience they would say, and they have said to me, that this experience of Grenden has been the hardest period of' their custodial experience because they cannot avoid responsibility for what they have done. And the prime responsibility which men here have to accept is that they have created victims in the past and that they have been dangerous and damaging people and that their, it's their behaviour that did that. There may be all sorts of reasons for that behaviour but in order to make progress they have to accept that they are the people who need to do something about this. No-one else can.
One of the distinctive features of Grenden is that prisoners volunteer to go there and a condition of their staying is that they agree to give up a number of the traditional consolations of prison - drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, gambling.
Well, I wasn't into drugs anyway, so that's never been my forte. Alcohol was the big thing for me. Yeah, and that's hard, especially in other institutions where you can, there's hooch alcohol going around. That can be hard. I mean, say, it can be hard not to want to take somebody in the recess and punch them on the nose because he's upsetting you, if you're that way inclined. It can be hard not to sort of drink yourself into oblivion because it makes it easier for the day to go by, rather than just suffer all the sort of, you know, the stupid things that happen in prison. And that, that can awkward at times. It, the close friendships some men have with each other can be hard when they, they, they have to open them up and, and analyse them.
Yeah, I can, I can see all those - of course they're hard. But then again what's going to be harder? Is it going to be harder to continuously come back inside and maybe die inside as an old man and create no end of more victims outside. I mean, I would have thought that was far harder than to give up drink for eighteen months, two years, whatever the case may be I mean, I'd sooner do without all those sort of things rather than to create more victims outside, you know.
Perhaps it's a matter of' exchanging the pains and illicit pleasures of the classic austere institution for the challenges of greater responsibility. But does it all work? And how can we tell? Psychologist, Eric Cullen.
We actually see the changes for ourselves in the men. They actually report the changes in themselves as well, that they're feeling better about themselves, that they gradually take on more, responsibility, that they're reassured and reinforced by that, whether it's within the community, being a chairman or a, a representative of the community or going off to education and achieving, trying to achieve more qualifications.
We also assess it in terms of the lowest rate of institutional offending of practically any comparable prison in the country, certainly the lowest rate of any Cat B prison and one of the half dozen or so lowest rates every year, year after year, of any of the 1345 prisons in the country.
But most critically, we actually assess how well we're achieving our objectives, I think, ultimately, by lower rates of re-offending, fewer victims. And essentially, the critical point I would make there, is that almost every man who comes here has failed miserable and demonstrably in relationships. They are destructive in relationships and we focus on interpersonal skills. We focus on building relationships and, uniquely in the prison system, when you concentrate on improving people's interpersonal skills, helping them gain insight into where they've gone wrong in the marriages and whatever it is, whatever relationship it is, they achieve a greater sense of' peace, of self confidence and resolve to have no more victims.
Grenden, as yet, is a special place for people who pose a serious danger to others and all the therapeutic effort reflects that. Most people might agree both that prison works in securely confining those people and that there is a need for serious work to address their behaviour. When prison governors speak of the need to focus their work, this is what they mean. But the greater part of the prison population is not of this kind and here the consensus breaks down. What of the wayward youth, the mentally ill, the persistent minor property offender, for whom problems of literacy, employment, housing and addiction are more salient to their offending behaviour and their life chances.
These are the sorts of people that magistrates see and sentence everyday.
What we're talking about are people that are sent to prison for whom we would like to have an alternative. We do have alternatives. We have community sentences. We have the facilities to treat alcoholics, drug addicts, schizophrenics, all of whom find themselves in prison.
What we don't have is the will on the part of either the Home Secretary, the government, or society, to treat people in that way.
We are faced with some fundamental problems, not just about the role of prisons but about our very ideas of punishment.
A lot of my job as a prison governor is trying to explain to the public why they should be engaging with prisoners, what advantages there are for them in engaging with prisoners and the prison service because, at the end of the who's currently inside as a prisoner will come out back into the community and if they come out in some way in a better position to engage more positively with the community, then that benefits us all.
We do use imprisonment as a punishment. We don't send people to prison for punishment. I think we're in a slightly confused ideological ere and people have very contradictory demands. I think the public have contradictory demands. They, if they think about what they want, what they want is less crime but what they also want emotionally is revenge and I think we get all those sorts of feelings tangled up and the two things can't be done in the same way.
(Prison door closes)
This is the end of side 2. D3 15 audio cassette 2
End transcript: Does prison work? part 3
Does prison work? part 3
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