Sunday, November 15, 2009

Answers, Sunday 15th Nov


1. What's the PhD all about then? What aspects of it are you able to work on inside and what resources do you have to do this?

The short version is this: The field conflict theory and conflict resolution incorporates the idea of Human Needs Theory. This holds that all people have a set of fundamental needs, and that they will struggle to fulfil these needs.

I am attempting to apply Human Needs Theory to the prison environment. Prison, as a matter of deliberate policy, suppresses fundamental needs. My interest is in how prisoners struggle to fulfil these needs and the role that this may play in violent conflict between us, as well as between us and the institution. In riots, for example.

The aspects of this I am able to research here, and the facilities available, are a bone of contention between myself and management. Which is why I'm unemployed and not in the Education Department.

2. Do you think that there is any place for non-violent, non-sexual offenders in prison? Or where would you draw the line?

This strikes at the heart of the debate that should exist around imprisonment, in that the answer to your question rests on what the purpose of prison is intended to be.

As a general proposition, I think that throwing people in prison is a community's way of failing, or refusing, to deal with their own problems. Rather than taking responsibility for dealing with our fellow man, prison allows communities to turn their back on the problem and hand it over to the State.

There are those who are so physically destructive and dangerous that communities may not be able to deal with them. Prison may make sense in that context, although we should ask ourselves how aboriginal, nomadic societies manage to cope with such people without the luxury of prison?

However, most of those in prison are not violent or sexual predators. Rather, they are damaged people with messed up lives and little stake in their communities. Putting them in prison not only fails to deal with their particular flaws, it also strips them of what little social and personal capital they had, which helps explain why most return to prison.

There is no reason why the community itself can both hold these people to account and also support then in addressing their problems. Take drug addicts. Throwing them in prison may stop them robbing your goods but it doesn't alter their fundamental problem one bit. Prison does nothing that cannot be done in the community, with the added disadvantage of stripping them of what few good parts of their life they were managing to maintain.

Even those who do pose a grave threat, such as sexual predators, can be kept in the community safely. The Circles of Support I have previously mentioned do, if necessary, have someone with the criminal at all times in order to ensure that they don't offend.

As it is, prison allows communities to opt for a short term solution to a problem they could cope with themselves. Perhaps relying on the government to deal with every problem is a reflection of the state of our communities and relationships with each other?


  1. Circles of Support are all well and good, but what community would have the resources to actively supervise a sex offender 24 hours a day? It sounds a bit idealistic.

  2. Hmm, yes Aboriginal communities. You are aware that levels of homicide are far higher than in our society? Read your Jared Diamond for the details.

    How do Australian Aboriginals deal with violent offenders? in the modern age the council of elders sentences you to be speared through the thigh. But don't worry, the guy doing it knows how to do it without hitting the femoral artery, most of the time.

    I agree with anonymous, your ideas are utopian. We invented the criminal justice system because of the lynch mob.

    Those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. I remember and I refuse to go back there.

  3. Off topic, but I missed the option to ask a question previously.

    I was just wondering what sort of levels of prisoner to prioner intimidation and violence go on inside prison ? I'm presuming that shown on film and tv (e.g. The Shawhank Redemption, Prison Break) is over-emphasized, but if you keep your head down can you avoid any such confrontation, or is it inevitable ?

  4. There are more indigenous peoples than aussie ones! How did, say, the innuit deal with crime? And why can't a society of sixty million supervise, say, 20 thousand dangerous people? I don't think Ben is being utopian, but rather insists on challenging the obsession with prison as the automatic answer.

  5. whether circles of support work is a matter of fact. Communities in canada and the uk find the resources to do so. They work.

  6. Thank you very much Ben for interesting answers. I agree with you to the extent that imprisonment as it stands serves few, if any, well, often exacerbating problems that may (or may not) have set the scene for the criminality in the first place. I am very interested in the Circles of Support, of which I have heard. I agree that in principle a society that frees prisoners needs to grapple with taking responsibility for cons when they are released. I can see CoS's being used in communities for young offenders, drug offenders and low-risk offenders but beyond that it is a huge ask, and I can't see anyone but the most selfless, dedicated people in the world wanting to stretch themselves to high risk or sex offenders.

    I don't think you can argue against worshipping at the altar of victim's rights at the same time as seeking a very broad application of 'community' based solutions. They are, as others have pointed out, two sides of the same coin. You might disagree, but prison also protects both parties to some extent. Maybe if anyone, prisoners or communities, had any belief that what happened inside them was helpful, we would be halfway there.

  7. I tend to think Ben is wrong about aboriginal cultures coping with violent crime, but that point was a small aside and has been dealt with by others. Any further discussion detracts from the more interesting discussion: circles of support.

    I think it is possible for Ben to be utopian AND right. Just because an idea is ambitious, doesn't mean we shouldn't try it.

    It boils down to a simple question of numbers - are there enough people with the moral fortitude to reach out to the number of sex offenders in the system? I'm less optimistic than madalbert because these people are going to be very rare indeed. All the same, CoS have been shown to work and, even if we can't muster the resources to help every offender, we should try and help as many as we can.

    Perhaps we could maximise our chances by working up? There are bound to be many more people willing to reach out to young offenders with minor crimes, those that are willing to try and help more challenging offenders could be encouraged to do so and so on up to the most difficult of all.

    If CoS were to catch on in a big way (and if it works, I think it might) the pool of potential supporters could be huge. I could see them being of benefit to society in ways other than just supporting existing cons. For example; they would raise awareness of the humanity of people caught in the system and perhaps make your average Daily Fail reader less likely to condemn out of hand, they would make potential offenders less afraid of seeking help before they offend in the first place and they might also recreate the lost feeling of community within wider society. Now THAT is utopian ;)

  8. Ben,
    Can I ask, how many people in prison do you think have been wrongly convicted or are innocent? How many claim to be? Can you tell which are genuine? Do innocent people spend longer in prison due to refusal to admit the crime they didn't commit?

  9. Society has indeed changed and we do not have the time to police all. We still try and help those in need at times of crisis such as elderly neighbours so we have not lost our concern for others. During my formative years, the society I lived in was stable. People did not move away nor did others move in. The community managed to quell anti social behaviour. Much behaviour was frowned upon - single mothers for example were few. We all knew boundaries of acceptable behaviour - the community, church and family instilled this. All well and good, but we also lived in fear of transgressing the rules. Then we joined Europe and of course the subsequent quickening of globalisation has led to massive change with the vast movement of peoples. It is not possible to consider the notion of a caring society as in some ways the stable society was punitive too with people being ostracised for not fitting in? We all have greater opportunities, equality and wealth. I say this as a woman who was treated as a second class citizen for many years.

    I do not accept that serious or persistent criminal behaviour can be successfully managed in the community. We cannot afford to employ the numbers of people to do this. Attempts to provide continuous support to offenders over the years have not been successful either. Read the research on various projects - the latest information on the youth Justice system is abysmal given that they increased the amount of hours supervision to young people. I continually read each year when the police precept is being fixed by the County Council to pay for the local police, that sex offenders are not being monitored under public protection policy because of lack of resources. Even allowing for the scare stories to warrant an above inflation increase on local tax, it is right that the police tell us that they cannot do this. A recent documentary on a sex offender in a supervised hostel in Bristol, led me to the conclusion that even in this setting, paedophiles will offend. I am involved in voluntary work and believe me when I say that it is very difficult to get others in the community interested. Regrettably, there will never be sufficient voluntary or statutory resources to monitor offenders. Further, society does not consider this as important. We prefer to work hard and pay our taxes to protect us from those who seek to harm us. Further, I would need to see the evidence that providing extensive help to offenders works. Everything I read suggests it only assists the few. We cannot develop policy to target the few and those who would benefit would be unlikely to reoffend anyway.

  10. Your doctorate sounds interesting. It takes me back years to my own degree when Maslow's heirarchy of needs dominated. A relative completed his degree a few years ago and he covered the more up to date philisophy (Burton et al) that social conflict springs from unsatisfied basic needs. We had some debates about the definition of human needs and how one can know if they are being met or not, cultural influences, interests v needs etc etc.

    I am commenting on this as I was astonished to read your statement that prison institutions deliberately suppress fundamental needs. I thought that prisons acted within the framework of legislation set by an Act of Parliament? I suppose again the debate is whether a right is fundamental? Your definition of your rights may not concur with mine etc etc. I thought the State only placed limit's on prisoner rights if it was considered necessary. I know the subject matter continues to be redefined as cases come before our Courts and the EU Courts. I believe the test in each case is whether a right is fundamental? Amnesty have all of this on their website and the court judgements are available - interesting reading.

    If you believe that the prison deliberately suppresses your rights then they must be acting illegally? Surely their rules and instructions which are on the prison service website must all be in accordance with the law as passed by Parliament? I cannot fathom this out...Neither can I fathom out how each country within Europe interprets the HRA differently!!!

    Is it possible for a prison institution to meet every need and is it realistic to expect this? Certainly they can meet the needs of subsistence, security, health cover, participation (in education for eg)etc etc. It cannot meet other needs such as participation in civil society (it may help if some offenders can vote), nor freedom of choice, love etc. I would argue that by transgressing the law you give up some of your fundamental rights anyway.

    I am left wondering if what the community expects from prisons differs from your views. I expect everyone to be treated humanely, to be given every assistance to improve or develop skills, to be treated with respect, treated fairly and impartially etc etc. I may not like but would expect many rules to provide regulation and structure to the prison. I am sure that some of these rules are broken occasionally. However, I am still of the opinion that as a society we do our best for those who have broken the rules. I would need a great deal of persuading that prisons seek to introduce rules to harm or deny rights to those in their "custody". If we feel that prisoners rights are being denied, we can lobby for a change in the law. Prisoners also have the rights to take prisons to courts. I do not see where the problem is other than in a philisophical/theoretical debate about institutions needing to adjust to achieve selfhood in each prisoner. I hope I can eventually read your work.....

  11. As I have always understood it, whilst human needs may encompass human rights, they are not the same.