Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Answers 2

If you could make one major change to the criminal justice system
for (a) Adult and (b) Juvenile offenders, what would they be?

I would throw out criminal justice and institute restorative justice. Responding to social harm by inflicting more harm is the dumbest artefact of Western civilisation. It is the equivalent of two men punching each other in the face, to see who gives in first. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

To what extent does prison life become 'normal' over time- as in, do people just in find it very difficult to cope, and is there a risk that people at the other end of the scale (such as yourself) become institutionalised and may find problems dealing with outside life again?

We must differentiate between two concepts. There is 'prisonisation', where one picks up and learns the local culture and mores. Then there is 'institutionalisation’, which is a fairly vague concept which usually implies a loss of skills, intellect or ability.

Prisonisation is the process new arrivals undergo. This is like landing in a foreign country; initially slightly confusing, but the local knowledge allowing one to function is picked up rapidly. Some people do find it hard to cope because the change is unremitting and unavoidable.

You can get used to prison, as you can get used to any set of difficult circumstances. Human beings are incredibly adaptable. But it is always deeply abnormal. It is also not unusual for it to become less easy to cope with as time passes. I recall having terrible difficulty at the start of my second decade, leading me to try and kill myself through an extended hunger strike (43 days). These periods tend to afflict me every ten years or so. I seem to survive; some lifers don't.

Institutionalisation is largely a myth based on flawed experiments made on rats, exploring the concept of ‘learned helplessness'. I have little time for it. That isn't to say that the transition from prison to freedom is devoid of difficulty.
This isn't because we lose our abilities during the sentence but rather is a function of self-belief. Imprisonment is a perpetual exercise in being patronized, dis-empowered and de-skilled. If you persistently tell people that they are inadequate, some will begin to believe it. Those are the ones who worry about freedom, begin to believe that they cannot cope, and it a false concern.

I do find discussions around institutionalisation as interesting as they are frustrating. Everybody seems to mean something different by it, and if I try to pin them down on quite what, exactly, is meant to be difficult about daily life then the answers become evasive. Six billion people bumble through daily life okay, how hard can it be? What do you think I may have problems with?

People forget (or don't realise) that prisons are a little society and encompasses all the features of the wider world, if somewhat warped. There is a social structure, neighbour disputes, work, a complex economy… all we seem to lack is decent access to technology!

2. Also, what is the mood like? Do people try their best to get on with it, or is there a certain amount of gloom and resentment hanging around all of the time?

It's a truism that if you put more than two lifers in a room, there will be an outbreak of moaning. I think that's quite optimistic…

We do try to get on with it, trying to create and sustain an existence of sorts within which we can find some meaning. We also complain like hell about every aspect of our lives. It is more bitterness than gloom, and it lurks just beneath the surface.

As is common in all difficult situations, humour is a great defence against being overwhelmed. Prison humour is appalling, way beyond the pale of normal people and though I wish I could, I dare not share any of it with you! We make Frankie Boyle look like Norman Wisdom.

3. Are there any groups of people (such as chronic re-offenders) who the system is unable to deal with? If so, how would you protect the public from these people?

Depends what you mean by "deal with'. The system can physically contain and control any individual within its grasp. Whether it can 'deal' with making a positive difference is another issue.

The prison system can only do what society funds and mandates. There are those who are particularly difficult, in that present systems seem unable to change them for the better. This doesn't mean that other methods and systems wouldn't work, only that they are presently neglected due to political and social constraints.
There are those I have met, even some I live with now, who I would hesitate to release. But I refuse to accept that there are many of them who cannot change.
Prison is stuffed full of chronic re-offenders. But are they really socially dangerous, or are they more of a nuisance? They are often drug users, which highlights an old complaint that the prison system is asked to deal with sociomedical problems because no one else wants to deal with them. Free heroin would slash the crime rate.

Perhaps you refer to the likes of serial killers? This is a moot point, as none have ever been released yet. Can they be changed? No one knows, no one has tried. Only those who have never been caught, yet have stopped killing know the answer and they are keeping their mouths shut.

Or maybe you mean serial rapists or paedophiles? The prison service claims some success with its Sex Offender Treatment Programme. I think their research is shoddy and dishonest. That said, the re-offending rates for sex offenders is one of the lowest (murderers being lowest of all).

In a real sense I echo the view of John McVicar. Prison doesn't reform. It is up to the individual to decide to change. I suppose the best prison can ever do is create an environment conducive to that change and which supports it. Such a pity it never has.

4. What time is it?

As I write, it's 8:55 pm and we have just been locked up for the night. I'm settling down trying to listen to Jack Johnson and read a paper but the damn bell ringers in the church opposite are really going for it.


  1. I am partially with you wrt restorative justice and that it is under used. Back home in New Zealand stimulated by a Maori desire for their cultural norms the Justice dept did institute it and it can work.

    It is used for relatively minor things, but can be used for things like serious assault. However the sticker is always that the victims have to be willing to play ball. If you try and force them then they play hard ball and the whole thing falls apart.

    So I'll ask a supplementary question if I may:

    In a restorative justice system how do you handle victims of crime who are out for revenge at all costs? Everyone reacts to crime differently.

    This is after all the basis for taking criminal justice out of the direct hands of the community originally. Lynchings are never pretty.

  2. I find your blog both entertaining and highly informative but my thoughts often come back to the fact that you've never lived on the outside as an adult.

    Specifically, when you say:

    "Six billion people bumble through daily life okay, how hard can it be? What do you think I may have problems with?"

    Of course you are right in a way, but humans are always learning and adapting and facing new problems - just as I can have no real idea of what prison life is like without experiencing it myself (although I many think I do) the reverse is also true.

    You equate prison to a foreign country at one point; I recently returned from living abroad for 3 years, and even though I had grown up in Britain for 24 years nothing could have prepared me for the shock I got on my return.

    Although, of course, being inside is harder than being on the outside (presumably that's partly the intention), and I don't mean to cause offence by this, but the sense of responsibility and helplessness that one feels having to break their back everyday to earn just enough to keep them and their family alive - knowing that there's no safety net and if they f*ck up they'll go hungry - is such a burden that i'm surprised 6 billion manage it.

    Of course this isn't everyone's experience, but having spent the last 3 years just about keeping my head above water (and having read your blog since the first post) I feel an honest concern for lifers who get out - that maybe once they've got over the initial excitement and settle down into the drudgery of life - with the true and honest realisation that food and board etc is now their sole responsibility - they might feel a little overwhelmed.

    Have you ever heard anything like this from any of your friends who are fresh out?

    ...sorry if my post is a little pessimistic.

  3. Hi Ben

    You say institutionalisation in prisoners / ex prisoners is difficult to define and nobody's done a good job. I can imagine that but in the residential care sector I think I can give it a shot.

    I think you've hit the nail on the head when you talk about self-belief, or as I would put it, confidence. Residents, and to one extent or another coal-face staff, are conditioned into expecting low standards and having low expectations / aspirations about their quality of life.

    Some of the people in the home I live in have been here 50, 60, 70+ years. They've been in an institution all their lives. No attempt was made to teach them to read or write. One lady was spoken to in baby language throughout her childhood, teens and twenties and so she has never learned to comprehend or produce speech.

    To give another example: current funding arrangements for residential care mean that anybody who has any form of State assistance in paying their fees - which is the case for most working age people in residential care - are not able to keep any of their earnings, and indeed would be worse off than the state of penury we are kept in (the majority of our benefits are taken off us to pay for the home). We simply can't afford to work. The funding system is a legacy of the 1948 National Assistance Act, it's not changed in 60 years.

    Now, the organisation who runs the home I live in has 2,100 people of working age in their residential homes. It claims to enable disabled people to have aspirations, run a normal life and have the support etc. they need. But when I asked them about the rules about earning in residential care, they weren't even aware of them. That is, none of their residents have ever got as far as that rule - all the other factors (low expectations, "learned helplessness" (though I know you dislike that term) and so on) had stopped them getting that far.

    That's institutionalisation, in my view. And when they come across difficult customers (you and I have something in common in this regard), educated people who have a defined sense of right and wrong and their rights, people who hold them to account against their own stated policies and procedures, they firstly have a head in the sand approach, they can't cope, and ultimately they victimise them.

    The sad thing is, prisoners are expected to be challenging / unamangeable / to not like their situation / to attempt to escape / to experience punishment, whilst residents pay towards their incarceration and are expected to be grateful for their treatment! Perhaps even more sad is that many residents come to accept or even value this system as they just aren't aware of what their life could really be like "outside" or if their rights were truly respected and acted upon - or even if they are aware, just for a quiet life and to avoid retribution.

    Now that's institutionalisation for you. It exists and is rife in some sectors, even if it's not necessarily identifiable in the prison sector (for which I take your word)

    All the best to you as always


  4. @doug. What you say is shocking at every level. All institutions have this urge to suck the life out of people, it is depressing.

  5. Prisonisation is a new term to me. Should I be substituting it for what I've been terming institutionalisation? What I'm referring to is something I've heard described by a few people, such as someone who described himself as having been 'a career criminal', in and out of reform school then prison all his life. He said eventually he was more comfortable inside as he knew where to get what he needed (drugs), all his mates were in there, the screws all knew him, and his basic needs seemed to him to be met. He, and someone else who'd done a few years, also said they re-created their cell on the outside and followed the same routine as on the inside for some time. (One of them told me he could still hear the prison soundscape in his head, that being said he was a bit mentally unstable at the time.) And I'm also talking about people deliberately getting sent back inside once they are released.


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