Saturday, June 28, 2014

Purpose of Prison

What is the point of prison? What is it we expect to happen via some mystical act of hiding someone away behind a 20 foot wall?

I wish I could point to some profound piece of law; Or guide you to a deeply insightful Parliamentary discussion that encompassed teasing out the nuances of State power, the uncomfortable realities of inflicting suffering on citizens. You will know that such debates haven't yet taken place.

The best I can give you - apart from Chapter One of any criminal justice textbook - is Prison Rule number 3: The Purpose of Prison Training and Treatment. You will appreciate how little attention is paid to this grandly titled Rule when I point out it once held the place of Rule 1. It slides down the list as time passes.

Rule 3 states that, "The purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life".

Note those words: encourage...assist...useful life.... And note the complete absence of the word "punishment". Indeed, the Prison Rules are denuded of that word, as if by its literary absence then the reality of prison is somehow more amenable. Even punishments issued as part of the internal disciplinary process are smuggled into existence by being called "awards". I "won" a few awards over the years, mostly resulting in solitary confinement. An award in prison is not one to be sought after.

Punishment, then, seems to have been forgotten in the Rules. The punitive element of imprisonment is reduced to t6hat inherent in the act of imprisonment - the loss of liberty. Not liberties, please note; but liberty. This is an error that many make. And the loss of liberty is grievously underestimated by those who have never suffered it, by those who insist that imprisonment must be accompanied by imposing harsh treatment and hard regimes.

The Rules are clear. Which makes it rather pathetic that Ministers insist on reaching down from their vast and comfortable official perches into the cells of prisoners, to tweak the penitents lives just to make them a little bit more miserable. Not out of some great penological or criminological urge to reduce crime, but in the politicians perpetual quest to grub for votes and to retain their clammy hold on power.

To take Rule 3 on its face - let's pretend? - it might be asked just what in prison life either encourages or assists prisoners to live a good and useful life? Is it the overcrowding? The meagre family contact? The forced penury? Being forced to work for the profit of outside companies? The ambivalent healthcare? Being compelled to crap in front of cellmates, strangers?

These are structural indecencies, requiring no input from prison staff. This is the way prison is designed to be - degrading and empty of significant positive purpose. An hour in any prison is enough to suggest that far from encouraging a future "good and useful life", prisons foster a sense of anger, injustice and resentment. And a 60% reoffending rate.

I have tried to imagine what a prison would look like if it did aspire to actually adhere to Rule 3. It was so far removed fromj my experience that I failed. Utterly.


  1. In reality, the primary purpose of prison in Britain today is human warehousing, rather than serious rehabilitation or preparation for resettlement back into society. Mental health care provision can be extremely poor for prisoners, with tragic results.

    Almost all prisoners in British prisons (other than around 55 who are serving 'whole life' tariffs) will eventually be released, having cost the taxpayer an average of £40,000 per year each. Reoffending rates, particularly for those serving short sentences, are unacceptably high, so what is the Ministry of Justice - and its boss Chris Grayling - doing about a public service that is currently failing to deliver against its own targets? Well... pointless tinkering with the minutiae of every day routines and petty regulations; removing governors' local autonomy; cutting back frontline staff; slashing education and vocational training budgets and chasing after cheap headlines in the tabloids (eg "lights out at 10.30 pm for young offenders"; making male prisoners wear dirty, badly fitting uniforms for the first two weeks; banning parcels from home)... It would be funny, were it not so tragic.

  2. It used to be said that being sent to prison was the punishment, you were not sent to prison to be punished. Sadly, the prison service gave up on this idea a long time ago. The fact is that we send too many, of the wrong people to prison and has already been said we are simply turning our prisons into holding pens.

    As a society we need to have a serious debate and accept the fact that the system as it is at the moment is just not working. We cannot go on building more and more prisons and sending more and more people to prison for longer and longer sentences, where will it end? It is all very well for politicians to keep making headline grabbing initiatives, this is not something solely the preserve of 'nasty right wing tories' and tabloid press, politicians of all political pursuation have been doing this for years (who will forget the king of the soundbites and his 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'). As a society we need to ask ourselves why is so many people in prison are unable to read and write properly. Why so many people in prison have drink, drug, gamboling, anger management problems. Why so many people in prison have mental health issues. Why so many people in prison have grown up in the care of social services and been failed by that system.

    Having said all that, it is not all the fault of society and the tory government, is it not time that prisoners accepted responsibility for their behaviour? They chose to take drugs and drink too much and if unemployment and poverty were the reason for committing crimes then everybody living on the sink estates of our towns and cities would be in prison, everybody discharged from the care of social services would be in prison. It is too easy for people to blame someone else.

    Btw, what is wrong with expecting prisoners to behave themselves and earn their priviledges? I don't think these new rules should be applied retrospectively, if an inmate already has these priviledges they should not be withdrawn without reason but there is nothing wrong with expecting new prisoners to earn their priviledges.

  3. The purpose of prison is to protect the public from prisoners who are a nuisance and a danger to society.

  4. I completely agree that the state of prisons these days does not particularly correspond to the aforementioned rule. However, its current state does help those who are convicted to learn how they can earn their privileges, in accordance to their behavior. Though I think putting the guilty in prison should not be called so freely as a form of punishment nor isolation, but rather a form of rehabilitation. At any rate, thank you for the interesting read. Have a nice day!

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR’s Bail Bonds


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