Monday, May 2, 2016

Penal Reform and Unintended Consequences

Part One

There are many types of prison reform. Some efforts result from a political spasm in the face of tabloid populism. Some flows from great strategic changes following a crisis. On rare occasions, changes flow from an understanding that prison is a rather rubbish way of dealing with any problem.

And even the briefest glance at penal history reveals that all criminal justice reforms contain within them a ticking time-bomb – the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Short, Sharp Shock
The early, heady days of Thatcherism were a truly different place in many ways. One echo of our times, though, was the presence of a media created and driven moral panic. In the early 1980’s, amidst inner city riots, the popular panic was a fear of “feral youth”. Merely stepping out of your front door was bound to end with a mugging. Most likely by a Black teenager. Or so the tabloids were having it.

And Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw made the most basic of errors – he took the bait and began making justice policy as a response to media driven panics. He can’t be overly chastised for this, it is the usual pattern of Ministers with crime and justice.

The combined result of popular panic and an Old Duffer was the gloriously PR friendly “Short, Sharp Shock”. The old Borstal system was abandoned wholesale and replaced with Detention Centres. The aim seemed to be to treat criminally inclined kids with physical harshness. Education and training were replaced with gym circuits.
The end result of this policy spasm was a little empire that quickly sank into a quagmire of deliberate brutality.  It transformed indolent burglars into extremely fit young men with a grudge. And crime did not fall.

Drug Testing
On the face of it, prisoners should not be enjoying illegal drugs. I’m hard pressed to play the oppressed prisoner in the face of that simple statement. And yet...

Outsiders often fail to appreciate that each prison comprises a society, a warped microcosm of life on the Street. And drug use is a feature that permeates the walls, as drug users move in and out of the criminal justice system. For the majority of my captivity the drug culture centred on cannabis. Contrary to revisionist myth, the cannabis culture was a broadly accepted one in most prisons, with staff ignoring its consumption to varying degrees. A stoned prisoner is a happy prisoner – and a happy prisoner is one who isn’t going to present problems. A fairly benign equilibrium was in effect.

Michael Howard peered down from his office into this situation, and choked on his cuppa. Prisoners will not take illegal drugs! The policy was uttered, a big fat Manual printed, and a whole infrastructure of Drug Testing Suites, dedicated testing staff, legal procedures, laboratories... It was a bandwagon many in the Prison Service leapt upon. A quick tinkering of the Prison Act and Mandatory Drug Testing was born in the mid 1990’s.

Prisoners soon discovered the crux of the problem. Cannabis – its THC component -remains in the body to be detectable via urine testing for up to 30 days. The chances of actually continuing to use cannabis and not get caught was slim. This could have led to some interesting manouevres were it not for developments in the wider society – heroin. For many years heroin was viewed as a “dirty” drug, and its users viewed similarly. While not being unknown in prison, heroin was far from common on the landings.

As drug testing collided with the cannabis culture inside prisons, outside prisons there had been growing a larger number of heroin users. Heroin was becoming more socially acceptable (in some circles!). And these addicts were entering prisons in ever increasing numbers. Along with their cravings, they brought with them the solution to the “detectable for 30 days” problem.

Heroin can be expelled from the body in 2 days. The chances of taking heroin and remaining undetected by drug testing was a seemingly attractive one. As time has passed, the availability of cannabis has collapsed, as prisoners shifted towards heroin (and of late, New Psychoactive Drugs). The number of new addicts created is not known; nobody cares, no one asked. The crimes they went on to feed their addiction, countless.

A vastly under-appreciated consequence of this War on Drugs was a tightening of general perimeter security and, more significantly, a huge transformation in the circumstances in which prisoners received visitors and struggled to keep their relationships alive. Prior to this wave of new security measures, domestic visits often took place in reasonable conditions (considering...). Staff were not intrusive and various intimate activities were ignored and policed by prisoners (“not in front of the kids!”).

The drug war destroyed these conditions. Staff became massively intrusive, CCTV in visits became ubiquitous and it was a rare visits session where staff failed to see something suspicious and pile mob handed upon a family. Physical contact is massively restricted. The result has been that as the prison population nearly doubled, the number of domestic visits has almost halved. Needless to say, family support is one of the major factors in reducing reoffending.

For nearly 20 years the drug testing policy has actively fostered a drug culture dominated by heroin. Savagely addictive and morally corrosive, tens of thousands of new muggers and burglars have fell into its grip. And then re-entered society to add to the 10 Billion pounds a year bill and immeasurable human misery that follows reoffending.

This miserable failure of a policy continues.

Part 2 – IPP, Education and Offending Behaviour Courses

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