I have recently read John Podmore’s ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Why Britain’s Prisons Are Failing.‘ As the title suggests, it is a thoroughgoing critique of prisons as they are today. After reading it, one is left with the feeling that there is little likelihood of any meaningful change to the system in the near future. Podmore’s pessimism is fueled by his own failures to introduce reforming measures during his time as a prison governor, and he attributes this in large part to the fear that politicians have of attacks by the popular media.
Podmore wants to see changes to the prison system that would break the cycle of offending. As he reminds his readers, most prisoners will find themselves on the outside at some time. Many of them reoffend. With something like 70% of released prisoners committing another crime within a year of their being released, one cannot avoid the conclusion that if you are looking for rehabilitation, prisons as they are today do not provide it.
The recognition of this failure of the institution has led many to conclude that rehabilitation is an utopian project that we would do better to turn our backs on. The task of the justice system is not to reform the criminal, who is, in any case, a bad lot, but to punish him, and to prevent him from committing further crimes by locking him away. To this end, prisons should be secure and unpleasant, and sentencing should be severe.
However, there are, I believe, good reasons to thin that this way of talking about crime and the criminal is as unrealistic as the idea of rehabilitation that it rejects. The belief that it would be possible to create an island so remote and so isolated from the rest of us that we could safely lock away our misfits, turn our backs on them, and get on with our peaceful and largely innocent lives is pure bunkum.
To begin with, there is the point that most offensive and harmful behaviour is not processed by the Criminal Justice system. To start with, despite the efforts of successive governments, who have spent much of their time and energy criminalizing this or that problem activity, there is still a large number of bad things that people can do which are not illegal. On top of that, many activities that could be categorized as criminal are never brought to the attention of the police, or, if they are, the perpetrators remain unpunished. Clear-up rates for all crimes hover between 20 and 30%. Even the police themselves have little confidence in their own capacity to respond to the public’s complaints. Although many criminologists, probation officers, and police officers believe that, in the end, ever criminal runs foul of the law, there is little warrant for this that is other than anecdotal. All malefactors will not be identified, and will not be shut away.
Secondly, those we capture and imprison continue to behave illegally while in their cells. As Podmore is at pains to point out, their victims are not confined to their fellow prisoners, or to their warders – although that is be bad enough – but are also carried out against members of the general public. Inside the prison, they network with others of a like mind, and the networks go beyond the prison universe. From within the walls, prisoners use their portable telephones to organize crimes on the outside. They organize drug sales, drug smuggling and other forms of commerce. If Podmore is to be believed, you can make money while in prison, and come out richer than when you went in.
Thirdly, as our use of prison expands, so our control over those prisons will tend to wither away. In the packed and infested jails of South America, for example, the guards are unable to maintain order, and the prisoners themselves take over the jails, using them as bases for further illegal projects - and even for political organization. (Attempts to crackdown on the import of telephones, or to otherwise limit their use have continually failed: Podmore sees these attempts, even in the UK setting, as being ultimately futile. Phones will always get in, and prisoners will always be able to use them. If fact, trafficking in cell phones is a fine source of income for the interned entrepreneur).
Fourthly, the intensive use of imprisonment breaks up communities, families, and support networks. Ultimately, the penal solution, by leaving communities bereft of young men who are often fathers, and by taking mothers away from their children, leaves a generation to grow up even more likely to take to crime, even more likely to become conscienceless predators, then their parents were. This is already happening in the USA, according to Todd Clear. The penal solution encourages higher levels of crime, rather than the contrary.
For most crimes, and for most criminals, locking the door and throwing away the key will solve nothing. Imprisoning someone, particularly in the conditions that today pertain in many of our jails and prisons, is inhumane, even for short periods of time. While it may be the case that some small number of criminals is so damaged and so dangerous that they need to be kept away from the public realm, the greatest number are capable of change and reform. Prisons are in no way helpful to that process.