Prison doesn’t work

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.

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Review of Shadd Maruna’s ‘Making Good’

Shadd Maruna’s “Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives” is a report from within the belly of the beast. The author only rarely glances up from the little bit of ivory upon which he etches out the stories of his reformed and unreformed criminals. Despite the occasional nod to Foucault, or to David Garland, his eye, and above all his ear, are fixed upon the ways in which those who desist from crime differ in their accounts of their careers and of themselves from those who continue in their delinquencies. His subjects, two matched samples of desisters and non desisters, all from the English city of Liverpool (the work done with these two groups is referred to as the Liverpool Desistance Study) were interviewed and asked to provide ‘life stories’ or accounts of how and why they had either ceased or not their criminal activities.

As Maruna acknowledges, it is not a simple matter to find two clear-cut groups such that one can be identified unequivocally as ‘reformed’, the other not. Like abandoning many another harmful pleasure – the pleasures that we often qualify as addictions – abstention from crime is rarely an overnight occasion, accomplished at the click of a finger. Although I can pinpoint the moment at which I thrust my last packet of cigarettes into the hands of an eager smoker, never to light up again, I have a hard time recalling all the occasions that I attempted to give up and failed. So it seems to be with the successful desisters in Maruna’s study.

However, as has long been known, unlike tobacco addicts, the great majority of criminals eventually give up. The real difference, then, between the Liverpudlian desisters and their criminal peers is that the former have traveled a little further along the road. For Maruna, this progression is closely linked to the ways in which the young men and women tell their stories, and in particular in the ways in which they view their own agency.

For both groups, becoming criminal was something that happened to them, rather than something that they did. The majority look back to conditions and events in their childhood, including, overwhelmingly, poverty and bad parenting. Other, more contingent, factors may also be invoked, such as the sudden flooding of the market with heroin after the abortive uprising of 1981. The difference does not lie here: the criminal sees him or herself as a cork tossed upon the waves. To many outside observers, this can be seen as a refusal to accept responsibility, but as Maruna makes clear, it enables the delinquent to maintain a sense of self that is removed from the evils he or she perpetrates, and that will become the seed from which the subsequent redemption will spring.

So it is that while those who persist in their criminality continue to see themselves as constrained, forced by the drugs, the bad friendships, the indifferent probation officers, or ‘the system’ as a whole, to commit crime after crime, the desister, often helped on his way by an instant of recognition of the good that lies in inside him – a girlfriend that believes in him, a child that needs him, a magistrate that affords him a second chance – breaks through to the light on his own terms and by his own means.

Maruna sees this a being rather less realistic than the more pessimistic judgements of those who continue in crime, and draws a parallel between the latter and the depressive who, so it has been argued, sees his circumstances with greater clarity than the psychologically healthy. But this is questionable. Recent work in psychology suggests that ‘depressive realism’ is simply an outcome of the depressive’s tendency to say ‘no’. One of its effects is to comfort the sufferer in his or her refusal to undergo treatment. The belief that one can change one’s conditions through one’s own efforts is harder to follow through on, but, as the participants’ own stories suggest, more realistic than the hopeless abandonment of self within which the non-desisters are enmired.

This cavil aside, the picture Maruna paints makes sense. It has implications for intervention. Prisons as they are today do little to reinforce the core self of the prisoner, reinforcing the passivity and acceptance of the delinquent career. Even more ‘enlightened’ forms of justice intervention may, by insisting on the need for shame, for self-blame, make it more difficult for the crooked to go straight. And more generally, the very fact that Maruna’s work insists on the possibility of change, on the possibility of redemption, batters at the metaphysical pathos of those who murmur that ‘nothing works’, or who psychologize the criminal as a ‘psychopath,’ a personality so antisocial, and so impervious to change that all one can do is lock them away until they are too old and infirm to cause further damage.

So this is a good book, and a hopeful book. But, as I said at the beginning, it remains, for the most part, within the beast’s belly. It needs to be read alongside work by David Garland, Loic Wacquant, and – at an even longer distance – Michael Mann, to place the police and drug-bound lives of the LDS young men and women within a larger framework. Not that Maruna pretends it isn’t there: as he says, these youngsters’ attempts to better themselves are ringed around by expectations that are founded in class and domination (his discussion of the resistance to their becoming counsellors is enlightening in this regard), and there are those who prefer to deal with heroin-addled petty criminals rather than angry youth with petrol bombs and barricades.


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Thy Servant, a Dog

When I was growing up, Kipling was a constant presence. The Jungle Books, ‘Kim’, ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’, ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ and ‘Stalky and Co.’ were regularly taken down behind the living room sofa, where, safely enwombed, I would spend hours turning the pages. Among my favourites were the dog stories, which I would alternate with pieces by James Thurber. I suspect that if I were to read them again today, I would find many of them maudlin, but at the time they gripped me and kept my head down.

Kipling, like all writers for children, anthropomorphized his beasts. Until recently, this was considered a sin on a par with the anthropologist’s guilty penchant for ethnocentrism. However, if we take Darwin at all seriously, then we should recognize a high degree of kinship with other mammals, at least, and that may well be a kinship that extends to the cognitive. To a greater or lesser degree, animals like apes, elephants, and dogs, think and reason in ways that we can empathize with.

Steven Mithen sees anthropomorphism as being typically human, one aspect of a cognitive revolution that occurred some 100,000 years ago. It gave our species an edge that enabled it to thrive while other hominids, and in particular the Neanthertal, died out. By projecting the capacity to reason onto our animal prey, we were able to mount more efficient hunting expeditions.

But Kipling’s anthropomorphism is, in a sense, secondary or double. For he does not simply project our own ‘belief-desire psychology’ (to use Mithen’s terms) onto other animals, but has his animals project it back onto us. His dogs attempt to understand their owners, and although their misreadings are often comic – as are my own often erroneous attempts to understand my peers – they nevertheless often work out.

But does this mark the point at which Kipling’s tales become nothing more than ‘Just-So Stories’? Well there are grounds for believing that dogs do, indeed, have pretty good theories of the human mind. While some animal psychologists such as Clive Wynne, remain skeptical, as A. Horowitz points out, their negative findings tell us more about the way that psychological research is carried out than they do about the way dogs think.  Others, such as Jozsef Topal , have noted that dogs show their intelligence in the context of close relationships with humans. Kipling’s dogs, with their constant attention to their beloved masters and mistresses, are the fruit of accurate observation.

As Raymond Coppinger suggests, it seems likely that dogs and humans chose each other, with the dog playing as active a part in domestication as the humans did. And probably some kind of canine theory of the human mind will have played a part. As one researcher, noting that jackals will hunt with leopards, starting the prey, and heading them towards where the cats are waiting, surmised, some particularly deviously minded wolves may have found in humans a useful ally.

And so it was that many thousands of years ago – some have estimated it at over a 100,000 years in the past – the dog may have been the first to put its mark upon the multi-species social contract. Perhaps even before we did ourselves.

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The Social Contract

If there ever was a social contract, it was not signed between men and other men, nor even, perhaps, as Chris Knight argues, between men and women, but between humans and a small selection of other animals. These include dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, cows, Indian elephants, camels, llamas and perhaps honey-bees. Cats, of course, recognize no contract and are not considered in what follows. Pigeons, on the other hand, contracted in, and have done very well out of it.

As have most of the species mentioned. Considered as an evolutionary bio-social complex, the group of animals with whom humanity has contracted has done very well for itself, and most members now find themselves filling and thriving in regions and ecologies which would have been out of their reach as single species. Compare the global reach of the dog with the limited ranges of the wolf, or go to any city centre and count the pigeons.

The human sciences have, to a large extent, been blind to this phonemenon; our sociologists, and our economists, to a great degree, strip their subjects of their relationships with other beasts, or simply glance at the domestic pet as a special and rather amusing case while reducing cow, pig, and sheep to the status of a raw resource to be exploited.

And there lies the rub. For lately we have broken the contracts, forgetting that we owe as large a debt to our fellow signatories as we do to our own ingenuity and industry. We shut them up in factories, we slaughter them wholesale, and eat them in huge quantities without ever having acquired that intimacy that sacrifice entails. Some among us, in reaction to this, prefer to renounce the contract entirely, becoming vegetarians or vegans, abandoning their partners with a self-indulgence that they confuse with loving care.

What is needed is not a renegotiation of the contract, but a fuller understanding of what it entails. It is a contract that includes death and post-mortem rituals. It can be seen as cruel, but it implies respect and reciprocity – both in life and death – beyond that offered by either the vegetarian or the factory farmer.


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The Death Penalty (Thin Blue Line X)


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No system of justice is fool-proof. No human institution is fool-proof. In France, in the UK, we can find numerous examples of judicial error and of wrongful conviction. But although such errors may cost the innocent dear, they do not take their lives. Randall Adams came within three days of execution, and spent over three years on Death Row. It was because Adams was sentenced to death that Errol Morris came to meet him, and it was because he was on Death Row that Morris made the film.

The United States is often regarded as being something of a stand-out, its retention of the death penalty an anachronism, an American peculiarity. The reality is that state executions still take place in many parts of the world. For example, the killing of criminals is current in China: no-one knows how many people are put to death by the state every year, but a recent estimate was of 5,000 in a single year.

China is, of course, an authoritarian régime. But there are democracies that also use the death penalty: India is one example – although, like other countries that keep the penalty on its statute books, it uses it very rarely. Japan and South Korea also have it. However, there does seem to be a general movement towards its abolition. Often a nation will simply stop using the punishment for some time before they actually strike it from the books.

As the sociologist David Garland points out, we cannot conclude from this that the USA is a special case. To begin with, the USA is a federation of states, and not all of them have maintained the death penalty. The state of Michigan was one of the earliest judiciaries in the world to abolish it, and did so in 1847. For comparison, France abolished the penalty in 1981: the last person executed there, a Tunisian named Hamida Djandoubi, died in 1977. In England, the last two people were hanged in 1964, accomplices in a robbery and murder. The penalty was abolished in the following year, for a trial period of five years. Abolition was later confirmed.

In the United States, the death penalty was suspended in all states for a period between 1972 and 1976, the Supreme Court having found that the laws as they stood could not guarantee equitable trials. The system was, they found, arbitrary and capricious. The different states reformed their statutes, and the Supreme Court was satisfied with the new laws; executions could begin once more.

However, as we have seen, not all US states have death penalty statutes. Of those that do, not all of them make great use of the penalty, and, to all intents and purposes, we can say that the death penalty at present is a phenomenon that is concentrated in the Southern States. Among those states, Texas is the one that executes the greatest numbers – there were 17 executions in the state in 2010.

Randall Adams and his brother Ray were making their way across the United States from Ohio, heading for somewhere warm to spend the winter. Adams suffered from arthritis, and this was particularly troublesome to him in the winter months. They were on their way to California. Ohio is a death penalty state, but actually executes very few murderers. California has more people sentenced to death than Texas, but executes less of them. One evening during their journey, stopping in Nashville, the two brothers decided not to continue to California, but to try their luck in Dallas.



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Death Penalty 2 (The Thin Blue Line XI)

After having been found guilty, Randall Adams was, as is the case in all death-penalty trials in the USA today, faced with the second phase in which the jury had to decide on the penalty. In France, or in the UK, sentencing decisions are left to the judge, and this is also the case in the US for all crimes but murder. For this crime, the Supreme Court insists upon it.

The film-maker had come to Texas to make a documentary about the notorious Dr. Grigson, often known as ‘Dr. Death’. Grigson was a psychologist who was regularly called to testify as an expert witness by the prosecution in capital cases. He was renowned for always advising that the condemned prisoner was certainly dangerous, and likely to kill again. This he did, once again, in the case of Adams. This testimony, added to the fact that Adams had killed a policeman, for no comprehensible reason (the prosecution argued that he had been trying to impress the 16-year-old David Harris), persuaded the jury to condemn Adams to death.

Because juries decide the penalty, prosecutors ask judges to exclude from death-penalty case juries anyone who has a principled objection to the death penalty such that they would be refuse to condemn someone to death. The Supreme Court has accepted such jury seeding, but does not allow the exclusion of jurors who, although they might be against the death penalty, nevertheless agree that they will abide by the present rules. It was this fine distinction that was to save Adams, for the prosecution in his case did not differentiate between those who were willing to apply the penalty, even though they objected to it, and those who would be unwilling to apply it.

The practice of jury seeding is, however, in itself problematic, for it has been shown that jurors who favour the death penalty are also less likely to be skeptical of the prosecution case, and more likely to find the accused guilty than are those who do not favour the penalty. People who are accused of capital murder, and whose juries have been seeded in the usual way, have a greater difficulty in convincing the jury of their innocence than do the accused in non-capital cases, where more liberal-minded jurors, less disposed to accept the voice of authority, are more likely to be present.

(see On the Fairness of Death-Penalty Jurors: A Comparison of Bayesian Models with Different Levels of Hierarchy and Various Missing-Data Mechanisms, by Elizabeth A. Stasny, Joseph B. Kadane, Kathleen S. Fritsch, Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 93, No. 442 (Jun., 1998), pp. 464- 477

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Vidor, Texas (Thin Blue Line IX)

David Harris drove the car that he had stolen from Vidor to Dallas, and then returned there after the murder. When Randall Adams’s lawyers went to the town, to find out more about David Harris, they mostly drew a blank. Vidor, a small town where everyone knew everyone else, had decided to protect their own. Dennis White says that Vidor was a centre of KKK activity, and that the locals were under the impression that James Wood was black. (Wood was, in fact, a Cherokee Indian).

Vidor has a population of some 11,000, most of whom, says Dave Anderson, a photographer whose book Rough Beauty  is set there, are extremely poor. In the recent past, it was indeed a centre of KKK activity, and it was one of the many small southern towns that actively discouraged black people from settling. Such places were known as ‘Sundown towns’, as many of them would have signs telling all non-whites to be gone by the time the sun set. Today, it is still largely a white town.

Vidor is a town where most of the people hunt, and own guns. David Harris will have grown up knowing how to use them, and he also knew how to take care of them: Sam Kittrell recounts how the boy had wrapped the murder weapon up so well that it survived being sunk in water for a fortnight without suffering any damage.

Although there is much poverty in Vidor, and despite its racist past, there is comparatively little violence there. Theft is somewhat above the national average, which is probably due to the fact that many people are living on or below the breadline. But David Harris cannot be seen as a natural product of his surroundings. Many people in Vidor know how to use guns, but they don’t shoot other people with them.


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