Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Britain's Correctional Crisis

Yesterday's Guardian reported that English and Welsh prisons are "at their worst level for 10 years." This is according to a report by Nick Hardwick, the exiting Chief Inspector of Prisons, which is apparently a thankless job fraught with political pressure and incentives to conform. Hardwick reports that

staff shortages, overcrowding and a rising level of violence fuelled by a rapid increase in the use of legal highs have all contributed to a significant overall decline in safety.

The chief inspector even reports that prison officers at Wormwood Scrubs showed him cells that were so bad that they told him: “I wouldn’t keep a dog in there.”

His findings suggest that the “rehabilitation revolution” promised five years ago by the last government has yet to get under way.

The chief inspector says alternatives to custody should be considered to bring down the prison population, which currently stands at 86,255. He says this may be “unpalatable” to politicians but so are many other public spending choices the government has to make.

“Our own assessments about safety were consistent with data that the national offender management service (Noms) itself produced. You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago. More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago,” said Hardwick. “The number of assaults and serious assaults against staff also rose.”

Hardwick says he found that overcrowding was in some cases exacerbated by extremely poor environments and squalid conditions. “At Wormwood Scrubs, staff urged me to look at the cells. ‘I wouldn’t keep a dog in there’, one told me,” he reported, adding that he found filthy cells covered in offensive graffiti in cockroach-infested wings.

Launching his report, he said: “It cannot go on like this. The cost is unsustainable. The profound effects on rehabilitation outcomes are unsustainable."

Does any of this sound familiar?

Many of the commentators about mass incarceration lump developments in the UK with those in the US. A good example is David Garland's The Culture of Control, which argues that both countries are plagued by a similar atmosphere of punitivism, panic, and a growing discourse revolving around the underclass. Garland discusses both countries in tandem, linking the rise of a massive criminological effort to late 20th century developments, which emerged as a reaction to post-WW2 "war on poverty" programming. The commitment to treating the problem of crime in the community, tailoring sentences to the offender, and engaging in "penal welfarism" had vanished by the late 1970s--partly as a result of rising crime rates--and the social and economic changes led to a new paradigm in crime control, consisting of two contradictor models: "criminologies of the self"--reliance on situational crime prevention and an industry of defense against crime, and "criminologies of the other"--an increasingly isolating and punitive regime that demonizes and dehumanizes offenders and inmates.

There are some good reasons for the comparison; Garland is focusing particularly on the combination of Reaganism and Thatcherism as the turning point. But the book does not draw fine distinctions between the two countries, which engage in considerably different (though uniformly insidious) politics of race in the context of their criminal justice system. The Guardian story makes me wonder whether the Cheap on Crime moment in the United States, as well as the Obama administration's commitment to shrinking the punitive apparatus, has arrived in the UK as well, and might change things there for the better.

No comments: