Above: Professor Phil Scraton
Professor Phil Scraton, left, from the School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast, answers questions from VIEW editor Brian Pelan about his views on prison reform in Northern Ireland
Question: What should the balance be between retribution, rehabilitation and protection of the public when it comes to the purpose of prisons?
Answer: These are very different objectives reflecting very different interpretations of what constitutes ‘crime’ and who we define as ‘criminals’. While it is self-evident that a crime is committed when a law is breached – something we all do – what we are focusing on is loss of liberty. Prison is the most severe punishment administered in states that don’t have the death penalty. Reformists have always proposed that prison as punishment should be a last resort. In theory the judiciary and magistracy calibrate the punishment to the ‘crime’. But they are influenced by the media, politicians and public opprobrium and associated moral panics about the extent, seriousness and perceived ‘threat’ of crime. So imprisonment is used more readily, old condemned prisons are retained and new mega-prisons (Titan) are built. Remarkably, significant reduction in crime has been matched by significant increase in prison sentences. Thus retributive responses have negated the rhetoric of reform and rehabilitation. With people leaving prisons, having served short but repeat sentences, experiencing no demonstrable change in their personal circumstances, prison gates have become revolving doors. Inside, tension prevails: the control priorities are set against care imperatives; imposed security set against freedom of movement and association; institutional priorities elevated above personal needs and development.
Q: Does prison rehabilitate or does it contribute to further offending?
A: Punishment, in whatever form, is popularly represented as ‘payback’ through community service, fines or imprisonment. Loss of freedom proportionate loss to others of the crime committed. To what end? In popular discourse the prison sentence combines punishment of the individual with the objective of deterring others. Historically, that crude use of imprisonment was tempered by reformist intent – meaningful support, services, education and work opportunities provided to help people turn their lives around. It doesn’t work like that. Prisons are overcrowded, landings often dangerous places, guards untrained to meet complex literacy and mental health needs, 23-hour lockdowns a regular occurrence. Historically, harsh conditions were calibrated to reflect public admonition and encourage crime prevention while providing regimes based on personal reflection, generating mindful restoration and enabling the prisoner’s eventual reintegration into ‘society’. Always in permanent tension the ideals of reform have been lost in institutions that are often little more than human warehousing.
Q: What are effective alternatives to imprisonment?
A: Only the most serious cases where a person is so damaged they pose a consistent threat to themselves or others should result in longer-term deprivation of liberty. They constitute a small number of those men, women and children incarcerated. For all others there has to be a creative alternative to imprisonment. As Angela Davis states, what is necessary is a ‘constellation of strategies and institutions’ including the ‘revitalisation of education at all levels, a health system that provides appropriate physical and mental health care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance’.
Q: How do you respond to the notion of ‘revolving door’ regarding prisoners who reoffend?
A: The so-called revolving door is the clearest manifestation of the state’s abject failure to provide constructive and creative responses to the material conditions in which an increasingly economically marginalised population now live. Poverty is woven into the very fabric of our social and community lives. In the North of Ireland, where I live and work, a third of all children live on or below the poverty line, many excluded from school and often caring for a parent incapacitated by severe mental and/or physical ill-health. Whatever the official denials, those of us committed to working and researching in the most economically marginalised communities bear witness to the correlation between poverty and mental ill-health and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Q: Are their links between poverty, mental health issues and drug addiction in terms of the prison population in the UK?
A: From our work we know only too well the dynamic and destructive inter-relationships between poverty, mental ill-health – including state-sponsored drug dependence, and the use of ‘illicit’ and prescribed drugs – and addiction. Those who manage their lives without alcohol or drug dependency, who escape the ravages of mental and physical ill-health and provide the backbone to their communities, do so despite their situation. However, the relationships between poverty, mental ill-health and drugs/ alcohol dependency are self-evident both inside and outside the prison walls.
Q: Are prisoners who are released equipped with the necessary skills to re-engage with the community?
A: No, rarely does a person leave prison either with appropriate skills to find a job. For the majority of prisoners there is minimal provision or opportunity for the necessary development of social, life or material skills.
Q: What are your views about the numbers of prisoners in Northern Ireland who have taken their own lives whilst inside or soon after release?
A: Deaths in custody, near deaths and severe self-harm together with deaths soon after release provide the clearest evidence that prisons are not appropriate places for troubled people. I am a founder member of INQUEST, the organisation dedicated to supporting families whose loved ones take their own lives while in the care of the state. These lonely deaths are a constant reminder of the failure to respond to the complex needs of those incarcerated in our name.
Q: Should the internal Joint Review (not yet published) from the Department of Justice and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland be open to scrutiny?
A: Of course, transparency is an essential element of democratic government. However, I consider the Joint Review, still unpublished two years after its commissioning, to be flawed in its inception. It is internal and conducted under the direction of two Stormont departments whose policies and implementation require open, detailed scrutiny. An independent panel of inquiry is required whose constitution has the breadth and depth of experience to scrutinise thoroughly the NIPS’ operation since publication of the highly critical Owers Report and the subsequent scathing independent inspection reports.
Q: Would you support calls for an independent review of penal reform in Northern Ireland?
A: Yes. The Owers Review was both independent and comprehensive. Ostensibly it initiated significant changes in penal policy and practice in Northern Ireland’s prisons. In reality, however, much has remained unchanged – as subsequent inspections have demonstrated. A further independent review is now necessary focusing on: healthcare provision and delivery, specifically on mental ill-health and the pressing need for adequate on-site care; time out of cell; work, education and skills opportunities. It would also consider the unacceptable lack of progress in implementing Owers, not least the failure to provide gender-appropriate accommodation and regime for women – an issue our research highlighted over a decade ago.
Q: Can you tell me about your writing work with prisoners?
A: I have been involved with prisoners’ writing since teaching classes in Walton, now HMP Liverpool, in the 1970s. I worked with Jimmy Boyle at the Gateway Exchange, Edinburgh, in the 1980s and since then have maintained contact with prisoners’ writing. My co-authored book Prisons Under Protest has remarkable written contributions on the abject conditions in Peterhead in the 1980s/1990s. The international Journal by Prisoners on Prisons is exceptional and currently I am working with a prisoner poet in England.
Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the potential of prison reform in Northern Ireland?
A: Nothing of substance has emerged from the NIPS’ response to the succession of critical reports – our 2005/ 2007 Human Rights Commission publications on women prisoners, independent monitoring boards, successive independent inspectorate reports – or from the experiences of released prisoners, fill me with optimism. Reforms considered essential in their inception remain unrealised. Work and education opportunities, particularly in Maghaberry, remain severely limited and many prisoners are released in a worse mental state than they arrive. The majority of reforms recommended as essential by Owers, echoed by Corston in England ten years ago, have not been implemented. While I am well aware that my long-term research contributed to justice and accountability for the Hillsborough families I deeply regret that our work on prisons in Northern Ireland has been ignored. Profound institutional deficiencies can be addressed only by a root and branch overhaul of sentencing and incarceration underpinned by provision of community-based alternatives with trained staff able to meet the complex material and healthcare needs of those requiring support.
• Prof Phil Scraton’s co-authored books include: Prisons Under Protest; The Violence of Incarceration; The Incarceration of Women; Women’s Imprisonment and the Case for Abolition.
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