The prison service and the social harm perspective

by Janine S White about a month ago in incarceration

Do prisons need to be based on retribution?

The prison service and the social harm perspective
Image by: David Anstiss / Wall of H.M. Prison Brixton / CC BY-SA 2.0

According to Justice and Prisons (2011a), prisons are fundamental in the criminal justice system as they ensure that offenders face justice and are sanctioned for unlawful activity. The primary aim of prisons is providing prisoners with assistance and rehabilitation opportunities in a humane way. There are International standards which state that reformation and social rehabilitation should take place humanely and without torture to prevent social harm occurring within the system. Justice and Prisons (2011b), identifies the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as a few of many standards which prisons must adhere to. They also express that women, children and those with mental health needs require a more personal approach than the one size fits all belief (Justice and Prisons, 2011b).

Since being established in the 1600’s, the use of prisons has been relentless in western societies and severe criminal policies have supplied an increasing number of offenders to the prison system (see Mathiesen (2006); Hillyard and Tombs (2007)). Scott and Codd (2010) communicates that New Labour; a political party, made one thousand and thirty-six new offences imprisonable within the space of their time in office. Ruggiero (2015) states that this is because the government took advantage of their full control of the definitions of crimes, prosecutions and confinement. Scott and Codd (2010), using information from the Prison Reform Trust (2009), also advise that the money spent on prisons within the United Kingdom has increased from 2.843 billion in 1995 to 4.325 billion in 2007 due to the high numbers of prisoners incarcerated. This could be translated into theories of increased crime rates, however, Mathiesen (2006) is firm in his position, that the prisons are filled with previously law-abiding citizens who have fallen victim to the mass levels of policy changes. Mathieson focuses on alterations to drug classifications and the war on terror as major policy changes. Mathiesen (2006) describes prisons as the easy answer to social problems. Scott and Codd (2010) agree with Mathiesen when they cite Pilgrim and Rogers (1996), stating that prisons are a humane way of maintaining control of biologically and genetically inferior unordered misfits. Thus, ignoring the social harms present within society which have led to the offence.

Describing prisons as institutions for maintaining control, is likened to Feeley and Simon (1992)’s claim that where the prison system once aimed to enforce responsibility for criminal actions, acceptance of fault, provide a moral sensibility, diagnose, intervene and treat offenders, it is now responsible for the identification, classification and management of groups that vary in degree of dangerousness. This shift to managerial-ism allows cost effectiveness, and computerised risk assessments. This is considered as turning prisons into sorting places and distribution centres (See Feeley and Simon (1992). Where Feeley and Simon describe prisons as holding cells for offenders that are too dangerous to be within society, Scott and Codd (2010) ask; who decides what social harms can lead to imprisonment?

Scott and Codd (2010) propose that prisons are placed within the criminal justice system for three possible reasons. The first they name a common-sense view; that breaking the law was a rational choice and therefore harsh punishments will re-establish the cognitive rationalisation of offenders. The second is named as a legalism view, which is fixed, insensitive and removes empathy. Thirdly, they name a psyche-medical view, which is growing in dominance as it sees prisons as a place to adequately diagnose psychological challenges and place offenders considered suitable for treatment into an appropriate surrounding and reduces some of the social harms of the prison on prisoners with psychological ill health.

Then there is the zemiological or social harm approach. Hillyard and Tombs (2007), recommend that the criminal justice system need to use a social harm perspective when considering prison for offenders. The social harm perspective is a concept allowing criminologists to include a wide range of harms, without the focus of crime being caught up in the concept. It allows crimes of the powerful and the government to be acknowledged and held accountable for potentially mass social harms (McLaughlin and Muncie (2013).

For Hillyard and Tombs (2007) use of a social harm perspective needs to include consideration of physical, financial/economic, emotional/psychological and cultural safety. Where the criminal justice system is proud of its successes when putting blame on and punishing individuals (see Moore, 2014), Hillyard and Tombs (2007) argue that searching for one individual to punish prevents justice. Hillyard and Tombs principally insinuate that the state and large companies are immune from prison because no one person can be held responsible. The government is keen to use the criminal justice system to give a name to crimes of the powerful so that they are seen to be protecting society from all forms of harm. In these situations, however, out of court settlements are used as a replacement for prison, allowing power and status to maintain control and the elite to continue to define crimes and punishments as well as who to target (Hillyard and Tombs (2007). Dorling (2006) describes cases such as Harold Shipman who was able to conceal a large amount of murders because he was in a respected, powerful position of being a general practitioner. Although he is now in prison himself, his position kept him from scrutiny from the justice system for many years as he did not fit the discursive categories of a murderer.

Moore (2014) enlightens his readers to figures surrounding murders. He notifies us that while the media focuses on violent murders, more people are killed by police related road accidents, preventable deaths in hospitals and premature deaths from smoking or alcohol. He advises that with the focus being on the relatively small number of violent murders, larger social harms are being deflected from. Moore declares that it does not matter whether the victim is murdered via police or civilian, the harms caused by their death is equal to society. Using a zemiological approach would allow for the victim to give their interpretation of the harms caused by the offense and express how the offender can make amends (Hillyard and Tombs, 2007). Ruggiero (2015) considers the negotiation of harms and reparations, through free choice, to be the ingredients for rehabilitation. Further to this, Ruggiero references Bianchi (1986) who submitted that the prison should only be used for immediate dangers who are unprepared to negotiate reparations. Citing Bianchi, Ruggiero recommends that as soon as prisoners are ready to compromise, they should be released back into society. Despite Ruggiero (2015) deeming the social harm perspective’s reparative justice as allowing the offender to put things right with the victims; thus, reiterating good citizenship and community values, the retributive basis of the criminal justice system is deep-rooted in public consciousness (Pemberton, 2007).

In part 2 which will be published shortly, focus will be on the social harm perspective in relation to the harms caused by prison , vulnerable people within the prison service and discourses within the prison system .

Janine S White
Janine S White
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Janine S White

Janine thrives on bringing into awareness the inequalities and misconceptions of society. Janine hopes of a more tolerant and understanding future for the world. Giving a voice to those less privileged, ignored and forgotten about.

See all posts by Janine S White