The prison service and the social harm perspective continued...
Discourses, vulnerabilities and harms
In the first part of this article previously published, I explained the beginning of the prison service and the intentions of its use. I also raised the social harm perspective as an alternative to the retribution currently in use.
Ruggiero (2015) states, any attempted reforms will fail to remove revenge as the main purpose of the prison system. Scott and Codd (2010) support this view and verbalise that the aim of prisons is twofold; to protect victims from wrongdoers and to hold the offenders to account. Until we can alter the perception of a prison it is impossible to make alternatives work as punishment remains the driving force of prisons.
As prisons, and indeed the criminal justice system is operated by the elite members of society; the rich, the Bourgeoise, the aristocrats, daily issues of poverty, vulnerability and poor welfare have not been experienced by the rule makers. Those with the power to define, operate and maintain the prison system.
The notion of crime maintains power differences in relationships and allows societies structural features to be ignored, reinforcing the class differences. Moore (2014) calls for the focus to be redirected from criminal justice to social justice. This would allow constructive and productive solutions to the prison’s failings to be implemented.
Feeley and Simon (1992), believe the role of the prison is to make crime tolerable for society and not to eradicate it. They state that while criminals are incarcerated they are unable to re-offend and therefore the crime rates are lowered temporarily. This allows the government to look good, to look as though it is making a difference. The offenders will be returned to society at some point however, they will not have been supported to break the cycle and therefore could well be the same individuals being re-sentenced.
Feeley and Simon imply that the criminal justice system has attempted to change the role of the prison to provide a fully reintegrated, socially acceptable person. This is supported by the Government (2019) who have provided the following mission statement:
“We keep those sentenced to prison in custody, helping them lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released”.
(Government, 2019 b)
Regardless of the intentions, mission statements and hopes of the prison service, Hillyard and Tombs (2007) insist that prisons does not work. In fact, they stress that the harms of being a prisoner are more severe compared to the harms caused by the original crime committed (See also Scott and Codd (2010), Talbot (2010) and Matheisen (2006). These researcher have stated that being confined within a prison may be creating a suicidal idealisation within offenders.
Talbot (2010) has studied the experiences of offenders with learning disabilities and learning difficulties within the prison system. Acknowledging that the suicidal idealisation does result from incarceration, Talbot discusses how this is just one of many harms, proving that prisons are not suitable for the offenders with learning disabilities and difficulties.
Talbot estimates that twenty to thirty percent of the prison population have learning difficulties or disabilities.
Talbot reports that a high percentage of this group has difficulties with reading, writing and being understood by prison officers. This not being catered for has caused detrimental harm to this vulnerable group, as prisons are paperwork based. This does not only mean that prisoners have difficulty ordering from food menus but filling in forms to see family is difficult, health conditions deteriorate or go undiagnosed because the prisoner is unable to fill in a form to see the doctor.
What works for the prison service however, is that punitive harms can continue as inmates who cannot read or write are unable to fill in complaint forms. These prisoners informed Talbot (2010) that they felt isolated, depressed, angry and frustrated.
The Government (2019) states that offenders are being given a sentence length, parole eligibility, time taken off for the time spent in prison on remand and the automatic release of prisoners halfway through their sentence. This group of convicts however, communicated that they did not understand enough of the system to know where they could ask for help, how long they would be in for or when they may be released.
This lack of understanding, not being able to follow the prison rules and not completing paperwork is often misconstrued as bad behaviour on behalf of the offender. The response of the punitive prison system is to provide negative consequences such as further isolation, denying visitations and adding time to sentences.
Offenders with learning disabilities and difficulties are not the only vulnerable offenders that are incarcerated (See Moore (2014); Pemberton (2007) and Dorling (2006). Moore (2014) voiced that along with offenders with learning difficulties, the poor and black offenders are unequally incarcerated.
The greater social harms caused by the prison system on vulnerable groups include; treating women appallingly; often creating victims of institutional, sexual, emotional and physical abuse. This abuse is reinforcing the feeling of worthlessness and lack of equality of women.
Using a social harm approach Dorling (2006) gives examples of women having more rights and equality in recent years. Dorling found that there is a correlation between women’s rights and there being less women offenders. Dorling is adamant that this is due to the gained self-worth and power within society, which prison tries to diminish.
Further to this Scott and Codd (2010) concluded that the children of imprisoned parents are harmed colossally by the removal of their parents and are in effect being punished for their parents’ crimes.
With Dorling (2006) detecting a strong correlation between homicide and levels of poverty or other inequality, the children of prisoners have already faced many structural social harms which have been intensified by the prison system.
Scott and Codd call for prisons to be abolished completely. This does not appear to be on the agenda for the government and is unlikely to happen (See Government, 2019).
A few researchers disclose that this is due to prison being favoured to torture, therefore being accepted readily by the middle class of society, who are unable to see the cruelty of a prison system. In the eyes of the elite, being imprisoned is saving the offender from the harm of torture. Somewhat extreme?!
Pemberton (2007) however brings to light that, as welfare services and support are reduced, prison numbers increase. Pemberton believes that the welfare state has been exchanged for the criminal justice system, therefore criminal justice is used to confine and put social issues out of sight (Also see Hillyard and Tombs (2007) and Mathiesen (2006). The correlation between poverty and crime has been supported by Dorling (2006) who highlights that the evident social harms of unemployment, recessions, polarisation and feelings of worthlessness contribute to the fights and events where crimes are committed.
Mathiesen (2006) states that these feelings of meaninglessness are heightened in prisons where the offender is isolated, deprived and rejected. Adding that prisons drain all power from populations that are considered unproductive and that this powerlessness follows the prisoner once released back into the community. This means that re-offending rates remain high, yet more social harm has been caused.
In practice, prisons are dominated with offenders from poorer populations (See Pemberton (2007) Dorling (2006) and Moore (2014). Underlining that the criminal justice system has been legitimatised by its records of poor and homeless people, therefore allowing the focus to remain on these groups.
R uggiero (2015) explains that this focus on poverty leads to the prison system reinforcing the stripping of human rights of offenders, aiding in feelings of worthlessness and a belief that life is worse than death. For details of self-inflicted harm and suicide within the prison system see Talbot (2010) and Scott and Codd (2010).
Is prison really the only way to tackle crime? Is the social harm caused by incarceration not worse than the harm caused by the original crime?