A fascinating new discussion paper published yesterday (26 July, 2023) by the Prison Reform Trust’s Building Futures programme sets out to encourage an open and constructive debate about crisis and scandal in the criminal justice system and the role they play in shaping policy and practice. Authored by Dr Thomas Guiney and Dr Harry Annison, the paper draws upon the collective knowledge and experience of policy makers, practitioners, penal reformers, academics and prisoners themselves to unpick the reality of what happens when a crisis occurs. The paper asks how crises feel for those in prison and how does it feel for professionals working in environments where quick decision-making is vital?
These questions formed the basis for a one-day symposium in London bringing together leaders from across the sector including HMPPS, third sector organisations, and individuals with lived experience of life imprisonment to consider what happens in moments of crisis. The event allowed for candid discussion regarding the personal experiences of people at different levels of policy implementation and delivery, all with direct involvement in the criminal justice system. One of the main takeaways from the event was the notion that not enough is done to encourage learning once moments of crisis have passed. In many cases, resourcing, staffing and political pressures mean opportunities to learn from and build back from crises and scandals are not properly utilised.
The authors set the discussion within the context of what many people consider to be a permanent crisis in criminal justice, in particular in prisons. The features of this ongoing crisis include:
- A more than doubling of the prison population in the last 30 years (42,000 in 1992 to 86,498 last Friday 21 July 2023)
- Overcrowding every year since 1994 with 16,300 people in prison living in overcrowded accommodation at the end of last year and appreciably more today.
- Big increases in sentence lengths for those convicted of serious crimes.
- Ongoing under-staffing.
Giving a voice
To give voice to these experiences, Building Futures conducted a small-scale consultation within its Network to capture how it feels for those in prison when a crisis or scandal occurs. For those who have been in prison for a long time, they noted that prison life is often defined by an endless cycle of crises and scandals, with many achieving little substantial change but harming prisoners’ well-being in the process.
People with experience of prison highlighted a number of key scandals and crises which had affected their lives:
- Staffing issues, particularly in relation to time out of cell
- Fishmongers Hall (the killing of two young people in 2019 by a convicted terrorist at a
London event involving prisoners, academics, practitioners and others)
- The book ban
- David Norris sharing photos from a prison cell
- Jon Venables’ reconviction
- Parole Root and Branch review
- Changes to Parole Board decision-making, in particular changes made by the Justice Secretary to the likelihood of approval for transfer to open conditions.
As we know, crises often prompt politicians to initiate “knee-jerk” responses, desperate to seem tough on crime and prisoners in particular. The paper highlights how people inside are often subject to changes which are experienced as collective punishment. I include two examples below
“‘Crisis and scandal’. Whenever I hear these words in relation to the prison system, I think ‘what are they going to take off us next?’”
“At various times the changes have been changes to things allowed i.e., jewellery and I know this sounds daft but I had a necklace of my dad before he died with a little pendant saying ‘daddy’s little girl’. Some time after he passed this new rule came in saying you could only have a religious pendant. It really broke my heart having to hand this in and subsequently I handed it out and it was stolen. It was something I can never replace.”
The authors conclude that a clear strategic direction and associated policy positions rarely exist in terms of governing our criminal justice:
” Far from the exception to the rule, episodic moments of crisis and scandal emerge as critical components of the policymaking cycle. Policy decisions made under conditions of crisis can alter the delicate equilibrium of control, safety and legitimacy that underpins the delivery of an effective penal system. These complex policy legacies can endure for decades in ways that shape the options available to successive generations of penal policymakers.”
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here