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Prisons of the mind

Brendan O'Neill would rather be banged up than screwed up by jail therapy

'There is something wrong with the old-style culture which treats a prisoner as somebody who is a subordinate to you. You need to have the same responsibility of care for a prisoner that a nurse has for a patient in hospital....' Forget the image of malicious screws in films like Scum, who look down on their charges as the lowest of the low. Sir David Ramsbotham, chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales, wants prison officers to be more caring. Launching his annual report last year, Ramsbotham attacked the 'culture of domination' in Britain's prisons, and called for 'care for and awareness of others...the heart of what healthy relationships between staff and prisoners are all about'.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and prison reform groups are keen to make incarceration a more 'positive' and 'inclusive' experience. In a letter to Ramsbotham, one governor complained that 'our relationships with [prisoners] usually stress their inferiority and exclusion'. The Samaritans argue that prisoners are denied the opportunity to live full, emotional lives, and have set up 'Listener' schemes in 23 prisons, where specially trained inmates share the problems of their fellow prisoners. Ramsbotham wants to move away from the old days of retribution and reform and towards the goal of the 'healthy prison', where inmates recognise that 'feeling good about ourselves is closely bound up with the respect which others show us'.

Britain's prison system could certainly do with an overhaul. We have all heard stories of beatings by officers at Wormwood Scrubs, and how 16-year olds at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution live in 'dilapidated, dirty and cold' cells (the Inspectorate's words, following an unannounced inspection at the end of 1998). Most prisons are infested with vermin, and some prisoners are locked up for 23 hours a day with poor access to educational facilities and healthcare. But will the shift from authority to empathy, with inmates more likely to be sent to counselling than to solitary, really improve the prison system?

Today's reformers are embarrassed by the traditional lock-up, slop-out, laundry-work imprisonment of the past, and want to make prison sentences more like a 'stay in hospital'. Pointing out that imprisonment can be bad for your mental health, HMIP aims to reorganise prison life around the physical and emotional wellbeing of inmates. In May 1999, HMIP launched the report Why Suicide is Everyone's Concern, pointing out that the old-style prison culture had led to an increase in the number of prison suicides. In October, Home Office minister Paul Boateng announced his 'action plan' for prison reform after visiting Brixton Prison in south London, where 30 inmates had tried to kill or harm themselves in the space of three months, while figures revealed that up to 1000 prisoners across Britain attempt suicide each year.

How true is it that Britain's prisons are hotbeds of mental illness and suicide? The number of suicides rose from 64 in 1996 to 68 in 1997, before jumping to 82 in 1998 - an increase of 18 suicides in just two years. But over the same period of time, the prison population rose by more than 10 000, from 54 655 in 1996 to 64 744 in 1998. So the number of suicides actually rose from 11.7 per 10 000 prisoners in 1996 to 12.6 per 10 000 prisoners in 1998 - hardly the most shocking increase. It's a bit rich (not to mention unscientific) for government ministers to be horrified by the rise in prison suicides while failing to point out that they have packed already overcrowded prisons with more and more offenders.

On closer inspection, it seems that today's reformers are concerned not so much with prisoners' health as with their values and behaviour. The HMIP report Patient or Prisoner? stresses that 'healthcare must not be seen solely as a medical service. It includes the part each person plays in maintaining a healthy environment'. Why Suicide is Everyone's Concern argues that 'healthcare and health promotion are key activities in helping prisoners to develop self-respect'. It soon becomes clear that the 'healthy prison' will have little to do with health in the old-fashioned sense, and more to do with creating the right kind of environment with prisoners who behave in the right kind of way.

Today's reformers are most concerned that the old-style prison culture gives rise to all the wrong values - where prisoners become hostile to authority and assert their independence. HMIP points out some of the 'belief rules' that are problematic: 'be competitive...do not rely on anybody other than yourself...be especially wary of prison officers...work out the institutional regime...keep your head down and do your time...emphasise your independence.' The benefit of the 'healthy prison', by contrast, is that inmates will be encouraged to avoid 'disguising their weaknesses beneath the "macho" culture which prevails in closed male prisons' (Why Suicide is Everyone's Concern).

According to HMIP, 'Behind much of the antisocial behaviour demonstrated by people who find it difficult to cope in prison is a serious lack of self-esteem'. No wonder penal institutions will become more like hospitals, with prisoners seen as feeble individuals in need of lessons in self-expression, rather than as offenders who must be punished for having done something wrong. And those who refuse to play the part of the pathetic patient will face stiffer sentences. Announcing in January that prisoners would be forced to attend courses in 'anger management', Lord Bingham made clear that 'if the offender refused to cooperate in the treatment, that could be reflected in an extended penalty' (Express, 24 January). Welcome to the therapeutic prison, where the things that might make prison life that bit more bearable - self-reliance, independence, working out the regime - will be written off as 'macho', as prisoners will be encouraged to be more open in their relationship with the authorities. Screws already have the key to prisoners' cells - now they want the key to their souls, too.

The debate about prisons and their role in society has raged for over 100 years. But in the past it was a debate divided between those who thought prison should be about retribution and those who thought it should be about reform. Right-wing law-and-order obsessives argued that prison life should be harsh, to punish those who had deviated from society's rules and regulations - while reformers wanted prison to be centred around constructive work and education, in an attempt to transform the ruffians into half-decent citizens who could be returned to society. Both sides shared a patronising view of offenders, but they also had a sense that the offender was responsible for his crime, had to face up to the error of his ways, and could then be given a second chance.

Today, offenders are seen as mentally ill and prison as a way of counselling them. The flipside of this argument can only be that everybody is seen as incapable of taking responsibility, as criminal automatons who might at any moment fall victim to the 'sickness' of crime - maybe the solution should be life sentences of therapy and counselling for all. And the end result of the new 'healthy prison' is that the distinction between being imprisoned for doing something wrong and being freed to get on with your life again is increasingly being blurred.

'A healthy establishment is one which...sees its duty as extending beyond the prison gates', says HMIP, ensuring that 'other social services and health services are involved where necessary'. Just when a prisoner thinks he has done his 'bird' and paid the price for his crime, he'll find that the healthy prison stretches beyond the walls of Strangeways or the Scrubs, and into society itself. Healthy prisons will ensure that the counselling received on the inside will also be available on the outside. Electronic tagging has already been introduced for some released prisoners, placing them under virtual house arrest by sending a signal to the police if they stay out beyond a set curfew. Now, healthy prisons are set to extend their influence into the world of the ex-con, making sure that the idea of being free once more to regain your independence and rebuild your life is a thing of the past.

Prison reformers once argued that denying an offender his liberty was punishment enough; beyond that, prisons should be comfortable and constructive. Today it is not enough to deny an offender his liberty - we also have to strip him of his independence and self-confidence, and ensure that whatever he was like when he entered prison he will leave as a feeble-minded loser who can't be expected to take responsibility for his actions. Hard labour would be better.

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000



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