(RE)think piece

A 20-year strategy for prisons

A 20-year strategy for prisons

Peter Dawson

For prison specialist Peter Dawson, rethinking and resetting the criminal justice system means questioning the very idea of punishment. Why we punish, to what extent imprisonment serves that purpose, and what it means practically for the future of the UK’s prison services are some of the questions that he examines in this piece, drawing on his experience as a former prison governor and currently Director for the Prison Reform Trust.

Imagining what prisons might be like 20 years hence represents a seductive invitation. But it encourages self-indulgence – the chance to create a wish-list that no-one seriously expects to be delivered. And the reason for that scepticism is obvious. Events intervene very frequently in the prisons world, and politics are never far from the front line. History appears to show that programmes of reform are always thwarted by one, the other or both.

So my prescription for change unapologetically starts with philosophy. Professor Alison Liebling talks about the need for an approach to imprisonment that is “morally intelligible”. I think this matters at every level. A strategic decision about prison design with multimillion-pound consequences, for example, needs to relate back to this moral intelligibility in exactly the same way as an officer’s endless daily decisions about how they exercise their authority over prisoners.

At its most basic, anyone involved in punishing their fellow human being ought to be clear, first, about why they’re allowed to do it; and second, that there are moral duties and responsibilities that come with that permission.

In all the mayhem of the last 40 years in prison affairs, it seems to me that we have never settled on a consistent philosophy about punishment. We have talked a lot about what prisons should be like and what they might or might not achieve. But we have rarely paused to consider how punishment – the deliberate infliction of pain – can be justified, and what the answer to that question means for its most extreme form, incarceration.

Punishment is regulated retribution. The state undertakes it because the alternative is anarchy, with the consequences of crime determined by a person’s wealth, power and associations, not by the seriousness of what they have done. Sentencing may have other purposes in statute – rehabilitation, restoration, public protection – but only retribution absolutely requires that the convicted person should suffer.

The first implication of this is that some part of us should always regret the need to inflict punishment. It signals that serious harm has been caused to the offender’s victim, and then responds to one harm with another.

It is profoundly Old rather than New Testament, an eye for an eye rather than forgiving your enemies.

So with that regret should come moderation – the pain we inflict should be no more than is essential. Prison is good at inflicting pain; physical separation and the necessary removal of autonomy do the job well. Nothing additional is required.

Which leads directly to the second implication.

Prison sentences should be both reserved for the most serious crime and last no longer than is necessary to reflect the extent of retribution a person’s offending requires.

The gross inflation of sentence lengths in the last two decades and the appalling Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence have betrayed that principle. They have made imprisonment morally unintelligible to those enduring and administering it. The evidence is that this negatively affects how prisoners approach and manage their time in custody.

The third implication is that during a sentence of imprisonment, the principle of normality should apply.

We do not have the legal or moral authority to make the sentence more punishing than the deprivation of liberty necessarily implies or statute expressly permits.

Every aspect of daily life in prison should be tested against the criterion of whether it needs to be different from life outside. As it happens, that approach also fosters personal accountability and choice – crucial preparation for a life after prison.

The final implication is that we should accept prison as a necessary societal evil, not a tool for “fixing” people, still less as a means to detain people on the basis of what we think they might do in the future.

We should never send someone to prison because we think it will be good for them.

If we are satisfied that imprisonment is justified – morally intelligible – we then have to satisfy the same test for how that most severe of punishments is administered. Inflicting pain in the name of society brings with it some very weighty duties – to respect for human rights, to fairness, compassion, the mitigation of inevitable harms, the provision of opportunities for individual growth and hope. Prisons should absolutely be concerned with what happens when prisoners leave. All of these should be non-negotiable and none deserve to be characterised as either “soft” or “tough”.

So what might some of the products of a 20-year strategy based on this philosophy include?

As a starter for ten, I would suggest:

  • demand and supply for imprisonment in balance – custody reserved for only serious crime (not for less serious but persistent); shorter sentences where custody is inevitable, and no overcrowding;
  • enforceable minimum standards based on the principle of normality;
  • a prison estate and procedures that mitigate rather than reinforce the pains of separation from family and community;
  • a presumption in favour of prisoner access to internet-enabled technology for communication, learning and leisure;
  • a more permeable boundary with the community – prisoners going out on temporary release, the community coming in to use prison facilities.

And how might it be delivered?

I would begin with:

  • a workforce trained and supervised to match the moral complexity of the job – both staff and managers;
  • a much smaller HQ, relentlessly focussed on supporting the role of the Governor, who must navigate the many tensions this philosophy of punishment creates from day to day;
  • a prison service trusted by its political masters for its expertise, with its duties and the limits of its authority defined in statute;
  • politicians focused on providing the necessary operating context – in particular the elimination of overcrowding.

So a wish list after all, but one informed by a philosophy and a set of values.

When I governed, my only hope of achieving consistency in my own decision-making, and my only chance of instilling the same in the colleagues whose actions actually determined the day-to-day experience of prisoners, was to have firm grip on these fundamentals. I think the same is true for the prison service as a whole.

Without it, events and politics will continue to hold sway.

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