Gove’s prison reform plan blames individuals and ignores structures

To solve the problems facing the prison system, look at the bigger social picture

Image: Policy Exchange

The Justice Committee have just published a grim report on prison safety, yet another catalogue of concerns about the decline in safety and the rising tide of violence in Prisons in England and Wales.  Statistics attest to rising rates of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violent assaults in prisons.

It concludes by suggesting that the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service must produce an action plan for improvement.

None of this comes as a shock for anyone who has contact with prisons and prisoners in England and Wales.

While the call for an action plan will no doubt be welcomed by a number of individuals, before the Queen’s Speech it seems safe to suggest that the Ministry of Justice already has one.

The justice minister, Michael Gove is committed to reform, but few seem to have picked up on the ideas driving his plan.

In July 2015, Gove was photographed leaving hospital after injuring his foot with a with a  copy of right wing American academic John DiIulio’s book Governing Prisons (published during the American carceral boom of the 1980s) under his arm.  

Diullio argued that the violence occurring in the most troublesome prisons in the US was not due to overcrowding, poor training or shortage of staff, explanations like those on the Justice Select committee have offered for the turmoil in prisons.

Instead he averred that prison violence was merely a matter of a failure of prison managers to impose an appropriate social regime.  

Gove’s plan to give greater power to prison managers suggests a similar mentality by holding individuals to account for successes and failures, he believes we can have a better, less violent prison system.

While such a view doesn’t reflect the wide range of factors believed to be contributing to problems in prisons, it is likely that it is these ideas will support the core legislative elements that will be revealed in the Queen’s Speech.

Yet moving forward, it is worth remembering that not all prisons are violent and dangerous places.  Indeed most of the problems with violence, suicide, self-harm and disorder are being encountered in a minority of jails.  

Some prisons witness quite low levels of violence, for example, those institutions that hold sex offenders (a population which tends to be older) see far less violence, disorder and self-harm.  Others have greater problems.  Prison management and leadership is likely to be a factor, but the rise in violence may be deeper rooted still.

The reasons for the rise in violence and suicide have been much debated.  Prison staff and prisoners alike know well that the influx of new psychoactive substances (sometimes daubed legal highs), have had a significant impact on the working of the prison sub rosa economy, and debt and indebtedness is a driver for much prison violence (and always has been).  

So too the decline in safety has variously been attributed to a more challenging mix of prisoners, and a higher than anticipated prison population, at a time when staffing numbers had been reduced quite drastically and budgets have been cut severely as part of a drive for austerity (of course prisons are an easy place for the financial axe to fall because prisoners elicit so little public sympathy).  

All this suggests that there are a number of factors that taken together can influence violence, a point which is seemingly at odds with Diullio’s central contention.

While it is undeniable that significant number of prisons had been operating at staffing levels below what was necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes, it is also undeniable that outside the prison walls, society has changed and its current ethos is one that blames individuals for failure, not social systems.  

This is the essence of Diullio’s argument, forget the social, blame the individual. Such is the doxa of contemporary neoliberal society.

Neoliberalism, an ideology and concept usually associated with a ruthless brand of free-market economics now dominant in the UK and US, has now penetrated the very core services of the state and its institutions.  

These were once considered strictly off limits to financial speculators and entrepreneurs, yet the NHS, social services, the police, the prison system and the criminal justice system now feel its full weight.

At the level of the everyday, this neoliberalism ideology is tied to consumer society, where instant gratification is achieved predominantly through various forms of conspicuous consumption in highly stylised lifestyle markets.  

If an individual fails against this backdrop and context, it is because they cannot generate the capital to consume.  If they fail, it is because of their own individual faults.    

Yet the essence of neoliberal consumerism is also the permission to forget others, to look after number one, to be nakedly self-interested and selfish.

In prison, status hierarchy has a consumerist imperative as well as a machismo hierarchy where acquisition and display are regarded as important markers of distinction are all much in evidence.  

Those with violent potential exploit these social rules ruthlessly to take advantage of those they see as weaker.  

If you get into debt in prison, a system of interest charging called ‘double bubble’ (which makes the interest rates of unscrupulous payday loan lenders look reasonable) ‘kicks in’ and if your debts are not repaid, your head may well be too.

Many prisoners would instantly accept Diullio’s argument.  Being fully signed up to the neoliberal ideal, they are quite happy with the way a dog-eat-dog social system works.

But the neoliberal move from traditional forms of capital, community and politics to a globalised economy built on unstable labour markets and consumerism that has been the backdrop that many of them have grown up against is not an individual project, but a social one that has moved the social out of the picture.   

If prisons are failing, like a lot of our social institutions, then we need to stop thinking of that failure as a failure of individuals, and think again about the bigger social picture.   

James Treadwell is a criminologist at Birmingham City University

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