Criminal conditions

A Sin against the Future
May 1, 1998

Prisons, as large and ugly institutions, to hold criminals as a punishment, the deprivation of liberty, date from the late 18th century. They were to be the modern alternative to corporal punishment and transportation. They were to include a system of living that could lead to a measure of rehabilitation. After 200 years, the question is asked by this book, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World: is it not time that we devised an alternative to prison? Prison, writes Vivien Stern "is flawed beyond repair, a bad use of resources, and it will not be magically transformed into something better". Prisons are the most common site for abuses of human rights. Stern takes us round the world checking on more and more horrid schemes of callousness to the human condition, treatment that can only reduce us, both prisoners and the society that tolerates prisons.

A fair and modern example is that given by Nelson Mandela upon his arrival in prison for the first time. "We were soon moved to the Johannesburg prison, popularly known as the fort, a bleak castle-like structure located on a hill in the heart of the city. Upon admission we were taken to an outdoor quadrangle and ordered to strip completely and line up against the wall. We were forced to stand there for more than an hour, shivering in the breeze and feeling awkward. A white doctor finally appeared and asked whether any of us was ill. No one complained of any ailment, we were ordered to dress and then escorted to two large cells with cement floors and no furniture. The cells had recently been painted and reeked of paint fumes. We were each given three thin blankets plus a sisal mat. Each cell had only one floor-level latrine, which was completely exposed. It is said that no one truly knows a nation until he has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones - and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals."

If the purpose of prison is to reduce crime, prison is peculiarly ineffective. The steady increase in recent years of the number of prisoners is a threat to all our futures. Stern goes further: "Most people understand that crime is not prevented by prison." The foreword by Carl Niehaus - a former prisoner, now South African ambassador to the Netherlands - goes further still, with a quotation from Alexander Paterson: "It is impossible to train people for freedom in conditions of captivity."

What are prisoners like? The majority in all countries are young men, largely uneducated and without a normal family background. In this country, a lot of the trouble is based on failures of early education. Their crimes are related to long-term unemployment, drugs and drink. If they are to be returned to the community after a year or two with the knowledge and self-respect that will enable them to find and keep jobs, they will need in prison full programmes of education - moral and social, as well as those in reading, writing and arithmetic. I believe this could be achieved with quite a high percentage of prisoners. A small minority of prisoners are "mad, bad and dangerous to know", and the primary needs here are security coupled with humanity, either in hospital or in prison as appropriate. With some others, too, education or training will not suffice to end their criminal careers and might actually promote them. "Prison," wrote Mandela, "not only robs you of your freedom, it attempts to take away your identity. Everyone wears a uniform, eats the same food, follows the same schedule."

There is, as emerges from this book, a remarkable similarity between the treatment of prisoners in the four quarters of the world, the degree of harshness depending to some extent on local culture. In Uganda, for example, a prisoner has a blanket on a hard floor but no bed, but this is true for many of the prisoners in their ordinary lives in the villages. In England, a prisoner would have a television at home, but there is a strong feeling among politicians that the public would not tolerate television in the cells. In England and the United States, there is gross overcrowding of prisoners, but the US prisoner gets less of an attempt at rehabilitation and has, in general, more licence to abuse and bully other prisoners around him. Neither country has a successful tradition of reducing crime by imprisonment. Prisons, here and elsewhere, have been less effective in the last quarter of the 20th century than earlier, and it appears that the more criminals are sent to prison, in general the higher rate of crime.

There are moments in history when great men are curiously optimistic about the future. Quiller-Couch, when inspector of schools in the late 19th century, memorably said that he looked forward with confidence to the day when every bus driver would know thoroughly a play of Shakespeare, a book of Milton. Stern quotes Alexander Paterson, a former prison commissioner, stating to a committee of enquiry in the 1920s: "The problem of recidivism is small, diminishing and not incapable of solution."

It is mainly by checking figures of recidivism that we judge a prison system. I have visited prisons in the Cayman Islands and Cyprus where the recidivism rate is below 5 per cent, and yet in England and the US, among most groups more than 50 per cent of prisoners commit a crime within two years of discharge from prison. It may be that recidivism is less likely on an island with modest-sized prisons and with outstanding relations between prisoners and staff, but the differences are far too great for us to accept that "prison works".

What should replace prisons? There will always be a minority of prisoners who must be held securely in custody. For the majority, the young men I have just described and for some others, cheaper and better treatment and training can surely be found. Stern describes the extraordinary alternative used in Zimbabwe. In a country with a poor economy but "rich traditions of restitution, shaming and reintegration", it has been possible in recent years to replace imprisonment for some 16,000 criminals with a form of community service in a court system chaired by a high court judge. It has been enormously effective in cutting recidivism and costs.

Stern proposes more use of community service as a replacement for prison in rich as well as poor countries. Restitution and reparation, fines and probation orders could be used far more extensively by the courts, as could some forms of restorative justice and a shaming process, arranged through community boards and the like. Such remedies would work with some criminals, as has been shown by their use in Quebec, Vermont and New Zealand. But as an answer to the question of replacing prison, they are inadequate. There are too many criminals who would not easily be shamed or restored.

The use of imprisonment could, I believe, be considerably reduced by a form of sentence by the courts that combined probation with tagging. This would confine a prisoner to where he lives outside working hours. The supervising officer is informed by telephone if the criminal removes his tag or leaves the house at a prohibited time. House arrest by tagging is far cheaper than prison, and it has been used successfully with convicted prisoners and those awaiting trial. But what is essential to crime reduction is an improvement in the rearing of children. When you ask prisoners what they learned at school, a very high proportion say they did not go to school often. When you ask them to write what they had for dinner, they cannot do it. Stern is correct not only on abuses of human rights, but also on the fact that imprisonment, as practised, does not meet the needs of a modern society and increases the threat to our future. If criminals are not trained to get or hold a job, they are more likely to burgle or break into cars after release. Stern deals with these fundamental problems clearly. "It is often said," she writes, "that disturbed backgrounds and traumatic childhoods lead to people ending up in prison. The 1992 survey of English and Welsh prisoners showed that although more than two-thirds had spent most of their childhood living well with both their parents, more than one in four comes from a disrupted family background. Nearly four out of ten of the young prisoners, those under 21, reported that they had been taken from home at some time during their childhood and put into the care of the local authority. These are very different figures from those for the population as a whole. The proportion there of those having being taken into care is two out of every 100."

Women and the young in prison are subjects of separate chapters, and with each group in almost every country, the cases of sexual and violent abuse are very depressing. As Niehaus writes in the foreword: "Reading this book has not been easy. I cannot say that I have enjoyed it, and yet it is one of the most worthwhile books that I have read."

Penal reform is flourishing, as is penal reaction and the belief of those in power that to be seen to punish the criminals vigorously is more likely to appeal to the voting public than to make serious efforts to reduce crime by reforming prisons. In England, the way ahead was shown by Lord Woolf in his report, which followed the Manchester disturbances of 1990; but all of this is based on the systems to be employed in prisons. Stern asks for the whole concept of imprisonment to be questioned. She makes the strongest case in the clearest way that prisons worldwide are places of abuse and not places where prisoners are sensibly trained for the law-abiding world. She makes less effectively the case that it is impossible to train people in prison for life outside.

What could the reader be thinking when he puts down this book? I hope he would accept the author's first point: that we need to consider whether prisons are still needed and for whom. The answer should surely be that the numbers should be vastly reduced so as to cut out those for whom proper schooling is more necessary than locking up and the mad who should be in hospital. For those for whom courts find it possible and sensible, probation with tagging or community service should be used. Prisoners who break the orders will have to be locked up. The remaining prisoners must have regimes that are vastly improved and are, for the young, schools rather than adult prisons. There have been some improvements since the 18th century. Sean McConville, that eminent historian of prisons, told us about John Howard, the penal reformer. "When Howard made his extensive visitation in the 1770s, he was obliged to travel on horseback because the smell given off by his clothes, just from a few hours' contact, did not permit of coach travel. Even his notebook had to be spread open before fire and disinfected before he could use it."

Sir Stephen Tumim, formerly chief inspector of prisons, is principal, St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

A Sin against the Future: Imprisonment in the World

Author - Vivien Stern
ISBN - 0 14 023309 1
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 407

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