Transgressing the written and unwritten rules

Prison Systems
October 6, 1995

There are two underlying assumptions in this well researched book. First, that prisons cannot be blamed for the social and judicial processes which bring people to custody. Second, that it would be idealistic to hope that prisons "will be significantly better places in the 21st century than they have been in the latter half of the 20th". Advocates of the idea that prisons do affect the processes of future incarceration, through the enhancement of criminal careers and recidivism, might well refrain from reading on. So might those who believe that to reduce one's expectations for reform amounts to reducing the very chance of achieving reform. As a "neutral" reviewer, I would like to persuade these sceptical readers to bear with me as I have with Vagg's book which, contrary to my initial unease, turned out to be rewarding reading.

The author starts off by delimiting his study of accountability in prison to three areas. The first is managerial, and is concerned with the prison organisation itself, its governing bodies and professional roles. The second is legal, and pertains to accountability vis-a-vis the legislative and judicial powers. The third is political, and regards "linkages between accountability relationships, the setting of agendas about 'what the problems are', and the creation of solutions". These three areas constitute the grid against which a number of issues, including prisoners' rights, prison disciplinary hearings, and independent supervision of prison regimes are examined. The four countries with which this book is concerned (England, France, Germany and The Netherlands) show significant differences with respect to prisoners' rights, with the German prison legislation for example giving inmates the opportunity to call for legal review of decisions affecting them. These decisions include disciplinary measures imposed by the prison administration, that is punishments within punishment. In England instead, disciplinary hearings contribute to the expansion of the prison population, as they may lead to withdrawal of remission and therefore deferment of the release date.

The role of inspectorates and supervisory bodies also varies across the countries studied. In France, and to a degree in Germany, this role is performed by independent agencies which are part of the judiciary. The French Juge d'Application des Peines supervises the treatment of prisoners and answers their complaints. The English Boards of Visitors, described as "the eyes and ears of the home secretary", have no such powers. Their function is merely consultative, and their suggestions do not bind prison administrations to act.

Also of interest are the chapters devoted to the perceptions of both prisoners and staff. The former regard as too discretionary the power of prison administrations to grant or deny small privileges such as the change of cell or work. This is not to say that prisoners feel at the complete mercy of the system, as most of them learn ways in which discretion can be turned to their advantage. In turn, the staff often observe unwritten rules in granting small privileges or inflicting minor punishments as a way of respectively defusing conflicts and drawing behavioural boundaries.

Throughout the book one important concept recurs which could be applied to all organisations. This is that there is a persistent gap between manifest rules, which officially govern organisations, and operational rules, which actually permit their functioning.

This is all the more true for organisations such as prisons, where it is difficult to marry transparency, and indeed accountability, with perimeter walls. Vagg seems aware of this, when he stresses that prisoners' rights may be suspended for "security considerations", and that inspectorates and independent bodies can only correct minor wrongs, while leaving the system as a whole virtually unaltered.

In prison, written rules and official procedures are often of secondary importance, a circumstance which makes custodial institutions both manageable and difficult to reform.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my appeal to sceptical readers. True, reading about accountability in prison may remind one of Victor Hugo's short story of a man sentenced to death. Before being brought to the guillotine, he is conscientiously visited by a priest and a doctor, who have the statutory duty to ensure that the condemned is "ready and fit for the execution". The man, who is gratified by such attention, says: "After all, they are very humane in what they do." If readers forget this sad paradox for a moment, this book becomes well worth reading, for the amount of information it provides on European prison systems, the comparative analysis it offers, and the elements of critique it contains.

Vincenzo Ruggiero is reader in criminology and social studies, Middlesex University.

Prison Systems: A Comparative Study of Accountability in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands

Author - Jon Vagg
ISBN - 0 19 825674 4
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 380

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