Our Society of Captives

Sykes, writing in 1950s US, wrote the classic penology The Society of Captives, an ethnography stressing the huge influence of the prison structure on its inmates. He highlighted the significance of violence for the stabilisation of the prison social order. Sykes diplomatically uses the term ‘pains of imprisonment’ to refer to five profound deprivations:
  • Deprivation of liberty
  • Deprivation of goods and services
  • Deprivation of heterosexual relationships
  • Deprivation of autonomy
  • Deprivation of security

These deprivations, which are themselves forms of violence, will shape the fact that vast numbers of prisoners reoffend. According to the Scottish Prison Service (2002) “Recent data shows that almost 50 per cent of prisoners return to prison within two years of being released. For young offenders that return rate can be as high as 62 per cent.” (http://www.sps.gov.uk/Publications/ScottishPrisonPopulation.aspx)

De Tocqueville cited legal elites as playing a fundamentally conservative role in American society as they do in the UK; the UK judges are very predominately recruited from the UK’s public schools and Oxbridge. The recruitment process is highly secretive. Politically motivated decisions are reputedly used to control working-class ambitions (Thomas, 2005; Schmidhause, 1992). The formal justice system legalises the unequal distribution of economic power in capitalist systems (Schmidhause, 1992, p. 228). Many Scottish cities have for decades been afflicted by the loss of manufacturing industry which facilitated community and social cohesion. Hanna Arendt might have also used the phrase ‘banality of evil’ to conjure profoundly incongruous realities, communities living in close physical proximity to the Society of Captives in our case. It is not by chance that prisons are built way back from the road; we are expected to forget what they do to others by not being reminded of their existence.

Recently the Scottish Government decided to axe the voluntary independent group of prison visitors scheme, established in 1871, and replace them with a less independent advocacy service. The prison visiting scheme was tasked to help ensure the basic human rights of prisoners were upheld. The Scottish Human Rights Commission expressed serious concerns about the Justice Secretary’s decision to axe it. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture is monitoring this situation closely. That policy change provoked controversy and unanimous opposition – objectors could not grasp the rationale behind Kenny MacAskill’s wish to axe it. Prisoners are now more likely to be isolated from communicating their concerns to the outside, more than ever sealed off from society, and forced into a university of crime experience.

It is not by chance that prisons are built way back from the road; we are expected to forget what they do to others by not being reminded of their existence

An Economic Science Research Council study by the London School of Economics in 2010 by Noel Whitty found an instrumentalist culture shift towards ‘business risks’ model of management in UK prisons which it argues runs in tension with a human rights morally-oriented risk lens. Prisoners are ‘Othered’, made to seem less than human through discourses of ‘offender management’ speak. Several UK prisons are privatised, working within a culture of performance management (http://www.sps.gov.uk/AboutUs/aims-of-the-sps.aspx) described in the language of ‘value for money’, ‘public sector cost’, and ‘correctional excellence’. The renowned US sociologist Loic Wacquant argues that the penal policy turn towards incarceration reflects a ‘neo-Darwinist’ state using ‘prisonfare’ rather than welfare to manage economically inactive citizens. For Wacquant this system is an extension of the welfare state. Prisonfare is defined by Wacquant (2009) thus:

“The extended policy stream that responds to intensifying urban ills and associated socio-moral turbulences by boosting and deploying policy courts, custodial institutions and their extensions.” (p. 17)

In the UK prison populations have increased dramatically over recent years which Wacquant claims arises in order to manage ‘precarious populations’ whose lives are being corroded by fierce neo-liberalism. In The Navigators directed by Ken Loach he movingly charts the breakdown of family and community cohesion as a team of imagined British Rail workers find their cultural values eroded by ruthless employment practices. They are compelled to lie about the cause of the death of a close colleague at work to cover up dodgy working practices, for fear of losing their jobs. To escape becoming at risk of committing crimes they must become liars, ironically.

Training and audit is normative within the UK prison system; the case of Napier vs Scottish Ministers (2005) is the most famous prisoner’s rights case in Scottish legal history where the remand prisoner Napier was awarded compensation as Government was found to be in breach of ECHR Article 3 of ‘degrading treatment’ standard over the practice of ‘slopping out’ at Barlinnie Prison. Thousands more claims from prisoners poured into the system resulting in millions of pounds being paid out in compensation by March 2009 with more pending. Government has now introduced legal safeguards and made changes to mitigate any continuation of this threat to its legitimacy. According to HMP Inspectorate Report Barlinnie 2011 which is the largest in Scotland (it holds 20 per cent of Scottish prisoners) and built between 1882-1897 is currently holding a population of 1,477 despite a design capacity of 1,018, and so is significantly over-crowded.

In his latest annual report, the chief inspector of Scottish prisons, Brigadier Hugh Munro, warned overcrowding remains “an enduring problem for a number of establishments”. But he understates; overcrowding is proxy for enforced contact with strangers also encountering Sykes’ deeply understated deprivations. Barlinnie processes some 20,000 prisoner movements each year. The Inspectorate call it “the archetypal Victorian-built prison”. Some 1,107 children come with families each month on visits. It sits a short distance from high rise flats whose postcodes are closely associated with this building. Overcrowding at home is duplicated inside. Being brought up in poverty makes it very likely that you will end up in that building nearby, held by people from similar areas who may be relatives. The working-classes deployed to ‘keep secure’ their own class. Marx did not expect this development.

Around 100 admissions are made into Barlinnie every Monday. There can be up to 500 untried prisoners on remand whom the report notes can spend long periods of time locked in cells with no access to activities, a situation also applying to long term prisoners waiting prison transfers. Six suicides occurred in 2010 and two more in the early months of 2011. During 2010-2011 there were 50 serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. A study by prison psychology staff found 24 per cent had experienced being victims of violence, 15 per cent had committed an act of violence and 41 per cent had witnessed it. This prison services Europe’s largest court, Glasgow Sheriff Court. It is added that “Overcrowding affects the daily running of the prison”. The environment is known to pose pressures; “four anti-ligature cells” are mentioned.

It is clearly a noisy environment; by telephones are “noise reducing hoods” – it is noted in the Report that holding a conversation is challenging. But bear in mind here Basil Bernstein’s middle-class elaborated code whose ‘art’ lies in the concealment of harsh facts: the truth is the noise would be unnerving for most of us. Let lose Charles Dickens in this environment and we’d see it as it is, not through the lens of ‘impartial’ bureaucratic prose. In some cells, covered with grills, light and ventilation is described as being poor. Depressing might capture better the emotional effect. One charity organiser Patricia McCooley who runs Safe Minds Inside commented “prison was probably the worst place to experience mental illness and that suicide was the only option for many”. And so our disturbed sense of societal justice equates with those afflicted by poverty then being subjected to more deliberate exclusion. Glasgow has one of the highest rates of deprivation and inter-generational unemployment in the EU. It is also home to Barlinnie and as stated is served by the largest court in Europe, also based in Glasgow.

Prison suicide occurs more frequently than we might imagine. The nature of a prison environment itself might be the final contributory factor to that nail in the coffin. A study by a US academic (Sheila Bird) published in 2008 found then that they were ten times the number expected for their age and gender, a situation which has improved in recent years. Authorities such as Dr Adrian Grounds, the Cambridge criminologist, found that the impact of prisons on the mental wellbeing of prisoners is long lasting damage after release, especially when the conviction is wrongful. Many prisoners are incapable of living normal lives afterwards. Ristad (2008) who worked in US prisons as a minister for 45 years commented upon the “systemic cultural ethos” of prison which he found to be “an autocratic bullying violence that maintains distance and control. This causes many who work in prisons to be violent”.

In 2011 the Danish Institute for Human Rights estimated that Europe alone some 800,000 children, many of whose parents did not commit violent crimes, are the hidden victims of criminal justice living separately from incarcerated parents. Tales to this effect pack the pages of Nell Bernstein’s 2005 book All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated. In Scotland around 27,000 children from working-class communities are denied their rights to nurture under UNHCR. Despite the excellent advocacy of Scotland Commissioner for Children and Young People in the Report called Not Seen. Not Heard. Not Guilty to secure this human right for the child several years ago the UK’s criminal justice system has yet to incorporate its rights position into official sentencing policy. The newly developed Criminal Justice Social Work Reports also takes a low profile on the children of offenders who will remain orphans of justice. The so-called law-abiding society through its criminal justice system forces out of view matters which is cannot accept reflects very negatively about its own values, namely a systemic bias whose atlas capturing the misdeeds of the poor. For Wacquant incarceration manifests the “criminalization of social insecurity”:

Penalization serves as a technology for the invisibilisation of the social “problems” that the state, as the bureaucratic lever of collective will, no longer can or cares to treat at its roots, and the prison operates as judicial garbage disposal into which the human refuse of the market society are thrown. (p. xxii)