From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Dostoyevsky rules


August 5. In an addendum to the June 22 diary, I noted a further still-birth in a woman’s prison.  As ever in this rear-view country, a set of inquiries has been launched, but their findings have been pre-empted by a whistle-blower in the person of Tamsin Morris, a lawyer who previously managed the mother-and-baby unit at Styal Prison.

She revealed that four months before the event she had written to the local MP, the Mayor of Manchester, and the Ministry of Justice, raising concerns about conditions for pregnant women in prison.  Together with the charity Birth Companions, she had drawn attention to the failure to record the number of women in prisons who are pregnant, the unavailability of appropriate termination procedures, inadequate pregnancy testing, and inconsistent antenatal services.  Pregnancy tests were only offered on entry to the prison and could be declined by the prisoner.  Thereafter there were no further tests, and no national record of pregnant women prisoners. 

In the Styal case, no care was given until the prisoner unexpectedly went into labour.  It is possible that in this prison, and across the sector, some minor reforms will follow.  The question remains, as I argued in my entries for June 2 and June16, whether the coronavirus presents an unmissable opportunity to reform and essentially inhumane and destructive penal regime.  As the pandemic persists so also does one of its more unacceptable consequences, the imposition of widespread solitary confinement in prison cells as the only available means of preventing mass infection. 

We arrive at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century with, at best, a partially modernised version of the system that began to be constructed in 1842 with the opening of Pentonville.  There has been a long debate about the function of incarceration. Proponents of rehabilitative justice have largely been defeated by the advocates of retribution.*  Ever since the introduction of solitary confinement where the prisoner was supposed to repent and reform through a prolonged period of spiritual meditation, there has been scant evidence that rehabilitation works.  After nearly two centuries of inquiry and adjustments to the system, the recidivism rate in England and Wales (the proportion of prisoners committing crimes on release) stands at 50% after one year.  There is ample evidence not only that prison does not reform, but that the experience of incarceration is destructive of mental and physical health, more especially with the renewed use of solitary confinement.

The prisons should be front and centre of public policy in this pandemic for two reasons.  The first is that of opportunity.  Dominic Cummings promises that a ‘hard rain’ is going to fall on the civil service.  Were he to focus his iconoclastic tendencies on the Ministry of Justice, then history would indeed go round a corner.  There are European examples of how to do it better.  In Norway a much smaller proportion of the offending population is housed in civilised, small-scale accommodation where the prisoners are treated with a basic respect.  The result is a vast reduction in both public expenditure and the recidivism rate, which stands at 20% over two years.  In Britain, perhaps ten per cent of the current prison population needs to be behind bars to protect the rest of society.  Outside, the plethora of electronic surveillance devices, which so alarm privacy campaigners, could be applied to the task of monitoring the behaviour of potential repeat offenders.

The second reason is more basic.  Dostoyevsky’s much travelled dictum still applies: ‘A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.’

So also will be the verdict on how we have learned from this crisis.

*Victor Bailey, The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal, 1895-1970 (London: Routledge, 2019).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s