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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 10. 24 May 1972

Prison Reform — The Punitive Obsession

Prison Reform

The Punitive Obsession.

Keep Out of Jail

"So far as can be seen at present, the most practical and the most hopeful of 'prison reforms' is to keep people out of prison altogether!" That conclusion was reached by the Webbs in 1922, and Giles Playfair considers it important enough to quote it twice in this book.

Revolving Reform

The Punitive Obsession is a book written by a prison reformer who has come to see the hopelessness of prison reform. It is a massively, but eratically, documented history of the British prison system which seeks to show that ideas for increasing its effectiveness "have revolved rather than progressed." And a history written with this thesis in mind seems a good way to tackle a critique of the prison system that goes further than mere suggestions for reform.

Some History

The first step towards the development of a prison system in England was an Act of 1779 which authorised the construction of government penitentiaries. Its preamble stated that if criminals "were ordered to solitary imprisonment, accompanied by well regulated labour and religious intruction, it might be the means, under providence, not only of deterring others from the commission of like crimes, but also of reforming the individuals, and inuring them to habits of industry." The need for such a system had arisen because of the loss of the American Colonies to which criminals had in the past been transported.

Out of Sight...

Transportation was the ideal system for the English government to handle the crime problem. Not only was it extremely cheap, it was also exterminatory, freeing the country forever of criminals as no other method but the death penalty could. Initially the system was run on the basis that the captains of the ships which took the convicts to America were paid 5 pounds per convict taken on board. Later it was found to be cheaper to pay nothing and allow the captains to sell the convicts for what they could get. By the last voyage the captains of the ships were receiving 8 pounds for females, 10 pounds for unskilled male labourers, and 15-25 pounds for an artisan, sometimes the captains had to pay "humane personages" to take the senile and crippled convicts off their hands. Judging by the death rate on the voyage to America there cannot have been many of these left.

Jail cartoon 1

I Thought School Was a Jail

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Until I Got a Job. Boy Was That a Jail!

The main consequence of the end of Transportation to America was that Parliament had to take steps for the first time to reform criminals, for when they would once again be let loose on the English people. The new emphasis on reformation came not through choice but through necessity, and the opening up of the Australian colonies meant that any real attempt at reformation could be built the temporary expedient of the Hulks was introduced initially run by one of the captains of the ships involved in transportation to America. The convicts were housed in vessels anchored in various rivers, and the system was run on a contract basis, the contractor receiving 38 pound per convict for their upkeep and for providing the living facilities, and the government receiving the profit from the convict's labour. In the first two years 176 convicts died aboard the hulks, but Parliament, still embued with the idea of extermination, saw no faults in the system until the conditions improved, and the death rate began to drop. Then it became obvious that an improvement was needed to remove the threat to siciety from unreformed criminals. If Australia had not been opened up to transportation, some efforts might have been made to institute a system of real reform; in fact there was little real need to do this, and so began what Playfair calls the "punitive obsession."

Reform or Punish?

The "punitive obsession" is not something of which Playfair sees behind all attempts at prison reform right down to the present day. It arises through the combined effects of a misplaced faith in the deterrent as a means of preventing crime, and society's desire for revenge on criminals. The result of the obsession is that, any attempt to reform is always dogged by a desire to punish. Because the basic motive behind all penal techniques is the desire to punish, what has happened over the entire history of penal legislation is that when one system of incarcetation has shown itself entirely useless as a means of reforming criminals, it is not scrapped, and a fresh attempt to reform made, but it is made more punitive, in the hope that its deterent effect will be able to play the role that its reformative effect has not

Jeremy Bentham's Ideas ...

As always at the beginning of a new period of penal reform the first attempts at prison construction after the 1779 Act were fired by idealism, and a genuine desire for reform. The first penitentiary was to be built under contract and in 1791 Jeremy Bentham was advanced 3000 pound from treasury funds to purchase the site for a prison, to be built to his own design — he called it a Panopticon. If we are to look at prison reform from an historical angle, it is interesting to bear in mind New Zealand's latest attempt at an advance in high security prison construction - Paremoremo - when reading of some of his suggested measures: The essential requirement of reformative penologists of Bentham's day was that of "seclusion". Prisoners were to be kept separated from each other to the greatest possible extent, in order to protect them from each other's corrupting influence Behtham hoped to acheive this at the least expense by constructing his Panopticon in the form of a giant cage, with a central viewing platform from which all the prisoners could be seen, and to which they were all connected by a system of speaking tubes (Paremoremo's supervision system by television from a central office).

His suggestions for security were as follows:
(1)Light thrown upon the whole surface of the four surrounding walls.
(2)On top of the walls all around, a range of spikes, iron or wooden, of such slightness, that in the attempt to set a ladder against them or throw a rope over them to get up by, they would give way and break, and in either case strike against a range of wires, by which a number of bells would be set a-ringing.
(3)On the outside of each of the surrounding walls a ditch, the water of which would, on any attempt to undermine the continous wall, inundate the miners, and, while it betrayed their operations, render an exit if not absolutely impracticable, at least impracticable without such a noise as would give abundant warning to the guard house.
(4)To each such guard-house, a dog or dogs, of the sort of those which in the night are set a-barking by any the least noise.
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Than I Got Married Even More of a Jail!

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Until I Got Drafted into the Army. The Worst Jail Yet!

...Still with Us

Bentham was so sure of the reformative effect of his measures that he undertook to pay damages to the government for any prisoner who re-offended after leaving his prison. At the heart of his faith in reformation lay his faith in seclusion, punishment, and education. To varying degrees, these are still the basis of the modern English, and New Zealand prison systems.

Playfair is at pains at all stages of this book to emphasis that there has been almost nothing new introduced into the penal system since the days of Bentham. An emphasis at one stage on seclusion gives way, perhaps through overcrowding or even humanitarian motives, to almost free integration of prisoners. An emphasis on education is replaced by repetitive hard labour, in a reaction against prisoners being treated too softly. Hard but productive work is replaced by such boring and exhausting tortures as the treadmill or the crank, because the prisoner does not seem to be suffering enough for his sins. A reasonable diet is reduced to starvation level, because the prisoner is eating better than his fellows outside. And so on. When there is a reaction, it tends to be towards a more punitive regime; but an advance is never directed solely towards reformation.

Stay Alive

Playfair is of the opinion that this process has continued until the present day. In recent times in England a long period of reform under the guidance of Alexander Paterson, has been followed quite recently by such reactions as the Mountbatten Report (1966) which advocated increased security precautions, and a prison regime emphasising more deterence and punishment, than education and reform. The aim of the prison system has always been and this is admitted by even its most reactionary supporters, to discharge as its end product a person who can fit in with society, and will cease to commit criminal offences. Yet the rates of re-offending amongst prisoners discharged from the horrors of Millbank in its worst punitive days are not significantly greater than amongst prisoners discharged from the most modem reform minded institutions. Perhaps the only change is that now more prisoners come out alive. The obvious conclusion is that reform of prisons has neither a positive nor a negative effect on their success, At the most the reformer makes the prisoners life a less unhappy one.

Unlike Real Society

The reason for the lack of success in "curing" criminals of their crime through the prison system was well expressed by Thomas Osbourne, governor of Sing Sing prison in which he introduced a measure of self government. "It endeavours," he said, "to make men industrious by driving them to work; to make them virtuous by removing temptation; to make them respect the law by forcing them to obey the edicts of an autocrat; to make them far-sighted by giving them no chance to exercise foresight; to give them initiative by treating them in large groups; in short, to prepare them again for society by placing them in conditions as unlike real society as they could well be made." Only when all these defects have been treated, will there be any possibility of a prison serving the function of rehabilitating a man to fit in with society. Yet even in the most modern prisons only some of these blocks to reformation have been removed.

Nz's Open Prison

New Zealand's most advanced prison, which can in any way be said to be dedicated to reform (I exclude Paremoremo - a monument to the punitive obsession), is prison at Trentham. Witako is an open prison for first offenders, and thus is in an excellent position for experimentation in an attempt to turn it into a reformative institution. Because the prisoners there are first offenders (at least offenders suffering their first prison term), the public may well be able to let its punitive zeal lapse, and risk the possibility of escapes, and even of the prisoners finding life not unpleasant, if reformation is a real possibility. The regime at Witako is directed strongly to wards rehabilitation, but it can still not escape the criticisms which Osbourne made. On the positive side there is a good education programme, under which it is possible for inmates to obtain both academic and trade qualifications to ease their way on the outside. There is a good education programme, under which it is possible a psychiatric service available freely, though intermittently. The work provided is not uniformly monotonous or degrading. Living conditions are comfortable and not badly restricted, and there are good facilities for recreation. There is a scheme, unfortunately restricted to "Christian" families, of weekend release into a home environment. There is unrestricted letter writing, and reasonable visiting provisions. "Temptation" is put in the prisoners way by the fact that escape is as easly as walking out the back door, and there is a "Release to work scheme, under which prisoners can take a job in a factory in the outside community during the last few weeks of their imprisonment. That would seem to be a pretty positive check-list, yet still Witako remains a Prison, if a good one. For the fact that prisoners are still subject to the 'edicts of an autocrat' (even if a paternalistic one), and are still treated as a group of men undergoing punishment, means that they are still regardless of the positive reforms, isolated in a situation totally unlike that in the real world. When they leave prison, and are once more faced with the responsibilities of caring for a family, of deciding whether they will stay in the job they have worked in under the pre-release scheme, even of avoiding the temptations of return to crime. They of avoiding the temptations of a return to crime. They are once again faced with the situation which they faced before they committed the crime which took them to jail, and they are really no more fitted to cope with it.

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Until I Got in Trouble and Went to Jail...

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And Learned that Jail is Even More of a Jail Than School. A Job, Marriage, or the Army.

Does Deterrence Work?

It cannot be said that the planners of Witako have not tried to face up to the difficulties of creating a truly reformative prison; they have faced up to an impossible task. Playfair places the blame in the laps of the legislative and the judiciary. Crimes are punishable by fixed sentences, more chosen to fit the crime than the criminal The legislature has fixed the sentences to fit in with an idea of deterence, and the judges impose the sentences with the legislatures' intention in mind. Yet deterence has been shown innumerable times to have no effect on crime. Even if it did, there is no way to measure how deterent a particular measure is, and whether it will deter one crime and not another. Does 14 years jail for page 11 drug pushing deter that crime as much as does death for treason? Obviously there is no way of telling. Even if the sentences do have the required effect, the very fact that they must sometimes be invoked means that the prison system is landed with prisoners whose sentience has been placed on them to deter others, not to provide them, as individuals with a chance for rehabilitation. Thus, if the prisons can rehabilitate, it is only a matter of chance whether the prisoner they get will be in jail either for a long enough time to be rehabilitated, or for such a long time that all chances of rehabilitation are lost, and only a legacy of bitterness can ensue. The rehabilitative effect can only operate in a minority of cases — near impossibility is heaped on near impossibility.

Abolish Prisons...

Playfair sees the only solution to this problem in a system of indeterminate sentences, which would give the prisons the chance to exercise whatever rehabilitative effect they have for just the right time to give the maximum benefit to the prisoner. Yet, as he only too willing to point out this system would have a devastating effect on civil liberties, and in the cases where it has been tentatively attempted — for example in preventive detention, it has shown no great signs of success. It depends on a complete change in the prison system, which at one moment Playfair says is probably impossible, and at the next he postulates. We are returned to the abolition of the prison system as the only effective measure of penal reform.

...In New Zealand

It is in steps towards such an end which have recently been taken in New Zealand that the greatest hope for real advances in penal reform lies. The periodic detention scheme, introduced initially for juvenile offenders, and now extended to adult offenders, attempts to remove the obstacle to reform of isolation from the community by only confining the subjects during the weekend. In the least enlightened of the hostels, a sort of 'weekend prison' regime is in force, but in at least one there appears to be something approaching an attempt to avoid all the trappings of punishment, in an atmosphere that attempts to be non-institutional. The Youth Aid Section of the Police aims to prevent appearances before the courts of young offenders guilty of minor crimes, and although this has implications in the field of civil liberties as long as it remains in the hands of the Police, it is a step towards a more positive system. Recent legislation has instructed the courts not to impose short prison sentences unless absolutely necessary, and although it is not as yet clear how far the courts are adhering to the spirit of the legislation, this too is a desirable development. And of course the Probation Service, is a long standing attempt to keep offenders out of prison. These are positive steps, but they provide only for the minor, or "inexperienced" criminal. The serious problem is still treated only in Paremoremo or Mt. Eden. Playfair sees little, hope in the present English situation. Perhaps there is a little more hope in New Zealand, though the retirement of Dr. Robson as Secretary of Justice seems to have heralded the apparently inevitable period of, at best, stagnation which follows a period of advance.

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So Finally I Know What Freedom's All About:

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The Right to Choose Which Jail.

Take Away the Causes

Ultimately the only solution to the problem of crime will come through a deeper understanding of what causes criminal behaviour and the removal of those causes. Even such steps as Playfair envisages are based to a large extent on individual insight, rather than on dispassionate scientific research. Only when society ceases to treat the crime problem as something to be ignored or treated instinctively will any real solution be reached. And that realisation will only come in the context of a wider, revolutionary, concept and restructuring of society.

The punitive Obsession is a book which provides much food for thought, but little in the way of solutions to the problem it so graphically depicts. In that respect it differs little from the many liberal "exposes" which proliferate in the book-publishing world. Perhaps it will provide the basis for some greater mind to take the step further to a solution.