What effect to we want our prisons to have?
Are they intended to keep society safe? Are they intended to punish offenders? Are they a way of rehabilitating misfits? Or is there a better way of exercising justice, a way of restoring relationships between victims and perpetrators?
The recent inspections of English prisons have revealed appalling conditions, presumably for both inmates and warders. Is this a sign that we do not care? Or that we are confused about what the prison service is for?
I have been reading about the work of Elizabeth Fry, the renowned Quaker reformer of the penal system. She was first asked to give immediate practical help to the women of Newgate prison, who had hardly any clothes, were badly fed and regularly abused by other prisoners and their keepers. People were imprisoned and given harsh sentences for what we would consider minor offences. But all prisoners were mixed together whatever crime they have committed. Later Fry returned with the idea of creating a school for the prisoners to help them regain self esteem, have meaningful activity and prepare them for their eventual return to society. Her ideas were met with initial scepticism. But she had a plan well thought out. She set standards of behaviour and required the women to commit themselves to monitor each other. She obtained secure spaces for the women separate from the men, she provided clothes and materials and began teaching reading and writing, using the Bible as a resource. The success was immediate and astounding to those in charge of the prison. Soon she was asked to advise the government and her ideas spread to other prisons. When she discovered that many were been deported to Australia she organised kits to to be provided for every woman which included sewing materials and other items to provide creative activities for the long voyage and to prepare them for their new life.
Life in prisons has led a tumultuous time since, with hard labour and solitary confinement introduced even within Fry’s lifetime. Penitentiaries in the USA followed suit and have become notorious for their violence. Approaches to prison regimes have varied from stressing punishment and deterrence to rehabilitation and recently towards restorative justice.
It may seem decidedly odd to now mention Paddington Bear, but in the recently released Paddington 2 film, prison features significantly. The prisoners are dominated and frightened by
Knuckles the cook, who produces ‘gruel’ for every meal. Paddington brings about a revolution beginning, of course, with marmalade sandwiches! Prison life is transformed and the canteen comes to resemble a tea shop with cakes galore! The final scene as the credits roll returns to the prison, and there has been another revolution equally improbable, but fun!
I have just sown my first seeds of the season in a propagator; they need warmth and light to germinate and grow. It seems clear that prisons are seed beds, and we need to decide what we want them to grow. Will they produce violence and repeat offenders, drug fuelled hopelessness and mental illness? Or could they grow better educated, and more socially capable citizens? With prison populations again nearing a record maximum and staff morale low where are the present day reformers