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I wrote this contribution to the Future We Deserve, a curated collaborative online project. It re-iterates some thoughts to responding to crises whilst also providing a brief overview of prison and its purpose.

If there is nothing else the current economic crisis has taught the modern Western world it’s this: hyperincarceration is not affordable or sustainable. This is by no means a new lesson – when Churchill was Home Secretary at the beginning of the 20th Century, in the face of a World War he reduced the prison population of England by half. When the Nazi war machine hit the Soviet Union, Stalin – the granddaddy of the penal state – released some 2 million prisoners to fight against Hitler’s hordes in the penal battalions. More recently during the crisis of the late 1990s, Russia embarked on an ambitious programme of penal reform to reduce its sick, addicted, economically inactive and hugely expensive million-strong prison population – something it managed up to a point.

Now, as a society we are re-discovering these ideas – and everyone from Kenneth Clarke to Arnold Schwarzenegger is attempting to reduce the use of imprisonment in their jurisdiction – with limited success – because they understand that first and foremost, hyperincarceration is a luxury politicians can no longer afford.

The current Western model of imprisonment is a fairly recent one, dating back to the early 19th century. In historical terms, that’s not long. Whilst we see the prison-industrial archipelago as some kind of unmovable monolith, not least because of its physicality and the psychological associations it invokes in our culturally conditioned minds, the reality is whilst it is violent, inflexible and simply too big, it is nonetheless very fragile.

Broadly speaking, prison systems the world over have four stated goals.

  • The first is deterrence – the reasoning goes that the idea of going to prison should put people off committing crimes, or as the case may be, acting outside a certain societal norm.
  • The second is rehabilitation – the idea is that people who make mistakes can become free from addiction, reflect on their past actions and become educated enough to be able to re-enter society as a socially and economically active citizen.
  • The third is retribution – society wants vengeance, and it wants to see those who commit crimes be punished in an obvious way.
  • Finally there is public safety – isolating criminals from society and keeping them in a safe and secure environment so they have no further opportunity to cause harm to others.

The truth, widely accepted by practitioners and scholars is that the vast majority of prison systems fail almost completely in the first three, and partially in the fourth. When a junkie is desperate for his next hit, he won’t think rationally that he is afraid of going to prison so he better not break into the car to steal something to sell it on. The myth of rehabilitation has been blown out of the water long ago – prison is “an expensive way of making bad people worse”; to quote just one statistic up to a quarter of all new heroin addictions are acquired in prison. The public being satisfied that vengeance has been extracted certainly is very rare – in part thanks to the constant stream of news stories originating from the colourful imaginations of tabloid journalists about prisons being a holiday camp. Finally, from the point of view of public safety, most of the time the physical buildings are secure and keep people in, but the various high profile escapes over the years and the crimes which occur in prisons and are organised from within them give the lie to the notion that walls and barbed wire can give any full guarantees of keeping the public safe and those inside secure.

There is no correlation between crime rates and incarceration rates, so why, when none of the four stated goals of imprisonment are met fully, and most are barely met, have we found ourselves in a situation in which we hit a global financial crisis with the burden of bloated, exorbitantly priced and dysfunctional penitentiary systems?

The answer lies in the third goal – the need for vengeance and visible punishment. When times were good, politicians could afford to spare no expense in making themselves look tough, and so locking lots of people up with no other purpose than their self-image and feeding the popular media was common practice. The number of people a country chooses to imprison is a purely political choice: compare Scotland and Finland – similar in size, demographics, population profile, and yet Scotland chooses to imprison three times more people. Notably though, Scotland still imprisons a lower proportion of its citizens than England & Wales.

The problem is, after every binge there is a comedown and then a hangover. So too will one follow our current hyperincarceration binge, although the sooner we halt, the less future damage we are causing and the less explosive the timebomb. The future we deserve, or at any rate have earned, is one of expanding infectious diseases, increasing inequality and more criminalisation and alienation.

The correct response is not difficult, but it will not be popular with the tabloid press and less statesman-like politicians looking to score political points at the cost of common sense, as for example the former champions of hyperincarceration Tony Blair and Jack Straw have been doing recently in response to the current UK government’s attempts to pursue a more enlightened penal policy. People and publications who engage in these activities will come round eventually, as they did in Moldova or Kyrgyzstan when the HIV epidemic became self-sustaining and harm reduction legislation had to be introduced, in the face of the mythology which equated needle exchanges and methadone maintenance to condoning illegal behaviour. Politicians and practitioners had to be courageous in the face of an infectious disease which threatened to wipe out much of the population, and ignore the denigrators with personal agenda of self-promotion or newspaper circulation.

As a result of an over-crowded system, which is under-resourced by some 30%, public safety and public health will be severely compromised. This applies in all jurisdictions, not just the UK. A series of actions is needed to ensure that the fallout from the crisis is as painless as possible. The trend towards hyperincarceration must be halted and reversed. This can be achieved by remanding far fewer people in custody whilst they are awaiting trial (currently c. 20% in England) many of whom are released when they reach trial, stopping incarcerating all but the most prolific offenders who are detained for non-violent crime (currently about 2/3rds), and addressing the issues of those who are mentally ill outside of the prison setting (currently some 90% of all prisoners suffer from a diagnosable mental illness). This should be accompanied with a much stronger focus on strengthening the management of non-violent offenders and former offenders in the community, new ways of investing in prevention and early intervention and a bold and extensive programme of de-criminalisation (the last UK government created over 3,000 new criminal offences on the statute books.

Of course custodial establishments should also be able to continue to perform their core function well, in any crisis. They should be able to hold people who are very dangerous safely and securely without disruption. Preparation for a crisis-type scenario should entail all secure establishments ensuring that they are equipped with generators, water purification equipment, vegetable gardens, staple food stocks and possibly bakeries, fire fighting equipment and sufficient emergency healthcare facilities to cope with interruptions in supply which a crisis might bring. However, such preparations should be secondary to a much more pressing need – unburdening the system by removing those who shouldn’t be there into a safe and well managed community environment, and ensuring that those who remain are kept safely and securely.

Society will never escape the need for a certain degree of coercion, but how civilized that society is must surely be judged by how sparingly and safely this coercion is applied. Only by moving away from the current cycle of imprisoning more and more people and churning out a generation of unhealthy, addicted, jobless and criminally inclined individuals can we begin to move towards a society where the default response to the problems of crime and justice is not based on trying to please the readership of tabloids and is instead concerned with our future and safety.

Perhaps appropriately, innovation as a subject which is formally discussed in policy circles is in itself relatively new. Reform however has been around for centuries and millennia, and even in its contemporary guise, penal and security sector reform has been around for a few hundred years and has a strong history with its own legendary champions like Peter the Great, Jeremy Bentham and Nelson Mandela. There is a relationship between the two, but what is it, and at which point do they intersect?

I write this on the balcony of my hotel room in Ashgabat. The rotating golden colossus of Turkmenbashi is facing me directly from a kilometre or so away, the jagged mountains along the Iranian border loom in the background and the skyline is peppered with cranes building hundreds of new white and gold marble palaces which have come to characterise progress in the City of Love, but nonetheless acknowledge the ancient architectural tradition of this fascinating region. The new president has made reform a priority – a new constitution was adopted last year along with a spate of new laws and a new parliament established; a new currency has crowned fiscal reforms and I am hoping that my work here will contribute to the development of a new paradigm for the penal system. In this place, the two concepts are more relevant than ever, but as elsewhere, their definitions are uncertain and their purpose not fully established.

As I was preparing for my trip here, I put together a presentation on the necessity for penal reform not just in Turkmenistan but in the UK and many other countries. It is widely acknowledged that penal systems worldwide fail to fulfil their stated purpose of rehabilitation. Prisons are overcrowded and unhealthy places, rife with drugs, violence, corruption and infectious diseases. The main thing they succeed in doing is ensuring that people who go there emerge without employment, accommodation or family links, but with new addictions and criminal connections. They do sometimes successfully contain the very small number of dangerous people from whom society must be protected, but those people account for perhaps 10% of the total, perhaps less. In short, penal reform is as necessary now as it was during the reign of Peter the Great, since as politicians are so often fond of saying, criminal justice systems are not fit for purpose.

How does innovation then fit into the context of penal reform? We don’t think of reform as necessarily being innovative, we view it as a means to make society safer, make prisons more secure, ensure that the human rights of both prisoners and staff are respected and protected, and that people who do go to prison have less of a chance of acquiring an infectious disease or an addiction. Must innovation be part of that process?

In my presentation to the Turkmen parliamentarians, chief justice, and senior Ministry of Interior and Justice officials, I argued that it must. However, first it is important to acknowledge that not all innovation is good. Some can lead to a further deterioration of something important such as the observance of human rights. Take the presence of technology in prison. An over-reliance on technocorrections in some US jails for example can mean maximum isolation for prisoners – doors are opened and shut automatically by timers or remote control, surveillance is carried out using CCTV, meals are dispensed from machines – prisoners have very little contact with staff. Any sensible prison manager will tell you that this is no way to run a jail – what little scope there might have been for rehabilitation becomes eroded, and mechanisation naturally results in dehumanisation. Other technological innovations in this sector have been even more sinister – from the gas chamber and the electric chair to modern day taser devices which are often used for torturing prisoners and suspects.

However, other technological innovations, when used IN COMBINATION with appropriate systemic innovations, have a powerful role to play in the cause of reform. I have visited, and worked with, many prisons, and have never encountered one which was completely free from drugs. However, the practice of searching all staff and visitors on entry, using both technology, and properly trained gate staff can play a major role in reducing the stream of drugs entering an establishment. This only works if those doing the searching are efficient, well-informed, courteous and attend regular training in order to keep their abilities up to date. Moreover, shift patterns must be arranged in such a way as to make the system resistant to corruption and avoid conditioning. There must be no exceptions – all staff, governors, even visiting dignitaries must undergo this process. This approach could never completely remove drugs and mobile phones from an establishment but has a significant part to play in reducing corruption and smuggling.

Other reforms are not necessarily innovative, but indeed can be a way of improving outcomes by returning to tried and tested methods. Opportunities for this often result from ill-considered policy trends. The systematic destruction of the Probation Service in England & Wales over the past twenty years or so by successive Conservative and Labour governments is an interesting case study. Currently most experts, practitioners and policy makers acknowledge that resettlement from English and Welsh prisons is rarely successful (despite the excellent and hard work of individual people in some areas). Huge reconviction levels demonstrate this. A popular notion at the moment is that comprehensive support to those coming out of prison, from meeting them at the prison gate to assisting them with obtaining employment and accommodation is a good idea which it is. There are projects underway to make this happen in some areas, from the great work of the Tower Hamlets Council to the heavily police-focussed Diamond Districts initiative whose effectiveness is yet to be demonstrated. What few policymakers and practitioners have pointed out is that this used to be the function of the Probation Service which it used to execute well. An excellent reform would be to re-empower the Probation Service to be able to perform this function once again – this may not be innovative but it would be effective and have the result of things getting better.

So, not all innovation results in reform, and not all reform is innovative. Where do the two meet?

This is where it gets interesting. Some reforms of course ARE pure innovation, at its best. These include introducing harm reduction methods such as needle exchanges and condom distribution to prison to help reduce the risk of the spread of HIV and other blood-borne viruses through intravenous drug use and sexual contact. These may need to be accompanied with appropriate legislation reform in some countries, as well as the right normative documents, staff training, information campaigns within establishments and new systems to ensure effectiveness and confidentiality. The intervention itself is a necessary innovation (usually prisoners are 10-20 times more likely to be HIV+). But all the other aspects which I described have an enormous potential for innovation too – system design, staff training, delivery methods for the information and so on.

Even more interesting is the idea that even if a reform itself may not be innovative, the process for bringing it about can and often should be. This process needs to have robust enquiry and design components. In the case of a needle exchange for example you need to know who is injecting, when, where, why, how often, what the patterns are, how people respond to searches, are there any incentives not to inject, how needles are shared, what the supply routes and patterns are, how distribution works, what other drugs and risky activities are about in your establishment and in what volumes, what the prisoners and staff think about how injection works, how much of it is myth, what the geography of the establishment is, how injecting and supply patterns fit in with the regime, timetables, and staff shifts, and so on. Given what a closed setting prison is, the enquiry phase has no choice BUT to be innovative – to ensure confidence and anonymity whilst obtaining the best results. A mixture of techniques needs to be used form fairly edgy ethnography through to persuading the authorities to share intelligence data. The design element too needs to involve staff, prisoners, medical professionals, and possibly even drug dealers (it’s bad for business if all your customers are dying from AIDS) – i.e. not just the people who will have to deliver the programme but also those who have the potential to hinder it. The process of design and involvement of those who have to deliver the programme is innovation – no two ways about it.

Here in Turkmenistan we are some distance away from coming up with radical innovations such as involving prisoners and basic grade staff in helping improve the service and perhaps re-designing some elements of it which need to change. However, my argument stays – in this setting the most important role which innovation has to play is in the process of bringing about reform. How much innovation is needed is a separate discussion, but the fact that it is needed is hard to dispute.