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Howard League blog · 16 May 2016

Prison is not a moral crusade

Michael Gove gave an interesting speech to prison governors last week, ahead of the Queen’s Speech which is expected to focus on prison reform.

He focused on the moral mission of prisons to change lives and spoke in positive terms about the vision he has for prison leaders to rehabilitate people in prison. Whilst I welcome the positive tone that always emanates from the Secretary of State, I feel a little uncomfortable about prisons being used as a moral mission to change lives.

To be clear, I am not saying that moral purpose does not have a place in thinking about the justice system. We have already seen important interventions by the Secretary of State that clearly come from his own sense of morality. Last week alone saw two examples of this: the welcome decision to expand the use of temporary release and the remarkable, hard-hitting report from the Medway Improvement Board, which Mr Gove commissioned.

But I wish to inject a note of caution when it comes to prisons and high moral ideals. Often in history these two things have come together and often the result has not been the one intended. Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found in the early American penitentiaries, where Quakers introduced the concept of solitary confinement – thinking it would bring prisoners closer to God rather than do terrible things to their mental health.

Part of the problem is the very concept of ‘rehabilitation’. The assumption behind this thinking, indeed behind a great deal of conventional and legislative thinking about people in prison, is that they have some sort of moral deficit that requires a whole person remedy. This, apparently, can be achieved by securing redemption in custody.

I feel a little uncomfortable about prisons being used as a moral mission to change lives.

Firstly, I think that doing something wrong does not define you as a person, but is an action that requires a response proportionate to its impact and intent. We need to separate the action from the person. Because you have burgled a house or hit someone in a pub, does not give the state the right to meddle with your personality and assume that you have need of rehabilitation. You will need to accept the consequences and that may include a penance of time taken from your life through incarceration or carrying out some community tasks.

In other words, rehabilitation may be at the heart of our confusion about the role of a criminal justice system that is too often asked to deal with a myriad of social, health and personal problems.

Prison is not able to rehabilitate someone’s mental health problem, nor indeed is it normally able to ameliorate anti-social attitudes, indeed it more often compounds them by treating people so badly that they feel that they have become the victim.

We should only be asking custody to respond to an event and to treat people decently so that their period of incarceration is a positive experience that does no damage. It should allow someone to make amends for the action that led to imprisonment. Rather than trying to deal with the whole person through some misguided ‘rehabilitation’ we should see prison as an intervention that is used for the most extreme criminal activity but is time limited and proportionate.

Any treatment that is necessary because of drug addiction, educational deficit, mental health or other problem, should be dealt with as it would be in the community.

Prison is an unfortunate necessity in response to extreme actions by individuals; it is not a moral crusade.


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