A MATTER OF
The recent troubles have brought our prison system again into question. Sally Kinnes discussed the problems and psychological effects of long-term confinement with some of the experts. Illustration by Paul Gray.
Ifthere is an inquiry into the recent riots in Scottish prisons it will no doubt find them to have many and complex causes. What is already generally agreed. however. is that the problems are part of a much wider and deeper social structure from which prisons cannot easily or sensibly be separated out.
Within this broader context David Garland. lecturer in Criminology at Edinburgh Unigersity. identified a fundamental paradox in the way the judiciary system is structured. There are probably several recognisable causes when an offence is committed: social issues. economic deprivation. poor housing. unemployment. deprived backgrounds— and also the individual offender. ‘The question for the courts is then. what can we deal with? What is the system geared up to deal with? It‘s geared up to deal with the individual involved. so we punish him. It‘s not geared up to do anything about the other social conditions which we know exist because that‘s left to the development ofsocial policy. general politics. economics and so on.‘ It‘s not a question of lack of knowledge about the circumstances and situations which lead to crime. ‘lt‘s a question of how we think about crime. We think ofit as a matter of individual responsibility and therefore of individual punishment.‘ After which the individual is almost entirely neglected.
While it is widely agreed that aftercare facilities for ex—offenders are appalling, in prisons rioting ‘seems to me to be a consequence of a closed regime. not in terms of keeping prisoners in. but closed in the sense of keeping the public and democratic and political processes out.‘ continues David Garland. The
law makes minimum statements about what should happen within prisons. and regimes within them tend to be very varied with the governor responsible for discipline and order. ‘The usual means we have of ensuring power isn‘t abused — the law. political review and public involvement — don‘t tend to go beyond prisons doors.‘ Before prisons were taken over by central
government in the late l9thC there was much more local public participation in prisons. ‘Now people don‘t go in and out of prisons to see what‘s going on. Politicians don‘t hold surgeries in prisons. Prisons are not the kind of thing most of us have ever been inside. In consequence you find when prisoners want to communicate with the outside to say ‘we think the laws have been broken here‘ they have to resort to roof-top demonstrations and breaking the prison rules.‘
Greater access of prisoners to the public and the public to prisoners was one of the features ofthe Barlinnie Special Unit ofwhich Jimmy Boyle. convicted of murder and one time labelled ‘Scotland‘s most violent man‘ is the most celebrated and reformed graduate. The Special Unit‘s philosophy was the opposite of repression.
‘the policy is no policy’
extremism and brutality. In the view of Richard Kinsey, Chairman ofthe Scottish Council for Civil Liberties ‘the Barlinnie Special Unit is the single greatest success in British prisons.‘ It is believed that it is just because of its success that it is an embarrassment to the Prisons Department. Whilst he was there Jimmy Boyle was openly critical of the rest ofthe system and the Unit itself was a living reproach for what was happening for the vast majority.They were not getting the chance to have access to a similar Unit. According to Richard Kinsey ‘its a widely held view inside prisons that in many ways the Prisons Department wishes the Special Unit had never been opened.‘ A unit of its kind challenges the system in a number of ways. For it to be extended would require a large reduction in the prison population. It would need fewer inmates or more staff. ‘a fundamental resource problem we don‘t want to face‘. It also challenges the prison culture for staff as well as inmates. ‘The idea of inmates and staff sitting around a table together and making joint decisions is the opposite to a kind of totalitarian hierarchy which says you‘ll do what you‘re told and we
don‘t even have to give you a reason why. It upsets many fundamental things about the system.‘ adds David Garland. It would be easier to judge its full success if there was some research into the Unit. but the Prisons Department resist this. ‘The Prisons Department generally is pretty closed. pretty defensive and pretty secretive. If you were running an appalling disastrous system you would probably be defensive too.‘
The system is generally agreed to be without direction. There isn‘t apparently a dichotomy between penal policy and the consequences of the penal system because in the view of those working within it. there is no policy. ‘As far as I can see‘ says Dr Clerk. a forensic psychiatrist working from the Douglas Inch Clinic in Glasgow. ‘the policy ofthe Prisons Department is to have no policy.‘ The general aim then becomes a philosophy of containment and the Options accessible to this philosophy become control and order. The important thing is dealing administratively with large numbers in confined conditions. ‘Most ofthe regime ofa normal system‘ says David Garland ‘is just about administering bodies. getting people in their cells at night. getting them occupied during the day. getting them back and forth from court, making sure people get fed. aren‘t too bored. don‘t cause a disturbance and don‘t escape.‘ At its lowest common denominator it has been seen as life reduced to numbers and locations. an enforced system. manipulated by others, immutable, and for a long term prisoner, relatively permanent. ‘It‘s an exaggeration or over—ambitious notion to talk about them as if they‘re treatment. rehabilitation. or correctional facilities.‘ They are more like ‘warehouses‘ where we put the problems which we don‘t know how to cope with. For a long term prisoner it is also a relatively permanent regime.
The process ofinstitutionalisation in prison is very simple according to Dr. Basson. Consultant Forensic Psychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. ‘You get up at the same time as everyone else because you‘re told to. You wear the same clothes as
everyone else and you wear what you‘re told. You make your bed exactly as everyone else does and it‘s got exactly the same covers on it as everybodyelse‘s. You clean up and to a degree start to toilet at the same time as everybody else. You go to work as a group and comeback and eat your lunch at the same time as everybodyelse.‘ Within such a system the opportunities for the erosion ofone‘s sense of self are plentiful. Expressionsof individuality are hard to find for many prisoners. "I‘here is very little which is theirs and theirs alone.‘
life reduced to numbers
Not everyone can keep a grip in this environment. ‘lfyou‘ye got a lot ofinternal feeling ofidentity you‘re quite safe because you can normally live yourselfin your head. Ifyou haven‘t. and many people don‘t because prison is basically a young man‘s world. you tend to become quite amorphous. to get sucked into the system.‘ Richard Kinsey agrees. ‘The only way you can stay psychologically same is ifyou‘ve got problems to confront in your daily life. So prisoners may. for example. fight their cases. They may not have a hope in hell ofsucceeding. but it‘s the only way for them of keeping mentally alert. The huge fear oflong term prisoners is that they‘ll become an old lag. become institutionalised. lose their grip on reality. Physical and mental deterioration is deeply dreaded.‘ A former long term prisoner. John McVicar. who served 12 years ofa 23 year sentence. wrote ‘almost every morning I took a roll call ofhair and gum loss.‘
Therapeutic optimism is no longer fashionable. It was popular for a
4 The List 23 Jan — 5 Feb