Beyond Govism

Joe Sim
Monday, 14 December 2015

According to liberal commentators, Michael Gove's speech on penal reform at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, and his subsequent announcement that HMP Holloway was to close, will usher in a new age of enlightened sympathy and benevolent redemption for prisoners. This was symbolised by the standing ovation given to Elroy Palmer, an ex-prisoner, when he spoke immediately before the Justice Secretary.

Gove's speech - endorsed by David Cameron the following day - was compared with the retributive philosophy of Chris Grayling and with Michael Howard's infamous 'prison works' speech. For liberals, Grayling, Howard and Gove inhabit different penal planets. Writing in The Guardian, Martin Kettle argued that Gove was a 'true reformer' who 'Liberals should be cheering...on'. 

Conceptualising the debate about penal policy as a binary divide between retribution and reform, or what appears to be two contrasting personalities, is too simplistic and ignores a series of historical continuities between the old and the new. Prisons, with some honourable exceptions, have never been places of rehabilitation.

In 2015, they remain abject places of despair built on the infliction of punishment and pain.  They make prisoners feel bereft, disorientated and terrorised, just as they did in the 1990s under Howard, (and in the 1890s and 1790s).  As the charity INQUEST has consistently maintained, this is particularly relevant to self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in custody. 

The ‘soul-crunching reality of prison’

The latest report from Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and the review by Lord Harris into self-inflicted deaths amongst 18 to 24 year-olds, highlight the desperate nature of life inside.  Both confirm the soul-crunching reality of the prison experience.  Overcrowding, assaults, violence, bullying, self-harm, self-inflicted deaths, lack of staff training, little or no coordination between different agencies inside and outside, lack of purposeful activity - and on it goes. 

Gove's speech was as important for what was missing as for what it contained.  He ignored:  the authoritarian, occupational culture of prison officers and its insidious impact; the extent of self-harm and the increasing number of deaths in custody (216 in 2015 at the time of writing); the ongoing impact of state violence; the desperate cuts to legal aid; and the degrading and abject plight of those detained in immigration detention centres. 

Gove also failed to discuss the lack of democratic control of prisons and satellite institutions such as immigration detention centres. This is illustrated through the systemic, non-implementation of recommendations made by official bodies relating to different aspects of penal policy. Between April 2014 and March 2015, 2,770 recommendations were made by the Prison Inspectorate.  Only 1,088, or 39 percent were fully achieved, leaving 61 percent, or 1,682 that were partially achieved or not achieved at all.  At 39 percent, the percentage of recommendations actually achieved was the same as the percentage not achieved.  

Recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, and by different coroners, have also been systematically ignored. For INQUEST, there has been an 'institutionalised failure' to learn lessons from previous deaths of young people in prison. In a submission to the Justice Committee, INQUEST argued that this lamentable situation has been ‘compounded by an overall lack of Parliamentary scrutiny regarding the non-implementation of these recommendations'. 

Despite the obvious omissions and flaws in Gove’s speech, the Howard League for Penal Reform, in a gushing press release, described it as 'impressive'.  However, it was not that different from others delivered by previous Conservative and Labour Home Secretaries in one key sense. The elephants in the Tory room in Manchester were social divisions, and the toxic inequalities they generate. The Justice Secretary's rhetoric floated above and beyond recognising and discussing these divisions and inequalities. They were invisible. Criminality was understood, without equivocation, as the prerogative of the visible poor and powerless, not the invisible rich and the powerful. 

‘Ideological mystification’

While government ministers now talk about punishing income tax evasion and corporate fraud, it is the allegedly debauched behaviour of the poor and the powerless, and their 'dysfunctional' families, who continue to be constructed as the problem to be contained and punished.  Show them the redemptive hand of benevolence and their world can be turned around. The systemic and rampant criminality of the powerful, inside and outside of the state, mostly perpetrated by well-educated individuals from allegedly well-integrated, functional and respectable families, remains marginal to the everyday concerns of politicians, and the liberal penal reform lobby. The powerful have no need for redemption. They are the benevolent norm to which the poor should aspire.

What was on display at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester was a classic example of what Steven Box described as 'ideological mystification', in his 1983 book, Power, Crime and Mystification. The reality of crime, its definition, meaning, impact, nature and extent across social classes, was hidden behind the rhetoric of redemption for prisoners. However, redemption is not a progressive rhetoric.  Rather, the salvation offered by Gove can be understood through the lens of what Stuart Hall described as 'regressive modernisation'. This involves attempting to 'educate and discipline' the wider society into a 'particularly regressive view' of the present [and the future] by 'paradoxically dragging' it 'backwards through an equally regressive version of the past'. 

In the case of prisons, while the Justice Secretary might appear to be a reforming moderniser, he has a highly traditional, regressive perspective on the role of the prison and the nature of crime. As John Gray has noted, David Cameron's understanding of the present, and his vision for the future, is also rooted in a regressive version of a neo-Georgian past where the country is '.....governed by a small coterie of wealthy families that collude and compete for power and influence....The end result will be a society in which opportunity is concentrated in a single, self-perpetuating oligarchy'.

Govism is not about individual liberation, social equality and social justice. Rather, it is about readjusting social control and recalibrating state power while conspicuously ignoring the corrosive social inequalities and parasitic social order which prisons, and the wider criminal justice system, legitimate and sustain.

Breaking free from the past

In order to fundamentally transform the prison system, the Justice Secretary needed to think in truly radical terms and break free from the discourse that the prison provides the answer to crime. He should have considered developing a broader philosophical, and less hypocritical, reductive view of crime and punishment, which the majority of politicians and state servants share. This would have included:

  1. Thinking about how public protection in the very widest sense should be defined;
  2. Recognising that there are a range of social harms, including, but not restricted to, conventional crime that have a devastating impact across society but which are rarely punished;
  3. Stopping the prison building and privatisation programme as well as closing existing prisons;
  4. Radically transforming sentencing policies;
  5. Embedding structures of democratic control in order to ensure that state servants, at every level, are accountable for their actions and their failures.

The narrow, intolerant parameters within which the debate on prisons, criminal justice and social welfare is now coded and framed means that those who refuse to accept these parameters are often dismissed as idealistically irrelevant. Implicitly and explicitly, dismissing critics with the offensive cliché that they are pro-crime and anti-victim has been central to the rhetoric of successive Tory and Labour governments. Given their appalling track record around violence against women and children, the current government, and its predecessors, can hardly claim the moral high ground when it comes to supporting and protecting victims. 

The Labour Party, under Jeremy Corbyn, should make a clear ideological and policy break from this hypocritical past. The Party should challenge the authoritarian, law and order policies developed under the Blair and Brown governments, with their relentless focus on the poor and powerless, and confront the supine policy of non-intervention that crystallised their craven approach to the criminality of the powerful. 

Labour could also learn lessons from the interventionist activism, and rigorous research, conducted by organisations like INQUEST, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and Women in Prison who have developed a range of strategies to directly contest state-defined 'truth' through utilising the testimonies of those at the sharp, and often-brutal, end of criminal justice practices. This has allowed them to make radical interventions into political, popular and policy debates without being compromised by the state's endless capacity for incorporation and accommodation. 

It would be churlish not to recognise that Gove has tried to distance himself from his immediate predecessor in terms of lifting the book ban in prisons and abolishing the criminal court charges. However, ultimately, the moral rectitude that lies at the heart of his rhetoric should consider one key question: How can prisoners be expected to become morally upright, redeemed human beings when they are confronted by the combined weight of an economic, political, cultural, legal and penal system grounded in, and legitimated by, immoral and amoral forms of behaviour? 

Govism cannot provide an answer to this question precisely because of the narrow parameters within which its analysis of the penal system, and its problems, are understood.

Radically transforming the current system of criminal injustice for the many into a programme of social justice for all, means getting beyond Govism, transgressing the rhetoric of neoliberal reform and rejecting the sanctimonious platitudes offered by the Justice Secretary. Developing the policies outlined above can turn piecemeal, reformist possibilities into radical, political probabilities. They provide the key to this radical transformation.  

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University and is a trustee of INQUEST.