Deaths in custody: A critical review of Harris

J M Moore
Monday, 6 July 2015

The Harris Report is a long document which warrants careful reading. It is certainly thorough and draws on an impressive body of evidence.

But is the report really as Toby Harris has claimed the most ‘wide-ranging look at penal policy … for 20 or 30 years’ or is it another example of an official inquiry seeking to restore the legitimacy of an inherently flawed institution?

In anticipating the conclusions of the Harris Review into the deaths of 18-24 year olds in prison I wrote last October that:

it will have to determine who or what is to blame. Is it the inherent nature of prisons as institutions intended to inflict pain, or the way those institutions are managed or the characteristics of those imprisoned, particularly those who have died?

My fear was like many previous official inquires Harris would choose to explain away the deaths by highlighting the vulnerability of those who have died. This concern was based on the review's consultation which overwhelmingly focused on individual vulnerability.

I am pleased to record that the Inquiry’s report, published last Wednesday, does not reach this conclusion. Indeed, faced with passionate and well informed submissions from the families of those who have died, campaigning groups and ex-prisoners it reaches the conclusion ‘that all young adults in custody are vulnerable’ and indeed goes further acknowledging that imprisonment ‘exacerbate[s] vulnerabilities’.

In allocating blame the Harris panel is therefore left with two choices. Either the root cause is to be located within prison’s inherent nature as pain inflicting institutions or in their management. Harris very firmly locates the blame on the way prisons are managed and concludes that the solution lies in a refocused and improved prison.

Prison’s failure detailed

In highlighting management failures the panel point to an endemic system wide failure. The report impressively details the scale of the institutional failures that permeate the whole prison estate. Young people are caged in ‘grim environments, bleak and demoralising to the spirit’ subjected to ‘impoverished regimes’ that are ‘particularly damaging to developing young adults’. The regimes imposed on young people are ‘not purposeful, frequently not meaningful and above all impoverishing to the spirit’. NOMS, the organisation responsible for managing prisons and probation, failed ‘to operate as a cohesive, organised whole with a central strategy that underpins its work' (58). There was, the panel discovered, a ‘disconnect between what those in charge think should be happening and what is actually happening’. Staffing levels are inadequate, the quality and skills of prison guards are poor, and prisoner guard relationships problematic. It is a serving young prisoner that best sums up the report’s findings on the everyday reality of imprisonment: ‘it’s a shit-hole'. 

The report says very little about race and I could find no reference to racism in it at all. Racism is endemic in prisons. The report on the killing of Zahid Mubarak highlighted how a culture of institutionalised racism combined with individual staff racism determined how young black men experienced their imprisonment. Harris does however address bullying, which ‘was raised frequently in the evidence we received and arose often in the individual cases we considered’.

Bullying is routinely ‘discovered’ by official inquiries which, like Harris, try and represent it as deviant and an aberration from the norm of the prison place. In a recently republished review of the 1985 Chiswick report into the deaths of boys and young men in Glenochil Prison in Scotland, Phil Scraton and Katherine Chadwick highlighted that bullying and violence was routinely exploited by the institution to exercise control. Harris’s solution – to ‘recommend that a Prison Service Instruction is developed to address this widespread problem’ – fails to recognise that the problem is not a failure by staff to stop endemic  bullying and violence but that prison and its staff are directly or indirectly the source of the vast majority of it.

Tough on self-inflicted deaths or tough on the causes of self-inflicted deaths

Pervasive institutional failings are also evident in the inquiry’s examination of the management of the risk of self-inflicted deaths within prison. ‘Lessons have not been learned’, Harris observes, ‘health care failures’ including ‘stark evidence that vulnerable young adults are not getting access to the (mental health) support and treatment they need’ are detailed, and a ‘focus on process and ‘box-ticking’ in the management of risk is highlighted. Clearly anything that can be done to save even a single life must be welcomed but we need to be clear that managing those driven to attempt to take their own lives is not the same as tackling the underlying root causes.

One consequence of focusing on physically stopping people killing themselves rather than addressing why they want to is that such interventions end on release. However as research has shown far more people kill themselves in the year after they leave prison than do whilst incarcerated. It is disappointing that the inquiry has only focused on the state’s responsibility whilst people are caged and not used this opportunity to hold it accountable for the lives subsequently lost through the damage inflicted by prison.

Following the death of her daughter Sarah in Styal prison in 2003, Pauline Campbell embarked on a brave campaign to highlight the deaths of women in prison (a campaign that incidentally gets no mention in the Harris report). This resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of women dying in prison. However, as Jean Corston concluded in her report on the use of prison for women this was because women’s prisons became more effective at managing women who wanted to kill themselves rather than through the removal of the underlying conditions and forces that were driving them towards this desperate act. 

As prisons keep ‘no record of ‘near misses’, or the times when an officer uses their ‘fish knife’ to cut through a ligature and saves a life’ we do not know just how many people the pains of imprisonment drive to attempt to end their lives. One prison worker told the inquiry: 

Literally all the time we are preventing suicide. We actually do it extremely well and I don’t think that’s anywhere near widely enough recognised. You never hear of the success stories. You only ever hear of the failures. Our staff are very good at preventing suicide. 

Hopefully some of the detailed technical recommendations will be implemented, prison guards will get even better at thwarting suicide attempts and some lives will be saved. But they will not address the essential problem that it is the pains of imprisonment that are driving people to attempt to kill themselves.

Legitimising prisons

Prison is a punishment, it is meant to hurt, to send someone to prison is to deliberately inflict pain on them. This is an unpleasant reality, which politicians, academics and reformers often fail to acknowledge. Whilst right-wing, traditionalists are often explicit about this, liberal reformers have habitually sought to avoid this by claiming the purpose of punishment is rehabilitation.

At the heart of the Harris review is a plea 

that the Ministry of Justice publishes a new statement on the purposes of prison, where the primary purpose is rehabilitation, and which acknowledges that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with respect for their human rights. 

A focus on rehabilitation is proposed as the magic bullet by which all the problems of the ‘shit-hole’ will be cured. Remarkably this proposal is made without any reference to the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ implemented by the coalition government during the very period examined! How is Harris’s reformation going to work where the repeated attempts of reformers over more than two centuries to implement their (remarkably) similar versions have all failed?

Reformation is however a powerful ideological legitimiser. If prison's purpose is, or even if it could be, beneficial to those confined within them – a humanitarian intervention undertaken with benevolent intentions – then surely it is a good thing? Through reformation, prison becomes the medicine for crime and if like, medical interventions, pain is suffered it is incidental, a necessary side effect in achieving the desired cure of the patient. The pains of imprisonment are for the prisoner's benefit. However, it has been blatantly clear to everyone who has visited prisons – from John Howard in the 18th Century to the Harris panel members last year – that they are not rehabilitative. 

Whatever our fantasies of future penal utopias the reality of prison throughout its history is that, despite claiming to promote law and order, it is in reality a lawless and violent institution. It is an institution designed to segregate, stigmatise, and hurt; it is inherently exclusionary. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, claims to be about skilling, integrating and empowering; processes that are intrinsically inclusionary. The two are incompatible. The more a penal sanction focuses on rehabilitation, the less punitive it becomes. As its penal character is eroded it increasingly becomes subjected to penal clawback, until it is either closed down or has its rehabilitative elements neutered.  What remains intact are the punitive elements, often with their legitimacy enhanced through their fleeting association with the noble ideals of reformation.

For over 200 years reformers have responded to the repeated scandals and failures of the prison by offering up the reformed prison as the solution. Harris continues that tradition. The proposals for fewer people to be sent to prison, for prisons to be better run, families to be treated with decency, improved staff/prisoner relationships and more robust monitoring and inspection regimes are welcome. Whilst these should be supported, the prospects for any improvements that are implemented being sustained are bleak. That is just not how prison works in the real world. Whilst we retain our punitive obsession, progressive reforms will always be temporary.

The prison place is a site of pain. It is this deliberately inflicted pain that ultimately drives prisoners and ex-prisoners to take their own lives. Until we acknowledge this and imagine a society without prisons then sadly ‘(t)hose who are determined to kill themselves will no doubt always find a way to do so’.

J M Moore will soon be joining Newman University as a Senior Lecturer in Criminology.