Getting out of the prisons crisis

The unthinking acceptance of prisons as inevitable social institutions is preventing us from thinking beyond them, argues Richard Garside

By: 
Richard Garside
Date: 
Thursday, 25 April, 2019

There are at least two ways of thinking about the prisons crisis and about what it would mean to get out the crisis.

First, we can think about the prison crisis as a crisis in prisons. In 2018, the England and Wales prisons inspectorate issued four urgent notifications following inspections of Bedford, Birmingham, Exeter and Nottingham prisons. Indeed, the inspectorate has ‘documented some of the most disturbing prison conditions we have ever seen — conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century’.

Within the England and Wales jurisdiction, some prisons are less crisis-prone than other prisons. Across the UK, some jurisdictions appear less crisis-prone than those in other jurisdictions. The Scottish prisons system, for example, appears to have been less crisis-prone than the England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, prison systems over recent years. But crises do appear to be a regular feature of many or most prisons, both over time and at any given point in time. Crises in prisons appear to be an inherent feature of many prisons, rather than an uncommon aberration.

Second, we can think about the prison crisis as a crisis of imprisonment. This crisis is our enduring attachment to prison and imprisonment as a social institution. It is about the apparent inevitability of our commitment to making and remaking the same institutions, again and again. It is about our taking for granted the ongoing existence of prison as a social institution, and our apparent inability to consider other options, different possibilities, in place of the monotonous making and remaking of the prison institution.

These two ways of thinking about the prison crisis are distinct. One is about the crises in individual prisons, the other, about the crisis of our continued remaking of the social institution of imprisonment. The two crises feed off, and sustain, each other. Our commitment to the social institution of imprisonment compels us perennially to build, maintain and rebuild prisons. By building, maintaining and rebuilding individual prisons, we also reaffirm and revalidate the social institution of imprisonment. So it is that the twentieth century, the century of prison reform, was also the century of dramatic prison growth. As policy makers sought to address the crisis of prisons, the crisis of imprisonment deepened.

Attempts to escape these two prison crises — the crisis in prisons and the crisis of imprisonment — prompt different responses. The crisis in prisons calls forth reform attempts: infrastructural investment, staff training, regime improvements, for instance. The crisis of imprisonment, by contrast, calls forth a variety of demands and proposals: from relatively modest ‘reformist’ proposals to more avowedly abolitionist demands. Attempts to address the crisis in prisons tend towards reaffirming the apparent validity of the social institution of imprisonment, so displacing and deferring any serious attempts to address the crisis of imprisonment.

Getting out of the crisis in prisons

Addressing the crisis in individual prison institutions makes up the stock in trade of government-led reforms, tweaks and changes. In their classic form, they might be traced back to the 1895 Gladstone Committee report on prisons, and the supposedly ‘liberal’ set of reformist policies that followed.

Yet as Joe Sim has argued, lofty expressions from above have often sat in tension with the grim realities of prison life and operations on the ground. The supposedly liberal period of penal policies climaxed in the 1990 Strangeways prison riot. As Sim notes, the riot was anything but an aleatory irruption into an otherwise stable order:

‘The 25-day long occupation of the prison by prisoners, the effective destruction of most of the institution’s infrastructure and the apparent powerlessness, disorganization and conflict within, and between, state servants, provided a salutary reminder to the governing Conservative party that the tensions, which had been apparent since the 1970s… had not been alleviated’.

The widely-held view that the austerity-driven squeeze on prison budgets since 2010 has been the main cause of the current crisis in prisons carries some explanatory weight. It is also the case that prison budgets in England and Wales were being squeezed in the decade up to 2010.

Yet such explanations tend to assume what needs to be explained: why it was that successive governments have sought to squeeze prison budgets while simultaneously maintaining, or indeed expanding, the already high prison population. It was, at least in principle, possible for governments of recent years to seek to shrink the size of the prison estate in line with shrinking budgets.

More recently, the UK Government’s 2016 White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, made a number of proposals to achieve ‘a transformation away from offender warehouses to disciplined and purposeful centres of reform where all prisoners get a second chance at leading a good life’.

This current commitment to renewing and rebuilding the prison estate, and improving outcomes for staff and prisoners, has several parallels with past policies. Successive governments have, over time, sought to respond to contemporary crises in prisons with approaches that, by embedding and entrenching the crisis in prisons, have tended to reinforce the crisis of imprisonment.

In responding to the current crisis in prisons, the UK government is working in the shadow cast by the decisions of previous generations. In rebuilding and expanding the prison estate, it is repeating the decisions of these past generations. It is also building future crises in prisons, even as it is seeking to address the current crises in prisons.

These future crises will be the inheritance of the generations to come, who will make policy on prisons in the shadow cast by the present one. And so the cycle of prison building, prison maintenance, prison building repeats itself, compelled by a commitment to the social institution of imprisonment as an immutable fixture of this and future societies.

Getting out of the crisis of imprisonment

When we think about how to get out of the crisis of imprisonment, it helps to remind ourselves that every prison that has ever existed was built by people, at given points in time, to imprison people, for given periods of time. Every prison that has ever existed, or will ever exist, has a beginning and an end. Every prison that exists today will one day not exist.

What our and future generations chose to do — to build new prisons, or do something else — is a political and historical question. It is political because the decision to build and maintain prisons, or to do something else, is wrapped up in broader questions about how the collective wealth and resources of a given society might best be deployed for the common good.

It is an historical question because it relates to the human capacity to shape human societies, for better or for worse, drawing on the accumulated ideological and material resources handed down by previous generations.

As I have previously argued, ministers, parliamentarians and policy makers are stuck in an inertia: incapable of taking the decisive action to address the crisis of imprisonment, while agreeing that such decisive action is needed.

Mainstream approaches to tackling the crisis of imprisonment tend to take as read that imprisonment has an ongoing validity as a social institution. Those approaching the crisis of imprisonment from an abolitionist standpoint take a different view. For abolitionists, it is precisely the reliance on imprisonment — the assumption that imprisonment is and should be a timeless, fixed presence in any imaginable society — that is the crisis.

The harmfulness of such thinking, at a material level, is clear in the suicides, self-harm, broken dreams and wrecked families and communities that form the collateral damage of imprisonment. But imprisonment also performs an ideological role, not least of all in mystifying the social processes that give rise to the problems to which prison is presented as the answer.

Given the broad focus of the abolitionist stance, consensus among abolitionists has, unsurprisingly, been conspicuous by its absence. As Vincenzo Ruggiero has noted, ‘abolitionism does not possess one single theoretical or political source of inspiration, but a composite backdrop from which, wittingly or otherwise, it draws its arguments and proposals for action’. This heterogeneous mix of influences and inspirations has inevitably resulted in a wide range of abolitionist perspectives and prescriptions, some more persuasive than others.

This lack of clarity is as much a resource to draw on as a problem to overcome. For if we are to get out of the crisis of imprisonment, and stop reproducing fresh crises in prisons, a recognition that the future is open, rather than already determined, and that new solutions to old problems, while not easy to come by are in principle possible to find, are the essential first steps.


This is an edited version of a longer article published in the May 2019 edition of Prison Service Journal