A missed opportunity for saving lives

J M Moore
Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Last Thursday, the government decided, was a good day to bury bad news. In what has been referred to as take out the trash day 424 government announcements, including 36 Ministerial statements, flew out of Whitehall. One was the government’s much delayed response to the Harris Report into the deaths of 18-24 year olds in prison, which was hidden among a flurry of ‘U-turns, tax rises and awkward reports’.

It was a deeply cynical way of releasing a deeply cynical response. Media responses have highlighted the government’s outright rejection of 33 of Harris’s 108 recommendations and the campaigning charity, INQUEST, has pointed out that it is a response that will fail to prevent future deaths.

Lord Harris himself has called it a ‘missed opportunity that will mean that many lives continue to be wasted’.

When Harris was given his remit in 2014 my fear, as I expressed in an earlier article, was that he would locate the problem in the vulnerability of those who had died. Harris’s report, as I acknowledged, avoided the victim blaming which had characterised previous official inquiries.


...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.

Whilst Harris’s report had many limitations, this central conclusion presented a significant challenge to the Ministry of Justice. Backed up as it was by detailed evidence of prisons where young people were incarcerated in ‘grim environments’ whose regimes were ‘not purposeful, frequently not meaningful and above all impoverishing to the spirit’, Harris had landed some very unpleasant home truths on the Government’s door step.

Official discourse deployed, problem disappeared

In their classic expose of Official Discourse, Frank Burton and Pat Carlen highlighted how it functioned ‘to represent failure as temporary, or no failure at all,’ and ultimately sought ‘to re-establish the image of administrative and legal coherence and rationality.’ The Ministry of Justice’s document is a classic example of this strategy in action.

Throughout the 28 pages of commentary that precede its direct responses to Harris’s recommendations, no effort is spared in attempting to locate the systemic failings he identified in the past.

Positive references to a multitude of (predominately future) initiatives pepper the government’s response: reviews; transformations; reform proposals; commitments; revised guidance; developments; new assessment tools; cross-departmental approaches; better outcomes; staff training; ranges of work; improved data collection; new strategies; practitioner guides; recognition; re-issuing of protocols; mandatory instructions; implementations; multi-disciplinary approaches; individual sentence plans; policies; revised documents; building evidence bases; the piloting of new models; major programmes; toolkits; new criminal offences; data analytics; systematic approaches; greater clarity; significant drives; partnership commitments; best practice guidelines; efforts; information sharing; contractual obligations; accessible records; strengthening of guidance; expectations; frameworks; and consultation papers are all promised.

Like a CV whose author has cut and pasted from a website of ‘action’ and ‘positive’ words the report constructs a fantasy of progress created not by fundamental change in the prison place but by rhetorical flourishes.

How can Harris’s critique remain valid in a world of so much progress, where prisons, relocated to a imaginary world, are (or at least are soon to be) ‘places of hard work, rigorous education and high ambition’?

‘Rehabilitation as legitimation for the infliction of pain’

As Harris drafted his review, the then coalition government had entered the fifth year of a ‘rehabilitation revolution’, which he made no reference to. This was surprising, as at the very heart of Harris’ review was a demand that reformation be declared the primary aim of prison.

If Harris had deliberately refused to acknowledge the ongoing ‘rehabilitation revolution’ as a veiled critique of the Government to deliver on its rhetoric, its irony was wasted. Throughout the response the government patiently points out to Harris what he has missed. ‘The Secretary of State’ the first line of its responses spells out ‘has stated that the purpose of prison is rehabilitation.’

Since the 1770s, when John Howard undertook his tour of prisons, reformers have uncovered the abuses, failures and human suffering that have nearly always characterised them. Their response to prison’s failure has been consistent: the (almost constant) failure is seen as an aberration; the solution, reform. Over two centuries of the almost universal failure of reform has not dented reformers’ quest for the reformed prison.

Central to reformers' quest for their holy grail has been a belief in the possibility that the prison place can be a place of reformation, a ‘moral hospital’. Whereas advocates of deterrence and retributive theories of justice recognise imprisonment as punishment, the deliberate infliction of pain, the promoters of reformation instead argue that punishment is, for the benefit of those it is inflicted on, an act of kindness!

Whatever the justification for punishment – just deserts, deterrence or reformation – what never changes is who is subjected to it. As the Government response recognises ‘prisoners come, disproportionately, from deprived backgrounds’ and are far more likely than the general population to have ‘experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child’.

That we as a society routinely subject the most damaged and vulnerable to the wilful infliction of pain is a reality that needs facing honestly. It is these pains of imprisonment that are the underlying cause of so many of the deaths in prison. Claims, both in Harris Review and the Government’s response, of reformation deflect us from that reality.

That is not to oppose all reforms or improvements to prison regimes. They are far too often, as one serving young prisoner told Harris, ‘shit holes’.

Educational opportunities, more time out of cells, better links with family, less bullying and violence (by staff as well as prisoners), work opportunities, improved health care and more exercise are all to be welcomed.

But we must never be fooled into thinking prison is the best place to deliver these. All of them will have a better impact if delivered in the community. As a former Director of the Prison Service told Harry Woolf’s Inquiry into Strangeways:

The Prison Service, cannot, of course, ensure that prisoners are processed into law abiding citizens…It should give each prisoner every opportunity to serve his or her sentence in a constructive way. It should not treat prisoners in a way which is likely to leave them in an embittered and disaffected state on their release

Yes we can, and should, limit the harm of prison and give prisoners opportunities but claims of reformation have no evidence base and serve only to legitimise the continued infliction of pain on many of the most vulnerable and excluded of our communities.

Deaths will continue

If Thursday was take out the trash day, Harris’ report and its recommendations were carefully sorted into a black bin of recommendations to be rejected outright and destined for landfill and a green bin of recommendations carefully selected for recycling. These may have been formally agreed in full or in part, but only because they could be reconciled (sometimes only through considerable manipulation) with existing government policy and initiative.

By accepting the reality that all young prisoners are vulnerable and that prison heightens this vulnerability Harris indirectly pointed out the real issue – that the prison place is a site of pain and that it is this deliberately inflicted pain that ultimately drives prisoners to take their own lives.

However, by legitimising the fantasy of prison’s reformative potential, Harris provided the Ministry of Justice with an escape clause. By enthusiastically endorsing, at least at a rhetorical level, Harris’ imagined reformative prison, the harsh reality of the prison place can be avoided.

Failure is temporary, it is being firmly placed in the past and through reform the prison’s legitimacy re-established.

Whilst rhetorical flourishes work in discourse, in reality no amount of spin will change the pain experienced. This should be a wakeup call to those who have so extravagantly welcomed the new Justice Secretary.

The rhetoric has changed from the retributive nastiness of Grayling to the liberal reformation of Gove but for most prisoners the pain remains consistent. There is clearly no intention to either reduce the numbers imprisoned or to stop targeting many of the most vulnerable and excluded for imprisonment.

Some of the technical changes proposed by Harris would have made a real impact on self-harm and reduced young people’s deaths. These have been rejected both on cost grounds and a reluctance to challenge the dominant prison officer culture.

A smoke screen of initiatives are cynically deployed to hide the underlying cowardice of this response. The deaths will continue.

J M Moore is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Newman University