On Thursday 6th March the Centre for Criminology held a one-off Prisons and Detention seminar. The event was intended to bring together academics, practitioners and third sector actors to discuss not only their work but their reasons for being involved in this area and their hopes (and fears) for the future.

We asked Centre students to provide some commentary, and contributions from DPhil candidates Sylvia Rich and Rachel Wechsler are presented here.

On 6th March, the Centre for Criminology held a knowledge exchange seminar on prisons and detention. Though the presentations were disparate, together they highlighted the importance of knowledge for improving prisons and the lives of those incarcerated and the need for a greater understanding of the effects of incarceration outside the prison’s walls – the experiences of family and communities, as well as the effect on those incarcerated long after they have been released.

Edwina Grosvenor, who has worked with prison charities for most of her adult life, spoke about visiting prisons in various parts of the world and how much she has learned about the how broken prisons policy is by visiting the prisons themselves. She told us that she has been surprised by how many people who set policy for prisons have not themselves visited prisons. Grosvenor talked about the high level of reoffending among ex-prisoners, and told us that in her opinion the most important way to reduce reoffending is to give people jobs and places to live after they are released.

Grosvenor also spoke about how many people in prisons shouldn’t be there in the first place: if mental health hospitals were not full to capacity, some of the people who wind up incarcerated would have been sent into hospitals instead. Exacerbating the problem, UK prison workers are sometimes only given six weeks of training before starting their work, and have in no way been equipped to deal with people suffering from serious mental health difficulties. They have to learn on the job, presumably with highly variable results.

Grosvenor is an engaging speaker, and I nodded along with much of what she said. One thing that jarred for me though, was her take on how we need to do better by prisoners, that we first need to understand why they’re there, ‘and then we need to fix them.’ I appreciated that the next speaker, Jamie Bennett, had a very different take on this.

Jamie Bennett is a prison governor. As such, you might expect him to be quite an ardent defender of prisons and prisons policy, but I found him to be happily otherwise. Bennett stressed that we should not think of prisoners as broken individuals, and the role of prisons is not to fix those incarcerated within. Prisons are overwhelmingly full of poor people and people from minority populations. That these people are overrepresented in prisons is not an indication that they are more likely to be bad or broken, but should rather be understood as a reflection of problems in the broader society, not problems inherent in the individuals themselves.

On the topic of knowledge exchange with academics, Bennett told us that HMP Grendon, where he is Governor, encourages research, and that he has used research to change attitudes on staff-prisoner relationships, for instance, and also to make arguments for protecting resources that help prisoners when these are faced with the prospect of government budget cuts.

Hindpal Singh Bhui took up the topic of people who are being detained inappropriately. Singh Bhui is an Inspection Team Leader for the HM Inspectorate of Prisons. He spoke of the unfortunate reality that at times, immigration detention centres are used simply to hide people away when the state does not want to deal with them, as in the recent case of an elderly senile man who flew to the UK from Canada looking for his daughter, and was thrown into immigration detention when what he needed was some kind of help. In immigration detention, the staff handcuffed this man to a wheelchair and left him until he died. Other detainees have also been found handcuffed to wheelchairs while sedated (a form of chemical restraint which should remove the need for physical restraint even if there was such a need to begin with). This brought to mind for me the idea that the state is beginning to use detention centres as human storage facilities, an unsavoury prospect.

The next three speakers were a trio of the Centre’s own DPhil students. Alice Reid’s fascinating research concerns violations of human dignity and their long-term effects on physical and mental health, which can result from even a short period of immigration detention. The ripple effects of these violations can be felt beyond the detention centre’s walls through their lasting impact but also how that impact then affects families and communities of those who have been thus harmed.

To me, this research highlighted again the importance of knowledge in reducing the harm that society does to vulnerable people. While it might be thought that putting someone in detention for a week or two before sending them to their home country is harmless, this research will in time hopefully provide evidence detention should not be treated as a short-term convenience.

Shona Minson’s research concerns the effects on children when mothers are incarcerated following criminal convictions. Though the government keeps no records about how many mothers are in prison, estimates from a few years ago put the number of children whose mothers are in jail in the UK at 17,000 at any one time. These children’s lives are turned upside down, even when the prison sentence is short, and judges need not take the children into account when sentencing their mothers. Minson hopes to convince the government that it needs to be more vigilant in considering how children are affected in order to live up to its obligations under international treaties.

Finally, Sophie Eser told us about her interviewing men in private prisons for her DPhil. Her hope was that her research would give voice to those who are subject to incarceration, letting their own stories and experiences come through clearly.

These presentations inspired me to feel that research can and does have an impact on the world outside the University. It also reminded me of how necessary this work is to change some deeply unjust situations that the UK government has a hand in perpetuating right now.

Rachel Wechsler's report can be found here.