This is the second of two posts reporting from the recent Prisons and Detention seminar hosted by the Centre (the first can be found here).

Questioning the Nature of Incarceration in the UK: The Intersection Between Criminological Research and Policy

On 6th March 2014, the Centre for Criminology hosted its inaugural ‘knowledge exchange’ seminar, featuring academics, practitioners, and activists working to understand and reform the prison system in the UK.  Professor Carolyn Hoyle, the Director of the Centre, commenced the seminar by underscoring the importance of partnerships and collaboration among academics, policymakers, and practitioners in exploring the intersection of criminological research and policy. Following Professor Hoyle’s introduction, Professor Mary Bosworth discussed the work of the Border Criminologies group at the Centre. This initiative seeks to engage a wide range of perspectives on issues related to border control and criminology, with an emphasis on developing new methodologies to research penal power within a global context. The Border Criminologies group connects diverse stakeholders and has built a global network through its website, blog, and use of social media.

The next featured speaker was Lady Edwina Grosvenor, a passionate prison reformer, philanthropist, and Trustee of The Clink Charity.  Having spent time in numerous prisons around the world, Lady Edwina feels connected with the ‘humanity’ of prisoners and seeks to understand why they offended in the first place.  Based on her experience, she believes that the UK prison system is fundamentally flawed, particularly from a rehabilitation standpoint.  One major issue is the lack of training of the prison workforce.  In contrast to the three years of training provided to prison officers in Norway, those in the UK are trained for a mere six weeks.  By way of illustration, Lady Edwina recounted a UK prison guard telling her that his first ‘training’ on mental health issues occurred when he had to cut a female prisoner down from a ligature with which she had hung herself. In addition to insufficient training for prison staff, Lady Edwina highlighted the lack of access to mental health services for prisoners as an obstacle to rehabilitation.  This issue became especially clear to her while she was working at HM Prison Styal, a female prison infamously known as “The Cutting House” due to the high level of self-harm among its prisoners. In spite of the multitude of problems plaguing the UK criminal justice system, Lady Edwina offered a beacon of hope: research shows that providing offenders with housing, a job, and a network upon their release helps to reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend.  To this end, The Clink Charity’s restaurant programme offers training in the hospitality sector to offenders nearing the end of their prison terms, as well as career mentoring and job placement upon release.  So far, the results are encouraging: the reoffending rate for Clink programme participants is only 9 percent, as compared to 54 percent among non-participants.  There are currently three prisoner-run fine dining restaurants in the UK, and Clink plans to open an additional seven by 2017.

Jamie Bennett, the Governor of Grendon and Springhill prisons and a Research Associate at the Centre and Hindpal Singh Bhui, an Inspection Team Leader at HM Inspectorate of Prisons and an Advisory Board member at the Centre, next shared their thoughts and experiences about putting criminology research into practice.  Dr. Bennett emphasized the importance of the broader societal context and values in the field of criminology.  He used the composition of the UK prison population, which disproportionately consists of minorities of low socioeconomic status, to exemplify this point. Dr. Bennett believes that this phenomenon is linked to the UK’s political economy.  By way of comparison, Norway, whose prison population represents more of a cross-section of society than the UK’s, also has a smaller income gap between the rich and the poor and a stronger commitment to welfare and services.  Bennett argued that the field of criminology should engage with these differences to fully understand prisons and their reflection of broader societal issues. Highlighting another issue of concern, Mr. Bhui added that the prison system in the UK is based on the principle of exclusion, but it should be based on the principle of inclusion.  He explained that once people are excluded from society, it is difficult to reintegrate and include them at a later time.  He believes it is important to foster inclusivity among prisoners, such as by entrusting them with jobs and other responsibilities.  In terms of criminological research and practice, Bhui gives primacy to the voices and views of prisoners.  He emphasized the importance of understanding prisoners as individuals, which includes learning about their personal journeys prior to their detention.

In the final segment of the seminar, three DPhil students at the Centre discussed their exciting research on the impact of prisons and detention centres.  First, Alice Reid, a former HMIP researcher, shared her plans for a dignity-based study of how effective immigration removal centres are at preparing detainees for release or removal.  She hypothesized that this preparation is lacking, in light of her knowledge of detainees’ immigration-related debts, feelings of shame, the disruption to their community ties, and the association of immigration-related detention with long-term physical and mental health problems. Second, Shona Minson spoke about her research on the imprisonment of mothers and its impact on their children.  She argued that the negative effects upon children associated with their mothers’ incarceration violate the duty to protect enshrined in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and therefore, approaches to sentencing should be changed. Third, Sophie Eser discussed her theoretically-informed ethnography of men incarcerated in private prisons in England.  Her research indicates that the experiences of male prisoners are closely linked to how they are managed, which has strong implications for prison governance policies. The inaugural Centre for Criminology ‘knowledge exchange’ seminar was a productive gathering of academics, practitioners, and activists committed to understanding and improving the prison system in the UK.  The fruitful discussion and questions that emerged laid the groundwork for future seminars and opportunities for collaboration.