In this post, DPhil candidate Anna Kotova discusses the recent event with Frances Crook OBE and Dr Jamie Bennett. 

On 18 February 2016, as part of the Centre for Criminology’s 50th Anniversary Lecture Series, Frances Crook OBE and Dr Jamie Bennett engaged in a conversation about prisons, criminal justice, and penal policy. The event took place at All Souls College.

Ms Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, one of the leading penal reform organisations in the country, and Dr Bennett is the Governor of HMP Grendon and Spring Hill as well as a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology. Both have considerable expertise when it comes to prisons and penal policy, and both are thoroughly engaging speakers.

The conversation began with the speakers sharing their stories of what inspired them to work within the criminal justice system―Ms Crook as a penal policy campaigner and Dr Bennett as a prison governor. Ms Crook noted that she had never been asked why she does what she does, but felt that it was the sense of outrage she experienced when she watched a film about Aushwitz that put her on the path of working to improve the penal system. She said that Dr Bennett and herself share an important characteristic: they both have an overwhelming sense of social justice, herself as a campaigner and Dr Bennett as a prison governor leading an institution that seeks to address the needs―mental health, childhood trauma, etc.―of a population of men residing in a therapeutic community. With similar candidness, Dr Bennett shared his experiences of marginalisation, growing up on a council estate and being brought up by a young single mother. He felt that his time at the University of Cambridge reinforced his awareness of social inequality and motivated him to go on to work as a prison governor.

The conversation then turned to penal reform. Dr Bennett discussed the choice reformers have between working within the system and challenging it. This is, of course, a very topical issue, Ms Crook pointed out promptly, since changes have recently been made to the laws pertaining to campaigning organisations that receive government funding, which seek to limit the extent to which such organisations would be able to campaign for reform. She herself admitted she was―and still is―somewhat of a revolutionary, but underscored the importance of being independent, critical, and robust and knowing the limits of what penal reform can achieve. Dr Bennett drew a very interesting  parallel using his own experiences as a governor. He felt revolution is not a very British way of changing things; rather, change is usually slow and there are ways of influencing change from within the system. For instance, he discussed how applying prison rules could be done with humanity and understanding, rather than harshly and automatically. In fact, one of the most striking contributions of Dr Bennett to the conversation is this idea of the need for humanity within the criminal justice system. He argued that if we forget the innately problematic nature of imprisonment―or, it could be argued, any method of punishment―we risk losing some of our own humanity. This shows that change can come from within the system.

What, then, is needed to make penal change? Political leadership, both speakers agreed, is key. Change isn’t about having one innovative prison like HMP Grendon. It’s about spreading the values of social justice more broadly. ‘We need something that isn’t reliant on individuals but is a culture,’ Dr Bennett concluded. This culture is, of course, one that aspires to social justice. The speakers then discussed the hurdles to this type of change, with the shortage of prison staff being raised a pertinent issue.

This seminar was a lively, engaging, and illuminating discussion. Although the two speakers come from very different areas of work, both are dedicated to improving the criminal justice system and adding more humanity to prisons. It became apparent that a campaigner and a prison governor can indeed have much in common, and it’s hoped that their shared call for greater attention to enhancing social justice in the prison system will be heard.