Last month the Prison Review Team for Northern Ireland published its Interim Report. In this post Dr Linda Moore, University of Ulster and Prof Phil Scraton, Queen’s University Belfast, who have previously published research on prisons in Northern Ireland, present their analysis on the report.
Integral to the long-awaited devolution of justice and policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly the 2010 Hillsborough Agreement included: reviewing alternatives to custody and the conditions of detention, management and oversight of all prisons; developing a comprehensive strategy for offender management; establishing a ‘fit for purpose’ women’s prison meeting international obligations and ‘best practice’; reviewing how children and young people are processed throughout the criminal justice system, including detention, compliant with international standards and best practice’.
In April 2010 the new Justice Minister David Ford announced a, ‘rolling review’ of Northern Ireland’s prisons. On 21 June a Review Team (RT) was appointed. On 28 February 2011 it published its Interim Report focusing on the ‘underlying issues – management, leadership, vision, objectives and culture – in the prison system’. It aims to establish ‘the components of the problem facing NIPS (Northern Ireland Prison Service), laying the foundation for future work on ‘the shape and detail of a new service … the needs and treatment of specialist groups, such as women, young adults, foreign nationals and those with mental health disorders’.
For prison researchers, NGOs and campaigners the review is much needed and long overdue. Successive reports by the prisons and criminal justice inspectorates, Independent Monitoring Boards, Prisoner Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission, case-specific inquiries and coroner’s inquests have documented serious failings in the prison system, its management, staffing and regimes. These failings have resulted in a range of deprivations, human rights breaches, mental ill-health and avoidable deaths of prisoners. Despite statements to the contrary by successive Directors, the Prison Service has appeared unwilling, unable or both to respond effectively to a plethora of recommendations. Regrettably the well-documented breakdown in relations between prison management and the Prison Officers Association (POA) has led to each holding the other responsible for the impasse. ‘Unachieved recommendations’, states the RT, hang ‘like a dead weight’ on the Prison Service (PRT, 2011: 29).
The prison system depicted by the RT is one that prison campaigners and critical researchers will recognise: over-emphasis on security; minimal rehabilitative focus; inadequate healthcare, education and activities; poor physical environment; lack of engagement of staff with prisoners; hostile and destructive industrial relationships; inadequate leadership in addressing endemic, systemic problems. According to the RT the Prison Service was
‘demoralised and dysfunctional … resigned to bad press and routine criticism, and reacting to it by putting up defensive barriers, with little confidence that anything could, or in some cases should, change. This is at risk of infecting even the good staff that we have spoken to’ (PRT, 2011: 4).
Organisations involved in rehabilitative work had ‘little confidence’ that their values or approaches were respected. Seeking a ‘solution to the problems of the system in general’, the RT notes that ‘transformative change’ and ‘sustainable improvement’ will ‘require significant changes of approach, culture and ways of working: in prisons, and at every level of the prison service and those responsible for it’. These changes include:
‘much better communication skills, within and outside the prison service, stronger and more visible leadership, and support and professional development for those undergoing and implementing change’ (PRT, 2011: 6).
Many of the RT’s interim recommendations reflect those made previously, including a discrete women’s prison unit separate from a male prison, removal of children from Hydebank Wood Young Offender Centre and reducing the prison population. It criticises Prison Service plans to double current prisoner capacity as ‘self-fulfilling’. Instead of increasing capacity it recommends ‘justice reinvestment’ to shift resources from custodial disposals to community initiatives (PRT, 2011: 22). It proposes a ‘properly resourced change programme’ (PRT, 2011: 13) but it is not clear how a necessary, effective change programme could be achieved within an institution in which managers have ‘too little accountability and there is an absence of visible leadership and oversight’ (PRT, 2011: 12).
A proposed ‘staff development package’ combines training for a ‘significant number of staff and managers’ and ‘personal development packages for leaders and managers’ with ‘an early retirement scheme for those wishing to leave’ and a ‘recruitment and progression programme to refresh and diversify the workforce’ (PRT 2011:14). An early retirement scheme with associated redundancy payments, however, will not guarantee that those leaving will be limited to officers with an attitude obstructive to change. Further, recruitment and training of new staff must not be infected by existing, all-pervasive negativity and resentment within the Prison Service. The RT also notes that the Prison Service ‘is currently unrepresentative of the community’ – among managers and staff only 10% are Roman Catholic and 22% are women (PRT, 2011: 52). Its proposals, however, fall short of that necessary to create a representative service with a commitment to eradicating the prevalent culture of masculinity, sectarianism and racism. The ‘insularity’ and ‘discriminatory attitudes and approaches’ noted by the RT will not be changed through training, recruitment and progression without fundamental institutional change.
The RT underestimates the political situation in the North, referring to the need ‘to determine what a post-conflict [prison] service should be for, and should look like’ (PRT, 2011: 9). This misreads contemporary Northern Ireland politics and the legacy of Conflict. As societies emerge from deep-rooted political conflict transition is a gradual, progressive and, occasionally, regressive, long-term project. It is uneven progress, requiring institutional recognition of the special circumstances and demands of transition. Profound institutionalised deficiencies entrenched in punitive regimes, restrictive working practices, negative staff attitudes, weak management and poor engagement with prisoners cannot be rectified by schematic training programmes.
In stating that ‘the reference point for the prison system is whether it is contributing to the creation of a safer society’ (PRT, 2011: 26), the RT provides no evidence on which to advance this aspiration. The proposed ‘three pillars’ are: justice and fairness (that punishment will be delivered in prisons ‘justly and fairly’); security and safety (that prisons must be ‘safe and ordered places’); decency and dignity (that prisons must protect and promote decency and ‘respect for human dignity’ which is ‘at the heart of human rights’ and that consequently conditions ‘must be reasonable and appropriate’). The distinction between prisoners as rights holders or as the recipients of a paternalistic decency agenda is not made.
The ‘three pillars’ represent ‘preconditions for a modern, progressive and effective prison system’ within which ‘healthy prisons’ will be achieved within the context of the ‘CJNI’s [Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland] four tests of a healthy prison’: safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement. The contested terrain of the ‘healthy prison’ originates with the World Health Organisation’s commitment to the four tests: prisoners are held in safety, are treated with respect and dignity as human beings, are able to engage in purposeful activity and are prepared for resettlement delivered within a custodial ethos characterised by ‘care’, ‘positive expectations’ and ‘respect’.
Key concepts adopted by the RT are insufficiently scrutinised. How are ‘outward facing’ prisons, embodying ‘justice and fairness’ while guaranteeing ‘security and safety’ through constructive relationships underpinned by ‘decency and dignity’, to be established? In criticising the NIPS for its ‘statement of vision and values’ that commits to ‘aims such as rehabilitation, decency and human rights’ as ‘little more than a wish-list’, on what basis does the RT claim distinctiveness for its aspirations regarding ‘healthy prisons’?
In committing to ‘prisons for a safer society’, the RT’s response is disappointing: ‘prisons need to be places where people can be supported to change their lives for the better’ (PRT, 2011: 58). Such an obvious aspiration is not new. ‘Rehabilitation’, ‘humane containment’ and ‘reintegration’ are contemporary expressions of a penal reform debate that has informed the politics of imprisonment for two centuries. Calls by early reformers for ‘humane’ and ‘well-ordered’ prison regimes securing punishment and correction through the application of a ‘just measure of pain’ shaped the modern prison and tensions regarding the continua of ‘care’ and ‘security’, ‘treatment’ and ‘discipline’, ‘association’ and ‘isolation’ have persisted.
The RT acknowledges that ‘desisting from crime is a complex process’ which involves not only ‘acquiring new skills or changing behaviour’ but also changing ascribed criminal identity and ‘accessing new opportunities’. It points to factors which research suggest are ‘crucial to getting out of crime’ such as support of family and friends, and positive engagement with agencies and mentors (PRT, 2011: 58). Yet it fails to acknowledge the broader structural issues facing people in the North – poverty, unemployment, fast-shrinking public services and residual conflict and violence. Recognition of the rational choices and determining circumstances of those living with economic and political marginalisation are absent.
While there would be little dissent from the desire to contribute towards a ‘safer society’, what does that mean when viewed through a deeply embedded lens that locates responsibility with the individual rather than recognising and analysing the complexity of context? By ‘profiling the whole population’, itself a questionable exercise that appears to reduce structural, social and interactive factors to a spurious ‘evidence base’ derived in risks and needs assessments, how can ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘reintegration’ into divided and conflicted communities be achieved? What constitutes an ‘effective partnership’ with statutory, voluntary sector and community-based agencies when the purpose of that engagement is the ‘prevention’ of crime and the ‘reintegration’ of prisoners into situations and circumstances that contributed significantly to their initial and repeat offending behaviour? What determines the curriculum priorities of education, training, skills and offending behaviour programmes driven primarily by a ‘safer custody strategy’?
Northern Ireland is a jurisdiction of particular circumstances combining the legacy of conflict with structural poverty. It is a society in transition where economic marginalisation is increasing rapidly. The key questions, therefore, are rehabilitation for what and reintegration into what? In the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, what does resettlement mean? It is a debate that connects profoundly the prison to the community and has to be addressed in terms of the walled prison-as-community being considered as an extension of the community-as-prison. Without analysis of political, economic and cultural contexts, the ‘conditions, management and oversight of all prisons’ in Northern Ireland will remain trapped within a dialogue that is inward-facing.
Our research (here and here) revealed operational policies, priorities and practices amounting to institutionalised, egregious breaches of international human rights standards throughout Northern Ireland’s prisons. In developing policies, regimes and practices within a Prison Service fit for purpose the State is obliged to comply with international rights standards to which it is a signatory. This is reflected in the Hillsborough Agreement with specific reference to women, to children and to young people. Within the Review, however, there is no significant attention afforded to prisoners’ rights, to the relevant international standards and obligations, or to a methodology for monitoring compliance and assuring accountability.
Dr Linda Moore is Lecturer in Criminology in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at the University of Ulster. She was investigations worker at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission between 2000 and 2007. Professor Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology in the School of Law at Queens University Belfast. He was contracted as research consultant to the Commission for its investigation into the rights of women in prison. They are co-authors of The Hurt Inside: The Imprisonment of Women and Girls in Northern Ireland and The Prison Within: The Imprisonment of Women at Hydebank Wood 2004-06, both reports published by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. They have published numerous articles on this work and the book, The Incarceration of Women, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Currently their research is on the children of prisoners in Northern Ireland. They met on several occasions with the Prison Review Team. The analysis and commentary expressed in this article are the authors’ own and are not attributable to any organisation.