All the world’s a prison

David Blunkett's 'third way' for prisons risks making jailbirds of us all.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘It is time to take a long hard look at the state and role of our prisons’, said UK home secretary David Blunkett on 4 February 2002, unveiling his ‘reform or bust’ plans for the UK prison system (1).

He might want to bang up carjackers ‘for as long as I can make it stick’ (2), Lord Justice Woolf might want to imprison mobile phone muggers for five years a time (3), and the Labour government might have built on the Tories’ boost to the prison population (rising from 55,000 prisoners in 1996 to 68,000 today) – but Blunkett still plans a bit of ‘radical reform’ to stop British prisons being such ‘crowded places’ (4).

Blunkett’s prison proposals include letting non-dangerous offenders out of jail three months early under the ‘home detention curfew’, where they would be electronically tagged for the remainder of their sentence so that police could keep a check on their whereabouts. And he’s floating the idea of introducing ‘soft-touch’ weekend prisons (or ‘part-time prisons’, as the law’n’order lobby calls them), where offenders would be locked up in the evenings and at weekends, but allowed out during the day to work and see their families (5). ‘Our prison estate is inherited from the Victorians’, says Blunkett. ‘[Now] we need prisons for the twenty-first century.’ (6)

Britain’s prison system could certainly do with an overhaul. Blunkett’s proposals came just days after Dartmoor Prison was slammed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons as ‘the prison that time forgot’ – where prison officers ‘humiliate’ prisoners and refer to them as ‘vermin’, and where suicidal or misbehaving prisoners are locked in an ‘appalling wire mesh cage’ (eat your heart out Camp X-Ray) (7). Across the UK, some prisoners are locked up for 23 hours a day and have poor access to educational facilities and healthcare.

But Blunkett’s plans have less to do with making UK prisons more humane than with finding cheaper and more convenient ways to punish offenders. The end result can only be the further blurring of the distinction between freedom and non-freedom, with society itself turned into an open prison.

‘Prison is an expensive way of denying people liberty’, says Blunkett (8). What he wants are cheaper and ‘more practical’ ways to deny offenders their liberty – by keeping prisons free for serious offenders like murderers, sex offenders, violent offenders (and mobile phone thieves?), while allowing less serious offenders to be ‘imprisoned’ while still living in society. How? By ‘advancing electronic tagging’ and ‘24-hour surveillance’ so that even when out working or visiting friends and family, prisoners can be ‘kept in check at all times’. So rather than making prisons fitter for offenders to live in, Blunkett wants to make society more suitable for the constant surveillance of prisoners-in-the-community.

This isn’t the first time that prison has been extended beyond the prison gates. The home detention curfew scheme has been up and running since the end of the 1990s, with non-dangerous offenders being let out two months early (Blunkett is now upping that to three months) on the condition that they wear electronic tags, which virtually place them under house arrest. If the ‘prisoner’ stays out beyond his curfew time, usually about 7pm, an electronic signal alerts the cops and they can send an officer around to have a quiet word.

In 1999, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) introduced the idea of the ‘healthy prison’, where offenders are treated like patients in need of help rather than prisoners in need of punishment – claiming that ‘behind much of the antisocial behaviour demonstrated by people who find it difficult to cope in prison is a serious lack of self-esteem’ (9). (Though prisoners who thought the new therapeutic regime of helping prisoners with their self-esteem and anger management would be a soft touch got a rude awakening when Lord Bingham warned in January 2000 that ‘if the offender refused to cooperate in the treatment, that could be reflected in an extended penalty’ (10).)

With its aim of boosting prisoners’ self-confidence and helping with their ‘life skills’, the ‘healthy prison’ sentence doesn’t end when the prisoner is released. ‘A healthy establishment is one which…sees its duty as extending beyond the prison gates’, says HMIP, ensuring that ‘other social services and health services are involved where necessary’ (11).

In 2001, HMIP warned that prisons could not just abandon prisoners when their time was up, but had a ‘responsibility’ to help them with their ‘future choices’. And now Blunkett is in danger of eroding the distinction between being imprisoned and being a free citizen in society, by allowing offenders to be both punished and imprisoned while still, ‘to a certain extent’, living in and contributing to society.

The debate about prisons and their role in society has raged for years, traditionally split between two opposing sides: right-wing law’n’order obsessives who preferred the old-fashioned lock-up and slop-out version of prison life, and prison reform groups who argued that prison should be centred around constructive work and education, to transform offenders into half-decent citizens who could be returned into society. Both sides shared a patronising view of offenders, but they also had a sense that the offender should be removed from society, made to face up to the error of his ways, before then being given a second chance as a free individual.

Today, whether its through the new ‘healthy prison’ or plans for ‘prisoners-in-the-community’, Blunkett and co are blurring the distinction between being denied your liberty for having broken the law and being allowed to live freely in society – ensuring that the idea of prisoners ‘doing their bird’ before being freed once more to regain their independence and rebuild their lives is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

And what do Blunkett’s proposals say for the rest of us – for non-offenders who might previously have assumed that prison is for criminals while society is for free individuals? What does it say about our society when the man sitting next to us on the bus could be a ‘prisoner’ under 24-hour surveillance? What can we expect for our own freedoms when Blunkett wants to expand prisons outwards into society itself?

Before long, we might find that all of us are living in an open prison.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

(1) Radical reform so prison can rehabilitate, David Blunkett, Observer, 3 February 2002

(2) Blunkett targets street gangs, Guardian, 5 February 2002

(3) Jail for mobile phone muggers, BBC News Online, 29 January 2002

(4) Radical reform so prison can rehabilitate, David Blunkett, Observer, 3 February 2002

(5) Radical reform so prison can rehabilitate, David Blunkett, Observer, 3 February 2002

(6) Radical reform so prison can rehabilitate, David Blunkett, Observer, 3 February 2002

(7) Prison attacked for ‘hard’ image, BBC News Online, 1 February 2002

(8) Radical reform so prison can rehabilitate, David Blunkett, Observer, 3 February 2002

(9) Suicide is Everyone’s Concern: A Thematic Review, HMIP, 1999

(10) Daily Express, 24 January 2000
(11) Suicide is Everyone’s Concern: A Thematic Review, HMIP, 1999

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Topics Politics


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