Risk and Vulnerability in Prison Populations – a Global Crisis

On 21 October, the BISR in collaboration with the Institute for Criminal Policy Research hosted a colloquium to discuss Risk and Vulnerability in Prison Populations. Here, Carmel Kavanagh, an intern at the ICPR, reflects on the discussion.

On 3 November, the UK government announced their plans for prison reform.  This was in the context of a threatened prison officers’ strike, recent fatal violence in Pentonville prison and a comment by Nick Hardwick, former Chief Inspector of Prisons (now Chair of the Parole Board) that there has been ‘a loss of control’ in prisons. These proposed reforms are a response to what has been termed a ‘crisis’ in our prisons.  However, these problems have been escalating steadily for years: prisons are overcrowded, violent, dirty and harmful to prisoners and staff.  The Institute for Criminal Policy Research has been mapping the trends in UK and world prisons since 2000 through the World Prison Brief  – its unique database on the world’s prison systems.  There are currently nearly 10.5m people in prison worldwide and the prison population in England and Wales exceeds 85,000 (Ministry of Justice Statistics).

So it was with foresight and hindsight that, as part of ICPR’s new World Prison Research Programme, Catherine Heard (Programme Director) organised a Colloquium, sponsored by The Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, to bring together ten senior figures with considerable experience in the fields of justice, and social and criminological research to share their work. This was held with a view to influencing policy makers to develop better prisons, find ways to reduce incarceration and manage vulnerable people in prison humanely, preserving their dignity and hope.

I attended the event in my role as an intern working on the ICPR‘s , World Prison Research Programme.  An incredible amount of ground was covered on the day by the speakers and through questions and discussion. Professor Andrew Coyle gave the key note speech setting in context the crisis concerning the inexorable rise in prison populations worldwide, citing examples such as the dire situation in El Salvador where prisoners suffer appalling conditions as a result of extreme overcrowding, with 20 people in cells designed for 3 or 4.

What struck me about the debate and discussion was that, in spite of the grim picture, there were countries where good practice prevailed and some individual prisons which paid more than lip service to the principles of rehabilitation. It’s those examples from the day that I wish to highlight.

The morning panel was concerned with a re-evaluation of what we expect from prison. Andrew Coyle said that as a society we appear still to have faith in prison as an institution and quoted Professor John Kleining of John Jay College of Criminal Justice New York who said that prison ‘presents us with a too convenient device to deal with the complexity of human failures’.  However, there is considerable evidence that the device no longer works effectively.  The World Prison Research Programme seeks to understand how and why imprisonment has reached such high levels and what can be done to reduce the levels of incarceration worldwide. One of the countries that has successfully addressed this problem is Finland. Their prison population has reduced from 250 per 100,000 in 1945 to 55 today.  Dr Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, the Director of Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy at the University of Helsinki, addressed the colloquium on the strategy the Finns employed to reduce incarceration.  The aim initially was to reduce costs by targeting the root causes of social exclusion.  Dr Lappi-Seppälä explained how through diversion from the criminal justice system, non-prosecution, restitution, compensation and the use of restorative justice and mediation, the numbers of people going through the criminal justice system reduced. These tactics coupled with the provision of more alternative disposals to imprisonment such as community penalties and fines, served to significantly reduce the levels of imprisonment in Finland to one of the world’s lowest.

The afternoon was devoted to vulnerable and high risk prisoners, and the management and policy challenges these prisoners present.  Among the speakers was the inspiring Jamie Bennett, Governor of HMP Grendon and Springhill and a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology. He described the approach at HMP Grendon, the country’s only therapeutic prison, which houses 230 mostly high risk prisoners, men convicted of very serious offences and usually serving indeterminate sentences. The prison population there is split in to therapeutic communities of around 40 men. Activities are timetabled throughout the day and include community meetings, creative therapy and work and education.  Men are involved in the running of their community. They also have input into parole hearings for their peers. The outcomes of this approach are reported to be improved behaviour in the prison setting, reduced self-harm and improved quality of life for prisoners. What struck me about this approach was the respect and dignity afforded these men, whom many in society have written off.

The Grendon approach seemed to give prisoners more hope, and hope was a theme that resonated throughout the day. My hope, perhaps naively, is that the initiatives in Finland and Grendon can be replicated throughout the world.

You can view the presentations from the speakers here.

ICPR carries out multi-disciplinary research into all aspects of crime and justice. For comprehensive data on the world’s prison systems, visit the World Prison Brief website.


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