Controversial Issues in Prisons

Article excerpt

CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES IN PRISONS Scott, D. & Codd, H. (2010). Maidenhead: Open University Press. pp.xiv,208 (pbk) £22.99 ISBN 9780335223039

This book is something of a 'call to arms'. Eschewing conventional, media-inspired understandings of prison; most likely to identify escapes, riots, in-cell television, or holiday camp conditions as the most controversial issues in prisons; it focuses on the use of imprisonment by 'advanced capitalist-patriarchal society' as a primary means of controlling the poor and marginalised. The book starts by rooting penal controversies in principles of human rights and social justice, and ends by questioning the moral legitimacy of prison itself. To arrive at this point, the authors assess the destructive impact of prison on the people disproportionally processed by it. They discuss those with mental health problems, women, children and young people, black or minority ethnic groups and foreign nationals, as well as some of the deleterious effects of imprisonment (including the propensity of prisoners to commit suicide and self-harm). They examine the limitations of institutionally-based psycho-medical models of rehabilitation, particularly in relation to people who sexually offend. Consideration is also given to prisoners that resort to drugtaking and the disruption caused to prisoners' families. In academic circles at least much of this is well-known, but this is not simply a re-analysis of the 'pains' or 'penal harm' of imprisonment, although a wealth of references, statistics, case studies and footnotes is provided to this end. Rather, it sets out to challenge the very existence of prison and reformulate arguments for its abolition.

Each controversy is analysed according to a common structure. First, consideration is given to how each is conceived and defined, and the problems and misconceptions which accrue from this. For example, mental health is mostly conceived as a physical illness, which denies its social dimension; similarly, racism is regarded in individual or institutional terms, which negates the wider significance of power and social inequality. Second, the limitations of official data are outlined. This highlights how differences in definition or methodology interpret the scale of particular issues in different ways. For example, mental health problems in prisons are over-estimated when drug and alcohol dependency is categorised as a mental health issue; alternatively, owing to the unreliability of the testing measures used and the tendency of prisoners to successfully subvert the tests, prisoners' drug-taking is much higher than official figures suggest. Third, the historical context of each controversy is described. The consistent failure to end, for good, penal practices which are inherently harmful makes for sober reading. Throughout the 19* century, the high number of deaths in prison left the prison authorities perplexed, but today, it is put down to increases in mentally-disordered prisoners and changes in staff working practices. In many respects, the life story of 15 years old Edward Andrews, who hanged himself in 1854 after being made to turn the crank 10,000 times a day, does not apply to the contemporary experience of imprisonment. Yet, notwithstanding changes in regime, the authors' point that 'prison has always been deadly' (p. 99) is forcibly made. Finally, the legitimacy of present day penal policy is called into question. …