A Sociological Look At Prison Education Reform

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A-level Sociology By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Sociology » A-level Sociology
Last updated: 02/12/2016
Tags: basic skills, education, prison, reform, rehabilitation

Benjamin Frankilin – statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher, inventor and scientist returned from England in 1775 to North America where he helped draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776 that asserted the independence of the colonies and that renounced all political connection with Great Britain.  This resulted in the end of transportation to America and forced Britain to look elsewhere for a place to send its felons to complete their sentence.  Three years later, the government was empowered to send prisoners sentenced to transportation ‘to any parts beyond the seas’ (Radinowicz and Hood 1998: 466, cited in Jewkes) and transportation was revived.  In 1787 the first fleet carrying five-hundred and fifty men and ninety-one women set out on its journey to Botany Bay in Australia.  Nevertheless, this period of confusion following the American War of Independence had the effect of alternatives to transportation being considered.  Other measures eventually included the notion of prison, much as the term is understood today.  The effect of the end of transportation to America would be to change the meaning of imprisonment in the UK.  Imprisonment would change from a short-stay institution or a holding institution for eventual transportation to an institution that would soon become the core of sentencing policy.  (Southill quoted in Jewkes,  2007, p.27)

Interpretations of the development of the prison have been the focus of historical and political controversy.  Much happened in the mid to late 1970’s with important texts by Michel Foucalt, Dario Melossi and Massimo Pavarini, and Michael Ignatieff.  Michel Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish (1975) which focussed according to its subtitle, on the birth of the prison, was concerned with changes in techniques of punishment and the control of the body.  Like Foucault, Melossi and Pavarini’s text, The Prison and the Factory: Origins of the modern Penitentiary System (1977) tries to analyse the connection between the creation of penal institutions and the problems generated by the emergence of capitalist social relations.  Ignatieff’s text, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (1978), considers ‘how and why’ it came to be considered just, reasonable and humane to isolate prisoners in solitary cells ... and ‘improve’ their minds with equal dosages of scripture and hard labour.

Foucault outlined fundamental principles of the prison that have not altered in two hundred years.  He claimed there were seven universal maxims of a good ‘penitential condition, firstly, detentions essential function is to transform an individual’s behaviour; that they must be isolated according to the penal gravity of the act; it must be possible to alter the penalties according to the individuality of the convicts, the results that have been obtained, progress or relapses; fourthly, work must be an essential element in their transformation and socialisation, that the education of a prisoner is for the authorities both an indispensable precaution in the interests of society and an obligation to the prisoner; the prison regime must, in part, be supervised by a specialised staff possessing the moral qualities and technical abilities required of educators; and finally imprisonment must be followed by measures of supervision and assistance until the rehabilitation of the former prisoner is complete.  Foucault insists that ‘word for word, from one century to another, the same fundamental propositions are repeated.  They reappear in each new, hard won, finally accepted formulation of a reform that has hitherto always been lacking.  (Foucault, 1991: 270, quoted in Jewkes, 2007, p. 29)

In the middle ages, there were dungeons and punishment was, for the most part, a spectacle.  Economic change and ever growing popular dissent throughout the eighteenth century made necessary a more systematic control over the criminal element of society which meant a change from a chastisement of the body, to reform, which touches the soul.  (Foucault, 1979 p.33) Once the soul is restored and the offender is retrained he is sent back into the society fully empowered to obey the norms and values of a civilised enlightened society.

In England when prisons were stinking and diseased dungeons mainly used for holding people on their way to transportation or the noose the idea of prison as reformatory had its first flowering.  It was in the nineteenth century when rehabilitation of prisoners was first introduced.  The original Millbank penitentiary, built in London after the Napoleonic wars, was intended to reform its inmates.  Fully operational by 1817, it was initially dedicated to rehabilitation.  Its inmates were carefully chosen as being the most likely to respond to such generous treatment.  The work they were to do was intended to be useful to the world outside; tailoring and weaving for men; sewing and laundering for women.  All went badly.  Within a few years, the jail suffered disease, malnutrition and full-scale riots.  Flogging was introduced to keep control of increasingly riotous prisoners, and the reconviction rate for ex-inmates was found to be over fifty per cent.  In 1844 the whole experiment was written off as a failure and Millbank became a reception centre for the hulks and the new youth training centre that had just opened at Parkhurst.  (Hitchens, 2003) Eventually Millbank closed in 1890, its failure was heralded as the effect of the discipline not being strict enough  (Soothill, quoted in Jewkes, 2007, p.39).

From the 1850’s onwards the notions of reform took a back seat and what had been seen as ‘cold barbarity’ came to the fore.  This was also an era where important administrative reforms took place reflecting the increasing focus on central government in the management of prisons.  There was increasing fear in the populace of the supposed dangers from criminals who could no longer be transported, and many of the local prisons were in an unsatisfactory state.  This led to deliberations of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Prison Discipline in 1863.  The Committee chaired by Lord Carnarvon made recommendations which were to have significant effects on English prisons.  They targeted reform as part of the problem and favoured a policy of deterrence.  In 1865 the Prisons Act was passed.  The provisions of the Act were based on the recommendations of the 1863 committee.  The crux of the Act was the transfer of every aspect of prison administration to the Secretary of State thus ending local control over prisons. 

In this era of prison administration Colonel Edmund Frederic Du Cane became the chairman of the Board of Directors of Convict Prisons, quickly establishing himself with an international reputation as an expert in penal administration.  Du Cane is usually regarded as all that was harsh about the Victorian prison system.  Two justifications for the enormity of power vested in Du Cane and his colleagues were based on ‘economy; and ‘uniformity’.  One of his legacies is that traditions of prison secrecy were born in this period so there was little scope to counter his unchecked authority.  Eventually Du Cane’s era ended with the best-known investigation of the English prison system.  On the twenty eighth of May 1894, prisons came into focus again in the public arena when Lord Asquith announced the appointment of a departmental committee under the chairmanship of Herbert Gladstone to report on the conditions of the penal system.  (Soothill, quoted in Jewkes, 2007, p.40)

The idea of throwing prisoners into a dark cell was discontinued in 1884.  In 1885 prisoners were still required to work alone in their cells and were not allowed to mix with other prisoners for fear of moral contamination or uprisings.  Male prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, except for purposes connected with labour, for the whole of their sentence.  Women prisoners were allowed to talk for an hour a day.  The Committee discovered that no harm had come from allowing women this privilege and recommended that: ‘the privilege of talking might be given after a certain period as a reward for good conduct on certain days for a limited time and under reasonable supervision to all long-sentence prisoners.

Vivien Stern (1987), a one-time member of the Home Office Prior Committee and Director of NACRO from 1977, and one of Britain’s leading penal reformers, talks of the Gladstone report as being quite progressive.  The report was an attempt to reform a bleakly punitive system.  The old Holloway prison, built in 1852, had above the gate:  MAY GOD PRESERVE THE CITY OF LONDON AND MAKE THIS PLACE A TERROR FOR EVILDOERS.  The Gladstone’s approach to imprisonment gradually permeated official thinking and passed into the rhetoric of the prison authorities (Stern, 1989).  The view that crime was some sort of disease and ‘treatment’ could cure was widely held in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The mission of the Prison Service from this period was to rehabilitate, treat or train prisoners.  This was plainly stated in the White Paper Penal Practice in a Changing Society (Home Office 1959; para 44; quoted in Jewkes p.51).  The ‘constructive function of the prison was to prevent the largest numbers of those committed to their care from reoffending’.  Canonised in Prison Rule 1, ‘the purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage them to lead a good and useful life’.

During the 1960’s the system had to deal with the embarrassment of three high-profile escapes.  In 1964, Charles Wilson, one of the great train robbers escaped from Birmingham Prison after serving just four months of a 30-year sentence.  Following this, less than one year later Ronnie Biggs, another member of the gang, escaped from Wandsworth Prison.  Finally, the spy George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubbs in 1966.  This led to the establishment of a committee to investigate prison security under Lord Mountbatten.  The Mountbatten Report (Home Office 1966; quoted in Jewkes) proposed an upgrading of security in the prison estate.  Mountbatten proposed that all male prisoners should be classified into four categories: A, B, C and D with A being at the top of the scale for the offenders that posed more of a security risk or a danger to the public.

Modern prisons are the result of projects to improve society. The forbidding high walls, towers and fences of confinement are temples of our modern times of enlightenment.  Foucault described the modern history of the European prison as but a minute part of the development of a vast system of incarceration.  Foucault warned that a carceral nightmare was unfolding upon earth with humanity caught like a fly within a web, as disciplinary institution built upon disciplinary institution, all on the false, lurid promise of a fabricated knowledge promising a rational, liberated and beneficial future.  For Foucault, the prison is a product of a hierarchy of step by step systems, orchestrated by a panoptic society, of which incarceration is the omnipresent armature.  It places the offender in an establishment whose purpose is to lead away from prison, but where in fact, criminality is, for the most part, produced in, and by, incarceration which the prison system perpetuates. (Foucault p.301)

It was early in the nineteenth century when as Decazes says: ‘the law must follow the convicted man into the prison where it has sent him’.  The moral enlightenment of the inmates was said to require innumerable co-operators.  From that period, the prison order had become so well established for there to be any question of dismantling it.  The prison is the place of observation of the punished individuals through surveillance and knowledge of the moral disease. 

The prison receives the offender from the hands of justice where it must apply itself not to the offence, nor even exactly the offender, but a rather different object, one defined by variables which are not taken onto account in the sentence, for they are relevant only for a corrective technology.  This other character, who the prison substitutes for the convicted offender, is the delinquent.  (Foucault, M p. 251)

According to Foucault the delinquent is to be distinguished from the offender by the fact that it is not so much his act as his life that is relevant in characterising him.  The penitentiary operation, if it is to be genuine re-education, must become the sum total existence of the delinquent, making the prison a sort of artificial and coercive theatre in which his life will be examined from top to bottom.  The legal punishment with its loss of liberty deals with the criminal act, and the punitive technique deals with the reform of the life; it falls to this punitive technique to gather all the detail of the life in the form of knowledge then to fill the gaps of that knowledge and to act upon it by a practice of compulsion.  It is a biographical knowledge and a technique for correcting individual lives.  The observation of the delinquent ‘should go back to not only to the circumstances, but also to the causes of the crime; they must be sought in the story of his life, from the triple point of view of psychology, social position and upbringing, to discover the dangerous proclivities of the first, the harmful predispositions of the second and the bad antecedents of the third.  (Foucault, 1979, p.252)

Prison education policy is governed by the Skills for Life strategy which came as a response to the Moser Report (1999).  The first major awareness raising and referral scheme for adult basic skills began in 1975.  Most programmes were delivered by volunteers, with support of paid coordinators.  By 1978, 75,000 volunteers had been trained and many worked on a one-to-one basis in the home.  The 1980’s saw a shift away from one-to-one teaching in favour of teaching in groups and engaging whole communities.  By the early 1990’s basic skills provision split between local authority adult and community education departments and further education colleges.  In 1997 the Basic Skills Agency published It Doesn’t Get Any Better, on the impact of poor basic skills on the lives of thirty-seven year olds.  In 1999, the Moser Report stated that seven million adults (24%) have literacy and numeracy difficulties and made several recommendations on how government should address them.  The government responded with a national strategy; a basic skills curriculum; a new system of qualifications; teacher training; course inspection; more I.T., and increased funding in an attempt to address the problems.  (Literacy Trust, 2008).  This was the first time a national curriculum had been imposed upon adult basic education in the UK, learning having previously been planned within a Freirean paradigm of dialogue between teacher and learner.  (Oughton, 2007)

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