This is an excerpt from Prisons Before & After part 2.

Prisons are closed (‘though dynamic) institutional societies. Other examples of groups who do not choose to be together (what Kurt Vonnegut called a non-karass) include boarding schools, university & military colleges, even ships at sea. They have long featured in public media for similar reasons.

Even where physical enclosure is absent, group loyalty & obligation produces similar effects among professional groups (police, lawyers, doctors), even school classes & recreational clubs. Essential elements are the same: one sub-group, whether formally or self-appointed, is given or arrogates forms of power over the remainder.

In such groups, abuse is inevitable. Most will not abuse power, but almost all will overlook or even deny abuse by the minority who do.

In prison I witnessed very little gross abuse. Prisoners’ sometimes implied that abuse had been deserved. However, overbearing assertion of power was common. It may be that some officers believe assertion necessary to ensure compliance. In low security facilities, where assertion was more muted & relations more respectful, there was correspondingly less trouble.

Assignment of power raises unavoidable ethical questions: given the certainty of any level of abuse, is it defensible to allow some power over others?

Of course, it is sometimes necessary. There are people in prisons from whom society needs protection. They are few, but real enough.

This suggests that rates of imprisonment — that is, criminalized behaviours attracting custodial punishment — should be minimized. Laws, such as prohibition of behaviours that do not threaten persons, should rely upon forms of discouragement & encouragement that do not create asymmetrical power relations concealed from public scrutiny.

It is not obvious what such forms might be, nor how they might be applied without also harming family & broader social & economic relationships. Financial penalties, compulsory service, denial of privileges (not rights), limitation of freedoms… all are currently applied as alternatives to imprisonment. Unfortunately, this creates relatively unscrutinised power relations — between supervisory boards & offenders, often subject to influence from Police, prosecutors & perhaps others — that lead too easily back to prison. The ideas behind home detention & some parole regimes are sound, but their application is subject to similar abuse.

Good ideas should not be abandoned because their implementation is difficult, unpopular or initially fails. Key elements are to avoid enclosure where possible & to maximize scrutiny. Every decision affecting the liberty of any person (not only citizens) in any way must be publicized, with full disclosure of evidence, sources & reasoning, before or, where control is urgent, immediately following its implementation. Let there be light…

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Do prisons work? In Australia, between 2/3 & 4/5 prisoners do not return. (Recidivism rates are ~20–30%). However, that is rarely if ever due to any corrective effect of imprisonment, nor usually to fear of further punishment. Most men in prison offend by actions they believe reasonable — say drug taking & distribution — or that are unconsidered or impulsive. They are not reformed; most are simply not caught again.

A minority behave anti-socially with deliberate disregard for their effect on others. One such man gave his occupation, not as truck-driver or plumber but as B&E; he regards break & enter as his normal occupation. These are not reformed either, unless they find realistic & attractive alternatives.

Most men who take illegal drugs will continue to disregard prohibition. End prohibition & that third of prisoners disappears. A further significant portion whose crimes arise from the effects of prohibition — robbery, assault — disappear too. I am not saying that taking drugs has no ill-effect; far from it. I am saying that prohibition is both much worse & ineffective.

There are programs in prisons for impulse control, understanding the effects of violence, conducting personal relationships, & acquiring skills employable upon release. Prisoners must pay for the latter… while working for ~$6 per day. Places are rationed, while for many prisoners completing such courses is a condition of release. This often delays release, generating cost to the public & resentment in prisoners who experience anger &/or depression, sometimes offend in prison leading to further charges, longer imprisonment…

Example: the high security prison has an education centre. Of several hundred prisoners it can accommodate less than thirty. Sessions are limited to a few afternoons per week. Of these, about half are for illiterate or innumerate prisoners. The prison’s only library is accessible only to those few prisoners who can both gain entry to the education centre & are able to read: perhaps 15 people. There is no system for excluded prisoners to borrow books. My attempt to establish one was rejected.

Literacy & numeracy programs are surely important; the excellent staff who conduct them, mostly volunteers, are diligent, tolerant & determined. However, inadequate teacher/student ratios, quality of materials, limited time available, disruptive behaviours by frustrated & under-engaged students all work to minimize progress.

While I was in prison a TV program about NSW prisons was broadcast. A senior prison officer with more than 20 years’ experience was asked if prisons work; his immediate & simple answer was ‘No’.

They do not work as institutions of correction, nor of learning. They damage prisoners psychologically & society by depriving their families. To the necessary task of protecting society from a small minority of anti-social individuals bad law adds a majority who should never be imprisoned.

Departments of Correctional Services provide neither effective correction nor a net benefit/service to society. The need for reform is of Dickensian proportions.

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