Prison reforms and breaking free from a jaded narrative.


Framing a government to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
James Madison

Once we begin to consider that one of the more recognisable aspects of statecraft is its protective capacity to preserve itself from both external enemies and internal disorder1 from there we can more fully into account the notion that capitalism has penetrated the innermost reaches of the human psyche2 perhaps it is only at that point that we are ready to approach a richer recognition of prison as the complicated social function it has become. This intricate scenario presents us with the challenge of attempting to unravel the causes and consequences of prison population growth, precisely because, we stand to examine them at the confluence where a nexus of criminology, political economy, ethics and economics overlap and collide. We shall discover that this prickly configuration offers significant resistance to a simple or to a solitary explanation.

It would be churlish not to welcome David Cameron’s recently declared commitment to wholesale prison reform. His high profile initiative while not explicitly declaring that prison does not work, manages to convey the clearest recognition yet that it does not work nearly well enough: not for the staff, nor for the prisoners themselves, and clearly not for the society from which offenders are extracted and will – 99% of them – one day return. We may feel tempted to cavil and kvetch about some of the proposed remedies and to wonder to what extent initiatives will really see the injection of entrepreneurial spirit, satellite tracking, market rubrics and more ‘meaningful metrics’ have on the laudably ambitious goals of extending life chances, leading ineluctably it is to be hoped to the transformation of inmates into ‘potential assets to be harnessed’ to use Cameron’s phrase. Any fixation on modalities and methods runs the risk of missing the point entirely, an undue focus on the micro trees while overlooking a macro forest. Minor points sometimes matter a good deal, such as the detectable presence in Cameron’s speech of overt influences from the fringes of US thinking. His use of George W Bush’s, ’soft bigotry of low expectations’ and his approving reference to Judge Steve Alm’s H.O.P.E. programme in Hawaii may turn out to be insignificant, but could also point towards the overly eager embrace of lightly tested innovations which have rather too quickly become popular with like-minded US conservatives, without being subject to the fuller rigour that accompanies an adequate and ongoing commitment to fuller empirical examination. It must be part of the obligation of due diligence to not only ensure that scarce funding is appropriately allocated but simultaneously to protect the prison system and society itself from the despond of inertia that would follow the failure to meet elevated expectations. On an optimistic note we can be grateful that there is no invocation to adopt methods championed by the likes of Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio; a proposition we speculate that might have featured if we could imagine that it was Michael Howard who was delivering this same speech. Not all ‘meaningful metrics’ to use Cameron’s words in relation to the H.O.P.E. initiative point towards an unqualified success; US Department of Justice sponsored research looks encouraging though it acknowledges significant limitations with the scope and protocols of the  research.  Having raised a few caveats, let us return to the not wholly appreciated significance of the semiotics at play in Cameron’s speech. It might have been difficult to envisage circumstances in which a conservative government, with a small but manageable majority, could have eschewed any opportunity to assiduously align themselves with hard-line positions on law and order. Partly from conviction but partly in response to the perceived and often stoked concerns of their constituent; concerns amplified through a vigilantist trope in some media outlets for reasons that can in part be explained by Terry Eagleton in another context when he reminds us that nobody is more in love with autocracy than the anxious and insecure3.  In time Cameron’s speech may come to be regarded not as far-fetched, but as an ambitious, even far-reaching challenge. It contains the potential to do nothing less than provide the overdue propulsion and  permission to release policy makers from the carceral impasse that has compelled successive governments to utter platitude upon platitude, swearing fidelity to an expensive and bloated prison system which works insufficiently well but which polemics, fear, more bountiful tax receipts and pluralistic ignorance, have cumulatively conspired to sustain as a destructive fantasy and as an unsustainable paradigm. Perhaps Cameron appreciates more than most, more than Blair, more than Howard, and much more than Grayling, that ‘all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door’ Yet another component in his speech sticks in the mind, in part, because one is left wondering why he felt the need to say it at all. It may have been a sleight of hand, disguised as a flourish, or a sop to the simplistic among us – that demographic who never tire of over-valorising a far from rare ability to call a spade a spade- but if his intention was to bluffly brush something to one side he has succeeded less well than he might have hoped.  Early in the speech, he expressed a wish to avoid the ‘big existential questions’ -as if there could ever be any small ones. He rather gave the impression of someone letting a cat out of the bag –   mostly with a view to strangling it. There are circumstances when it is impossible to avoid existential questions entirely. It is only natural to feel embarrassed by the prospect of being the one to raise such questions in mixed company. A feeling not qualitatively different from the experience of watching Game of Thrones with your grandmother. One successful way to avoid talking about existential or ontological matters overtly is to address the issues that flow from these questions but to do so on a different and less rarefied plane of abstraction. This usually proves to be a good tactic, sometimes even a great one. If you can launch an initiative, as Cameron has done, and adorn it with the garments of pragmatism and market polemics, it will generally be possible to deflect from the radical nature of what lies beneath. It is more difficult and we could argue counter-productive to avoid acknowledging how fundamentally this articulation of aims changes everything. We are in a different place philosophically to where we were before. We have yet to see if these new drivers can deliver an entirely different prison for inmates, staff and society. In the meantime, we should be prepared to offer Cameron the benefit of the doubt, hold his feet to the fire and even suspend for a while our own soft bigotry of low expectations.


For the purposes of generating some context and historical perspective, it may be useful to briefly trace some of the contours of Foucault’s chronology of confinement and exclusion so we can embed some of earlier discussion surrounding the morass through which policy makers including Cameron must navigate.  When we do, we discover a surprising galaxy of sensibilities and phenomena which resonate with contemporary society. An edict of 1657 for instance states that the libertinage of beggars has risen to excess because of an unfortunate tolerance of crimes of all sorts, which attract the curse of God upon the state when they remain unpunished.4 It is possible to detect that the linkage between the transcendence of work, the concomitant sloth of the non-worker, a penal emetic attitude towards the vagrant and the idle, is indicative of the moral and ontological centrality of work, derived in no small part from an enduring depiction of the post-lapsarian condition of man first recounted in Genesis and rendered by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel –in the sweat of your face shall you eat bread –  has the effect of rupturing the link between the instrumentality of labour and its fruits, by the problematic insertion of grace as correlative rather than causal. The notion, which privileged work for its own sake, was also contained in the precepts of the influential and ascetic Benedictine monastic houses with the invocation inscribed in their motto laborare est orare. Beyond this admonition lies an implied summons to the condition of self-sufficiency, which is also evident in varieties of Calvinism and in the works of an equally influential Emerson, which travelled some distance towards informing Weber’s concept of the Protestant Work Ethic. The attitude of repugnance towards the non-productive, (non-self-sufficient) man marked an acute distancing antagonism towards forms of deviation from sacred ethical and civil obligations of; (a) acquiescence to the discipline of order and (b) compliance with the law. Deviation from what Durkheim would term mechanical solidarity, (i.e. a sort of collective consciousness) was marked out by stamping the criminal with infamy using the stigma of exclusion and ultimately of penal confinement. This form of – often-expressive- confinement as we have suggested conceals both a metaphysics of government and a politics of religion5.


What we have attempted to demonstrate in the discussion so far is the proposition that the implementation of a crushing carceral policy (in all its forms) is a well-established one extending  beyond concerns with the mere criminal, exposing along the way economic and other social imperatives, as it deals – often pietistic and peremptorily – with the the insecure and the precariat .In the same way, that this cultural identity is far from constant, the framing of prison population growth is also variable, with securitization representing the salient contemporary protocol. We do not intend to contest that the core of prisoner numbers is not largely explained, as it always and clearly has been, by the presence in our prisons of those who have simply been convicted of breaking the law, (not that that constitutes an explanation per se as we shall discuss below) but what we are proposing, and what we intend to address, is that its relatively recent growth is insufficiently explained by this alone.


That there has been exponential growth in prison inmate numbers in many western countries in recent decades, especially in the UK and US is not in doubt despite the many predictions of its decline as an institution in the late sixties and early seventies. It is a well-documented phenomenon; it is regularly the focus of public discourse under the nomenclatures of penal populism and the crisis of penal modernism6 This discourse has extended, as we have suggested at the outset, beyond criminology itself, reaching deep into sociology and into contested zones of political economy. This development should be less than surprising since the focus of our debate involves the very central question of whether state and social policy should emphasise and seek to promote inclusion or exclusion, reintegration or stigmatisation. Nothing less than the true meaning of democracy is at stake7


It is precisely from the perspective of socio-economic equity and a growing muscularity at the innermost heart of the state , that Nicola Lacey approaches the cultural, structural and especially the institutional factors which underpin core differences between the UK and the US, to propose that despite many similarities, our joint continued immersion in the globalization project does not necessarily mean that the UK will inevitably pursue, with anything like the same degree of neo-liberal zeal, a course that leads us to US levels of incarceration8 Her proposition together with a strong evidential component, serves to offer us a glimmer of hope, a hope that is more difficult to detect in the pessimistic polemic proffered by Loïc Wacquant et al. Wacquant’s differences with Lacey might be regarded as marginal in many respects on this issue, amounting, yes to concerns about outcomes, but for the most part centred around whether the situation merits a nine or a ten on some imaginary Likert scale; i.e. very bad or appalling.


Wacquant faces head on the charge regarding the dystopic character of his vision in respect of the expansion of the penal state by claiming that we are already living in a milieu of carceral catastrophe wherein prison is utilised as a bureaucratic instrument in the proxy management of marginality, which incorporates the economic certainly, but also racial, ethnic, and issues surrounding mental hygiene and drug enforcement. He draws specific attention to the problematics generated by the withdrawal of the state from the social realm while simultaneously intensifying its involvement in stratification, in control and in a diffused punitiveness claiming that neoliberal penality is paradoxical in that it purports to deploy more state in the realm of the police, criminal courts, and prisons to remedy the generalized rise of objective and subjective insecurity which is itself caused by less state on the economic and social front9


Though the expansion in prison numbers is widespread, it cannot be regarded as universal, notable exceptions include Canada, Germany, and Austria.If outcomes look similar, a marked degree of variation exists even among seemingly comparable socio-political systems. The neo-conservative paradigm in the US, (where rates of incarceration are typically seven times higher than in Europe) as we might expect shares many of the attributes of right-leaning libertarian administrations in advanced societies. Left of centre liberalism as promulgated by New Labour in the UK and the Obama administration in the US are also trapped by this paradigm since the appearance of the seemingly transcendent prism of terrorism and insecurity infects much socio-economic policy with the saturating discourse of security and the subsequent imperatives of securitization. Concerns with security combined with conservative reactions to a matrix of events such as the counterculture, the energy crises of the mid-seventies, the evaporation of confidence in a post-Watergate, post-Leveson culture, the fall-out from Robert Martinson’s watershed What Works10 generated a cumulative causation effect which resulted in a profound undermining of faith in rehabilitation, a move towards hyper-hygiene which concerned itself with an intolerance not just of crime, but of incivility, non-conformance, and finally an unravelling of  the foundations which previously embraced the development of an  acceptance of plurality and alterity . The wagons began to circle in a culture, which was leaking trust while seeking certainty, and the reassurance of stasis, predictability, and control in the face of what was often glibly characterised as a manifestation of moral decline: the eggs incubated in the permissive sixties and later, transmuted into fin de siècle chickens scuttling home to roost. During this period, a brand of journalism evolved which was characterised by a greater willingness to align itself with the world of entertainment, to be more partisan, less serious, superficial and snarky, placing a new emphasis on scandals, pseudo-scandals and pre-digested consumer packages.


Now may be a good time to reflect upon the significance in the UK of a remarkable, but little remarked upon transformation whereby in recent decades we have radically altered our orientation towards power and sovereignty. The primacy of our public or civil identity as subjects of the Crown has been, we would argue, ontologically re-configured so that our primary orientation is now that of consumer, we have travelled from subject to consumer without any apparent need to alight at citizenship. The relevance of this state of affairs in our present context is to suggest that the concomitant deregulation agenda, coupled with a lubricated mobility of global capital has many outcomes, one of the less benign of which is the undermining of the socio-economic salience of the nation-state (conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship12) in the socio-economic realm which directly impacts on the legitimation claims of politicians themselves who are exposed to the buffeting brought about by the unleashing of global marketization forces and the reconfiguration of many of the subjectivities we have delineated above .Current discussions regarding any surrender of sovereignty within the context of attempts to re-examine our relationship with the EU wilfully fail to acknowledge the fundamental and even celebrated surrender of sovereignty to the behemoth that is  the market.


One compelling method for the state to endeavour to reclaim a forfeited legitimation is in the zone of law and order: ultimately through mechanisms which eagerly respond to a discourse of moral panic by sometimes engaging in squalid competition to match their political opponents’ macho lexicon with their own crackdown or their own war on a diverse panoply of folk devils in the guise of; deviants, putative deviants, immigrants, strangers, the precariat or pretty much anyone who might come to be regarded as not one of us, leading directly to the nourishment of an ethos of penality and less directly but no less ineluctably to prison population growth. The not to be overlooked expressive aspect of penality is also calibrated to signal the state’s intent in respect of its management of the precariat or what Wacquant calls the sub-proletariat.


Nowhere is this management more inflamed than in the arena of immigration control where the entitlement of so-called guest workers or economic refugees is volubly contested and a discourse of what Bruce Anderson terms welfare chauvinism13 ensures that social provision may become curtailed so as to limit the appeal to putative immigrants while retaining a thin compliance with EU law by even-handedly punishing the indigenous poor in a contrivance of legitimized misery. The asylum-seeker in this instance becomes multiple victim; suffering firstly from the asymmetrical impact of civil unrest and globalisation, and secondly by the culpability attached to his unsettling liminal presence as an onlooker at the edges of both the society from which he flees as well as the society he aspires to join. This seems to have a destabilising effect on the indigenous population who demand that this extraneous entity is appropriately managed or walled out, as Trump would have it. The provisional status of the asylum seeker will often be viewed through the prism of their insertion into an already challenging labour market with a concomitant impact on a shrinking social services budget. Further suspicion compounds the plight of refugees from areas where the blight of Jihadism prevails. Tragically we find that victims who are subject to all forms of incarceration leave detention only to find themselves suffering the fate of inmates in general who are even less equipped than they may previously have been to obtain stable employment. Acquiring along the way a large quantity of what Wacquant calls negative social capital – oftentimes not a great deal else. Since re-offending rates after release sit stubbornly at over 75% for young offenders, incarceration is an expensive failure, which has little impact on crime levels or the fear of crime according to an analysis by The Howard League.



At first glance, it may seem that politicians are responding to public demands amplified through the more right wing press for tougher sanctions, increased use of custodial sentences, higher walls and sharper barbed wire. There is some evidence to suggest that this may be overstating the case or, at least, simplifying it to a point beyond which it provides insufficient explanatory power. To begin with, in the related debate regarding populist claims that sentencing is simply not sufficiently punitive, a raft of research has demonstrated that widespread portrayal of these views are somewhat unreliable14 .It has also been suggested that public attitudes towards sentencing and punitiveness are a good deal more nuanced than headlining summaries tend to reveal. For instance it would appear that the widespread support for an enhanced punitiveness (including some believe a regressive clamour for the death penalty) does not necessarily extend to every type of offender or all types of offence15. We might hypothesise that if ethnographic research, conversational analyses and socio-linguistic techniques16 were used that this reactionary sensibility may not be nearly so widespread or as deeply entrenched as we might have been led to believe by a more cursory analysis. It would be facile to propose that these phenomena are wholly explicable by such concepts as pluralistic ignorance or the imitative impulses of a social isomorphism but we believe these might nonetheless hold a modicum of explanatory purchase.


Pluralistic ignorance you may recall is the systematic error, which operates during our assessment of the belief of others. Put as simply as possible it occurs in circumstances where an individual holds a belief about the beliefs of the rest of the group (based on certain cues) a belief that in fact the rest of the group does not hold as individuals or as a group. Research dating back to the seventies demonstrated that when asked fairly general questions regarding the appropriate use of custodial sentences, respondents expressed a dominant inclination in the direction of punitiveness, proclaiming views consistent with a belief that judges and the criminal law were, for the most part, a good deal too lenient on criminality. When they were asked to engage with specifics and with the context of criminal episodes, their recommendations in respect of what they might consider to be more appropriate in terms of the length and severity of sentencing, their suggested tariffs were substantially in accord with existing sentencing practices16. It is surely not too fanciful to wonder to what extent some policy makers who seem to revel in the ritualistic promotion of hard-line responses are reacting not so much with an individually considered and thought derived position on crime but to a misinterpretation of what their fellow citizens would articulate on the subject – given sufficient ventilation and immersion with the issue. We may also need to acknowledge the catalytic and cataclysmic role that portions of the right wing media play in this arena. Their hectoring tendency is less than conducive to a thoughtful or to a pragmatic pursuit of solutions or of any consensus. The populist highjacking of the issue contains the potential to steal and to still the courage of politicians who may have briefly flirted with the idea of dealing with the salient facts before being confronted by the amplified synthetic rage of editors railing against a framed ‘cowardice’.


Those prisons that are full, and there are many, are ignitable, stuffed to bursting point. Cells filled to the rafters with inmates certainly, but also crammed therein is a small herd of proverbial elephants, by far the largest of these lumbering behemoths is the one that answers variously to race or to ethnicity. When we address issues surrounding immigration, as we did above, we inevitably encompass considerations of ethnicity. If space allowed we could focus on the relationship between a so-called war on drugs and consequences of the varieties of sensibilities and cultural responses towards drug taking and its criminalisation, which in turn, and of itself, drags us into the problematics of mental health and control. When we add to this matrix the scandal of disproportionality revealed by the fact that in 1992 over 50% of the prison population in the US is black and that nearly 7% of all black males are incarcerated, we are dealing with a deeper and more polarising societal wound, which is concealed as well as presented in the reductive terms of penality. It is difficult in circumstances such as these to avoid the conclusion that the prison system may be exercising a systematic influence on large-scale patterns of economic inequality Bruce Western is not alone in regarding the penal system as a labour market institution 18


As we proposed at the outset, the polemics of prison, of punitiveness, even of an institutionally desperate vindictiveness, present enormous challenges to our polity.  It is difficult to avoid being drowned by the scale, scope and complexity of the task posed in its unravelling, of separating causes from consequences, precisely because of the dialectics and dynamism involved in each of the constituent elements that flood the delta where the rivers of sociology, politics and economics meet, merge and mingle.



















  1. Jürgen Habermas Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge, Polity 1996) P.133
  2. Terry Eagleton Figures of Dissent (London, Verso 2003) P.74
  3. Terry Eagleton Figures of Dissent (London, Verso 2003) P.86
  4. Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish (London, Penguin 1977)P.23
  5. Michel Foucault Madness and Civilization (London, Routledge 2001)P.54
  6. Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer Punishment and Social Structures (New York, Columbia University Press 1939)
  7. David Garland The Culture of Control (Oxford OUP 2001)
  8. Katherine Beckett Making Crime Pay (New York OUP 1997) P.109
  9. Nicola Lacey Hamlyn Lectures: The Prisoners’ Dilemma (Cambridge CUP 2008) P.153
  10. Loic Wacquant The Militarization of Urban Marginality (International Sociology Chichester Wiley 2008) P.56
  11. Robert Martinson Crime: Critical Concepts in Sociology London Routledge 2002) P.200
  12. Horton (2005)
  13. Bruce Anderson Imagined Communities (London Verso 1983) P.7
  14. Jef Huysmans The Politics of Insecurity (Abingdon, Routledge 2006) P.77
  15. See (Chapman et 2000), (Mirlees-Black 2000), (Doob and Roberts 1988)
  16. See (Jacoby and Cullen 1998).
  17. See (Forrester and Ramsden 2000)
  18. See (Sparks 2003)
  19. Bruce Western Industrial and Labour Relations Review Vol 54 #1(New York, Cornell Press)P.45