Saturday, 14 May 2011

Could You Be a Prison Officer?

Someone recently asked if I thought I could work as a prison officer

Could you lock a man in a cell? What does that take, to carefully, regularly, routinely, inflict that punishment on another human being?

The simple answer is no but the question prompts more thought:

A few weeks ago, I participated in a radio phone in show with Crispin Blunt (prisons minister) answering questions. One of the callers was a prison officer who illustrated his approach and in so doing explained how he was able to work in a prison.

He explained that his simple rationale was that prisoners 'must have done something really bad' to have wound up in prison and therefore he was doing society a service by locking them up and punishing them. His contempt for the Cons was clear. When talking to Crispin Blunt, he was objecting to the fact that in his prison he, and the other officers, had recently been asked to call all the cons by their first names. He objected to the humanising approach.

I think he may have illustrated the simplistic logic with which many prison officers operate and in doing so provided an insight into the culture that prison officers operate within. They de-humanise prisoners with the rationale that they are just 'bad people' in a very similar way that other people behave with prejudice towards entire religious groups or people with a particular sexuality or race. They deal with the problem that others would have with the idea of 'regularly and routinely inflicting punishments on another human being' by detaching themselves from any sense of empathy with the group - they apply prejudice.

In wartime, we apply the same approach on a mass scale. The enemy is denigrated and de-humanised to the extent where the individual soldier ceases to be a living, breathing, valuable human being, but instead just becomes a single element of a larger evil. 70 years ago, tearing a man's guts out with a jagged knife would have been a good thing to do - provided he was wearing a Nazi uniform of course.

It seems to me that the prison system needs to be turned on it's head. Instead of it being a culture where people adopt a prejudicial approach, instead we need prison officers who do see prisoners as individually different people each with unique circumstances. And we need them to see their job as working with people who have done bad things (rather than just as 'bad people') to reduce the chances of them doing bad things again. A major cultural and organisational shift is needed.

The punishment is the term of imprisonment, the period for which liberty is denied. It should not be the role of prison officers to inflict punishment. Instead their role should be to rehabilitate and simply and evenly enforce rules. Because, as a society, that's what we want. We want people coming out of prison who are no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else - whereas, as it stands, for most crimes there is more than a 50% chance they will be back in prison within 2 years.

If prisoners come out of prison feeling like they are part of the 'criminals' group of a 'them and us' culture, it's not surprising if they continue to act as criminals. 

Unfortunately, at the end of the prison officer's telephone call, Crispin Blunt congratulated the man for doing a valuable job. Perhaps this was just the usual politician's response to communicating with anyone - perhaps Crispin was just being polite and didn't really mean it..

I just hope he was not genuinely endorsing the prison officer's approach because if so, the chances of being able to say that 'prison works' in a few years time are very, very slim indeed.


Post a Comment