Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Thinking About Imprisonment: Hindpal Singh Bhui, What Are Prisons For?

On Friday 26th April 2024, the University of Oxford’s Centre for Criminology hosted an enlightening launch of Professor Hindpal Singh Bhui’s new book, ‘What Are Prisons For?’ The event was hosted by Professor Carolyn Hoyle, joined by esteemed colleagues including Professor Nick Hardwick, Professor Mary Bosworth, and Andre Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.


Abbi Jordan


Time to read

3 Minutes

Professor Bhui’s book offers an insightful exploration into the world of imprisonment, drawing on observations from his extensive 25 years of experience within the prison system. Prisons around the world continue to be plagued by a lack of funding and issues of overcrowding, and therefore remain a matter for complex and persistent debate. A key strength of this book is its ability to navigate the complexity of the subject, to engage not only academics but also a broader audience interested in prisons. What is not lost, however, is the theoretical frameworks of penality, ensuring a level of sophistication and clarity through the author’s writing. Indeed, this book invites readers from all backgrounds to think about the fundamental questionWhat Are Prisons For?

Bhui begins this book by taking the reader through his own personal journey of becoming involved with the prison system. From starting his career at the Probation Service to finally becoming a Prison Inspector, his wealth of experience and knowledge is set up to guide the reader towards forming their own opinion of the purpose of imprisonment. Without lecturing or overwhelming readers, Bhui expertly interweaves his personal insights with broader research on the prison system.

His writing explores the racial injustices ingrained within prison, shedding light on the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities and marginalized individuals behind bars. The history of hyper-incarceration of black and ethnic minorities in the US following the ‘war on drugs’ and a political shift towards penal populism, guides the reader towards understanding the ongoing demonization of particular communities in the US justice system. It was Bhui’s warmth and dedication to this topic which resonated throughout the discussion, prompting reflection on the challenges of racial equity within the criminal justice system here in the UK and further afield.

From reviewing the practice of imprisonment from the West, the book turns to discussing the emergence of prison around the world. This journey through geographical borders of imprisonment takes the reader from the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule in the 1950s, imprisoning thousands of people in Kenya, to the silent and almost eerie conditions of Japanese prisons, to finally an exploration of the soviet penal system. Although not possible to give a comprehensive account of the history of penality from around the world, these brief yet effective passages allow the reader to understand the significance of the global north in influencing the ‘ideology of the modern prison’ on other nations (Bhui, 2024: 39).

A core strength of this book is that readers are invited to reflect and question the idea of deterrence. Bhui ensures that the voices of those incarcerated are heard and understood. Academics and others can fail to consider the individuals that are detained in these institutions, their often-traumatic backgrounds of abuse, acute mental health difficulties and wider societal disadvantages of poverty and unemployment. Indeed, there remains a paradigm, particularly across the media, that all prisoners are ‘bad people’, but through Bhui’s writing the reader is encouraged to reflect and challenge innate presumptions and stereotypes about the lives of those living behind bars. We are left questioning what the true purpose of imprisonment is, when faced with the fact that there is minimal evidence to suggest that prison actually deters people from offending in the first place.

As discussion moved towards the latter chapters of the book, the panel of discussants and the audience praised Professor Bhui’s ability to provoke critical dialogue on abolitionism, urging readers to envision alternative approaches to imprisonment and rehabilitation. What makes this book particularly powerful is that it does not ignore or disregard the conflicting narratives of imprisonment. Whether a reader be a sworn abolitionist or a penal enthusiast, this book allows for critical engagement with alternative perspectives and offers the opportunity of debate on penal reform.

One particularly engaging aspect of the discussion was the exchange with former prisoners from HMP Huntercombe within the audience. They openly shared their perspectives on the transformative potential of incarceration, stating that the act of being incarcerated was the ‘wakeup call’ they needed to turn their lives around. Indeed, one individual bravely spoke about his life as a drug dealer, and how being placed behind bars opened up new positive opportunities for work and education that would simply not have been accessible in the community in which he had lived prior to incarceration. Their stories highlighted the need for interventions both within and outside the prison walls, raising questions about the efficacy of punitive measures versus rehabilitative efforts.

The conversation also turned to the role of judges in sentencing, with attendees highlighting the disconnect between judicial decisions and the harsh realities of prison life. It was suggested that judges need more education on alternative sanctions that don’t involve putting people behind bars. There was consensus amongst the attendees that addressing the systemic flaws within the criminal justice system is crucial if we are to think beyond the belief that punishment should equal confinement.

The event concluded with a sense of optimism and renewed commitment towards advocating for meaningful reform within our prison system. It is clear that What Are Prisons for? will inspire meaningful dialogue and action in the pursuit of criminal justice reform. Professor Bhui has managed to write a book that speaks to wide audiences, regardless of prior prison knowledge, but also academically sophisticated, and seemingly achieved such a task with ease. It is safe to say that we are all looking forward to Professor Bhui’s next book…. Or maybe the next two!

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

A. Jordan. (2024) Thinking About Imprisonment: Hindpal Singh Bhui, What Are Prisons For?. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2024/06/thinking-about-imprisonment-hindpal-singh-bhui-what-are. Accessed on: 17/07/2024