Guest post by Philippa Tomczak, doctoral student in criminology, University of Manchester.
Charitable organisations (also called voluntary, non-governmental, and third sector organisations) play a significant role in carceral institutions (for examples, see here and here). Yet, as Julia Morris observed last week here on Border Criminologies, their involvement in the penal and immigration detention estates has not been well-researched and as such, this sector has not been rigorously theorised. There are gaps in scholarly understandings of exactly what charitable organisations are doing in these institutions; if and how they are changing the nature and practices of institutions and their regimes; and what the impacts of charitable work are on all actors involved. 'Voluntary,' 'non-governmental,' and the 'third sector' includes a diverse range of organisations, many of which may have little in common with each other. Analyses of this group of organisations rarely dwell on these differences, which include: whether their focus is on service delivery or campaigning/advocacy work (or both); where their funding comes from; the type of work they do (e.g., whether it supplements the detention regime or provides a core service); their conceptualisations of detainees and the role of their own organisations; and whether the detainees/probationers are involved as active stakeholders in the programme design.
There are two crucial debates in this field of inquiry. The first concerns the tension between penal/detention reform and abolitionism. It unclear whether charitable organisations empower detainees, enabling them to build social capital; subvert or contest the construction of new carceral settings (see, for example, the work of Critical Resistance in the US); or whether 'benevolent' charitable work legitimises failing carceral regimes and (re)produces existing power disparities. Such outcomes may not be dichotomous. The second debate surrounds the increasing privatisation of penal regimes and the participation of certain voluntary/non-governmental organisations in the market for penal services on a contractual or payment-by-results basis. Is the growing market in penal services changing the nature of charitable work?
In response to Julia's post, I question her assertion that access to detention institutions is granted only to organisations whose work is uncritical and in alignment with the aims of statutory institutions and policy. Building and maintaining good relationships with institutional staff is undeniably an important aspect of gaining and keeping access to detainees. However, charitable organisations are not passive subjects in the environments of neoliberalism and institutional access. Neoliberalism may function as a creative force which charities negotiate to meet their own aims. Furthermore, charities may be highly critical of the penal/detention industrial complex but consider that providing programmes and support for detainees is their prime objective and thus subdue other concerns to achieve this aim.
Julia also questions what the role of academics researching these organisations is and ought to be. She rightly points out that there is work to do in terms of scoping the activities of charitable work in carceral settings and acknowledges the need to consider detainees' views and experiences. I suggest that the most pressing task for academics is to attempt to represent those who are most directly affected by both these detention regimes and the work of charitable organisations: the detainees themselves. Their voices are almost always absent from debates in this topic, however they are the only means of properly determining the value (or otherwise) of charitable work in detention settings. A small amount of evidence is available through some voluntary organisations (see here and here). But, there is hardly any independent information or research about whether detainees engage with charitable programmes voluntarily, whether they consider such programmes to be beneficial and what their experience of being in contact with these organisations is.
Although research that focuses directly on the experiences of detainees is not a value-free exercise in itself, it seems to me that this is where the energy of academics ought to be focussed. Statutory bodies and charitable organisations already have voice through their own publications, websites and media statements. Detainees have very few such outlets.