Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Can Prisons Be Humane?



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Liv S. Gaborit, Research Assistant at DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture where she works in the department for Preventing Torture in Places of Detention. Liv specialises in prison research from a social psychological perspective, connecting societal structures to individual experiences. Her work is focused on prisons in the global south, with involvement in the Philippines, Sierra Leone, and the MENA region.

As part of a symposium exploring ways to scrutinise prisons through social science DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture recently hosted a panel and public debate on the question: Can prisons be humane?  The panel consisted of Deborah Drake – a criminologist at Open University who has conducted various prison studies including action research with prison staff, Jamie Bennett – Governor of HMP Grendon and Springhill prison, Hindpal Singh Bhui – Team Leader at HM Inspectorate of Prisons and David Oehlenschläger – Director of Rehabilitation at DIGNITY, formerly a psychologist in the Danish prison service. The panel was chaired by Andrew M. Jefferson – prison scholar and Senior Researcher at DIGNITY.

Source: Danish Prison Service
The panel members had very different views. For some, matters were simple: prisons will never be humane. Instead of trying to create a model for the oxymoron of the humane prison, these participants proposed, a more realistic debate would explore how we can humanise this inherent problematic institution.  How can we reduce the harms and maybe even develop some more positive aspects of the prison?  Even those who viewed the prison as an institution for punishment, a necessary tool to maintain order in society and regulate behaviour, agreed such questions were vital.

Panel members questioned both the inevitability and the humanity of the prison.  Serious cuts in staffing levels and the closure of some prisons have occurred while the incarcerated population continues to grow. The lack of support for existing attempts to humanise prisons, many argued, reveal a society that values punishment over rehabilitation and is, at heart, not all that concerned with humanising its penal institutions.

One panel member threw in some statistics on the composition of the English prison population – a group seriously challenged by a series of social issues even before entering prisons, bringing to mind Mark Halsey’s claim that prisons serve to exacerbate already existing deprivations rather than simply depriving people of their liberty. Based on the composition of the population, the panellist questioned whether prison is the right institution to help these people who would normally (on the outside) be seen as in need of social/welfare support of some sort to deal with their challenges. Thus, the question changed again to not only how we can humanise prison but also; can prison be used to humanise people who have already been dehumanised and rejected by society?

After presentations by the panel the floor was opened for questions from the audience. Participants included practitioners working globally with development projects and with torture survivors, refugees and other clients, as well as prison scholars from Denmark and UK, students and prison staff and current and former senior representatives of the Danish prison service.

At a certain point, the audience turned to the principle of normalisation which underpins Danish penal practices.  According to this idea, prison life is supposed to be as similar to normal everyday life outside the prison walls, to reduce the unintended harms of imprisonment and limit punishment to deprivation of liberty alone. The concept is contradictory, some pointed out, since full normalisation would mean tearing down the walls of the prison. Discussion therefore moved to other initiatives that might be more true to the normalisation principle, such as community sanctions – which are rare in the Danish context.

Blegdamsvejen prison - inside (Source: Danish Prison Service)
While the activities discussed based on the principle of normalisation in many ways seemed similar to activities created to humanise prisons, it was disputed whether the intention and values behind them are the same. Thus, one panel member supported the principle of normalisation while maintaining the position that prison is for punishment and punishment is a necessary mechanism of society.

At this point, discussion returned to the composition of the prison population. Would normalisation for them actually mean being treated in a humane manner? Or do they come from layers of society already characterised by lack of freedom and dehumanisation? It was questioned whether prison was the right answer for people in problematic social situations outside prisons. Outside, we would see this group as in need of social or welfare support; inside prison we see them as in need of reform, rehabilitation or even punishment . Further it was argued that the age of austerity was now challenging efforts to humanise prisons. But even so, the panel called for continuations of the efforts to humanise prisons and even to question whether the justice system should be based on a value such as punishment.

During discussion it was suggested that practices in families were a place to look for alternatives to punishment. While punitive societies tend to exclude the people who deviate from the norm in undesirable ways, families for the most part tend to be able to include their members even when they deviate or break rules. The panel called for attempts to work on how to develop society to be more based on the family value of inclusion rather than the exclusion of punishment.

In conclusion, the question can prisons be humane raised a lively debate and even raised other questions, mainly: How can we work to humanise prisons, shifting the focus from the static institution to the active ‘humaniser’? Can prison be used to humanise people who are already experiencing dehumanisation? And in continuation of that, how can we think of practices of exclusion as dehumanising and look for alternatives in practices that can include people who have been marginalised by society before and during imprisonment?

So, can prisons be human? It seems, from the debate, that to answer this question we need to reflect on the inevitability of prison. While some believe prisons as a tool for punishment remains a necessary part of regulating human society, the majority of the panel urged for constant critical questioning of the very existence of the prison.

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