Reforming our prisons

Barb wire24 June 2011

Prison reform and sentencing remains a highly political and controversial issue, as the current review by the Coalition Government illustrates. Over the past decades ESRC-funded research has examined different aspects of penal policies, pathways into crime, and the most effective ways to prevent people from re-offending and ending back in prison.

The Government’s Green Paper on Criminal Justice proposes to open up the market to new providers from the private, voluntary and community sectors', and the recent research project Values, Practices and Outcomes in Public and Private Sector Corrections has compared public and private prisons when it comes to quality and effectiveness.

The study compared two public and two private sector prisons in terms of cultures, relationships and the experiences of prisoners and staff, supplemented by shorter visits to three other private sector prisons.

In the evaluation the two public sector prisons generally outperformed the two private sector ones, whereas the highest overall ratings were achieved by two of the three other private sector prisons.

The researchers concluded that there are huge variations in the quality of private prisons, so a superior quality from private sector provision should not be assumed – in particular if privatisation is done 'on the cheap'.

Other findings were that public sector provision has hidden strengths, particularly with staff professionalism and use of authority, and that quality of management is crucial and might account for the differences in performance between similar establishments.

"This is a complex and demanding business, requiring highly skilled staff and outstanding leadership," says lead researcher Professor Alison Liebling in a press release.

"Staff and prisoners still speak a moral language of 'making a difference', but there is a general shift in the Prison Service towards a security-and-efficiency driven management style that risks stifling professional enthusiasm by its process and performance-oriented culture."

The length of prison sentences and whether they act as deterrents to crime are under much debate. Dr Anita Wilson at Lancaster University has examined how prison sentences affect young offenders when it comes to education and potential for rehabilitation.

Findings from Interrupted Education: The Criminal Justice System as an exacerbating or ameliorative force on the educational progress of young offenders show that many are forced to abandon education or employment when they go into prison, while the system does little to support their return to their studies when they are released.

Prisons with short-term offenders can't replicate the range of education, training or employment that young people are engaged in, and moving them around the system disrupts and limits the potential of prison training programs.

The relationship between prisoners and staff has been studied further by Dr Sarah Tait at the University of Cambridge in the project Gender, Prison Officer Work, and the Meaning of Care in Staff-Prisoner Relationships.

The research highlighted the role of care in prison officer work with male and female prisoners, and showed how care-based interactions with prisoners created a basic trust and a feeling of security. This helped combat feelings of powerlessness, isolation and worthlessness, and encouraged improved wellbeing, a desire to co-operate with staff and a renewed hope for the future.