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Perpetual Parole: Cameron's Prison Reforms are Less Liberal than they Seem

Cameron Giving his Speeh at the Policy Exchange, 8th of February

David Cameron's Prison Reform Speech appears to show his liberal side. But look closer and he is advocating a new form of punishment, a kind of perpetual parole.

Cameron the Liberal!

David Cameron’s recent prisons speech on February 8th left many left-wing commentators wrong-footed.  Touted as the first proposal of full-scale prison reform for a generation, Cameron came over at the podium all concerned, empathetic, and sociological—although he retained his rather smug and rubicund natural demeanour throughout. We lefties didn’t know what to make of it all really.  The Guardian’s John Crace, for example, had to invent a whole new malady, the Odysseus complex, to describe the way the Cameron keeps being blown of course.  The problem was not so much the tone of the speech, Cameron only has one tone, slightly exasperated verging on tetchy then suddenly emollient, but the content of which, surprisingly for one of his speeches, there was a worrying abundance.

The shocking headline is that if you are a criminal Cameron doesn’t hate you, in fact he rather likes you.  If you commit a crime, show remorse and agree to upskill, Cameron almost pledged to be waiting for you at the gates of the Scrubs with a job-offer, a shoulder to cry on and a lift into town in his limo.  Oh, and a satellite linked digital tracking device. More on that little beauty in a moment.
Okay maybe that is going a bit too far but when did you ever think you would hear a conservative Prime Minister admitting that prisons are not a “holiday camp”, an accusation over the years that says more about the dire state of the British leisure industry than the reality of our penal system. “They are often miserable, painful environments,” Cameron explained. “Isolation. Mental anguish. Idleness. Bullying. Self-Harm. Violence. Suicide. These aren’t happy places.”  You can’t blame him therefore for preferring a ‘staycation’ in a Cornish surf-resort than a week in Pontins, Southport, recently reviewed on TripAdvisor with the simple headline: "Awful! Violence Everyday". Oh, he was talking about prisons all along.  My mistake.  I am just not used to a Conservative politician telling the truth about the real state of our prison system. 


Right Policies Wrong Speech?

I almost feel like calling out “No fair!”  After all it is rather rum of him to suggest that prisons are as bad, if not worse, than Pontins, but downright queer of him to even care.  To develop Crace’s Odysseus complex a little, has there been a sea-change in contemporary Conservatism, or is Cameron just riding the wave of yet another half-thought-through whim? As we all know, he can be victim to the occasional attack of niceness, that’s why he keeps George Osbourne so close, to remind him that from time to time he is supposed to be an old Etonian bastard in power, not the call-me-Dave, nice-but-dim persona he uses during elections.

I have to face facts.  Based on what he said in the speech, David Cameron is as liberal as I am when it comes to penal reform.  He advocates a reduction in re-offending, he speaks of the need for proper rehabilitation and he criticises the dire circumstances of the modern prison.  What is more, he really seems to think many prisoners are banged-up due to poor attainment, low literacy, mental health issues and abusive childhoods.  You know, like the rest of us do?  It is almost as if he left in a hurry and picked up the wrong speech on the way out, the one sent to him by the beardy sociologist he met at the Cornish beach-cafĂ© whose work he agreed to take a look at just to get rid of him and his sock-bulging sandals.  The one George Osbourne urged him to bin or better to burn.  The one actually written by Michael Gove who looks very different in a fake beard and who possesses a surprisingly convincing west-country burr when pushed.
I am not Michael Gove, honest!

Tough on crime, soft on the criminal and when it comes to the causes of crime, just kind of bleh!

Yet take another look at the speech and all is not what it seems.  True, on the surface it is a liberal agenda to ask for prisons to be places of reform not just punishment.  It is also liberal to accept the statistics around incarceration and ask if it is right to punish those whom life has already punished excessively.  Yet the whole project seems a lot less liberal when you pay attention to the language Cameron uses and the solutions he proposes.
I suppose some of you may applaud Dave’s idea that “we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed”.  To my ears however that sounds suspicious.  Are prisoners assets and is our role to harness their potential?  If you follow this logic through then in reality what he is proposing is using prisons as a means of addressing the social ills on the outside that have dogged our nation for hundreds of years by tackling them on the inside once the mentally ill or addictive personalities have committed their statistically probable crimes.  Perhaps I am getting the wrong end of the stick, but shouldn’t you prevent crime before it happens, not after?

You remember Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” of course, who could forget?  What Cameron is suggesting is tough on crime, soft on the criminal and when it comes to the causes of crime, just kind of bleh!  We all know that with recession-rabid Osborne on board the social causes of criminality, all of which depend on the public sector for their amelioration, are spiralling out of control.  Instead of tackling disadvantage and social alienation at the root, or even beefing up the various institutions that deal with social care, drug addiction and the like, Cameron is suggesting all that can be managed by getting the poor beggars into prison and fixing them there! Maybe DCam is a genius. innovating a new kind of one-stop shop for social care, instead of the traditional idea of the prison as punitive incarceration.

Jigsaws and Pants: Down with Rules!

For the sake of argument let’s say that prisons are no longer holiday camps with all the good and bad that implies, that their role is not strictly punishment, and that yes, they are a convenient way of sort of gathering up the disenfranchised and disadvantaged into one place so that their problems can be addressed, although sink estates are also good for this, then what will go on in these new centres of excellence for social reform? What will prisons look like in a caring Cameronised world?

Cameron said in his speech that he would be introducing a raft of new monitoring procedures into the prison system to replace the excess of rules that dominate prison life at the moment.  Is there really a rule that dictates the possession of jigsaws and pants as he claims, or is that one of those Boris Johnson ‘facts’ that the Telegraph and the Mail like to gurn over?  If there is, it gives us a chilling insight into the pastimes of your average recidivist: jigsaws and pants, it sounds less then edifying .
So out with rules.  That’s not what prison is about.  And in with regulation.  The remarkable thing about Cameron’s proposal is that it is now the prisons themselves that are on trial.  Following the ‘successes’ of managerial incentivising in other sectors, the new prison will resemble nothing so much as my kids’ local primary school or indeed the university where I work.  Prison wardens will be given autonomy in exchange for which they will succumb to accountability and transparency.  They might leap at the chance or more power initially, but anyone who has spent any time in cahoots with OffSted, or my own personal regulator the QAA, will probably prefer the company of hardened lags.

And the Award for Prison of the Year Goes to…

Possibly the most confounding element of the reforms is the introduction of league tables into the prison system.  From now on prisons will be ranked like universities.  I know, shine on Cameron you crazy diamond. Does this mean the discerning villain, no longer a criminal but a psychologically damaged client, will be able to choose which prison to be sent to based on KPIs and published league tables?  The next thing you know gangbangers will start moving to areas that are in the catchment of one of the better prisons, having a dramatic effect on the local house prices. Recognise this model those of you paying over the odds for a doddering three-bed semi simply because it is local to the one school where you are sure your kids won’t get stabbed?  Only in the case of prisons of course prices will go down rather than up.  Is this how Cameron is planning on fixing the housing bubble.  Like I said, DCam is a genius.

Naturally the definition of a good prison will not match that of the criminal mind.  We are not talking, I assume, about prisons with low walls, mixed showers and bars (booze bars silly, not those other kind).  All the same, the prospect of a prison being assessed for its quality of outcomes is so bizarre that I kind of like it.  After all, if in my profession I have to take into account quality, learning outcomes, best practice and so on, why shouldn’t all professions do the same?  I can imagine this rolling out across the sector, making significant impact in areas like prostitution and drug dealing where the question of quality, transparency and the like are particularly piquant.  I would love to see pimps filling out pro formas and crackheads cramming for professional qualifications.

The Soul is the Prison of the Body

It is on the issue of league tables that the real agenda of Cameron starts to take shape and if you are a liberal you can now begin to sigh that sigh of self-righteous lefty relief.  Taking as our ally Michel Foucault we can recall how in Discipline and Punish he notes that the shift in punitive measures from capital and corporal punishment, to prisons as locations of reform, may seem, initially, to be more humane.  Yet, in as much as from trial, through sentencing all the way to incarceration it is the life of the criminal that is considered not just the crime itself, seemingly liberal measures can turn out to be anything but. 

Take the issue of social care.  If a sentence is commuted due to diminished responsibility thanks to poor mental health as a result of abuse during childhood, that sounds humane.  But when an expert panel starts to gather data on your life, pass judgement on it, and control your future based on that judgement, you begin to enter that scary zone that Foucault calls Expert Knowledge Power.  Suddenly, the question is not, did you commit a crime and if so how should you pay, but now, how do you live, what is the state of your mind, what is your fault and what is beyond your control?  As Foucault says famously, the result of this kind caring punishment is that the body is no longer on trial, now it is the soul itself that concerns the justice system: “The soul is the prison of the body”.  The mantra of Knowledge Power is not how will I punish you but how will I fix you.

This seems to me downright wrong.  There needs to be, surely, some element of modern life that is not dictated to by quality, best practice and NVQs.  One last great frontier of freedom to say and do what you think.  I feel this keenly because I became an academic all those years ago because I was a free thinker.  Only to discover yesterday as I emerged from my fourth committee meeting that what I have become is a middle manager, an expert, a despised purveyor of knowledge power.  Can’t criminals be left to be the despised other of our society, free from improvement, from performance management, free from good conscience?  If the criminals succumb entirely to Knowledge Power then what hope is there of some future counter-cultural uprising?  We need the disaffected and the disaffected will commit crimes.  We will go from I predict a riot to I predict a reformed character.


Project HOPE is Watching You

If you don’t believe me harken thee some more to Cameron’s speech, particularly the section called, chillingly, Behaviour Change.  Following an American model of sentencing called HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement) innovated by Judge Steven Alm, previously famous for the amount of wrongdoers he sent to their deaths, Cameron advocates a new kind of incarceration that Graeme Wood calls, in his powerful piece for The Atlantic,Prisons Without Walls.

In this new vision of punishment, currently being tested in various US states, prisoners will no longer be in prisons.  That is, after all, a terribly old-fashioned view, like the chestnut that the mentally ill should be in secure facilities.  No, following the HOPE model prisoners will be released into the community as soon as possible, tagged with satellite monitors called BI ExacuTrack AT and told to behave or else.  That is, after all, what the combination of Opportunity and Enforcement actually means.

These canny gadgets track your whereabouts in real time. Some can even detect physiological changes such as excess of alcohol or drugs in the system.  The tagged are also subject to random drug and probation conditions tests.  If they fail these tests they are automatically sentenced, without trial, and go straight back to jail for a couple of days before being released once more.  The same if they break curfew or stray into areas from which they are legally excluded.  Every time they break their parole, the ExacuTrack goes ping somewhere and the perp is flung back behind bars for a couple of days to think about what they have done. Sounds terrible doesn’t it, torturous even. 

Wood’s article highlights the psychological effect wearing the tag has, a kind of wearying, low level, good for you, psychological torture.  Yet the statistics for this program are impressive and in the world of Knowledge Power stats rule.  Prisoners tend to cease reoffending, even coming off class A drugs and booze, because, Wood argues, they finally have a conscience, a voice that tells them to resist their impulses. 

The owner of this voice? Big Brother of course. Operating these days under the alias Steven Alm.

A State of Perpetual Parole

What Cameron appears to sell us from his carpet bag is a panacea for the problem of repeat offending and the truly appalling conditions of our jails.  Prisoners are now seen as assets, prisons as autonomous rehabilitation academies.  More that this, when prisoners are released on warrant they can be tracked and assessed.  But really he is just touting snake oil. The perfection of the reversal is delectable.  Whilst in prison prisoners are not criminals but clients, succumbing to state-interventions, Entering Wormwood Scrubs from now on will be a bit like going into rehab.  When they are out of prison however that’s when they actually become prisoners: monitored, controlled and punished on a daily basis.  Each time they fail then they are sent back behind bars for a quick dressdown and intervention.  Their lives are no longer their own but belong to experts with their best interests at heart.  Ceasing to be people, they are reduced to controllable statistics, treatable problems.  Even Foucault lacked the paranoia to predict this.  In Cameron’s new reforms Knowledge Power does not just control you life before the crime, during the trial and later in prison.  It goes on to control your life after you have been punished, potentially for the rest of your existence.

David Cameron calls his new reforms “Finding diamonds in the rough and helping them shine”.  He is being overly modest. For me this is the first instalment in a completely new relationship to life and the state.  How long will it be before many of us willingly submit to a three month suspended detox followed by a digitally-tagged program of surveillance, inducements and small scale punishments? Initially the program might be based on straying from the straight and narrow, drinking a bit too much, staying out too late, that kind of thing. 

But how soon will it be before people start to freely succumb to the expert surveillance of their fat intake, their monthly spending, how much quality time they spend with their children? And how soon will it be before those two microfascists in the world, employers and parents, start to tag their charges as a matter of course?  We will have to junk the term nanny state as it is no longer capacious enough to encompass the implications of punitive surveillance potential.  Rather, we will be living in a permanent Panopticon, a perpetual state of parole.

David Cameron is right; prison is not a holiday camp.  At the end of a holiday you can go back home.  But if Cameron and his ilk have their way, our homes could be our dungeons; we could all end up living in one great digital Pontins.  Which for some of you may be fine.  But if you are that way inclined, if you already allow FitBit to rule you every waking hour and Facebook to record it, in other words if you are already subject to a kind of digital parole, let me just recall for you that wonderful review of Pontins: “Awful! Violence every day”.  For that is what it will be like if David Cameron and Steven Alm have their way, first for repeat offenders, but potentially, in years to come, for many more.

Watch the whole speech here:


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