Today’s post is inspired by the media hype surrounding Liz Truss’ recent announcement to publish a new prison reform plan. When this announcement was made I saw social media users jump all over it and academics being interviewed by newspapers condemning her approach. Let me first remind those quick to judge critics that Liz Truss only took up the Justice Secretary role in July of this year, less than 3 months into the role and already judged.
Some of the criticisms have come with the proposal of ex-military being employed to work in prisons, now whilst at first even I thought this proposal was problematic, I mean do we really want militarised prison regimes, I came to realise that there are strengths in this proposal. For too long now prisons have been criticised for understaffing, under trained staff, and a lack of due care for those imprisoned, and I have to agree with Truss that something needs to be done and I was actually really pleased to hear that the safety of prisoners is a key priority for her. There was an article in the Mirror that is highly problematic suggesting that recruiting ex-military will only result in a return to brutality and hostility in prisons and could result in a repeat of the tragic Strangeways Prison riots. Let’s first understand that those riots happened 26 years ago and significant changes have already been made, despite there being a long way to go. Secondly prisons as they stand today are overcrowded, under-resourced and understaffed, which have all contributed to previous prison riots in the UK. Ex-military are individuals who understand training, discipline and respect, they are also highly knowledgeable in security and have the capabilities to react quickly and efficiently in crisis situations. Many of these skills are lacking in many current prison staff arrangements, who have been shown to be undertrained and ill-prepared. So from this point of view I can understand where Truss is coming from, give our ex-military recruitment opportunities where they can put to good use their experience, skills and knowledge.
Let us not also forget that many ex-military actually occupancy many of our prison cells today, some evidence suggests as high as 1 in 10 prisoners in the UK. There are also dedicated charities working to support ex-veterans and their families during and after prison life, such as SSAFA. So the view that employing ex-soldiers will create an us and them environment doesn’t stand up for me, and what we could see are prison officers who are understanding of the difficulties many of the prisoners have been through. Of course all of this is hypothetical at the moment, no clear decisions have been made to overcome the staffing issues of our prisons and no-one can predict whether it will or won’t improve things. However, the point I am trying to make is that we ought to be open minded to suggestions of change, which are underpinned by good intentions to improve the current situation, because at it stands our prisons are failing.
I also need to mention that whilst a lot of the criticism is flying mourned about Truss, maybe academics have been too quick to judge her position. Having recently found out that she has agreed to meet with prison academics to discuss evidence based reform suggestions, I say we should celebrate this. A justice secretary determined on seeing through reform and her path to doing this involved meetings with academic experts on imprisonment, that is an achievement. Again I cannot say whether the meetings to be held over the coming weeks will have an actual influence over her decisions or impact on policy changes, but if she is being open enough to hear from academia, then I say academia should be open enough to hear from her. By all means slam the reform plan after it is published if the criminological evidence has not been taken on board, condemn the decisions if they are going to make the lives of our prisoners worse – but until then wait, listen and weigh up the decision making as it unfolds.
Having worked with many academics who classify themselves as critical criminologists, I have always been dumbfounded by their quick to judge cynicism, since when did critical thinking in criminology equate to being condemnatory? How often I have heard and read tweets, blogs, seminars and lectures whereby criminologists have labelled police as corrupt, sexist or racist or prison officers as hostile and retributive on the basis of a simple newspaper headline. I spend each year teaching undergraduate students to think critically, not to believe everything they read in the papers or see on TV and educate them on the process of weighing up evidence to form their own judgements. In my research I work alongside criminal justice organisations and policy makers in an attempt to make positive changes to our justice system, not to uncover indecency for the sake of proving incompetence. I believe that by working alongside policy makers and justice committees we can use our privileged position in academia to help organisations, public or private, to recognise challenges and failures and use our research to offer support in overcoming their obstacles. I am more than aware of the problems associated with politics and criminal justice, the crimes of the powerful and the malpractices that go on in our courts, police cells and prison establishments,and whilst it is our duty to highlight the problems occurring, I believe it is our job to help change the system, improve the system and work together. Even if our attempts fail, at least we can say we tried.
As we sit and criticise those in powerful positions for not giving the socially disadvantaged a chance, for ignoring our homeless or judging our prisoners, we must not make the same mistakes ourselves. I hope we can bring back critical thinking and apply it to the fields where it can make a real difference.