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Exploring the Prison Crisis: Influence of Radical Theory on Abolitionism

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This literature review will overview current theory and knowledge regarding the crisis facing the British prison in the UK. It will utilise prison based literature to highlight a radical theory of penality (Paris, 2007) presented by Angela Davis, Joe Sim and others. The current situation surrounding the British prison is often cited in official reports and academia, alongside the strong presence of mainstream media control (Ibid). Using prison based literature, this review will use existing empirical evidence to draw data led conclusions, highlighting the radical theory in a push towards abolitionism.

Despite this, there is limited ongoing research concerning the British prison crisis, yet the requirement for change is salient among the existing literature. The recent inspection of HMP Liverpool provides empirical evidence of this crisis and the issues surrounding the removal of HMP Birmingham from the private sector further entrenches the requirement for change and highlights the crisis in action. Joe Sim provides theoretical evidence for the prison crisis and his work will be drawn together with the existing empirical evidence to evidence the crisis. By utilising existing literature concerning the prison crisis, the ultimate conclusion for this review will address the possibility of a world without prisons (Lamont Hill, 2013) and assess the abolitionism stance.

This literature review will be broken down into a number of categories which highlight the prison crisis. These will be; empirical evidence (HMP Liverpool and HMP Birmingham), theory (Sim) and the abolitionism stance (Marc Lamont-Hill, Angela Davis). The first section will overview the existing data and theoretical concepts, followed by an evaluation of the literature based on their credibility to support the abolitionist alternatives to the prison.

The search strategy for this literature review aimed to identify any pre-existing literature regarding the British prison crisis. This was undertaken using a scoping strategy of the Discover data base at Liverpool John Moores University and the British Journal of Sociology. This began with general search terms such as “prisons” and “prison crisis”. Additionally, the search strategy was influenced by existing knowledge on the British prison crisis, which was previously explored in 2018. This was developed by using names and general terms combined. This included “Joe Sim” AND “prison crisis” which revealed various theoretical standpoints. Further search terms included “Legitimacy AND prisons” which led to the British Journal of Sociology. There were no time range restrictions on this literature review, this was done as the relevance of evidence and theory is still salient in the 21st century prison.

Empirical evidence

The most reliable evidence to support the prison crisis is the existing empirical data gathered daily on the state of prisons in the UK. A report published concerning the conditions within Liverpool prison highlights the conditions seen across the penal estate and describe the “abject failure of HMP Liverpool to offer a safe, decent and purposeful environment” (Sim, 2017). Further describing the conditions at HMP Liverpool to be the worst reported, with every aspect of the regime at the institutions being criticised (Ibid). To highlight this as a salient issue in need of immediate attention, evidence from the Woolf Report and the White Paper published in 1992, indicates the ongoing prison crisis and the seeming lack of policy implementation to improve this (Prison Reform Trust, 1991; Morgan, 1992).

The 1990 riot at Strangeways prison in Manchester against the conditions and treatment of prisoners, resulted in an estimated £60million of damage to the interior and exterior of the prison (Gunn, 1992). Gunn (1992) goes on to identify the ripple effect this had on the penal estate with numerous other institutions experiencing smaller scale rioting based on similar dissatisfaction with their conditions and treatment. In reaction to these incidents was the publication of the Woolf Report highlighting the endemic problems concerning the penal estate at that time. Some elements from the inquiry are still prominent with the modern prison and concern issues such as, lack of staff training, unsanitary and overcrowded physical conditions. In terms of lack of staff training, the Howard League for Penal Reform published a Global Prison Trends pull-out section in 2016, highlighting an increase in inadequate numbers of staff, impacting the prisoner to guard ratio (Penal Reform International, 2016) and leading to a justification for lack of adequate staff training in order to maintain the safety and security which the paper highlights as important.

In addition to this, the Howard League for Penal Reform support the neglect in the role of the prison officer, identifying that low staffing levels and insufficient training have a clear impact on their ability to achieve their aims (Howard League for Penal Reform, 2019). The research briefing frequently cites the lack of training officers receive, especially in the private sector and the implications this can have on the prison environment.

In regards to overcrowding the Howard League reports that almost all prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded, with Leeds, Wandsworth and Exeter being the highest. HMP Liverpool reported a Certified Normal Allowance (“CNA”) of 607, yet is currently holding 697 inmates (Ibid). The conditions concerning prisons in England and Wales are readily available and relatively easy to access, in the form of reports, reviews and media coverage. They represent everyday evidence that the prison as a system of punishment and rehabilitation is failing in its core aims and why more radical interventions are required to prevent the continuation of this failure. This section has utilised empirical evidence to support the prison crisis and highlighted the need for immediate radical intervention which takes penal reform policy beyond contemporary reform measures and towards abolitionism.

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Theoretical Standpoints

The main theoretical standpoint on the penal crisis, is drawn from the work of Joe Sim. Sim breaks down the British penal crisis into five main sections: Visibility, authority, conditions, containment and legitimacy. This theory is based on the concept of the ‘revolving door’ (Tombs and Whyte, 2009), resulting from high levels of recidivism experienced within the British prison, which has led to the increase in the prison population. As a result of this, the conditions within the prison have deteriorated extensively as previously outlined and can be attributed to Joe Sims theory. Due to the scope of this literature review, authority, conditions and legitimacy will be the only crises explored. These are the most significant elements, as they are the most prominent crises existing in the British prison today. Visibility within the prison has been combatted through the publication of reports, access granted to media personnel as well as more formal narrative such as independent monitoring boards and the use of unannounced inspections.

Authority within the prison has seen a significant decline, with a number of factors influencing a breakdown in the role of the prison officer and their relationship with offenders. Major riots experienced throughout 1990, notably the Strangeways prison riot, which Boin and Rattray (2004) identify as resulting from a combination of administrative breakdown and imposed change. The recent riot at HMP Birmingham, support the argument made by Boin and Rattray which identifies conditions deemed necessary for a riot to take place. They develop a theoretical framework for prison riots and base this on a breakdown in the nature of interactions between prisoners and staff (Ibid). Useem and Kimball (1987) developed a theory of prison riots, which they stress that there is no one set theory for prison riots, they identify the variation in riots and highlight the importance of analysing the “processes at the level of micro-mobilisation” (Ibid:115). Micro-mobilisation is an area which requires further research and begins to unpick the complex topic of prison riots. The physical act of rioting is simply the beginning of a complicated case of penal failure, made clear among the prison-based literature and advocated by activists such as Angela Davis and Marc Lamont-Hill, who advocate for more radical measures to curb the crises which Joe Sim outlines.

The roles of the prison officer have been increasingly undermined as a result of heightened tension experienced within prisons and ongoing austerity measures. As a result of this, the prison officer has, as a result experienced cuts to training and pay. With general feelings of safety at work being consistently undermined the ability for prison officers to perform their role in accordance with maintaining their legitimacy and authority within their institutions contributes to the prison crisis within the contemporary British prison.

Conditions within the prison have been explored using HMP Liverpool. Sim highlights the deterioration of the conditions of British prisons, he attributes this to the construction of a large portion of the British prisons in the nineteenth century (Sim, 1982) and the continuation of their use into the 21st century. Mulchay (2013) attributes the conditions within prisons to be a result of overcrowding and the rapid increase in the prison population between 1995 and 2013. He notes that this rapid increase in the population outpaced prison-building programmes and resulted in prisons being unable to accommodate the increasing numbers of prisoners. In assessing this increase in prison populations, Mulchay (2013) supports Pratts’ (2006) penal populism theory, which utilises penal sanctions as ‘repressive techniques’ which are increasingly made essential for the control of the criminal milieu (Haney, 2006:200).

Legitimacy has been undermined in a number of ways. Due to the increasing number of prisoners in England and Wales, tension has grown due to overcrowding and the evidence concerning why riots have taken place support the legitimacy crisis. Legitimacy is characterised by Sims’ other crises and each of them can be related to the legitimacy of the contemporary British prison. For this reason, the crisis of legitimacy is the most important standpoint from Joe Sims theory.

Another salient theme emerging from the literature is the abolition narrative, heavily supported by Angela Davis and the theory that the prison is entrenched in a reform motion that it is unable to remove itself from this narrative. The evidence indicates that abolition is far from being implemented into the British criminal justice narrative due to the deeply rooted nature of reform within contemporary society. Penal reform has long been the only option concerning the future of the penal system and this literature review has mapped the existing prison based literature and used this as a springboard to support abolitionist narratives for the future of the contemporary British prison and as a solution to the prison crisis. Angela Davis has advocated prison abolition and provides literature which supports the empirical evidence presented by Sim. In the current state of the penal estate, rehabilitation is simply not possible, the surge in numbers and austerity cuts have impeded the effective running of the prison. Therefore, the outcome of this literature review emphasises a radical theory of penality, which bases abolition on manageability. Managing offenders through a process of non-imprisonment is likely to provide a more sustainable and effective outcome for the reduction of the penal estate and the future of the British prison.

Analysis

There are a number of common themes which emerge from the literature reviewed. The literature consistently supports the narrative that the prison system is in crisis and is clearly evidenced using real-world examples of HMP Liverpool and Birmingham. By researching prison based literature, there are consistencies regarding why the British system has, in the eyes of many, failed in its contemporary role. This role while heavily disputed, generally involves the premise of protection, deterrence and rehabilitation (Leopold, 1966). Each of these roles have been proven throughout the literature to have failed and this has been supported through the case of prison riots and official statistics on the prison population, as well as recidivism rates and deaths in custody.

The work of Joe Sim provides the most concise theoretical standpoint for the prison crisis and indicates five key areas in which the prison crisis is present. Some are more significant than others, yet all provided evidence that the contemporary British prison is in crisis. As a result of this, there is requirement for a more radical alternative to be implemented. This is based on the work of Angela Davis, a prominent penal reformer, whose work highlights the failures of the contemporary prison through the abolition narrative. She highlights the constant pattern of reform and argues that prison reform has become entrenched within contemporary narratives of the prison, which make “prison” and “reform” unable to be separated (Davis, 2003). As a result of this, the theory presented by Sim and Davis, supports the empirical data presented by HMP Liverpool and Birmingham. The failure in reforms indicated by Davis is supported by the crises highlighted by Sim and these standpoints can be linked and used as a springboard to initiate a more radical theory of penality (Paris, 2007).

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Exploring the Prison Crisis: Influence of Radical Theory on Abolitionism. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-the-prison-crisis-influence-of-radical-theory-on-abolitionism/
“Exploring the Prison Crisis: Influence of Radical Theory on Abolitionism.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-the-prison-crisis-influence-of-radical-theory-on-abolitionism/
Exploring the Prison Crisis: Influence of Radical Theory on Abolitionism. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-the-prison-crisis-influence-of-radical-theory-on-abolitionism/> [Accessed 6 Feb. 2023].
Exploring the Prison Crisis: Influence of Radical Theory on Abolitionism [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 6]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-the-prison-crisis-influence-of-radical-theory-on-abolitionism/
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