The prison book ban illustrates that control rather than correction continues to define the criminal justice system

If he were still alive today, the French philosopher Michel Foucault might have some very interesting thoughts on the prison book ban. In his influential work Discipline and Punish he argued that the basis of the modern day penal system, which was first introduced in the post-enlightenment era, wasn’t due to a humanitarian or reformist agenda, but rather served as a system of control. Our current approach, as exemplified in this latest reform, further supports Foucault’s alarmingly accurate thesis – control rather than correction defines the prison system.

The recent change in the law means that prisoners are now prohibited from having books sent into them from the outside by friends and family – a significant means of obtaining reading material. Some inmates have reported that the availability of books within the prison reading system is limited, and while prisons have libraries, these facilities are often understaffed and inadequate.

The policy has actually been in place since November 2013, but a blog post by Frances Cook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, in which she furiously criticised the policy as despicable and nasty, proved to be the spark for public outcry. Ms Cook makes a valid assessment; after all, reading is key to education. Richard Armstrong, a prison literary researcher pointed out in his criticism of the policy that there’s strong evidence that removing the means to increase literacy reduces rehabilitation.

It’s not all just about preparing you with the skills to survive life outside the walls of prison; it’s also as a cornerstone of personal development and inner transformation than can be the most powerful deterrent of future crime. Charles W Eliot, the man credited with transforming Harvard University into the academic force it remains to this day, famously said books “are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.

This book ban is further manifestation of an approach to criminal justice that leans heavily on the side of draconian punishment at the expense of correction and genuine rehabilitation.

Our prison population has almost doubled since 1993. We now incarcerate faster than any other country in Western Europe, and it costs around £40,000 a year per prison bed. And what has this achieved? A reoffending rate of 47% and a prison system that has been overcrowded every year since 1994. Moreover, between 2005-2009, recorded crime was down 22% while imprisonment increased by 10%. How can we explain this?

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault notes that the penal system has remained structurally unchallenged since its inception, while convincingly arguing that “the prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very existence it imposes on its inmates”.

The two main criticism of the system which he found present throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, (that it was either not sufficiently corrective or that in attempting to be corrective it had lost its ability to punish) were always met with the same old remedies. One of these remedies, ‘the modulation of penalties’ refers to the adaptation of a prisoner’s treatment based on their ability to improve, their willingness to change their attitude and conform to the rules of the prison system.

This is the essence of the recent policy  – as part of the ‘Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme’, it aims to encourage good behaviour by rewarding prisoners with the ability to buy books. According to Foucault, while this maybe disguised as a ‘progressive routine’; it amounts to one of a handful of repeatedly presented propositions that serve not to actually transform the penal system but to reinforce it as a system of social control.

He concluded that the modern day penal system serves not to eliminate or even actively reduce crime, but rather to differentiate between crimes and criminals. One only has to look at the way, in the United States and to a lesser extent in the UK, that poor and ethnic minorities are disproportionately imprisoned to see this at work.

Penal reform is a really tough and complex issue, but we’re going to keep on making the same mistakes over and over unless we fundamentally alter the way we organise our system of imprisonment.  Perhaps this latest development will inspire a more thorough and open-minded debate about how we treat criminals. If Foucault is right, then without this the penal system is destined to do little besides send its inhabitants out into the world, only for them to come straight back again.

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