Earlier this month we reported that a team of researchers at the British Academy, backed by a former Lord Chief Justice, published a report recommending that the number of men and women in prison should be radically reduced. We spoke to one of the report's authors, Professor Nicola Lacey, about the report. The transript of our conversation with her is publishe in full below.
Professor Lacey, why did you decide to be involved in this research project?
I have a longstanding research interest in the causes and social consequences of increasing rates of imprisonment, particularly in countries like Britain and the United States, over the last 40 years. So I was delighted that the British Academy formed a policy group on prisons, and was happy to become one of the Academy’s representatives on the group.
I have previously acted in a similar capacity, for a Prison Reform Trust report on Women’s Imprisonment, Justice for Women, published in 2000, and more recently for an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Task Force on Mass Imprisonment, whose findings were published in the journal Daedalus in 2010.
I also published a book a few years ago on what drives different patterns of punishment in different countries: The Prisoners’ Dilemma: Political Economy and Punishment in Contemporary Democracies (Cambridge University Press 2008) (The Hamlyn Lectures 2007).
As a feminist, I am also very concerned with the questions of gender, crime and punishment which your questions and your article raise.
How would you respond to fears that reducing the prison population makes society less safe?
This is undoubtedly a major political obstacle to reducing the prison population in the way the Report advocates. But, while rising crime, along with a range of other factors including economic and social changes which have increased feelings of social insecurity, have certainly, and understandably, accentuated these fears, our argument in the Report is that evidence about the effects of raising rates of imprisonment indicates that the contribution to actual security is rather low, and disproportionate to its economic, social and moral costs. The real challenge is to persuade politicians that it is worth their while reviewing this evidence, and resisting the temptation to make electoral capital out of commitments - poorly founded in empirical evidence – to tackle crime and insecurity through increased imprisonment. The case of the United States, which experiences very high rates of violent crime notwithstanding an imprisonment rate many times higher than that in comparable countries, is instructive in this respect.
How would you respond to the view that we need to be "tougher" not "softer" on offenders?
As indicated by my previous answer, we – i.e. the authors of the Report -think that this can best be tackled by a careful review of the evidence on the effects of imprisonment.
Guardian columnist Ally Fogg said in an article on Prison Reform: "Since the Corston report of 2007, there has been a persistent focus on reform of women's sentencing from charities, campaigners and politicians of all parties. This gives a strong message that female offenders are special, to be pitied and understood. Male prisoners, by implication, are creators of their own ill-fortune."
Why do you think the focus of leading prison reform organisations is on reducing the number of female prisoners, even though the majority of prisoners are male? Do you agree that society has a different attitude to male and female prisoners and if so, what are those differences?
These two questions are closely linked, so I will take them together. There is certainly evidence that the sorts of social, economic and health disadvantages and difficulties which disproportionately affect male prisoners, and which as you note are reviewed in our Report, affect women prisoners to a yet greater degree (see both the Prison Reform Trust and the Corston Reports). So the general argument that these sorts of demographic issues affect both the justice and the impact of imprisonment would provide some justification for a special focus on women’s imprisonment, particularly given the low numbers of women imprisoned for serious offences of violence. The unequal distribution of primary parenting responsibilities would tend in the same direction.
However, the reformist focus on women has also, I suspect, been informed by the assumption that – along the lines implied by your first question – the relevant organisations have been more optimistic that a radical reform of women’s imprisonment would be politically acceptable, and perhaps – as has sometimes been the case with reform of the youth justice system – provide a template for reforms which, if successful, might then be generalised. But the arguments of principle, as you imply, apply just as much to men as to women.
It is also important to note that, notwithstanding reports such PRT and Corston, there has been little actual change in policy on women’s imprisonment.
Phil Davies MP asked the House of Commons library for comparative data on male and female prisoners and came to the conclusion that: “Men are treated more harshly by the courts than women. For every single category of offence, for all ages and in all types of court, men are more likely to be sent to prison than women. There is not one blip anywhere. For every single offence, for every age, in every type of court, women are less likely to be sent to prison than men."
Why do you think this is and is this apparent double standard a barrier to your proposals to reduce the prison population?
The evidence on the point raised by Phil Davies above is very complex because although the data referred to here do indeed show a disparity, they do not always control for finer differences such as the degree of seriousness within (often broadly drawn) offence categories, or for length of criminal record (which is relevant to sentencing in a number of ways on current sentencing norms in this country).
I would certainly not deny that attitudes towards offenders and prisoners are gendered – though of course they are also shaped by other assumptions, and stereotypes (notably in relation to race/ethnicity, age, and type of offence). But the issue about the double standard is also complex: some studies have shown, for example, that women offenders who commit offences which disrupt conventional gender norms (e.g. violence against children) are particularly harshly viewed. The same might be said, conversely, in relation to men (a relevant issue in relation to certain forms of sexual offending).
David Wilkins of the Men's Health Forum recently said at a Male Psychology Conference that you would never see the language and sentiment in the Corston report -- particularly around women's vulnerabilities -- applied to men in a policy document.
Do you think this is accurate? If so, is the inability of politicians to see male prisoners as vulnerable – as female prisoners are now often viewed -- a barrier to your proposals?
A tendency to demonise any group of offenders – or offenders generally – will certainly be a barrier to reform: as will a tendency to think that if we take offenders’ vulnerability or disadvantage seriously, this amounts to excusing them, or not holding them properly accountable. It may well be that this sort of barrier is stronger in relation to men than women. But I think that the impact of these two factors does vary considerably among different groups of both male and female offenders (think for example of the persisting differences between the treatment of so-called ‘white-’ and ‘blue-collar’ crime).
Do you think there are, or could be, specific gendered problems and barriers faced by men as a consequence of their gender, that at least in part explains why the majority of prisoners are male? What do you think they might be?
The huge restructuring of the labour market over the last 45 years, and the disappearance of many formerly secure career paths in, for example, the manufacturing sector – has undoubtedly had a particular impact on men, with an associated upshot for crime and the perceived need for tough punishment. On the other hand, while the move to many part time and service sector jobs has certainly improved women’s relative position, there of course remains a significant earnings gap, in favour of men – so, again, it’s important not to generalise across either gender. But the existence of a significant group – perhaps disproportionately of men – who find it hard to access the legitimate economy has in my view undoubtedly had a real influence on the politics of criminal justice.
Risk of offending is often linked to family breakdown. We know "fatherless" children are considerably more likely to end up in prison -- one estimate being nine-times more likely -- and that children in care are also at huge risk of ending up in prison (and boys are more likely to end up in care in the first place).
Your report doesn't mention this -- how important do you think fathers are in relation to crime reduction and does addressing family breakdown and fatherlessness have a role to play in reducing the prison population?
Stable, affectionate home life and the presence of credible role models and figures of respect are key aspects of socialisation; so the quality of parenting in general, of both fathering and mothering, are a central part of the challenge which we present in the Report. (One of the most vivid social consequences of mass imprisonment in the US, as analysed by Harvard Sociologist Bruce Western in his book Punishment and Inequality in America – is the preponderance of single parent, usually female-headed, households in the poor areas in which levels of - particularly black male – imprisonment are staggeringly high.) I would see this as closely linked to one of the challenges we set out in the Report – namely to think of prisons policy not just in terms of criminal justice, but in relation to social policy more generally.
What can our readers do to support your proposals to reduce the prison population?
We do hope that your readers will review the report and look carefully at the evidence and arguments it presents – and discuss it with friends and colleagues.