Economical with the Truth about Prisons

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The problems facing the world’s ten million prisoners seldom receive much serious or sustained attention in the media so it is all the more disappointing that the usually sensible Economist should have published a somewhat superficial article on the subject last week. Its overall thesis – that prisoners enjoy greater rights in poor countries than rich – is highly questionable, ignoring the stark reality that in most of the world, prisons are little short of a humanitarian disaster. Several of the examples give highly misleading impressions of contemporary penal contexts and cultures.

To characterise China for example as offering a blossoming of opportunities for prisoners to work, retrain and help local people is a travesty of the tradition of forced labour that still dominates penal philosophy there. Claiming that prisoners in the Philippines are among the few in the world allowed to surf the web, flies in the face of last year’s US State Department report that opportunities for prisoner recreation, learning, and self-improvement remained scarce in the country’s prisons – not surprising given the lack of basic infrastructure, inadequate nutrition and poor medical care available there. While Tanzania may be on the verge of taking the welcome step of introducing conjugal visits, the system as a whole there remains harsh and life-threatening with allegations of inhumane treatment by staff.

There are many important questions facing prisons around the world. How can they cope with what UK judge Lord Woolf called the cancer of overcrowding and the fact that in many countries most of those in prison are not sentenced or even convicted? What is to be done about the mass escapes from prisons in fragile and post conflict states and the organised assaults designed to free terrorist prisoners in parts of the Islamic world? How best to deal with prison gangs which govern many parts of prisons in Latin America and former Soviet countries? Combating torture, corruption and epidemics of ill health remain the priority for prison reform the world over.

The Economist piece is right to highlight some key dimensions of prison policy- the importance of health and education measures in prisons; the way levels of inequality and political discourses impact on policy debates; and the effects of austerity on the use and practice of imprisonment. But these and many others deserve a much more rigorous analysis than they have hitherto received.