Punishment, rehabilitation and progress


By Professor Fergus McNeill – 

Last night I had the pleasure of participating in what may well be the strangest public engagement of my life at the Salon Project at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. The Salon Project is a sort of ‘immersive theatre’ in which the whole audience goes backstage, gets dressed and made up, and then participates in a recreation of a Victorian era Parisian Salon — where the bourgeoisie meet for conversation and stimulation. Here’s what they did to me and my friends!

I think the idea of recreating the Salon and dressing us all up (as well as being an excuse for a fun night out) was to unsettle our assumptions about our identities and our society — and maybe about the idea of progress. My job was to talk for 10 minutes about ‘Punishment, Rehabilitation and Progress’…

I’m a criminologist, so it may surprise you to know that I have spent the better part of my career and my life trying to work out how and why things get better. Firstly, living and working in a drug rehab, then as a criminal justice social worker, and now as a researcher, I’ve spent a long time either studying or trying to support progress in one way or another.

Much of the time, my focus has been on the sorts of personal progress that might come to mind if I use the word ‘rehabilitation’. In writing on that subject, I have described rehabilitation as a ‘fankle’ (which a French friend tells me translates from the Scots roughly as a ‘sac de noeuds’ or bag of knots). I’ve teased apart four strands in the fankle. In fact, I’ve been involved in making a documentary film about it, exploring how people travel ‘The Road from Crime’ (just Google it). Those of us involved reached the conclusion that rehabilitation is at least as much about social and legal processes of de-labeling and de-stigmatisation – of re-admission to citizenship and community – as it is about personal transformation. As well as personal change, rehabilitation is about social and political progress too.

However, I don’t plan to say any more about the rehabilitation of ‘offenders’ tonight; instead, I want to raise some questions about whether a nation – our nation — can be rehabilitated. If you don’t work in or pay much attention to criminal justice, you might well be wondering what exactly it is that I think needs ‘fixing’ here. Well, strangely enough, given tonight’s circumstances, our Victorian ancestors might have grasped my meaning immediately. Around the turn of the 20th century, in the salons of this great city – or at least in the Glasgow Philosophical Society and in the City Chambers – Glaswegians were worrying not just about crime and delinquency, but about punishment itself.

Amongst others, Barlinnie’s reforming prison doctor, James Devon, and a local councillor, John Bruce Murray, were provoking public concern about the excessive use of custody for fine-defaulters. 43,000 Scottish people were received into prison on these grounds in 1904 (16,000 from Glasgow alone) at the rate of 800 per week; in Scotland at that time one person in 75 of the population was sent to prison that year; a rate twice that of England and Wales (City of Glasgow 1955, p9). Fifty years later, in a pamphlet summarising the history of the pioneering probation scheme that these reformers created, the authors recalled that ‘in view of the admittedly demoralising influence of imprisonment, the serious consideration of all was demanded concerning the welfare of the community’ (City of Glasgow 1955, p9).

Pause for a moment to take that in: imprisonment was not seen as the solution to the problem of crime; it was recognised as the driver of a sort of moral degeneration that threatened the welfare of the whole city. Fast forward a hundred years or so, and in 2008 we find the same debates recurring. The report of the independent Scottish Prisons Commission, chaired by Henry McLeish, ‘Scotland’s Choice’, similarly lamented Scotland’s apparent obsession with imprisonment. More specifically, it lamented our overuse of prisons, in that we continue to have one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe, in spite of declining crime rates. And it bemoaned our misuse of prisons as overcrowded warehouses for the damaged, the traumatised, the troubling and the yet to be judged, rather than as places where we confine and rehabilitate the dangerous.

Now I’m guessing that – since you are into the Arts and you like dressing up – this might be a more woolly liberal crowd than most, but there may yet be some Daily Mail readers lurking amongst you, so let’s think a little about the moral aspect of punishment — and about the victim’s and the community’s legitimate demands for justice.

In fact, let’s get right back to basics and think about why offending is offensive. If human beings are to live in reasonably cooperative social groups, there need to be certain bonds of trust and reciprocity between us. Interestingly, this is one thing that evolutionary scientists and the major world religions seem to agree on. I rely on you not to violate my person or my property. You rely on me to do likewise. When someone breaks these bonds of trust and reciprocity, we are rightly affronted and righteously angry. The function of punishment – at least as the famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim (who I suspect dressed a bit like this) argued – is to reinforce social solidarity; to remind us of the values we share, to affirm and express our collective conscience.

But here’s the rub: while imprisonment might work somehow and to some extent as a way of expressing and affirming our affronted sensibilities, for those subject it, imprisonment destroys the very reciprocities on which human society depends. Imprisonment by its very nature is a form of banishment and exclusion; but research also shows that it breaks down social bonds that are usually already fragile; that it disconnects prisoners from families and communities; that it diminishes rather than reinforcing any stake that the individual may have in conforming to social rules.

But it’s worse than that. As well as breaking social connections, prison does a kind of moral damage to prisoners too. Again, the Victorians were, in a sense, well ahead of the 20th century evidence here. Charles Dickens wrote:

“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay”.

Later scholars have revealed the ways in which imprisonment typically compels prisoners to close in on themselves; to defend themselves; to retrench; to withdraw. And herein lies the paradox of punishment: If our means of punishing diminish rather than enhancing the prospects of restoring and rebuilding trust and reciprocity, they damage us all; they damage us collectively. Sometimes we may need to imprison people to protect ourselves, but if we imprison too readily and unwisely, we harm society not just by ‘demoralising’ prisoners but by demoralising ourselves and our communities.

But it’s even worse than that… when we begin to withdraw from community, when we retreat into punishment and protect ourselves and out kith and kin with new forms and new technologies of security, we diminish the reciprocities on which our security ultimately depends. ‘Socio-spatial criminologists’ (who study the links between places, spaces and crime) suggest that cohesion – which is linked to both civic activism and social trust – and community capital – which is about the personal and inter-personal resources that reside in communities – are linked to low crime rates. Conversely, lack of cohesion and lack of capital are criminogenic or crime-generating.

So, to sum up our condition, we in Scotland rely overmuch on a form of punishment – imprisonment – that breaks down social ties, that damages the moral capacities of prisoners and that diminishes the personal and social resources that make us all safer. Our approach to doing justice destroys the reciprocities that justice should serve to restore.

But can we rehabilitate a nation? Let me finish my going back to the processes of personal transformation involved in rehabilitation. It turns out that people desist from offending as a result of becoming more mature, developing positive ties, and re-crafting their identities in constructive ways. Maybe the rehabilitation of a nation is similar. Changing the way we do things – progressive social and political transformation — might rest on the same three things. Certainly, when it comes to punishment, Scotland urgently needs to grow up, to repair social relationships and to learn to see herself differently.

Professor Fergus McNeill is a member of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Criminal Justice (SCCJR). This post first appeared on the IRISS – Discovering Desistance Blog