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26 July 2023

Locked in? Initiating a debate on crisis, scandal and criminal justice

In this blog, Claudia Vince, Programme Coordinator for our Building Futures Programme, examines a new discussion paper which aims to encourage an open and constructive debate about crisis and scandal, and the role they play in shaping policy and practice.

As part of a collaboration between PRT’s Building Futures programme, the University of Southampton and the University of Nottingham, we are pleased to present a discussion paper authored by Dr Thomas Guiney and Dr Harry Annison. This work came about through the shared recognition of the impact of crisis and scandal can have on the functioning of the criminal justice system. Together, we hope to initiate a conversation regarding how crises and scandals are responded to by policymakers and practitioners.

The purpose of the discussion paper is to encourage an open and constructive debate about crisis and scandal, and the role they play in shaping policy and practice. The aim was to draw upon the collective knowledge and experience of policy makers, practitioners, penal reformers, academics and prisoners themselves to unpick the reality of what happens when a crisis occurs – how does it feel for those in prison and how does it feel for professionals working in environments where quick decision-making is vital?

These questions formed the basis for a one-day symposium in London bringing together leaders from across the sector including HMPPS, third sector organisations, and individuals with lived experience of life imprisonment to consider what happens in moments of crisis. The event allowed for candid discussion regarding the personal experiences of people at different levels of policy implementation and delivery, all with direct involvement in the criminal justice system. One of the main takeaways from the event was the notion that not enough is done to encourage learning once moments of crisis have passed. In many cases, resourcing, staffing and political pressures mean opportunities to learn from and build back from crises and scandals are not properly utilised.

Often, people in prison take the brunt of knee-jerk policy responses following particular crises and scandals. None more so than those serving long sentences, whose experiences are often shaped by ever-changing policy responses to risk and perceptions of dangerousness. To give voice to these experiences, Building Futures conducted a small-scale consultation with the Building Futures Network to capture how it feels for those in prison when a crisis or scandal occurs. For those who have been in prison for a long time, they noted that prison life is often defined by an endless cycle of crises and scandals, with many achieving little substantial change but harming prisoners’ well-being in the process.

“Usually after a crisis there is an argument that something has to change, or ‘must be done’ but in reality nothing changes and we go from one crisis to another. You learn that you don’t really matter and changes normally have a negative impact on you as a prisoner.”

The discussion paper captures how crises and scandals have a very real impact in relation to control, safety, and perceptions of legitimacy in prisons and across the wider criminal justice system. Moments of crisis often take on a life of their own and intersect with the media and political cycles, often becoming entwined with questions around risk and responsibility. When this happens, the real-life experiences of victims, prisoners, families, and those working within the system become diluted.  When there is a lack of accountability or transparency during moments of crisis, trust in the decision-making processes wanes. Only by (re)building procedural fairness can legitimacy be re-established.

This project is somewhat of a deviation from conventional PRT work in that it attempts to initiate a discussion on a topic rather than to offer practical solutions to an issue. This collaboration is an attempt to conceptualise what a particular phenomenon means for those involved (both personally and professionally) with the criminal justice system. Policy decisions made during periods of crisis can directly impact control, safety and legitimacy and shift the balance of government policy in favour of discipline and risk aversion. Taking a more holistic look at what happens in moments of crisis and recognising the importance of collective memory and including prisoners and professionals in these discussions, will help in creating solutions to a more humane, fair, and effective penal system.

Claudia Vince
Programme Coordinator, Building Futures