What do you call someone in prison? An inmate? Prisoner? How about a ‘resident’? That’s how those locked up in Britain’s jails are now described by the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service. Apart from the cringing absurdity of labelling people whom the state has detained as if they had voluntarily checked into the care home from hell, what does this tell us about the culture of the Prison Service? And why does it matter?
The Ministry of Justice has form for assaults on the English language. Recent guidance on offenders, still under a prison sentence but being supervised in the community, has cancelled this apparently dangerously oppressive label replacing it with ‘supervised individuals’. I suspect that members of the public might prefer probation officers to focus more on reversing our eye watering reconviction statistics: over 60 per cent of those sentenced to 12 months and under in custody go on to offend again.
Weeks after Khairi Saadallah left prison custody – where he mixed freely with an extremist Islamist preacher and then subsequently murdered three innocent people in a Reading park – the MoJ described its measures to counter extremism as ‘world leading’. Saadallah was, at the time of his rampage, apparently a ‘supervised individual’.
An operational prison manager acquaintance reminds me of the time they were told off by senior managers for referring to ‘prisoners’ not ‘men’ on the jail landings. This manager was locking up transwomen at the time, which adds a certain piquancy to the Prison Service’s transgender policies that had allowed male bodied transexuals into female only prisons. One such prisoner, Karen White – described by a judge as a danger to women and children – went on to sexually assault two women while on remand.
My critics will say that language matters and that we should stop using labels that unfairly stigmatise people. This, they say, will help rehabilitate, er, incarcerated persons. In reality it does nothing of the sort. And the use of ‘soft’ labels help obscure the reality of what is happening behind bars.
‘Residents’ are locked in overcrowded, unsanitary Covid cookers with currently no access to basic services and very little time outdoors. Prior to the pandemic and the draconian measures imposed to lock down prisons, almost every metric of decency and order was in freefall. When I investigated what was needed to restore hope and purpose to this dystopian mess for the Centre for Policy Studies, I didn’t come across any prisoners who complained about not being called ‘Men’ or ‘Residents’ or their foetid cells, ‘Rooms.’ This response typified their concerns:
‘The number one problem in this prison is authority. Staff need it.’
The former chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, was a trenchant critic of mandarin sophistry in lieu of action to improve the lives and life chances of offenders. I have yet to come across a single example of prisoners who complained to him about the lexicon of bang up. Yet he repeatedly signalled the failure of prison staff and managers to set appropriate boundaries for behaviour of those they are supposed to provide an example to. Fixing that takes much more than pious labels.
The problem with this fetish for progressive language within officialdom isn’t simply that it alienates the public who are baffled and irritated by it. No, the primary charge is that it’s usually the cheapest way of signalling intent without the inconvenience of meaningful action. Much like taking the knee, it is a performative signal which costs nothing and changes nothing.
The Prison Service excels in producing acres of gibberish about a ‘rehabilitative culture’ in places where you would hesitate to house livestock, disfigured by violence, rampant drug abuse, mental illness and squalor. In fairness, much of this inheritance has been driven by criminally stupid austerity cuts to frontline staff. It’s also the case that some well-led prisons buck this trend, despite, rather than because of, bureaucratic interference.
But culture matters. The Prison Service by any reasonable measurement has drifted far away from its role as a law enforcement agency with a public protection focus. Some senior managers within it probably wouldn’t even agree to that description of its purpose. The irony is striking to those of us who’ve worked the landings in prisons. Disciples of ‘reclamation theology’ who dominate this public service are not known for high levels of personal reflection and humility.
Ordered, safe, purposeful prisons, where staff are clearly and confidently in control are the best way we can assist offenders to change their lives and stop hurting other people. This should be the only dish on the menu for the new prisons minister. The word salad is going off.
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