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Gove’s good intentions for prisons don’t amount to necessary action

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In the UK the “Lord Chancellor” and Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove wants to be remembered for his efforts to reform prisons. Writing in The Telegraph, Gove says “The emphasis of our penal system must be on more effective rehabilitation, because our current approach is costing us all dear. At present, nearly half – 46 per cent – of all prisoners are reconvicted of a crime within a year of being released.”

Gove’s emphasis on rehabilitation rather than on punishment is a welcome change for British citizens. Especially given the fact that Britain suffers similar problems that the US does when it comes to overcrowding in prisons. The Prison Reform Trust reports jail population has risen 90 per cent to 86,000 since 1993. In addition suicides and deaths in British prisons have been on the rise in recent years, leading to even more uncertainty about how to effectively handle criminals.

These calls for reforms come in tandem with Queen Elizabeth’s speech which included a use of satellite tags to allow prisoners to leave during the week and coming back on the weekend. This may allow them to get employment and thus hold down jobs while they transition into society. In addition, they may be able to see their families more easily than they had before.

These tags would likely apply to those who are already on their way out of prison but it may be broad enough to include even serious offenders. The pilot testing for this reform will be tried in September 2016 and particularly in the hopes of “reform sentencing”.

But however good these intentions are, they’re insufficient to undo the harms that prisons do.

Prisons are not, as Gove argues, an institution to “keep us safe” but rather focus chiefly on enforcing the rules of the state. Even within a sentence on stressing the containment element of prisons, Gove states that “When we put criminals behind bars we take them off our streets, prevent them from preying on the innocent and uphold the clear bright line between right and wrong.”

But where is the “bright line” of morality for individuals who have not harmed others but are still imprisoned? Are we to believe that everyone who has ever been imprisoned has somehow upheld this imaginary lack of gray in morality that Gove has discovered?

Not only that, but putting people behind bars alongside countless other criminals who have committed worse offenses is a poor attempt at instilling morality that lacks any sort of gray lines. These prisoners are more likely to learn about how morality is very much anything butblack and white and they’ll likely learn how to become a much more effective criminal as well.

Moreover, Gove’s sense of moralism when he proclaims that he will “…reject the idea we should give up on any human being…” contradicts the central purpose of prisons. Prisons exist first and foremost to put the “criminal element” outside of our minds. This accentuating of out-group bias allows us to look the other way or even laugh at the misery prisoners go through.

Gove uses the satellite tags as another way the British government are working toward reforming prisons. But it’s just as easy to see this as another way to make the British citizenry legible to the members of the British parliament. These tags are also a clear expansion of the surveillance state in a country already well associated with surveillance cameras and 1984.

If “hope” is really at the heart of Gove’s idea of a better world, I recommend he look into different theories of justice all together. Consider the fact that if you truly believe that people can be redeemed that actually giving them that chance with their victims (or the victims families) is a more direct, cost-effective and moral way of resolving conflicts then locking them in cages.

Consider theories of restorative and transformative justice which put the individuals who are the center of the conflict as the aggrieved, instead of the state.  These forms of situating justice require real hope and love for others because it gives them the autonomy to make their own choices outside of the confining realms of prisons.


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