Prison, Blue Skies and a Desert Island…

Desert Island Discs is not where I expected my inspiration to come from for my next blog post. Yet, listening to the inspiring Dame Anne Owers on the show last friday, I was struck by something she said about why we put people in prison:

If we think about it more deeply, what kind of example do we want to model to people whose own behaviour have often been seriously deficient? Do we want them to come out of prison thinking that if you have power over people then you can use it to make them feel humiliated? Or do we want to put before them a different way of behaving? That’s not about being nice, it’s about making demands, it’s about challenging and it’s about trying to change people.

Listening to her reminded me of an idea that’s been at the back of my mind for a while: when it comes to crime and how it is being dealt with within society, no one seems to be thinking outside the box. Most of the ideas floating about in the debate on crime are just slightly different versions of the system that we have now: responsibility if you do something wrong, punishment for having done something wrong, prison as a form of punishment, and more punishment if necessary further down the line…

Of course many great initiatives exist to make prison a better and more constructive and rehabilitative place, and alternatives such as community sentences have been introduced but the main narrative remains about punishment and prisons.

Which is why I was so interested to hear Anne Owers ask such an important question which is or should be the central question when thinking about how society deals with crime: what are we trying to achieve when putting people in prison and what are we in fact achieving by it?


The idea of putting someone behind bars as a punishment for crime only appeared in England  around the end of the 16th century, it has not always been part of society’s response to crime. Admittedly, some of the responses associated with crime throughout early history were probably much worse… But since the 16th and 17th century, the concept of prison has evolved little, if at all. The balance between punishment, rehabilitation and protection of society might be struck a little differently but the central concept is still the same: locking up someone because of what they have done.

Which is strange when you think about how just about every other aspect of society has evolved since the 16th century… The abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women and more recently, the creation of social networks, even what we consider a crime has changed in the last four centuries. But the way we deal with crime seems to be the same.

To use phrases which I normally dislike but seem oddly appropriate when talking about prisons: Are there any ‘blue sky’ ideas that could revolutionise the way we think about prison? Could ‘thinking outside the box’ lead to a completely different (and hopefully better) way of dealing with people who act against society’s rules?

Let’s Experiment…

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to these questions (yet! here’s to wishful thinking) but it’s comforting to see that others are being experimental in their approach to how to deal with crime, such as the Centre for Experimental Criminology in Cambridge.

An article in the Society pages of the Guardian this week highlighted a new project that they have set up, to try and change the way we decide who goes to prison and who doesn’t, and to determine a system to help police and judges make the decision. According to the leaders of this project,

The index would completely turn on its head the way crime is measured, by predicting the harm likely to be caused by individual offenders. This is crucial information for those deciding how to deal with them and a key tool, Sherman and Neyroud believe, in reducing the prison population – and budget – without compromising public safety.

What I find the most interesting aspect of this project is that it’s set up as a proper scientific experiment, with “control groups, careful data collection on actions and outcomes and a three-year follow-up, and they expect to have significant results before the end of this parliament.” The article is well worth reading to see how they justify their idea, the way they will test it and the consequences it could have in the long run.

In the meantime, can you think of a different way to deal with people who commit crime? And in case you need a little contrary inspiration…

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