Skip to content

Response to Review no. 443

Official rhetoric regarding the ‘modern’ prison in England has always promised the fruits of what were usually referred to as progressive prison policies. In other words, contemporaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have consistently perceived the prison policy of their time as positive in some respect. This remained true even in parallel with doubts about the damaging impact of prison life, for example, during the inter-war period. Generally in order to sustain positive rhetoric, the subjective and individual conditions and consequences of the operation of the prison have often been underplayed, hidden or ignored in respect not just to prisoners but also to prison staff. My own historical work has tried to examine the inner workings of the prison with particular reference to disturbances and violence. Many writers, including Bill Forsythe, have worked to integrate the subjective in this area of research. Indeed, John Pratt in his publication Punishment and Civilization (2002) recently emphasised the ‘monstrous incivilities’ that can exist within supposedly civilised punishment systems.

I am gratified that Bill Forsythe has indicated his sympathy with the subjective approach in his review. Indeed, I have gained a great deal from reading his work. I agree with Professor Forsythe’s view that more could have been drawn from autobiographical and other sources. I did perhaps miss the opportunity to analyse the prison from the perspective of the whole life of those who experienced a prison sentence rather than concentrating upon their time in prison. I also cannot deny the other criticism he makes in his meticulous review that it may be important to consider why, when there is a major prison disturbance, some prisoners do not participate, and even act against the flow of violence and aid prison officers. There remains much work to be done on the history of the prison. This is a subject in which interdisciplinary study can be extremely valuable. In agreement with Forsythe I hope this work might help to set a few alarm bells ringing with regard to the current obscene level of imprisonment in Britain.