Re-imagining Imprisonment in Europe Common Challenges, Diverse Policies and Practice

Scribani Conference Report

By Anne Marie O Shea

Re-imagining Imprisonment in Europe

Common Challenges, Diverse Policies and Practice

The Scribani Conference was organised and delivered by the Irish Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. It is a centre that promotes social justice by adopting an understanding of public issues and has a special interest in prison policy and people who end up in prison. Their motivation for organising this conference was to provide an active forum where issues concerning prison could be discussed. They expressed their desire to create an opportunity to explore the social, economic forces that shaped prison policy and population across Europe.

The centre hoped that as a result of this conference there would be a re-imagining of imprisonment in terms of prison policy, population size and prison conditions.  They longed for the creation of a fresh vision and a set of values by way of bringing together policy makers and academics. Their wish was for us, the attendees, to leave the conference with a greater understanding and wealth of ideas and more importantly a hunger for change.

The aim of the Scribani conference was to explore the key features of imprisonment in Europe. It strived to discuss the political, social and economic factors that influence prison policy and practice. By doing so it hoped to envisage what prison may look like in the future by conceptualising the future of prison policy, population and conditions. The ultimate purpose of the conference was to discuss and outline how imprisonment could be restructured and improved.

The conference was dictated by various academics from all over the world, academics that ranged from professors of criminology to practitioners working within the area of penal punishment. For me there were a couple of speakers that made a real impact on my belief system. Their theories had a major influence my understanding and concepts around prison reform.

For example throughout the conference there was a common understanding about the use of prisons in society. Regularly there was a common consensus that the problem is not the people who end up in prison but it is the prison system and the policy that governs it that is the problem.  Peter McVerry, a Jesuit Priest who works with people in prison, specified that prison is not a deterrent and in some cases can even be a badge of honour. He claimed that life outside of prison can be just the same as life inside prison because the emotional and psychological damage that occurs can condemn a person to a life of hardship. He discussed the idea of rehabilitation and its use within prisons and ascertained that if it was applied appropriately it could lead to positive outcomes although only for a small number of prisoners. He asserted that recidivism is primarily determined by experiences outside of prison and asked us how we expected the people we send to prison to change their lives if they return to the same environments on release?  He blamed the judiciary system for the increase in prison population and not the incidents of crime. He accused Judges of using prison terms as a ‘lesson’ which Peter believes is a total waste of a very expensive resource. Peters answer to prison reform is the development of and integration of ‘restorative justice’. He believes that the people who commit a crime already have limited freedom, awareness and knowledge and as a result they are unable to wholly understand the concept of empathy. Thus they cannot realise the real impact of their crime and its consequences.  Peter claimed that restorative Justice is a useful tool and should be used to its full potential because not only can it can it restore empathy but it can also give the victim a sense of involvement in the justice system and the offender a sense of the impact of their crime.

Another question that was regularly circulating the forum was; do prisons work?

Shadd Maruna, School of Law in Queens University Belfast, begun his talk by confessing that he had been mulling over this question for a couple of decades and he is still trying to answer the question. He believes that the key to reform rests with the concept of prisoner rehabilitation and re-integration.  During the conference he claimed that incarcerating someone who has committed a crime impedes the process of rehabilitation and re-integration. He stated that prisons hinder the process of rehabilitation and re-integration because it breaks up marriages, creates unemployment, takes away responsibility and creates more victims. He maintained that desistance could be obtained by moving away from this current prison process. He suggested that this could be done by promoting stable relationships and stable employment, by creating a sense of responsibility and concern for others within the community. He proposed that we could do this by developing temporary release, reforming parole conditions and by promoting remission for good behaviour.

So, the question remains, did I leave the conference with a greater understanding and hunger for change?

Yes, I believe the conference provided me with a greater understanding of the failure of prisons, especially within an Irish context. In terms of prison reform I believe that the ideas presented to us were valid and compelling. The impression that I got during the conference was that prisons were not the answer and that something else should be used instead. We were softly nudged towards the systems that are in place in Scandinavian countries and asked to consider the prison policy that they have adopted and applied. We were asked to analyse and learn from not only their success but from their mistakes. Mistakes that have allowed countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland to become leaders in the area of prison reform and prison policy.

Finally I would like to say that this conference provided me with a lot of food for thought but there was one aspect of prison reform that still lay untouched. I am not sure if I am somewhat bias in saying this but I do think that there was a notable absence in terms of information around how crime and punishment affects the ‘hidden victims’. These group of people being the families and friends of those who are been sentenced to a term in a prison cell. Occasionally the subject matter made an appearance but it was only for a short time. In saying this I am glad to say that there was a huge interest and demand for the information that St Nicholas Trust made available at the conference. Interestingly what was very notable was the look of realisation that dawned on people’s faces when they realised that prisoners have people who love them and that the prison sentence is not only served by just one person but by a whole network of people. That it is not just one person but a large group of loved ones that are also bearing the strain and injustice of prison policy in Ireland today.

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